Motivation for Social Justice

I’ve long been involved in social justice work. I was introduced to the idea as part of spiritual journey at a Cardinal Stritch, an extremely liberal Catholic University in Milwaukee. My parents weren’t social justice types. They weren’t opposed to it, either, but they were white (still are, oddly enough), suburban adults who came of age in the 1950s in the north. It just wasn’t on their radar.

When I became involved in social justice work I read and heard all of the classic information about using your anger to fuel your work. Since I had no shortage of anger back then, it resonated with me. Over time, though, as I worked with my anger and saw both its unpleasant consequences and its causes, I began to resonate with Thich Nhat Hanh’s presentation of the buddhist view of consciousness, which says we have seeds of consciousness. Some of those seeds are lovely things like love, compassion, empathy, motivation, joy, and a host of others. Unfortunately, there are also seeds that aren’t as skillful such as fear, anger, rage, hatred, bigotry, and a host of others. Like a garden, the seeds we water are the ones that grow. If we exercise (or “water”) anger, it grows.

I am finding this an apt explanation for the state of discourse in our country, and very relevant to work for social justice. We see an injustice, and we become angry. Here is a possible fork in the road. We can continue down the traditional path and water that anger so it motivates us for action. We will see the other as enemy, we will attack, we will (hopefully metaphorically) beat them into submission, and declare victory or keep fighting until we do. (Is our political discourse that much different in tone?) We will also have created an enemy.

What if, instead, we noticed that we were angry at injustice and took some time to pause? What if we first treated ourselves gently and looked at what feelings were being brought up by the situation in which anger had arisen? What if we then looked at the oppressor with an eye toward understanding what is motivating them. In my experience, what most always motivates them is fear – a fear that goes to their understanding of their own identity. When they ask themselves “who would I be if this situation changed?” they find they don’t know, and fear that they will cease to exist. Their identity is tied to the social convention they are seeking to uphold, from segregation, to discrimination, to trying to hold the culture static.

I believe that if we can learn to engage all sides of a in conflict in a calm discussion that eventually gets to the heart of their feelings, we can start to heal each other and change will take care of itself. Of course, the process takes time. While anger and rage can be more expedient, they also contribute to lowering the possibility for lasting change. The defeated party simply waits for the chance to strike back. By coming together, we may well learn to solve problems before they grow into monsters.

(I first wrote this post for a friend’s excellent forum. Check it out here)

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