Posts Tagged ‘history’

One of my all-time favourite classes at university was “Prophets and Millenarian Movements in World History.” Millenarian movements are those that believe in the literal and imminent end of the world. All religions begin with a millenarial focus before usually becoming increasingly institutionalized and non-specific when it comes to the end times as they go along.

The entire subject matter was extraordinary, full of stories of charismatic leaders and people at their most raw and desperate and their most devout and hopeful.  What fascinated me most though was the behavior of adherents when the predicted end of the world doesn’t come to pass.  To act in the literal belief of the imminent end of the world is a true test of faith. If you really, truly, belief the world is ending you behave differently. You quit your job, say goodbye to your loved ones. Or you rise up in rebellion or, in some cases, commit suicide in the belief that a new, eternal, life awaits you on the other side. Believers put themselves out there and, if not enclosed within a believer community, are likely suffer a great deal of ridicule, condemnation and repression. And then the big day arrives and…. Nothing happens. The world is still here and so are you. What do you do next?

When faced with this head-on collision of faith and reality, who do you think prevails?

The answer, often, is faith. Believers are more likely to create an elaborate justifications for why the world didn’t end, to find a small mistake in their calculations or blame the behavior of non-believers, than to accept a flaw in their original thinking.

One of the most interesting examples of this was the Millerites in the 1830’s in the US:

In 1831, a Baptist convert, William Miller… began to preach that the Second Advent of Jesus would occur somewhere between March 1843 and March 1844, based on his interpretation of Daniel 8:14. A following gathered around Miller that included many from the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Christian Connection churches. In the summer of 1844, some of Miller’s followers promoted the date of October 22. They linked the cleansing of the sanctuary of Daniel 8:14 with the Jewish Day of Atonement, believed to be October 22 that year. By 1844, over 100,000 people were anticipating what Miller had called the “Blessed Hope”. On October 22 many of the believers were up late into the night watching, waiting for Christ to return and found themselves bitterly disappointed when both sunset and midnight passed with their expectations unfulfilled. This event later became known as the Great Disappointment.

While many of those who had gathered in anticipation of the end of the world drifted back to their former lives a significant portion found this impossible to accept and began developing competing explanations for what had or hadn’t happened and why. The Seventh-Day Adventists Church is based on one such explanation. In their telling the end of the world had arrived on the date predicted, but in another, second, world, and which Jesus had to cleanse first before he could come to our world. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) and the Churches of Christ also emerged from the millenarian fervor of this time.

More recently thousands of devout Christians, supported by a $100 million advertising campaign, insisted that the world would end on May 21 this year, convinced by the calculations of their prophet Harold Camping.

Some believers simply have too much at stake emotionally and psychologically to concede that they were wrong.

I was reminded about all of this today as I read the responses to Barack Obama’s resounding election victory over Mitt Romney.

Very few Republicans are prepared to see their loss, and the swing towards the Democrats in the Senate and House (where the Democrats received the majority of the votes but still have a 35-seat minority due to gerrymandering by Republic state legislators), as indicative of any flaws in their vision for America, or of the fact that most America’s don’t share their goals.

Instead the result is blamed on superstorm Sandy, or the superior Obama get-out-the-vote efforts or their use of data, or because the media is biased or suppressed information that would have helped Romney, or due to the failures of Romney’s vaunted “project ORCA”, or on the bipartisan spirit extended to Obama by Republic Governor Chris Christie in the campaign’s final days.

Rarely are the policies and beliefs the party ran on examined and when they are it’s more often than not claimed that Romney was not conservative enough, rather than to the right of the majority of the American people.

The reality of the situation is that the demographics of America are changing and the ground is shifting rapidly on social issues as gay marriage and ending marijuana prohibition. Where once these causes served to mobilise Republic constituencies they now mobilise Democrat supporters.

A failure to update your thinking when reality intrudes is a clear sign of ideological rigidity and close-mindedness. As with the case of believers in millenarian cults Republican activists have too much committed to the narrative they hold to relax it now. When your ideological commitment is so strong facts themselves become secondary to the story you already hold, immediately suspect if they contradict it in any way, useful only when they confirm existing feelings.

The best example of this comes from the far-right Heritage Action, the political action committee of the Heritage Foundation. It’s even got doomsday music and vibes.

Hard to imagine something like that playing well in Australian politics. But then, we don’t have the millenarian tradition America does.

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This is a blog post I was, to my delight, asked to contribute to the “What’s Your Calling?” blog tour:

What’s Your Calling?” explores notions of “calling” from both religious and secular perspectives. “What’s Your Calling?” pushes the notion of “calling” to explore all of the stuff that makes us human: our values, our passions, our doubts and hopes. Profiling individuals from diverse backgrounds – “What’s Your Calling?” shares what people have been called to do with their lives and how they hope to change the world.

If there’s one thing I knew from pretty early on, it’s that I wasn’t draw to any particular conventional career. Once I’d gotten past the “I want to be a fireman” stage nothing really grabbed me. I admired what my parents did (town planning and public broadcasting) but didn’t feel destined to follow in the family footsteps in these specific regards.

But I wasn’t particularly worried, I somehow knew the world would find a use for me and my skills and that I would find, well, a calling that inspired me to use these skills to the best of my ability. In High School I was fond of telling people “I’m not looking for a career, I’m looking for a cause”, more so, I suspect, to sound cool and differentiate myself from the more studious types around me than from any deeper understanding of what that might mean. But, funnily enough, this is indeed what happened.

However, in the absence of something to aim for or aspire to, I drifted. My grades dropped towards the bottom of my class. I was inattentive and disrespectful in class. During a typical class in year 10 I was sent from the room for talking and being disruptive. While hanging around in the corridor, reflecting on how unjust life can be, I picked up a discarded brochure, desperate for something to read to pass the time.

It turned out to be for a student exchange program to America. I hadn’t known such things existed, that high school students were allowed to go and live with another family in another country for up to a year. I immediately knew it was something I needed to do. I loved my family very much but felt constrained by my school and relationship groups. I felt defined by my peer group before I even knew how to define myself, trapped in a box I felt I had no part in making.

My parents, to my eternal gratitude, were supportive, and a year later, midway through year 11, I departed for 11 months in Spokane, Washington State. The chance to step outside my context, outside that box, was transformational. I suddenly found myself in a place where opinions “everyone” held at home were unusual and controversial. I landed at a new school, had to make new friends, and in the process had a chance to preset myself to the world anew. I had space, in a way, to reflect, and feel, to consider what I wanted from my life. As best I could as a 16 year-old anyway. I became more confident in my opinions, in myself, in my place in the world. My Mum would say afterwards that I “found myself in America.”

But it was in San Francisco, not Spokane, that I found my calling. I was invited to attend the State of the World Forum, held in San Francisco in 1995. It was a post-Cold War pow-wow designed to build consensus on the challenges and opportunities facing the world. Participants included Mikael Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Ted Turner, Thich Nhat Hanh, Richard Leakey, Jane Goodall, Rigoberta Menchu Tum and numerous other Nobel Laureattes, business people, environmentalists, authors, thinkers and politicians.

As the conference was about the future the organizers, late in the piece I’m guessing, decided it would be apropos to have young people present. Unwilling or unable to do a global search for worthy young leaders they partnered with AFS, the world’s biggest exchange student organization to select out of young people already in the country on their program. I was selected to attend, one of 32 youths from 28 countries.

It was a heady, extraordinary experience. The first day we arrived we were told that we represented “2 billion young people”. We participated in dialogue’s with Nobel Peace Prize winners, world leaders (including Gorbachev and then Vice-President later President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki), representatives from the UN and other global organizations and, of course, with each other. During the week I was there I slept for only a few hours a night and barely ate. I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t tired. I was infatuated with a new found sensation of being included in conversation that, it seemed, really mattered. Being listened to and told my opinions mattered. I felt, in a word, empowered.

But as l left the Forum this feeling of empowerment was balanced with another sensation: dissatisfaction. This can’t be good enough I thought to myself. If we are serious about including the perspectives of young people in conversation that matter, and we must be, then it can’t be based on pretending that a group of upper-middle class kids who already have the opportunity to be in America (just happening to be in the right time at the right place) “represent” the young people of the world. I felt intensely, immediately, that we needed to build better, more genuinely representative platforms and opportunities for young people from diverse perspectives to share their stories, and that this could never truly happen inside the closed rooms of conferences.

In dissatisfaction we can sometimes find our calling: something that needs changing about the world, and the determination that it must be us to change it. This is not the only type of calling of course, but for me it was the cause I had been looking for, the focus I needed, the work that needed doing.

Since then I have been working to allow more people’s voices to be heard, to build a more democratic society and world. First my focus was on young people and event-based, founding organizations at high school and university which hosted a variety of conferences, debates and arts gatherings. In 2000 I realized that the internet was the platform I had been looking for, and media the marketplace of ideas in our society, and founded Vibewire, and organization that continues to create opportunities for political and creative expression for young Australians. Then two years at Ashoka exploring how social media could help create an Everyone a Changemaker world, one where all voices and perspectives can be heard, and more recently co-founding StartSomeGood.com, a platform for changemakers to access the resources and support they need to turn their ideas into action and impact.

For me this is what I want to do with the rest of my life, to help communities and individuals rise to the challenges that confront us and in so doing create a more equitable, sustainable and just world, one based on democratic participation and individual empowerment.

I know from my journey that a calling, or a cause, can arise at any moment, as a result of the stories you see, hear, experience and share. They can be grandiose (like mine), or humble, community-focused or individualistic, a life-long pursuit or a chapter amongst many. All are equally valid; all share an essential spark of human creativity, idealism and imagination. If you are still looking for a calling I would simply advise: stay open. Open minded, open hearted and, simply, open-eyed.  Possibility, opportunity, challenges and tragedy are all around us. The world is both an amazing and a difficult place and is made better by each person who brings their whole self into it and finds a way to do work which inspires and fulfils them.

If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. – Thomas Merton

Pic by Christopher Lehault, available on a creative commons license.

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