You are not obligated to complete the work,
but neither are you free to abandon it.
Do not be daunted
by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
– Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers)
For the past few years, I have ended my classes at UCLA with a reflection with my students about this excerpt from a poem by Rabbi Tarfon and its significance for them. Many of us who work for social justice often work on organizing campaigns with short timelines, with little resources, and moving on all pistons at a grueling 24-7 pace. This extreme pace can consume the important things in life that contribute to a person’s well-being. It’s a kind of martyr’s code that measures a person’s commitment to justice by their willingness to sacrifice personal time, health, and relationships.
During most of my 30 years working for immigrant and workers’ rights, I lost touch with myself and my work-life balance on many occasions. Work took control of my life. Everything that contributed to my well-being became secondary to the work. I caught myself believing that my physical and mental exhaustion were indicative of my commitment to the work for justice, and that sacrificing my health for the sake of helping others was a badge of honor. The result was a series of periodic episodes of burnout where I lost both the physical and mental capacity to continue the work. This stage led to an empty feeling where what I was working towards began to lose meaning. My most recent burnout three years ago culminated in my hospitalization. I realized that I needed to change my lifestyle as an activist for the sake of my health and well-being. During a period of intense self-reflection and meditation, I reached deep into my spiritual faith and connected with the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi to guide me. The outcome of this period of burnout and deep reflection was my book,In Living Peace, I reveal how the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi shape my work for justice, teaching me the way of peace, love, humility, and service. Through interaction with other activists, my Franciscan spirituality has also been enriched by that of others, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, poet, scholar, and human rights activist. As he shares his reflections on various ways spirituality can nourish social activism.Eight hundred years ago, a humble man transformed his world and renewed the Catholic Church by simple but revolutionary acts of practicing his faith as it had never been practiced before. Francis was a man of peace who was known for building bridges of communication, understanding, and cooperation between warring people, groups, and nations.Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice.
Francis was born about 1181 into an affluent family during a period of incredible violence and warfare. Francis dreamed of knighthood and he fought in battles against other towns and cities. Many historians believe that Francis participated in the killing and slaughter of other soldiers during battle. Italy during that time period was filled with daily violence on a large scale. During Francis’ lifetime, the once dominant feudal system was breaking apart, and Italy’s provinces and cities were engaged in ongoing strife that led to continuing military conflicts. During his youth, Francis developed a reputation for self-indulgence and playfulness that made him a hero and leader of his town’s young people. He watched as his own town of Assisi was wracked by a civil war and a long-running conflict with the nearby town of Perugia. When Francis was 20, the conflict with Perugia erupted into an all-out war. Inspired by patriotism and deep pride, Francis enlisted and went off to battle. He was captured and put in prison for nearly a year.
Two years later, Francis set out for war again, this time as a young knight of a papal army bound for the Crusades. On his way to battle, Francis had a vision that caused him to become weak and very ill. He returned to Assisi, unwilling to take up where he left off. He was ill for almost a year and he struggled with dreams and voices telling him to repair the Church that had fallen. These dreams and visions led him to turn his back on his father’s wealthy business and the military heroics of his youth. Instead, Francis chose a radical life of caring for the poor through his acts of love and humility where he lived among lepers, homeless and others that were neglected by society. Francis was a tough and demanding revolutionary voyager of the human spirit. He was someone who chose to live not with the easy metaphors of poverty, but in real, harsh, grinding “poorness.” Francis placed a relentless emphasis on real poverty and its necessary companion, humility. Francis was someone who lived his vision. His life (rather than his words) teaches us what it is like to live with spiritual joy in the service of other. Francis was an extraordinary person whose response to the world of the 13th century gives shape and motivation to our response to the world of the 21stcentury.
In Living Peace, I argue that the work of activism is a form of spirituality in and of itself. As social justice activists, we have the foundation of spirituality within us from which we can approach the work together and rebuild the social justice movement from within. Each of us is an instrumental creative part of the universal being of activism and justice, and there is no one single role that rises above the others. The spiritual framework that we need to strengthen social justice movements as we move forward will rely on 1) our interconnectedness with each other, and 2) our embrace of a social justice activism through compassion and humility.
The interconnectedness between all of us working for social justice should become an indispensable part of our work. This is so especially where we find ourselves dispersed in so many different strategies and campaigns, and often disconnected from each other. Francis would spend long hours with each of his brothers that formed the first band of followers of his teachings. He lived and practiced daily the heart-to-heart connections with them. Similarly, in social justice movements, we are all interwoven – ourselves, our lives, the communities we represent and what we are striving to accomplish. Francis had the capacity to go deep into someone’s heart and share the joy and sadness of that person. As social justice activists, we too have the potential to connect through our hearts and let that connection be the driving force that enables us to struggle together, to strategize together, and to win together. In reaching such a potential of human relationship, we will create the spiritual binding force from which we can move forward with a collective strategy. This is true solidarity in action within the social justice movement – our interconnectedness with one other. It is solidarity reaching a radical level.
Thich Nhat Hanh in his Fourth Mindfulness Training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening, states that we must be “determined not to spread news that [we] do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord.” He goes on to state that we must “make daily efforts, in [our] speaking and listening, to nourish [our] capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in [our] consciousness.”
We must learn to engage in active listening with our heart, which will then enable us to speak through compassion or mindful speech, and not anger, frustration or fear. Active listening without passing judgment, is a gift that we can give to each other to enhance our work for justice. When we are really heard, and the other understands our meaning and emotions, we feel valued and respected, a condition necessary for strengthening our movement. There is a no more precious gift, to give or receive, than to listen to the words of another. This process of active listening and loving speech will enable us to be mindful of and respect the dignity within each one of us. There is really no meaning in a task or activity unless there is a deep inter-connection with our spirituality and with one another in our struggle for justice.
The second principle we must embrace is a model of compassion and humility. To be humbled, it is said, strengthens a generous spirit. Like the principles of non-violence, humility in social justice work is not submission or a state of passiveness; rather, it is a powerful force for change. Francis understood that the biggest threat to humility was the power of human pride and ego. For him, humility in its highest form (holy or spiritual humility) always puts pride and ego to shame. Francis saw humility as the only way to prevent our ego from poisoning our pride. In this way, humility is a form of “self-activism” where we, as activists, take proactive steps to ensure that we act for the act itself, and not to feed our selfish desires or be puffed up by the praises of others. Just as Francis preached a way of life through the principle of humility, we too must approach our work in the same way. What does this mean? It means that we must exercise humility through acts of compassion and selflessness as we carry out our tasks in our everyday work – in a campaign, in a picket line, a protest, giving a presentation or workshop, house visits, worker assemblies, visiting policy makers, etc. In whatever activity we engage in as part of our work as activists, we must always do it through the principle of humility that Francis teaches us. After all, true leadership is about knowing when to step back so that others can step forward.
Of course it takes courage to radically change direction towards a more sustainable and healthy movement for justice. But as activists, we owe nothing less to the millions of working families impacted by the injustices that we fight against every day. If we can truly support one another and open our hearts, we can connect and create a “radical solidarity.” Activists and their allies working for justice must embrace a “radical solidarity” that encompasses a deepening of self-care and community care to build a healthy movement for change. They need to be able to advocate for themselves when the symptoms of burnout and stress begin to overwhelm them. We must take the courageous step forward to dismantle the “martyr syndrome” that is so entrenched in the movement. There are many ways to make healthy work for justice a reality. For example, we can integrate healthy diets and exercise into our daily activist work. We can create spaces within our workplaces for reflection, check-ins and talking circles to address burnout. We can connect with our spiritual faith or mindfulness practice to guide us towards a balance of self-care and healthy activism. There is no “one shoe size fits all” approach. The important thing is that we decide to move forward in this direction.
The major threats and challenges that social justice movements face today create opportunities for us to strengthen ourselves. Let us embrace a new approach to moving forward together. Let us create a spiritual framework of humility, compassion and respect that will provide for a more cohesive collective strategy, healthy and sustainable activism, and a stronger movement as we continue the good fight for justice. Finally, a passage from Living Peace taught to me by St. Francis captures the essence of how to move forward together in the good fight: “When surrounded by a thousand dangers, let us not lose heart, except to make room for one another in our hearts.”
Photo credits: Victor Narro, scenes of Big Sur.
Victor Narro is Project Director for the UCLA Labor Center. For more information on his book, Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice, go to https://www.facebook.com/ConnectingSpirituality. He can also be found on Twitter at @narrovictor. To order a copy of Living Peace or its Spanish translation, Paz en Acción, go to http://books.labor.ucla.edu/