by Neil Boggan
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”
– Redemption Song by Bob Marley
“The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”
– From the Mission and Vision statement of the Center for Action and Contemplation
While driving to class the morning of Election Day, I had consciously chosen to not listen to my standard news program. I was oversaturated with election reporting and needed a break. Instead, I had chosen to listen to music in the Taizé tradition. This music comes from a Christian community in France, and the music consists of short lines repeated several times, mostly featuring voices and little to no instruments. The goal of the music is to focus your mind and attention on the short phrases through repetition. The music represents many languages, including several Latin songs. My hope in choosing Taizé music was to focus my mind and attention on something other than election rhetoric.
Still, the election fought for mental space even as I tried to wade into the calming waters of the music. “What is wrong with our country? Why is there so much vitriol and ill will? Why is so little political capital invested in prison/criminal justice reform, a food system that prioritizes access to unhealthy nutrition instead of to healthy nutrition, a telecommunication system that is controlled by a few superpowers with less and less affordability for customers, in greater access to mental health care, on college student loan debt, and in affordable housing and home ownership, just to name a few?” Those were just some of the thoughts surging through my mind on my morning commute that day.
As I exited Sam Cooper Boulevard at the Perkins Road exit and came to a stop at the traffic light, I saw a familiar figure sitting on the ground: one of several rotating beggars. In that moment a thought struck me: “You are listening to music with the intention of drawing closer to Christ, and you are simultaneously ranting about the shortcomings of your country’s political system. Here before your very eyes stands someone in need. You have a sandwich in your lunchbox. Will you complain about what others aren’t doing to make this country a better place to live and not help an actual flesh-and-blood person whom you have the resources to help?” I offered the person my sandwich; it was accepted with gratitude.
That morning before leaving for school I had repeatedly listened to Redemption Song by Bob Marley instead of listening to the news. The song mentions redemption, freedom, and not giving into fear. In the quote, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds,” I was reminded about how much power I give to our political system in order that I may have something to complain about and have an excuse to avoid the individual responsibilities given to me by Christ to make this world a better place. If I transfer my individual responsibility to the political system, then I will always have someone else to blame for what is going wrong in this country. Of course, I and every individual of a reasonable age should be advocating for a better country by holding the system accountable to benefit the people. We must work at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels to change this world. We shouldn’t transfer our responsibility at the micro and mezzo levels to the political sphere just so we can avoid investing in the individuals and the communities where we live.
Through that event on the morning of Election Day, I was reminded of the Center of Action and Contemplation’s statement: “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” To have a criticism means that I am dissatisfied with something. What I do with that dissatisfaction is the difference between active participation in the healing/mending of the world (what Judaism calls the tikkun olam) and the passive complaining about a political system that is inept. Jesus is quoted as making a similar observation in Matthew chapter 25, verses 31-46, where he points out that some people only help those in need when it is convenient or self-beneficial but other people help frequently because it’s the right thing to do. Voting is good. Advocating for a better political system is good. Creating the country/world I want to live in to the betterment of all by accepting my own responsibility and putting it into action – perhaps best.