Previously in this series: Part I: Injustice
Part II: Stewardship
I got an email from a friend not very long ago, commenting on my own recent engagement with the work toward racial justice.
“I see your inner warrior is still going full tilt,” she wrote, somewhat ruefully.
“I’ve been staying out of this debate, she continued. “It’s not because I deny racial inequalities. It’s because… this is not my fight.”
I’ve heard a lot of (white) people make the argument that they have no obligation to engage with racism, that they’re “not racist” and so their work is done, but that wasn’t what my friend was saying. She wasn’t denying the importance of the work I had taken up, nor her need to remain open to engaging with it herself… should that become her work.
Rather, she was making a case for the stewardship of her gifts.
“Over the last couple of years,” she wrote, “I’ve become more intentional with everything I do. I have to choose where to put my energy. I’m not running out to protest or to find solutions to racism for the same reason I didn’t drop everything to do the ice bucket challenge. Both causes are worthy, but I can’t be a major player in the fight against racism and a major player in the fight against child abuse and neglect. So, I choose my passion.”
It’s not that she has opted out of the battle against racism. It’s that, urgent as that work is, she is involved in the greater battle against injustice overall. She’s not staying out of the fight, not really. She’s just been called to a different part of the battlefield.
I have come to think of this, incongruously enough, as the World of Warcraft rule, for reasons of my own.
You see, while I do spend a fair amount of time doing things I think are meaningful, I’m not above a little mindless fun. And from where I sit, there’s not much that’s more mindless or more fun than letting my Worgen character go fishing for virtual treasure off the coast of Darkmoon Island. (Don’t judge. We all need a little folly in our lives; I just make sure to build mine in up front.)
Unfortunately, I’m not very good at playing online games. I need a lot of help.
Fortunately, World of Warcraft has thought of that, and they’ve designed something called “guilds”–online clubs for real human players–and made them part of the game.
It might have been a week after I joined a guild in World of Warcraft, the online game, that the guild’s officers asked me to become an officer, too.
I wondered: in a large, busy guild, with hundreds of players who were actually good at the game, what crazy reason would anyone have to ask me to be a World of Warcraft guild officer? It turned out, what the officers saw in me that they wanted for the guild was… my kindness. They’d just noticed that I’m pretty consistently nice to people, and they thought that was a useful quality for their group.
Of course I was flattered; it’s great to be noticed for something like that, though the truth is that anyone who works at walking a path of spiritual activism for very long will develop a few strengths, a few gifts. However, it also occurred to me that if even in World of Warcraft, those gifts were in demand, they must be in demand… everywhere, or nearly.
I have come to call this the World of Warcraft principle. Given the state of the world, those of us who are trying to serve it have a duty of stewardship–over our own gifts. We need to learn to discern which invitations to service are truly ours, and which are not… because if we don’t learn this, and we might wind up putting all our time and energy into running a World of Warcraft guild… or a PTA, or an ALS bucket challenge.
It is not that those are unworthy things to do–not at all. But if we allow ourselves to say “yes” to every invitation to dedicate our gifts, where will we be when the invitation our soul is longing for comes along? What will happen to the work that we are uniquely called to do?
Because I do believe such work exists, and that there is a difference between a leading and a “good idea.”
Activism is wearying work. It is also deeply satisfying and nourishing work–when it is the work we are meant to do. Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And when I am engaged in the work that Spirit has put into my hands, though I can still get tired and cranky, and I still make mistakes, underneath all of that… is joy. The joy of doing the work that is truly meant for me.
The work that calls to us may not be what would sound most rational to an outsider, an “objective” stranger. There is an element beyond reason in vocation, in accepting a calling or a leading, and it is not governed by common sense alone. Our real vocations can surprise us, with their beginnings, their endings, or their nature. They might even entail leading a World of Warcraft guild. Stranger things have turned out to be important, in the end, and we can’t always foresee what will come from the service that we do.
One reason I think this is important to understand is because it interrupts the painful sense that all the world’s needs, all the causes out there, are in competition with one another. When we try to approach the work of activism with our minds alone, we may fall into the trap of trying to triage where we can spend our limited time and energy. When we approach our activism in this way, the voices of other activists may seem to be strident demands to abandon our own work, and take up theirs: each voice speaking of the urgency of their cause becomes, not just a sister or a brother in the wider work, but a competitor, making a claim that their work, not the work that has been put into our hands, should come first, for everyone.
If you let demand alone determine where you bring your gifts, you’ll spend yourself on the World of Warcraft before you have time to engage with anything deeper.
But if you let comparing the urgency of needs determine where you bring your gifts, you run the risk of resenting those who work for other causes. If you believe that the work we do should be based on a rational analysis of the urgency of the world’s needs–a kind of moral triage–then spending time with other activists becomes exhausting, because every other approach to serving the world becomes a kind of competition for your time. Everything becomes a kind of arm wrestling match, where you must defend, logically, your right to do the work that feeds your soul.
Those of us who root our activism in our spiritual experience don’t have to live that way, however.
We do not need to pit one form of activism against another, or to urge everyone to drop all their other concerns and turn all their time and energy to anti-racism work… or to ignore anti-racism work in order to address climate change, because, as another friend points out, “there is no possibility of social justice on a dead planet except the equality of the grave.” That’s true: but it’s also not the only truth that counts. The small, still voices in our hearts must be heard, too.
We need to give one another permission to exercise stewardship over our gifts. We need to allow one another the freedom to listen for the deep, nurturing joy that runs through the work we are meant to do in life, to “save as well as to savor the world” as E.B. White once put it. And those of us who are engaged in other areas of the battlefield can become one another’s encouragers, rather than feeling pressed into rescue work.
The battle for peace and justice is a long one, with many fronts. Each of us must hear and respond to the orders sent us through our own hearts, our own souls.