I wonder what moves people across the line from concerned to committed, from talk to action, from individual expression to organized and collective action. People can do great things when they are committed to positive action. But what is positive action?
Often it seems there is a battle between cynicism and idealism. All breakthroughs, from inventions to social leaps forward, begin with the assumption that change is possible. If cynicism wins in that battle between cynicism and idealism, creative thinking, the belief in the possibility of change and the desire to act for improvements is destroyed. So, it is important to reject cynicism and to choose to embrace hopefulness and idealism.
What does idealism mean? It means to believe that it is possible to live by a set of specific values and ideals. Idealism does not mean naiveté or even simple optimism. It is having your life’s decisions driven by your ideals. Bull-dog grip idealism means refusing to give up those values, goals and dreams. It is to persevere in spite of the struggles, the challenges and the unrelenting chanting of the cynics.
Gandhi’s teachings encourage us to become the change we want to see.
At Justice Works!, the criminal justice reform non-profit I lead for twelve years, we spoke often of our founding principles and our values. Our work was to replace the societal myths and societal secrets with solutions based on the same values that we espoused and worked so diligently to live by; safety, justice, empowerment, accountability, and collaboration. Our message consistently repeated – sometimes movingly, often quietly, always insistently – “Things aren’t what they could be, things aren’t what they should be, we can do better, and we must try.”
This bulldog drive for idealism works. In 1989, there were 69 democracies in the world, today there are 167. Rugged idealists from Lech Walesa, to Vaclev Havel, to Corazon Aquino, to millions of everyday people who took to the streets are the behind this march to democracy. The Berlin Wall came down without a single shot being fired. The Soviet Union disintegrated, and Eastern Europe was liberated. Nelson Mandela went from prisoner to president in a remarkably peaceful revolution. Peace came to Northern Ireland in a Good Friday agreement. For the first time in human history, a majority of people on our planet live under some form of democracy.
In the past 20 years there has been an explosion of growth in civil society. In the U.S., we have gone from 464,000 non-profits in 1989 to 1.1 million in 2002. Worldwide, the number of civil society organizations has grown by at least 43% over the past ten years.
Still challenges continue. We’ve witnessed the terrible day of September 11, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq war, genocide in the Sudan, AIDS, terrorism, persistent global poverty, the ongoing struggle for peace in the Middle East, and more.
This is the time for action! But, how do we move from concerned to commitment and from talk to action? How do we strengthen idealism and discourage cynicism?
Idealism inspires action and change. Cynicism leads to apathy and fear. Idealists act. Cynics re-act. Idealists create. Cynics tear down. Idealists say, “Let’s go! How can I help? I have an idea.” Cynics respond: “It’ll never work. Why bother?”
When Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, she was practicing bull dog idealism. When the abolitionists insisted that slavery was morally wrong and had to end, they were practicing bull dog idealism. When the Suffragists fought for women to be treated as full citizens and equals by having the right to vote, they were practicing bull dog idealism. When Nelson Mandela repeatedly refused early release during 27 and half years of prison, he was practicing bull dog idealism. When students sat in at lunch counters, boarded buses for freedom rides, launched the anti-Vietnam war movement, marched in Tiananmen Square, and rose up in Soweto in 1976, they were all practicing bull dog idealism.
When we live our everyday lives according to our values and when we participate in social justice actions. We are practicing bull dog idealism.
And I hope that many will step it up and practice even more. Why? It’s because idealism seems to be in retreat here in America. We may be the richest country in the history of the world, but the census tells us more Americans are living in poverty – thirty seven million with more than 13 million of them, our children, living in poverty. 3.5 million people, with well over one million of them children, will be homeless in a given year in America. Virtually every day the paper is filled with new stories of senseless acts of violence. It has to stop. Around the world, the situation is much worse. 842 million people across the world are hungry, and six million children die every year as a result of hunger. About 1 billion people – one fifth of the world’s population – currently live on less than $1 per day. These numbers are not just statistics. Every single one of them represents a human being, a fellow citizen of our planet, who is struggling. They are people who need our help. I am hoping that we can find new and better ways to build prosperity, opportunity, and most of all liberty and justice for all. The solution is not a political ideology; the solution is us, as many of us as possible. Ideally we can encourage many of our citizens and the companies we engage with to join us in service. It is anyone who steps forward to be a bull dog idealist.
Gandhi also said that there were three keys to building a democratic society: the ballot, the jail and the spinning wheel or the spade.
The ballot is the basic rights – especially the right to vote – that you get by being a citizen in a democratic society.
The jail is your right to protest. It is your right of civil disobedience. Your right to put at risk the most precious thing you have in a democracy – your freedom, your liberty – in protest over some law that you think is fundamentally unjust. By doing so, you can arouse the consciousness of the citizens in the democracy to change the law.
But, Gandhi said that it was the spinning wheel or the spade that was actually the most important of the three to make a democratic society work. For Gandhi, the spade was the willingness of citizens to get out there and do the day to day work that it takes to build a democratic society; to form associations, to teach people to read, to build houses for the homeless, to care for needy children, to help feed the hungry, and to empower citizens. Gandhi believed this one – the spade – was the most important because it engages citizens directly in their democracy.
In the coming days, weeks, months and years, I hope that more and more people will dig a little deeper, and find it in their souls to work harder to make our great democracy stronger. Do it in large or small ways that work for you. Don’t judge yourself or others for their choices regarding what type of actions to take. Instead, suggest, encourage, support, and be your values every day.
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