Skip to main content

The Reluctant Activist

How a Crisis of Books Led to a Social Awakening

ISSUE:  Spring 2019

I have too many books.

I have had too many books for as long as I can remember, and my memory of book-ownership is lengthy and detailed. I confess that one part of my life has been lived in servitude to books. I am bothered by this only because I have spent a good deal of the past decade working with Tibetan Buddhist monks, and so my attachment to these books has been thrown into high relief by their lack of attachment to most everything that doesn’t somehow benefit the lives of others. And since I was spending a lot of time around monks, I tried to get into the swing of things by finding ways to prove that my book-hoarding really did benefit others, but when that project failed, I had to admit that I am simply attached to them. I like the way they look, the way they feel in the hand, the way they smell. A fairly harmless attachment, I realize, but it was all mine, if you will, and the one that challenged me. After all, how hard could it be to get rid of a few books? I didn’t really need them, and they certainly weren’t benefiting others.

I knew from the outset that I was confronting a long-standing problem. The librarian of the small public library where I spent many afternoons as a child was forced to make a special dispensation for me because I was devastated by the three-book checkout limit. I say “devastated” because that is the verb my mother uses when she tells the story, and I say “forced” because who could resist the sadness of a young boy whose gusto for reading was being dampened by a library’s checkout limit? Elements of a perfect storm converged on that library years ago: my mother’s persistence, the librarian’s benevolence, and my devastation. So, under that heavy weather, I was allowed to check out as many books as I could carry. As habits go, this was a bad one, born from good intentions, and it set in early—the idea that I ought to have as many books as I could tote.

But it has come to my attention that I have too many books because, as I was recently trying to lighten my load, I found my copy of Swiss Family Robinson, probably the Ur-book of my collection. Like all founding documents, this one is yellowed, battered, maybe even divine. It does, at least, smell divine if divinity can be said to have an odor: sweet, old, and unearthly. On the inside cover, I signed the book every time I read it, and the run of signatures provides a palimpsest of a boy’s journey from innocence to experience. The first clumsy and labored ones give way gradually to a real cursive bragging, with a fancy, twirling underline—a dandy of a signature that would embarrass any right-thinking adult. But there they were on the endpaper of an insignificant book: shorthand ciphers of my emotional life. I could have been standing in the caves of Lascaux. I realized that many of my books, even without the signatures, carried a deep and sustained personal engagement with me. How could I just abandon them? I had recently been making some progress at averting this crisis of books, but now I was stopped cold. I realized I had too many books. I also realized that I would have to become something of an activist to pull off this purging. “Does anyone,” the scholar and activist Judith Butler once wondered, “stand by the words they utter?” I felt as though I were caught in the crosshairs of that question. I had done a lot of talking—to myself mainly, but to the monks as well—and now it was time to stand by what I’d said.

I’d previously made several attempts to thin the herd. Normally these were half-hearted and undertaken when I was moving from one house to another, so I felt the sense of seasonal urgency that all animals feel when they’re building a new nest and there are deadlines to meet. Under this pressure, I didn’t make wise decisions. What could justify, for example, boxing up my high-school Latin textbooks, loading them onto a truck, unpacking them, and giving them a home beside my college geology textbook which, in light of recent findings about our overcooked planet, is largely false and even heretical? Caesar might have been right about all Gaul being divided into three parts, but that will hardly interest me here in Arkansas when I shove my canoe out into the chill waters arriving from the melting ice cap. On that little ark, I will have no room for these books. I needed to get rid of them.

But here’s the problem. My town has a formidable used bookstore and one, I’m told, that has a national reputation. Professors visit our university from other universities with larger reputations and are shocked to find this considerably stocked bookstore. The proprietors, one a hardened bookman from Chicago, have put in place a policy that provides a sizeable stumbling block for people like me who are trying to make a life with fewer books. They are happy to purchase whatever interests them for a price that I gauge to be fair, but if I take an in-house credit for the very same book, they will increase the value for each one, and tally it on a little index card with my name penciled on the top left corner. The card is then filed away in an unassuming little box—unassuming, that is, for a box that charts a community’s addiction.

I can’t remember how much more they will give me if I take the credit. But I notice that the tide of books coming into my house continues to exceed the outgoing tide, even as I try to build a breakwater against it. So I guess the temptation to wander those overstuffed aisles and take what I like has proven too much for me. As I cart boxes of books to the bookstore, both the seller and I know that I am only temporarily solving my problem. Having a $100 credit at the bookstore will be my undoing.

I suspect this scheme works especially well in a university town like mine where anxious professors are ridding themselves of old books to make room for new books because the new ones, wherever you find them, are as important as a fashion trend on a New York runway. Ideas to us are like clothes: We wear them proudly until they become threadbare, or outdated, and then we trade them in for another set. I have noticed, however, that as I’ve grown older, this analogy shifts a bit—just as I care now less about the clothes I wear on any given day, so too the ideas I wear seem less compelling than they once did. Less compelling because I’m beginning to understand what the monks have been telling me for years: Ideas are like fences, corrals. We need them to control and describe the constant flux of what’s out there in the world and even to make necessary improvements to it, but then there’s this too: What’s out there in the world really is in constant flux. Perpetual motion is the natural state of the universe.

So if I want to get an accurate read on reality—and who doesn’t?—I have to get comfortable gradually with fewer ideas, with more idea-free, free-range observation. Look. Observe. Shut up. Stephen Batchelor, one of our best bearers of Buddhist thought into the Western context, writes:

As habitual users of language, we assume words to be accurate representations of reality…. Training ourselves to pay intimate and embodied attention to the very pulse of life within and around us exposes the limitations of language. Bearing witness to the arising and unfolding of something renders absurd the notion that “it is not.” Similarly, contemplation of its fading away and disappearance undermines any notion that “it is.”

To train ourselves to see the world in this fashion—that’s the job the monks gave me, and it’s a hard job. It takes a lot of practice to do this, but the first thing I learned when I tried it years ago was how deeply attached I was to ideas and the language that springs from them, and to the dazzling ways they organized what I saw. I mean, is there any more dazzling organization of a moment’s reality, for example, than Walt Whitman’s poem about the knife grinder, “Sparkles from the Wheel,” and those closing lines, “sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold, sparkles from the wheel”? Of course, my books are the big repositories of these organizations, so my attachment to them was doubly troubling: I loved how they smelled and I loved how they fenced the world into attractive, manageable, and memorable—“sideways-darting”—packages. To untie these attractive packages—that would require a sustained effort. That would require a special sort of activism.

The fact that I can’t cast adrift the entire Swiss Family Robinson annoys this member of the American Family Burris, and it doesn’t bode well for my project to live a less encumbered life. I mean, a full bookcase, with its forward-facing, edge-toeing line of books, is a sedative to me. And like a sedative, it misrepresents the complexity and sadness of the world while assuring me, in waves of warm distraction, that I really don’t have to care about it anyway. And so when I walk into my little living room and drop into my reading chair, across from the bookcase, I forget that we, as a nation, now average about one mass shooting per day; that my nine-year-old daughter was taught recently to run from her school in a “zigzag pattern” to make shooting her more difficult; that our atmosphere currently has 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide and that it should be no more than 350; that among those countries that live better than most (for which we reserve the dubious term “developed”), more of America’s children are eating practically nothing; and that many of them never even get the chance to eat because our rate of infant mortality is inexcusably high among those dubiously developed nations.

With few exceptions, my books are dog-eared, marked, folded, spindled, mutilated—I’m a reader, not a collector. The shelves that face my reading chair contain the usual titles that would interest anyone who’d spent a few years studying twentieth-century American and British literature. There are no surprises. Or as one of my college friends said years ago when we reunited: “Ah, different house, same titles.” And yet, I do wonder that these books console me at all. To inspect the authors standing at attention on these shelves should dampen whatever joy or security I might find in their having mustered here: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, W. H. Auden, Howard Nemerov, Virginia Woolf—I’ll stop there. They are a mercenary army because I bought them, and I bought them, presumably, to protect me from illiteracy, to lessen my ignorance, and to increase my joy. I also bought them to teach myself how to write. But I can’t for the life of me now understand, knowing what I know about this dicey business of living and writing, why I thought they could teach me how to live ethically and write beautifully. Perfect the art or the life, Yeats figured. Our choice.

Most of these writers didn’t listen to Yeats and troubled themselves in one way or another to understand, even lessen, the problems that surrounded them. To live, at least when they weren’t writing, an effective life. (Yeats didn’t listen to Yeats either.) But most of them, the Irishman included, were undone by those efforts. For example, Auden, throwing both hands up, once wrote, “We must love one another or die.” It’s a famous line because at some place in our forlorn hearts we agree with him. He titled the poem in which the line appears “September 1, 1939,” then became disenchanted with the line, and rewrote it one grim day to read, “We must love one another and die.” Finally, Auden’s resolve hardened, and he banned the poem from future editions of his work. As he grew older, I guess, he became embarrassed by his public proclamation that love conquers all—it doesn’t—and figured he’d better just say what happens: We love one another, and then we die. Honesty as eloquence. I understand this move. Idealism, like lying, requires energy that honesty doesn’t, and as my stores of energy decrease with age, I find that my honesty increases, one of the surprises that makes aging palatable.

I have, then, neat, orderly rows of books that traffic in chaotic, painful subjects. This contrast, stimulating to me, probably matters to no one else, and yet I don’t care. I realize that indulging behavior that the world finds silly—to use one of Auden’s favorite words—probably points to a bad or, at least, senseless habit. In other words, another form of attachment. I see the world’s point. No matter how compulsively I tidy the books, the problems they plumb still remain in all of their edginess and exploitation. After all, people continue to struggle—for their rights, for their mental health, for their lives. Still, I tidy my bookcases, bringing the spines flush with the edge of the shelf, and I feel somehow better, more fit and capable of facing the small and large problems that lie in wait on any given day. Plus, there’s the small pleasure of bringing to heel Lowell’s Day to Day, as unheeled a book as any I know, and all the more beautiful for it. “Do you wake dazed like me,” Lowell wrote in his elegy for Berryman, “and find your lost glasses in a shoe?” Nowadays, I take it to be an honest question, and an increasingly pressing one (Lowell was younger than me when he wrote that line). These little encroachments on order, though… I beat them back by straightening my shelves. My way, I guess, of finding my glasses in my shoe. My way of imposing order, of building fences. Another attachment.

The truth of the matter is that some days my bookcase-strategy works, and some days it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I fall back on the standard remedy for brightening my mood: I talk to my daughter, Elizabeth, who, having turned nine, not only knows how to run in a zigzag pattern away from an active shooter, but also knows how to run the truth itself in a zigzag pattern, which we call gossiping. As of now, the gossip isn’t vicious, so it’s nice to learn that her friend wishes that she had bluer eyes, and that my daughter agreed that bluer eyes would be better than what her friend currently has—eyes that are a “cloudy-blue color.” Behind those cloudy skies, Elizabeth and her friend believe, the skies are much bluer, and bluer eyes would be nicer. Most of us would agree with them. Things could always be better, even nicer, than they are.

Activists are born of this conviction that behind those cloudy skies are much bluer ones and that all of us should have clear sight lines on them. But activists take it upon themselves to clear those skies and to open those sight lines. It is a noble thing to do with a life, and even though I have become involved with the gun-violence-prevention movement in our state, I wish I had more of the activist in me. I protested the Vietnam War in high school, but signed up for the draft anyway because my Episcopalian priest rightly and wryly pointed out that, while I was clearly against the war in Vietnam, I didn’t seem to be against war in general. He was right. I’m not a pacifist. Also, he had studied at MIT, and that cinched it for me. In a small southern town in Virginia, I had never seen hairs split that authoritatively, and I never forgot it. Later, by the time I was a senior in college, I found a way to be vaguely vegetarian which meant that I spent a lot of creative energy devising rules that would justify eating a hamburger now and again. A kind of hairsplitting that wouldn’t do justice to an MIT education, and a poor excuse for activism, but it provided a fairly healthy diet in college, so I guess I came out all right in the deal.

I remain optimistic about those blue skies, and I’ve even come to believe that activism arises out of a DNA sequencing that we haven’t yet fully understood. It’s not a hard case to make—I try to convince my students that they all carry this activism gene, and I tell them a story to convince them of my point. Imagine, I begin, if they left their apartments one snowy morning, heading to class, and found an infant swaddled in a blanket on their sidewalk. What would they do? Would they step over it, annoyed? Of course not. Instinctively, they would act from the very core of compassion: They would privilege another’s welfare over their own. They would respond, without a thought, to the suffering at hand. Why? Because something deep within them would instantly, with genetic inevitability, reorder the events of their day to take care of the baby’s current problems, even if this meant being late to class. Or missing class. It is an action confined to a small arena that encompasses a student and a baby, but it is the arena from which all genuine activism arises. Social activism in this sense is essentially Darwinian: it is bent toward ensuring a community’s survival. Without this kind of concern for another’s well-being, for another’s suffering, our communities would atrophy and wither.

But regarding suffering, we have a new problem. Our social-media platforms unceasingly deliver images of mass deprivation from every corner of the world, every time our feeds refresh. As consumers, then, we are saturated with pictures of pain that we cannot address, and so we have little choice but to suppress our natural urge to help.

To see how common this problem had become, I googled the phrase, “how often do we see images of atrocity,” and found the following:

Paradoxically, as violence and atrocity become more integrated symbolically into the imagery of daily life they are less visible in the conscious vision—they are everywhere, and they are nowhere—they are hidden in plain sight. How, and why, does this process occur? In a world where the information and images vastly outnumber amounts available to all heretofore-existing generations, why are we increasingly immune to the realities with which we are presented?

Are we immune to these realities? Are we turning away from images of human suffering? If we are, our natural capacity for caring begins to wither, and as a result, our communities disintegrate. It is an empty, desperate feeling. So at the very least, we have to look after our human potential for compassion; we have to nourish it because it’s being tested and exhausted in ways that are new to us, and destructive. But how? How do we grow our compassion in the face of these increasingly hostile forces? We can’t alleviate even the tiniest percentage of the suffering we witness on any given day, so we must learn, in essence, how to turn from it in productive ways. But again, how? The monks have taught me a great deal about this.

First, we must understand more specifically the word “activism.” It has traditionally been associated in America with mass social and political movements, with actions that get public notice and speak for designated populations or causes and are covered by the news media accordingly. The event that draws ten thousand people is seen to be more successful than the one that brings ten. Numbers, of course, can be an important barometer of success, and I’m not questioning them. Numbers do matter. But there is another form of activism, a more difficult one maybe, but one that many of our greatest activists have seen as central to their work. Gandhi, for example, writing in August 1932, made the point succinctly:

My experience tells me that, instead of bothering about how the whole world may live in the right manner, we should think how we ourselves may do so. We do not even know whether the world lives in the right manner or in a wrong manner. If, however, we live in the right manner, we shall feel that others also do the same, or shall discover a way of persuading them to do so.

An activism that attempts to set one’s own house in order is an activism of the utmost importance because the private experience of right living is the first step toward understanding how or even if such right living will ever generate or even warrant social action. And for Gandhi, we must remember, right living was always an experiment in discovering the truth of any situation, and never an orthodox behavior. “Eventually,” as the great congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis has written, “the revolutionary inner work becomes a transformative outer work.”

If I can’t live it, in other words, how can I reasonably ask others to do so?

The most powerful forms of social engagement, then, the ones that endure, are created and sustained by the private engagement, the simple but demanding attempt “to live in the right manner.” Under this definition, the yogi who withdraws to her cave in the Himalayan mountains to understand the workings of her own mind acts for the common good just as much as the organizer who takes up the megaphone and wades into the public arena. Both are working for the health of our community, although each directs her efforts toward different aspects of that community. As the well-known American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes: “I want to make it very clear that however we work with our minds and hearts these days will impact the future of this planet.”

But most of us can’t follow these models. And yet we still get on Facebook or Twitter, and we still bear witness to problems that we can’t address. Luckily, however, there is a way to transform that same energy that sends the yogi to the cave and the organizer to the street into an equally productive force for change. We can become internal activists. We can microfocus our sense of the word “activism.” We can begin to learn more about that unique and native freedom that we all simply have to sharpen our attention and to expand our awareness. To look at the world, without the fencing ideas and the limiting preconceptions—it’s a discipline that we must practice daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, and transformation won’t happen at once, but if we keep at it, and develop our own strategies for keeping at it, we will see for ourselves that to live in the “right manner,” as Gandhi indicated, can become infectious. We will see that it has everything to do with making the tiny little sacrifices for others that no one notices, and doing it in all the uncool, unnoticed, not-social-media-friendly ways. What else is there to do? If we do nothing, we become inattentive and unaware.

We need first, then, to become internal activists.

I mention the subject of activism because the books that I teach, and the ones that occupy my shelves, are mostly about what happens when one country starts telling the citizens of another country what to do and how to live. Much of the material that I teach is written by people who are pointing out how wrong such instruction is, particularly when it comes at gunpoint, or through classrooms offering propaganda, or through the more insidious rubric of global capitalism. Some of my students are disturbed by the abuses that they see chronicled in these books, and it is a short step, then, for them to find similar abuses in their own lives, in their own arenas. Like a seismologist, I recognize the rumblings from that genetic bedrock of caring, even before it erupts into declaration: “I want to do something,” one begins. And then, the inevitable follow-up: “How can I help?” This is a pivotal moment in a student’s life (and in all of our lives as well). Why? Because she wants to help her community to live in the right manner. As I said, it is a noble thing to do with a life.

It’s tricky, this intersection where my students stand now—with a child’s innocence, they are ready to undertake the adult action of privileging others over themselves. It’s trickier still to explain to these students, who are as equally saturated with the networked image as I was with the printed word, that enough is a feast, but that enough is a very hard place to discover—particularly in our rabidly consumerist culture. It comes as a surprise to my students, as it does to me, that feeling overwhelmed by the incoming data isn’t a new problem. Even William Wordsworth, who spent a good deal of time in what we would now consider seclusion, felt the burnout. In his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, written at the beginning of thenineteenth century, he worried about a “multitude of causes, unknown to former times” that had combined “to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind.” He summed up these causes succinctly:

The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.

It’s worth noting that whether we are feeling overwhelmed or underwhelmed, feeling whelmed is what we do—we always suspect that we are riding unseen tides that could either destroy or sustain us. But for a very long time, it seems, we have been gathering more information than we can productively use. And now, safe in our homes, but with our devices connecting us to real trouble and real heartache in real time, we see more images of suffering than we can reasonably address. We are always playing catch-up in our ethical lives; we are always dealing with crisis-overflow.

But discovering the longevity of the problem does little to solve it. In her essay “Peace Is War: The Collateral Damage of Breaking News,” Arundhati Roy launches a sustained attack on the major news media for a practice that she calls “crisis reportage,” which is an updated version of the old saw in journalism that if it bleeds it leads. Crisis reportage, though, is a deeper political practice, and one that governments have come to depend on and use to their advantage. In Roy’s words:

Governments have learned to wait out crises—because they know that crises by definition must be short-lived. They know that a crisis-driven media simply cannot afford to hang about in the same place for too long. It must be off for its next appointment with the next crisis. Like business houses need a cash turnover, the media needs a crisis turnover.

And so as consumers we develop an addiction of sorts that demands, to use Wordsworth again, a craving for the extraordinary incident. Maybe the media creates the appetite within us that they then satisfy; or maybe we, as news consumers, demand to be fed more frequently; or maybe it’s some combination of the two. I don’t know. But the cycle is crisis-driven nowadays. Roy is correct.

And it gets worse. “While governments hone the art of crisis management (the art of waiting out a crisis),” she writes, “resistance movements are increasingly being ensnared in a sort of vortex of crisis production.” Falling prey to the demands of the news networks, activists create the events they know will get covered: the short-term crisis that gets full coverage for a brief period of time, and then fades away as the next crisis takes shape and draws the roving lens its way. Crises, then, are precipitated, and long-term civil disobedience is made to seem pointless. Or unnoticed, which nowadays, seems to be the same thing. What doesn’t get noticed through social media has an attenuated life.

What else is a selfie, but the last refuge of this new imperative? If no one else will notice me, I will notice myself.

Crisis reportage also “flips history over,” according to Roy, and “turns it belly-up.” Each new crisis eventually encourages us to drill down to discover its lineage, its genealogy. “For example,” Roy writes, “we enter the history of Afghanistan through the debris of the World Trade Center in New York, the history of Iraq through Operation Desert Storm.” It’s true. Not long ago, I was listening to a report online about the history of the Muslim presence in France. I was sitting in a window seat where I spend a lot of my time because I have a good view of open spaces, and during times of crisis, open spaces, I have found, are good for me. The report seemed tedious, and the facts it presented seemed mundane—the only claim they made on my attention was that they were true. I needed something more than the truth. I needed a little crisis reportage, more extraordinary incident. I’m not happy about this, but there it is: the truth wasn’t enough.

As I was listening to the report, a junco visited the birdfeeder and suddenly juncos became more important than France and Muslims. I hadn’t seen a junco for months, and while its absence wouldn’t rise to the level of a crisis, I had noticed that they weren’t coming around, and I’d wondered if I ought to change the seed I was using. I had devoted time and energy to this feeder and to the irritating process of seed selection, far more time and energy, in fact, than I had devoted to Muslims in France. But then the reporter started talking about the body count in the Paris attacks of November 2015. The death toll was rising. I didn’t care about the junco anymore; I was in crisis mode again, and I was all ears.

I was entering the long and complex history of France’s relation with Islamic culture through a body count.

Of course every crisis served up by the media will have its deep and complicated root structure that reaches downward well below ground and beyond inspection. But what event, as the monks continually remind me, doesn’t have such an inscrutable genealogy? Recently my daughter told my wife and me that another student—I’ll call her Alice—had marked up a drawing that my daughter had spent some time creating. Like all parents, my wife and I are convinced that Elizabeth is exceptionally creative. Art, possibly great art, had been defaced.

“Why do you think Alice did that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Elizabeth replied.

“Really?” I responded.

There’s a period early in every child’s life when they begin to understand the severe sanctions we place on lying, but are not yet good enough liars to avoid those sanctions.


“Well,” Elizabeth began tentatively, as if that might be enough. About lying she still has much to learn.

“Yes? ‘Well,’ what?”

“Well, Jeannie”—another pseudonym—“was singing a song about Alice, and I accidentally sang along with her.”

“Accidentally? How do you accidentally sing along with someone?” I was fully cross-examining my daughter now.

And then it erupted from her: the swing set power-dynamics, shifting allegiances in the sand-box, words passed, glances exchanged, songs sung—entire ontologies created with a story or a jingle, then questioned, then skewered, trashed, and renovated, all for personal gain on the sliding board and strengthened alliances on the merry-go-round.

An old story excavated from the most recent crisis—my daughter’s defaced drawing.

As I watched Elizabeth uncomfortably reveal this little genealogy of violence, I remembered how my own simplest disagreements began on the playground, and I was a boy again, struggling, yet vital with the pure thrill of engagement. But I also saw how these struggles, as the years pass, end in places far away from those playgrounds, on killing fields where our government sends our soldiers, our grown-up children, and where art has no utility, and is uncommon, and I felt old and very tired.

“Sing, O muse, the rage of Achilles,” Homer wrote nearly three thousand years ago. We are, all of us, still singing that song.

At sixty-six, I am well into my seventh decade of life on this little planet, the decade, had you asked me four decades ago, that would have been given to wrapping up grand writing projects, tottering around a fireplace in winter, puttering in my garden during the summer, and dispensing the wisdom I’d squeezed from those decades to anyone who’d listen. As it is, I have a nine-year-old daughter, and I neither totter nor putter. I have nothing against tottering or puttering, but I don’t have time for either. I have already raised a son who, as I write, is twenty-nine; now, I will raise my daughter. One child at a time, I say.

But I will need some help doing this, and my wife, a sharp strategist when it comes to lassoing those abstract ideas that fill the clouds above my head, says that I must learn to ask for the things that I need. She isn’t a mind reader, she says. Fair enough. I can be, at times, taciturn, even cloudy.

To honor my wife’s wishes then, here is what I want.

First, I would like for that reading chair to stay where it is, or rather I want to keep it near the bookcase that holds the books I have already mentioned. I value this little fiefdom. If I don’t make a lot of progress in ridding myself of these books (and it looks as though I won’t), I’ll fall back on an honest excuse: I don’t want the comforts of the chair without knowing the full price that is being paid for them. And these books are, as I read them now, the ledger where the final reckoning is tallied. I need to keep my eyes on this ledger. “Everything in our lives,” writes Pema Chödrön, “can wake us up or put us to sleep, and basically it’s up to us to let it wake us up.” I have tried to nap in that chair, in front of those books, and I can’t do it. I sit down, and I wake up. It’s that simple. And I take this to be a good thing.

Second, I’m not sure that waking up is enough. Internal activism must ultimately fashion a public face. I believe it’s selfish to discover a true thing and not tell someone about the true thing that you’ve discovered. This is exactly the argument that Brahma, the creative force in Indian mythology, is said to have made to Buddha after his enlightenment. To paraphrase: “You’ve figured out some profound stuff,” Brahma said, “that could help tons of people. How can you keep these truths to yourself?”

And so Buddha began his teaching career, and for the next four decades, he wandered around northern India explaining what he had seen to anyone who asked him to do so. Apparently, he was in great demand because his collected teachings are voluminous, the record of someone who spoke continually for forty years. He claims to have had only four truths to impart, but those four truths come at us in a million different ways, in a million different guises.

So we do have to keep our eyes open. That is the first principle of an engaged and internal activism. But I also know that we often don’t recognize the many ways that these truths arrive because we are still sleeping. Or not paying attention. The problem is that true things are mostly small, unnoticed things—the gray flash of a landing junco, true and ready to wake us up—and so will not appear on the nightly news. We will often cast them aside as unworthy of being noticed. “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities,” David Foster Wallace once told a graduating class at Kenyon College, “are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

But now, more than ever, we must see them, and we must talk about them. Crisis reportage, our craving for extraordinary incident—I want to correct that behavior as well, and I want Elizabeth to understand that proclaiming the small, unnoticed truth is a kind of protest, both a solid blow against the hyperventilated crisis and an activism available to anyone who learns to look for it. “When we understand this,” Howard Zinn has written, “we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.”

We are, all of us, the invisible roots of social change. That is our primary identity, and embracing that identity is our first act of protest.

Finally, I can’t promise that I will always be able to regulate the influx and outflow of these books. I can certainly do better, but not by declaring a prohibition, or by setting limits, or swearing allegiance to new restrictions. “Meet the new boss,” Roger Daltrey of the Who sang years ago, “same as the old boss.” I can, however, renegotiate my reading contract with the books that I do have. They are old friends, and like old friends, I pigeonhole them, and I shouldn’t do that. I will dust them off, and I will reread them. I will get to know them all over again. “I’m certainly not,” as Susan Sontag once defiantly claimed, “going to give up on rock and roll,” and I feel the same about these books—they rock, and I’m not giving up on them.

I have already started this project, renegotiated the old contracts, and I have new truths to deliver. Skimming Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” I had fresh feelings about the second stanza. I spotted those feelings with the same excitement that I spotted the junco in the backyard—old things lost and suddenly rediscovered. There is no pleasure like it. Here, in four short lines, Auden makes the point, or one of the points, that I have been trying to make all along: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”

Elizabeth has spent enough time on the playground, even at nine, to understand the Homeric truth of these lines. Actions designed to harm others never rest easy once the harm is done; they take up residence in the wounded heart, and then one day, they strike out on their own. Elizabeth has borne witness to this prodigal return, she even knows how to run in a zigzag pattern away from it, and I am hopeful that she has learned something that will make her passage through the coming years a little easier, both for her and for her friends. I believe they will need one another to negotiate the coming decades.

But I am saddened to realize that I had been away so long from the playground, doing adult things, that I forgot how intimately I am involved with the trouble that comes my way. “There is no such thing,” the great Tibetan master Dilgo Khyentse has written, “as even a single act that vanishes, leaving nothing behind.” We are everything that we think and do, and everything that we think and do reverberates with consequences that we cannot escape. And much of the time, will not even see as these consequences of our thoughts and actions expand through the world around us.

So here’s a thought: Why not generate the causes that yield the consequences we all desire? Why not set in motion the conditions that give rise to the effects we’re trying so hard to find? Like love. Harmony. Equanimity. We will have to discover those conditions, and test them, and figure out how to resurrect them from their slumber, and then how to sustain them once awakened, but we’re not doing this alone, and that’s important. Once we begin to establish an inner harmony, a community of one, really, with ourselves, we will more accurately be able to transform this inner sense of community into one that reaches out to others. And as we begin to reach out to others, we will then learn to set in motion the very causes that yield us our intended effects—love, harmony, equanimity.

Each one of us will find different paths, different techniques, of course, to bring these causes to life, but we should at least agree that we are striving for the same goals or, in this case, the same effects. The monks have told me this repeatedly, and it is a very old truth that comes with a very old practice, with a tested way of finding those causes and giving life to them. I am just now rediscovering these teachings, and it will take some time to adjust my days accordingly. To live, as Gandhi urged, “in the right manner.” It will take some time to look more closely at my station in the world and to open my eyes to the ripples that extend outward from that station. It will take a lot of unsexy effort to become an internal activist.

No matter; I will spend my days puttering around this truth, keeping my eyes open for those ripples, and vowing never to forget what they reveal as they move outward and away from me, and then boomerang back. 


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading