When I was in high school I had to read a autobiography or biography for a class assignment. I talked with my grandmother a former librarian and general fount of wisdom. I wanted a woman with some spark and fire. She recommended that I read "The Long Loneliness" by Dorothy Day.
Dorothy Day has been one of my personal heroe's ever since. I am not big on idolizing people who are not real people in my life, but Dorothy is one of the few. Something about her search for community and a life which lived out one's convictions spoke to me. I was also taken up with her struggle to be a person of faith while surrounded by many who were doubters.
In college my spirituality was deepening and maturing. At one point I felt that the only way to live my convictions was to live in an intentional community. I lived in a Catholic Worker for awhile. It was a wonderful time filled with service and spirit. I was very close to dropping out of school and giving my life over to the work of the Catholic Worker communities. Something changed though and I have felt that my vioce is needed to change and persuade those with means and priviledge that we must change the social structures that oppress our humanity. For as we keep economic opportunity, health, education, and oppurtunity from any of our brothers and sisters we in turn our keeping our own humanity disadvantaged.
One of the most important things I have taken from Dorothy is that we don't know the effect our actions will have on another. Even the smallest action has the potential to dramatically affect another person. The true miracle of this is that we will never know how our interactions can alter another person. Few of us will ever know that 10 years down the road someone will be reminded of some small kindness and it will have made a positive impact somewhere. Conversely, negative behaviors carry at least as much impact--sometimes more. This idea is much like that of "letting your life speak." While letting your personal decisions reflect your moral character, at the heart of this Quakerly sentiment is that we are all children of god and deserve to be treated as such. It means let your words ring with kindness and truth. Let your life be a mindful and intentional one, but not at the expense of another. And do not judge those who do not live like you.
After college I spent some time in the same Catholic Worker community that I had lived previously. I remember being in the kitchen one day and reading the notes on the canisters of sugar. I was rather shocked that one note said something about the sugar being unbleached, raw, etc. The wording of the note was such that I was shocked because of the expression of middle class values. That everyone should eat certain foods and buy organic...but this was in a home of hospitality for the homeless. If a person cannot afford housing then they are just happy to eat. And organic foods and foods with a conscience are expensive. Until they are affordable one should not expect the poor to eat them. Nor should we assume that people want to eat crap, but if a pound of sugar costs less than two dollars and unbleached organic raw sugar costs 6 dollars...what do expect most of us to do? Just as my parents would go back off the grid in a heartbeat, if it wasn't so expensive to rewire the house and buy solar panels.
Now the difficulty with being faithful to making the most of all interactions and letting your life speak in big and small ways, is that it is easier said than done. I sometimes forget to let my words ring with kindness...truth is easier (but I tend to channel an angrier god than a god of love). Sometimes I take the elavator instead of the stairs. And I often judge others quickly and rarely change my mind...but again I point to Thomas Kelley, "begin where you are. We all stumble, but begin again."