Making a commitment


February 28, 2004
National Canvassers Conference
Paducah, Kentucky

Paul Ryder, Organizing Director
Ohio Citizen Action


My topic is what you’re going to do with your lives. Before you walk out, I promise not to talk like your relatives do every Thanksgiving and Christmas. At no time will I say --
  • "So, are you still with . . . that group?"

  • "You know, honey, we support whatever you decide to do. It’s just that -– you have so much potential –- we worry if you can achieve all that potential doing . . .this." (They have no idea what "this" is, but they are certain you can’t achieve your potential doing it.)

  • "Some day you might want to have a family of your own. You’d have to support them somehow."
I won’t say any of those things tonight. I just want to try out some ideas on you -– no pressure.

How do we make the most of our lives?

You’ve half-answered the question already: it’s in those surveys you handed in last night with the names of people you thought made the most of their lives. Let’s look at the results. Way ahead was Gandhi, followed by Martin Luther King, Jr. Rounding out the top ten were Bob Marley, Jesus, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Mother Jones, Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader, and Mother Teresa.

Gandhi Martin Luther King, Jr. Bob Marley Jesus Eleanor Roosevelt
Nelson Mandela Mother Jones Rachel Carson Ralph Nader Mother Teresa

What do these people you picked have in common? Each made an early 100% commitment to something much bigger than themselves. The word ‘commitment’ doesn’t really do it justice. They offered up their entire lives to one thing. Its intense, like having a ‘calling’.

By contrast, in our organizations, we ask new members for only a fraction of their time, energy, and money. We take what they can spare, and then add those fractions together into a campaign.

Similarly with staff: "You can give 6 months? Great." "You can be a Canvass Director for two years? Great." "Just Christmas vacation? No problem." Here's our motto: "The great thing is, there’s no set amount."

That motto does not apply to this list. The commitment each of these people made does have a set amount. It’s 100% for life. Not 99 .

You may be thinking: "Where’s he going with this? This is all well and good for the people on the list, but I know my limitations. I am never going to become Gandhi."

Me neither, but this isn’t about you becoming Gandhi. Its about you becoming you, and what it takes to do that. Giving your whole life is something you can do.

So what led the people on this list – and millions of others around the world -- to decide to give their lives this way, when most people don’t even consider it? I suspect it has to do with time.

Here’s what I mean: What people will do in a situation depends on how much time they think they have to work with.

For example, let’s say we hear someone in the next room over screaming for help. Life-or-death. What do you do? You jump up and run in there. You don't say, "I want to keep my options open." "Is this what mom and dad had in mind?" "Maybe I’ll take a Red Cross course." No. You jump.

Or what about a scene from the movies: When the airplane is crashing, what do the passengers do? They immediately confess to one another how much they love them. Why? Because they knew time was short. If they thought the plane wasn’t crashing, they'd argue about the peanuts.

Same with the remarkable people on your list. They figured out early what it takes most of us longer to get: that none of us have long to live. A few decades maybe, but no promises. They made an early commitment because they knew they didn’t have a moment to waste.

Mental baggage you won’t need any more

One of the great things about making this kind of commitment is that you can leave a lot of items of mental baggage behind. Here’s a few of them:

1. Your career

You won’t have to worry about your career because you won’t have one.

A "career" is a well-worn path you get on, or your parents put you on, and you can compare yourself to others on the same path. How fast did I get through med school? How soon did I make partner? When did I get tenure? How soon can I retire? In other words, you turn your life into a big board game.

2. Keeping options open

You won’t have to worry about how to keep all your options any more, because you just made a decision to eliminate all but one.

3. Figuring it all out

Let’s say you don’t have everything figured out, there’s so many new ideas, you don’t really know what your politics are. It doesn’t matter.

There’s an organizing maxim that people are ready to act and to change before they can understand why, let alone explain why.

You can see this at the doors: Someone will be writing a $50 check, while saying, "You know, this is not going to do any good. You can’t win." Do you tear up the check? Saying, "I’m sorry, sir, but I see a contradiction between your words and your actions. I can’t take your money under these circumstances." I don’t think you do.

If you can accept this in others, why not in yourself?

When I made a commitment -- I admit I was reading everything I could get my hands on -- but all I had as far as settled ideas was that I could not stand bullying – people taking advantage of other people's weakness. That wasn't even an idea, that was visceral. And I was for freedom, and against war. That’s it, and that’s pretty much where I still am today. You don't need an ideology.

4. Who am I?

Ever heard someone say, "I’ve been canvassing for six months now and I’m worn out. Its time for a sabbatical. I’m going to move to Madison, take a massage course, and find out who I am." And then the rationale: "How can I help other people if I don’t know who I am?"

That’s a statement that looks great on a poster. But I know lots of people who are doing great things, who have no idea who they are. Many of them are in this room.

5. Burnout

Another item of mental baggage is burnout. Of course, there is such a thing; it is important to get some sleep once in awhile.

Most people who talk about burnout, however, are not sure they want to be doing this work at all -- and in a lot of cases they shouldn’t be. That’s what burnout is usually about: a lack of commitment.

William Hutchinson Murray

Once you make a commitment, you can leave all this baggage behind you, which feels great, by the way. Then strange good things start to happen.

GoetheHere's how Scottish mountain climber William Hutchinson Murray put it in The Scottish Himalaya Expedition (1951), in a quotation frequently misattributed to Goethe:
"The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way."
This quote is a problem for me. The word "Providence" refers to a personal God, and I don’t believe in a personal God.

On the other hand, everything else in the quotation happened to me, and has kept happening, for 32 years now. I promptly found myself in the first of a string of great jobs; I found two mentors, one right after the other, who taught me everything I know; I keep finding wonderful people to work with; and I keep having -– like he says -- unforeseen incidents and meetings.

So how do I explain this? I don't know. I’ve always just said I’m lucky, but really there’s too much of it to be luck. I don’t think it’s luck or God.

Maybe it's a little different from what Murray said. Maybe the "stream of events" doesn’t come from your decision. Maybe its been flowing all the time.

I think what changes when you commit yourself is that, first, you can finally see the stream and, second, there’s nothing that can keep you from diving into it.