In 2003, after President George W. Bush and his henchmen led us into an ill-advised, immoral, and illegal war in Iraq, I wrote a piece about how we can each make a difference even in dark and challenging times. Merely substitute "Donald Trump" for "George Bush" and "ISIS" for "Osama bin Laden," and my essay is highly relevant today.
Around three decades ago I traveled from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. to join a protest against the war in Vietnam. My housing had been prearranged; the group I was traveling with would be staying with a family of Quakers. The weather that weekend in November tested our resolve: bone-chilling temperatures and a strong wind out of the north. Nonetheless, we marched, we sang, half a million strong we came together confidently in common cause.
Late on the final day of that weekend, my brother-in-law, Johnny, and I found ourselves with a group of militant activists at the Justice Department. I was caught up in the excitement of the moment--until the D.C. police started discharging tear gas canisters into the crowd. We beat a hasty retreat, doing our best, but failing, to avoid the asphyxiating gases around us. Later, as I sat excitedly recounting the tale of the confrontation, I noticed a troubled glance from the elderly man whose hospitality we were enjoying, not disapproving, but gravely concerned. Years later I would remember that expression as I read the words of Marianne Williamson:
I am of a generation which thought that we could bring peace to the world, and we didn't think it mattered if we ourselves were angry. What we learned is that an angry generation cannot bring peace.
Sometimes I'm certain that the apocalypse is upon us. My delusional president and his Mayberry Machiavellis continue shipping other folks' kids (but certainly not their own) to Iraq to kill for peace even as things spin out of control there. The airwaves are awash with politicians who claim they care about you and me, but most only seem interested in advancing their political careers. Elected officials of both political parties dole out billions in corporate welfare while company officers make out like bandits and ship jobs overseas. The Patriot Act, passed after 9/11, is supposed to protect us from terrorists, yet many fear it leads us down the slippery slope toward fascism.
The Asian Brown Cloud, an enormous haze of pollution two miles thick and seven times the size of India, is hovering over southern Asia, and the lives of millions are threatened. Eight hundred million people around the world go to bed hungry each night, and 24,000 die. Seventy-eight million acres of rain forest are destroyed annually, and 50,000 plant and animal species become extinct. The United States spends over two and one-half billion dollars every day on the military while one of every five children in the U.S. lives in poverty. Similar to the Titanic, our planet is rapidly approaching its "iceberg," our physical limits to growth, yet our elected leaders seem content to merely rearrange the chairs on the deck.
What then can we do to keep a level head and a loving heart in the midst of all this madness? How can we hope to bring about a more compassionate, just and sustainable world? For sometimes the temptation is great to turn away, to proclaim there is nothing that one person can do, to become cynical, to go into denial about the need to do anything, to go back to sleep. But once we have awakened, is unconsciousness ever really an option?
I believe that each of us comes into the world utterly whole, inherently worthy, entirely blameless. And I believe that each of us, as we mature and become more conscious, deeply longs to make a positive difference in the world. Now, we may lose sight of that along the way. One may come to believe that the road to fulfillment is through the accumulation of lots of stuff--a fancy car, a bigger house, or tailored clothing. Or one may think that finding the perfect romantic partner will bring contentment (it might help). Or a great job and status in the community may appear to be the Holy Grail. But even if we achieve these things (or other similar goals), all too frequently there is still a sense that something is not complete, some element of life is missing.
Consciously or unconsciously, each of us helps to create the world we live in--day-by-day, hour-by-hour, moment-by-moment. Every thought in our minds, every word we speak, every action we take makes a difference in our world. So then, the question is not "How can I make a difference?" The question is "What kind of difference do I choose to make?" If you choose to act out of love--smiling at the baby in the grocery cart in the long checkout line or contributing money, food, or clothing to folks in need--you help to create one kind of world. If you choose to react out of fear--snarling at the person in the slow-moving car in front of you or clinging to all of your material wealth for dear life--you help to create another kind of world.
Many of us look around today and see a civilization in disarray. Many of us believe that our leaders have failed us. But the truth is, my friends, that the situation around us is our creation. If you want to discover what you really want, look at what you've got. The situation in our homes, in our community, in the U.S., in the world, is our responsibility. And if you want something different, it is essential that you think, say, and do what is necessary to create that change. No one else can do this for you.
All around us are opportunities to make a difference. Life constantly sends forth a barrage of wake-up calls--the hungry child, the neighbor with cancer, the polluted air, the dying Fraser firs, airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center, the Iraqi family terrified at the onslaught of American troops.
We ignore life's wake-up calls at our own peril. Like the drunk who's in denial, we may refuse to come to grips with reality. Like the pretense of a loveless marriage, we may be unwilling to confront the truth. But if we do not acknowledge the gift in even the most horrific event, discern its meaning for us, and adjust the course we are on, one thing is certain: When the Universe wants to get our attention again, to awaken us as individuals and a culture, we can count on the next wake-up call being even bigger than the one that came before it.
Cynicism, denial, and hopelessness are merely forms of victimhood, placing the blame somewhere else for that which ails us. Let me suggest another way: radical responsibility. Rather than blaming others, this path requires us to ask ourselves at every challenge, "How did I help create this situation and what can I do to resolve it?" Sometimes this is not easy, especially when we are certain that someone else is at fault. But doing so puts us, not others, in charge of our lives.