Bold Activism for the Cowardly


Heather Caliri -Bold Activism3

The other day, I briefly chatted with an acquaintance from church. “You do any activism lately?” she asked, smiling warmly. I blinked, surprised that she asked … surprised that, when she thought of me, she thought of the word “activism” (as opposed to say, homebody or slippers or hot tea). I was, perhaps, most surprised at my answer.

“Yes,” I said, wondering at the sea change in my life. “I did.”

“I wish I were that brave,” she said, her voice wistful.

Her wistfulness hurt my heart—because for so long, that would have been my response to someone whom I thought of as “brave.” I would have felt small and inadequate. “You know, ‘activism’ is just a fancy word for doing one small thing,” I said. She smiled warily, and then we were interrupted. The moment passed.

I’ve been thinking about her words since that conversation. And I realized that she and I—we have a lot in common.

It’s Hard to Give Yourself Credit for Bravery

About two hours before I left for January’s Women’s’ March, my friend A’Driane Nieves posted on Facebook: “Marchers, be safe out there today. Being around a militarized police force is no joke … Yes today will be historic but today might also be the day when you find out just how far you’re willing to go to stand up for what’s right.”

My fingers went numb. She was right. I didn’t expect any trouble at the protest, but it was naïve to assume it couldn’t happen. I looked up some notes on preparing safely. One of the suggestions was finding a criminal defense lawyer’s number and putting it on my arm in Sharpie. As I scrawled the number on my arm, I felt grandiose, paranoid and frightened. I didn’t want anyone to see the number, afraid they’d think I was silly.

Then I went downstairs and packed a peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich in a Ziploc baggie, as if I were in fourth grade. I stuck a few tampons in my pocket, just in case I got separated from my backpack on the first day of my period. Here’s what I learned about my activism: if the revolution comes, I will be ready with feminine hygiene products and snacks, and will be embarrassed at my type-A preparations. I felt silly imagining worst-case scenarios, because they made my fear seem more real. I desperately wanted to stay away from my fear, to explain it away. But I faced it, embarrassed or not, and then got into my car for the march.

When my friend asked me if I’d done any activism, why did I feel surprised she’d noticed I’d taken a risk? Why did I pretend to myself that it didn’t take bravery to look up a criminal defense attorney, just in case? Others have it worse. Others are braver, I tell myself. Of course! That goes without saying. However, bravery is not a ribbon for the few that qualify. It’s an invitation for anyone who shows up despite their fear. I’m invited, right now, no matter how clueless, embarrassed, and naive I feel.

My friend at church—she’s invited too. Like me, she struggled to see her own bravery. But she was brave to bring up politics with me, and to admit to herself that she wanted to participate. Did she know how similar we are?

Pay Attention to Yearning

Before we got interrupted, I wanted to tell my friend that the wistfulness in her voice was important and big and holy. Not because she needed to be like me, or that I knew what was right for her, but because her wistfulness meant she yearned to do something. And when our hearts yearn, it may be a nudge (or a shove) from God.

I wanted to tell her that taking her yearning seriously could break her life open. And that if she wants to do something small and activist-y, I’d do it with her. I’d even share my snacks and tampons.

Boldness isn’t magic, or cool, or impossible. It’s just becoming desperate enough to do what you really want to do. Boldness isn’t really about bravery. It’s more about frantic hunger. I believe God puts yearning in our hearts for a reason. It’s the explosive gasoline in all His upside-down beatitudes. It’s what powers us when our hearts are shriveled up with fear.

I wanted to tell her not to explain her hunger away, or feel embarrassed by it, or assume she will never be satisfied. Not just for our country or for justice, although that’s a big part of it. But because she will never be fully her unless she pays attention. But I need to take responsibility for my yearning, too. Maybe to speak to her more about what “activism” really feels like. To give myself credit for taking any (small) action, and not being embarrassed at admitting I feel afraid. And to continue paying attention to my own yearning—whether for justice, for creativity, or connection—and never explain it away.