“Activist”. Am I the only person who gets a little itchy at the mention of that word?
Maybe it’s because when someone calls themselves an activist, what I hear is “proud teller of other people how to live their lives.”
Honestly, am I wrong in that interpretation?
For awhile now, I’ve wondered: do we live perhaps in the preachiest, most shrilly prescriptive culture since the dawn of time?
In times past, people were lorded over by a hierarchy of often oppressive leaders. Now, we’ve all individually taken up the mantle of lording it over each other.
Look at our bumper stickers, and Twitter rants, and Facebook memes. We loudly dictate how everyone else should vote, or raise their kids, or eat, or drive. We are very comfortable assuming a place of authority to decide for others what they should believe and think, how they should behave, and what judgments or opinions or beauty standards we’re willing to allow them to have.
And if we fail at that, if they persist in disobeying our dictates, then we are perfectly comfortable labeling them “evil” and shouting them into silence.
Of course, the activist will explain that this is all necessary, noble work. There is much change that needs to happen in the world.
I actually agree.
Which is why I will never, ever, be an activist.
It’s like this: changing the world is a bucket brigade.
We’re putting out the fires of inequity, injustice, bigotry, etc one bucket at a time. We all have an essential part in that line, carrying each bucket of water from hand to hand. That’s our duty, prosaic as it is.
How do we perform this duty?
First and foremost, we do it through the daily, thankless work of rooting out those base influences in our own hearts and minds.
Then, we do it through leading via example.
We do it through answering when asked, and doing so with respect, cemented in the context of relationship.
Nobody wants to hear it, but I think we all know it deep down: the bucket brigade of world-change is comprised of billions of single individuals tending to the change they alone can control: their own heart and mind.
So what’s an activist?
An activist is somebody who’s decided that the bucket brigade just isn’t fast enough to accomplish the change that needs to happen.
Perhaps they have the best of intentions. Perhaps their heart really is in the right place. Either way, they start hectoring the people around them to go faster. They start loudly guilt-tripping everyone else that they aren’t doing enough.
Some of the like-minded people in the bucket brigade cheer the activist on. Others just feel brow-beaten and secretly consider giving up entirely. Still others are jealous of the applause the activist is getting, so they join in.
Soon enough, more and more people decide to become activists instead of mere members of the bucket brigade.
Until today, when, thanks to the amplifying effect of social media, most of the bucket brigade has opted to become activists.
And the activists are much too busy with their chosen higher calling to waste any time on, you know, actually working in the bucket brigade.
Because let’s be perfectly honest: we cannot do both.
We can’t assume the full-time position of directing everyone else on how to live their lives while also engaging in the more-than-full-time work of actually being a better person and perfecting the change that we alone can control.
And let’s be even more honest: there’s simply no applause in being part of the bucket brigade. There are no “mic-drop” moments. There is no social glory whatsoever.
There’s just the quiet satisfaction of actually making a change, of managing well the responsibility that you alone have been given.
There’s no greatness in doing one’s small part. But there is goodness in it.
Unfortunately, greatness is what we Americans worship and desperately yearn for. Greatness is being fantastic at one corner of life at the expense of everything else, even if it results in a net loss.
Goodness, on the other hand, is balance in all things. Goodness is moderation. It’s humility, and quiet contentment, and serving your own best self rather than the shallow accolades of a superficial and fickle world.
I submit that goodness, not greatness, is what changes the world.
And this is why activists make me itch. Because they’ve abandoned their actual world-influencing duties in exchange for a hand-built throne of public hectoring.
They’ve bet all their chips on the myth of change through the loudest nagging.
So that’s why I, personally, will never tell you how to raise or teach your kids. I won’t tell you how to vote. I won’t call you evil for what you believe, or think, or whether you eat meat, or like Nickleback, or drive a hybrid.
I will just tell you to please, please, stay in the bucket brigade. Hoist your share of the water. Be true to the lifelong, world-changing work of being your own best self.
And if the day ever does come that you’ve finally perfected that work? By all means, become an activist again and tell the rest of us how to do it.
But only do it then. And good luck.