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No, You Can't ‘Be the Change’ Alone

Positive thinking may be useless or even damaging, but negative thinking is unlikely to change the world for the better.
By Alessandra Pigni / mindfulnext.org
Apr 5, 2018
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No, You Can't ‘Be the Change’ Alone

Having travelled between ‘world-out-there’ humanitarianism and ‘world-in-here’ western psychology and meditation for a decade, I often see a clash between personal and structural transformation, or the lack thereof.

I hang out with the action people, those who get stuff done to change the system and snark at personal transformation—and I sense that ‘doing’ is not enough. I sit with the reflective people, those who believe that we can change the world by changing ourselves—and I definitely know that something is missing: ‘being’ is not enough. The communication between the two seems limited, superficial, and when it happens it’s just a bit “hippiesh” in style.

An interesting quandary: I can’t ‘be the change’ alone, no matter how many times I quote Mahatma Gandhi. Neither do apolitical humanitarianism or political activism without personal change stand any chance of transforming the world. So…….

To be or to do?

I guess this has been one of the questions for me: how much agency do I have in making the world a better place by being a decent human being, while navigating the challenges of being ethically aware, and keeping my sanity.

And how much do I need to rest my case because the world is a mess solely due to structural failures, and mine are just pathetic attempts to feel good about myself? In other words, is it worth doing something or should I just sit and ‘be?’

For me the way to address this dilemma is not an either/or answer. What I think and how I feel about myself matter, but without appropriate action in the world (I’m sorry to disappoint), it’s just a feel-good attitude which at best can achieve personal wellbeing. That alone won’t change the world. Yet as humanitarians who want to affect the world out there, it’s time we take into account that action without space for reflection runs the risk of becoming a form of pathological altruism—a mode of doing that ends up shaping institutions that are insensitive to caring for their own people with the excuse of rushing to change the world.

Can I be an abusive boss and still deliver much needed medical care in emergencies and save lives? Sure I can, I just don’t wish it on anyone to work with me.

This is a very personal reflection, it’s where I sit now, unsure of how I can contribute to the world out there, and perplexed about the idea of inner transformation as a vehicle for global change. This piece explaining “why self-care is not enough” pretty much sums up my views, and opens the door to addressing structural responsibilities in order to understand human suffering (which is not a mental health disorder)—the suffering of aid workers, and the suffering of those we are meant to serve.

Self-care and staff care turned out to be entry points to discuss questions that are much more pressing for me—questions that have brought me back to my philosophy studies; ethical questions which in the case of humanitarian work revolve around the promise for a better future, and radical values such as humanity, respect, empowerment and participation. The rather disappointing everyday reality of humanitarian organisations—where these very values are paraded on office walls and websites—is that they are still too often disregarded when it comes to showing humanity towards one another in ordinary, everyday relations. As an aid worker recently told me: “We value people, just not our own.”

Mind the gap: ideal and real

The gap between ideal and real remains wide: people get into aid work for noble reasons, or at least with some aspirations, only to discover that there’s no room for activism in aid work (though we need to have a discussion about what activism looks like in 2015, because to me it’s no longer only about signing petitions and going to rallies).

On the road from ideal to real, some aid workers become jaded and cynical before giving in and adapting to a dysfunctional setup. Others burn out. Others simply leave, and of course many stay and do a good job without going insane. I repeatedly discuss burnout as the manifestation of a broken way of living and working, and no amount of positive thinking, mindfulness, yoga, or whatever is the latest hip fad will put that right. Again, it is a structural problem. But just know that you and me are part of that broken system when we fail at moral courage, when we just shut up and keep our head down, when we keep repeating that to work in aid one has to toughen up and stop being so sensitive.

I’m glad to see that more words are being spent on the illusion of positive thinking—as if that alone could change the world, which is a misguided and misguiding idea. Yet thinking does play a role in informing action, even if it is critical thinking rather than the positive variety. The world doesn’t change because I sit and breathe, so yes let’s challenge all that new age nonsense, the secular spirituality without any ethics.

Meditation was never about some ‘feel-good, love yourself, go girl’ attitude, nor about enhancing productivity as one might be led to believe by a quick web search on “mindfulness and productivity” (I’ll spare you the links). Sitting in silence may help me to pause, take stock, reflect, and rest so that I can bring constructive disruption and not exhaustion to my actions. What remains is that poverty, injustice, war and occupation are structural problems that require political solutions. But again, if I’m constantly stressed and all doom and gloom, not only does the system remain unfair, but I become part of the problem too.

Changing the world? Changing my attitude?

Today I’m not as convinced as I was in my early days, that ‘changing the world starts from within.’ Instead I wonder if changing the world starts ‘in between’—between people, in relationships, and in the way we treat each other, as well as in the radical transformation of the way our institutions operate. So yes, I do have some agency, but no, the world does not dramatically change just because I’m more kind and compassionate.

I don’t believe that I can transform the world because I think positive thoughts, or ruin it by radiating bad vibes on an off day. But my attitude and behaviour do matter for sure, and if you think otherwise try a toxic work environment day in and day out, or an abusive boss or partner. You’ll soon experience how people do have the power to make your life a heaven or a hell.

So while I share the view that positive thinking is useless for most, helpful for few and possibly harmful for some (see this great animated video for more), I do hope we won’t now be invaded by a stream of cynical negative thinking, just to balance things out. If positive thinking won’t change the world, I doubt that negative thinking and ranting over the state of the system will either.

I, for one, am interested, not just in exploring but in living in that space where critical thinking and reflective practice meet justice, and the capacity to love oneself and others. How? I don’t know. I just envisage this as the activism and humanitarianism of the 21st century, not just rallies or charity, but something new, where institutions don’t break people’s spirit, where personal wellbeing is not chased in isolation, and where ‘doing’ and ‘being’ are not mutually exclusive.


Alessandra Pigni is a humanitarian psychologist and staff care specialist with many years of experience in the Middle East, and China. Her new book The Idealist’s Survival Kit. 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout is out now with Parallax Press. You can follow her blog at www.mindfulnext.organd connect with her on Twitter @mindfulnext

This article was first published on MindfulNext, and was written in response to a critique of positive thinking by Chloe Jones.

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