Do We Change the World by Changing Ourselves?


This week someone asked me if my podcast was about personal-development or about politics. It was a question I myself have been trying to answer. I spent a lot of years thinking about how to change the world, about how to make an impact. One could argue that’s a noble pursuit, but in reality, it’s hard to change the world without first changing ourselves. Personal development and social change go hand in hand. 

In the aftermath of the emotional jolt of the November election, once thing has become clear to me, we cannot place blame everyone else for the outcome. Our country has become a collective space of virtual yelling, bullying, minimizing and insulting. Since it’s part of my job to monitor online spaces I see this everyday from people from all walks of life. I sometimes go lurk on their profiles and see pictures of smiling kids, grandkids. It seems that we have lost the ability to see that everyone has people they love and care about. We are so disconnected we easily make everyone who isn't like us "the other." 

I also see people who have clearly gone down a rabbit hole of hate, anger and resentment. It has become such a part of who they are that they cannot keep it inside and they must put it out for everyone else to see.

This week it was a Google employee who decided to rail against women engineers at the mostly male, white company. 

It’s like we are a country on the verge of divorce. We’ve stopped listening, assuming best intentions. Some of us are indeed being subject to attacks, lies and being vilified constantly and like with any type of abuse there is emotional toll that comes with that. We are collective in a low, emotional state. 

This is when I am inclined to think about the internal work we need to do to stay resilient and persistent. This is when we channel the collective powers of our ancestors who overcame, who crossed borders, left loved ones behind, fought in wars, and still pieced together an existence that makes our lives possible.

The thing to remember is that we are currently under the rule of a minority. We are seeing what happens when certain groups of people feel their survival is being threatened. When people feel misunderstood, and others feel entitled to certain resources even if it’s at the expense of others they will not hesitate to take action. When we see life not as abundant and fruitful but as scarce and dangerous it impacts every interaction. A trip to the store becomes a viral racist tirade. When boys and girl are not given the emotional tools to process fear, anger and hurt they seek solace wherever they can. When we are being sold an idea that a nice house, and a car are the keys to fulfillment we feel defeated when we cannot get those things, and we feel even worse if we do attain them and they don’t give us the satisfaction we had anticipated.

We definitely need to change ourselves the way we raise our kids, how we choose to react when we are angry, how we channel negative emotions that inevitably arise in all of us.

Without these changes we are placing a burden of exceptionalism on our young people. They have to overcome the impossible and exemplify a near heroic resilience to achieve their dreams. There is a mental toll that comes from this expectation and this belief that if we don’t achieve we simply have ourselves to blame.

Positive psychology teaches us our minds are powerful and indeed obstacles often build character. But most of that was written by people who had a certain amount of built in privileges.

Earlier this week I heard a meditation that said, “ultimately what we seek when we chase a goal or a status is a feeling. But what if we let ourselves experience that feeling regardless of what we achieve?” I thought that was genius even if it sounds like a feat for some of us.

But then we also have to change the political undercurrents that control our lives. Even in creative work, studies show that only 3% of creative directors in large agencies are people of color, the #’s are similar across many fields. How can change this without addressing the inequities in education across the country? The disparities in health outcomes? The incarceration rates?

Of course, we have to keep believing. Because if we give up the belief then we are already losing one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. But what if we could make it easier for people to seek fulfillment? That is where the intersections of the positive psychology and social justice meet.

It’s not about telling people that the barriers are too hard for them and they should give up, it’s not about telling them to have grit and overcome it’s about teaching them about the disparities so that when they do overcome they are aware that the credit isn’t due solely to them but to a collective of people and institutions that nurtured them. With this knowledge we can all work to eliminate the systemic barriers that make it hard for some of us in the first place.

Betsy cardenasComment