[This is part one of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]
Proposition: I cannot control people or situations, only my responses and reactions to them. I have nothing to leverage for my own happiness except my own attitude.
Since writing the above paragraph in 2010, the pursuit of distinguishing between what is inside and outside of my control and has become something of a personal anchor in life. Reading the extant writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others over the past eight years has doubtlessly influenced this journey in significant ways. I am intrigued by no end with this broader philosophical tradition.
Today, the mantra for me goes like this: There are only two kinds of problems in the world — problems I can’t do anything about and problems I can do something about. Neither category of problem deserves anxious energy. If I make a list of all the things I can’t control in the world, I have a list of things about which my worry will have zero effect. If I make another list of things I can change in the world, worrying about them only detracts energy from doing something about them. The more things I have listed in these columns, the more things I don’t have to worry about.
Do not write off realism for its curmudgeonliness. There is no greater hope than the latent joy residing in the anguish of complete honesty. After all, even nihilism is nothing but a floating signifier and, in this respect, it is synonymous with meaning.
I am skeptical of books and blogs purporting insights and instructions on how to ‘change the world.’ There seems to be a disconnect between books about How to Change Society and books about How Society Has Changed, the latter most commonly referred to as ‘history.’
This observation is not meant to be pessimism about the future. The future, like the past, categorically does not ‘exist.’ It is not a thing or an object that avails itself to direct manipulation. It is perpetually out of reach. It is eternally untouchable.
Sure, I can change things about the world now, but I cannot change a future world that doesn’t exist. And even here and now, my capacity to alter the world has limits: I can only change features of my world, not everyone else’s worlds. (But I take immense comfort in this: if everyone could change the world for everyone else, than anyone else could presumably change my world on a whim. Who would want to live in that world? Terrifying, really.)
We can pick something up and move it somewhere else. We can share a thought or idea with others. It is within the ability of every single one of us to say, write, or do something that changes the parameters of the world right now — or at least a small corner of it. However, I get the sense that many of us are hung up on the issue of scale. We are greedy. Some of us want to be all-star ‘change agents’ who apparently possess more power to incite change in the world relative to other people (or at least relative to the mean average of other people’s ability to change the world). We want more network influence, higher impact metrics, and broader systemic reach.
In short, we want power. We talk about changing the world to encase our thirst for power in a blanket of benevolent feel-good. But it still boils down to the exertion of our will into and over the experience of other human beings.
Let’s put it another way. It seems evident that “Everyone else should be like me“, or “Everyone should do what I think they should do”, or “I can create the conditions that will solve this for everyone” are not viable solutions to most of the problems in the world. But it is intriguing how often these overtures seem to be default reactions.
So, let’s be critical, in a constructive way, about this whole world-changing agenda. Unless the wanton pursuit of leverage over other people is the paramount objective of our lives, it does not make a whole lot of sense to preoccupy our temporal existence with the worry of altering the make-believe future of other people.
What can I change in the world today? I can change the way I interact with others. I can change the duration and depth of my contemplative pondering vis-a-vis my instinctive, reactionary impulsivity. I can take more time to order my words, deepen my thoughts, and invite others to ruminate. I can sit in empathy, stand in solidarity, and explore with curiosity. I can do all of these things. I can do them today.
None of these actions will change the whole world in any literal or measurable way. But upon reflection, it seems like such an ambition — global dominance of my will upon others and the Earth — is a ridiculous self-delusion anyway. That said, I am realistically hopeful that I can change my world: the tiny sphere of existence I will inhabit for the next five minutes. I can become just a little bit more intentional about who I am amongst and alongside the people around me right now.
No one knows the so-called ‘impact’ my actions will have on the so-called ‘future.’ No one can know. But who said the point of nurturing one’s practice of kindness, reflection, gratitude, and one’s investment in justice is exclusively for producing a quantifiable ‘change’ in the world? The question is as least as old as Plato: is goodness good for goodness’ sake alone? When did right living become exclusively valued by its global transformation scorecard?
How is it that ‘doing the right thing’ has become seemingly synonymous with the ambition to ‘change the world’? Often the response to one noble deed is, “But that’ll never really change anything, you know!” What a recipe for cynicism we have created! If ‘doing good’ doesn’t ‘change the world,’ then why bother with goodness at all? What if this conceptual construct of becoming world-changers has become a psychological impediment to, well, actually changing anything about the way we live?
Does donating to UNHCR change Aleppo? Does standing in solidarity for a community’s water rights overcome the power of corporate lobby interests? Does taking a few minutes to listen to the experiences of racialized communities end systemic racism? Does building local networks of respect and understanding curtail the fear mongering of a demagogue? Does one personal effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle empty landfills and clean up the oceans? Categorically, none of these activities do anything to structurally ‘change the world’ — but that does not make them any less important.
Maybe my tribe — my friends and I; my tiny fractal of the global community — will make some positive difference for others. Maybe not. More than likely, if we crunch the odds, we’ll simply never actually know. But knowing the outcomes has nothing to do with whether or not being intentional about our behavior is a worthwhile practice.
If I need the universe to give me gold stars and reward stickers for every effort at doing what is right, I reckon I am just selfish. So, to hell with ‘changing the world.’ If the notion of changing other people is ridiculous, how much more so the delusion of reordering the sum of the whole planet?
Changing the world is either a fool’s errand or an otherwise ludicrous benchmark. Such concerns are only in the purview of the omnipotent. I will not measure or quantify the meaningfulness of my existence by the scale of its global influence. What will I assume complete responsibility for? My time, my resources, my attention, and what I do with the three of these in concert with one another. I’ll only hold myself accountable for the things I can change, not for my transformative impact on the state of the planet.