When I was in college I wrote editorials for the weekly student paper. As I understood my job, it was to point out all the problems with the way things were. I decried injustice and inequality on campus. I denounced the administration’s unwillingness to give more than lip service to student demands. I criticized the myopia of the student body that too rarely looked beyond the narrow confines of college life to get involved with the larger issues of the day. And so on. The veracity of my observations was rarely challenged, but I was criticized rather regularly, for being “too negative.” If the truth be known, I took the criticism as a badge of honor. I told it like it was. Rose-colored glasses in the face of injustice were not going to cut it.
In the ensuing years, my penchant for gloom and doom has waned, at least a bit. It is not that everything is fine now. The ravages of war, racism, sexual violence, hunger and poverty persist, and much needs to be done to lessen their impact. In the words of former Senate candidate Jack Carter, if you are not outraged by all of this, you’re not paying attention! But I have come to understand that seeking solutions is more effective than focusing on problems. I have been influenced by Appreciative Inquiry, a strengths-based approach that invites us to build on the good rather than focus on the ills. Through exploration and conversation, Appreciative Inquiry helps us imagine that another world is possible; we can harness our collective energy to achieve a more just, compassionate and peaceful future for all. The linguist George Lakoff makes a related point in his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant. An elephant is precisely what we think of when told not to. In similar vein, if we focus on stopping violence or ending poverty, we are drawn into the negative spheres of vehemence and deprivation, and our energy is drained. But if we seek peace and work for a just social order where everyone has what is needed to sustain life, our creativity is unleashed and new ways of living are discovered.
One example of harnessing positive energy and imagining a world of peace and compassion will occur on Feb. 14 when Juneau residents will join with hundreds of other communities across the globe for One Billion Rising, a gathering to “rise, release, dance and demand justice.” As a member of the Juneau Violence Prevention Coalition, I am part of the planning team for this event. The “one billon” refers to the devastating statistic that one billion women on our planet will be raped or beaten in their lifetimes. But One Billion Rising is not about focusing on the horror. Instead, it transforms “one billion” into the number of women, men and children who will rise and dance for joy, dignity and respect.
We do need to work against the many social ills that beset us and combat racism, sexism, homophobia, gender violence, and disregard for poor and marginalized persons. We cannot and should not try to live in denial of these sordid realities. But if we are to create a better world, we cannot focus solely on what we are against. We need to imagine and enact what we are for – a world of love, joy, and compassion. We can create communities where all can flourish and everyone is accepted, respected and expected. What better way to embody these values than to rise up and dance!
When assessing the many woes that persist, it is easy for me to return to my “too negative” posture. But I am convinced that there is a more excellent way. Together, we can seek peace and pursue it. Join us as we rise up and celebrate on Feb. 14 at noon in the atrium of the State Office Building, and at 2:15 p.m. in the Mourant Courtyard at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Another world is possible. If we can imagine it, we can create it. It is what we are for.
• Phil Campbell is the Pastor of Northern Light United Church.