Are We the Ones?

It is a new year, a new chance to reflect on our role in the world and how what’s going on in the world shapes our lives.

I’ve been thinking about the popular saying — “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” We heard it a lot during the Obama campaign (like — remember that energy, still latent among us?). I always liked the phrase but thought it a bit New Age-y. I heard it ascribed to the Hopi, but it just didn’t sound Native American to me. So I checked it out.

Community organizer and strong democracy advocate, Harry C. Boyte, tells us where it actually comes from.

Maureen Dowd in her New York Times column credited its origins to a “New Age-y speech” by Maria Shriver, who supposedly got it from Hopi Indians…. In fact, the phrase comes from a song of the Southern civil rights movement…. I often heard “We are the ones” when I worked as a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group headed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I saw the power of ordinary people becoming agents of change, giving the song its meaning. Dorothy Cotton composed it to make the point, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” inspired by a line from June Jordan’s “Poem to South African Women,” commemorating a march against apartheid. People sang it across the American South.

    We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

It is a strangely potent sentence, stimulating us in the way it puts us in the roles of both savior and saved. I note the collective “we” — as if the salvation we seek belongs to us all and will only arrive through the actions we take together.

It has a hopeful ring, as though all we have to do now is become the actors, the saviors, together. There is a sense in which that is true. It was certainly true for the civil rights workers who were actors together in a coherent movement against gigantic odds with the winds of destiny in their sails. For them it expressed their real-time experience of power. THEIR savior had come, and THEY were IT.

But for so many of us, the phrase has an ironic poignancy to it, a self-reflexive longing. Our savior — the great and powerful Us — has not come. So there’s something else to know here, something else we need to discover. Consider what the statement looks like when we say it the other way around. Oddly, the new version says the same thing as the original one, but sounds totally different.

    We are the ones who’ve been waiting for us.

This version disturbs us. It is a dark wake-up call. I find it fascinating that such a simple restatement can create such a different effect. Its irony is intense, prodding our conscience, and our inertia.

Let’s try another version:

Given the way “grownups” in every generation look to the younger generations for hope, we could also rephrase this activist invocation to help us see that we — no matter who we are — are children of someone, and that our parents probably saw great possibilities in us. So we are faced with the challenge: Do we continue to pass the generational buck, or grab it as our own responsibility, our own legacy?

    We are the ones our parents were waiting for, to make the world new.

Which brings us back to the original. “We” are the ones that “we” have been waiting for — as a “we” that spans every generation. The question returns: How much longer will we wait?

The challenge is obvious. But, alas, so many of us don’t feel up to it. We KNOW we’re supposed to make a difference, but we find ourselves perplexed about where to start, where to put our life energy, where to apply our tools and our passion to create the changes the world so obviously needs. Even worse, the way the world is, itself, seems to confuse and impede us. Creating change is not such an easy or obvious affair. And so….

     We are the ones who still seem to be figuring out how to be the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Which is, in one sense, very appropriate. We are in a new era, with radically new possibilities and problems dancing on top of all the old ones — with even newer ones emerging every day. We are in an era where change can come from any direction, from unexpected sources, seemingly “out of the blue”. Who knew the view of Earth from space would have such a powerful impact on our collective consciousness? Who saw the fall of the Berlin Wall coming? Who foresaw the game-changing challenge of Wikileaks? What is coming next?!!

We don’t know what’s around the corner. We do know that not every butterfly that flaps its wings creates hurricanes a thousand miles away — thank goodness!! But we don’t know which butterfly-flap will trigger big changes. We could be that butterfly. We, ourselves, individually. Or we, ourselves, collectively. How do we take this in? How do we take the mystery and challenge of our situation seriously to awaken and empower ourselves?

The old blueprints are grist, not guides. We need to build this road as we travel, build the airplane as we fly. Our learning — our figuring out how to be the ones we’ve been waiting for — needs to be integrated with our doing. Because right here, right now in our daily and activist activities is where we need to be most awake, most ready to shift, most present in this moment together, open to its lessons and possibilities. That is where the transformational action is.

There is no preparation for this. Everything in our lives has been preparation for this.

As complex as it is, it all boils down to this version, fraternal twin to the original, for

    We are the ones who can not wait any longer…

Blessings on the Journey.

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