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From the Question Box Sunday, the second question is True or False: to change the world, we must first change ourselves?
Why? (Or Why not?)
So, in my mind, the answer to this question is yes and no. The ubiquitous “they” say that “you are what you eat” and I say that we create what we are. When I think about the acts of cruelty that seem to be so often in the news, happening lately, I think that, in anger, confusion, and any number of other mistaken and badly mingled inner and outer realities, these people act out in the world the tragic and brutal turmoil in their hearts and minds.
let me be clear — I am not saying that we create our own reality – that’s another post altogether. I am saying that our exterior actions speak of our inner realities. Of course, there are people whose actions are changed or controlled by disease, injury, physical challenge, or the conditions around them, who are limited by the resources at their disposal. But even so — some of the people who have inspired me at different times in my life seem undaunted by what seem like overwhelming limitations.
One that comes to mind is Mattie Stepanek — I found him and his work quite by accident a few years ago. He lived only 14 years and during that time struggled with a genetic disease — Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy. He died on June 22, 2004 due to complications from his disease.
On his website it describes the challenges of his illness this way: “Like his siblings, Mattie needed a wheelchair, ventilator, oxygen, monitors, medicines and spent a significant amount of time living in Pediatric Intensive Care Units.” But Mattie was a soul determined to make the most of his time here. He wrote 7 books, went on speaking engagements, and spoke out about peace — bringing him into contact with world leaders – and (above) Oprah Winfrey.
After September 11, 2001 Mattie wrote this poem:
For Our World
We need to stop.
Stop for a moment.
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.
We need to be silent.
Silent for a moment.
Before we forever lose
The blessing of songs
That grow in our hearts.
We need to notice.
Notice for a moment.
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust of humility.
Stop, be silent, and notice.
In so many ways, we are the same.
Our differences are unique treasures.
We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts
To nurture, to offer, to accept.
We need to be.
Be for a moment.
Kind and gentle, innocent and trusting,
Like children and lambs,
Never judging or vengeful
Like the judging and vengeful.
And now, let us pray,
Differently, yet together,
Before there is no earth, no life,
No chance for peace.
September 11, 2001
Wise words for an 11 year old boy. But what he says is true — we have to stop and take stock within ourselves and make sure that there is some peace within, love within, sense of fairness within, before we march out to “save the world.” Too often “revolutions” are lead by people whose intentions may begin as yearnings for a just and good world — but, as a result of seeing the problems outside themselves only and not knowing their own inner landscape, demons, whatever, end up simply producing a new version — a new variation of the very injustice they wanted to eradicate.
I think about the many thousands of people that the great Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh has taught and changed. Because he has cultivated peace within himself, he is a credible teacher of peace. When you learn from him you know that this is not someone who has had it easy so he can talk about peace from a comfortable armchair. Instead, he has faced guns and war and terrible injustice and remained a spirit of peace. So no matter how heated up things may get or people may be around him, he is able to remain balanced, true to his message and intentions. He would mostly agree, I think, with what Mattie wrote here
Just Peace: A Message of Hope (AMP, 2006), Mattie J.T. Stepanek wrote the following: “There is a gentle quietness to peace. Relinquishing anger and tightfistedness brings a calming acceptance and resilience. Peace is something that feels good when we recognize and realize it inside of us. And, we can feel the goodness of peace when we are selfless and reconciled with others, and when we are considerate and careful with the earth…. Peace is possible, because peace begins with an attitude, and an attitude is a choice.” — Mattie J.T. Stepanek
So I do think that we must change ourselves. I mean, too, if we can’t change ourselves — which are the only selves we have any real control over — what hope do we have to inspire anyone else to change?
At the very same time — we can’t wait to be fully enlightened Buddhist teachers before going out into the world. It’ll get to hell in that hand basket way too fast if we simply gaze at our navels and leave the work up to “them.” Instead, we need to know ourselves, hold ourselves accountable, have people around us we can trust to also hold us accountable and work, learn, and grow at the same time. Our best learning happens in relationship anyway — so waiting for perfect enlightenment will only keep us from those relationships and interactions.
The challenge of addressing racism in our society is a perfect example of this problem. So often white people (I’m one) mean well — and head into work for racial justice unaware of the ways that the things that we say, the ways that we act impact and injure people of color.
Here is a sampling of micro aggressions collected by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, that people of color hear on a startlingly regular basis. I am sure that no one reading this blog has ever said or done any of these things.
“Where are you from?” ~ “Where were you born?” – “You speak good English.”
A person asking an Asian American to teach them words in their native language. ~ “You are a credit to your race.” ~ “You are so articulate.” ~ Asking an Asian person to help with a Math or Science problem. ~ “When I look at you, I don’t see color.” ~ “America is a melting pot.” ~ “There is only one race, the human race.” ~ A White man or woman clutching their purse or checking their wallet as a Black or Latino approaches or passes. ~ A store owner following a customer of color around the store. ~ A White person waits to ride the next elevator when a person of color is on it. ~ Asking a Black person: “Why do you have to be so loud / animated? Just calm down.” ~ To an Asian or Latino person: Why are you so quiet? We want to know what you think. Be more verbal.” Speak up more.” ~ Dismissing an individual who brings up race / culture in work / school setting. ~ “I’m not a racist. I have several Black friends.” ~ “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.” ~ Person of color mistaken for a service worker. ~ Having a taxi cab pass a person of color and pick up a White passenger. ~ Being ignored at a store counter as attention is given to the White customer behind you. ~ “You people …” and
Run of the mill personal, cultural, integral ouches:
“Indian giver.” ~ “That’s so gay.” ~ “She welshed on the bet.” ~ “I jewed him down.” ~ “That’s so White of you.” ~ “We got gypped.” ~ Imitating accents or dialects.
I only offer these as examples to illustrate that, sometimes, it is good to learn about your own preconceptions before going off to work for racial justice.
But race is a such a deeply embedded matter of consciousness in our society. If what people wait for our own perfect understanding of a situation that we can never understand perfectly — our prisons will continue to be filled with will the bodies of black people. (Heck, I read earlier today about a 12 year old kid suspended for having a staring context with a with a white girl at school.)
So I think we do have to change ourselves before we can change the world — but we won’t be perfect — shouldn’t wait to be — and need to go forth humbly assuming and committing to learn more as we go.