HECUA co-founder Don Irish passed away April 14th of this year, at 97 years of age. He was a powerful advocate for peace and justice until the end of his life, and his influence on HECUA is felt to this day. You can read Dr. Irish’s full obituary here, but we’d like to offer a glimpse into how he’s inspired us by sharing an article he wrote in Fellowship Magazine in January of 1997. These “words for activists” have circulated the HECUA office in the past two weeks, and we hope that you find them as encouraging as we do.
How To Hang In There For The Long Haul
by Don Irish
Originally published in Fellowship magazine (Jan-Feb 1997)
Young people who are committed to peace and justice sometimes ask their elders how they have been able to continue such efforts for so long. We need to gain and retain the talents, energies, and early commitment of these youth. What guidance can be given them? Here are some suggestions:
1) Recognize that those who plant trees may not live to enjoy the fruit. Others have preceded us; we can likewise serve those yet to come. Always take the long look, not expecting quick results.
2) Everybody/everything is connected to everybody/everything. A holistic approach to life is more effective, comprehensible, and satisfying.
3) You can’t do everything—but you can always do something. To focus on effectiveness may often result in ineffectiveness. Do what you can, where you are, with what energies and talents you have, given other significant obligations.
4) Remember that the world does not depend upon you alone for needed changes. That’s a burden lifted from your shoulders! Avoid burn-out: find respites from continual, unceasing pressures. Life is to be lived!
5) Redefine success in your endeavors for social change. To prevent a situation from becoming worse is success. To gain a portion of what is attempted, without retreat from one’s goal, is success. To be among the first to initiate a movement for peace and justice that brings its achievements decades later is success. To keep hope alive during dark days is also success!
6) Realize that courage is rarely manifested by persons who are alone. You need to find others of like mind so you can provide support for each other, enabling all to withstand the societal pressures that will be brought to bear against nonconformity.
7) Develop a faith that can sustain you. Avoid succumbing to despair or disseminating it, for that will immobilize you and others, making personal and collective action seem useless, hopeless.
8) Adopt a nonviolent philosophy as a thoroughgoing way of life. Try to make it applicable to all your behaviors and attitudes, not just a temporary tactic. Consistency in principle is essential for integrity and persistence.
9) Find joy and satisfaction in small gains, because those are usually what you will get! Appreciate the first words from an autistic child, a smile from a depressed individual; reconciliation with an opponent.
10) Focus your challenges on issues/problems, not attacks on persons. Avoid demonizing opponents, for hate will not resolve conflicts or reconcile the parties. People are what they are for reasons that need to be understood, though not necessarily excused.
11) Know that a majority is not needed to bring significant changes. A “critical mass,” a minority of committed, informed, relentlessly persistent individuals, can accomplish wonders. One stone cannot make an arch. One drop of water cannot turn a mill wheel. But one plus one plus others make a million (or dozen) disciples!
12) Believe that at times, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” We cannot always stop mounting tragedies midstream, especially if we are “outsiders.” Ultimately, the parties in contention must be willing to resolve their problems together. Then we can assist.
13) Know that there are many ways and means to bring change nonviolently, often with success. Beware of those who argue either/or alternatives, or who contend that “we have no choice.” There are always choices, even if unsatisfactory ones.
14) Remember that means and ends are inextricably linked. The means used predetermine the ends attained. “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
15) Respond to those who question the efficacy of nonviolence. Turn the question around: “How effective have violence and war been?” There is growing literature on the successful use of nonviolent means to resolve conflict and injustice.
16) Observe that serious structural problems will not be resolved by “middle of the road” measures. Radical changes may be needed for such conditions—dealing with the root causes, so as to move the action toward more basic solutions. “Extreme” and urgent proposals (if reasoned, civil, and nonviolent) can perform important social functions.
17) Learn from the long experience of others. For instance, indigenous peoples have much to teach and demonstrate to us about the nature of sustainable societies. Our current social system is not sustainable. It exists at the expense of others’ welfare, depends on a fatal commitment to unlimited “growth,” and is leading to the destruction of our earth and to horrendous human problems.
18) Retain a sense of humor. Events often turn out better than you feared, though less well than you hoped. Humor can be a took in struggles, as well as an antidote to despair. For example, in the South of the 1960s on one campus there were labels: “This tree for white dogs only!” “This tree for colored dogs only!” Or “Out of Order” signs appeared on only the “white” drinking fountains, bathrooms, elevators!
19) Don’t expect leadership for major, structural societal changes to come from the top. Political courage is rare and tends to follow growing grassroots sentiment. Laws tend to follow societal changes in attitudes and conditions, not anticipate them. So the grassroots work has to precede, and build pressures for, change.
20) Recognize that there really are no absolute dictators. Even they must keep their ears to the ground, are affected by world opinion and actions, eventually must modify their positions to maintain control. Their legitimacy can be undercut by many nonviolent forms of resistance and non-cooperation, from within and without.
21) Recognize that even when one has done all he or she has felt able to do, the human race may still collectively fail to change its ways sufficiently and in time to avoid its own created catastrophes. Success is not guaranteed, but faithfulness is expected. However, one can still live with integrity, work for justice and peace, and feel secure with whatever reckoning the greater cosmos may render. If you, I, and others persist, we may even find that we have helped bring about a new, more humane, sustainable society!
Don Irish, professor emeritus at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota, is a long time FOR [Fellowship of Reconciliation] activist. A CO in WWII, he participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, as well as taking part in Witness for Peace Brigades International actions in Central America. He has been arrested and jailed for his peace witness.
22) Accept that you will have “psychic pressures,” ambivalences, and even some “cognitive dissonance.”
23) Operate from hope, not fear or despair; from possibilities, not futilities; organize, don’t immobilize.
24) Read, view, hear a wide variety of information sources, for knowledge is power. Alternative media!
25) Appraise your views and behaviors in relation to chosen role models that share your values/principles.
26) Weigh regularly your integrity with regard to consistency and wholeness, not seeking absolutes but without compromising your basic orientations.
27) Seek diversity in personal relationships, enabling you to understand different perspectives held by those of other cultures/experiences.
28) Discern the humanity within your opponents—the person in military uniform, perspectives of corporate functionaries, rationales of government officials, experiences of police.
29) Avoid the either/or, black/white, good/evil sanctifying/demonizing polarizing approaches to discussions. There are always alternatives. Given where the so-called “realists” have brought us, idealism may be an ultimate realism! Major problems of a structural nature may require radical (root-causes) solutions.
30) Each of us needs to risk for peace as others risk for war and in war.