Essay: Encounters With Four Activists

I had the good fortune to encounter four amazing activists last year.

The first was Doris Haddock, a.k.a. GrannyD , an incredible woman who walked across the United States at the age of 89 to advocate for the elimination of unregulated “soft” money in campaigns. She then returned home to New Hampshire, and in 2004, at the age of 94, ran for U.S. Senate! With almost no money, and running against an entrenched Republican incumbent, she still managed to get nearly 40%+ of the vote – a people-powered success that proved the effectiveness of grassroots, guerrilla campaigns. Her story is now told in a wonderful and inspiring film, Run Granny Run!, that showed on HBO in October, and is now available on DVD. That film previewed in Boston and GrannyD herself was in attendance and spoke; it was thrilling to see her.

The second was Garry Kasparov , the former world chess champion who is now the leading opposition candidate and champion for democracy in an increasingly autocratic Russia. He gave a talk to more than a thousand people in Cambridge. The subject was on how chess prepared him for success in other fields, and what I particularly remember is him saying repeatedly: “I have won hundreds of chess matches, but lost thousands. You have to have the courage to fail.” No one probably hates failure more than a world champion, so if he could face his fear of failure, we can face our own.

The third was a speech by Van Jones , one of the most visionary voices on behalf of the emerging green economy.” I heard him speak in inner-city Dorchester, Boston, to an audience of a couple of hundred people of all ages and races. Being in such a diverse but unified room was in itself refreshing and inspiring, and then Jones himself further inspired us when he spoke with passion and humor about the urgent need to build a sustainable green economy that not only allows America to address climate change, reduce pollution and become energy independent, but provides jobs. Jones isn’t just a talker, either: his “Green for All campaign seeks to secure $1 BILLION in federal, state and local funding for a green-collar job training in order to lift 250,000 people out of poverty across the country.

Finally, there was “Randy Pausch”: , the now-famous Carnegie Mellon computer science professor whose videotaped “Last Lecture” is a hit on the Internet and WHICH YOU ABSOLUTELY SHOULD SEE. Though technically, perhaps, not an activist, he is definitely a world-changer. Last Lectures are generally offered by retiring professors, but Pausch gave his at an unusually young age, 48, because he is dying of pancreatic cancer and has only a few months to live. His lecture, on how to achieve your childhood dreams, contains much useful information, but it is really his courageous joy and vital energy in the face of a crushing personal fate – he will leave behind a wife and three young children – that has inspired me and made me determined to feel more joy in my own daily existence, even the mundane or disappointing parts of it. The video is around 90 minutes long; if you want to skip the intros, start at the 8 minute marker.

Each of these encounters left me energized and inspired. (By the way, inspiration” derives from the Latin “in”=into and “spirare”=breath, so when you feel inspired by someone, you are metaphorically breathing in his or her strength, spirit and vision.) I was thinking about them while reading about Bruce E. Levine’s new book, “Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Moral, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy . Levine writes about how our consumerist, corporatist society actually causes depression:

“Depression is highly associated with the experience of hopelessness and helplessness, and politics is all about power. In genuine democracy, people don’t merely get to vote but instead they have a real sense that they actually have an impact on their society. When you are voting, year after year, for the lesser-of-two-evils, neither of whom you support and both of whom are in the pocket of corporations and wealthy individuals, you don’t experience an y real political power. Politics is all about power, and depression is largely about powerlessness.”

Many other writers, including Frances Moore Lappe (Democracy’s Edge) and Paul Stile (Is the American Dream Killing You) have written on similar themes. A huge part of the problem are abusive corporations and other employers, as Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel’s The Addictive Organization makes clear. I constantly run into people who have been traumatized by bad work situations – and I’m not talking about extreme cases such as discrimination or harassment – but “normally” dysfunctional situations involving pervasive disrespect and lack of caring. Spending 40 hours a week in such a milieu can really do you in, especially if you are told that you, and not the system, is the problem.

If you work in such an environment, it is important to, (a) work to get out, and (b) make sure the rest of your life nurtures and inspires you. Also, whatever your passion is, engage it more fully and get more active around it, and especially find your community. Passivity depresses and, ultimately, kills individuals and societies; while action on any front heals and strengthens.

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