Last week I finished Holy Discontent by Bill Hybels. It reads almost like a personal letter full of stories and common sense and I devoured it by a nice warm fire.
If I could summarise it, I would say the book suggests that activism = an ounce of frustration + a pinch of hope + a spoonful of risk.
I found it really useful in expressing how what he calls ‘personal vision’ is born. Hybels talks about his quest to find out why people do what they do: why people do extraordinary things, why volunteers give tirelessly of their time, why people support causes financially.
He narrows it down to the explanation that people do things because they can’t stand things the way they are. He brands those people ‘Popeye people’…I can hardly remember Popeye, but I do remember that when his lady friend was in trouble, he would get out his spinach-sponsored guns and say “That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands it no more!”
What can you not stand?
Several real frustrated world-changers’ stories are told in the book. Bono, one of the author’s favourites, and the way in which everything he does is infused with a sense of justice, specifically in relation to AIDS. Mandela’s persistent and focused vision. Eleanor Josaitis and her all-consuming care for Chicago’s homeless population.
I found it helpful to label this is as ‘frustration’ or ‘discontent’. As a female with a smile and a penchant for sparkles, I used to feel like I wasn’t allowed to be angry at how things were. But Hybels helpfully points out that it is normal, that it is holy, to want to defend human value or fight injustice that causes suffering. This is reassuring to the voice inside me that shouts ‘no’ and makes my heart beat faster.
Frustration, ‘I can’t stand it’-itis, anger…that fuels passion, that turns into action, and change.
What is yours?
Hybels suggests that most of us will, right now, have one thing we particularly cannot stand. One injustice that frustrates us the most. Of course, they’re often interlinked, and a sense of justice should be a common thread in the life of an activist, but I agree that it is healthy to find and focus on one thing – at least for a chapter of our lives, if for no other reason than to avoid diluting our efforts. Hybels writes towards the end of the book about ‘morphing’ passion, highlighting how the attitude of frustration and desire for change does sometimes lead us on to new things.
The book then goes on to talk about how to channel this frustration or discontent. Hybels very importantly reminds readers not to shy away from their ‘one thing’: in fact, he encourages us to feed our discontentedness. This really resounded with me. I find that though it’s sometimes like irritating an open wound it is necessary to hear new stories of slavery, to get to know the subject more, to fuel the frustration. So, keep the passion raw. Become an expert in the issue.
But don’t let that overwhelm you. How? Focus on hope. Focus on what can be. Frame the frustration with exactly what is frustrating you: people are hungry. They shouldn’t be. They could not be. This is possible. We have the capacity to seem beyond what is: use that to fuel hope.
What is your hope?
Hybels also encourages readers to be ready to face risk. To change things, one has to be prepared to take huge steps without necessarily knowing what will happen; to follow an inkling or suggest an unpopular idea. This also rang true with me. The story of No More Traffik has been one huge risk, as has my story of coming into my NMT staff role. If you are both frustrated and hopeful enough, sometimes you just jump.
The book ends with a chapter on ‘magnetic living’, based on a theory by Professor Robert Quinn who talks about a ‘fundamental state’. The theory suggests that when someone is gripped by a powerful passion, they enter into a different state – one that sees and strives for a different world, that is frustrated and hopeful and takes risks to get to it. The theory accepts the existence of both ‘normal’ and ‘fundamental’ states in our lives, which is good, because we are human.
But a life worth living, to me, seems to be one of frustration and hope, that leads to risk-taking action…one that must just change the world.
PS: I have lots of thoughts on how positive this reading challenge has been so far – and it’s only week 2. One of the most enjoyable things has been the conversation here and on FB/Twitter on books you and I are reading, and recommendations from you about what to add to my reading list. Thanks so much. Let’s keep it up!