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Every Way The Wind Blows: Motivation

If you’ve read my bio on the about page, than you know that in college, while Michael C was in ROTC, I co-chaired an environmentalist group. I also marched in anti-war protests leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

Listening to the This American Life episode about Brandon Darby for Monday’s post, I thought again about my activism in college. I asked myself why I did it.

It’s actually a pretty good question, especially at a college like UCSB. With beaches, mountains, beautiful women and partying everywhere, why would you voluntarily spend weeknights, weekdays and, most oddly, weekends getting politically involved?

A lot of people view activism--or any sort of altruism--negatively. (For example, any episode of House MD where anyone is being nice to anyone else.) The idea is that we only do good things because of the tertiary benefits we get from them. Everyone benefits in some way from doing good for others. I’ll tackle that one first.

What benefits could you get from activism? Fame, at least getting your face in the paper (I made the cover of UCSB’s Daily Nexus five times, but who’s counting?). Or very helpful recommendations (the Chancellor at UCSB offered to write me a recommendation). Or you do it to get chicks. I recently listened to an excerpt from a book that said, in short, men are activists to get laid. (Yes, as well.)

Or power. The most dangerous type of activist was the one who wanted power. I met a number of activists who were into meeting powerful people and attending important meetings. They never seemed to really care about changing anything, just as long as they were seen as saviors and change makers. We always used to joke that people like that would end up as publicists for Exxon Mobil or BP.

In my environmental group, some people who joined just wanted to be part of a community that ate vegan food and liked drum circles. Other people did it to party. (Again me, but then again, at UCSB did anyone not party?) Some people just wanted to fight, as I wrote about on Monday.

All of those reasons above are hollow. So hollow. If you’re an activist or politically involved because of any of the above reasons, then you really don’t care about what you’re doing. You’ll end up bouncing from crazy campaign to crazy campaign. You’ll end up like the people I wrote about on Monday.

So what’s the positive reason to do activism? What’s the good reason to hand out fliers, ask people to sign petitions, to lobby your local government and write editorials? To change the world. Yeah, it may be pretentious, grandiose and naive, but that’s why I did it. I look back at my experience in college and I can say, I saved a park, I ran an environmental group, and I passed a green energy initiative.

Ultimately, that’s why I was an activist, to leave UCSB better than I found it.

What’s the point of all this? Purpose, or lack of purpose, affects all of us. But it matters more to people in power and everyone who affects the lives of others. It applies to activists and it applies to politicians. So I wonder, does it apply to soldiers? Every soldier has their own reason for joining the Army or Marines. A lot of the reasons above probably apply, (and one I didn't mention, money) but the point is this: it matters.

So I pose this question to Michael, why did you join?

two comments

I have an interesting take on this. During the last decade, I was deployed a lot. In between deployments, there was JRTC, NTC, Hurricane Katrina, field time, etc…I found after ten years that I had gotten away from volunteering, something that had once been very big in my life. I justified it b/c serving in the military is by nature selfless service, and we sacrifice a lot. Bottom line, I closely guarded my free time.

I had a discussion on this topic with an older colonel in January whom I respect. He told me that I had my priorities wrong. I was kinda shocked. Instead, he argued that volunteering to serve was one thing, but it’s still just my job. Volunteering to serve during my free time is a whole separate matter. I think he was right. This year, I’ve made extra efforts to start giving back to others in small ways just to do it.

But, back to your original question and your dilemma. Why did I join? Why do I serve? Why would I do something for someone else even when I receive no immediate benefit?

That’s easy. It’s the right thing to do.


@ Mike f – New post coming today that addresses the complexities of this issue.