If we can't find joy in our work for peace and social justice, what's the point?
Since Election Day in the US my mood has been sunk deep in the shadows. It’s been hard to find the energy to smile, even on the sunniest day.
Then came the Women’s March. I arrived late and joined the march in mid-route. The signs, the banners, the colors, and everywhere the smiles—it was like plunging into a river of hope and good cheer, flowing gently and gracefully through the streets.
Suddenly, all those negative feelings that had been freezing my heart for more than two months vanished. This was exciting. This was exhilarating. This was FUN!
In a flash I felt like a time machine had swept me back nearly half a century to my first protest marches, against the Vietnam war. And I remembered what I should have known all along, the lesson I first learned in the late ‘60s and had to re-learn, over and over again, in all my years of activism since then: Politics is supposed to be fun. If your political activism isn’t fun, you aren’t doing it right.
For all the mistakes we ‘60s radicals have made, we got one thing right. Activism, done right, means following Gandhi’s motto: Be the change you want to see in the world. Create, here and now, as best you can, the future you are trying to bring about.
For most of us, that future is a world filled with as much joy as possible, a world where it is easy to have fun, not all the time, but most of the time. So that’s the change we should be, now.
We started out protesting a horrendous war that we watched on television every night. Nevertheless, we found so many ways to bring fun into our protests and all our political activities.
Now our chief concern, highlighted in the Women’s March, is the oppression that some people and groups may experience at the hands of a minority that still thinks it’s the majority. We won’t stand for anything less than full justice and equal rights for all people.
But there is little point in securing equal rights for all if all are going to be merely equally joyless. What we want is a society that offers equal opportunity for joy to all, and equal opportunity to have fun. So, as we work toward that goal, we should take care to bring as much joy and fun as we can into the process.
Having fun is also a smart political tactic. Sadness, anxiety, and gloom drain us of energy and hope. Joy and fun fill us with energy. They make us more hopeful, make it feel like there’s good reason to keep on keeping on.
It’s going to be a long four years. We are going to need all the energy and hope we can muster. It’s just a smart tactic to fill our activism with as much fun as we can.
It isn’t very hard, as we saw at the March. Enjoying the diversity of ideas and images created by such diverse people all around us was fun. Seeing all the creative signs and banners and costumes, hearing the chants and the songs, was fun.
In all our activism we can incorporate such creative tactics. We can have parades, pageants, street theater, satire, stirring oratory, dinners, dances, communal feasts, coffee houses, cabarets, and much more. It’s all fun.
And we do all of it together. As we saw at the March, the sheer excitement of creating the kind of massive community we would want to live in, even if only for a few hours, is surely a lot of fun. We will rarely be in a community that big. But whatever kind of activism we do, we usually do it with others, with friends old and/or new. Creating and renewing bonds of friendship, finding pleasure in the give and take of relationships, feeling the joy and excitement of being part of the group – all that is bound to feel like fun, not all the time, but much of the time.
In my years as a teacher I talked to a lot of students who were considering starting some kind of progressive activism. I always told them that there was no guarantee their efforts would change the world. But I could guarantee that in progressive activist circles they would meet the nicest people. They would surely share uplifting experiences with people they like and admire. And that would be fun.
Just hanging out with good folks who share your political views, sharing the banter, the jokes and the sarcasm, even the griping and commiserating, is a kind of fun. We spend a lot of that time making fun of people and political views we oppose. Why not recognize that we are having fun?
Fun is an attitude that we can choose. We can choose to see the funny side of so much of political life, at least some of the time. And we can interpret most of our experiences in activism as fun if we choose to.
Suppose a group of you go into a Congressperson’s office and have to deal with a semi-robotic staffer who obviously knows much less than you about your issue and gives you no answers but empty cliches. It’s like talking to a stone wall. What’s the point? The group can easily leave depressed at how useless it all seems.
Or you can walk out and say to each other, “Well, that got us charged up. We got to see how ridiculous those people can be; it’s enough to make us want to laugh. And we showed them how knowledgeable we are about the issue, as good citizens should be. Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again some time.” Focusing on the fun rather than the frustration makes it more likely that you will, indeed, do it again some time.
We can never predict with any certainty the effects of our political actions. In that sense, activism is always an adventure into the unknown. Thinking of it like that is yet another way to make it exciting and fun.
When we decide to look for the fun in our activism, it helps us focus on the intrinsic value of the process rather than judging it solely by the outcome, which can often lead to feelings of failure. Though the outcome may be less than we hoped, we can make always make the process feel gratifying and, in that sense, a success.
Of course we cannot be having fun all the time. We are activists because we are paying attention and caring deeply about what’s going on in our country and in the world. That means we are seriously worried and often depressed every time we read or watch or hear the news. It’s unavoidable.
That’s precisely why we should take care to fill our political lives, and every aspect of our lives, with as much fun as we can. America needs us to be at our strongest and most effective, as we try our best to move the nation closer to liberty and justice for all, despite the forces dragging us down. So America needs us to be having some fun along the way. Let’s remember to stop every so often and ask ourselves, are we having fun yet?