The Most Liberating Realization in the World

The title of this article is honest. I do not intend it be sensationalization or ‘click bait.’ This post is about an idea that, thus far in my life, has proven to be the most freeing perspective I have personally realized:

I cannot change other people. I cannot change other people’s behaviours. I cannot change other people’s minds. I cannot change other people’s values, hopes, and dreams. Other people’s errors and misbehaviour is a category of problem I cannot resolve, and as such it does not warrant the unregulated investment of my emotional resources.

Sure, I can try to coerce people to my way of thinking and doing things. I can create stratagems to influence them. I can incentivize certain behaviours or punish their actions. I can be passive-aggressive or threatening. I can nudge them. I can bribe, guilt, and shame. I can do everything I can to ‘teach them a lesson’ about their errors. But at the end of all my struggles, it turns out that other people are remarkably like me: they want to make up their own mind about things, and the last thing they want is for someone else to do it for them.

Suppose, hypothetically, that all the energy I expend trying to change other people is a monumental waste of my time. All my effort to enlighten, convert, and fix others — just a big, extravagant squandering of my energy. Why do I take it upon myself to be the architect and enforcer of the ‘correct mould’ to which others must conform? Why do I even want the responsibility of assuming myself to be the archetype and definitive model of humanity?

How much life will I waste seeking to turn my partner, friends, and children into ideological carbon copies of myself? When they do not cooperate with my design, I resort to leveraging my approval and affection. I withhold acceptance. I exclude and slander. All this because other people fail to meet my expectations, realized or latent.

This operation turns out to be a daunting task. When the final standard is me, other people are worryingly incompetent. They chronically believe bad sources and unfounded ideas. They fall in love with the wrong people. They listen to the wrong advice. They say inappropriate things. It takes extraordinary work to convince all the people in my life how misguided they are all the time.

Is the point of human existence on Earth to wake up each day with the mission to ‘fix’ other people? Is this really what I want to do with this one life I have to live?

The lifelong occupation of trying to bring the rest of the world into alignment with my vision is a fool’s game. When does it stop? How many of the world’s inhabitants must I proselytize with my principles before I can sleep at night? How many relationships will I alienate or abandon when others fail to think, act, and talk within the parameters of my defined standards?

The sooner I abandon the cause of changing other people, the sooner I begin my own walk to freedom. This is most liberating realization in the world: I cannot change other people. The only way to love another is to accept them for who they are, not who I have concocted in my head that they should become.

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19 Replies to “The Most Liberating Realization in the World”

  1. Curious about the parameters of what you mean. Not being a parent myself, this is all quite abstract and hypothetical to me (read: I have no clue what I am talking about right now.) That said, the basic tenants of attachment parenting and the thinking of folks like Barbara Coloroso make a lot of sense to me: at the end of the day, the kid is going to be who the kid is going to be, and what seems most highly correlated with well-adjusted, compassionate, and confident adults is that they were unconditionally accepted for who they were by a caring adult when they were children. It seems to me that trying to conform people, even (especially?) children, is a recipe for resentment.

  2. James Shelley it’s true, kids will be who they’re destined to be. It is the responsibility as the parent to love & to guide them while they make the choice on their own of who they want to be. Children don’t do well with control. Guiding your children while also providing them with necessary information/important talks while growing up to help them cope with life will be much more positive and beneficial for them more so than the “because I told you so” approach.

  3. I guess the parameters of what I mean is dependent on the parameters you mean :) I am not suggesting parents should force their children to conform to a particular ideal, however, and as Tracie suggests, the mere fact of guiding children is a form of changing behaviour. We try and guide our children to make choices that will benefit them. We teach them not to run out into the street, even though they want to in order to retrieve an errand ball. We teach them to share, we teach them to use manners. We are in fact teaching them to adhere to acceptable social norms. I am not sure it is clear cut as it is, potentially, a paradox.

  4. I agree we shouldn’t ‘make’ people think things… but we do have an important role in shaping thinking and behaviour in others whether we want to admit it or not. Friendship, teaching, politics, parenting, publishing writing…. these are all areas that we impact other’s thinking and behaviour… we don’t control them but we should be very conscious about how we produce and reproduce ideas that impact others. That is a personal responsibility that we seem to be avoiding in today’s apathetic, happiness seeking, self-help society. All this can be true without being arrogant and expecting others to be a ‘carbon copy’ of ourselves.
    There are ways to ‘make’ people think and behave in a certain way which the mass media, marketing, public policy, and law each specialize in. I think a complete denial of responsibility in how we actually do impact how others think would be an illusion, liberating, but an illusion nonetheless.
    I know I may be missing the point that we should be accepting others for who they are – a point that I do agree with – but the underlying tone of the article does suggest that we are powerless to shape others thinking and behavior, and that we should not be thinking in those terms anyhow. For me this article goes further in encouraging apathy and conformity than it does in developing a compassionate and humble approach to social critique. Besides the racist, homophobic, and xenophobic tendencies in some segments of our society (for which the article may be targeted at); I think we need more, not less clarity and debate about what we want to achieve together as a community, which does require all of us to put forth our ideas and shape how others think.
    What is social/political/economic change if it is not a change in how people think and behave?
    If you’re in the business of these types of change then you are in the business of shaping thinking and action in yourself and others.
    It is okay to feel defeated, to lose hope, to be unhappy, and to feel sorrow for the avoidable destruction of people and places around the world. We should see how our lives are benefiting from and being sacrificed in those things (particularly from our privileged position) We shouldn’t take these feelings away from being human…. it may be our one way out of the many messes that we find ourselves in.

  5. I agree with you here Mike. One of the gravest concerns I see for the near future is the lack of responsibility I see in. Everything is either someone else’s fault or problem. We want rights, but do not want the responsibility that goes with said rights.

  6. Michael and Steve: this question of social change and personal responsibility is quite interesting. I appreciate what you are saying and value the input. At the same time, I wonder if there is an a priori grounding in the idea of ‘human progress’ that one must first adopt before assuming that I, as a human being, have some kind of moral responsibility to nudge the other humanoids in my vicinity towards a standard of behaviour that I deem most appropriate. I guess the other fundamental question here is going to drive to a more basic ethical issue: who gets to decide what is appropriate for everyone else? If I am the standard of morality, I’m moving towards fascism… but if the standard of morality is more of an emergent property of the so-called human hivemind of consciousness, then why would I presume that I ought to be a warrior on its behalf?

  7. A most interesting conundrum, one that I would answer with the following: It is not WHO gets to decide what to decide for everyone, but WHAT. In nature, a dog, a cat, a human, a bear, a butterfly….none of them, whether leader/following, smartest/unintelligent get to decide. If one of the species mentioned follows the laws of aerodynamics, they can fly. If one of the species mentioned does not follow the laws of aerodynamics, they will fall. The laws of nature have been proven both on a macro and microscopic level…Yet we as a society do not look at them as something that we must adhere to. We debate as a species whether abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and hundreds of other issues, are all things that can be ultimately determined by our own intellect, when in fact we refuse to determine whether any of our actions, which ultimately end in moral conundrums, follow particular laws of nature. A great deal has been written about the effects of natural law and its adherence/ignorance thereof ultimately determines the fate of humanity. Just my two cents….well, five cents. We don’t have pennies anymore.

  8. It takes practice living in community to have patience for the workings of the community minds processes. This notion was why I fell in love with the idea of becoming an architect at 8, bike and walking paths as a teenager and community gardens at 50. I like the Aboriginal Justice and healing circle process as well for how it grows people together with a minimum of criticism. In my mind the children would be instructed mostly without words but instead by community building actions on projects that have a broad group benefit.

  9. Well, as per my initial post, I don’t really have an agenda to change your mind on the matter :) but your proposition of natural law as the ‘correct default’ raises a number of questions in my mind. It’s a still a ‘who’ (in this case, you) declaring a ‘what’ (natural law) for other people. Adopting the supremacy of natural law still rests on any number of presuppositions. Another person may declare that the alleviation of suffering is the penultimate basis of ethics: and they have no more or less grounding for that claim than the natural law advocate. Everything comes back to your first principles, doesn’t it? To come back to my initial post: I don’t think I can change your first principles. It’s not in my capacity to do so, any more than you can change the mind of the anti-suffering ethicist and convince them of the merit of natural law (or, perhaps more correctly, one particular interpretation of the scope of natural law)

  10. Is it helpful here to differentiate between people and systems? Mike’s question, “What is social/political/economic change if it is not a change in how people think and behave?” maybe is not as rhetorical as it first appears. I want to think about this more.

  11. I am a senior and I only wish I had learned this lesson while I was young. The years of wasteful time spent on the hope of changing anyone. The time wasted could have been use wisely
    changing myself. I really like this article as a reminder that it is the simple but important lessons learned that make a good life. Freedom does come from liberation within.

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