Essential Change


How do we bring about real change?

What really needs to change? Is it "the system" that needs to change? Many systems have been tried and none has brought peace to humanity. We often think, "if only all the good people I know were in power, things would be different." But what happens when even the "best" people do in fact get into power? The people who behave so nobly when they are opposing a system, change their character when they obtain power. In fact, resisting oppression often requires a certain type of ego strength that serves very poorly when it attains power.

Revolutionary change too often carries the seed of its own destruction. After all, when the system has been changed, the same people will still be around, and we will still have to live with each other. What will we do about the people we resisted? New systems have used all sorts of inhuman pressures to enforce the new way. Any change on the order of what is necessary that does not include in some way every person, in other words, if it is not a change that we all make, then someone is going to be left out, feel oppressed, and will plant seeds of destruction. New systems will develop to contain these new troublemakers. Nothing will have changed, except faces and names and ideologies.

Change that occurs very slowly, over generations, is not as likely to create opponents. A mountain could be dismantled stone by stone over 500 years without fear of resistance from the local population, not like what would happen if you tried to take it apart in a week with giant earth movers. There is a level of change we simply do not perceive, and a huge change made up of many small incremental changes will go unnoticed. There is the added fact that what one generation considers change, the next takes for granted. Great changes can be wrought this way without violence and resistance. But to bring about change in this way requires inhuman patience and a good deal of indoctrination of following generations to carry on the work. Besides, do we have so much time?

Yet we must change. It is hard not to feel that we are walking a very thin line, especially environmentally. We are straining the Earth's life support systems. Even though humans will survive the next 100 years, many other species will not. It is estimated that we are killing off from 14 to 400 species every day! And we have no idea what role these creatures play in the health and well being of the whole. In the human sphere, the brutality we are capable of inflicting upon each other is almost beyond comprehension.

I am led inescapably to the conclusion that what needs to change is not "the system" or the party in power, or the ideology currently in vogue, but the human being. Invariably I find that I must change. What I despise in "the system" or in other people, exists also in me, although usually in a different form. So I must change. When I start looking at the illness of civilization, I cannot help but see that I am in part a product of that civilization, and therefore have a lot of sickness to heal. For me, the first step in healing is admitting that you are sick. It takes a lot of strength to face up to your weaknesses. It is the height of health to admit that you are ill.

Changing our own attitudes, luckily, can be instantaneous, and non-coercive. As soon as we see in no uncertain terms that we must change, we do. It is that simple. What takes time is bringing ourselves to the point of seeing things so clearly.

However, the same caution applies to trying to change myself as applies to changing the system. Am I destructively bent on perfecting myself to the point that I can't accept any of my imperfections? Am I so infatuated with some ideal image of myself that I brutalize myself with self-condemnation for not living up to my ideal? If I hate my imperfections, then I am consumed by hate. If, on the other hand, I cling to my imperfections, then I do not grow. But if I take a good look at myself and can see what is going on, then when I act I am really doing something useful. The spontaneous act in view of the whole mess can really make a difference. Sometimes the situation requires an act of deep tenderness, like holding a frightened child. Sometimes it demands real fortitude and toughness, like ending an abusive relationship. The crucial thing is to act in a way appropriate to the circumstance, and that means being clear about what is going on, and that means being very awake and alert.

So how is this fundamentally necessary change, which must occur throughout all the people and within each person and in the fabric of society, to come about? This whole process of deep change must occur at all levels. The human world is the way it is because of the way humans are, so any change in a person has ripples through society and any change in society changes people. If change is brought by force it will not be healthy.

At a basic level, I think fundamental change is beyond our power to create it. Our human knowledge is too limited and too willful to be of lasting value. So I think we must forget about trying to change the world. When we try to change it, we invariably create a new hell. Does that mean we sit back and let the Presidents and the CEO's shape the world for us? Absolutely not. I will not play their game at all. I will neither accept what they hand me, nor will I get trapped in trying to replace their world with mine, tempting though that might be.

Instead, I will live my life the best I know how, examining it constantly. When I live according to, for lack of a better word, the values that I know serve my deepest needs as a human being, then I frequently come into confrontation with the established order of society. I am not setting out to change the world, but what is whole and healthy is so at odds with the status quo that there are ample opportunities for standing firmly for what is right in the face of a society that wants me to conform to its values. But because the genesis of my action is not to be found in a reaction to the status quo, but in my own sense of what is living truthfully, those occasions when witness is necessary can be extremely powerful.

A few years ago I had a very emotional dream in which I was talking to a group of US church people about Nicaragua. In my address I expressed a desire to return to Nicaragua to work among the people there. One of the audience spoke angrily to me saying, "That's just plain stupid. Why would anyone want to go work someplace where they know they will probably be killed?" I responded, "I think you ask the wrong question. I think the right question is, 'how can you live here, in this society which is death?"

That dream has changed its meaning for me with reflection. At the time I thought it voiced my desire to live somewhere more real, more alive, which is how I experienced Nicaragua in 1986. Later, after reflecting on the charge from the Nicaraguans I met to "go home and change what needs to be changed in the US", I felt that the dream called for something tremendously difficult; to find a way to be fully alive in the midst of a thoroughly deadly society. That question is now operative in my daily life: how can I live here, how can I be fully alive, despite all that surrounds me that is so deadly? For me, this task must be accomplished in the context of a very normal life. I do not want to be in a separate community. I do not want to associate only with people I agree with. I do not want to be defined by my politics. But I want to live a fully human life, not the sick mockery of life that is offered by the mainstream of U.S. culture.

Yet, you will find that most of the time I am not succeeding. Not only is my life very normal looking - I pay taxes, I work 40 hours a week, I own a car, and now a computer, I hope to find some land and build a house; but much of the time I am every bit as greedy, protective, cynical and apathetic as my fellow citizens. By not refusing to be all these things, I feel I have opportunities to observe and understand what it is that is going on in this society. And I am learning to have compassion for all the other people who formerly I looked down on because they weren't living radically. And I am learning how much good there really is among all the bad. There are excellent people everywhere. And the world is a phenomenally beautiful place. Despite the abuse heaped on it by humans, the world continues to give to us freely from its bounty and beauty. If only we could see with clear vision how completely blessed we are, what reason would we have for defending our individual little portions of the pie?

Is it enough? Enough? It is a greater challenge than most are willing to take. How many people are willing to open their eyes and face the world fully, with all of its awesome beauty and enormous pain? How many people are willing to devote themselves totally to love, to living for the sake of living? Not I. Not anyone I know. But we have our moments. Does political activism have a place? Yes. Is there a situation that can be most effectively addressed by the community together? Political structures are useful then.

One of the most troubling facts facing the inhabitants of the United States is our disproportionate consumption of the world's resources. As an example, the US, which is about 5% of the world's population, uses about 28% of the world's fuel. Looked at another way, for all the world to live like we do in the US, the world would have to consume 6 times its current energy use. Finally, in stark terms, The average US citizen uses 35 times the energy of the average inhabitant of India.

This bloated resource appetite can be blamed for a great deal of the injustice in the world. As consumer of so much of the world's resources, the US has a strong interest in being militarily powerful. We have to maintain our access to these resources through force. We clearly have no basic right to such a large slice of the pie.

Also, by revelling in such splendid wealth, we set up the expectation for the rest of the world that they too can live the good life. There are plenty of people who want what we have. So development continues at a rapid pace.

Meanwhile, this excessive consumption is spoiling the Earth. If we could live with less, if we could manage to consume 5% of the world's resources, our fair share(an imponderable 82% reduction), and be happy with that, what kind of difference would that make in the world?

For one thing, it would send the message that we recognize that a consumptive life is an unsustainable life. Second, we would have fewer "interests" to defend, so we would need fewer military resources. Third, we would not be so hated by those who see us as the scourge of the planet. We would have fewer enemies. We would have a cleaner planet to live on and enjoy. We would be putting less money into cleaning up our messes. We would be able to direct what resources we do use toward the things that give us the greatest pleasure.

Even though it seems impossible, because we have come to equate expanding consumption with "growth," in fact it seems that to reduce our level of consumption might be to create an upward spiral of cost savings and freeing up of time. On the other hand, the endless pursuit of ever greater consumption creates a downward economic spiral because of the resources that must be spent on defending our access to resources and to accumulating more, and to cleaning up our messes.

What makes it so tremendously difficult to turn back, to reduce our consumption of nonrenewable resources? Why do we not want to do it? I am convinced that we can and will do anything that we really want to do or that we know we must do. Is it just that we now equate life with economic accumulation? Is it just habit? Is it that we have become lazy, we just don't want to have to think or work? Is it that we have come to equate freedom with being able to do whatever we want whenever we want? Or is it a deeper spiritual problem, a matter of such deep inner poverty and fear that we endlessly pursue more and more external wealth in order to avoid the profound "less", the aching loneliness that we feel inside?

In many ways it does not matter why we consume so much. What matters is that we do so, and that doing so is destructive to the planet, to the other people of the world, and ultimately to ourselves. We need no altruism. We need not even have concern for our progeny, although you would think we would have that. We only need self-preservation, as basic an instinct as we possess, and the turning of our intelligence to look at what we are doing, to see that we must reduce our energy and resource appetites. Seeing that we must, we will.

It will be hard at first. We will not like the change. We will feel like we are moving backward, perhaps even like we are dying, because we have been so conditioned to believe that life equals getting more and more. But the benefits are incalculably large.

Are you reading this and saying, "well, that's nice, but it's not going to happen." All that means is that you have not looked at the situation seriously. The road we are on leads to disaster. If nothing else, then at least the other people of the world will one day demand their fair share, and then we will have to defend our unfair share with massive, brutal force. Is that what we want? Is it not the intelligent thing to start making changes now before they are forced on us by an unforgiving planet and demanding neighbors?

I believe essential change is possible. I believe we have the answers to our most vexing problems if we would only stop running away from them. I believe that you do not need anyone to tell you what you need to do to live a sustainable, creative life. I believe you know what you need to do. I believe we all need to stop listening to the conventional wisdom that we are fed, that says real change is impossible, real change for the better. I believe we need to shut up, to turn off the experts in our heads, and the experts on the TV and Radio, long enough to rekindle the natural wisdom within which we live, and which lives within us. There may not be much time. We do not know where lies the point of no return. Don't wait. Do it now.

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