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changing ourselves

Change the World? We Must Start With Ourselves

changing ourselvesMost of us have been horrified, sickened, and enraged by the senseless killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Protests over Floyd’s death have broken out across the United States and even in other parts of the world. Most of these have been peaceful, but initially some became violent. The outrage over Floyd’s death is understandable. There have been so many senseless killings of African-Americans that it is just hard to take it anymore. Maybe we try to forget some of these names because it is too painful to remember — Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Ahmaud Arbery, just to name a few. We want to change the world because we don’t like what we see.

I can’t believe the news today. I can’t close my eyes and make it go away” —U2, Sunday Bloody Sunday.

But when we take a step back, there is an untold number of people across the globe and over the centuries who have experienced oppression, discrimination, racism, suffering, and death. It truly boggles the mind. There’s no doubt about it, we humans can be pretty brutal toward our other fellow humans.

Then, of course, we have this Covid-19 pandemic that has killed over 113,000 Americans and about 410,000 people around the world. The economy has been rocked, and the politics in the U.S. seems to have reached toxic levels of partisanship and polarization. It might seem like we are heading for the Apocalypse.

What Can We Do to Change the World?

While things seem pretty horrible, there are reasons that we shouldn’t despair. For one, despite how bad things are, the world was generally much worse historically, as Steven Pinker details in his book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Think of the horrors of the Black Death, the Holocaust, slavery, and the many wars that marked European history over the ages. Although the U.S. seems pretty chaotic in 2020, it does not compare to the level experienced by most of the world in past centuries or even as recently as 1968 (yet). 

We don’t want to deny that things are pretty bad right now, we just need to step back a little further to provide a greater context for the horrors and injustices that we see. These seemingly contradictory realities can co-exist. There is a lot of suffering and injustice in this world, things are pretty bad now, and things have been worse.

Still, we see all the horrible things going on in the world, and we might think, with almost 8 billion people in the world, what can I do? Therein lies the answer. It starts with each of us.

Mahatma Gandhi may not have actually said these exact words, but he did express the sentiment, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Ultimately, we can only control our own state of consciousness and our own behavior. Changing the world begins with changing ourselves.

“I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” – Bono, from the U2 song, Rejoice

Thus, if we want to see more peace in the world, then we need to be more peaceful in the world. If we want to see more love and compassion in the world, then we need to be more loving and compassionate. When we see the hatred, vitriol, and tribalism that infects our politics, then we need to refrain from being hateful. The good news is that each day, indeed each moment, is ours to take. No matter how bad things get, no matter what we’ve done or haven’t done in the past, we always have the opportunity to do better.

Hate Is Not the Way

As we see injustice, anger, hatred, and cruelty in the world, we tend to react with anger and hatred ourselves. It’s easy to do so. The rage wells up within us and threatens to overwhelm us. Some people among the protesters have committed acts of violence such as burning cars, looting, and even shooting police officers and other innocent people. But when we spew hatred and commit acts of violence, then we become part of the problem and not the solution.

In another bit of wisdom often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” To put in more common parlance, two wrongs don’t make a right. We cannot resort to acts of violence as a protest against violence and brutality. Even George Floyd’s son, Quincy Mason Floyd, encouraged protesters to restrain their hostilities noting that violent protests won’t solve anything.

There is a saying attributed to many wisdom teachers that is something to the effect of, “Hatred is the poison we drink hoping the other person will die.” Holding anger and hatred in our hearts is literally harmful to us physically whereas treating ourselves and others with compassion has health benefits. Moreover, treating others with anger, hatred, and violence will elicit those feelings and behaviors in them. Thus, inadvertently, we feed into the very cycle of hatred and violence that we are condemning.

Not succumbing to feelings of anger and hatred does not mean we should disengage or despair. Rather, we strive for mindful, energized, and skillful actions that make a difference. That might mean peaceful protests. It might mean we vote for candidates in upcoming elections who can unite people from different backgrounds rather than divide them. It might mean becoming more involved in social justice organizations.

However, it is bigger than this. It is treating our neighbors, co-workers, and strangers with respect, compassion, and kindness. We have opportunities to do this every day. Importantly, we can still disagree with one another and still treat others as we wish to be treated by them.

While it might sound like too much saccharine idealism, there is truth to the words of Martin Luther King Jr. that, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” We don’t look for that love in others or from others. That transformation starts with each one of us. The way to change the world is to start by changing the world in us.