The challenges we face are ominous. Within the United States, millions of people are forced to live in poverty, without basic necessities like clean drinking water or adequate health care, hundreds of thousands of people kill each other and themselves with guns every year, and meanwhile, we alienate the minority populations that define us.
Outside the United States, the threat of climate change looms undeniably, no nation is free from the fear of war and terror, and our ethical principles are strained by a gushing flow of displaced people.
So how can we respond?
After the terrorist attacks on Paris last November, the Dalai Lama proposed a response that resonated strongly with me:
Violence is a reaction by short-sighted, out-of-control people. At 81, I believe [terrorism] cannot be resolved through prayers or government help. We have to begin the change at individual level and then move on to neighborhood and society.
What I heard was that raw compassion, not government, politics, or citizenship, was the path to resolving the tremendous problems facing our world. It was easy for me to profess this understandable yet subversive idea to our GPC class: I had already spent two months losing faith in American politics as I followed the shenanigans of the presidential race. So I lost faith in government thanks to the Dalai Lama and to the Donald Trump—an admittedly odd pair to put together in one sentence.
Does the government meet the needs of the people? No. Is our government just? No. How can politics affect the world? Simple: they can’t.
But my abundantly pessimistic outlook was eroded into optimism throughout the rest of the semester. We started a project on gun control, and at first I fell back on my non-governmental approach, proposing that we should “change the culture of violence that creates our problem with guns” instead of working towards something more concrete like federal or state legislation. But Mr. Gwaltney and one of our weekly podcasts—Left, Right, and Center—both challenged my passivity. They showed me that real progress can be made not always by the heights of power, but by the marginal victories of the people who give their governors power.
They were right. In 2015, Mike’s GPC class closed the gun-show loophole in Oregon. We were the sixth state to do so. In 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. Now it’s legal in every state. When the people speak, meaningful change can occur.
And thus, my pessimism faded through the last two months of the semester as I leaned into a project to extend waiting periods for gun purchases in Oregon. In some respects, the Dalai Lama’s words are still true to me, but now I understand them differently. Change must come from the individual, the demos, but the change we bring is not limited to compassion. We can be compassionate individuals and use our power as citizens to affect meaningful change. Ideally, we’d take King’s example do those two things simultaneously.
I know it can be done: I have faith in government, politics, and citizenship.