American educator and philosopher Cornel West said, “If you are always trying to do something for a cause bigger than you – connected with serving others – then it’s hard to be guilty.”
I can’t listen to West without feeling inspired and joyful, yet he’s not a man who compromises the truth when he speaks. As a black, he sees the reality of racism in his country and around the world. He sees the economic and political inequalities, as well as the beauty of our humanity.
Social justice issues have been a part of my life since I was 18. At first, I was angry when I learned about covert wars in Latin America and economic injustice. I felt I had been lied to by the media and the education system. The Western world wasn’t defending democracy and freedom, we were creating fear and tyranny.
As I grew, I became aware that if the world was going to change, I needed to change. If I wasn’t going to be a source of peace and justice to those around me, then how could I even begin to talk about doing the right thing?
As the years went by, I also noticed that slowly but surely, the world was changing for the better. I began to understand the words so often stated by Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
While I was so frustrated during the Oka crisis of 1990, seeing the level of blatant racism that was accepted as the norm in my country, I watched as prime minister Stephen Harper officially apologized for the residential school system 18 years later. I also read the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. There’s still a tremendous amount of work to do but we’re indeed bending the moral arc toward justice.
I now teach and write regularly about genocide and crimes against humanity. I’m on a constant quest for truth and I try to empower others with the message I learned so long ago, that each of us is part of the solution. I didn’t understand the joy I find in this mission, however, until I heard West speak with the same enthusiasm.
As I began to research the topic, I found several studies that point out a correlation between social activism and happiness. What’s not clear is whether social activism brings happiness or whether we tend to be socially active because we’re happy.
This is also not to say that social activism automatically brings happiness. The late Abbie Hoffman, for example, inspired many in the anti-Vietnam War movement, yet tragically committed suicide in 1989.
I can only speak for myself and I know that my happiness is rooted in the fact that I know I’m a part of something much greater than me. I don’t know all the answers, yet the truth constantly comes into clearer focus. I sincerely try to do the right thing and I’m constantly asking, “How will history judge my efforts? What will be my legacy?”
Living in this mindful way, I find it difficult to be bogged down by guilt or to feel dissatisfied with life.
Being a person who strives for social justice is like being a proverbial blues musician. You unearth the most horrendous information regarding our inhumanity to one another, knowing that there’s something powerful and liberating in truth. Yet we’re also aware that no matter how terrible the truth may be, love remains the most powerful force on Earth.
And truth, just like the blues, simply has a way of making you feel better.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.