The Arc Of History: How To Bend Towards Justice?

Of three brothers, the eldest set off.
Upon the road, to discover and to build...

From The Fable of the Three Brothers, by Silvio Rodriguez.

After so many months of national political debate, the proverbial elephant is sitting in the room: which way forward? How do we lift ourselves out of poverty, injustice, violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, global warming? Throughout a lifetime of fighting for social, economic, racial and environmental justice, I've been inspired and uplifted by the wisdom of movement philosophers. They have helped to keep me on the path forward, even when I've badly stumbled or felt frustrated.

Silvio Rodriguez, the great Cuban philosopher/musician, has written hundreds of powerful songs on the subject of the path toward social justice. Rodríguez is considered both musically and politically to be a symbol of the struggle for justice and independence in Latin America. His lyrics are "notably introspective, while his songs combine romanticism, eroticism, revolutionary politics and idealism."

An especially thought provoking song is called The Fable of the Three Brothers and tells the story of three brothers who seek to make their way in the world. The first brother sets off with fervor and enthusiasm, but so carefully watches where he's going that his slow movement covers very little distance. The second brother -determined to learn from his older brother's mistakes--fixes his eyes on the horizon without looking down. He soon trips and falls and loses his way. The third brother tries to incorporate the lessons of his older siblings by looking up with one eye and down with the other. While he makes it the farthest, he ultimately can't make sense of his experience because he wasn't paying attention. Rodriguez then asks the listeners to tell him what they think. What is the pathway forward?

I was in my 20s when I first heard "The Fable of Three Brothers" in the early 1980s. I was a committed social justice activist, involved in movements against dictatorship in Latin America and what I considered the Reagan dictatorship in the US. The song deeply confused me. What does the path toward social justice look like? According to Rodriguez, I needed to think about it myself and figure out the right path, using lessons from all three brothers. At the time, I thought that the song was too confusing to be helpful. I needed the answer in black and white, but Rodriguez only offered shades of grey.

Fast forward 35 years. I've spent my entire life as an activist for social justice. Now the song makes perfect sense to me. The song says that we have to have a vision, to keep our eyes on the horizon at least some of the time to know where we're going. If we fail to look up, we get stuck in the moment. We only see what's right in front of us. Do we need a stop sign on our street? Let's go fight for that, even if no one on the street has a good job or decent housing, or well-funded and well-equipped schools for their children. But, then again, a stop sign might save a child's life.

Some activists, like the second brother, keep their eyes on the horizon all the time, with an inspired vision of where we want to go and what we want our economy, our democracy, and our world to look like. We march in the streets for justice and fairness. But if we only look at the horizon, we risk ignoring the obstacles and dangers right in front of us, including powerful institutions that don't want the change we are fighting for. We get arrested, or there are articles in the paper saying that we are radicals or even socialists who want to take everyone's property away, or that we are wild-eyed idealists or utopians who don't understand how the world really works. Those are misleading stereotypes, but if that's the way the media and people in power portray us, then few people want to join us. We can't figure out what to do about it, because all we can see is the long-term vision, but not the way forward. Maybe we give up because change seems too hard.

And then there is the more successful, but imperfect path forward. We look at the horizon because we have a vision of where we want to go with a plan that can get us there and that gives us courage and inspiration. But we look down and deal with the immediate challenges one step at a time. If we have a setback, like we are outgunned by powerful, wealthy opponents or attacked in the press, we figure out how to build a bridge, how to pave the road. Eventually, we get there, but have we taken the time to assess and reassess along the way? Did we make ourselves crazy by walking with one eye down and one eye up? Hopefully not. Because life and the pathway forward is messy and ever changing. And all non-violent progressive change happens incrementally, with stepping-stone reforms that build toward more reform. In fact, the path toward social justice is like a roller coaster, with ups and downs that are unexpected. We have to learn to overcome our defeats and build on our victories.

The writings of Mahatma Gandhi provide further wisdom into the path toward social justice. Gandhi was the great leader of one of the most important social justice movements in history that culminated in the toppling of the British empire in India in 1948. Gandhi lived his life committed to a philosophy based on humility and non-violence. His core teachings emphasize that importance of balancing both long-term vision and practical focus on the path forward. He wrote:

"He who is ever brooding over result often loses nerve in the performance of his duty. He becomes impatient and then gives vent to anger and begins to do unworthy things; he jumps from action to action never remaining faithful to any...

No knowledge is to be found without seeking, no tranquility without travail, no happiness except through tribulation. Every seeker has, at one time or another, to pass through a conflict of duties, a heart-churning...

The mind of a person of uncertain purpose grows weak day by day and becomes so unsettled that he can think of nothing except what is in his mind at the moment... we lose our soul. We lose the capacity for good works... lose both this world and the other." - Mahatma Gandhi, The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that "the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." But he didn't say who is responsible for bending it and how to make it bend. Life experience, as well as the wisdom of elders, have changed the way I view the struggle for a better world. I believe that we can bend that arc if we have the right combination of vision, passion and shoe leather.