Writing Words to Change a Life

By Hannah Lythe 03-22-2011

I love words. They nourish me more than food. As a child (and even now, as an adult) I read novel after novel, losing myself in the characters, the plot, and the effortless descriptions of good writers. If I could swallow the New York Times, I would. (There are also many other fantastic newspaper publications out there; I'm not partial.) The discovery of Google reader has been my biggest internet distraction to date. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but I'd rather the thousand words.

This past year, while working in the policy and outreach department at Sojourners, I have been the conduit by which many individuals have read message after message, pushing them to advocate through an e-mail. I hope these words are worth something and provoke individuals to participate. However, I have time and again been struck by the insufficiency of words. For decades (yes I am allowed to say that now as I approaching my 25th birthday), I have dreamed of writing a novel. Nothing romantic or thrilling, but rather something so epically transcendent, teenagers will complain about the teacher's over-analysis in their high school English class. Consistently though, I am struck by my own inability to articulate an impassioned call for social change. Social change happens and manifests through action -- not in word or creed.

Our advocacy can become lazy. We have tools to message and reach literally hundreds of thousands of people. Twitter, Facebook, and the general medium of the internet allows for fast, quick, and global conversation. I am not denying the merits of online organizing; the recent nonviolent protests in Egypt are the greatest testament to how individuals can mobilize digitally. But, speaking for my generation, social media too often promotes discussion not action.

I will continue without ceasing to ask individuals to participate in online campaigns. Members of Congress and their staff read the letters that arrive in their office, whether in an envelope or as an attachment; our stories and our words will always be worth something. However, we must remember to leave the comfort of our living room, turn off the TV, the computer, and disrupt our lives. We must be agitated.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and peace activist whose words relentlessly galvanize me toward deeper action, writes, "Word and thoughts concerning compassionate action that are not put into practice are like beautiful flowers that are colorful but have no fragrance." My great American novel (its release date has yet to be announced) may not bring an end to economic, racial, or social injustice, but with deep prayer I could only ask that it would motivate people to act. So when you see a book sitting on a shelf, authored by me, pick it up, read it, be slightly critical, but try to enjoy it. Then I will ask you to stand up.

portrait-hannah-lytheHannah Lythe is policy and outreach associate at Sojourners.

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