This morning I was thinking about the fact that throughout America people today are resting, attending church and making preparations for watching the Super Bowl, while at the same time in Haiti, in Iraq, in Myanmar, and in so many unknown villages, slums and cities around the world there are people deprived of food, justice and dignity. And it occurred to me that the great responsibility of living in a free society is to strike a balance between fully enjoying that freedom–and the comfort and security it affords–without turning a blind eye to the lack of freedom elsewhere. How do we confront the horrors of Haiti without reducing our own hearts to rubble? Yet if we can look at these things with clarity and not turn away, then we can find sustainable, practical solutions.
Yes, that is our task. What follows is the story of how I came to that realization.
Up until I started college at 17, my goal was to become a professional tennis player. However, during my freshman year I acquired a keep interest in social and environmental issues. In particular, I become extremely opposed to the pending war in Iraq. I started attending numerous protests, and even took a bus, overnight, to San Francisco to attend one of the largest anti-war demonstrations. Still, though I enjoyed seeing a mass of humanity united to try to stop an injustice, something about the whole movement seemed insufficient. For one thing, I felt that simply showing up at a march and then returning home and going about my life was not an answer.
My epiphany came one day when, after a protest, I returned to my car still chanting to myself “No War For Oil” and, as I put the keys of my car in the ignition, suddenly saw the irony of protesting a war for the very oil on which my own lifestyle was so dependent. Soon after I resolved that a more efficacious means of protest would be to cease driving–and I haven’t owned my own car since. Of course, I now realize that it is impossible to extricate oneself from fossil fuels, as everything from plastic to food to anything that is manufactured and transported is, as it were, “awash” in oil.
Still, it was a symbolic step, and after that fateful decision I went and purchased a new bicycle that would become my primary means of transportation. The next day I went for my first ride on the bike. On the way home I was going 30 miles per hour when I hit an enormous pothole, lost control, went flying over the handlebars and crashed into the pavement, breaking my elbow and collarbone and suffering a serious concussion. I had amnesia for 5 hours and briefly there was concern that I might have had bleeding in my brain. Fortunately I did not, and my helmet–which shattered completed–undoubtedly saved my life.
This is what I looked like not long after the crash.
The next morning I awoke and, somehow found myself on the couch (I don’t remember how I got there). The T.V. was on and CNN was announcing that the invasion of Iraq had begun. Groggy from the concussion, swollen, bloody, sweaty and in agony from my broken bones, bruises and other injuries, that was one of the lowest moments of my life.
Later that today I was in bed, quite possibly hallucinating from the powerful medication the emergency room doctors had given me. I was looking out the window and suddenly, instead of the quiet, suburban trees and the roof of my neighbor’s house, I saw the battlefields of Iraq; I saw innocent men and women and children cowering in fear of the bombs that were dropping; I saw one of the cradles of civilization burning with murderous rage and fear; and I saw, in a visceral way, that as long as such things were happening I could not look away and live completely free of that suffering. I realized that my pain was their pain, and at that moment I committed myself to a life during which I would never look away, during which I would devote myself to the painful–yet also joyous–work of preventing bombings, literal and metaphorical.
I want to be clear: the balance between enjoying freedom and fighting for it must be struck. No one wants to listen to a demagogue that admonishes everyone to give up their comfort to help others–these people are really just miserable and longing for others to join them in their miserable. No, the beautiful thing is that a committed life, in particular thanks to social entrepreneurship, is one that challenges us to use our skills and our passions to help create a better world while earning a living for ourselves. After all, life if difficult even in the freest of societies, as all human beings struggle with doubt fear, depression and insecurity, and if we are not happy, whole and healthy ourselves, then we can do nothing for others. The point is that there are new models emerging that enable us to meet our deepest needs for comfort and security while helping to provide others with, in some cases, a basic level of security. That is why the work I do with Capital Good Fund is the most rewarding thing I could ever imagine, and why I always say that I am living my dream. After all, I get to earn a salary and spend my days using my creativity and communication skills to solve problems that are always cropping up. But at the same time, all this work is geared towards enabling amazing people who lack opportunity to seize onto that opportunity and better their lives.
One thing I refuse to believe, however, is that this path is not open to all. In America we cannot afford to become complacent about how good life is here. I was just in Bangladesh for three weeks, where I saw a government that was truly unresponsive to the needs of its people and where many basic services were nonexistent. By and large, the greatest benefit of a free society is the freedom to forge our own path, and I encourage anyone I met to follow their dreams and their hearts and realize that they can lead a life that is in accordance with their ethics, their beliefs and their souls.