Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Agents of Change

Yesterday was the holiday celebrating one of the greatest leaders of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every year on this holiday I watch video of his inspirational “I Have A Dream” speech.  He was an incredible activist for social change, someone who stood for moral virtue, for freedom, equality and for leaving the world a better place than he found it.

As humans I believe we are all seekers and agents of change. We are naturally curious and want to understand how things work. We want things to be better, easier, happier and healthier. We want to know how to play sports, to be better parents, to learn to read and write or to sing. I believe we are hard-wired to grow and hard-wired to survive. We come to this body and this life and we are met with challenge as well as joy. And whether we seek to understand why we are here or how the engine of a car makes it go, we are all filled with some level of seeking, wanting to understand and the capacity for growth that invites change.

The world is transient. Seasons come and go, our bodies age, our hearts swell with love, and then get broken open. And it is these very challenges that often inspire the most transformation; there is no way around the friction of it.

For more than half of my life my mom battled cancer. We loved each other deeply, and as I watched her fight five different bouts of cancer our lives went to many extremes. From the onset, she refused to think that cancer would be her end, and I do believe this was much of the fighting spirit that had doctors in shock at her survival. And, yet, from my perspective, there was an unwillingness on her part to dig into the reality of what was happening. Even after years of fighting, she left no will, no note, no goodbye and no closure for those of us still on earth.

Watching her denial in the face of such extreme conditions was one of the catalysts that motivated change in my life. I experienced the suffering and ultimately chose to honor the gift of grace that my life is. That response wasn’t immediate, but the end result was my commitment to live a mindful and present life. Her tragedy taught me to honor the temple of my body by loving myself, getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and surrounding myself with people who support and nurture me. And it was largely because of this childhood that I became an activist.

For years I turned the word activist around and around in my mind, seeking to relate to it in my life. The word, itself, conjures up angry freedom fighters, motoring a tiny raft before giant whaling ships or marching in Tiananmen Square. But that's not me, I thought, I'm no activist, I'm not risking being arrested or endangering my own life to stand for a cause.

But over time I realized I am an agent of change. I do take a stand on my beliefs. I'm not picketing with signs or throwing molotov cocktails, but I’m still an activist. I'm an activist for radical honesty. I'm an activist for unconditional love, both for myself and others. I'm an activist for living a spiritual life, not just talking about it. Every day I get up committed to loving life even in the face of its friction, even in the face of tragedy.

I recently watched the award-winning documentary The Cove, about the senseless and brutal slaughter of dolphins in Japan. The lead character and agent of change in the film is Ric O'Barry. For the  popular 1960’s TV show “Flipper,” which was all about a dolphin who befriends humans, Ric O’Barry was the head dolphin trainer. He worked with five female dolphins who shared the role of Flipper. He spoke emotionally in The Cove about the suicide of the main dolphin, Kathy. Dolphins have to breathe voluntarily and Ric said that Kathy swam into his arms, took a breath and let it be her last. She died in his arms, then sank to the floor of the tank that had been her prison. The very next day Ric was arrested for trying to free dolphins that were in being held in captivity, rebelling against the very source of his own livelihood.

Just like Ric, none of us plan to be activists. But we are going to be riled to anger, we will be filled with love. We are going to have strong emotional responses to experiences. Life is going to ask us to grow, to change and to evolve. What catalysts have sparked change in you? Have you welcomed those moments of intensity and become an activist of change in your own life? What do you stand for on which you are unwilling to bend? It doesn’t have to be angry, it doesn’t even have to be beyond your back yard. Each of us is an activist of some sort. Whether you save water by turning it off to soap up in the shower or you bring a reusable bag to the grocery store, you stand for something with the choices you make every single moment.

I am grateful for people like Ric O’Barry who when asked, “How many times have you been arrested?” respond, “This year?” And I am grateful for you for standing up for what you believe in, for being an activist and an agent of change.

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