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First and foremost, I realized that much citizen engagement or activism is doomed to fail, at least in the short run. The world— in all its glories and gore, cruelty and kindness, destruction and rebirth—is forever in process. For the engaged citizen there are no fireworks, no guaranteed rewards or results. There is just consciousness, intention, community, celebration, perseverance, defeat, burnout, self-care. Activism demands an investment not just of time, but of those tricky twins: devotion and nonattachment. It requires discomfort, frustration, and sometimes boredom (sounds a lot like meditation). But as the Buddha said, “Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.”

If something is always in process, it can never be completed, won, or achieved. The important distinction with regards to citizen engagement is not, it turns out, success or failure, but the quality of the failure. Take the lives and work of some of those I met along my journey:

Twenty-six-year-old Dena Simmons was born, raised, and now teaches in the Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the country, where the high school graduation rate hovers around 50 percent. She devotes every workday, and most of her weekends and evenings, to educating and nurturing twenty-five thirteen-yearolds. Some of her kids will make it. Many will not. About this she says, “I think failure is an opportunity to learn. Nothing came easy for me growing up, so I have this fighter attitude.

Filmmaker Emily Abt wants to document the difficult lives of social workers and teachers so the world can pay long overdue respect to public servants. In pursuit of her dream, she has lived below the poverty line, is called a “bitch” on set, and loses friends when she insists on telling the messy truth in documentary form. She also gets emails from young women who have seen her films and as a result decided to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections.

“It’s a constant hustle,” Abt says. One idea takes her straight to Sundance; another ends up on the cutting room floor. But her goals remain unchanged: “I think the best activism, the best kind of films really, inspire people to help themselves. That’s what I want my work to do.”

Thirty-five-year-old Raul Diaz spends much of his time in juvenile justice hall waiting rooms, trying to get teenagers who have been exposed to indescribable violence to give in, heal up, and get out. They tell him horrific stories of abuse; they deny the crimes they have committed. But slowly they learn to trust and admit to their darkest acts. Raul teaches them to meditate.

Some of them leave prison, find a healthy home, fall in love, create families, make money, make peace. Others get caught again in “the life.” At these moments, Raul prays: “Hey, my heart hurts. My heart and my brain hurt. Help me get through this.”

As philosopher Cornel West puts it, “Yes it’s a failure, but how good a failure?” There are many disappointments in the life of a dedicated activist—so many lost children, killed ideas, thwarted plans. But the energy is not wasted if it is channeled in pursuit of good failures, like these:

• The system may not be permanently changed, but it has been made a bit kinder or more dignified for a moment.

• Suffering may not have ceased, but someone has truly witnessed another’s suffering, and that mutual recognition is healing in itself.

• All is not equal, but a light has been shone on inequality and made people who perpetuate it take notice.

• A child has learned how to ask for help. A former prisoner has eaten a homecooked meal. A person’s consciousness has been altered by seeing a provocative film.

• The world has not been “saved,” but it has been made a little more just or beautiful.

The way we understand success and failure is critical not just because it leads to achievable goals, but because it can ensure a grateful and resilient spirit—the only kind truly capable of investing in a better world for the long haul. What could be more radical in the end than refusing to be defeated or deflated by failure? To reclaim failure as a mark of a visionary and impossible dream worth having, to root our confidence in the smallest of human interactions, to feel buoyed by one productive day, one humanizing conversation, one healed wound.

From that vantage point, we don’t need “our” president to win, though it is certainly fun when he does! We need to feel that we have contributed to the world that we want to create, that we have talked with people that we disagreed with in a way that we can be proud of, and that we have made our communities more dignified, beautiful, and peaceful through our own resilient nature.

From the March 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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