Ady Barkin wrote an essay in The Nation, I’m Dying. Here Is What I Refuse to Accept With Serenity, about politics, spirituality, and dying. At age 32 he was diagnosed with ALS, and within a few years he was unable to feed himself. He dictated the essay to a friend because he was unable to write or type. He wrote:
Like many people suddenly confronted with agonizing loss, I looked for answers in Buddhism. Pema Chödrön teaches us that when the ground disappears beneath your feet, the solution is not to flail around in a desperate attempt to find a handhold; it is to accept the law of gravity and find peace despite your velocity. Leave the mode of doing and enter the mode of being. Accept things as they are, rather than yearning for them to be otherwise.
Such radical acceptance is in tension with my identity as a movement builder. Activism is precisely about not accepting the tragedies of this world, but rather on insisting that we can reduce pain and prolong life. Social justice means creating a stable floor beneath our feet and then putting a safety net under that, to catch us if it suddenly vanishes: universal health insurance, affordable housing, unemployment benefits. Being part of a progressive political movement is about fighting back and building toward a better future. “Acceptance” is not part of our vocabulary.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—whose most famous disciple, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would become the patron saint of American organizers—sought to resolve this tension in his Serenity Prayer: asking for the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be, and the wisdom to know the difference.
This is something I have wondered about for a long time: how to harmonize letting go and selflessness, on the one hand, with the obligation to work — indeed fight — for what is right and just.
For the things that we can change (for the better) we are obligated to fix them; since we know that we can change them, it’s presumably not that difficult. The challenging issues are the ones on the borderline between what we can change and what we can’t. It’s not just a matter of wisdom. It’s also a matter of action: we don’t know if we can change them if we try, but try we must. And we may stumble or go in the wrong direction, since our information is imperfect.
Barkin concludes his article like this:
Sometimes, though, our struggle is not enough. ALS destroys my body, no matter how many medicines I take or exercises I do. Sometimes, oftentimes, white supremacy, violent misogyny, and rapacious capitalism rip apart our families and destroy lives, regardless of how well we organize. And sometimes, oftentimes, our stories are not powerful enough. Despite our best efforts, Brett Kavanaugh has been confirmed, and will do lasting damage to America and its people.
Yet it is in these moments of defeat that hopeful, collective struggle retains its greatest power. I can transcend my dying body by hitching my future to yours. We can transcend the darkness of this moment by joining the struggles of past and future freedom fighters. That is how, when we reach the end of our lives and look back on these heady moments, we will find peace in the knowledge that we did our best.
There is a seeming paradox embedded in the third part of Niebuhr’s prayer, because the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and cannot change can only be earned through struggle. Neuroscientists seek a cure for ALS because they do not accept its inevitability. Organizers rage against the machines of capitalism with that same determination. It is only by refusing to accept the complacency of previous generations that the impossible becomes reality. For me, Niebuhr’s prayer is most true if rearranged: Collective courage must come first, wisdom second, and serenity at the very end.
Buddhist teacher and author Jack Kornfield wrote an essay Dharma & Politics on the same topic. He calls on people to act from a place of love and peace. Find peace within and then go out into the world.
The Buddha’s teachings of compassion and wisdom are empowering; they encourage us to act. Do not doubt that your good actions will bear fruit, and that change for the better can be born from your life. Gandhi reminds us: “I claim to be no more than an average person with less than average ability. I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have if he or she would simply make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith.”
The long arc of justice is slow. Despair is not an option. Selfless sacrifice is needed. We must fight without becoming monsters ourselves. But how to retain inner serenity in the midst of our sacrifices and struggles — both personal and societal — requires wisdom and maturity indeed.
I’m glad, by the way, that Kornfield descends from his spiritual heights — concern for one’s spiritual growth can be selfish, though they say that meditating for hours a day for years is for the benefit of others too — and addresses social justice: “America has sometimes confused power with greatness.” “[I]f we envision the fulfillment of wisdom and compassion in the United States, it becomes clear that the richest nation on the earth must provide healthcare for its children; that the most productive nation on earth must find ways to combine trade with justice; that a creative society must find ways to grow and to protect the environment and sustainable development for generations ahead.”
Political activism may be a form of Karma Yoga (service). But because of the overall ugliness, anger, and impurity of politics — no politician is perfect — political activism doesn’t feel spiritual.