I remember talking with a friend who has worked for many years at the Catholic Worker, a ministry to the poor in New York City. Daily she tries to respond to waves of human misery that are as ceaseless as surf in that community. I asked her how she could keep doing a work that never showed any results, a work in which the problems keep getting worse instead of better. I will never forget her enigmatic answer: "The thing you don't understand, Parker, is that just because something is impossible doesn't mean you shouldn't do it!"
I have another friend who has devoted most of his adult life to resisting the madness of war through actions of justice and peace. He has done everything from painfully unearthing the seeds of violence in his personal life to living in poverty so as to stay below the taxation level. He owns nothing in his own name because, if he did, the government could collect it as back-taxes. The money he "should" have given the government over the years, and more, he has donated to peace and justice projects.
Does he have any results to show for his efforts? Has he been effective? Hardly — at least, not by the normal calculus. His years of commitment to peacemaking have been years of steady increase in wars and rumors of wars. So how does he stay healthy and sane? How does he maintain a commitment to this sort of active life? His answer completes the koan offered by my friend at the Catholic Worker: "I have never asked myself if I was being effective, but only if I was being faithful." He judges his action, not by the results it gets, but by its fidelity to his own calling and identity.
Again, results are not irrelevant. We rightly care about outcomes; we have to live with them, and being accountable for them is part of right action. But to make results the primary measure of action is a sure path to either inanity or insanity. The only standard that can guide and sustain us in action worth taking is whether the action corresponds to the reality of the situation, including the reality of our own inward nature.
The paradox, of course, is that faithful action does get results. Though my friends in the Catholic Worker and the peace movement have not achieved a just and warless world, they have certainly compelled others, including me, to search for ways we might live in faith with these visions. The results of faithful action cannot be foreseen, but they are sure to come about. For faithful action is action faithful to the nature of things, and when we act organically, our action has consequences for the organism. Surely the results will be healthier, more whole, when our action is freed from fear, from the need to control, from our idealistic fantasies, from the discouraging facts that surround us.— Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life