The tasks that have been entrusted to us are often difficult. Almost everything that matters is difficult, and everything matters. — Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
Let’s face it: Many activists have morale problems. But some do not. What’s their secret? Often it’s spiritual. We can learn from two women of faith—the Buddhist Joanna Macy and the late Catholic nun Rosalie Bertell—how to keep going, even when our tasks are hard and we cannot see that what we’re doing is helping. (I know a journalist whose columns are read by millions but who thinks they make no difference, so she may as well just ski.) Rilke might agree that everything matters (even skiing), but is that “the task entrusted to her?” No. Her despair is not about the job’s importance but about the effectiveness of her efforts.
Demoralization comes from focusing on our effectiveness. In a Toronto lecture Macy said she used to worry about hers. Now she realizes that what she should pay attention to is not her effectiveness but her motivation—her intention.
It’s true. We cannot control the consequences of any act, which will go on causing further unanticipated effects (probably including some deplorable ones) forever. What we can improve are our intentions. What a wise lesson!
Yet, Macy notwithstanding, we can’t ignore the outcome of our acts, nor of others’. If what we’ve done doesn’t work, we switch to Plan B—unless we’re pig-headed. We learn from our mistakes, and from the mistakes of others. And even when we see our own ineffectiveness, we must keep going anyway, performing our appointed tasks, which each one of us must discern for ourselves, by addressing our own motives and intentions. That is morale.
Rosalie Bertell died recently. Her task was to warn us of the damage of radiation for humankind. We asked her once whether this gloomy message depressed her and she said no. “Everything has to die,” she said. Humankind will die. Stars and planets die. We cannot prevent that, but we can choose our motivations. “People had babies, even in concentration camps,” she said. This shows that everyone can intend a better future, even in the worst circumstances.