“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
I used to long for the day when I would find my Why, my Reason for existence, my Purpose. But I’ve given up that dream; I believe what I can do next is far more important than discerning the singular most important thing I could do over a lifetime.
I will agree with Mr. Twain, however, that it is something special indeed to experience the Click of everything falling exactly into place, of who you are and where you’ve been suddenly making sense. Those moments of perfect clarity when you see you have been traveling down exactly the right road in exactly the right manner and have finally arrived at exactly the right place and time - those are the moment we live for.
I had one of those moments this morning.
I was clutching my coffee mug and trying to figure out exactly what I was doing at an Advocacy Committee meeting at 8am. I mean, literally: what the heck is an advocacy committee? I’d come because a friend of mine was passionate about the project and had invited me, and I knew we shared similar values and an addiction to volunteerism, but I had no clue what I had agreed to.
Here’s what I learned:
There’s a difference between social action and advocacy.
Social action is taking care of the afflicted; advocacy is working to change the systems that afflict. Basically.
The rush I felt when that difference became clear to me is, I assume, similar to that adrenaline high runners are always talking about. I am so much better at strategizing than comforting!!
And this has always been a problem for me.
I care. My justice complex has been nurtured since birth. But I have a very limited capacity for nurturing, especially in the face of a seemingly endless problem.
I am the friend who will listen to you and feed you – and eventually suggest you fix it or quit whining.
I have often felt guilty about this. I’ve felt guilty about my inability to offer unconditional support in the face of self sabotage – especially when that’s exactly what pulled me out of my own tailspin years ago. I’ve felt guilty about wanting – needing – to do more than triage, about always leaping to the big picture in the face of personal suffering.
I want to know why. I want to know how. I want to figure out how to prevent a problem from happening again. This is where my heart and my enthusiasm lie, and also where my skillsets are.
Advocacy is about addressing systemic change. I freaking love systems! Seriously. I will spend three days developing the perfect system for managing the flow of laundry in my house, but loathe spending three minutes putting laundry away.
And not to sound too flippant, but the Internet has given me an impressive education in systemic everything. Thanks to my very smart friends talking about race and gender and all sorts of issues that mean so much to them, I’ve learned a ton about the importance of going beyond “be nice to each other” and ferreting out the institutional policies that harm where they were meant to help.
Another piece: since June I’ve been working for a neighborhood non-profit, and it’s been an eye-opening introduction into a whole world that doesn’t measure success with dollars earned. It’s been thrilling to work with people and organizations who are motivated by a goal that has nothing to do with a balance sheet. Of course, achieving those goals almost always require money – but it’s been fascinating, and extremely rewarding, to work in an environment where money is a means rather than an end.
That paradigm shift helped prepare me for sitting in a room talking about advocacy. It’s helped me learn to use metrics that aren’t dollars. It’s also taught me about other tools at one’s disposal: relationships, power, influence, education, awareness.
Yesterday was a hard day.
I was heartbroken at the news of another school shooting in Oregon, but I was mostly heartbroken at the reminder that being heartbroken on Facebook changes little. I sunk into my couch and let myself be crushed by the weight of my uselessness, my impotence in the face of very real problems that are not inevitable and yet remain unsolved.
Today I feel hopeful. I feel empowered.
Today I was shown how my specific set of skills can be used to address issues about which I am passionate, and I have reason to believe I can actually make a difference.
I am not good at nurturing and comforting. I am grateful for people like my mother who excel at offering support. But in this way, I think, I can play another role in making the world a little bit better.
I want this for everyone. I think we are all uniquely suited to excel in various areas, and so often we spend time feeling bad about the areas in which we are not enough that we miss the signs that point us to our perfectly us-shaped places. There is nothing better than finding the place where you currently fit.
I wanted to share this with you in case you are still looking. Maybe you’re a nurturer trying to strategize, or an advocate trying to triage. Please don’t give up – on yourself or the issues you care about. I promise there is a you-shaped place out there. Keep looking.