Communications: From practice to belief

I’ve been struggling with belief, lately—what I believe to be true, and what I believe can be true. And I was worried that this could present a problem for me in my chosen line of work, which is communications for social change. I help people who work on much-needed reforms to things like our education systems, our environmental policies, our health care systems to communicate to their partners and audiences why these reforms are so urgently needed and how they propose to make them happen.

One part of social change communications is about describing the scope of the problem. This is where you marshal facts, statistics, and most importantly, stories, about how badly these changes are needed. If you are communicating about climate change, for example, you could talk about the health and environmental impacts of our warming climate; the pollution of our air and our water from fossil fuels; the staggering and tragic loss of life and property due to extreme weather events. If you are talking about education, you could talk about the vast inequality in our education systems, which are pretty much designed to burn out teachers and keep generations of families mired in poverty.

Another part of social change communications is to paint a vivid picture of the better world you hope could result from these reforms. A planet where all life flourishes, and resources are protected and managed in community, to sustain us into the future. Classrooms where all schoolchildren can thrive, no matter who they are or where they live. Societies where people demonstrate through laws and societal norms that they respect and understand and embrace diversity, and differences, when it comes to race, ethnicity, culture, gender, age, and sexual orientation.

I am a feeling-type of person, and maybe this is like some form of Method acting, but in order to reach the hearts and minds of the people who needed to care more about these issues, I thought I had to feel the same emotions I was trying to invoke in my target audiences. As a communications professional, I wanted people to understand the scope of the problems we were dealing with. I also wanted them to believe that there were real, viable pathways to solutions, and to a better way of doing things, and that the first step they had to take was to actually care about the problem and believe that solutions were possible. My own belief was my bulwark against what I didn’t want to do, as a communications professional: I didn’t want to cynically manipulate audiences into doing stuff they didn’t want to do or believe in. I didn’t want to jerk them around with lies and distractions, like all Fox News commentators some random shit-stirrer on the Internet.

I wanted people to believe that change was necessary, and possible, and also, inspiring and wonderful. Because I believed it too.

Yes, that was the past tense of “belief.” Because as I said, I’m struggling, lately, with what I believe. I am, in fact, what feels like a state of constant disbelief at the number of people in this country—what is it, 40-odd  million, who voted for Trump the second time around?—who either choose to believe the GOP’s lies, or who are pretending to believe.

Let me be clear: I still don’t find it hard to believe that change is necessary—the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, NY and Uvalde, TX are sickening and tragic reminders of how much we need common-sense gun regulation. The leaked opinion from the Supreme Court overturning Roe V. Wade was an expected, but nonetheless heartbreaking, reminder that men would much rather do everything they can to save the life of a cluster of cells over the lives of living women and children.

But it is my belief about what can be done about these situations—in the face of those indifferent, self-centered, fear-driven millions of people who follow the lies rather than the truth—that has been severely shaken in the past few years. I’ve been in this business for decades and no matter what, the much-needed changes to our society and our systems of government always seem to be, um, not happening. In fact, I’ve had many days when things feel worse than they ever were, with respect to the many issues I’ve worked on over the years.

There have been times when someone I’m talking to in the philanthropy or nonprofit sector tells me that they are all about seeking “transformative system change,” and I’ve wanted to throw up, I’m so tired of those words and so tired of believing that they could come true.  

This is probably akin to what many who practice an organized religion call, a crisis of faith. In this case, it is a crisis of belief. Do I believe that progress, and real change, are possible in America? Can I accept that there will always be people who want to oppress, and do harm, and profit, while also believing that people who want to do right by others, and fight against inequality, and injustice, will also prevail? These are hard questions to grapple with, for a communications professional in her mid-fifties—how much do I need to believe in change in order to be effective at what I do?

So before this gets too bleak, let me just say this: I may be struggling with what I believe is possible, when it comes to progress and real change, but I am also old enough to know no matter how rotten things may feel right now, there ARE a number of things I know that work to strengthen one’s convictions about fighting the good fights. Like, zooming in on the bright spots. There are always bright spots. For every bundle of rotten statistics about failing schools and the unaffordability of college, you can also find a plethora of stories about young people who have persevered and succeeded despite astonishing odds against them. And, you can always take action. You can vote, you can write a letter, you can use your platform if you’re a famous person, you can call someone, you can give a little or a lot of money. Even when your actions feel like a drop of water in a vast ocean, I always feel better after I’ve done something, which, in turn, strengthens my belief that something can be done. (I know that’s weird circular reasoning, but it works.)

These are all things I’m trying to practice—not just as a matter of self-care, but as a matter of belief. The week of the Uvalde shootings, I cried a lot, but I also made new donations and initiated a series of new monthly donations to out-of-state political candidates for the midterm elections. I sought out stories and poems that acknowledged the heartbreak and despair of life, but also the beauty and promise and hope of it. I reminded myself that generations of my ancestors lived through wars, and terrible hardships—and that every generation, no matter what, has to do their part in fighting back against evil and injustice.

These steps are not enough to strengthen my belief in the worth of the work that I and others do to create a more just and loving world. However, this past weekend, I had another teeny-tiny breakthrough insight from a walk I took in the Santa Cruz mountains with my family, on a trail that led through a Buddhist retreat. The walk is called the Eight Verses Trail, and I mainly wanted to go there because it looked fairly easy, and beautiful, and most of all, it looked like it might be quiet. (Two years of living cheek-by-jowl to our neighbors have taught me how noisy they are, in very different ways.)

As we walked, I was struck by the power and simplicity of the Eight Verses that were displayed at different parts of the trail, with benches in front of each one as an invitation to sit, and take in, and reflect. Some of the verses seemed to be immediately understandable to me, like the one that said, “Vigilant, the moment a delusion appears in my mind, endangering myself and others, I shall confront and avert it without delay.” But others felt more difficult, and challenging, as a matter of belief—like “Whenever I see beings who are wicked in nature, and overwhelmed by violent negative actions and suffering, I shall hold such rare ones dear, as if I had found a precious treasure.” I understood this one—that the people who harm and hurt us often teach us the most about strength and forgiveness and patience—but my immediate reaction was, “NO, I can’t do that. Or at least, not with everyone.” (Like, I couldn’t picture ever thinking of Mitch McConnell as a “rare treasure.”)

However, as I was thinking about that particular verse later on, I had a “well, duh” moment. Without being a practicing Buddhist, and without knowing very much about Buddhism at all, I realized that there was no way that whoever came up with those verses expected people to just adopt those principles and behaviors, like hey presto, overnight belief! I realized that the verses were about what you practice, not what you believe, on any given day. And I realized that enlightenment probably wasn’t a state that anyone expected to reach in their lifetimes.

Which led me to the realization that that it probably doesn’t matter as much as I think it does, about what I believe is possible, when it comes to the change I want to see in this world. What really matters is how I, and others, practice the belief. Like enlightenment, the transformative change I want to see in this world may never come. But to try for that change, by practicing it through our work and our individual and collective words and actions, is still the right thing to do.

(BTW, the trail was very quiet–so quiet that the only sounds were our feet on the trail and the wind in the trees.)