You’re looking for big stuff. You want massive change. You want people to start caring for each other, for animals and the environment. You want governments and businesses to act more humanely, with some value placed on happiness and respect and peace. You raise your voice against things you dislike. I love your heart. I love your passion. I love your effort. But I would like to suggest that those efforts can be much more effective than they currently are.
Yes, support the organizations that are doing important work. But if you want a more compassionate society then you have to act like it, not talk like it. What’s the use of wanting someone else to respect or care for someone when you don’t do it yourself? Do you let people into traffic? Do you offer help to those you know are struggling? Will you slow down your own life enough for a child or a stranger?
If they’ve managed to turn their life around, every former homeless person, drug addict or convict I ever met told me that the consistent love, support, and compassion of just a few people made all of the difference in the world. And their material support was only a small part of it. What they really valued was the belief these other people had in them. They saw something good in them when the person themselves saw little or no hope. And don’t think that was always easy for either party. It was just worth it.
Where do you think street people or even the active and working poor come from? Sure, a small percentage got themselves into trouble with blind foolishness but, even in those cases, if we looked at their life we would see that they never had the appropriate mentors. They never had anyone to explain the value of education or cooperation, or how to handle their finances, legal obligations or even manage their tempers.
If you grew up with both of your parents drunk and fighting all of the time, then it makes sense that you wouldn’t learn the same useful skills that a lot of other people consider common sense. The fact is, we model the behaviour we see because that’s how you learn to live. If we’re fortunate enough to get a secondary influence that provides some contrast, we might be okay. But barring that, we are all trapped by the information we have available.
Most people who are down and out are there for very good reason. If you slow down enough to hear their stories you realize that most were tripped more than they fell. Is it some woman’s fault that she’s bankrupt after her divorce because her husband gambled all of their money away? For that matter, is the husband even as responsible as we might initially assume? If we say that he is, then what do we think an addiction is? The whole point of an addiction is that the person has very genuinely lost touch with their ability to choose.
We must keep in mind that, for an addict, withdrawal is often painful in a variety of ways. If it’s something like gambling, we must remember that these people are often pushing back against an entire industry that hires millions of dollars worth of psychologists and sociologists to help ensure that every piece of scientific knowledge is used in the effort to actually try to get that person to be a regular customer (read: addicted).
Hundreds of scientists and tons of money are all aimed at getting a certain percentage of the population to do something. If you don’t think that’s a real force in this world then maybe you should remember that 90% of your life is absolutely impacted in very serious ways by advertising. Everyone says not them, but the research proves them wrong. So you might not be in the same boat as the gambling addict, but you’re in a boat nevertheless.
Stop judging others. Stop assuming you know how they got where they are. Because I’m the one slowing down to actually know these people, and I can assure you that virtually every one of them was simply operating without enough information and instruction about how to negotiate life. Either that or they went through absolutely horrific experiences.
I have no idea what it feels like to get raped by a parent, but I can easily see that you might feel safer living on the street. So if you grow up without positive, informed, supportive people, then it makes sense that there are things you won’t know. We can say that it’s common sense that you have to eat to stay alive, but that is a much different thing than knowing how to hunt for your own food. So if we were in the jungle and no one taught you how to catch and kill a chicken, or what plants were safe to eat, you would be in the very same situation as the person you’re judging. You certainly wouldn’t have any useful common sense.
Slow down, be kind. It’s actually enjoyable for you and it will actually accomplish something. Because all of your judgments are thoughts you’re thinking, and so it’s you that’s getting the emotional responses that go with those thoughts. This is a lose-lose proposition, whereas kindness and generosity are a win-win for all involved.
If you want a better world start with yourself. Make your little piece of it better by not thinking negative thoughts about yourself or anyone else. Let people into traffic. Buy someone’s coffee at a drive-through. Offer a hand or lend an ear to someone who could really use it. Because failing in our culture is painful enough. We certainly don’t need to add harsh judgment on top of it.
Open your heart. Care for others. Build a better life and a better world simply by consciously making caring, supportive and loving decisions regarding the people around you. Do that and, as Gandhi said, you will have actually been the change you want to see in the world. If you want to be spiritual, let that be the manifestation of your spirituality.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations around the world.