Hope in a Time of Fear
In recent years, I've traveled throughout the country to give lectures. Almost everywhere, I've met people who question whether their actions really matter. They wonder whether it's worthwhile to keep making the effort.
Yet history is replete with examples where ordinary people have an unexpected impact, or transform situations seemingly impossible to change. A Wesleyan University student I met got inspired by an environmental conference. With a few friends, she registered nearly 300 fellow students concerned about environmental threats and cuts in government financial aid programs. The congressman they supported won by 21 votes. Before they began, the student and her friends feared that their modest registration campaign would be irrelevant.
In the early 1960s, a friend of mine named Lisa took two of her kids to a Washington, D.C., vigil to protest nuclear testing. The demonstration, in front of the White House, was small, a hundred women at most. Rain poured down. The women felt frustrated and powerless, and their kids were cranky. (Maybe you've participated in an event that made you feel this forlorn. I know I have.)
But a few years later, the movement against testing had grown dramatically, and Lisa attended a major march. Benjamin Spock, the famous baby doctor, spoke. He described how he'd come to take a stand, which because of his stature had already influenced thousands and would reach far more when he challenged the Vietnam War. Spock talked briefly about the issues, then mentioned that when he was in D.C. a few years earlier he saw a small group of women huddled with their kids, in the rain. "I thought that if those women were out there," he said, "their cause must be really important." Lisa realized he was talking about her group.
Similarly unexpected fruits bloomed during Czechoslovakia's dictatorship. Critics mocked the early human rights initiatives in particular, a petition to free jailed dissidents. They dismissed those, like Václav Havel, who circulated the petitions, calling them "exhibitionistic," mocking their efforts as futile, and saying they were just attempting "to draw attention to themselves."
In one sense, as Havel reflected three years before Czechoslovakia's 1989 "Velvet Revolution," he and the other petitioners failed completely. They didn't free a single political prisoner. But their campaign was worthwhile, even essential, in a more significant way. Upon release, the Czech dissidents said that the mere fact that others had taken up their cause had sustained them during their incarceration-an example of what Nelson Mandela calls the multiplication of courage. And those who signed the petition became the core of a broader movement. Their once seemingly hopeless actions would eventually topple a regime.
Paul Loeb is editor of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (Basic Books, September 2004, www.theimpossible.org) and author of Soul of a Citizen.