Compassionate activism: ‘Life is a play, choose a character and make it a happy one’

I sit most still during the night. Thinking, writing, listening. Mostly to ancient Malian folk songs, accompanied by the dog’s barking at the mice who scurry over our tin roof, on their clandestine missions to steal food. I sit and wait expectantly for inspiration to arrive. Most nights it comes, if I sit still enough. Then I can start writing and asking questions. Mostly moral and sociological questions which I try to answer with an open and empathetic state of mind. All along, the Griotian harp plays in the background; each note dancing up through my window with the steam from my teacup, weaving into history, unobtrusive to my thoughts. And of course, the mice scurry by and the dogs continue to bark back.

Previously, I would sit late into the night hammering populist styled attacks on corporate irresponsibility and globalisation. I was also utterly uncomfortable and discontented these evenings, because whilst I was disseminating atrocities (be it a famine or genocide) I sacrificed my peace of mind and well-being, in exchange for knowing how to blame a group, individual or political system for oppressive actions and failures to protect the Earth and its inhabitants. I have a need as a human being to put my emotional well-being first, before engaging in the mental struggle of studying crises and oppression. Not doing so has left me drained and simply angry with the human world.

Rather than a change my views, I am developing a new praxis for studying and campaigning for social change. I am still in firm belief that exploitation is systematically orchestrated by global institutions, but I have removed myself from the mental struggle involved with being ontologically concerned with how these institutions are endangering life. Instead, I seek to be more creative, inspiring, and sustainable in a new praxis, one which makes me happy and at peace whilst studying and enacting.

There are many moral questions surrounding this change in praxis. For instance, is it not necessary to give up our own peace for activism and learning? Is that part of an altruistic sacrifice made by an activist or student concerned with bringing about social change? To hand your peace of mind over, in exchange for knowing who to blame or hate next?

Not only do I believe it is not necessary to make such sacrifices for social change, I think it is often detrimental to the cause. Offering myself to resistance in an angry state of mind, turned my tongue sour and crippled my writing hand; it was dehumanising to be always be frustrated at society, and I gradually grew apathetic to social causes I was once enthused about. I have a need for a better way to create social change. As I have found several times in the past; when individuals express their own needs, they realise they are far from alone. Excessively aggressive and negative behaviour and attitudes of activists stigmatises activism and deters people from getting involved.

On the other hand, it’s overwhelmingly satisfying to write of peace, hope and empathy. Not only does it suit the sound of the harp and the stillness of the night to which I write, it lights up a good feeling within me. Something very humanising which I call compassion. When something humanises you, it suddenly becomes a need rather than a desire to continue having access to that humanisation. I equally have a need to have compassion for other people, animals and our planet, as well as myself. It doesn’t make me any less of an activist to nurture compassion rather than attack The IMF or World Bank in populist styled ramblings. Nor does it subtract from an individual’s humility, or how much they care for a social cause.

So who is an activist? Is it she who writes angry letters to MPs every week about the lack of rubbish collections or the woman who picks up litter on her way to work every day? Often it’s more of challenging to nurture compassion and consequently conduct activism with dignity and humility.

Whether it’s a teenager severing the emotional umbilical cord from their parents, by slamming a door and screaming that they didn’t ask to be born. Or the schoolboy who teased the girl with the pearl-like eyes, to whom he had an innate attraction. Nurturing compassion is not straight forward, often those who we wish to show upmost compassion for, end up falling victim to our foul behaviour. It’s frustrating. How can it be that we can often show such little compassion for those we say we love, and genuinely do love most in our lifetimes? It’s more than frustrating, it’s saddening.

Foul behaviour originates from not having the capacity to express compassion. We often fail to take control of this awe-inspiring feeling within us, as if we are too loving and too precious, and we are too afraid of how powerful we can be. How scary it can be to realise just how much compassion we have. With a lack of capacity to express it, we try to suppress it instead.

There’s another assumption which often accompanies discussions about compassionate listening and activism; that compassion is a privilege, affordable only to those who are from wealthy countries. That someway by being made poor, these people cannot afford to be compassionate or generous. This is not the case, in fact it is quite opposite to the truth and it is a dangerous assumption to make. A young girl taught me this lesson, last weekend as I was setting out on a walk on Dedza Mountain, in Malawi…

It’s an incredibly hot day and the tap water had not ran all morning in Dedza Town. So I’ve stopped at a stall close by the mountain to buy some bottled water and fresh fruit to keep me hydrated during the walk. When I asked the young girl on the stall for water, she hurried off into her home behind the stall, and returned several minutes later with a tin mug of rain water.

As the young girl approached me with the drink, her posture was straightened by dignity, her smile was engrained not in her lips but in the corners of her eyes; and there was a subtle grace in her walk. She was infected with a sincere sense of pride which can and only be attained in the act of sharing with someone and providing another’s needs. I was moved and drank every last drop of the water, knowing full well it could turn my stomach inside out for a week.

Pride and kindness is highly infectious; that morning I caught it through the rainwater the young woman gave me to drink. This epidemic of pride and kindness in Malawi is everywhere I look. At least 80% of the population is now infected, many of which are the most innocent children and women. In fact; more Malawian children are infected with pride and kindness than there are westerners lighting up Malawian tobacco right now. To my family and friends who are concerned for my health and safety during my journeys to Sub-Saharan Africa past, present and future; my infection of pride and kindness is already terminal.

The most explicit thing I am seeing here in Malawi, was depicted by that young girl’s kindness; that this is country moving from a state of resistance and survival to one of reconciliation, hope and compassion. Whilst this transformation is often appropriated by the foreign big development nexus, as the effect of their empowerment agenda, Malawi is in fact empowering herself.

I hope to actively encourage contention over the meaning of the word empowerment. Whilst now it is widely understood in terms of education and incomes; this can often lead to urbanisation, environmental degradation and a loss of the cultural nexus; as increasingly empowered individuals leave their rural communities and head for jobs in the city; is that what is meant by empowerment?

I hope instead, empowerment can be expanded to include the capacity to express empathy, compassion and forgiveness; because these are the necessary traits for reconciliation and the protection of cultural and biodiversity, also for those people who do succeed in educational and economic empowerment to one day, turn back to their cultural homeland and give back to the place where their anchestors are.

So, this is what I want to spend my late evenings thinking about. The hope, pride and compassion. The generosity of that young girl and many other people I meet. Am I alone, or can you agree that there is a significant difference between acting to end corruption rather than starting compassion? One which will bring well-being to the activist, encourage others to join them and transform the sub consciousness of activists. Corruption will not end until compassion is nurtured, however we can nurture compassion at any given moment. If you aim to end corruption, you will set yourself up for a life of disappointment, frustration and stress; whilst nurturing compassion will lead to a happy life and one in which you can enjoy.

Life is a play, choose a character and make it a happy one.

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