What Do We Do Now?

It’s a discouraging and ominous time. On November 5, 2002, frightened voters in the United States handed our administration unfettered power: to hasten environmental devastation, to increase the flow of wealth from the poor to the rich, to pack our courts with right-wing ideologues, to subject residents to invasive government scrutiny under the rubric of homeland security, and to embark on a global military rampage, starting with Iraq.

And what do we do now? How can we keep our spirits up and our hearts open in the midst of all this, and what can we do now to make this a better world?

It’s tempting to become cynical and bitter, or to pull back and await the onslaught, as many German citizens did in the ’30s. But—as writer and peace advocate Bruce Mulkey has pointed out—cynicism, denial, and hopelessness amount to victimhood. We can rarely control what life sends our way, but we can control how we respond to it. We can make ourselves miserable, helplessly wishing things were better, or we can do everything we can and feel the satisfaction of those efforts regardless of the outcome.

Many have offered lists of how one can respond. Here is my contribution, distilled from the thoughts of many others, past and present:

Allow yourself to grieve. Accept the pain, frustration, and anger you feel about what is happening. It is a necessary step for healing and moving on. But don’t get stuck there.

Don’t despair.

  • Despair is a human notion—it doesn’t exist elsewhere in nature, and it doesn’t exist when one is immersed in the present moment. By
    simply doing one’s work, one can move beyond despair, and also beyond fear.
  • Taking a long-term view can be comforting: "This, too, will pass." The world, albeit somewhat changed, will go on.
  • Corporate/military power is vulnerable because it’s large, monolithic, and single-minded, and it relies on a few power-based tactics to maintain control. It is weakened by the light of truth; it is vulnerable to creative, adaptable strategies; and it presents a large, clear target.
  • We are dealing with an outmoded mentality based on raw power, greed, and isolation—a dinosaur doomed to die. Our job is to do what we can to limit the damage caused by its death throes.
  • Surprises are everywhere—change for the better may be just around the corner.

Be persistent. Even when the situation seems hopeless, effort often pays off in the end—sometimes when least expected, and sometimes in surprising ways. Patiently keep tapping away. Be willing to give it several years—plant seeds. Understand and use the concept developed by writer Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: major changes often develop as undercurrents with little visible indication, and our actions may seem to be futile. But if one keeps pushing, things can reach a critical point and abruptly shift in the desired direction, seemingly out of nowhere. Examples of tipping points: the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the transformation of Nelson Mandela from prisoner to president.

Help people become aware. This is especially crucial in the media-drugged U.S. I use the word "drugged" advisedly—our media makes us into passive spectators, dulls our critical thinking ability, implants ideas such as "violence is the best way" and "be afraid of everything," entertains us instead of informing us, and leads us to believe we’re getting straight stories. It’s more than simple information overload. Most people in this country, though well-intentioned (albeit sometimes immature and self-indulgent), have been herded into a fearful, self-protective state of mind by official pronouncements of various threats. Make holes in this worldview.

Share thoughtful articles and magazines. Look at the website www.commondreams.org. Write letters and op-ed pieces (when appropriate, mention your representatives by name). Attend vigils and demonstrations. Encourage people and groups to join a fact-finding delegation to a critical area to see for themselves and report back to their friends and groups to which they belong (check out Witness for Peace and Global Exchange). Find other ways to help people understand what’s going on.

Build bridges. Reach out to those who think differently rather than just preaching to the choir. People already know something’s wrong, but don’t know exactly what. Those who believe differently can be softened by emphasizing common ground. Hear their concerns, find points of agreement, and then expose them to new thoughts.

Form coalitions with other groups, even those with whom we don’t agree on other issues. We can make our connections with them more solid by showing up at their meetings, helping them hand out flyers, etc. Choose a specific issue that has a good chance of success, that many people care about (e.g., loss of privacy), that appeals to a variety of potential coalition partners, and where opposition is vulnerable.

Continue working on your representatives. Talk with them about the unanswered questions about this war and about other related issues.

Work for campaign finance reform, and seek out worthy candidates to support. Maine, Vermont, Arizona, and Massachusetts now provide public financing for candidates willing to follow stringent fundraising and spending guidelines. Bringing public financing to your own community and state is a project worth undertaking. We cannot allow our political representatives to continue to be bought and sold to the highest bidders. For more information, visit www.publicampaign.org.

Look for and support good things. There is plenty of bad news, but a lot of good things are also happening, although they don’t often appear in the mainstream press—thoughtful, caring, and compassionate words and deeds by ordinary and not-so-ordinary people and local, national, and international groups.

Add your weight to push for change. Seek out and help support good ideas and programs that people can get excited about and involved in. Examples of successful actions can be found on www.dbsst.org (Database of Sucessful Strategies and Tactics).

Cut off the fuel supply. Giant corporations are fueled by money and profits. Withdraw your bit of energy from the bad ones. Whenever possible, buy from local vendors and from socially and environmentally responsible businesses. Avoid chains and megastores. Apply this approach in your banking and investing as well. A good resource is www.coopamerica.org.

By far the most important item is food. Avoid factory food and seek out food that is produced locally or by small producers, and/or that is free of chemicals, hormones, and genetic modification. You thereby help your community and the world, while enjoying healthier, better tasing food.

Buy less. Live more simply and develop a lifestyle based on satisfactions other than having lots of stuff.

Think outside the box. Find creative new ways to deal with our situation, and help others implement their innovative concepts. Our thinking needs to be dramatic—unexpected—outside the box. It can be a creative new tactic, an unexpected response, or an unexpectedly quick response.

Practice indirection. The war/ greed machine is too powerful to con-front head-on, but grassroots efforts can make the road so muddy that the machine bogs down. Perhaps we can find leverage points, vulnerable spots, or redirect its motion so it does less damage or self-destructs.

Multi-pronged actions can have a synergistic effect. For instance, a combination of demonstrations, op-eds/letters, and legal action all happening together may produce better results than the same actions done one at a time.

Use triage. Go for greatest possible effect. Spend time on people who might be energized or changed rather than on the already committed or those who are hopeless. Zero in on one specific issue or target rather than everywhere at once. Savor small successes—they all help, and they may lead to larger successes later on.

Don’t demonize our adversaries. Consider opposing points of view. While we may be correct in what we affirm, there is usually a kernel of truth in our opponent’s viewpoint. And, we need to be especially mindful about what we deny, because this is often where our blind spots will be.

We are all in this together—there is no "enemy." We all want to be safe and loved. Any action that is fear-based—e.g. abusive language, intolerant behavior, or a violent act—is a cry for love and security, whether it’s coming from George W. Bush or someone down the street.

Put joy into your work. Share your joy and allow it to warm others. Move from anger and despair to compassion and love. This is not to deny the legitimacy of outrage at injustice; but it is more effective to work from compassion than angrily to fight against evil. The Dalai Lama said, "A positive future can never emerge from anger and despair."

Broaden the circle of caring. Most of us care deeply about our small circle of friends, family, etc. We usually also care about our neighborhood or community. Some care deeply about the well-being of their country. However, our circle of compassion must expand beyond the familiar to include human and nonhuman, living and nonliving—to match our expanded influence in the world. Find ways to encourage concern about the life of a little girl in Baghdad or a coral reef in the South Pacific as well as about one’s own loved ones.

Be kind to people everywhere, the good and the not-so-good. The world needs role models for kindness as never before. Nurture others, and surround yourself with those who nurture you and who understand and respect your hopes and dreams.

Be especially kind to yourself. Keep yourself grounded and burnout-free by giving yourself down-time: meditation, a quiet walk, exercise, music, time with a friend, creative time, etc. Self-renewal is an essential part of your work.

Detach yourself from the results of your efforts. Make the commitment, do the work, follow through as needed, and then let go. Let the universe make of it what it will. Do it for the doing, not for the outcome. Do it simply because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s good for your soul. This is a lighter, freer, and more effective way.

As an added bonus, your good work may in fact produce unexpectedly good results, it may inspire others, and it almost certainly will expand your own capabilities and wisdom.

Enjoy life. An ancient parable tells of a Buddhist monk who is chased by tigers to the edge of a cliff. As they close in, he spots a small bush growing at the very edge, grabs it, and jumps over. As he hangs there, the tigers paw the ground above but can’t reach him. Looking down, he sees more tigers below. Then he notices a mouse gnawing on the slender root that holds the bush. As the bush slowly gives way, the monk spots a berry on it. With a delighted smile, he picks the berry with his free hand and eats it slowly, enjoying every morsel. In reality, we are all caught between tigers above and tigers below, but like that monk, we can and should live fully and with delight in this moment, in spite of it all.

Discover your unique gifts—what you can do most effectively—and share them where they’re most needed. You have much to offer—your time, energy, money, talents, possessions to share, etc.

As Will Keepin, co-founder of the Satyana Institute, tells us, we can serve as hospice workers to a dying culture, and also as midwives to an emerging culture. These two tasks call for us to maintain an open heart, offering our light and joy, and being present for grief and pain. When we root our actions in both intelligence and compassion, we reach a balance of head and heart that combines the finest of human qualities.

Our task is not easy—but we must do it anyway. We do make a difference—individually and collectively. Every positive thought and action changes the world we live in, and therefore changes the fabric of our own existence, for the better.

As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."

Israeli activist Uri Avnery observed, "It always starts with a small group of committed people. They raise their feeble voice. The media ignore them, the politicians laugh at them, the respect-able parties distance themselves. But slowly, with persistence, they start to have an impact. This finally compels the leaders of the mainstream organizations to respond, and the message spreads."

A cloud of mosquitoes can send a rhinoceros running.

Arden Buck

Arden Buck is a member of Boulder (Colo.) Meeting. An earlier version of this article appeared at commondreams.org.