Chapter 29: Not Doing
“Those who think to win the world
by doing something to it,
I see them come to grief.
For the world is a sacred object.
Nothing is to be done to it.
To do anything to it is to damage it.
To seize it is to lose it.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Burnout is the bane of social activists. Their passion for justice is a double-edged sword that fuels and foils them. Yeats’ poem “Second Coming” is commonly invoked to contrast doubting, dithering, and divided progressives with militant, united, on-message conservatives: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
But the invocation misses four things.
One, today’s progressives are brimming with passionate intensity.
Two, if you are full of passionate intensity, you have no room for anything else. If you never empty out, you will always be running on empty, fueled by the fumes of grievance and resentment, the “fossil fuels” of fanaticism.
Three, if you are full of passionate intensity, convinced you are “on the right side of history,” you are no longer “the best.”
Four, the passionate intensity on the Right is grounded in something beyond politics: in a word, God. It is worth considering whether this is why they win, and whether we ought to see this as a sort of secret weapon that makes political conflict, like combating terrorism, a kind of asymmetric warfare. To be fair, the Right are neither terrorists nor holy warriors, and the religious bent of their politics is either cynical and craven, or benighted and misguided. But their ethos is rooted in a theology.
In the New York Times this week, Tina Harrison Warren shares her story of burnout as an activist, and how an encounter with a Franciscan priest changed her approach:
Soon after I graduated, passionate about justice and wanting to make a difference in the world, I ran a church-based group that helped support undocumented immigrants and provided tutoring to their kids. I ran into the friar and we caught up.
He looked at me and said matter-of-factly, “You do not have the life of prayer and silence necessary to sustain the work you are doing.” I was a little insulted. What the hell did he know? But over the course of the next two years, he was proved right. I simply did not have the spiritual rhythms and practices to cultivate the wisdom, humility, thoughtfulness and rest my work required. I burned out quickly.
If politics is all there is, every conflict is the Final Battle, every election is existential, and every aspect of cultural life is drawn into its orbit. The old concept of identity politics, “the personal is the political” has been inflated beyond measure: since everything is political, and the personal is the political, everything is personal. And for the extremely online set, the political has become a matrix from which they cannot escape, except the machines are now the algorithms monetizing their attention by hijacking their limbic system.
Put another way, if there is only history, it becomes what James Joyce said it was: a nightmare from which I cannot awaken. I will oscillate between outrage and outage, and soothe myself with ironic detachment. The philosophical ancestor of the activist Left is Marx. Whatever the merits of his critique of capitalism, his materialism entailed that there is no ultimate spiritual or moral justification for his alternative. As C.S. Lewis put it in another context, “such men are better than their principles.” Their ethic writes spiritual and moral checks that their metaphysic cannot cash. What results is a spiritual eschatology, in which transcendence is sought not beyond history, through revelation, but within it, through revolution. As Shadi Hamid recently put it in The Atlantic:
No wonder the newly ascendant American ideologies, having to fill the vacuum where religion once was, are so divisive. They are meant to be divisive. On the left, the “woke” take religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends.
The goal of necessity becomes not to understand the world, or celebrate it, but to change it by “doing something to it.” When the world or other people resist such doings, the problem is not you, but them. They are on the wrong side of history and must be awakened and perhaps, in Rousseau’s words, “be forced to be free.”
But there is another, older way. Warren writes:
The literature scholar Alan Jacobs argues that we need to embrace “not a permanent silence, but a refusal to speak at the frantic pace set by social media.” He calls silence “the first option — the preferential option for the poor in spirit, you might say; silence as a form of patience, a form of reflection, a form of prayer.”
Contemplative silence and prayer becomes the means by which we learn the limits of words and action, and where we learn to take up the right words and actions. It’s where we learn to slow down and then to work again at the mysterious pace of the Holy Spirit.
There is a deep vein of Christian activism in American history that used to be called “the social gospel” and, of course, the social justice teaching of the Church. The opposition of social justice and Christianity in America is a relatively new phenomenon. The term “social justice” has become so politicized that perhaps we should abandon it and, well, just talk about justice. Martin Luther King, of course, grounded his activism in the gospel, not just theologically, but practically. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he lays out the four principles of non-violent civil disobedience:
- Fact-finding to establish that an injustice has occurred
- Negotiation with the authorities
- Direct Action
It is the third that is most important and that separates King’s approach from much of today’s activism on the Left.
That purification, of course, need not be carried out in a Christian vein. Eisenhower famously said that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.” You can substitute the Dao for the Holy Spirit and not miss a beat.
How ironic that we now discover, in the endgame of late modernity, that we really can’t separate religion and politics? Prayer—understood broadly as the preferential option for silence—is the supremely practical secret to personal and political sanity.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”