Gandhi’s dictum: ‘We must be the change we want to see in the world.’
My work centers around this instruction. Increasingly – as I make an effort to explore it openly, I get backlash, resistance, skepticism, and people just being irritated. One question I keep coming back to – or others nudge me towards it – is: “What does individual change have to do with systemic, institutional, structural change?’ A variation on this question is “How is me or anyone else being a nicer person going to address, for example, the sorry state of our inner city schools or the access to healthcare challenge or the crazy income disparities we have?
Here is my current answer to such questions.
I envision a world where more of us are committed to building strong, nourishing relationships. The change I want to see is greater awareness of our beliefs, attitudes, assumptions and behaviors. I want to see greater awareness combined with a commitment to openness and action. I want more of us being open to change within ourselves and to be willing to take the action necessary to make it happen. I want to see on-going evolution in how we relate to our selves and each other.
Why? Because how we relate to our selves and each other – our relationships – matters.
Systems, institutions, structures are nothing without the people who bring them to life. A myriad of relationships between people sustain all of our systems, institutions and structures. The result can be pretty messy and complex. For example, we are all likely to have witnessed in our families, in our schools, in our workplaces how it is that we create or are put into a system (however unspoken and informal) and then it in turn shapes our relationships. In this way, we become trapped in systems and knowingly or unknowingly behave in ways that might actually be going against the kind of person we would really like to be and can be.
A small number of people might/often have the majority of the power in any given system, institution or structure. Yet, we all have a role to play in sustaining what has been created. Namely, by being complicit. We can blame the culture we are in and the constraints this puts on us. Yes, we can. We would be partially correct. Yet, ultimately we have our autonomy and we can take responsibility for creating new types of relationships that do not feed and sustain existing systems, institutions and structures. Yes, we can.
The dynamics of our relationships – how much we trust each other, how much we support each other, how much risk we take, how much we think about how our choices impact on others, in what ways we feel comfortable collaborating and creating together – all depend on what each of us brings into our day-to-day interactions with each other.
What each of us brings into our day-to-day interactions with each other depends on what each of us carries around inside us in terms of beliefs, attitudes and assumptions. How we move through the world and what we create and destroy around us tends to be a reflection of how we view ourselves and understand our role in the world.
Back to the questions: What does individual change have to do with systemic, institutional, structural change?” or “How is me or anyone else being a nicer person going to address, for example, our inner city schools or the access to healthcare challenge or the crazy income disparities we have or our screwed up political system that rarely feels like it has anything to do with public service?
For me, it is about the multiplier effect: one person relating to the world in a different way might seem irrelevant to systems/structural/institutional change. One thousand could perhaps change a neighborhood. A few thousand? One million? One million people who believe change is possible, who think differently from how they used to, and who are relating to and working with each other compassionately, creatively and collaboratively could start to reshape our social, political and economic systems, no? My assumption is that getting to one million starts with each of us as individuals taking responsibility for what we believe, our attitudes, our assumptions and our behaviors – for how we move through the world. Getting to one million starts with one.
I am also assuming that ‘being the change’ is not merely a matter of being nicer or kinder to one another- though this is part of it (and we shouldn’t underestimate how challenging this practice of being kinder to ourselves and each other can be). For me, being the change is about forging healthy relationships rooted in individual responsibility, in non-judgement, in empathy, compassion, forgiveness, unconditional love (oh, yeh, that’s right the ‘L’ word). I am trying to do this on a day-to-day basis in my own life. I know I am not alone. And while it might sound light and fluffy, I also know it is hard work. Yet, I am committed to it. Because I believe that, in turn, such relationships can form the basis of vibrant, creative, resourceful communities where people come together in collaboration to build and sustain healthy systems, institutions and structures – in a friendship, in a family, in a school, in a workplace, in a neighborhood, in a town, in a city, in a state, in a country and so forth.
This I believe.
Do you think it is really that farfetched to believe that individuals forging healthy relationships with their selves and one another has a pivotal role to play in creating a different world – a world that is more nurturing for everyone? What has your experience been of this idea that individuals changing how they relate to their selves and others can change a system, a structure, or an institution (however big or small – from a friendship to a school to an economic system)?