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Shambhala Sun | March 2012
You'll find this article on page 23 of the magazine.

Good Failure

You may fail to change the system, but it’s a good failure if you’ve made life a little kinder or more beautiful. Activist COURTNEY E. MARTIN on reclaiming failure as the mark of a dream worth having.

Failure is all around us these days: a failing economy, a failing environment, a failing war in Afghanistan, and a media that is failing to inform us in a nuanced, accurate way, trafficking instead in extremism, sensationalism, and reality-style schadenfreude. In some ways, we’re experiencing an out-and-out season of failure. “Yes we can” seems to have become “no we can’t.”

Political commentators fill endless broadcast hours analyzing the failures of the Obama administration. The catch is that when the pundits turn the president into a punching bag, they also beat up what’s left of citizen motivation. We feel disappointed, disillusioned, and the one thing Obama never wanted us to feel—hopeless.

I stopped believing in my own power to make a difference long before Obama was deified and then demoted. It happened on November 3, 2004.

Along with ten million others, I protested the war in Iraq on February 15, 2003. I wrote op-ed pieces about George W. Bush’s cowboy leadership style and did voter registration leading up to the 2004 election, begging old ladies in Ohio and Pennsylvania to vote for John Kerry.

None of it “worked.” A member of the generation baptized in “self-esteem education,” I realized I had been sold a bill of goods about my specialness. I wasn’t going to save the world. It wasn’t just the election that was over. It was my Ivy League-exacerbated entitlement, my naïve belief that good deeds are rewarded with positive outcomes, my conviction that—in the end—people do what’s right. This was an existential fault line for so many of my generation (loosely defined as those born in the eighties and nineties). We were faced, at an age when one should have the luxury of feeling naïve and invincible, with our own impotency.

Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark that “despair demands less of us, it’s more predictable, and, in a sad way, it’s safer.” I didn’t want to despair, but even more, I didn’t want to be safe. I was too young for that. I decided to look to my heartier, more resilient peers for inspiration. I would interview activists of my generation and find out how they were composing meaningful lives in a time of failure.

I set out on a yearlong pilgrimage to answer questions like these: What does it mean to succeed or fail when it comes to matters of justice? How do we measure the effectiveness of work as messy, epic, and complex as activism? On an individual level, how do we make daily decisions that close the gap between values and actions? What does it look like to be a person operating where, as theologian Frederick Buechner puts it, one’s “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”?

I watched as a young man, recently released from prison after serving time for murder, tried to figure out how to use the internet for the first time. I rode a bus with twenty-five eighth-graders from the Bronx as they sang every word of Rent. I ate family dinner at an Olive Garden in Detroit, listening in as civil rights era parents puzzled over their daughter’s path to environmental justice. I sat in on a workshop for kids poised to inherit great wealth and determined to give most of it away. I listened to an emotional Q&A at a community college following the screening of a documentary film about the harrowing HIV/AIDS infection rates among black women.

And what did I learn?

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