Monday, April 20, 2015

An Open Letter to Activists

Enclosed is an open letter to activists and true believers alike. Continue the good work you are doing, but recognize that being a standard-bearer comes with its share of grief. If you see your role as the person who makes people a little uncomfortable from time to time, accept it gratefully, but know that your path will always be difficult. Most people don't work as hard as you do, nor do they want to work as hard as you do.

I speak from experience. My honesty and activism has threatened some who take my words not as wise guidance, but as a personal attack. No doubt you have experienced some of the same yourself. Criticism can be shockingly cruel, as is common on the internet, or it can take the form of those who talk behind your back and will not confront you to your face. I've experienced both forms, and I bet you have, too.

It is acceptable and understandable to be hurt. A rejection of any message is difficult for those who see the world as it could be. Daring to challenge others is in some ways a lonely task. Charges of zealotry will often follow, but we can help ourselves if we leave room for levity and even criticize ourselves when necessary. Too many worthwhile movements have collapsed when paranoia and wounded feelings have been turned inward.

When this subject is raised, I often return to a passage in Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But they went on with the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven" and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.
If we are the early Christians of today, we must balance our expectations. With much effort, we might wipe away the stain of today's evils. But we should also expect personal suffering to result from it. This doesn't mean that it is acceptable for us to receive anonymous threats from small-minded bullies. But what it does mean is that, until our stated crusade concludes, we're going to be someone's target. And, though I hate to say it, crusades take a very long time.

What I'm talking about is mostly keeping our purpose in perspective. My constant refrain is to point back to who and what we are. If I say that we are flawed creatures, this is not to excuse inappropriate or injurious behavior. The reason many of us return time and time again to houses of worship is to be reminded of our imperfections.

As I have said, this vocation is necessary but promises pain. We can't speak to everyone, as much as we wish we could. We may never know precisely what impact we make towards others. If only our allies and friends would make their opinions known in the same direct, instantaneous way as our enemies. This is why perspective is crucial, else we burn ourselves out or grow bitter.

Find a strategy to preserve your sanity and never deviate from it. I know many people who have done noble, enviable tasks, but are left thin-skinned from years of persecution. One has to take stock of people like this with grudging praise, even when they are difficult personalities. Burning out like this is not the way I personally would go about it.

Go where your heart leads you. Never forget why you took up the mantle you did, and where that reflects upon you. Go deeper than that. Examine your motives from a psychological perspective. Knowing yourself will serve you well when it comes time to put your boxing gloves on again. And it will help you deal with the enemies that you'll always encounter along the way. Stay strong.

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