Monday, 30 December 2013

From Pain To Power: The Apathetic Activist Deals With A World Gone Mad

When I look back at it now, I'm almost overwhelmed at the thought that so many of my generation, as children, must have faced the same grief as I, and through it, somehow managed to find the will to live. As a child of the sixties I made very adult choices that helped me to find a personal philosophy that would guide me throughout my life. Each of us had to in our own way, and Bravo to us!
My personal path was to follow the directive of Alfred E. Neuman, the gap-toothed, floppy-eared, freckle-faced cover boy for Mad Magazine who exclaimed, "What, Me Worry?!" I figured if my life could be whooshed away in the blink of any eye, I might as well enjoy it while I had it. Let everything else take care of itself.
Mass movements--which formed so much of the social environment that affected me--had a sheepish mindlessness and lack of personal connection that was confounding. Protest against the status quo -- which had once been a mass movement in itself against the previous order -- involved throwing waves and waves of largely nameless bodies against a foe, weakening it until a final ripple toppled it over.
The organizers (who survived) basked in the glory and then built a new machine, just as destructive, but in different ways. Saving the world seemed such a strange enterprise.
Yet, I could not stand idly by. I chose to enter the human drama of people in need, right then, right there. There was something in me that called out to make my work personal. At first I worked in a nursing home, and then entered emergency medicine, which in the 1970s was in its infancy. Still, almost inadvertently, I found myself getting sucked in to a cause greater than myself.
At first, there was just me and my patients, yet I couldn't help noticing that there were people as close as the next block in neighboring, politically demarcated "service areas" who, trapped in an emergency, were dying needlessly because they received inadequate care. I found myself expanding my reach by influencing others in the towns nearby to support advanced medical care. I landed smack in the middle of such larger issues as status, economics, and race, and the venue to deal with those things was politics. As each year went by, I found myself taking larger stands amidst broader audiences in an attempt to standardize higher levels of emergency care.
In the process, I became more distant from the immediacy of the moment with my patients as I became more and more absorbed and consumed by moving masses of others towards my perception of a Greater Good. After twelve years, I burned out--not on working on the edge of life and death, but on the politics. I accomplished a lot, but I lost something important, too: the time and presence in the moment to sit quietly with a person in pain and help them to feel not so alone.
It was after this period of my life that I started to understand the difference between causes and people, and how, apathetic to a cause, I could still change the world a person at a time. How? I came to understand that destructiveness to us, other people, or the environment was a by-product of lack of empathy coupled with lack of education. Without empathy, however, all the education in the world means nothing.
The path that I took (or that took me, it's hard to tell) was in finding ways to ignite empathy in others. That could only be done person to person. The first individual to work on was myself. And the pathway to accomplish this was to learn to open my heart. An interesting by-product of opening one's heart is that it becomes all-inclusive, and tolerant of what boils down to the struggle of being human. As the cartoon character Pogo says, "We have met the enemy and he is us!"
After about ten years of trial and error, I found I could influence others by being myself --and without burning out in the process. This became a way of being. It was not a way of reacting to, moving, changing, or affecting the people out of my immediate environment. It all had to do with my relationships in the moment--joining the people in my life in an experience of time that is vital and alive and not dependent on things over there or what happened or what will come.
The biggest gift of my life has been discovering that I can be a useful channel through which the healing process can express itself - despite all the evidence that it's a terminal world. Each of us will die, and for all we truly know, we'll take our experiencing of the world with us.
The key to living within the riddle has been to sharpen my skills by facing and working through my own pain and knowing my own universe intimately. But it can't stop there. To make it worthwhile, I must share the experience with others. My realization is that bringing this to people is about as high a form of activism as I can find in my life, because in order to do so, I have to invest everything.

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