Seeking Contemplation in Chaos: A Reflection by Cicia Lee

Election day, November 4, 2014, was a tiring but exhilarating day. There are details of the day that I vividly remember. The stacks of clipboards, pens, and Question 4 info cards piled chaotically in our small office; the streams of volunteers walking up and down the hallways, cold but eager to continue knocking on voters’ doors; the excitement of reaching my last canvassing door at 7:40pm, with twenty minutes until polls closed, and finding out that a voter had always voted there but didn’t have a ride that day. I quickly called a colleague who was driving nearby, and we rushed her to the polling station, realized it was the wrong one, frantically drove to the correct one, and cheered as she scrambled inside just before they closed the doors to the polling station. 

From August until November I worked on the earned sick time ballot question campaign with the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. It was satisfying work – I was using my skills with data to help achieve a powerfully significant step towards economic justice. 

And of course it was magnificently satisfying to win the campaign. At our campaign debrief, our director said to all of us, “I want you to pause for a minute and realize what we helped to do. We ensured that one million workers won’t have to risk losing their jobs to take care of their health or their sick children. This will probably be one of the most significant things you ever do.” It was incredible to let that sink in. But after hearing from some of my colleagues at our staff debrief, I realized how much I still have to learn. At the debrief, I didn’t have much to say. I was just excited to win, and that had felt like enough. When we were asked what daily practice we had during the campaign, nothing came to mind, but a colleague of mine responded honestly that she had not had time for any kind of deliberate practice. The intensity of the campaign had made her purely reactive to the immediate and the urgent. Everything felt scarce to her during the campaign – time, votes, volunteers – and scarcity removed her from the sense that she was still doing God’s work.

This moment was an important reminder for me that it is easy to forget to listen to the quiet, crucial space between things. I remember feeling disappointment in realizing that I had forgotten what it meant to also be reflective about the process and not just the goal. One of the reasons I was excited about Life Together was to learn the practices of being contemplative in the midst of struggle and chaos. I was disappointed that I had been so caught up in each day’s work and in the short term vision of the campaign that I hadn’t recognized how reactive I had been, or in fact, that I hadn’t had many thoughts at all outside of the tasks I was doing. I’m reminded of one of the first books I read on feminist theology – an essay by Ada María Isasi-Díaz, which opens with this: 

“'La vida es la lucha'—the struggle is life. For over half my life I thought my task was to struggle and then one day I would enjoy the fruits of my labor. ... But above all I have realized that I can and should relish the struggle. The struggle is my life; my dedication to the struggle is one of the main driving forces in my life."

For me, the struggle is the jarring reality of painful working conditions that I heard from people during this campaign, among so many other symptoms of oppressive structures. The struggle is also the relentless engaging in the work of justice and the exhaustion that it brings. But I’ve learned since the campaign that to relish the struggle is also to remember how to retreat into the reflective quietness in the midst of the chaos. I am grateful that early in my career I got a chance to be a part of such a momentous victory. I’m also grateful that I’m beginning to learn that it isn’t the victory, but the internal and external struggle that is the life.

Cicia Lee is a Micah Fellow serving at Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN).