The longer I am privileged to live, the more astounded I am at the yawning gap between our own conscious intentions and the things that drive our actions. We humans like stories that add up, so we tend to craft neat parables of cause and effect to explain ourselves. But every effect has unlimited possible causes, and there’s no rule forcing them to march in single file.
The antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan has resigned her unofficial post as peace movement leader, declaring her intention to head home and lower her horizons. It’s a painful story, and an instructive one.
And one that resonates with my own experience. Decades ago, my husband and I worked as organizers for a national alliance of community artists. We were on a crusade: we believed in the values of cultural democracy, we keenly wanted to promote the well-being of artists working in community, we felt we had hold of a truth that could not be denied. Unfortunately, the peak of our crusade coincided with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Money was scarce. Political headwinds blew hard enough to make us feel we were stuck in place. Our slightly mad solution was a kind of voluntary indentured servitude: until we were exhausted by it, we financed our organizing work by taking on other work—consulting jobs—to underwrite the crusade.
One day at a meeting somewhere in the midwest, a woman we hardly knew took us aside to ask a question: “Are you doing this because you really believe in it, or is it just for your own ego gratification?”
It hurt to feel so misunderstood (and not for the first time). There wasn’t much ego gratification in schlepping around the country trying to spread inspiration to the demoralized: it was a small, poor pond, where even big fish were no larger than minnows—no household names, prime-time stories, newspaper headlines or cushy perks. But the question expressed a way of seeing that seemed pretty pervasive on the left, the idea that anyone who stood up to speak out ought to be taken down a peg. After a time, we wrote it off to the speaker’s own bitterness and pettiness, as we had done with previous whispers and barbs.
Cindy Sheehan has been swimming in an infinitely larger pool. She writes of sacrificing everything—fortune, marriage, health—in the hope of bringing “peace with justice to a country that wants neither.” Her stated intention has been to make the death of her son in Iraq mean something beyond waste and loss she didn’t know enough to prevent. Every word of her statement carries a sense of betrayal beyond bearing. Its thrust is to repay the injury done to her in the currency of condemnation. Government, corporations, Democrats and Republicans, peace movement groups and ordinary citizens are all denounced for their indifference, callousness, cowardice and greed. Her title says it all: “Good Riddance Attention Whore.” More than 1300 people had posted responses to her resignation by the time I visited Daily Kos two days later, almost all of them kind and sympathetic.
I have a small idea of what Cindy Sheehan is facing, because I’ve faced something a little like it. It happens to people who are broken-hearted about injustice. Usually, the injustice of the big world rhymes with what has been done to you in the little world of childhood or family. You form the idea that if only you give enough, if only you dedicate enough of yourself to the task of repairing the world, the world will respond. It’s a system with few exits: if you try with all your might without seeing success, that tells you to try harder and longer. Most of us keep it up until we “burn out,” until we drop from physical, mental and moral exhaustion, grief and anger toggling through our hearts.
What we think we are doing is sacrificing ourselves for a great cause, and that is one truth. There are others. What we are also doing is using everything we can muster to avoid feeling powerless in the face of a great pain. What we are also doing is allowing our own sense of power and possibility to enlarge until it almost seems plausible that the actions of one person can stop a war. What we are also doing is testing in a much larger arena the refusal and indifference shown to us in the little world: will people rise to the occasion this time, finally doing what’s right? What we are also doing is trying to inoculate ourselves against the self-critical voice that says we too, are culpable: we should have seen sooner, acted sooner, given more. What we are also doing is trying to be good enough to be loved enough.
All these things are true, and none of them cancels the others.
May Cindy Sheehan receive the rest and healing needed to restore her spirit. May the pro-war commentators who have made such free and heartless use of her as a rhetorical device pause and see themselves. May the anti-war activists who resented the attention she received pause and see themselves. May her efforts and her resignation create an occasion for deep reflection, a change of heart. And may all of us receive the difficult blessing of seeing our mixed motives with unblinking eyes.