Literary Activism and the Quest for Compassionate Discourse

By Jessica Shepherd

I write as a way to better understand the world and my role in it, putting one word after another until the sum of the words teaches me what I set out to learn. Then I offer it up with hope that others who are asking the same questions will find sustenance for their own introspection.

The global-scale events marking this past year have driven many of us to reevaluate the insidious nature of inequality, the delicate structure of democracy, and the scale and speed of the climate crisis. Like others fortunate enough to hunker down at home, I parked myself at my desk and scrolled through daily news feeds trying to gain clarity on what was happening in New York and Italy, DC and Portland, California and Siberia. I consumed it all with a mixture of foreboding, horror, and empathy as virus numbers spread like blood stains across the map, and faces of those struck down flashed across the screen. At night, sleepless, I worried about migrating birds amid smoke-laden skies, about a whole world of children bereft of the safety net schools provide, about ER nurses, grocery store clerks and bus drivers. I willed the powers that be in state and Federal offices to stop pointing fingers and start caring about something other than poling numbers and corporate profits.  And, like others, I took to the keyboard, adding my voice to this shimmering expanse of ether we call social media. Having retired at the onset of the pandemic from a satisfying career as a marine educator, I spent an introspective year reinventing myself as a literary activist.

It seems to me that humans are emotionally ill-equipped to deal with the scale of calamities confronting us. That these calamities are largely of our own making drives this point home. On the whole, despite our clever inventions and expansive ideas, we function at the level of impulsive adolescents. Besieged by the relentless demands of daily life and consumed by suspicions, personal injuries, and destructive habits, we seldom demonstrate the cooperation and maturity needed to adequately address the humanitarian and ecological issues dominating the news.

Add to that a pandemic, and people everywhere are overwhelmed, day in and day out, by a heightened sense of anxiety and isolation. We respond with anger, fear, distrust, and (I speak for myself here) an underlying sense of sadness and defeat. It’s no wonder we seek distractions, be it bingeing on Netflix, Minecraft, or Jack Daniels, as a balm against an escalating sense of doom. 

Unfortunately, it’s this dampening of our senses, this turning inward and away, that leaves us unprepared to address the issues confronting us, both at the personal and the collective level. Over the years, inundated with images of grieving parents after yet another school shooting, spindly, vacant-eyed children in famine-wracked Yemen, and polar bears on dwindling ice floes, we grow numb. If the rising ocean isn’t flooding our streets and we have the good fortune to simply drive past the homeless camp in the park, we may convince ourselves we are safe, somehow, from the struggles that upend others. But, quoting writer and philosopher Joanna Macy, “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.” 

For most of us, the events of this past year have hit home. No longer is the out-of-work man just some random panhandler on the street corner, now he’s our husband, or nephew, or son. The family without the means to pay rent next month may be your sister’s, only avoiding homelessness because you dip into your savings to help. And the wiggly six-year-old who attends kindergarten by way of a Zoom connection? That would be my granddaughter, Dorothy.   

So now that we’ve awakened to the true depths of despair gripping this country, how do we, how do I, shake the urge to leave the seemingly insurmountable challenges to others and answer this call to action? And given the many problems we face, where do we begin? 

In writing it begins with that first step – a sentence on a blank page. The same is true for everything else. Choose something that speaks to you, no matter how small, and take it on. Call your congress, bike to work on Fridays, donate a few hours out of your week at the local food bank, or write a check in support of a cause that tugs at your heart strings. Then take another step and another. 

All of this begs the question of maturity. It’s a topic I’ve been pondering of late. I suspect that if we are to have any hope of resolving the social, environmental and economic issues we face (all the more pronounced in the face of Covid), we need to cultivate a greater mental capacity for equitable problem-solving and emotional resilience – traits I equate with maturity.

Unfortunately, our Western culture provides woefully few examples of what a mature mental process looks like. If you’re among the lucky few, you had parents or grandparents who served as mentors. Or perhaps you can find role models among the clergy or within other houses of worship. Ideally, those who dedicate their lives in the service of others cultivate balance and wisdom.   

Given my Buddhist leanings, I turn to meditation and deep introspection when I’m in need of grounding. Meditation, as I see it, is an ongoing effort to become more resilient and awake. Our minds, always a whirl of “what ifs” and “what’s next” need taming, training. Meditation, which you can do during those first drowsy minutes before the alarm goes off, or sitting on a drift log above the beach, or with the support of a community sangha, is an attempt to quiet that constant chatter. For a few moments at a time, we just be, unguarded and unscripted, breathing in a sense of spaciousness and calm, breathing out tension and negativity. Within that stillness, as we free up mental space, something that feels very much like trust takes root. Trust in our own capabilities and in the existence of an inner compass pointing to a clear sense of purpose. 

In Buddhism, introspection is the companion to meditation. Through deliberate examination of our emotions, we seek to uncover their root causes and the source of the stories we tell ourselves. The goal is to stay present with our emotions – acknowledging them without immediately reacting to them. Like counting to ten when we’re angry, this pause allows us to regain our composure and broaden our perspective. Recognizing the grip emotions have on our ability to think rationally increases our compassion for ourselves and others. Charged emotions are not the problem, it’s what we do under their influence that determines our success or failure. 

In full disclosure, my husband Hal and I have often questioned the passive nature of Buddhism, asking ourselves, “How can Buddhism help in today’s world if one is always supposed to be compassionate and nonjudgmental?” Surely self-righteous anger is the more effective path? Christianity, with its “turn the other cheek” presents the same challenge. But I’m coming to see that these forms of mindfulness teaching don’t stem from indifference or surrender. Rather, they are rooted in a maturity which allows us to regard the other person or party from an emotional arm’s length. Not because we agree with, or concede to their point of view, but because fruitful discourse requires a willingness to acknowledge the emotional basis for the position others hold. If our goal, as advocates for a better world (however we personally define that), is to bring people together for the common good, we don’t have to be angry to do it. In fact, anger is counterproductive. A calm resolve and a compassionate attitude build a better bridge. 

The idea is to see our emotions as teachers, allowing us access to a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. Then, coming from a place of compassion rather than one dictated by anger or suspicion, we do what we can to find compromise, offer encouragement and then let go. If, for example, I have an adult child who blames others for the state in which he finds himself, I could berate him for his role in a failed relationship or lost job, or I can recognize and acknowledge his sense of loss and fear of future failure, and gently encourage him to examine his contribution to the problem as a way to grow and learn. Then I leave it be.

Letting go of expectations is like planting a seed in uncertain conditions. The soil may not be receptive, or the growth may occur out of sight, but we trust we’re doing the best we can and accept that we alone cannot determine the outcome. Letting go returns us to the present moment, where all things are possible.

Mary Rose O’Reilley states in her contemplative book The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd, “We must see the negative seeds and the positive seeds and be careful only to water the positive.” This is true when we listen to others, seeking intersections of compatibility, and equally so when we look deeply into our own Pandora’s box of woes.

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This brings me back to literary activism. Over the past year, because of Covid, my husband and I canceled travel plans and physically isolated from our community, spending far more time together and at home than we ever have before. This withdrawal, reminiscent of David Henry Thoreau’s two-year odyssey at Waldon Pond, provided us with the time and mental space to reevaluate our lives and to answer the question put forth by Paul Kingsworth in his essay Dark Ecology, “What, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time?” The writing life, which we both embrace, feels like the natural way forward. As writers and activists, our goal is to plant seeds of awareness and, hopefully, inspiration. This blog is the product of that goal. 

By nature, all writers are storytellers. As literary activists, we can use stories to foster connections and heal rifts. I’ve long believed we create the future we envision, be it dystopian or utopian.  It behooves us then to tell stories about ways to live which don’t entail slicing up the remaining expanses of wilderness, snaring the last wolf, and subscripting people of color to indentured lives. We won’t always succeed, but we surely fail if we don’t try. 

For me writing is a form of introspection, but I strive to craft content that is universal and relatable. Although I am not always confident of my voice at the beginning of an essay such as this, I write to better understand the world and my role in it, putting one word after another until the sum of the words teaches me what I set out to learn. Then I offer it up with hope that others who are asking the same questions will find sustenance for their own introspection. 

Should I doubt the power of literary activism to transcend our oil-based economy, as I sometimes do, I don’t have to search far for examples of its success. A recent YES magazine article covered the story of Alaskan Indigenous activists working with TikTok (an online platform widely used by millennials) and a media company called Project Impact to gather public comments against the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil leasing. The resulting flood of letters, some 6.3 million in all, from America’s youth and others so overwhelmed the US Fish and Wildlife Service the clock ran out on the Trump administration before they could process them all. (you can read a version of my letter to the USFWS here.) This story greatly moved me, and I especially related to this quote by Bernadette Deminetieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, “To be honest, it’s not easy going into places, talking to people that will never understand how spiritually and culturally connected we are to our land, to our water, and to our animals, but I do it anyway. I try anyway.” 

Literary activism is a broad and amorphous name for this calling we embark on. As you read or write, I encourage you to note what moves you and follow the breadcrumbs along that path toward greater engagement and understanding. Examine your biases and water any seeds of compassion which spring forth.  Align your actions with the issues that speak to you and gently change your life to reflect the future you wish to see.