By Nina Utne @ Utne.com
Nina Utne: Our cover says “Calm in the Chaos.” What does this suggest to you?
Robert Gass: These are times of great change. Work, families, community life, the social and political landscape, even our physical environment and climate are in flux. Technological changes are affecting almost every aspect of our lives. In the face of all this change, we understandably feel anxious and overwhelmed. But change is inevitable. It’s the way of things. Those who want to help create a positive future for coming generations have no choice but to embrace uncertainty, to ride the turbulent waters of change. We must indeed learn how to stay calm in the chaos.
Those working for social change often operate in a state of high stress, driven by the sheer magnitude of the problems we face, the suffering in our communities, and declining social and environmental indicators. We may be angry at those with power whose greed and unconsciousness continue to create injustice, wars, and environmental destruction.
Yet increasingly, activists are coming to appreciate that fear and anger, while they are often an important part of awakening political consciousness, are not ultimately the best fuel for making change. Many of us have responded to the words of Gandhi: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” To really become part of the solution rather than part of the problem, we must, even in the midst of chaos and struggle, go beyond railing against what we don’t like. We must learn to keep our hearts open, and to dream the positive future we want to create.
NU: So, in that context, what does activism mean?
RG: It means that we choose to engage with life. We choose to take an active role in creating a better future for our children, for all children. That we say, “Okay, I am part of this wildly imperfect species called humanity. In the face of it all, I choose to do what I can, to give what I can, to make a difference.” We respond to our collective suffering and challenges with some form of action.
NU: How do we know what to do? How do we know what matters?
RG: We don’t! But still we choose to engage. Each of us is here for a purpose. Not an idea, not something we invent, but something we discover. If each of us answers this unique call, somehow it will all get done. For some of us, our purpose might express itself through standing up against racism or sexism. For others, it’s about caring for a family. We may live our purpose through community service, through art, or through business. As one who trains activists, I believe my job is to help each person find a true and powerful expression of that authentic purpose.
NU: So, what do you think distinguishes between those who burn out and those who are able to sustain their energy?
RG: Having an intimate and living relationship to your own sense of purpose is a renewable, inexhaustible source of energy, from which you can draw over a lifetime of service. It was just such a connection to purpose that sustained Nelson Mandela through his years imprisoned at Robben Island.
We also need to make better choices and cultivate better habits. Sprinters throw everything they have into 10 seconds; marathon runners carefully husband their energy for the later miles. Those of us working for a better world need to think marathon. The issues we face are vast and will be around for a long, long time.
We want to prepare ourselves for a lifetime of service, but way too many of us are running around in a state of constant crisis. Our body is a living system. In Rockwood Leadership Program’s activist trainings, we teach the concept of personal ecology, of how to care for our most precious resource, our life force. Research consistently shows that when we invest in care for our body, our heart, our mind, and our spirit, not only are we happier, but it pays huge dividends in our ability to create good results in our work.
NU: So it’s kind of an internal energy crisis as much as an external one.
RG: Exactly! It’s ironic to watch so many of us working for sustainability in the world not living in a sustainable way. There are obvious problems with health and quality of life. But I also see it as an effectiveness problem. When we operate out of a continual state of urgency, we end up constantly fighting fires, not investing time in the strategic thinking, planning, and relationship and capacity building required for social change.
Many of us are working to shift the old paradigm that we need to sacrifice our health and families for the sake of the movement. It’s a false and dangerous dichotomy. I believe these behaviors actually impede the success of our work. If we must sacrifice something, we might consider sacrificing our egoic images of ourselves as heroes, martyrs, and lone warriors. We need to work in the spirit of the famous Zen adage, “Chop wood. Carry water.” Our activism becomes less of a big deal. It’s just what we do. Day after day . . . decade after decade . . . with a clear mind and open heart, patient and steady in our course.
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Join Robert Gass for the Art of Leadership, August 18-23 at Hollyhock on Cortes Island.