Robert K. Massie’s Compassionate Activism

by Margaret Emory

When it comes to fatal diseases, Robert Massie is a triple threat, having survived hemophilia, HIV and liver failure. Born with classical hemophilia, a painful disorder that causes repeating bleeding in the joints, he spent most of his childhood bound to leg braces and in wheelchairs. Where many would sink into self-pity and despair (and why not), his inherent spirit of curiosity and belief in the goodness of life focused him outwards toward a life of public service.

He graduated in history from Princeton (which is where I first met him as an amiable fellow scooting around campus in his electricized cart), and was later ordained as an Episcopal minister. After teaching children and working with the homeless in New York City, he attended Harvard Business School, where he earned a doctorate while serving a congregation in Somerville, Massachusetts. He wrote a prize-winning book on South African apartheid, led one of America’s most cutting-edge environmental groups, Ceres, ran for lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, and created the world’s leading standard for corporate sustainability. He did all of this in the face of enormous medical challenges.

Massie is a survivor. His story is a profile in courage, an affirmation of hope and a song of grace which he tells so eloquently in his recent book, A Song in the Night: A Memoir of Resilience (2012). On the eve of its release, I was greeted by a man walking towards me somewhat stiffly, with streaks of gray in his hair and those unmistakable, clear blue caring eyes. I am delighted to share our conversation with you.

Brain World: You’ve participated in three spheres of engagement—religion, politics and business. What are the similarities and differences you’ve found?
Robert Massie: I have had a fascination from early childhood with what I call the unity of life. How the same person travels across different experiences, which get put in a silo of some kind, but the person travels between silos. I’ve always tried to understand and explore the different kinds of communities that people create, particularly as they try to invent new things for the future. People in religious communities often seek to find meaning, to reach out to each other and to build a community based on some kind of shared language and shared understanding on how to live.

People in politics, a rougher business in some ways, want to see the future change. It’s also a community of people who share vocabulary and create friendships. Most of the political conventions I’ve been to have people coming together to see old friends, and what happens on the podium is an interesting additional story about someone getting nominated or some specific bylaws being passed.

Business is a complicated area, because you’re talking about everything from very small enterprise—where people have a creative impulse, where they desire to make a living in some way—all the way up to the huge multinational. Different cultures are associated with those different scales. One thing that’s always attracted me to business is that people in business often ask themselves, “What can we do about a particular problem?” And they can be incredibly creative. Sometimes not always as reflective as you might like, but they are action-oriented. They’re used to thinking about how to make change, how to fix something. Sometimes it’s how to create a product and sell it. You experience the positive energy. I sensed this in business schools. It actually surprised me. I thought business school would be a very competitive place with people squirreling away in corners trying to beat each other. Instead it was the most group-action, solution-oriented place I’d ever been.

BW: You’re very passionate about justice. You seem to have this ability to galvanize and activate people. How do you light the fire of others?
RM: I’ve always had a sense of how beautiful the world is or could be. I was filled with dismay when I discovered that the world was not, in some cases, headed in the right direction, or that people were mistreating each other. At a very basic level I was mystified by that, and so I have held out a dream, an aspiration, for what the world would be like if we truly cared for each other and cared for the planet. It may sound naive, but this is something that has animated me for a very long time. I think people are longing to feel hope about the future. Hope is the sense that even though we can’t see it yet, there are positive changes that can take place and lead to unexpected and wonderful outcomes. I’ve been filled with hope, even in the face of some of the medical problems I’ve experienced. And I think that by having hope myself, I’ve been able to communicate that to other people. I also find that people want to share their beliefs and dreams with each other and are often sad when that’s not part of their daily experience.

As for inspiring or galvanizing people, in some ways it’s taking out of that box where most people keep their dreams and aspirations, brushing them off a bit and holding them back up and saying, “Is this what you would like to see?” And people say, “Yes.” And then you say, “Well if we worked together and if we did this, we could; maybe we wouldn’t succeed in every way, but we could bring that into existence. Because it already exists in your heart, in your minds.”

In my personal life and on a larger scale, I have seen some truly remarkable things happen. The idea, when I was in college, for example, that South African apartheid would ever be ended, seemed remote. You had a brutal regime based on a particularly virulent and aggressive form of racism. That didn’t seem like it was going away. The Soviet Union was an oppressive society that crushed a lot of the spirit of freedom out of people. That didn’t seem like it was going away. Homophobia in the United States didn’t seem like it was going away. And yet, over time we have seen things resolve and melt away and become very different from the worlds that I remember. That gives me hope to turn to the things that now seem insoluble and say, “Well I’ve been down this path, and it may have seemed impossible before, but then it came true, so maybe this thing that seems impossible today can also yield to change.” Hearing that conviction in others inspires me. I’m drawn to that. I think if people hear that in me and are drawn to that, it’s the same phenomenon.

BW: What do you think is the root of our biggest problems that we need to address for a happier society?
RM: One thing that has been a mystery to me is human hard-heartedness—how we close ourselves off from each other and from many things about life. Now there are a lot of reasons for hard heartedness. Sometimes it’s fear. We’re afraid of what other people can do to us. We’re afraid of losing something. We’re afraid of being broken or harmed, so we wall ourselves up. Sometimes, sadly, it’s affluence. In the Bible there’s a lot written about this strange phenomenon where sometimes when we have more, we seem less able to give. I see that all around me and I have experienced that in myself sometimes but I don’t understand it.

The opposite of hard-heartedness is open-heartedness—being genuinely open to other people. Being forgiving, gentle and excited. This is closely related to having the capacity for awe, for being able to be amazed at what the world can offer us. I don’t know how anyone can look up at the sky on a dark night, see all those stars, recognize that there are billions of galaxies out there and not feel that this is a magnificent place to be living, as mysterious as it is.

The other thing that we need to cultivate is gratitude, and I wrestle a little bit with this in my book, because even as a child I recognized in some ways I was very fortunate. I had two college-educated parents who loved me, who did not have much money but were both trained as reporters, so their response to my hemophilia, an illness they had no experience with, was to dig in to try to get the answers to what would really help me. Now, if I had had parents who didn’t have those skills or didn’t care that much or were burdened by problems, I wouldn’t have benefited. I also grew up middle-class in a powerful country, and I was white. So there’s all kinds of things that put me in categories that made my life easier.

On the other hand, I grew up with this illness that prevented me from being able to walk for most of my childhood. I wore leg braces. People reacted fearfully to those leg braces. I couldn’t do a lot of things that other kids could do, and I was always balancing back and forth. Should I focus on what I’ve been deprived of, or should I focus on what I have? I wish I could say there’s a secret lever in the back of your head that you lift to automatically feel grateful. I think it’s a matter of cultivating that response so that as you’re inclined to feel it, all kinds of other things melt away.

Now that’s not to say that I’m not occasionally frustrated, or that I’m not occasionally seeking some self-serving outcome. I’m very much human. But I have lived through three potentially fatal illnesses!…Those things were all amazing, unexpected outcomes. I really have to tell myself, if I’m crabby about something, that if I can’t feel gratitude after all that, there’s really something congenitally wrong with me on a spiritual level.

BW: What’s your secret for resolving conflict?
We were in the middle of pulling together an international project to help big companies measure their environmental human rights and child labor practices. Enormous amount of complexity and a lot of very strong feelings. Occasionally at one of our big public meetings, someone would come up to me at the end and say, “This project is going to fail!” I would answer, “Really? Why do you think that?” And they would tell me. In a sense I understood that they wanted to express their concern, frustration, or even their anger. I would then say, “You know, you’re probably right. This may fail. It’s a very hard thing that we’re trying to do. But I can tell you something. You’ve clearly given it a great deal of thought and we’d be less likely to fail if someone like you were to be engaged and help us avoid making the mistakes that you’ve just laid out for me. So perhaps you would like to be involved. We have working groups of all different kinds of things.” I used to put it into sports terms. “If you’re not ready to come play down on the field, you could sit close to the field on the bleachers, watch what we’re doing, give me your feedback about how we could do better, and if at any time you’d want to come join and give us a hand, I will make sure we find something that will honor your skills.” It was amazing how, over time—it didn’t happen right away—many people would say, “I’ve given what you said a lot of thought and I have some specific things I’d like to contribute. Is there still a place for me?” And of course, I’d say yes. This taught me that part of the anger and frustration that people were expressing initially was a fear that if they trusted in this project and put their hope in it, that hope might be dashed and they would be disappointed. They were telling me preemptively why it wouldn’t work, and they were expecting me to defy them and say, “No no no, it’s going to be fine.” But by saying in fact they were right, that allowed them to feel better about their concerns and often unleashed their own creativity.

BW: What are you involved with these days?
Right now we’re in a moment of change about the purpose of capitalism. People are experiencing a number of dislocations and frustrations that are being expressed in different ways. There’s income inequality, where a lot of people that should be prospering as our economy grows are not. We are having a terrible time with our economic systems locally, nationally, globally, operating within the limits of the planet. The planet is starting to run out of resources. I’m currently the president of the New Economics Institute, which is raising fundamental questions about the kind of system of prosperity we want to generate and how we want to get there.

Innovations are taking place all over the country and the world, as people are rethinking very basic issues: how to grow food, how to exchange products, how to distribute energy, how to design new forms of work. These are positive signs. Whether they can happen fast enough to address many of the problems that we have structurally, I don’t know. I’m trying to bring together all these initiatives so that people can recognize that the idea of a new economy is not something far in the future. We can see evidence of it if we start linking the different pieces we see as part of the eco system of life and exchange of production. It’s a forward-looking, visionary community. I’ve never been drawn to people who are cynical about life, who say, “Oh that’s not worth trying,” or who question other people’s motives. We all have complicated motives. I’m drawn to people who have aspiration of where the world can go and who trust that underlying all the difficulty, fear, complexity and brokenness that human beings express and live through, there’s always that possibility for rejuvenation. I’ve certainly seen that in my own life, both physically and spiritually. I know it’s possible. It’s not automatic, but it remains out there for individuals and communities who dream of creating something better.

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