Attain the Good You Will Not Attain, part 2

6. Activism is not, most fundamentally, about producing outcomes, but about living as who we are.

Grace has its own way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it. The toil of body and soul, we offer up to the universe, and what the universe makes of it is not ours to say.

Is the world making any progress to being more fair, more just, more kind? I don’t know. The Covid pandemic made a number of the fault lines in our society more vividly evident. Whether there will be lasting progress, however, is unclear. It may be disheartening when desired outcomes have not been achieved. It is less disheartening if we understand that achieving desired outcomes is not the main reason for activism.

We inherit a Western philosophical tradition that has stressed consequences. Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism was most explicit about this. He said you should act so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But Immanuel Kant's ethics also involves imagining consequences. Kant’s categorical imperative tells you to imagine the effects of everybody else adhering to whatever ethical principle you might be following.

But what you do isn’t just about the effects it has. It’s about who you are. Your actions shape your being.

7. What Eastern traditions have to say about that

Eastern traditions are bit clearer on this point. From the Hindu tradition, for instance, comes this teaching:
“If I chop down a tree that blocks my view, each stroke of the ax unsettles the tree; but it leaves its mark on me as well, driving deeper into my being my determination to have my way in the world.”
The Bhagavad-Gita, tells us,
“Those who perform actions without attachment, resigning the actions to God, are untainted by their effects as the lotus leaf by water.... Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give, whatever austerity you practice, O Son of Kunti, do this as an offering to Me. Thus shall you be free from the bondages of actions that bear good and evil results.”
And another Hindu text, the Bhagavata Purana, praises those who “have no desire for the fruits of their actions.”

We lose our center when we become anxious over the outcome of our actions. “Do without attachment the work you have to do,” says the Bhagavad-Gita.

8. A Scorpion-Stung Swami

A tale tells of a yogi meditating by the banks of the Ganges. He repeatedly rescues a scorpion that falls in the river, and is repeatedly stung by it. When asked why he does this, the yogi explains, “It is the nature of scorpions to sting. It is the nature of yogis to help when they can.”

Reading that story, it occurred to me -- as it perhaps would have occurred to you -- that the yogi might have been more helpful had he placed the scorpion somewhat farther away from the water, so it wouldn't keep falling in again. We do need to take practical effectiveness into account. We also need – and this is the greater need and the one we in the West are prone to overlook entirely – to let our action flow from the depths of who we are, from the compassion and wisdom that is inherent in our nature. Let the nature of scorpions be to sting. It is our nature to live out of love.

9. A Wave to Mary's Geese Thinking about all the good you’re doing, or are going to do, is an ego projection. Setting it aside, we can also lay down the burden of worries about failure to be good. Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese," begins: “You do not have to be good.” That is: You only have be who you are.

The poem continues: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Only then, as Zbigniew Herbert said, “will you attain the good that you will not attain.” In the end we are redeemed only by the kind of person it is our nature to be – not by what we accomplish.

The scorpion will sting. That’s not what matters. As Zbigniew Herbert’s poem said, “The informers, executioners, cowards – they will win.” Not what matters. 10. In the Misty Mountains with the Fellowship of the Ring

In the J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, the intrepid fellowship takes the risk of going through the mines of Moria – and their leader, Gandalf, falls to the Balrog. The rest of the company escapes, makes it out the other side, and has a brief chance to collect itself and take stock.

Aragorn soliloquizes “Gandalf . . . What hope have we without you?” He turned to the Company. “We must do without hope,” he said.

It’s a powerful line, and it’s been with me since even before Cora Diamond’s ethics seminar. We must do without hope. Doing without hope doesn’t always mean dejection, ennervating depression, inability to act, giving up, rolling over. Hopelessness is not despair.

“Let us gird ourselves and weep no more,” says Aragorn in the next line. “Come! We have a long road.”

Hopelessness can help bring us into the present moment, pull us back from the sort of hope that has us living in our imagined future instead of the present. In the realm of social action, this hopelessness means not clinging to an image in which other people have finally stopped being so foolish and pig-headed as to have values that differ from our own.

11. John Keats (1795-1821) and A.J. Muste (1885-1967)

There is another kind of hope, which isn’t about the future being different in any particular way that you or I would call “better.” It’s about acting here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have. It’s about what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity not to insist on a determinate knowable meaning. It’s about doing what we are called to do, not to make the world over in our image, but only to be who we are. It’s about being courageous, joining the resistance with our hearts and our breath and our love and our being, and being comfortable not being able to predict what will come of it. It’s about listening deeply, speaking truth, then letting go.

Any other kind of hope is really another name for fear. What commonly goes by the name “hope” – hope for a specific result – is nonacceptance. It is fear of the world as it is, or the world as we are afraid it may become.

A.J. Muste, a lifelong activist who died in 1967, protested the Vietnam War outside the White House, day after day, usually alone, sometimes in the rain. One day Muste was approached a reporter.
“Do you really think you’re going to change those people?” asked the reporter indicating toward the White House.
“I don’t do it to change them,” replied Muste. “I do it so they won’t change me.”

It’s not that Muste, or I, don’t want to be changed. It’s just that we want to resist the forces that would keep us from our calling, that would occlude the compassion from flowing out from us to what end we cannot see and do not control.

Of course, strategizing is a part of doing. Goals and outcomes and plans for achieving are the manifestations of compassion. It’s possible to plan for results without expecting them, counting on them, or needing them. Our hearts turn over to grace their labor, their sweat -- all that our hearts are and have. Grace has its own way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it.

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