10/23/2010 11:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Gentle Activist: Lessons from My 91-Year-Old Dad

Do you see suffering or injustice in the world and wish that things were otherwise? What does it take to be a successful activist? Are you one? If you are, the Huffington Post is a very good place for you to speak up and be heard.

My dad is an activist -- although one might never think so. He is quiet in his ways but no less persistent in achieving what he feels to be important. When I was growing up with my younger brother and sister, it was Mum who "ruled the roost." She was the extravert, social, a good cook and very well organized. Following a hip operation that went wrong a few years ago, her confidence plummeted, and she withdrew into herself. She stopped driving, cooked only basic things and no longer invited guests home for meals.

Recently, their roles have been reversed. Dad, a former officer in the British Royal Navy, was trained and skilled in organizing and supplying the needs to run an effective ship. He now runs their apartment, using those skills with an impressive level of efficiency. Both are growing frailer, and he recognized that they needed more help in the home. At first, Mum was reluctant to have strangers come in to help change the beds, do laundry, clean, give her a bath or sit with her to give Dad a break.

Quietly, he campaigned to convince her that some of their needs might be met by others. They now have a wonderful team of friendly younger women who not only lighten his load but provide willing company for Mum. She is delighted to chat and pass the time of day with them. These helpers provide a social life for her that she did not have the confidence to find for herself. Mum has taken on a new lease of life and interest. One of the women provides her service for a bar of chocolate each week, is a great networker and knows a number of others in the village who can help with things like mending furniture for a very small price.

Outside the home, Dad is active in other ways, organizing a League of Gentlemen from their retirement estate to support the local village cricket club. For a small annual fee, each Gentleman receives notification of the summer fixtures and tea in the pavilion during the summer cricket season. Up until last spring, Dad grew vegetables and fruit on an allotment garden and gave away excess produce to his neighbours. He only gave it up when it was too tiring for him to walk to it from their apartment.

Bearsted village, where they live, is in the heart of Kent in South East England, also known as the garden of England. It has all the charm and character of the best of English villages where people know one another and are happy to spend the day exchanging news and conversation. Each Saturday morning the local Women's Institute (think of the movie "Calendar Girls" and the spirit of English women brought together for companionship and good works) holds a market where you can buy freshly made cakes, scones, biscuits, pies, trifles and other desserts, together with garden produce and hand-made children's clothes. The market opens at 10 a.m. Dad has a place reserved for him at the head of the line as eager customers wait to go in.

The last time I was in England, I went with him to the Women's Institute Market. We walked slowly and stopped to greet fellow villagers. One gentleman apologised that he could not hear a thing -- 100 percent deaf, he said -- but wished us a good morning anyway. Dad told me that he always makes that apology.

A few months ago, a commercial enterprise wanted to build warehousing next to the village, which would have covered an area the equivalent of two football pitches. What is more, 2,000 employees would have been coming into the village each day. The project not only would have defaced the beauty of the countryside there but also would have totally changed the character of the village. The villagers protested. My Dad was amongst them. Although he did not attend all the meetings, he managed to make his voice heard through writing to the local press.

The good news for the village is that the project is not going ahead. The quality of village life is too precious to sacrifice for financial gain. As I have come to realize, wealth is so much more than money alone.

The point I am making here is that you do not have to be a politician, a business leader, young or someone in the public eye to make a positive difference. Nor do you have to be violent, unpleasant or aggressive in your campaigning to achieve a result. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was quoted as saying, "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

In her article last week, "Family Meals: The Forgotten Ritual," Kari Henley wrote about the importance and value of coming together as a family at meal time and the strength that gives to youngsters growing up. As head of the family, Dad gave us a lead. Mum cooked us good meals, which we enjoyed as a family. There is a little of the activist in me and my brother and sister. It is this coming together to share who we are that gives us confidence, courage and the daring to be fully ourselves, to let our voices be heard.

Sharing music is another way we can draw strength from a group, as the highly successful Rock Choir has demonstrated:

Belva Davis wrote, "Don't be afraid of the space between your dreams and reality. If you can dream it, you can make it so." What is the dream in your heart that you have yet to sing and have heard? In what capacity would you like to make a difference? Who are the dreamers, and what are the dreams, that inspire you?


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