Dear Reader,

Do you marvel at those who are capable of resilience and bravery in the face of trauma, violence, or injustice? At people who display wisdom and calm when others bluster aggressively? And at those who show discipline, conviction, self control, and non-reactivity amidst the general chaos of change and upheaval? I do.

Throughout human history, swaths of people seem to repeatedly get caught up in a hunger to dominate, demonize, and separate- presumably to make themselves feel secure, safer, or better positioned for life. These forces of domination often appear in pulses. These can manifest as an instinct to overtake others in the name of a temporarily unifying idea, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious discrimination, or social bigotry.  A mood of sorts comes over people: An aggression stemming perhaps from their own unhappiness (it’s my theory that happy, connected people are generally not willful oppressors). This malady looks for someone to blame: a scapegoat. Someone to control, abuse, or manipulate. That someone is usually the stranger, the Other: someone who can be separated from the herd, and preyed upon. Historically, the Other as defined by some visible, external cue: race, religion, gender, sex, age, wealth.

At the same time that these dark forces are brewing—and even when they are in control there are concurrent voices who fight for social justice, equity, and kindness: people who keep moving the needle forward. These are individuals and communities who have held the line or advanced it, in every important social movement that has helped us evolve as humans. Someone said “no!” to slavery. Someone got women the vote. Someone ended the era of children working 12 hours a day in factories. Someone took a step out to defend gay marriage. Someone ended the Vietnam war.

These were all bitterly contested advances.  Where did these people get their resilience? Their conviction?  And how did they manage to build movements and gather steam? What battles did they fight, and what resources did they bring to bear? How did they do it?   

Sometimes such committed and clear thinking leaders seem few and far between, especially when it comes to social justice issues. A more common human reaction is to crumple, go numb,  or abdicate to someone who brings more overt energy to an issue. To ignore a social problem, and hope it goes away. Or—even worse—to be actively complicit in the suffering of other beings. People who are making out okay under an existing dominance structure can keep their noses down, remain silent, and just go about their business. Some people who are not directly affected choose indifference or inaction around an issue that smells of injustice—and they can do so without experiencing any overt, direct personal consequences.

But many just can’t stay passive. There is a whisper in their hearts: “This thing isn’t right, this thing isn’t just, or in alignment.” That whisper becomes a statement, then a shout: “This isn’t right. This ISN’T RIGHT!” until they can’t hold the contradiction any longer. In case after case, over hundreds of years of narratives (drawn from abolitionists, despot-fighters, sexuality activists, indigenous people, tax protestors—you name it) a similar story arc is evident.

As a person’s conscience becomes invested in an issue, they usually begin with a quiet action. Perhaps they say something to their neighbors. Write a letter to the paper. Stand up for a stranger in public. Circumvent an unjust law. Fly a banner.

But if they hit a hot button issue—especially at a time when a change is coming due that hasn’t yet been accepted by the dominant culture—there is often a strong adverse reaction: a backlash. Those who have something to lose from the coming change may threaten and pressure the activist, in an attempt to silence, deactivate, discredit, or defuse any further action.

At this point, the person of conscience is faced with a choice. They can recant and slink away—with only minor suffering or retribution—or they can double down on their stand.

For some people, the first option isn’t a viable choice. To recant would be to lose all self-respect and agency, all semblance of individual sovereignty. Recanting would force them to live as shadows of themselves. As for the second choice, standing up for your beliefs…well, buckle up. The ride will be harsh. The opposition, or status quo, has a long list of ways to abuse and intimidate: Insults, sarcasm, shame, ostracization, slander, exile, shunning, fines, imprisonment, physical harm, the threat of harm, financial or legal harassment, bounties, cruelty… and that’s just a start.

Sometimes, though, a strange thing happens: The pushback itself radicalizes a person.

Of the activists profiled in Bending the Bow, many were middle-of-the-road people before they faced the intense reaction of the holders of the status quo. A milquetoast daughter of the plantation; a bureaucrat tired of being pushed around; a quiet man of faith; a starving adolescent: all these people, as you will see, became stronger through the force of opposition. The pressure made them as hard and brilliant as diamonds. Something changed in them—and in this ownership of their beliefs, they became a man or a woman in full, and persisted in acting their conscience.

If opposition intensifies further, and the activist begins to feel that his or her life is in danger, something else can happen: a transcendence, an awareness of and acceptance of one’s own death. The night before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. said : “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.” Sophie Scholl, the Nazi resister, said, “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” Angelina Grimke, in the 1830s, as a pro-slavery mob threatened violence against her: “What is a mob? What would the breaking of every window be? What would the leveling of this Hall be? Any evidence that we are wrong, or that slavery is a good and wholesome institution? What if the mob should now burst in upon us, break up our meeting and commit violence upon our persons — would this be anything compared with what the slaves endure?

You will read a variation on this theme in every story in this book: Great leaders come to terms with the possibility of death in service to the cause. They live with death in mind. They live as if it could come at any moment.

With the acceptance of death, the person begins to emphasize transmission. They choose to touch, enlighten, and enliven so many others that, should they themselves be killed, thousands more will rise up to carry the torch. These leaders work on building alliances and networks that propagate their beliefs into the world. They seek out and often join with others dedicated to the same cause. They help inspire, and unify, a pod of committed change agents.

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As we were researching the stories of people (and pods of people) who sustain fights for meaningful change, we found that they share a range of powerful  common worldviews and attributes. Throughout this book, you will see many overlaps between the stories. This, we believe, forms a blueprint for how to become a successful change agent yourself.

For instance, the inner arc of belief flows in similar ways for all who wake up and activate for change. In short, it goes something like this:

I see clearly that a certain thing is causing suffering to other beings. I know that it must change. I am a sovereign being with my own agency. Opposition makes me stronger. The cause is bigger than me, and therefore there is nothing to lose that really matters. I accept my own death should it come early, thus my allies must be many and strong. I will build alliances and networks that will outlive me should that happen.

There’s also a clear superset of commonly held beliefs and personal characteristics, including:

Radical Self Love: “My freedom —and your freedom—is worth the fight.”

Firm Values: “I know what I stand for and what I believe.”

Strong Faith: “I tap into a higher source of unifying power or energy.”

Inner Freedom and Peace: “My state of mind is not dependent the world around me.”

Personal Independence: “It is difficult to harm, threaten, or compromise me.”

Bravery: “I act anyway, even when I am afraid.”

Resilience: “I bounce back after setbacks.”

Identity Beyond the Body: “I have come to terms with death. I think beyond the immediate or even generational outcome.”

These mindsets aren’t granted through grace to a special few: they often come through practice and effort. Effective change agents learn how to sustain and build upon such a mindset on a daily basis, over a long life of activism. The mechanism is not a myth or a mystery. It can be modeled and copied.

*  * *

Another point that was made clear by the research was that while great movements often do have a charismatic leader, they are made by a vast network of hands and talents and thinkers.  The common myth of “The Power of One” actually masks the reality, which is the “Power of the Pod”. The idolatry of the one sets great activists apart from the rest of us, and unfortunately makes their work see an impossibly goal, the purview of giants, when in fact it is not.

*  * *

I would like for you to also gain an appreciation for the struggle that animates each movement. In retrospect, historic achievements in social justice might appear as a natural progression toward freedom. In the moment of inception, though, they are often bathed in blood and soaked with anxiety. History smooths the line, like a mathematical function that takes out the noise. In our current political era, it may feel like such a recursion is overwhelming all progress, but it is part of a longer game.

Big change takes time—and it follows a common path. In the first wave, the outsider is seen as a person in full, deserving of rights and responsibilities. In the second wave, the outsider is enfranchised. The third wave brings some civil rights. The fourth wave brings economic rights and more parity, and often apologies or restitution. With economic success, the subsequent generations refine the civil, social and economic improvements until, in the 7th generation, there is more or less parity. If you’re in the middle of a third or fourth or fifth generation battle, this should give you hope to keep going. We stand on the shoulders of others, and we are the shoulders others will stand on.

*  * *

The deeper story of us is a longing to belong, to matter, to be held in the sanctuary of other humans and in community. To love, to feel empathy. To create. We have the power inside of us to create a more attractive alternative, where people can belong. We can bring people together, talk about the very real experience of being alive in a body: adventure, discovery, and wonder. We can celebrate the mad joy of human diversity, the beautiful possibility of it all.

That pulse of positive change is also present, all the time, through history: It lives in the people who keep alive the steady heartbeat of kindness, compassion, care, connection, play, and wonder. the people who hold the line for love, empathy, and authenticity. The antidote to a suffering world is to clearly communicate to each other: You matter, you belong. I see you, I recognize you. I know who you are. And then to build cultures and systems that reflect that worldview.

The only thing worth doing on Earth, in my opinion, is reducing the pervasive undercurrent of human suffering, and making more love, joy, beauty, and justice. We each in our own way can accelerate positive change. I think of history as a recursive spiral: We lurch forward, we fall back, we fatigue, things settle, there is a moment’s  pause, and then it begins again.

Warriors with love at their heart aren’t weak. They are strong and supple. But they don’t hate, either. So let’s do this together, and bring more people along with us. Let’s get smart about how we do this thing of presenting a new way to live together, and pulling people into the field.

You may be inspired, you may be horrified by these stories, but I believe you will be convinced of one truth: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King Jr., ”but it bends toward justice.”  And I hope it will give you the inspiration you need to pull back your own bow, and target a vision of a more just, equitable world.

Thank you,

Christine Marie Mason

California, USA, 2018