Getting Radicalized, Slow and Painful

[Rob Shetterly, the artist who created the Americans Who Tell the Truth website, asked some of the people he painted to respond to this query: “Everywhere I go, kids and adults want to know how you got started. What was the defining moment that triggered your dedication to fighting for justice or peace, or the environment?” Below are my thoughts.]

My transition to political radicalism — going to the root of problems, recognizing that dramatic and fundamental change in the way society is organized is necessary if there is to be a decent human future — involved a lot of pain, in two different ways.

The first concerned the process of coming to know about the pain of the world. I had never been a naïve person who thought the world was a happy place, but like many people who have privilege (in my case, being white, male, a U.S. citizen, and economically secure, though never wealthy) I was able to remain ignorant of the depth of the routine suffering in the world. I was able to ignore how white supremacy, patriarchy, U.S. imperialism, and a predatory capitalist economic system routinely destroy the bodies and spirits of millions of people around the world. When I made a conscious choice to stop ignoring those realities — in my case, when I returned to a university for graduate education with the time to read and study — the process of coming to know about that pain was wrenching. But I found myself wanting to know more.

Why would someone with privilege press to know more about the pain of the world when that knowledge creates tension and emotional turmoil? In my case, coming to understand that the world’s pain is the product of profoundly unjust social systems helped me understand a different kind of personal pain I had been struggling with. Most of my life I had felt like a bit of a freak, like someone out of step with the culture around him. There’s nothing dramatically wrong with me physically or psychologically, but I always struggled to fit in. I had always had a lingering sense that I didn’t want what others around me seemed to want. Because of my privilege, the world offered me a lot, and I am grateful for much of what I have — work I have usually enjoyed, an adequate income, relative safety. But I could never figure out how to be normal — how to kick back with the guys; how to get excited about sports, television, or the latest hit music; how to care about what kind of car I drove. In many ways I had it made, on the surface, but that sense of being out of step always dragged me down.

The best way to deal with our individual struggles is to put them in a larger context. That means both understanding the forces that shape our world as well as placing our problems in perspective. Becoming radicalized politically allowed me to see that I was suffering because I didn’t want to fit into a world shaped by unjust systems; the problem wasn’t my values and desires but the pathology of those systems. That didn’t solve all my personal problems, but it sure helped. Radical politics also helped me understand more clearly how others were suffering much more than I; it shook me out of my self-absorption. Both realizations led me to want to continue the search for more knowledge and understanding about how this all worked, and to commit as much time and energy as I had to movements for social justice.

The paradox is that since I have immersed myself in the pain of the world, I have been able to find new joy. I still understand that the world is not a happy place, and to be truly alive we must face what my friend Jim Koplin calls the “sense of profound grief” that comes with looking honestly at the world. As the writer Wendell Berry has put it, we live on “the human estate of grief and joy.”1 Grief is inevitable, and it is only through an honest embrace of the grief that real joy is possible. The conventional world tries to sell us many pleasures, but it offers us little joy. That’s because the conventional world is also trying to sell us many ways to numb our pain, which keeps us from that grief. So long as we are out of touch with the grief, we are unable to feel the joy. We are left only with the desperate search for pleasure and a panicked scramble to avoid pain.

This process has, for me, been slow and gradual — there have been no epiphanies. I don’t believe in epiphanies, and I don’t trust people who claim to have epiphanies. I don’t think the deep understanding of the world that we strive for can come in a single moment. It comes from the long and painful struggle, with the world and with ourselves. Insight doesn’t magically descend upon us. We have to work for it, and that always takes time.

As the singer/songwriter Eliza Gilkyson (who also happens to be my partner) has put it, “Those are lost who/try to cross through/the sorrow fields too easily.”2 To expand on her metaphor, we cross those fields not in search of a utopia somewhere ahead. Our life is that journey across those fields, facing the grief and celebrating the joy along the way.

  1. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106 []
  2. “He Waits for Me,” from the CD Beautiful World, Red House Records, 2008] []
Robert Jensen is Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with the The Land Institute in Salina, KS. He is the author of several books, including The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021) and The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017). He also hosts Podcast from the Prairie with Wes Jackson and is an associate producer of the forthcoming documentary film Prairie Prophecy: The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson. Jensen can be reached at To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go here. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on July 17th, 2009 at 6:18am #

    Again I sent this e-mail to CNBC this morning.


    LONDON — An ugly scramble is brewing over the swine flu vaccine — and when it becomes available, Britain, the United States and other nations could find that the contracts they signed with pharmaceutical companies are easily broken.

    Experts warn that during a global epidemic, which the world is in now, governments may be under tremendous pressure to protect their own citizens first before allowing companies to ship doses of vaccine out of the country.

    That does not bode well for many nations, including the United States, which makes only 20 percent of the regular flu vaccines it uses, or Britain, where all of its flu vaccines are produced abroad.

    “This isn’t rocket science,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “If there is severe disease, countries will want to hang onto the vaccine for their own citizens.”

    Experts say politicians would not be able to withstand the pressure.

    “The consequences of shipping vaccine to another country when your own people don’t have it would be devastating,” added David Fedson, a retired vaccine industry executive.

    About 70 percent of the world’s existing flu vaccines are made in Europe, and only a handful of countries are self-sufficient in vaccines. The U.S. has limited flu vaccine facilities, and because factories can’t be built overnight, there is no quick fix to boost vaccine supplies.

    July 17 (Bloomberg) — Britons were told not to panic over swine flu today after the nation’s most senior doctor said the health service is planning for 65,000 deaths from the disease, which has claimed 29 lives so far in the U.K. (Bloomberg)

    It’s the economy stupid. and only a handful of countries are self-sufficient in vaccines. How about here in the States will we be told not to panic. Is it not amazing that in this country you can buy a handy dandy whatever and half the kid’s can’t read. Shark shark, Oh don’t worry would you like to buy a T-shirt or what about a nice beach chair? Oh look there goes the Governor’s helicopter you see all is under control how about a nice ice cream bar? The whole thing takes my breath away. Anyway how is the dollar doing today is it behaving well?


    Glenn Beck was crying on his show last night then told people why he was crying. Anyway how is the dollar doing today is it behaving well? Glenn told me last night our very freedom is under attack. So that’s what it is I knew something was a little off.


  2. Esperanza Holford said on July 17th, 2009 at 12:32pm #

    It has taken all of my 74 years to reach conclusions which probably are not shared by many people. History has always fascinated me. That doesn’t mean I am an historian–a scholar I am not. What I am is a curious person who starts one book and looks at bibliography and reads those and from there branches further. Some of the most wonderful and well-researched historical books I have read are novels by exceptional authors.

    Several books expanded my view of human nature and the world. “The Source” by James Michener; Julian Huxley’s books on Humanism; “The Territorial Imperative” by Robert Ardrey; “The Maked Ape” and “The Human Zoo” by Desmond Morris; “Palel Blue Dot” by Carl Sagan; Thomas Paine’s wonderful books. One book led to another and then another until I had a clear picture of our humanity–what seems to be written in our DNA.

    Basically, I have concluded that biologically, we are small tribal animals very much a part of a small group. These are the “in” groups. Everyone else is part of an “out” group. Imagine this so inculcated it is writtenn in our DNA.

    Technologically now, we are not only global, but universal. Imagine this conflict–biology vs. technology. Which is going to win?

    So, I believe these dynamics exist within our DNA–small tribe; in group/out group and within the group alpha’s and omega’s; the territorial imperative–and I began to understand our history of constant wars; our greed for acquisition of territory and status ( money and wealth are only means to such ends).

    It’s all so simple, really, once you understand nature’s dynamics, what drives us beyond even our own understanding.

    I cannot agree with you more about this “unhappy” world. Catholics often recite the words in “Hail, Holy Queen” to the Virgen Mary–” to thee we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”

    Not only do humans fear–all living creatures run from death. It’s instinctual, isn’t it? So much more the human intellect acknowledges “seeing death a necessary end will come when it will come.” Yet, great pain of mind, soul, or body can overcome this fear! This brings a question. Why do humans strive to avoid life, finding escape in every type of substance imaginable? Escape from fear and grief which plagues every living creature. The struggle to survive in spite of all; the drive to propagate by hook or by crook. These drive everything.

    Enough about my philosophy. I really enjoyed your article. I live outside of Johnson City toward Fredericksburg, so am not far from you in Austin. I hope someday I might get to hear you speak.

  3. Don Hawkins said on July 18th, 2009 at 4:49am #

    I guess you can put me in the out group. It took me many years to understand this mad mad mad World. The so called in group of course wants me to be like them sort of and that voice in the back of my head tell’s me insanity is not a good thing. The strange part is without the out group there would be no in group or the other way around. Calm at peace. Good cup of coffee anyone.

  4. Don Hawkins said on July 18th, 2009 at 5:01am #

    When the truth is determined by the money and the power in the year 2009 and if that is what to be the story it seems means be like me and yes you will never get there but try anyway and I say good cup of coffee love the suit and have you read Steinbeck.

  5. Don Hawkins said on July 18th, 2009 at 5:39am #

    or what are your thoughts on war and peace? Where are you going another cup of coffee it’s on me. You’re going to the club wait come back the man in the corner is a genius and wanted to ask you a few more questions. The door opens the other way have a wonderful day.

  6. Don Hawkins said on July 18th, 2009 at 3:34pm #

    Read this and the picture on the first page tell’s a thousand words.

    Vitter said the bill faces opposition from most of the Senate’s 40 GOP members and some of the chamber’s 60 Democrats. Bills in the Senate need 60 votes to get around opponents and fatal delaying tactics.

    Of course remember a real try at this requires tax the carbon and return the money back to the people and what chance might that have with the powers that be and or nationalize energy. to get around opponents and fatal delaying tactics in a few years millions then billions and that would be life forms.