Friday, February 21, 2020 12:23:16 PM
Mahatma Gandhi was once asked by a reporter, "What is your message to the world?"
Gandhi responded by jotting down on a piece of paper: "My life is my message."
When I first read this statement, I was struck by the universality of Gandhi's simple sentence. I realized that if Gandhi's life was his message, then my life was my message.
I also recognized that this truism applies to everyone, which means that your life is your message.
As this truth sinks in, a question may arise: Am I living in such a way that I'm truly modeling the message I want to convey?
To answer this question, you might ask yourself other questions, such as: What are my deepest values? What qualities do I most want to embody?
You may wish to create a list of qualities that are important to you, such as compassion, honesty, generosity, perseverance, courage, and kindness.
It's possible that by deeply reflecting on your values, you may want to make a greater effort to more intentionally live in alignment with them, perhaps by striving to be a better friend, a more loving partner, a kinder parent, or by volunteering, helping neighbors, or participating actively in your community.
In a globalized world, living more kindly in relation to those with whom you interact is a beautiful thing to do, but it's not sufficient if you truly wish to put a quality such as compassion into practice.
That is because our everyday actions - from what we eat and wear, to the energy and transportation we use, to the products we buy - impact others far removed from us, making it challenging to effectively turn our compassion into meaningful action.
Our simplest choices may leave a hidden trail of sorrow and harm, and it takes effort to learn about the impact of our choices and behaviors on people, animals, and ecosystems across the planet. And once we understand the profound consequences of our actions, it takes an even greater effort to make truly kind and sustainable choices.
In my last post, I wrote about how to make meaningful change happen. I described steps people might take to stop injustices and destruction, but I didn't write about personal choice-making. I didn't talk about consciously modeling our message and striving to personally minimize the harm and maximize the good we do through our daily choices. Instead, I focused on why it's important to forge a path as a solutionary who creates systemic change.
But just as proximal kindness isn't enough, being a systemic changemaker isn't enough, either. To be a true solutionary, we also need to endeavor to model a message aligned with our values.
The reason it's important to walk our talk isn't because personally making more compassionate and sustainable choices will, by itself, change the world.
It's important because integrity matters.
Here are four reasons why:
1. While individual choices may not result in immediate, long-term change, the collective choices of individuals lead to innovations, social businesses, legislation, and policy changes that, over time, can supplant destructive systems.
2. Dedication to making conscious choices based on our values enables us to identify the challenges in doing so.
That, in turn, spurs the development of new and better systems that make living humanely and sustainably easier for everyone -- most importantly, for those who cannot readily make different choices in their lives.
3. Making choices inconsistent with our values gives everyone we meet (and potentially influence) an implicit pass on trying to make more sustainable choices themselves, because if we don't live according to our principles, why should they.
4. People are more likely to listen to and be inspired by those who walk their talk.
Taking responsibility for living with integrity also leads to greater personal freedom and self-respect.
In the 1960s, Yale professor Stanley Milgram conducted a series of famous experiments studying obedience to authority. Subjects were encouraged by an authority figure to administer electric shocks - in a supposed study of the effects of negative reinforcement on memory and learning - to a person they'd just met (who was, in reality, an actor).
Understanding that they could be seriously harming, and even killing, this person whom they could hear but not see, and prodded by Dr. Milgram to continue despite their misgivings, two-thirds of the subjects administered what they believed were potentially fatal shocks in the name of science.
The conclusion? We humans readily obey others in authority, even when doing so defies our deepest values.
When we defy our values and succumb to authority - whether that authority figure is a man in a white lab coat urging us to administer painful shocks, or an advertiser manipulating us to want products that cause harm and destruction largely hidden from our view - we strip ourselves of the freedom to follow our conscience, and we cede our will to societal norms, people in power, and manipulative algorithms.
When, instead, we truly take responsibility for learning about the impacts of our choices and actions on other people, nonhuman animals, and the environment, and then act in accordance with our values, we free ourselves to look in the mirror each day and have respect for the person who looks back.
We also set the stage for resisting, at a larger societal level, when political and corporate systems and leaders create the conditions for violence toward and exploitation of others.
"Leading by example" and "practicing what we preach" may not, by themselves, transform unjust and unsustainable systems; but they are essential components on the path to becoming true solutionaries.
How might you more intentionally model your message today and in the weeks and months ahead?
(Zoe Weil, M.A., M.T.S., is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education, the author of seven books, and a frequent speaker on creating a healthy and just world. Courtesy: Psychology Today).
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