One thing I didn’t anticipate when considering increased involvement in activism was the amount of support I’d need from my husband, my family, and my friends.
I’ve always been an independent-minded kind of person. I can’t abide anyone telling me what to do unless they’re paying me, or I’ve explicitly requested them to teach me something. I’ve probably been especially sensitive about this because women throughout history have been subject to the authority of their parents, husbands, and male relatives. I’d rather die than obey. Most of the time, then, if I think someone in my life might have an objection to what I’m about to do, I’m even less likely to ask their opinion about it.
When I decided to get more active about our climate and ecological emergency, then, I just did it. It didn’t occur to me to ask my husband about how he’d feel about me being away from home an extra evening every week, or participating in civil disobedience and risking jail time, court cases, and fines. I didn’t ask my family how they’d feel about me deciding to forgo airplane travel for good, even though it makes visiting them much more difficult because a trip across the country by train takes two full days. I didn’t ask my friends who babysit my dogs whether they’d mind taking care of them for the substantially extra time it would take me to travel by train. I didn’t ask the people at my Zen center whether they would mind if I devoted more time to climate activism, even though it might mean I’m less available to them.
Part of me thinks, “Of course I didn’t ask all these people for their permission to make decisions about my own life!” But just today I had a radical insight: Talking with the people in your life about whether to do something isn’t about permission, it’s about asking for their support.
Ha, only took me 48 years to figure that one out.
I used to think people clung to the status quo rather than trying to change things primarily because we’re lazy or selfish, or because the bad guys were controlling things so much. Now I appreciate how much our failure to act according to our consciences is due to something else entirely: Our concern for our social relationships. If we get too wrapped up in a cause, or live in ways too out-of-sync with the people around us, we’re probably going to get serious push-back from our loved ones. Our choices affect them. Time and energy we put toward making a difference in the world is likely to take away from the time and energy we spend with and on them. When we confront difficult issues like diet or racial justice, it’s likely to make the people in our lives feel some amount of pressure or judgment unless they do the same. Most of the time, when people spend time together, they just want to relax and be happy, not review the latest litany of horrible news about the climate.
It really can feel, at times, like we have to make a choice between following our consciences and maintaining our relationships. Fortunately, it’s rarely an either/or proposition for most of us, most of the time.
There’s a positive way to frame the tension between following our conscience and being in harmony with others: We can respectfully ask people to support us in our choices and actions, and in doing so, indirectly contribute to the cause. If you don’t care to be a climate activist yourself, can you help support one? Come pick me up from jail when I’m released on my own recognizance after a civil disobedience action. Donate money to the legal fund of people like the activists from Mosquito Fleet and Rising Tide who just did a dramatic action to stop the shipment of materials for building another giant pipeline. Still using airplanes? Have patience and sympathy for the people in your life trying to limit travel or use trains instead. Don’t want to be vegan? Be encouraging of someone you know forgoing the deliciousness of animal products, especially if they manage to avoid pontificating about it. Make sure there’s a vegan pizza at the party. If you listen to my Zen Studies Podcast and feel annoyed that I’m including posts from this journal about facing extinction, please be patient with me and just skip those episodes.
In other words, we need each other. I may not like to admit it, but I need my husband’s moral support or I’m likely to end up stressed, discouraged, depressed, and lonely. When I see he’s shared one of my posts on Facebook about an upcoming protest rally, even though he’s never going to go, it fills my heart with relief and joy. The efforts of my family and friends to at least try to understand my decisions and actions gives me great strength and encouragement. It was a huge relief to me that when I recently uploaded these journal entries to my Zen Studies Podcast – even though they’ll rarely have anything explicitly to do with Zen or Buddhism – and I wasn’t flooded with angry messages, or discouraged by a bunch of people unsubscribing from the podcast. Your opinions, attitude, speech and actions really matter to the people around you, whether they admit it or not. Thanks, everyone, for your support, in ways large and small.