Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Not-So-Modest Proposal, or My Trouble with #26

I need to talk about #26Acts.  And I hope that you'll give me the benefit of the doubt and read through before you react.  {Updated to add: please understand, too, that my intent is not to diminish the #26Acts movement.  Because I agree, as Kathy comments below, that movement is serving an important purpose.}


I wouldn't say that I was a do-gooder when I was growing up, but I was certainly no stranger to the idea of service.  We had to do service for my Confirmation in the Catholic Church, and for graduation from high school; I was a candy striper at the local hospital, and I did some other things, too.  I was a member, and then Vice President, of my high school's Social Action Club; we raised money for important causes, wrote letters for Amnesty International.  And I felt pretty good about my contribution to the world.

When I was in college, I took some courses in social justice.  And I started to understand the long-term investment and commitment necessary to make social change happen.  No, I'd never thought that I could change things overnight.  But I discovered that in order to really make change, you needed to act in a sustainable way.  And sustainability? Is HARD.

Like many other people, I've watched #20Acts and #26Acts hashtags spread like wildfire, trending on Facbook and Twitter and Instagram and blogs.  I applaud Ann Curry for promoting the idea, and I'm glad for the enthusiasm around acts of kindness.  I've done my share of random acts of kindness over the years, ever since I heard the phrase used in college.  And I don't want to diminish some of the amazing, generous projects that some of my blogging friends have started.  But there's something about the movement that bothers me, too.

You see, #26Acts, like many forms of social media itself, feels perfunctory to me.  You leave $26 in $1 bills taped to gas pumps.  You donate to Toys for Tots or "adopt a family" for Christmas (which to me is the wrong word; adoption is not just "borrowing" people to give them gifts, even if they're really fabulous gifts ... and silly as it sounds, I feel like the semantics matter).  You deliver plates of cookies to first responders to thank people for their service.  You leave 26 lovely handmade ornaments with tags on them around town, encouraging the recipients to do 26 acts of their own.  And while these are genuinely nice things to do, it feels more like chain mail, or like a popular internet meme, than a deep and meaningful tribute to lives lost.  How can I say that $120 at Starbucks, even if I give it to people anonymously, and even if my gift prompts 20 people to give 26 more cups of coffee or do whatever acts they choose to do, is worth of the 26 -- or 27, or 28, depending on how you're measuring -- lives lost in Newtown?  And am I done grieving when I reach 26?  Do I suddenly feel better about the world?  How long before the movement fades away?

Because here's the thing about grief: it doesn't last only for an hour.  It doesn't go away after a month.  It doesn't live in envelopes with surprise gift cards or on lovely Christmas ornaments left on park benches.  Grief lives on for years, sometimes hiding under the bed or in a closet or even at the mall, and then BAM it leaps out and shakes you to the core again when you least expect it.  At some point, the nation will stop grieving.  Maybe it already has.  We have to, after all; life has to go on.  But those people who lost loved ones in Newtown will grieve for years, for forever.  And there are few more terrible feelings than grieving alone, than feeling like you're grieving alone.

I don't know.  There's a lot all tied in together here for me.  The events in Newtown hit too close to home.  I have a first grader.  It could have been him.  My heart still hurts, aches for the grieving parents, for our communities; I long for a more peaceful, loving world.  And I want to make a more lasting impact on the world than doing 26 nice things.  I want to make the world a better place for my children, and for the other children who survive.  I also know too much about working for change to be satisfied with movements that are not sustainable, especially when I believe that we are capable of so much more.

I posted something to this effect on the Facebook page of #26Acts and immediately got attacked by people telling me that now is not the time for criticism.  That "you have to start somewhere."  And maybe they were right; I took down the comment.  But I felt like we had so much momentum, like there was so much potential -- and that settling for something less than heroism was shortchanging the opportunity.

Doing twenty-six really difficult things is too overwhelming.  I get it.  And that's the appeal of #26Acts.  Short, manageable.  An attainable goal.

So I'd like to propose an alternative.  {updated to add: Or maybe a supplement.}

ONE act.

Commit to one act that will change something about the world, that will change you and other people for the better in the long term, that is difficult for you, that will take effort.  Quit smoking and give the money you saved on cigarettes to an organization that provides needed mental health services for the community.  Forgive someone who has hurt you deeply.  Start a nonprofit.  Go every week to a food bank or a soup kitchen and think about ways that you can eliminate poverty.  Participate actively in an advocacy campaign.  Do something that you've been putting off, something your heart says is the right thing to do to create peace in the world.

Give yourself a year to do it.  Remember the love of Newtown for a year.  Make it something more than a New Years' Resolution; commit to it for long term, for the teachers and staff and 6 year olds who smile at us, gap-toothed and hopeful, from their school photos, and for the sake of fostering a fierce and relentless love in the world.  Be in solidarity with those grieving families for a year.  Not just for an Instagram moment.

This kind of work--this deep soul-work--is difficult.  You need a support system in order to change something that big, and it needs to be more than a Twitter feed or a Facebook page.  So I'm offering myself: if you want someone to keep track of your commitment, to remind you about it, to send you encouragement periodically, to hold you to your promise, I will do that.  You can post it here, or you can email me directly, and I'll hold in in confidence.  No one else will need to know.

I will commit to #OneAct of my own.  I'm not going to post it here.  But I promise you that I'll be working on it all year long, with anyone who wants to do so with me.

And I will guarantee you this: that even if nothing profound happens in the world as a result of your gift, after one year with #OneAct, you will be changed.  And that, friends, is a sustainable foundation for a fundamentally different, more beautiful world.

What do you think?  What would you commit to if you were to commit to #OneAct?
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  1. I get this and appreciate where I you are coming from. This is part of what really spoke to me about the idea of picking one of the children who died and committing to remembering them, not just for now, forever. I chose Catherine Violet Hubbard and have tried to learn everything I can about her, not in a weird way, but in a caring way.

    I saw your comment on one of my posts, and meant to reply, asking what about all the other children who die (lots of them) all the time in inner cities and such. Don't they deserve to be remembered too? Of course and I would be glad to chose someone local here from Chicago who died and remember them too. But to me there is something tangible and significant about making the effort to remember those who died vs. the one who committed the crime.

    I also appreciate that #26 makes people feel good about themselves during a time when a lot of people are feeling really bad and sad about what happened in Newtown. That said, I really like your intention and suggestions here.

    This all makes me think of that reading we here at church on Ash Wednesday about how the people who talk about what they are giving up for Lent and boast about fasting and such have already received their reward. But it's those like you, who are doing something in private (not telling us what) for the right and good reasons, that is really what God wants from us (at least that is my interpretation). During Lent I almost always give something up and do something extra for others, but most people in my life never hear about it and I want it that way. It is between me and God and that is part of the sacrifice for me, not getting credit from others, just knowing what I am sacrificing or doing and why.

    Steam of consciousness once again, but it's a busy day and if I took more time to plan out my comment right now, I would likely end up not leaving one. ;)

    Thank you, as always, for challenging us to think about something important from a different perspective. Sending lots of love to you, all those with empty chairs at their tables this holiday season and all those who are trying to help and make a difference and remember those who have left this world too soon in their own ways.

  2. And thank YOU, Kathy, for this comment. So much to think about for me here.

    I understand better now, better than when you posted, I think, the choosing of one child to remember. I understand that it's about remembering the victims rather than remembering the perpetrator of the crime. It so happens that a friend of a college friend lost his daughter, so Ana Marquez-Greene is my name, simply because people I know were close to her.

    I hesitated to post this, because I didn't want to diminish the #26Acts movement. I *do* think it's a good thing. And the way you put it here helps me, too ... that everyone needs different ways to cope and heal, and that #26 can help people to feel better in a time of darkness in a way that doing one difficult thing would not ... and it's harder to start positive change when you're feeling sad or angry or lost.

    Thank you, as always, for reading, and for responding, in your loving, thoughtful, diplomatic, and generous-hearted way. I am so, so lucky to know you.

  3. This reminds me a similar phenomenon. Someone dies suddenly and the living people all join together to mourn and connect, but after the initial comforting, most people drift back to the status quo -- not sharing our thoughts with each other, not sharing our feelings, not sharing our comfort, not being interested in each other's lives. I've always felt cheated by those moments because when I connected, I connected for keeps, I connected to keep connected. The same goes for reunions. What is the point in crying and hugging and talking about how important it is that you're back in touch if you're not going to actually remain in touch? I'd rather people smile wanly at me and say, "dude, you were a really important person to me at a past point in my life but you're not so much now and I wish you well whatever you're doing now, sans me." That, at least, would be more honest.

    That said, it's not how people operate. We do the big shows of emotion -- and we MEAN them. I think people really do mean those teary "I'm so glad we reconnected" sentiments when they say them in the moment, but we have such short attention spans... I'm out of their head the second they accept the friend request on Facebook. But that doesn't mean that the emotion behind that sentiment -- those 5 seconds of emotion -- weren't 5 real seconds.

    I personally veer more in your direction than #26Acts. On Tuesday, we'll do hours of volunteer work just as we do every Christmas. We do hours of volunteer work throughout the year, not just on Christmas. Not just when it's easy and spoon-fed. We do these hours volunteering our time and skills because it feels like such a dick thing to have time and skills and not give them over to others to help. You know? It is such a simple thing to give others a few hours and a skill we've pick up along the way. And yet people always reach for money to give. Money is important too, but dollar bills can't actually accomplish things. They can only purchase the manpower or materials to do the hard work. Sometimes that is needed, but so many times, our time could be just as useful, though people rarely give it because it requires us to sustain that emotion for a long time. It requires us not to just say, "I want to do something" and do something quick. It requires us to say, "I want to make a difference" and then wait until you can do your volunteer work and have that volunteer work take time. And I think humans just don't naturally have that attention-span. We need to train ourselves to care for a long period of time, and even those who can accomplish this sometimes can't accomplish it all the time.

    I don't know if I'm making any sense. The short message is that I agree with you, but that I understand why some people can only do #26Acts. Or only want to do #26Acts even after they learn there is another way they could do things. And #26Acts is better than no acts. Maybe those 26 will be a gateway drug to the high that comes from actually bringing about change :-)

  4. I love this idea. I have to give it some thought & will post on it. Thank you!

  5. *stands up & applauds*

    Out of the park, Justine.

    "This kind of work--this deep soul-work--is difficult."

    It's like a New Year's resolution: how quickly they fade by the end of January. I guarantee you, once today turns from Christmas into just another Wednesday tomorrow, who thinks of the families if Newtown then? Who helps them into their New Year?

    #26acts is a good first step, yes- but to quote Charley Johnson of the Pay It Forward Foundation: "It shouldn't take a natural disaster for people to give a shit about each other." And Newtown was no less a disaster. They're going to need financial, spiritual and emotional support for the rest of their lives.

    I would be genuinely astounded to see if 26acts makes it into 2013.

    I like this singular goal approach. It allows one to focus on their passion instead of taking a scattershot approach. By giving yourself a year, you set aside a decent amount of time to flesh out said passion and goal, to give it die research, support and outreach. I applaud you, for taking the thoughtful commitment to do better today than you did yesterday, to carve out a tomorrow for your children, one that leaves them proud and honored in your wake.

    However we can help you in your One Act: I'm here. Say the word.

    Wishing you a Merry Christmas :)

  6. Thank you for bringing up your thought here. I agree with so much you wrote, but couldn't put it into words. I think that this is a really good idea and would love to help you gain traction around it!

  7. You have put my feelings into words.

    I can't wait to see what you have in mind for yourself. And you make me realize that my book, while it is for me, it is also my attempt to make Adoption World a better place for people involved to live in. I suppose getting the ideas out there (the ones that come from all the people I talked with) is my One Act.

    Thank you for this post, for helping me untangle my own feelings about it.

  8. This one got me in the heart. Yes, yes I get this and I love the idea of one sustainable act versus 26 disposable ones. You are so good at turning something on its ear and showing the other side. Thank you.

  9. A gorgeous, thoughtful post. And one that I 100% agree with.

    Especially this:
    "Grief lives on for years, sometimes hiding under the bed or in a closet or even at the mall, and then BAM it leaps out and shakes you to the core again when you least expect it."

    As the mother of two dead babies, it is hard not to get the Newtown families out of my head. Because their ache - and the fact that it will never go away - is so close to home.

    I'm never a fan of knee-jerk reactions (even though I myself am so prone to them) but wow, I would love to believe the possibility that Melissa puts forward here - that maybe the 26Acts becomes a gateway to acts that are sustainable beyond a tragedy.

    But I think Keiko's right too. Damn, our attention spans are so so short.

    BUT as someone who works in advocacy daily, it IS true that every little thing can help. And you never know which little thing is the one that tips the scales. A colleague of mine always says advocacy (or any act on behalf of social justice) is like raising a flag up the pole. Inch by inch by inch. Sure, some actions get your more distance on the pole, but little ones push us forward in the right direction as well.

    I am really eager to see what your one act for 2013 will be. And eager to know if I can help.


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