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James Baldwin on Reconciling Acceptance and Action

James Baldwin on Reconciling Acceptance and Action

My meditation teacher of many years often reckons with the difficult question of how we are to reconcile acceptance — the need to meet reality uncomplainingly on its own terms, so central to Buddhist philosophy, so central to all spiritual freedom — with activism in a world badly in need of repair.

Thinking about this paradox recently, I was reminded of a passage from the indispensable 1955 essay collection Notes of a Native Son (public library) by James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987), who was not a Buddhist but was and remains one of the most spiritually enlightened specimens our species has produced.

James Baldwin at work

In an autobiographical reflection, he writes:

It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.

Complement with Baldwin’s lifeline for the hour of despair and his reflections on free will and the paradox of freedom, then revisit Eleanor Roosevelt on our individual power in social change and the forgotten X-ray crystallography pioneer and peace activist Kathleen Lonsdale’s quiet masterpiece of moral courage.