Not too long ago, I delivered my first keynote address. Prior to this, I’d been a “feature” at events, the guest speaker, a panelist, etc. In short, this wasn’t my first speaking engagement.
I’m not nervous in front of crowds. I consider most events a chance to get to know the audience as much as they get to know me. Further, I’m clear that while I’ve been designated a certain amount of airtime and been given the microphone – it’s always quite possible that I’ll learn more from those I’m engaging than the other way around. I always look forward to, rather than fret over, dialoguing with new groups of people. I know my lived experience – no one else does. What I don’t know, however, is the answer to everything. Or even most things.
This time, though, I was nervous. Something was tripping me up: the idea that this was a “keynote” address. I thought surely this kind of address was meant to be given by someone far more important than I. How could I possibly do this? What could possibly make me qualified to be anyone’s “keynote speaker”?
There was no time to ruminate. I was already booked to appear and on the plane traveling to my first keynote address. The theme of the conference I’d be keynoting? “The Forbidden” – in religion and culture. Students attending the conference would be exploring the taboo, that which is not spoken of, that which is censored and threatening to mainstream religious and cultural communities. A girl like me should have a ton to say, eh? (You may recognize my “eh?” as a nod to my destination: Canada. I love Canada and think Canadians are totally swell, so I was excited for this to be the location of my first keynote!)
One of my best friends accompanied me on the trip. The night before my address, we were sitting in a tiny Korean restaurant. My laptop’s hard drive had died, rendering my speaking notes useless. I was stressed, feeling sick, and on top of all else – I had to start over entirely. But what on earth was I supposed to address the next day? The forbidden in Islam? How ethical matters are decided? What scholars are considered legit and who’s considered to be full of hooey?
Boring. To those not personally invested in such matters, such a speech would be dreadful. You’d hear both snores and crickets chirping. Someone might even throw tomatoes. (If they weren’t planning on it already, regardless of what I had to say!)
Then, it came to me. Sometimes, activism is a nightmare. Sometimes, it’s absolutely devastating. The past twelve months of my own life have been both the most beautiful and most painful I have known. I’ve felt both the greatest hope and the most searing heartbreak simultaneously. I’ve solved crises – and created a few messes too. I’ve lost friends, lost plenty of sleep, and burst into tears more times than I can count – or care to admit. My enthusiasm has often translated to uselessness when I can’t deliver on a big dream – because I’m human, because life happens, because the server goes down or the FedEx man drives over a package. You know – life. If I may be so cheesy as to borrow from someone else: it’s what happens when you’re making other plans. Or, as I prefer to say – it has its ways of reminding you that God is in charge. You’re not.
Man, I sound like a major Debbie Downer. But bear with me.
Back to the Korean restaurant. Our waitress had tucked the tiny piece of paper with our order on it under one of the dishes containing a spicy condiment of some sort. I told my friend that I knew exactly what I was going to say. I was going to tell these students that activism, that courage, that working for a vitally important cause – is just as painful as it is beautiful. That it’s hard, that it’s often thankless. That you’ll get unfair criticism. That you’ll lose friends and think you’ve lost your mind.
Regardless: you must, must do it. You must stay the course.
What’s forbidden about that? Aren’t I just depressing? Or some kind of masochist?
I might be both things to some people, it’s true. But here’s what I believe:
Activists need a serious dose of honesty. A spoonful of the real deal so that vitally important movements have a shot at surviving the trials they face.
See – when one works for something with the aim of contributing to the greater good, the general idea is that it will always, no matter what, be fulfilling. That you’ll see an impact. That all of the struggles will be “worth it”, and that you’ll be surrounded by other activists in the same situation, making organic muffins and singing kumbaya, ringing in the success of your latest initiative with cheers and fellowship.
So. That piece of paper. I took out a pen and wrote five words on it. Five words we would think we absolutely should not embrace, much less live by. These are the five words that, when accepted as part of a life dedicated to change – have the potential to save an activist’s sanity.
Why these words? Well, here’s the abridged version of what I told the students:
If you’re being honest and authentic, you will, at some point, offend someone. And, if you are open to honesty and “realness” from others – you too will be offended. It’s just fact. Stop sayi ng “no offense, but” – and just talk to each other. Be real. In that honesty you can survive the offense. In that honesty, you can transcend whatever belief drove you to open mouth, insert foot in the first place. Isn’t that more valuable than hushing up? Ask the difficult question. Take the unexpectedly frank response. Process it. Be mature enough to deal with it. Realize that you can hash it out and come to a better place. It’s ok to be upset. It’s better to know why and work through it. See where the other person is coming from rather than seeing him or her as just the ‘other’.
And tension – what’s so great about tension? Tension is revealing. It tells us what our weaknesses are, it tells us what we value, it tells us what we’re threatened by. When we allow tension to happen, we allow ourselves to be honest. When we stop ignoring the elephants in the room and ‘let it all hang out’ – we’re finally seeing the authenticity of those around us. When we stop fearing tension, we stop denying ourselves and others the opportunity to be real. When we allow ourselves to be exposed in this way, we allow ourselves to grow. And that can only make us better activists – and better people.
Disappointment is inevitable. Imagine yourself in a room – at a table with four other people. You’re about to embark on the thing you believe will change the world. The only thing that makes sense for your life. Your everything: body, mind, soul, future, reputation – is invested in this thing working. It’s exhilarating. It’s intense. It’s earth-shatteringly powerful to be part of creating something that stands at the front lines of change. One thing I wish someone had said to me was this: you will be disappointed. People will fail you, you will fail at some things, and you’ll all drive each other crazy. You’ll want to throw your BlackBerry down the garbage disposal. But that doesn’t mean that this is not worth it.
Risk is more than physical danger. Risk is in everything we do. When we are authentic, we risk discovering things about ourselves that we don’t like. I certainly have. And nothing reveals these things more than 22 hour a day work schedules, where one’s best intentions can be overridden by exhaustion. A life where every minute is an obligation to the cause is, to me both a moral imperative and thrilling. But it also means that you risk your friends thinking you hate them. You risk everyone you know ditching you because your work is so important to you. You risk people with too much time on their hands seeking to discredit you. Activists must encounter this kind of risk head-on. Ask yourselves: can you handle these challenges? What kinds of risks will you face? Is this the right time to take these risks? Above all: are the risks you face relatively small compared to the risks faced by those individuals your work will serve? I’d be willing to bet on it.
Finally, isolation. Activism can be very isolating. It’s not all drum circles and parties to make protest signs. In fact, it’s often spending three days and three nights at the computer without seeing an actual, unpixelated face. Rather than writing passionate manifestos you might be adding up receipts you can barely read and spending an hour dealing with impossible customer service reps. How will you deal with this? How will you sustain your resolve? How will you continue when the interactions you do have are at times tense? How will you remind yourself that even the mundane is vital to the greater cause?
The speech went well, and the Q&A and subsequent conversations were learning lessons for all of us. I loved hearing what students and faculty had to say – those who agreed, those who disagreed, and those who weren’t sure yet.
Was my dilemma – about not being “qualified enough” – solved? You betcha. Not because I found myself to be a great speaker. Rather, because I realized that sometimes, to be qualified, we must be willing to risk a leap. Only then can we improve, grow, and develop into great servants to our world. And ultimately, that’s all I wish to be.
(photos: Yasaman Shayanogogani, Wilfrid Laurier University)