Paul Rogat Loeb
Paul Loeb Home Page
The Impossible Will
Take a Little While
Buy Loeb's Books
Soul Reading Groups
Soul Sample Chapters
Soul Classroom Use
& Academic Study Questions
Invite Paul Loeb to Speak
Receive Loeb articles
Paul Loeb Articles
Please Pass the Word
Paul Loeb Bio
Here are some brief excerpts to give you a sense of Soul's content. I'm spinning off longer excerpts and adapted pieces in Huffington Post, every Thursday beginning in March 2010, and you'd like to check them out, visit my Huffington Post home page. If you sign up to be notified when they post, you'll even have the chance to comment.
You might also want to check out the
Soul excerpt from Utne Reader. It's from the earlier edition, but still an excellent overview. Here are some other excerpts chapter by chapter:
Table of contents
From Chapter One: Making our lives count
From Chapter Two: We don't have to be saints
From Chapter Three: One step at a time
From Chapter Four: The cynical smirk
From Chapter Five: Unforeseen fruits
From Chapter Six: The call of stories
From Chapter Seven: Values, work, and family
From Chapter Eight: Village politics
From Chapter Nine: Widening the circle
From Chapter Ten: Pieces of a Vision
From Chapter Eleven: Coping With Burnout
From Chapter Twelve: The Fullness of Time
back to table of contents
"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only
for myself, what am I?"--Rabbi Hillel
We can learn a lot from the tales we tell about our heroes. I once had the privilege of appearing on a CNN show with Rosa Parks. “We’re very honored to have her,” said the host. “Rosa Parks was the woman who wouldn’t go to the back of the bus. She wouldn’t get up and give her seat in the white section to a white person. That set in motion the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery. It earned Rosa Parks the title of ‘mother of the civil rights movement.’”
I was excited to hear Parks’s voice even though I didn’t actually meet her, since we were being interviewed from different studios. Then it struck me that the host’s description—the story’s standard rendition—stripped the Montgomery boycott of its most important context. Before the day Parks refused to give up her bus seat, she had spent twelve years involved with her local NAACP chapter, along with E. D. Nixon, an activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union who was the head of the chapter; local teachers; and other members of Montgomery’s African American community. The summer before, Parks had attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee’s labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she’d met an older generation of civil rights activists and discussed the Supreme Court’s recent decision banning “separate but equal” schools. In the process, Parks also became familiar with previous challenges to segregation: Another Montgomery bus boycott, fifty years earlier, had successfully eased some restrictions; and a bus boycott in Baton Rouge had won limited gains two years before. The previous spring, a young Montgomery woman had also refused to move to the back of the bus, causing the NAACP to consider making her the centerpiece of a legal challenge—until it turned out that she was pregnant and unmarried, and therefore a problematic symbol for a campaign.
In short, Parks’ decision didn’t come out of nowhere. Nor did she single-handedly give birth to the civil rights movement. Rather, she was part of a longstanding effort to create change, when success was far from certain and setbacks were routine. That in no way diminishes the personal courage, moral force, and historical importance of her refusal to surrender her seat. But the full story of Rosa Parks reminds us that her tremendously consequential act, along with everything that followed, depended on all the humble, frustrating work that she and others had undertaken earlier on, and on the vibrant, engaged community they had developed in the face of continual hardship and opposition. Her actions that day also weren’t accidental, the product of her feet being tired, as we’ve so often heard, but rather a deliberate effort to challenge injustice. What’s more, the full story underscores the value of persistence; had she given up in year three or seven or ten, we’d never have heard of her. Finally, it reminds us that Parks’s first step toward involvement—attending a local NAACP meeting—was as critical to altering history as her famed stand on the bus.
A MORE HOPEFUL WAY TO LIVE
In the personal realm, most Americans are thoughtful, caring, generous. We try to do our best by family and friends. At times we’ll even stop to help another driver stranded by a roadside breakdown, or give some spare change to a stranger. But too often, a wall separates each of us from the world outside, and from others who’ve likewise taken refuge in their own private sanctuaries—what we might call the gated community of the heart. We’ve all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship, and that it can profoundly enrich our lives.
The reason many of us retreat from social involvement is not, I believe, that we think all is well with the world, certainly not in these challenging times. I live in Seattle, a city that until recently had a seemingly unstoppable economy. Yet every time I’d go downtown I’d see men and women with signs saying “I’ll work for food” or “Homeless vet. Please help.” Their suffering stood in stark contrast to the unprecedented wealth all around them. And it diminished me as a human being. Because I travel extensively, I also witness what’s happening in other U.S. states. Even before the crash of 2008, people in all but the most affluent of enclaves kept saying, “Things are hard here,” and explaining how America’s economic boom had passed them by.
Now, in far more difficult times, many more people feel precarious, with a sense that their lives could be upended in an instant. We struggle to get by on meager paychecks—or none at all. We worry about layoffs, overwork, the rising costs of health care and education. We wonder if we’ll ever be able to retire. Whether minimum wage-workers with two jobs, college students working 30 hours a week, or white-collar professionals sending work-related emails at midnight, simply trying to survive from one day to the next feels daunting enough. Trying to change the world, or even a small part of it, seems a luxury.
To be sure, the issues we now face are complex and often overwhelming. One day while revising this book, I picked up my local paper (which itself went under a few months later, after 135 years of publication). The world’s most respected scientists were warning of catastrophic climate change if we didn’t reverse course, but the catastrophes were already occurring. Runaway wildfires scorched Australia, the legacy of a dozen years of drought. Argentina’s once immensely productive agriculture belt was being decimated by drought as well. And California farmers were being threatened with the cutoff of their water supply. Meanwhile, China was spending $14 billion to respond to its most recent extreme weather events, and Kentucky ice storms had left nearly a million people without power. Add to this disturbing litany melting ice caps, which the summer before had created the first open Arctic water passage in human history.
How can we comprehend the consequences of such wholesale, reckless toying with the habitability of the earth? More important, how will we redress them? How can we make sense of a world where Nike pays Michael Jordan more to appear in its ads than it pays all the workers at its Indonesian shoe factories combined? Or where the planet’s five hundred richest people control more wealth than the bottom three billion, half of the human population? Or where financial speculation has become so omnipresent it can threaten the entire global economy? Is it possible even to grasp the process that led to these crises, and all the others we face?
Yet what leaves too many of us sitting on the sidelines is not only the complexities of the world or the scope of its problems. It’s not only uncertainty about which issues to address or how to do so. Certainly we need to decide for ourselves whether particular causes are wise or foolish—be they efforts to build a stable, equitable, and sustainable economy; to address the cycles of desperation that breed war and global terrorism; or to reverse the environmental damage that we’ve caused. We need to identify and connect with worthy groups that take on these issues and others, whether locally or globally. But first we need to believe that our individual involvement is worthwhile, that what we might do in the public sphere will not be in vain.
back to table of contents
CHAPTER ONE: MAKING OUR
We’re often taught to view our lives as a zero-sum game. With all the pressures we face, we barely have time for family and friends. How could we possibly take on some demanding cause?
Yet for all the frustration we expect, when we do get involved, we get a lot back: new relationships, fresh skills, a sense of empowerment, pride in accomplishment. “A rich life,” writes philosopher and theologian Cornel West, is fundamentally a life of serving others, “trying to leave the world a little better than you found it .... This is true at the personal level ... [but there’s also] a political version of this. It has to do with what you see when you get up in the morning and look in the mirror and ask yourself whether you are simply wasting time on the planet or spending time in an enriching manner.”
Again and again, I’ve heard active citizens say that what motivates them the most is the desire to respect what they see in the mirror. The exercise isn’t about vanity, but about values, about taking stock of ourselves and comparing the convictions we say we hold with the lives we actually lead. It’s about seeing ourselves from the viewpoint of our communities, the earth, maybe even God. If eyes are windows to the soul, and faces reflections of character, looking in the mirror lets us step back from the flux of our lives and hold ourselves accountable.
Sound a bit daunting? It can be. As the saying goes, not one among us is without fault. But such self-examination also can be enormously rewarding. For it’s equally true that not one among us lacks a heart, which is the wellspring of courage (the word is derived from coeur, French for heart). At the core of our being lie resources many of us never dream we possess, much less imagine we can draw on.
Also see Jesus and Climate Change: The Journey of Rich Cizik
to table of contents
CHAPTER TWO: WE DON'T
HAVE TO BE SAINTS
I believe many of us want to pursue something more than relentless self-interest—what Thomas Moore calls “a national persona of hype, ambition, narcissism, and materialism.” We would like to find ways to connect with each other, express our compassion, and experience a sense of purpose impossible to attain through private pursuits alone. When we don’t find ways to voice this larger self, our most generous impulses have nowhere to go.
Chief among the obstacles to acting on these impulses is the mistaken belief that anyone who takes a committed public stand, or at least an effective one, has to be a larger-than-life figure—someone with more time, energy, courage, vision, or knowledge than a normal person could ever possess. As we’ve seen with Rosa Parks, even our most noted historic figures often started their involvement in modest ways, and had as many failures as successes. Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, tells the story of how his grandfather’s family mortgaged everything they had—their land, their jewelry, everything of value—to send Gandhi to law school. Gandhi graduated and passed the bar, but was so shy that when he stood up in court all he could do was stammer. He couldn’t get a sentence out in defense of his clients. As a result, he lost every one of his cases. He was a total failure as a lawyer. His family didn’t know what do to. Finally, they sent him off to South Africa, where he literally and metaphorically found his voice by challenging the country’s racial segregation.
I like viewing Gandhi not as the master strategist of social change that he later became, but as someone who at first was literally tongue-tied—shyer and more intimidated than almost anyone we can imagine. Given where he ended up on his subsequent journey, who knows what might be possible for the rest of us.
But most of us never get the chance to be inspired by the stories of those who’ve acted for change—because we don’t encounter them. For too many of us, the past is a foreign country. The very stories that might remind us of our potential impact and strength are ignored, caricatured, or otherwise dismissed by our cultural gatekeepers. As a result, apart from a handful of famous names largely detached from their contexts, most of us know next to nothing of how ordinary men and women have fought to preserve freedom, expand the sphere of democracy, and create a more just society. Of the abolitionist and civil rights movements, we at best recall a few key leaders—and often, as with Rosa Parks, we don’t know their actual stories. We know even less about the turn-of-the-century populists who challenged entrenched economic interests and fought for a “cooperative commonwealth.” These days, who can describe how the union movement ended eighty-hour workweeks at near-starvation wages? Who knows about the citizen efforts that first pushed through Social Security? How did the women’s suffrage movement spread to hundreds of communities, and gather enough strength to prevail?
to table of contents
When we think about the problems of the world, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and to become paralyzed. The way to avoid this, as Martin Luther King suggested, is to proceed at our own pace, step by step, breaking down our goals into manageable tasks and not worrying too much about the precise political impact of every choice we make. Nothing gets accomplished when we try to do everything at once. Given how easily our hopes for a better world can be dashed, this approach lets us fight for what we believe with reasonable expectations, patience, and a sense of balance. To borrow the classic Alcoholics Anonymous maxim, the best way to get involved in social change is “one day at a time.”
This incremental process doesn’t have to lead to dramatic public controversy. And it doesn’t always produce immediately visible results. But invariably it alters those involved, in ways that can’t be foreseen. As feminist writer Gloria Steinem says, “As for who we will be, the answer is: We don’t know …. But we do know that growth comes from saying yes to the unknown.”
French theologian Phillipe Vernier offers a similar perspective on conducting a life of spiritual purpose: “Do not wait for great strength before setting out,” he cautions, “for immobility will weaken you further. Do not wait to see very clearly before starting: one has to walk toward the light. Have you strength enough to take this first step? ... You will be astonished to feel that the effort accomplished, instead of having exhausted your strength, has doubled it—and that you already see more clearly what you have to do next.”
As Steinem and Vernier suggest, social involvement challenges us to create our own narratives as we join with others to build a community garden, organize our workplace, or encourage our neighbors to speak out on a key public issue. There is no preordained plot, no characters free of contradiction and confusion, no tidy ending. As Alice Walker says, “It’s a practice, like any other. You never get it completely.” But since it’s a story of your own making, you can start anywhere you wish.
to table of contents
I remember seeing an ad for Slate, the online magazine founded by Microsoft and now owned by The Washington Post. “It’s what everyone is talking about,” the ad proclaimed: “media, politics, technology, high and low culture ... all with a certain insouciant smirk that thinking people find compelling.”
Which insouciant smirk, and which thinking people? My dictionary describes insouciant as “carefree” or “blithely indifferent.” “Carefree” seems innocuous enough, but is indifference a virtue? Did the ad mean to suggest that Slate’s editors and writers stand above it all, and nothing they say really matters?
People smirk when they’re full of themselves, smiling arrogantly, “in a self-conscious, knowing, or simpering manner.” They know the score, you don’t, and they’re about to put you in your place. Exxon and AIG executives smirk. So do grade-school bullies and hedge-fund speculators. Donald Trump and Bernie Madoff smirk. Marie Antoinette’s famed “Let them eat cake” was an ill-timed smirk that cost her her head.
Yet Slate, or their ad agency, decided that an ethic of contempt boosts sales. They presented it as something to be proud of. All of us, the ad suggested, should approach life with such hip detachment. Merely knowing the right people and being able to drop the right insouciantly clever phrases exempts us from any broader responsibility to our fellow human beings. The ad implies that we simply need to acknowledge that the world is inherently corrupt, bought and paid for, and that all talk of changing it is naive.
In her poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Maya Angelou called this kind of cynicism “a bloody sear” across the brow of our nation. “Everybody lies,” says a veteran newspaperman quoted in the Utne Reader, “but it doesn’t matter, because nobody listens.” In a more extreme example, imagine a man who tells his young son to jump from the stairs into his arms. The father catches the boy twice, but the third time steps back and lets him fall. “That’s to teach you never to trust anyone,” he explains, “even your own father.”
We’re particularly taught to expect such betrayals when we think about trying to change things, whether in our community or on a larger scale. “You can’t really do anything about it,” people say, and when they repeat it enough we start to believe them. “That’s just how things are,” we agree, then shrug and move on. We give up hope before we even start.
Also see What Cynicism Costs Us.
to table of contents
I once went for a run in Fort Worth, Texas, in a grassy park along a
riverbank. I passed a man shaking a tree. At first, I kept my distance, but as I got
closer, I figured it was safe to stop and ask, "What are you doing?"
"It's a pecan tree," he said. "If I shake it enough,
the nuts will come down. I can't know exactly when they'll fall or how many. But the more
I shake it, the more I'll get."
Looking back, this seems an apt metaphor for social involvement.
Often our efforts may yield few clear or immediate results. Our victories will almost
always be partial. But we need to draw enough strength from our initial steps to help us
persevere. "You have to begin with small groups," said Modjesca Simkins, an
eighty-four-year-old civil rights activist from South Carolina. "But you reach
the people who matter. They reach others. Like the Bible says, 'leaven in the lump, like
yeast in the dough'...it rises somewhere else."
For a longer excerpt see Unforeseen Fruits
to table of contents
We work for justice, I’ve come to believe, when our hearts are stirred by specific lives and situations. Virginia Ramirez challenged the ills of her community only after watching her elderly neighbor die needlessly. She wasn’t motivated by an abstract statistical analysis, however scandalous, of local poverty, deteriorating housing stock, or unequal investment in different neighborhoods. She learned those numbers later. Instead, she responded to a specific human story, which spurred her to rethink her own life. Virginia displayed a quality critical to social engagement: the capacity to feel empathy, to imagine ourselves as someone else. “Nearly all acts of altruism and self-sacrifice at any level are tied to this particular ability of the human imagination,” says essayist Carol Bly.
Businessman Chris Kim was inspired to act by listening to the story of a fourteen-year-old African American boy. The boy stole a pair of pants from the clothing store Chris ran in his minimall in a poor south Seattle neighborhood. Chris and another Korean store owner grabbed him, called the police, and were ready to press charges. Then Chris thought about Christ’s message of responding with forgiveness, not retribution. He decided to talk with the boy and his parents. “We always say we love our neighbors, but we never do it and risk something that belongs to us. He was a teenager, a young kid. It could have been anyone in a desperate situation, even one of my kids. I thought I should try and understand, not just turn him over to the police.”
After Chris and the boy talked, the boy apologized, and said what he really wanted was a job. Chris hesitated briefly, then hired him as a clerk. The boy’s mother sent Chris a note saying his compassion had changed her view of both Koreans and her son’s life. Moved by the experience, Chris started working with local organizations that educate black youth. “Through my lifetime,” Chris admitted, “I didn’t have a good feeling about black people. It wasn’t from direct experiences, but you hear so much in the media, about all the violence. So I tried to treat this kid as another human being, like myself, my family, my friends. I wanted to be part of solving the problems.”
Chris’s involvement was supported by an existing foundation of belief, in this case his Christian faith. But it took a direct connection with the boy and his world to induce Chris to put those beliefs into practice. It took a willingness to exercise his moral imagination and to expand his sphere of concern to include someone from a completely different background.
In the wake of this experience, Chris began questioning himself, especially his business practices. He consulted local neighborhood leaders, brought in new African American shops to his minimall, and sponsored an annual neighborhood festival. He tried to create a place where people of all races and ages would feel welcome. It still felt strange staking his money and time to try to help people who, as he says, “aren’t even my own race of Koreans. But I wanted to set an example for my children. Once you start to share with others, it gets easier. What I did wasn’t anything fancy. But I felt such a priceless taste of love coming back. I got closer to some other human beings who I’d never have gotten to know. Once I’ve done something like that, I can’t go back to what I was before.”
to table of contents
We often hesitate to get involved in our communities: We’re too busy, we say. We’ve got all we can handle holding on to our jobs, paying the bills, and raising our children. Given our day-to-day responsibilities, we’re lucky if we can find a few spare hours for pursuits that revive us. It’s hard to imagine how we might make room for more public commitments.
The pressures are real, especially at our workplaces. Whatever we do, most of us work longer and harder than ever, while worrying more about our future in an uncertain economy. This is true whether we’re low-wage workers holding two jobs to make ends meet, professionals working endless nights and weekends, or students beleaguered by outside jobs and debt. It’s true for all of us squeezed between escalating workplace demands and a sense that we’ll never catch up. The situation is even worse, of course, for those who are out of work and desperately struggling to get by. In The Overworked American, Harvard economist Juliet Schor examines the emergence of this Alice-in-Wonderland world, where we have to scramble faster and faster just to stay in the same place. Between 1967 and 2006, the average American worker’s time on the job jumped by over 167 hours per year, or the equivalent of an entire extra month. And that number doesn’t take into account the time spent in ever-lengthening commutes or all the work-related emails we send in what are supposedly our off-hours.
Meanwhile, guarantees that once allowed most of us to take our basic survival for granted have steadily eroded or, for many, collapsed altogether. Not only do we spend more time working, we take fewer vacations, receive fewer benefits, and face far more daily stress. The U.S. used to compensate for its lack of universal health care coverage by providing employer-paid insurance. Before the passage of the 2010 health insurance bill, more than 46 million people had nothing to rely on but the prayer: “I hope no one in my family gets sick.” Once, we could count on employer-funded pensions, confident that if we worked long and hard enough, our old age would be provided for. Now, retirement has become a crapshoot, as we’ve watched hard-earned savings evaporate in a crash provoked by speculation and greed, with few good options for trying to rebuild them in time to make a difference. Things would be even worse had engaged citizens not helped defeat repeated attempts by major financial interests to privatize Social Security.
If you’re going to school, you face at least equal pressures. Even as higher education has become essential for most decent jobs, students face more and more economic barriers. If you grow up in the top economic quarter of the population, you have a seventy-six percent chance of getting through college by age twenty-four, after which point graduation grows substantially harder. But if you’re in the bottom quarter, your chances are much worse: No matter how smart, ambitious, and hardworking you are, the odds are less than ten in a hundred that you’ll get through by that same critical point and acquire the education you need without an immense and protracted struggle.
to table of contents
Virginia Tech freshman Angie De Soto didn’t vote in the 2004 election. The president, she thought, had nothing to do with her life. She didn’t care who won. Instead, she and friends played a drinking game in one of their dorm rooms. They divided into random “red” and “blue” teams, and chugged a beer each time new results on TV favored their team. Angie woke up the next morning hung over and with no idea of the election outcome, but it hardly seemed to matter.
When Angie started college, she focused mostly on her social life and picked her classes almost at random. But midway through a resources geology lecture course, her professor told the students, “I’m going to talk about an issue that’s going to change your whole future.” For two days, he discussed global climate change, and Angie, who’d never heard of it, was stunned. She called her mother, who worked as a teacher, and said “Mom, I just learned about global warming. What is this? Have you heard about it?” Her mother had no idea what Angie was talking about even after she tried to explain it. “Neither did any of the girls on my hall,” Angie said. “I just kept asking myself why I hadn’t heard about something this important, and why more people weren’t doing anything about it. Didn’t they know? Didn’t they care? Did they just not know what to do?”
For a longer excerpt of this, see From Drunken Party Girl to Climate Change Activist.
to table of contents
“When it comes to protecting Internet freedom, the Christian Coalition and MoveOn respectfully agree.” So read an ad in The New York Times that helped save the Internet as we know it. MoveOn was the largest progressive organization in America, and the Christian Coalition had long been the major grassroots group for conservative religious activists. That they’d team up on anything made national headlines.
The ad would never have run if not for a former Army Ranger captain, Republican congressional candidate, and Christian Coalition activist named Joseph McCormick. After falling short in his campaign and being a Bush delegate in 2000, Joseph began to recoil at the polarization of American political debate. He dropped out of active politics and took time off to retrace Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey across America, interviewing a mix of ordinary citizens and political leaders across the ideological spectrum. The discussions were so rich that Joseph decided to create gatherings that would bring together key organizational leaders of differing perspectives, to get them listening to each other.
Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs got involved early on, cosponsoring the second gathering of what would be called Reuniting America, in December 2005. The other main cosponsor was MoveOn co-founder Joan Blades, who had worked as a mediator and was strongly drawn to the idea. The retreat drew together leaders from organizations representing 70 million Americans, including conservative groups like the American Legion, the Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Christian Coalition; liberal ones like the Sierra Club, MoveOn, Common Cause, the National Council of Churches, and the League of Woman Voters; and the massive seniors’ organization, the AARP. Roberta and Joan quickly hit it off and became friends.
For a longer excerpt of this, see How MoveOn and The Christian Coalition Helped Save the Internet.
to table of contents
When we work for change, what should we be working for? The issues we address will vary according to our perspectives, backgrounds, and passions. But however we take action, it helps to have a compass to steer by, a way to find our moral “magnetic north,” in the words of one community activist. Although no blueprint exists for the ideal society, there are, I believe, some overall goals worth working toward, and others that should be avoided. I hasten to add that what I’m about to propose is not a formula for solving all our planetary ills. No such formula exists. But I’d like to suggest some approaches based on years of watching citizens I admire struggle to make the world a better place. Whether you agree with them or not, think of them as another facet of our conversation on common responsibility—an opportunity to unleash our imaginations to envision the world we’d like to see.
In a troubled time like ours, much can be learned by examining what’s wrong. Writer Susan Griffin describes a “resemblance in the look and feel of a field that has been polluted with chemical waste, a neighborhood devastated by poverty and injustice, a battlefield.” All are products of similar dehumanization, greed, and neglect—of an ethic of disconnection that makes people and places expendable. They echo Carol McNulty’s observation that it’s hard to find inner peace when people are starving, the air is polluted, the water is filthy, and companies make money from the suffering of children.
To begin to sketch an alternative vision, we can explore what would result from an ethic of caring. We can look at all our economic, political, and cultural decisions, both individual and collective, and ask whether they respect human dignity and nurture a more sustainable relationship with the earth. “We’re living in an imperfect world,” says Pete Knutson. “We have to make choices and judgments that aren’t always easy. But you start with basic ethics, like truthfulness, fairness, equity, reciprocity, and sharing, that are at the core of our species nature, what makes us human. You reject the PR-firm notion that truth is a disposable commodity. If powerful economic interests are backing something, you don’t shy away from naming them. These are very simple things, but they’ve become radical concepts in today’s political reality.”
At the heart of the ethics Pete describes lies the principle of mutual respect. “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man,” said Rabbi Hillel, two thousand years ago. “That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.” Hillel’s words define a standard to live up to.
to table of contents
In the early 1970s, when I was just out of college, I edited a small political magazine called Liberation. It had been around since the mid-1950s and had an inspiring history (even though it had never circulated more than 10,000 copies). Nelson Mandela had written for it, as had radical existentialist Albert Camus and leading African American novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” had appeared in its pages. Founding editor Paul Goodman wrote one of the canonical texts of the 1960s, Growing Up Absurd, and was “out” when most gays were closeted. Cofounder Bayard Rustin, another gay pioneer, was a key mentor to King on Gandhian tactics and the prime organizer of the March on Washington where King gave his famed “I have a dream” speech. I arrived shortly after the last cofounder, veteran pacifist and Chicago Seven defendant Dave Dellinger, had left. Within six months, I’d become the senior staffer, working desperately to keep the magazine afloat.
We enlisted new financial supporters and writers including Howard Zinn, Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg, Noam Chomsky, Gary Snyder, and Wendell Berry. We sent out mailings and appeals—and even increased our circulation. Because I felt the magazine’s survival was at stake, I put in 60 hours a week, soliciting and developing articles, designing promotions, and working to raise the $60,000 a year in grants and donations that kept us going. When a piece of junk mail arrived one day addressed to “Dear Mr. Liberation,” the other staffers handed it to me, explaining with a smile, “Of course they mean Paul.”
But the work and circumstances ground me down. We each earned $60 a week, in theory, but didn’t always get that. Even though my rent in a shared Brooklyn house was only $85 a month, what I earned didn’t cover my needs. The other staffers worked hard too, but they logged fewer hours and could supplement their meager salaries by outside freelancing: indexing, proofreading, graphic design. They stayed financially afloat, albeit precariously, while I steadily depleted the money I’d saved from working my way through college as a bartender. Several times, I thought of asking for a bit more salary, both as compensation for my extra time and because I brought in the bulk of the magazine’s budget. But I never asked. Instead, when my savings ran out after three years, I had to leave, financially and emotionally drained. Within another couple of years, the magazine had folded.
If we are to stay involved in our causes, we must set boundaries to keep our lives from being so consumed that we’re forced to withdraw from involvement entirely. For short periods —like the weeks before a key election or major event that we’re organizing, or when a crisis unexpectedly emerges -- we can sacrifice sleep, exercise, family relationships, and other personal aspects of our lives. But if we work only in crisis mode, with no chance to recuperate, we’ll steadily erode the ties that sustain us—and perhaps our economic base as well. And sooner or later we’ll collapse. For most of this book, I’ve been talking about the need to push beyond our comfort zones. But we also need to choose the pace and manner of our commitments, so that we don’t end up too drained to continue—as happened to me at Liberation
to table of contents
However we promote social change, we act in our own historical time, while at the same time linking past, present, and future in our attempts to create a better world. Some historical eras, however, seem more pregnant with possibility than others. Sergei Eisenstein was the great Soviet director, who in the 1920s and 1930s made films like Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky. A British art exhibit I once saw surveyed his work, his times, the history he helped shape. It conveyed the atmosphere of a period when everything seemed to be breaking loose—politically, technologically, and artistically. One room of the exhibit re-created Eisenstein’s office, spilling over with artifacts given to him by such artist friends as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Leger, the muralist Jose Clemente Orozco, and the photographer Edward Weston. There was a bust of the composer Prokofiev (Eisenstein’s frequent collaborator), and signed photos of James Joyce, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Harpo Marx—and Lenin. The exhibit was a metaphor for a time of dramatic promise, when people believed they could reinvent the world. Whatever their illusions—and the brutal Soviet system would soon shatter many—they rode an exhilarating wave of hope.
The 1960s were marked by a similar sense of political and cultural ferment. Ordinary people worldwide challenged entrenched institutions and policies. Artists staked out new ground. People talked of creating a more humane and generous future and worked together to move toward it. Their movements eventually collapsed because of powerful opposition, participant exhaustion, and some dangerous moments of arrogance. But for a time, they unleashed a powerful sense that the world could change for the better.
Our lives today are hardly stagnant. If anything, the world seems to be shifting too quickly, from the uncertainties of a roller-coaster economy to the unparalleled threats of global warming. Technology opens up new opportunities. Political hopes rise and fall. One moment we feel that our nation will finally grapple with its most deeply rooted problems, and the next we decide that the interests of unaccountable wealth and power are so entrenched and all-corrupting that they’ll inevitably prevail. The startling pace of change around us can easily leave us shell-shocked, feeling that all we can do is retreat to our private lives. Yet these profound challenges combined with genuine reasons for hope offer powerful opportunities for change. Given how much of our common future is indeed up for grabs, then our actions now matter as much as in any other time.
to the table of contents
back to Home Page
Soul of a Citizen
Want to hear Paul Loeb speak?
View his upcoming speaking dates.
Paul Loeb Live!
to hear live talks and see video clips
Join Paul's monthly email list
Follow Paul on Facebook