My friend is a wonderful seamstress, who made dozens of face masks that she lovingly gave to family and friends. She sees wearing a mask in public as a change everyone should make to prevent needless suffering, and is angry seeing news stories of people who refuse. The mask has become more than a bit of cloth; it is a symbol of shared values. She glares at bare-faced people in grocery stores, assuming they are “covidiots,” or that they lack concern for the welfare of others. She might feel she knows their political affiliation or beliefs. Now, when she thinks of masks she doesn’t feel the warmth she once did, making and giving them away. I think what she primarily feels is anger.
This question at the heart of my friend’s thinking is a universal one faced by activists of all types: why won’t people just do the “right” thing?
“Why won’t individuals make sustainable choices, when the threat of climate change is so real?”
“Why won’t others adopt plant-based diets, when so much suffering exists in the world?”
“Why won’t corporations adopt a living wage, when income inequality is rampant?”
As in the face mask example, when we can’t answer these questions, our tendency is to demonize those who we see as the “problem.” In other words, we say to them “Be more compassionate, you jerk.” It isn’t difficult to see why that approach doesn’t work.
Activism rarely begins from this place, but from seeing a need or injustice in the world and wanting to fix it. We pick a side, dig in our heels, and use our agency to convince others to care. And many times, it makes our lives worse. We may find ourselves in heated arguments, losing friends or disavowing relatives. We might engage in fruitless “whataboutism” that positions our interests above all others, or creates an illusion that there is only so much kindness to go around: “We shouldn’t give a dollar to immigrants until every homeless veteran is taken care of.”… or we get competitive with like-minded allies: “It’s great that you are educating kids about the environment, but it doesn’t mean anything compared to the impact of lobbying for new legislation.
Why does this happen?
As humans, we don’t like paradox. If someone who disagrees with us is “right,” we must be “wrong.” Ego leads us to defensiveness, especially if we have come to feel that a certain stance is part of our identity. We become reductive and one-dimensional in our view of others, and focus on reacting rather than communicating. And inside, we are tortured… consumed in anger, focused on “winning,” fingers plugging our ears even as we shout down detractors. Clever “zingers” replace real dialogue. We share memes that mock “them.” We actively discount the feelings of anyone who hasn’t shared our lived experience.
This represents a self-inflicted repetitive injury of the spirit, sustained as we perpetually set our own inner lives on fire in an attempt to keep others warm.
I believe that the next incarnation of activism, the salve for this wound, is heartivism.
I am a servant, not a savior.
Heartivism is an inner recalibration of activism, centered not on saving the world but serving it. Saving the world is about “me,” and reflects a set of judgments about what others should be or do. A stance may become a fixed part of ourselves, and judgments about others flow from the values we want to signal that best align with this posture. In this scenario, we are self-righteous and most focused on changing everyone else.
Serving the world isn’t about ego, but about boundless love. This loving kindness shakes us from the mirage of disconnection and allows us to meet each other beyond the binary, in our true fullness. A servant’s heart decouples our ego from activism, freeing us from the need to be “right” or to make judgments. We can hear different views with curiosity and openness. Here, we are self-reflective; the person we are most focused on changing is ourselves.
I offer my silence & attention
Heartivists listen. To truly listen, we need two things: silence and attention. Silence is not the absence of sound, but the presence of everything: infinite possibility; and attention is a state of openness that assumes there is something worth discovering. In fact, the word itself comes from the Latin “ad tendere”, meaning “to stretch toward.”
I am in love, not in attachment
Heartivists let go of self-centered attachment to what people “should” be or do. Attachment clings tightly to beliefs and systems, seeks power, and drives us to compete with each other. We lean into attachment out of fear, and some of us never let it go. We might even mistake it for love, even as it builds in us like a dam, preventing the river of actual love from flowing freely. Detachment isn’t apathy or indifference. It is a unifying acceptance of ourselves and others that acknowledges both our interconnectivity and the vastness within each of us.
Do heartivists sometimes feel anger, or weep for the suffering of others? Of course. But when our chief motivation is loving kindness, the very things that we care about most aren’t also the things that rot our empathy. We can be joyful, even playful, and infinitely more effective than the “compassionate jerk” framework. Fueled by love and unchained by attachment, we grow and change as we serve a world that is made more compassionate not just by the outcome of our efforts, but in the very fact of our existence.
Our hearts can be soft and also wild, knowing that the beauty of love is that it continually renews within us, even as we give it away.