Four years ago, I heard a little whisper tell me I would walk an ancient pilgrimage across northern Spain. The trail is five hundred miles through forest, fields, and villages—to a city called Santiago de Compostela.
Now. I like nature as much as the next Oregonian, but I’m secretly a creature-comforts kind of girl. So my first reaction to hearing this call was a solid, unflinching NO. No way. I wondered, Who in their right mind would walk that far on purpose?
Well, it turns out, me. Taking a leap of faith, I bought a plane ticket and went. Those seven weeks of walking through Spain turned out to be one of the most transformational experiences of my life. The exertion of walking 10-15 miles a day in a foreign country, the novelty of meeting people from all over the world, the discomfort of sleeping in hostels with dozens of people—including a nightly chorus of snoring men, it changed me. I learned firsthand that facing difficulty makes you a better, more accepting, more resilient person.
Accepting the value of doing hard things
You may have experienced this yourself. Maybe you’ve had a difficult loss, overcome an illness or injury, pushed yourself beyond your known abilities. Have you found—looking back years later—that this experience was life changing? Me too. You’re never the same. Difficulty changes you—if you allow it—for the better.
I think our country is in such a time in its own story. Things are difficult. Our country is polarized, contentious, reactive, and wounded. We see policies enacted and hear rhetoric that deny the very humanity of our own citizens. And yet.
As Rebecca Solnit writes, “The future is dark. With a darkness as much the womb as the grave.” Right now, there is as much dying in our nation as being reborn. If we make the choice, if we take the difficult path, our actions can transform and heal our nation. America can be become a warmer, more accepting, and more resilient presence on the planet.
Before the election, I was a writer who blogged about the intersection of travel and spirituality. I was a word nerd who taught social media strategy. Inherently, I’m a conflict-averse introvert, a Hufflepuff who enjoys playing with my cats and spending time with my wife. In other words, I’m the least likely person to have a platform and online following about politics. Yet today, I produce a weekly activism checklist called Americans of Conscience with followers around the country of all political persuasions willing to stand up for our democracy.
These are difficult times. If you’re like me, you realize that sometimes you have to answer a call you don’t want to hear. You agree to face difficulty because you know it’s time for change to happen. You buy the ticket and go because you know nothing good will come of staying where you are. If you want change, you have to walk. So even though I’m an unlikely candidate, here I am—right here with you in the good, uncomfortable work we’re doing toward justice.
My hope for you
My intention is for you is to read this and feel inspired, motivated, and resilient. To equip you for the path ahead, I want to share three specific actions of how to proceed, to care for the precious vessel that makes those phone calls and shows up for justice. I want to share three stories, backed by good research, to assist you in persevering through this challenging, transformational time.
I’ll cop to my other agenda which is to help you stay engaged in this work for the rest of your life. But let’s start with inspiration.
Think for a moment about the kind of world you want to live in. What qualities does that world have? We’re going to come back to these, because the qualities you’re mentioning contain a kernel, a seed that will nourish you long term.
Story 1: The power of an ally
I was two weeks into my pilgrimage, starting to get the hang of walking and starting to enjoy myself. But with every step through Spain’s wheat fields, it began to feel as though my arches were tearing lengthwise. The searing pain in my feet was making me limp. Then hobble. As the pain increased, I grew worried and afraid. Why was this happening? How would I continue on this walk? My mind filled with defeated thoughts. And then a dreaded idea arose: Maybe I have to stop altogether and go home. I didn’t want to give up.
When the path entered a small village, I stopped for coffee, to rest my feet and decide what to do. A kind, young nurse from Austria sat down with me and listened to me describe my symptoms. She encouraged me to try walking in my Crocs since they were softer. Then she offered to walk beside me the rest of the day. And she did, saying the whole way, “Take your time. You’re doing great.” Her optimism and encouragement got me back on my feet—and into a pharmacy where I bought inserts that stopped the pain. Without her, I would have given up.
To persevere in the face of difficulty, we need allies. We need to know we’re not alone on this journey. We need others to encourage us, celebrate with us, and process defeat.
Science tells us that allies are vital to our health and well-being. According the Mayo Clinic, having social support increases your sense of belonging and purpose, it boosts your happiness, reduces stress, helps you cope with trauma. Data shows that those with good allies have a reduced risk of depression and high blood pressure. Doesn’t the resistance need this too? Dr. Dean Ornish is a pioneer in reversing heart disease. To accomplish this miracle, his program includes things you’d expect: healthy eating, increased exercise, stress reduction, (and we need these too), but the surprising, essential aspect of his program is weekly emotional support. Community. Allies.
On that day in Spain when I almost gave up walking, I understood how valuable it was to express my fears to a friendly ally. She gave me hope and courage to do the impossible. Our work toward justice is no different. In fact, if you’re a woman, sister resisters can hold space for you to vent your anger when the legislation of girl parts, the mansplaining, and covert misogyny get too much—especially since our culture shames you expressing anger.
If you’re a man, allies can be a safe place to express feelings other than anger, since our culture shames you for being too soft.
If you’re non-white, non-Christian, LBGTQ+, an immigrant, or have a disability, allies are a safe place where you don’t have to explain or defend who you are.
Without allies, I can fall prey to the belief that I alone am changing the course of history. When my single call to a senator’s office doesn’t result in a change in policy, I get discouraged. When the news gets too overwhelming or scary, without allies, I want to hide or even give in.
Instead, dream bigger. Allies help us get free by making it safe to express our authentic selves. They remind us we are part of a movement, and that all of us working together is how lasting change happens. That’s what allies can do. They remind us to take our time, to care for our feet, and remind us we’re doing great.
Your first challenge
So my first challenge to you is to make an intention to reach out regularly to someone (or a group of someones) who bring out the best in you. Even if you don’t have anything else in common besides activism, connecting regularly by phone, email, text, or social media—or best of all in person—will give you a lifeline when things are hard. When the losses are big. When you want to give up. Or to celebrate big wins.
Think of someone you’d like to connect with and make a plan to meet regularly and meaningfully soon. The success of our movement depends on it.
Story 2: Facing failure
As a recovering perfectionist, I hate making mistakes. The day I got lost on my pilgrimage I felt like a miserable failure. Picture five dirt paths meeting together in the center of a circle of leafy maple trees. I scoured my map, but it didn’t show me this intersection. The directional arrows on the trees contradicted each other. Not a soul was around to ask for help. In a pure a perfectionistic cliché, I stood there and agonized for a full twenty minutes about which path to take. Finally, I walked a little way, and came back. Then walked a little way on the next path, muttering to myself about my idiocy, and returned. I grew furious for forgetting to pack my compass. Then it started to rain. Desperate, I chose the third path, walked for 20 minutes, and two huge, hairy farm dogs came out of nowhere, barking menacingly. Afraid for my life, I backtracked, returned to that circle of trees and started to cry.
Did I mention I hate making mistakes?
Almost nothing prepares you for failure. It feels awful. I felt it deeply when Hillary lost. Maybe you did too. I’m being honest here, even with 70,000 subscribers to my Americans of Conscience list, failure makes me want to give up. So what do you do about it when the path ahead of us is almost guaranteed to have setbacks and disappointments?
In my research for this talk, I discovered Neil Dunbar, a social psychologist who studies the cognitive process of research scientists. He analyzes how they think—especially when it comes to their failed experiments. This is good because scientists fail more than almost anyone. It’s part of their job. Three out of 4 scientific experiments fail. You’ve probably even heard that Thomas Edison failed 1000 times before creating the light bulb.
How do people respond to failure?
From Dunbar’s research, I learned when people fail, they do one of two things predictably: the first is to place blame. In the scientists’ case, they tend to blame the process or the materials. The other thing people do is just stop working on the problem. Our brains actually have a mechanism that when it perceives failure, our brains just move on as if nothing happened.
Our post-election movement has goals. We want to stop the president, his cabinet, and congressional efforts to give more money to the richest, more power to the most powerful, and make everyone else destitute in the process. This is un-American at best, and we do well to oppose it.
However, not everything we do to work against this administration will succeed. Many of us activists are just discovering how democracy works—and doesn’t work—and our ideas to act within a broken system are as experimental as inventing a lightbulb. We are bound to fail—not permanently—but at least consistently.
Blame or move on
What concerns me is—if cognitive science is right—is that when our efforts to oppose a bill or support candidate fail, we are biologically wired to blame or forget. Honest question: Would you like to blame someone or something for Hillary’s electoral college loss? If so, you are human. To blame is human. It’s what we do when we fail. Would you like to just move on from talking about why Hillary lost and focus on the current issues? If so, you are normal. Moving on is what the brain is wired to do when we fail.
When I was back at that intersection for the fourth time, in the rain, terrified of death by dog, bawling my eyes out, I started to curse. I blamed myself for going on the stupid pilgrimage in the first place. I blamed the people who made the maps. I blamed whoever put up all the confusing arrows. I blamed God. I blamed everything for my abysmal failure, because that’s what we are wired to do.
Why blaming and “moving on” are ineffective, even dangerous
The problem with these two reactions is that blame wastes precious energy and forgetting wastes knowledge gained by experience. When we blame someone or something for failure, we put all our energy on assigning responsibility, but without any plan to act. When we “just move on” so to speak, we miss out on wisdom we can use for future efforts.
And just because blame and forgetting are automatic, doesn’t mean we can’t do something differently. We can consciously choose another option, another, more effective option.
In the study on scientists, Neil Dunbar discovered that the fastest and most effective way to solve a failed experiment is to get outside input. Dunbar noticed that when other experts from other scientific disciplines contributed to the conversation, the experiment’s flaw arose much faster. New eyes. New minds. New solutions.
Nearing the end of my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on pilgrimage, I wandered down a quiet road in the woods, following a hunch that it was the right path. It was only a theory. And when a shiny black Mercedes rolled up next to me, I waved to the driver to ask for directions.
Do you know how to get to Samos,” I asked her?
She took one look at me in my soggy poncho, with my red-rimmed eyes, and said, “Get in.”
I refused. “I’m wet, I told her. “I couldn’t possibly.”
Put your backpack in the trunk,” she said. “and get in.”
So I did. And two short miles later, she delivered me to Samos. Rescued by an ally with more insight about the problem than I had. Certainly faster than I would have walked there—I had been on the wrong path all day.
Your second challenge
We need to think bigger when we fail. So, my second challenge to you has two parts.
- Refrain from blame. Refuse to place blame when we fail. You can lean on your allies to share your discouragement and vent—expressing your emotions is important. But don’t get stuck there. Follow Michelle Obama’s advice and go high. This will conserve energy for the work ahead of us.
- Choose curiosity: Resist the urge to dismiss a failure and “just move on.” Our results are better when we read lots of sources. For example, you can get new perspectives from past movements like the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, opposing the Vietnam War, women’s rights, and marriage equality. When we learn about the success and setbacks these movements experienced, it helps us place our current challenges in perspective. Be curious, and you’ll find new solutions that support your goals.
Story 3: Dreaming courageous dreams
As I mentioned, the journey I took across Spain started with a whisper. And the message was: There’s something more for you. There’s something bigger that you’re meant for. But. You have to go out into the unknown in order to get it. You have to make yourself uncomfortable in order for that transformation to be possible.
Here’s the part I didn’t tell you. Back when I heard that whisper, I was—on the outside—a successful entrepreneur with a happy marriage and a lovely home. But I kept quietly thinking, Is this it? Is this what all my education and striving and therapy have been for? If you’ve been through a quarter life crisis or midlife upheaval, you might know what I’m talking about. Something was amiss. And it hounded me for months.
So when I heard that voice whisper, even though I was scared, I knew needed to go. It’s like those wise words from Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Right before I left, I prayed for the pilgrimage to change me. I wanted to walk to Santiago and become a more forgiving, more confident, more resilient person in the process. I didn’t pray not to be scared or to stay safe. I dreamed bigger. My hope was to be transformed.
Finding the Why
Everything we know about changing minds and hearts starts with identifying your biggest dream. In his inspiring work, Simon Sinek writes about how the most innovative companies succeed. It turns out they don’t focus on what to make or how to make it. They focus first on why they exist. Sinek calls it “finding the Why.”
For example, Apple’s Why is to innovate and to do things differently. They focus on beauty and user-friendliness. Because of this, everything they do—from product design, to sales and marketing—is informed by their Why.
By contrast, what does HP focus on? Not the Why. They focus on the What and the How—what products to make and how to make and distribute them. HP will never have Apple’s raving fanbase because they lack vision, they lack a Why. Sinek believes that to inspire people, it’s crucial to start with your Why. Then everything you do springs from that choice.
Strategy is important, but not energizing
As activists, there’s a temptation to focus on what to do and how to do it. Who to follow. Which app is best. These are essential issues. However, it if you focus only on them, you will run out of steam. That’s because although strategy is important, it doesn’t inspire. You will grow weary as you anticipate results without seeing them. You will start to think: this isn’t working and give up. Do you already know someone who’s given up? The danger is real. This is a slow, slow process we’re engaged in.
If we apply Sinek’s work to politics, we need more than strategy to keep us engaged. Strategy doesn’t sustain us. Dreams do. We need to dream bigger.
This may not be a popular opinion, but I believe we need to dream bigger than ousting the president and his cronies. We need to dream bigger than winning as many blue seats as possible. Our dreams must be bigger than us winning, and them losing.
If you step back and look at the big picture, can you see what’s happening in our country? There’s contempt, the polarization, the secrecy, the lack of regard for human lives, systematic dismantling of voting access, and the immoral policies enacted without a mandate. There are good things happening too, but something about our democracy—this precious union—is fundamentally out of alignment. Our dreams must be big enough to bring success to all Americans, to all people, and to the planet we live on.
Dreams are invigorating and inspiring
When you dream bigger, you become inspired. Everything that has caused people to work for equal rights comes from the ability to dream bigger. To imagine a world in which we all have equal opportunity to vote, to our sovereignty, to peace, to express ourselves.
From women’s suffrage to civil rights, movements persevered through the devastating setbacks, legislative battles, and sanctioned violence. It’s not strength that causes movements to succeed, it’s not anger, not blame, not outrage, but having a dream so big and so courageous, that you can’t help but persevere. Dr. King’s speech in 1963 is quoted so often because it inspires us. Dreams inspire us.
So, if you are here for the marathon and not the sprint, it is crucial to dream bigger. To start with your Why. To ask yourself sincerely two things: What kind of world you want to live in? And what values are so important to you that you’re willing to work for them even when you fail. When you know this, you’ll have your big dream. Your vision. Your why.
Almost seven months since I started my American of Conscience checklist, I am clear that if I am to persevere on this long road—just as I did on pilgrimage—I must know why I’m engaged. As committed to my progressive policies, for me the most important thing is to reclaim our democracy. This is my dream.
I dream of sitting down with Republicans to talk through issues, instead of questioning their worth as people—and receiving the same respect in return. I dream of a day when we value equally the voices and experiences of women, people of color, veterans, Muslims, Jews, working class and working poor, the disabled, my LGBTQ brothers and sisters to solve the issues of our time, not just people with money.
In the words of Rev Dr. William Barber, “They want us to think it’s about black vs white, Republican vs Democrat, conservative vs. progressive.” It’s not. My dream is to reclaim our democracy so that all Americans—even the ones I disagree with—can enjoy the Constitutional promises of justice, tranquility, welfare, and liberty.
Your final challenge
Because I’m a teacher by training, I want you to grab a piece of paper and write down your answer to these two questions.
- What kind of world you want to live in? What qualities does it have?
- What do you value so much that you’re willing to work for them even when you fail?
Then (and this is important) put this paper with your responses somewhere you’ll see it when the going gets rougher. Tape it to the bathroom mirror or stick it on your laptop. You can even make it into a piece of art or a song.
A final thought on the journey
When I got back from my pilgrimage people said to me, “Wow. You walked 500 miles. You are amazing!” And you know what? The distance wasn’t that amazing. I was proud of my accomplishment, but it wasn’t as momentous as people believed.
Here’s why: All I did was get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and then take a step. And another step. And another. Now and then, I stopped to rest and enjoy delicious food and wine, to laugh with my allies and tell stories. Then I’d get up to take another step. And then another. I didn’t worry about getting to the destination. I just focused on taking the next step and trusted that my dream, my Why, would come true.
People who read and use my weekly checklist write to praise me for its clarity and inspiration. “Wow! They say, You have so many subscribers!” They tell me I’m indefatigable, brave, admirable, and ask, “How do you do it every week?” Some even suggest I run for office. (That’s not going to happen.)
But you know what? What I’m doing is not amazing. Although I’m proud of what I’m creating each week, just like you, I am taking one step at a time. Make one call to my favorite senator. Read one article. Write one action. We can’t overthrow a regime overnight. So we take it one step at a time and trust that what we are doing together as a movement will take us where we want to go. Toward our dream.
We have a long walk ahead of us. We are being called to serve the highest good. I believe that everything we’ve done in our lives—all our education, our lifetime of learning, our personal growth, our hardships—all of it has led us here, to this moment in time, to be put to use for a higher cause. If an introvert writer who hates conflict and loves her creature comforts can do it, anyone can.
We are as prepared as ever for the new challenges in our country. We can support each other as allies and do hard things together. We can face failure and not give up. We can dream bigger and take small steps every day to create our vision of a more perfect union.
Can you hear that whisper calling you? Tell it YES with your whole heart.
I’d love a long thread of replies to this post sharing your responses to the two questions I mentioned.
- What kind of world do you want to live in?
- What do you value you so much that you’re willing to work for it, even when you fail?
As with the Action Checklist, you offer concrete, useful tools that will take our thoughts and actions to the next level, but, in this instance, the tools are soul tools, and we are helping ourselves to shine. People who are able to follow through on your process here will emerge more whole, more healthy, more fulfilled – and better able to serve their loved ones, communities, countries, world.
Thanks and love,
Full Spectrum Mama
My niece, Miranda and her mother, Loni, just completed that pilgrimage . We you all with the same group?
Well, you had me in tears by the end. I really needed this today. I’m going to save it to reread and send it out to friends and fellow activists. The why and the daily steps, down the long road to a more perfect union. Thank you for what you do.
Me too, Bobbi. Just what I needed to read this morning. Discouragement has been creeping in as this administration seems to get away with anything. The lies, ethical lapses, and secrecy have caused my faith in our government to collapse. But reading this has heartened me.
I SO needed to read this today! I’ve been getting so discouraged & disappointed that things seem to be getting even worse, not better. Your words connected to something inside me whispering that I am truly part of something bigger, something powerful, something that WILL ultimately have more successes than failures. And am reaching out to my best ally to schedule coffee this week. Thank you for sharing your thoughts & feelings ( & thanks for your perfect timing!)
Makes me wish I had been able to be there in person. They chose the right person to deliver the message. I have saved the text to read and re-read and share along the way.
Thank you so much! This is exactly what I needed tonight when my spirits were sagging. What kind of world do I want to live in? One in which everyone has a say and is treated with respect while they say it. What do I value so much that I’m willing to work for it through failure? 100% access to and participation in free and open elections. Wow. I had no idea! Thank you so much for posting your speech which led me to this surprising insight into myself!
I want to live in a world where helping people reach their potential is more noble than making money. This means helping people: become well educated, have access to affordable healthcare and housing, have a reliable support system when they encounter hard times, have access to safe communities, live in a world that does not discriminate, and be able to experience justice despite income, adverse circumstances, race or other divisive factors.
I admire people who know when to step in and help. (Just like in Jen’s story when the nurse walked alongside her for part of her journey. That kindness lifted her spirit and kept her going.) I believe that our elected officials in the state legislature and in Congress should have the best interests of their constituents in mind. It saddens and angers me that many of them don’t. They are beholden to lobbyists and financial campaign backers.
What am I willing to work for? Social justice. We need to get back to a level playing field and equal opportunity. That has been sadly skewed in the last two decades. Instead of making progressive advances, we’ve been stymied as a country. There have been many lost opportunities that would have advanced the greater good. I am willing to work for laws and movements that steer us in the right direction as a nation.
I was part of the Women’s March on Jan. 21 in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was so inspiring to see so many women (and supportive men) of all ages come out and proclaim their resistance to Donald Trump as president and their persistence to make their voices heard for the greater good.
Lovely and very very inspiring. I accept all your challenges. Thank you
Great story and very nicely written. Thank you
Thank you for being a consistent voice of action and gratitude. Your link was share with me when I was looking for content to share with our Indivisible group in Florida. Every week I post your checklist link to our facebook page. Many of our members have commented on its value in keeping them involved in a positive way.
This talk adds a wonderful perspective to our continued efforts. Thanks for being there for us as we are here for you.
Thank you. I returned from the Camino less than a month ago. Your insight helps tremendously. I send out a little rah rah email to locals. It’s hard to keep it up, but we have to!
As a newbie activist I greatly appreciate your weekly plan of action and all the different ways I too can Stand Up and work toward helping our country and citizens and planet to be healthier and whole. Thank you for sharing your story, one day I hope to take this pilgrimage as well. Such a beautiful piece, you helped enrich my soul today. I will be bookmarking it to read again for inspiration.
Jen, you rock. Were it not for your weekly check lists and posts, I would be sitting in a corner sucking my thumb and swatting at invisible bugs. You make me feel less helpless and more hopeful. You remind me that kindness still matters. Thank you for all that you do. You really are an awesome presence.
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Wonderful essay! Inspired! Thank you for writing and publishing this.
Thank you, Jen, for the depth you bring to this work. As a former Jesuit, I have found that contemplation and action are two sides of the same coin–core values that guide us on the journey to a better world. As a former community organizer in Chicago and NW Washington, I came to appreciate the vital necessity of reflecting on the Why, the meaning informing activism. The forested farm we live on in NW Oregon is called Pilgrims’ Pause–a place of sanctuary and renewal in nature, yet not a lasting resting place as much as sustenance for the journey, best made in community with other pilgrims. Thanks, and many blessings to you on your leadership in our struggle for a better America.
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Thank you for inspiring, challenging, and supporting.
Am I willing for the hard work ahead, for this marathon that repeats itself day after day? I’m not sure. I hear the call, the whisper, but do I want to answer it? Is this how I want to spend my energy?
I like sitting in my air conditioned home, spending my days writing ‘stuff’ on my computer, not exerting much steam, living a comfortable life. And do I want others to have the same creature comforts? Yes. But…
I can beat myself up with guilt because I know this is the lazy path, the one that won’t accomplish what I want for myself and others. I know this. Now, what will I do about it?
Can I take that first step, or the second one, the third one, ? The answer to that is my fork in the road…and I have yet to decide.
I want to live in a world covered in peace and love. I try to work toward these values. Above all, I want these things for my children. Right now, they are set up to inherit a polluted Earth and society. I am working toward a world where we can give into the better parts of ourselves.
Thank you, Jen! Thank you for the speech you gave, and thank you for posting it. It’s 3:36 am. I woke up at midnight with a current family responsibility/problem on my mind and couldn’t go back to sleep. I made some Camomile tea, opened Twitter, and found your post. I had been beating up on myself about failing in my responsibility to an elderly relative. While your post was meant for a different kind of problem, your insights are equally applicable to this personal problem. I feel revived on both fronts!
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