In a recent radio interview with a National Public Radio affiliate in Juneau, Alaska, I was asked if I had advice for a 16-year-old Palestinian student, Haitham. He had just arrived in the US as part of a school exchange program, and, admirably began reaching out to his peers in his and other schools to teach them about Palestine, its people and its ongoing struggle for freedom and rights.
There was not enough time to convey much to Haitham, whose voice expressed the personality of a gentle, smart, and driven young man. And since I have been asked that question on more than one occasion, mostly coming from young people in Palestine, here are a few thoughts that are an outcome of my own experiences, and nothing else.
Beat your ego to a pulp. “Ego” is Latin for “I”, but its implications are common to every language. If an activist doesn’t learn to control his ego, he is likely to suffer numerous consequences, and perhaps ultimately fail in his mission. An activist, especially one who represents causes deemed ‘controversial’, will find himself under repeated attacks and unwarranted accusations targeting his ‘self’, not his ideas. And while there are those who will try to thrash your confidence, there are also those who will hail your perceived success and heroism even. Both are dangerous to the ego, for they could upset the balance necessary to keep us focused and involved as members of a larger community, and moral in our behavior and conduct.
Define and internalize your message. It is easy to get pulled into all sorts of directions that may separate you from your original mission. To ensure that you will always find your way back, you must be clear on what you stand for and why. Thus it is essential that you define your cause, first and foremost to yourself before you present it to others. Internalize it as an enduring part of your character before you stand in front of a crowd, hold a microphone, or carry a banner. If you are not fully convinced of your message, you will not be able to influence others.
Be guided by universal values and human rights. Even if your message pertains to a local cause, find the universal aspect of your drive to bring about change, and embrace it. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Martin Luther King Jr. If you adhere to this notion alone, you know that you will remain true, not just to your cause, but to the underlying values that give it meaning. Universal human rights can always serve as a gage by which you can assess matters within a larger moral framework.
Find a frame of reference – relate to your audience. The onus is not on your audience to relate to you as much as it is on you to relate to their frame of reference: their history, their political reality and other dynamics that operate within and control their society. Only then can you tailor your words and expectations – but never the morality of your message – in ways that they may understand, relate to, and act upon.
Humanize –But don’t sanctify your subject. It doesn’t matter how worthy a cause is, if it is too distant or disconnected from people. It is essential that you allow your audience the chance to relate to your cause as that of people, with names and stories, beautiful, inspiring, but also disheartening and complex. But it is important that you don’t provide a sanctified, thus unrealistic narrative either, for your audience will disown you and question your credibility. Humanize your subject, but remain truthful in your presentation.
Be educated, strive for intellect and be wary of ideology. Education will give you access to otherwise inaccessible platforms. It will empower you and your message with the articulation you need to widen your circle of support. But you are also an intellectual. The right education could further develop your intellect. And when it is done with sincerity, both education and intellect will feed on one another. While there is no harm in adhering to an ideology that you may perceive to hold the answers to the dilemmas with which you contend, be wary of becoming an ideologue, a slave to stubborn dogmas. That will stifle your intellect and will make your education a mere platform to serve unworthy, elitist causes.
Keep an open mind. No matter how powerful your argument may seem, how high your education and how insurmountable your intellect is, remain humble and open-minded. If you close your mind, it will cease to grow. Your ideas will eventually become outdated, and your ability to imagine a world beyond your own will wither and die under the weight of your own sense of self-importance.
Have an action plan. It is not enough that you want to change the world. Sure, do that, but you must have a clear notion of what that actually means, and how you wish to bring it about. Such a roadmap can always help you reexamine your work and reassess your actions, and, if ever necessary, alter or entirely change your direction.
Don’t get swayed by success. The fight for justice is unending, as is the struggle against racism, and inequality. So ‘success’ in this context, by definition is relative. While you must acknowledge, even celebrate achievements along the way, let ‘success’ be a milestone towards another goal, and not an end in itself. This way you can always keep moving forward, with a vision that passes the immediate goal, on to a greater one, where the ‘rendezvous of victory’ is an idea, so coveted, yet unattainable.
Live a balanced life. Only by living life you contribute to it. Don’t estrange yourself from your surroundings. Learn from the mistakes others make, and from your own. Don’t be afraid or feel guilty if you try to find balance in your life. Enjoy a sustainable life, but without excess. The fight is long, at times arduous, but you are here, along with millions of others, for the long haul.
They say people who live for a higher cause are happier than those who don’t. May you always find your happiness in alleviating the pain of others by standing up for what is right and honorable.