Middle School Hero

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 26 2013

Thomas Merton’s Letter to a Young Activist

Another Teach For Us blogger posted this. I’m carrying these words inside me as I go about today, especially given that I am proctoring benchmarks in the afternoon.


Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell you the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

…The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them, but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your even thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come, not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth; and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand . . .”

It is shattering because I have lived this process in this work. The constant hope in results. The constant feeling of failure as I look at my data trackers, the constant feel of failure as I hear the child struggle as he reads to me. The feel of failure when someone looks at me through criticial lenses yet another time. It’s the description of my constant need to throw up my fists, instead of extending my arms.

Though this work must me measurable. We need to make sure we are leaving the communties we serve better than when we got there, we must ensure that this results focused determination is not for us. It can’t be about us. It’s surely not about me.

Though tempting, It’s not about proving myself to my kids, their communities, my world that I am capable. Being a young activisit is simply about taking yourself out of the picture. I am finding that in doing this, that my kids and I are more successful. I get along better with them, their communties, and my school communitiy. So the guards we put up to protect ourselves in this work must fall down, so that we may actually reap a harvest.

Just some thoughts.

3 Responses

  1. PS If you would like to know more about Merton, you might find my biography of him (Living With Wisdom) helpful — see: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/03/07/living-with-wisdom/

  2. The letter from Merton was originally sent to me — I think it came in 1967, a year before Merton’s untimely death — and not only helped me make my way through some very dark clouds but has helped me again and again ever since. It first began reaching others when it was published about a decade late in The Catholic Worker and has gone on to become one of the most widely reprinted and translated texts by Merton. I’m so glad it found its way to you — and through you to others.

  3. Jenny

    I’m glad you found this to be soul feeding. I had dinner with a friend here in my region last night. She mentioned that she shared the essay with a friend in your region, and her friend mentioned reading the same essay on you blog. I love it. I hope many TFAers stop throwing up their fists, and instead start raising up their hands. Anyways, we should be friends.

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