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When Social Activists Share their Life Story



2.1 Sustained action needs spirituality
2.2 The individual and the collective are connected.


People all over the world are made to believe that globalisation is a good thing. Goebels, who was Hitler's propaganda chief, said already in the thirties: "A lie repeated a thousand times becomes a truth". This is what is happening with the neo-liberal discourse on free markets. Neo-liberal and globalised capitalism is supposed to bring progress and well-being to the world. In fact, the gap between rich and poor is increasing. Tapping the dynamism of markets is all right, of course, provided that it does not lead policy-makers to a complete surrender to its money-oriented logic.

Unfortunately, this is what is taking place nowadays. We are easily deceived by globalisation because there is obviously also something very positive about it, namely the chances offered to people on this planet to communicate, travel and interact. This is a wonderful new opportunity to acquire a global planetary consciousness and to develop new solidarity links. Greenpeace, Amnesty International, e-mail, Internet and international travel are some of the positive aspects of globalisation. Yet, even e-mail is a mixed blessing ! Two Bangladeshi people, one living abroad, used to communicate by letters written in the Bengali language and script. With e-mail they communicated faster but in another script and language. English superseded Bengali. This is one of the ambiguous blessings of globalisation. (It is interesting to note that, after some months, they decided to allow themselves the pleasure and "luxury" of hand-written letters in the language and the script of their own culture.)

The advantages of e-mail having thus been made relative, we may agree that globalisation can help us to promote what the Thai Buddhist participant calls the "spirit of a global family". At the same time, we must keep in mind that this is something quite different from the much heralded globalisation of markets: it is the intensification of human relationships not of the maximisation of profit. Globalisation is like Janus, the Roman god with two faces, a negative one and a positive one.

Globalisation as it is promoted today leads to the theocracy of the market forces and a process of "Dysneyfication, Microsoftality and McDonaldization" of the world. Today multinationals govern the world. This is the first effect of globalisation. Its underlying economistic logic leads to the reduction of everything to commodities to be bought and sold on the market. Social bonds are progressively being dissolved by competitiveness and obsessive profit orientation.

Globalisation is the destruction of mystery. Indeed, instant gratification and consumption prompted by globalisation (for those at least who can afford it) tend to erase slowness, silence, shadows and poetry. Humankind has never read or heard as little poetry as nowadays. The urge to quantify and to reduce the complexity of the human being and of society to simple measurable components so as to achieve better social control is very harmful.

The attempted purchase by the USA of "rights to pollute" poorer countries which are relatively less polluted is one of the most preposterous example of the callousness to which the market logic can lead. If this US drive had not been refused by the other states, the international efforts to have everyone pollute less would have led to the right of one of the most polluting nations to carry on unchallenged, just because that nation had the money. In this globalised world of ours it seems that, more than ever, might is right …

Globalisation has far-reaching effects on world culture. What arose in the modern West has now become global and universal. Aggressive human drives (which capitalism takes over) have spread all over the world and created a kind of exhilaration. It is desirable to be the best, to push others out, to beat them at school or in the company. Bonding, feeling with nature and other gentle and non-commercial ("gratuitous") approaches to life are being marginalised if not ridiculed.

As our research and discussions indicate, we strongly believe (and will argue) that the only way out is to ensure cultural transformation. But the word culture itself has been impoverished because it has been reduced by the market logic to mean something shallow ("entertainment"). The Roots and Wings group therefore preferred to speak of spirituality. To us, culture and spirituality are very close concepts. Culture, at a genuine and deep level, is what enables people to give meaning to their lives, as well as a sense of direction. This is also what spirituality is all about. One might say that spirituality is the very core of a genuine culture.

Many participants reported on their experience of "genuine universality" as opposed to "shallow globalisation". They mean by that their discovery that the deeper they delve into themselves, the closer they feel to other people, even to those having different cultures and religions. Many participants stressed that it is in the uniqueness of one's own personality and one's particular life experience that one discovers genuine universality and a sense of deep commonality.

A Brazilian participant observed "In the face of my orishas (the godly spirits in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé), I can also see Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed and Rama. In the revelations of the oracle of Ifa and in our sacred songs and dances I can hear the words from the Koran, the Torah, the Vedas, and the sounds from the djeriddu and from the rites of kuarup. I can understand better the wisdom of my ancestors when I hear it transfigured through these other voices. My dream is that this new world of global communication can give us the opportunity to know each other's voices and views better, and to take them as ours in the sense that every voice, every vision is the echo or reflection of an intangible wholenes"

It is interesting to note that in Cebuano, one of the main languages of the Philippines, "to have knowledge" ("aduna ko'y kalibutan") would literally be translated in English as "I have the world within me". This prompted somebody to say: "Globalisation has to develop inside people before it can be positively carried out in the outside world". This means that the present trend towards globalisation is calling human beings to become more mature, more open to global concerns and planetary solidarity. If this change in mentality and ethics is not achieved, globalisation will remain a superficial and threatening process. Without a global consciousness and wholeness inside, there cannot be a "whole" world outside. Conversely, it is up to each one of us to turn globalisation into a humane and positive phenomenon. As is written in the Koran: "there is a hidden treasure that yearns to be known in us and in creation".


2.1 Sustained action needs spirituality

Most participants admit to the importance of spirituality and the proper care for their "soul" as an essential component of their inner strength. Spirituality provides mental hygiene to avoid the well-known burn-out syndrome of many activists. It helps to combat so-called "compassion-fatigue". It enables to keep in mind the ultimate aim and the meaning of what we do.

"My outward tasks lack conviction because I have not made my inward journeys. Concretely this means that spirituality must play a major role in social action if we are to get anywhere with our social action". To clarify this notion of spirituality, an Indian participant used the metaphor of the bow and arrow. If you want to shoot an arrow you have to pull the arrow inwards. In modernity we lack the inward journey. The bow and arrow metaphor shows that an inward journey is necessary to allow an outward thrust. Our shooting exclusively outward is a fake shooting of arrows. It reaches nowhere.

The same participant warned however against religious intolerance: "We are now witnessing a period in Indian society, where, in the name of Culture and Religion, people are being killed, women are being raped and property destroyed. Elections are won and lost on the basis of religious intolerance. Many social activists are also not free from these prejudices. This is one of the emerging scenarios in India. Clearly we need to see ourselves as human beings first before we see ourselves as being part of a religious tradition. We are talking increasingly of 'secular spirituality', a spirituality that transcends the limitations of particular religions, that is helpful in fostering relations of trust and compassion." Not everyone would agree to adhere to a secular spirituality at a personal level. But at the level of a whole state, this is an interesting proposition as it allows to go beyond religious clashes.

Carl Jung once referred as such to the calling of the human being: "to live as fully as possible so as to fulfil the divine in us". Many in the group added that living fully leads them to be concerned with society and to act accordingly. They are of the opinion that an effective and sustainable commitment to justice, peace, human rights or any other social or political ideal is strengthened by the fact that the activist has "an inner fire and a deep sense of mission". This sense of a calling which comes from beyond one's ego helps one to commit oneself fully. It also helps to be, as the Hindu Baghavat Gita says "detached from the fruits of one's action". Such detachment is obviously a difficult exercise. Yet, most religious traditions advocate such a selfless attitude as a guarantee against greed, hunger for power, corruption, and all the well-known evils which average politicians and social leaders and activists have to cope with within themselves. As another Indian activist says: "in each of us there is a liberator and an imperialist at the same time ! It is our responsibility to choose, every day of our life, which of the two we want to be."

To conclude, one might suggest that spirituality can have a positive impact on action at three levels:
- the instrumental level: spirituality helps to avoid "burn out";
- the strategic level: spirituality ensures attention to the broader context, to others;
- the fundamental level: spirituality provides the wellspring and foundation (meaning and orientation) for social action.

2.2 The individual and the collective are connected.

As one of the Indian voices in our Workshop put it: "We are to see the divine in all creation and experience a feeling of sacredness about everything all around." Many participants refer in their papers to their experience of unity and oneness with the surrounding world. Oneness with all, as well as interconnectedness through invisible bonds, is a recurrent theme.

Is there a link between inner transformation and world change? The conclusion of the group was that there is. "I am part of the cosmos and, consequently, I have to transform myself as much as I have to contribute to social transformation." We cannot change the outside world without changing the inner self. In the Christian tradition, this is expressed by the interdependence of all beings within what is called "the mystic body of Christ". Gandhi expressed this as a basic law: if you want to change society, you must change yourself at the same time He asked his disciples to fast and pray before engaging in a satyagraha demonstration. He would never advocate any behavioural change without first testing it on himself, and practising it faithfully. He would not even advise a boy to eat less sweets (as the boy's mother had requested Gandhi) before first having stopped himself eating any sweet…


These are extracts from our special issue "Roots and Wings"on the Spirituality of Social Commitment. To have the full text, please subscribe or order the issues

When Social Activists Share their Life Story

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