Everyone thinks of changing humanity, but no one thinks of changing themselves.
If we are to survive, we must change fundamental aspects of how we live and relate to each other. If we are to thrive, we must stop oppressing each other. But first, we must stop oppressing ourselves. We must change fundamental aspects of how we relate to ourselves. We must stop thinking, feeling, and acting like victims. We must take radical responsibility for the quality of our own lives. We must act mindfully, in integrity with our values and in alignment with our words.
Systems are made up of people. Institutions are made up of people. Governments and nations are made up of people. Such entities can display qualities, behaviors, and power beyond the mere sum of their parts. But they don’t exist outside of humanity, outside of us. To change them, we need to change people. To change people, we need to change hearts, minds and spirits. And we must start with ourselves. Nothing else is within our control. Nothing. We must heal ourselves, discover our gifts, share them with others, and find joy and love. Nothing else.
I’ve seen White Baby Boomer women involved in social justice efforts spout their admirable credentials in working on behalf of the poor and people of color – then ignore, minimize, and belittle people of color, and criticize or lash out violently when this is brought to their attention. I’ve seen progressive men in positions of power fight publically for women’s equality – then take women out on dates where they insult, condescend to, and grope them. I’ve seen older women speak out passionately for effective intercultural communication and quote Madeline Albright’s “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” – then privately undermine and publically humiliate younger women.
I’ve seen people of color working diligently for racial justice undermine coalitions by violating trust through dishonest communication and failure to keep their word. I’ve seen conflict resolution organizations fail because of their leaders’ inability to constructively manage internal conflict. I’ve seen bright, educated people of color blame racism for their inability to ever hold down a decent job for long, much less find a match for their formidable talent. I’ve seen people of color call out the asinine things White people say to them, while their own casual communication is chronically negative, critical, and disconfirming of others. I’ve seen creative geniuses flounder and regularly struggle to avoid homelessness because they “hate money”. I’ve seen people who have dedicated their working lives to healing the sick wallow in shocking personal levels of physical, mental and emotional dis-ease. I’ve met people who say they want to move past drama and end suffering creating drama and suffering everywhere they go.
I do it too. Sometimes my direct communication style comes across as oppressive, or my quiet contemplation feels like superiority or withdrawal. Sometimes I focus on tasks at the expense of relationships, especially when I’m feeling unsafe or overwhelmed. Last week I got feedback that a technique I’ve used off and on in diversity training for years is condescending, especially to men. This week I heard feedback that I have been alienating a couple colleagues of color and missing opportunities to create connection due to my constant need for clarity.
Truth be told it feels like crap to hear such things. I take feedback seriously, especially when it’s negative (don’t we all!). It’s tempting to go to a place of self-hatred or self-blame. I could easily question whether I should be doing diversity and inclusiveness work at all given my epic shortcomings in some areas. Or, I could easily set about proving loudly to my critics – or to myself – that their feedback is wrong, their experience invalid, and their perception of me as a person completely inaccurate.
But it’s not about that. We need to get over ourselves. Negative feedback isn’t necessarily an assault on one’s personhood, it’s valuable information to consider. We need to heal ourselves, be compassionate and gentle with ourselves, grow courageously, and maintain a sense of humor. We need to take radical responsibility for that which we can control – our attitudes, beliefs, choices, and boundaries. We need to take radical responsibility for creating our own lives and co-creating the lives of those around us.
I used to think that no one should work to change the world unless they were sufficiently healed and had their personal “stuff” in check. Now I believe if that were true, we might never get around to changing the world. Most of our beloved leaders were deeply flawed human beings. But we must not substitute outer work for our inner work. We must not deify our beloved leaders as better than us. And we must not discount people who choose not to do profound “outer” work for change in favor of healing themselves, discovering their gifts, sharing them with others, and finding joy and love.
Really, who changes the world? The activist who spends thousands of hours working for a noble cause – campaigning, petitioning, lobbying, fundraising, blogging, and demonstrating — but is miserable, angry, broke, and in a toxic relationship with their bodies and people close to them? Or the employee in a big company who enjoys their work, keeps their word, smiles and laughs everywhere they go, lives in vibrant relationship with their loved ones, stays healthy, keeps their front yard tidy, saves enough money to enjoy the pleasures of life, and plays in a local band because they love music?
Too many of us are working too hard to change the world, when it’s not the world that needs changing. We need changing. When we abuse and oppress ourselves, our bodies, or individuals in our lives, we are creating the very oppression we say we are fighting. When we allow individuals we are in relationship with to abuse or oppress us, we are creating the very world we say we want to change. We are out of integrity, out of alignment. We are taking two steps back. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and stop demanding exclusively that others change. We must stop thinking and acting like victims, even if we have a right to. We need to be more ecological with our “stuff” and heal ourselves. We need to — fiercely — “be” the change.
Too many of us know what we don’t want, but we have no idea what we do want. The world needs new visions, and new alternatives. We don’t need more complaining, criticizing, “anti” movements, scandal, drama, or additional evidence that we have problems. We need to create a bold and compelling vision of what we want, figure out what’s standing in our way, and get to meaningful work. We need to stop wasting time, and wasting our brilliance. We spend way too many resources passing bills, creating policies, forming committees, and having discussions that change nothing. Too many of us spend way too much time and brainpower trying only to change other people.
What we create in our inner lives creates our outer lives. What we create in our personal outer lives creates the world. As Al Franken said, it’s easier to put on slippers than carpet the world. As a former professional carpet installer, I sometimes – oftentimes – find myself with the glue gun in hand laying down some more carpet in someone else’s house. But mostly – gradually – I’m becoming a slipper-wearer, and slipper collector. (I also help others shop for some new fabulous slippers!)
Lately, the slippers I wear are these: if it’s not a good fit, it’s just not a good fit and I move on. If something requires more effort than what I get out of it, I leave it behind. If it’s a news item that makes my heart feel heavy or my stomach queasy when I see it in my inbox, I delete it. If it doesn’t bring me joy nor move me towards meeting my goals, I steer away from it. If I don’t want to do it and it’s not good for me, I don’t do it. If it brings out the dark side of my personality too much, I change it or leave it.
Conversely, if it flows naturally and generates energy, I go with it. If it’s fun and makes me laugh or feel happy, I do it. If it makes me feel inspiration, or childlike curiosity, I follow it. If it makes me feel awe or gratitude, I sit with it. If it makes me feel more alive, or more fully and authentically me, I groove with it. If it makes me develop in a way that aligns with my values and guides me towards being an improved version of me, I grow with it.
We change ourselves, we change the world. And nothing is more subversive than being happy, and living a life that is the best expression of who we are.
What about you? How are you changing the world? How will you live a life that is the best expression of who you are?