Be the Change
You Wish To See in the World
As volunteers go through their annual discussion of how best to capture the spirit of ComFest in a short statement/slogan, it’s always an effort to include the linked concepts of struggle and celebration that are integral to a full life. This year (2008), no one needed to mention the obvious issues of war, economic hardship, collapsing infrastructure or a declining health care system to recognize that most people believe we’re at one of those periodic tipping points when things have to be done differently, when there’s a palpable need to re-assert the principle that government should serve everyone and not simply a handful of wealthy friends and business associates of those in power.
There’s a lot of talk about change this year, with politicians of all stripes selling – depending on your beliefs – fearful snake oil or pragmatic hope to the electorate. Everyone, except for a handful of devil-take-the-hindmost free-market extremists, seems to understand that the current situation is drowning everyone except those with homes on gold-plated stilts.
It’s not that beneficial change doesn’t happen, or that ingrained attitudes don’t evolve. In 1968, five years before the first ComFest, over 440,000 Ohioans voted for a presidential candidate whose platform was based on racial segregation; this year, a black man is a major party candidate for the White House. Sometimes change seems to take too long; sometimes change is regressive rather than progressive. Real life ain’t easy, or predictable
When Mahatma Ghandi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” he reduced our desire for a better world-and who hasn’t wanted this, ever? – to it’s fundamental unit: the individual. It isn’t enough to simply desire change; one has to make it happen. In a street sense, one has to “represent.”
Change is about more than who’s president (although that can influence the pace and direction of change). It has a spiritual dimension, one without which all the material stuff is nothing more than another sweep of the merry-go/money-go-round that drives day-to-day life. Ultimately, real change comes from within and then manifests itself in the world.
I could have kept my head down
I might have kept my mouth shut
-REM,“Horse to Water”
Keeping your head down and your mouth shut is on one hand a recipe for survival and on the other a blueprint for despair. And in the face of what the worst elements of runaway government, uncontrolled commerce or the unholy alliance of both can do to individuals, lying low and shutting up might seem to make sense. It’s certainly less effort than the active alternatives.
In discussing his work as a poet, William Stafford noted. “You much revise your life.” He was talking about the way in which writers approach their own creations, but there is a larger wisdom in his words. If we expect the world around us to improve, we must first improve ourselves – our way of seeing, our approach to living. The desire for change – for a different, more cooperative way of interacting with others – brought the volunteers of the first ComFest together in terms of how people met basic needs: health care, housing, food, communications. And the changes those people thought possible have now become accepted as the norm.
Legal segregation that typified substantial parts of American society only 40 years ago did not change because segregation was inherently wrong and unjust; the liberation of women from restricted social and employment roles did not occur because it denied women the freedom to fully realize their own humanity; widespread gay-bashing (literal and figurative) and socially enforced closeting of one’s sexual orientation did not diminish because it denied individuals’ inherent worth and dignity; wars have not been ended or prevented from starting simply because wars allow the awful unleashing of the worst in human beings. All of these changes in legal structure, social dynamics and public policy occurred because individuals changed their own perceptions of how they saw things. And as a result of that new way of seeing and thinking, they found it impossible not to act to improve the situation for themselves and/or some other element of society – that is, to make their inner change manifest. A personal and individual shift in perception had to occur before the larger shift in direction was possible.
And we are left to carry on
Until the day is done
– REM,“Until the Day Is Done”
It’s almost amusing, yet actually profoundly sad, that in a year in which more people – young people in particular – have a belief that we can work together to change how we meet basic needs as a nation, a few sullen hipsters continue to regard ComFest simply as a “hippie festival” that should “get out of the sixties.” They believe that the ideals of living in harmony with others (peace) and recognizing that we have obligations to others beyond ourselves (love) are somehow dated, as if humanity’s noblest intentions come and go like last year’s band-of-the-moment or fleeting trend in outsider clothing. These folks seem to believe that colorful tangibles such as tie-dye are the same as more enduring values, that symbols are more significant than substance. In the tepid swamp they inhabit, ironic detachment that trades in put-downs and one-upmanship is more meaningful than lifting a hand to ease another’s pain. They want a party for the sake of a party (which is not a bad thing, but anyone can do that anytime). ComFest, which happens annually because of those willing to work to make it happen, is a Party with a Purpose. And that purpose is to showcase the ideals that most people, at some level, already hold but are afraid or unwilling to act on. ComFest says, “You can make change happen. You can be a better person. You can build a better community, a better country, a better world. And each summer, along with the thousands of other people, you can celebrate what you’ve accomplished.” Ain’t pragmatic idealism disgusting?
Got to get back to something
simple to save ourselves
– Van Morrison“Keep It Simple”
ComFest tries hard to keep it simple. Stick to your fundamental principles. Behave as if the rest of the universe is as important as you are. Clean up after yourself. Respect others. Take care of the weak and sick. Those with power and money are not inherently better or more deserving than anyone else. Don’t be afraid to push back. Remember to laugh and dance. Don’t wait to act; do it yourself, with friends, and incredible things develop. Right here, right now. We won’t always get what we want, but little by little we’ll all get more of what we need.