It’s painful to learn about the terrible injustices and cruelties in the world. Sometimes, the more we know, the more hopeless we become. Even when we also learn about the great courage, generosity, wisdom, and dedication of countless changemakers, even when we see success in their efforts to create new systems that solve the great challenges of our time, we can still become despondent in the face of persistent exploitation, destruction, and oppression.
The question “How can we choose to know and still maintain hope in the face of ghastly atrocities?” is a seminal one for humane educators and reflects a paradox that is difficult to resolve. We must know in order to create positive change. Knowing leads to what Buddhists call “right action” and Jews call “tikkun olam” (repairing the world), but it can also to lead to rage, depression, fear, and violence, and even, paradoxically, to apathy when we simply cannot absorb or care about so much.
Most of us know angry activists who turn off more people than they turn on, whose actions are counter productive, who fail to model the peace and compassion they seek to create in the world. These people “know” but their “knowing” actually inhibits their successful changemaking.
And most of us also know activists who tirelessly create healthy change while inspiring others. What is the key to their success? How do they both know and radiate kindness, acceptance, patience, and openness? I believe that most such changemakers find a practice that grounds them, as well as outlets for experiencing joy and inner peace. They may spend time in the natural world, or meditate, or read inspiring works, or find strength from their religious beliefs, or gather with friends to laugh and play. They self reflect, they revel in all that is good, they acknowledge their own sadness and frustration as worthy emotions, and they persevere in cultivating their own best qualities.
Humane educators must not only cultivate all this within themselves, but also in the students we teach. If we create a generation full of despair, rather than a generation enthusiastic to play their part in creating change, we will have failed. If, however, we honor our students’ sorrow, fear, and anger and help them transform these emotions into “right action” we will have created a generation that can embrace the humane educator’s paradox and move toward the unfolding of a better world.
(Since I’m currently on tour: a repost from 6/2/08.)