Changing the World Takes All Kinds…

Blog Wisdom, Civil Society, Cultural Intelligence, Earth Intelligence, Ethics
Tom Atlee

Dear friends:

What is the relationship between transforming ourselves and transforming the world?

In my previous essay, I described seven forms of leverage for deep transformation.  When I wrote it, I was thinking of social transformation.  The seven forms of leverage, in increasing potency, were:

1.  Ameliorate the pain
2.  Slow the damage.
3.  Create alternatives.
4.  Catalyze connections.
5.  Understand the big picture.
6.  Change the story.
7.  Transform the systems.

Hearing this list, a close colleague was surprised that I did not include personal transformation.  His view comes close to two related views held by many transformational agents:  (1) Social change cannot be adequate without serious efforts by change agents to transform themselves and (2) transformation of individual consciousness is a (if not the) primary driver of systemic transformation.

I agree that both these dynamics are important and helpful, but I consider neither essential for social transformation.  Nor do I see them as distinct forms of transformational leverage.

I want to emphasize that this is a personal perspective, one subject to well-considered disagreement and change.  However, due to its importance — whichever views we hold — I want to share my current views with you, and invite your comments on my blog post of this essay

So, to summarize my view:  Although I believe personal transformation is a major aspect of conscious living for each of us personally — and that it can improve the quality of our transformational efforts — I do not see it, by itself, as a form of social transformation.  In the context of social transformation, I see it as one of a number of ways we can enhance the quality and effectiveness of our transformational work.  These include:

A.  PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT:  The quality of our psycho-spiritual maturity, diverse intelligences, health, character, compassion, and other forms of personal development make a difference.  But for most of us, improving these factors, by themselves, seldom improves conditions beyond our personal sphere.  They can, however, make a tremendous difference in our ability to succeed in any of the seven transformational approaches listed above.

B.  SKILL AS A CHANGE AGENT:  Our social skills, media savvy, organizing competence, communication ability, facilitation and mediation expertise, fluency with online resources, and other varieties of competence can greatly increase our impact on the world — but only if we use them for that.  Many people have such skills but don’t use them in ways that result in the most powerful impact, or fail to use them for any transformational purpose at all.

C.  UNDERSTANDING:  Our knowledge and insight into the dynamics which shape the world we work in is vital for stimulating the kind of change we want.  But, as with our skills, our understanding only makes a difference to the extent we apply it in the world to shape our transformational activities.  We may imagine we’re having an impact simply be keeping up with the news, reading books and websites, and arguing with our neighbors, but our impact with that approach is usually very small.

D.  TRANSFORMATIONAL TACTICS:  There are many forms action can take — nonviolence, violence, conversation, education, technology innovation, theory, inspiring visions, creative arts, etc.  Any one of these tactics can be used to advance any one of the seven transformational goals listed above.

So I suggest that these four important factors — and others like them — are _different_ from the seven forms of leverage I proposed in my list.  Each of these factors plays a role in every type of transformational work and at every level of transformational leverage.  While it is common for mature, skilled, smart transformational agents make the most significant and positive difference in the world, this is not always the case.  Sometimes people come along who challenge our assumptions about who a change agent needs to be.  Often people’s impact depends less on who they are or what they know than on what their particular gift is and how it fits with the times in which they live.

I know a closed-minded misogynist who created a breakthrough technology that has positively influenced and benefited millions of people. (No, I won’t share his name, because his shadow characteristics are not known to those who have not met him personally, and his work is so valuable that I would not in any way wish to undermine it.)  On the other hand, I have met obviously enlightened, very compassionate people who made life better for hundreds of others while millions died around them from civilization’s destructive power.  These sweet, powerful enlightened folks have had nowhere near the transformational impact of the closed-minded misogynist.

So in my experience, there are wise, smart, competent people who have little or negative impact, and broken people with only limited knowledge and skills who have significant and/or positive impact.  These things vary independently from each other and show up all over the spectrum of transformational leverage.  Which is why I did not include personal transformation on my list as a specific form of transformational leverage.

Here’s a great example:  Gandhi’s famous saying “Be the change you want to see in the world” reflects only one small part of the picture of transformational potency, as his own life demonstrated.  He is well known for some very bizarre behaviors and temper tantrums, among other personal shortcomings.  There were far more saintly people in his movement than he was, but their impact was nowhere near the level of his.  His articulateness, strategic brilliance and personal courage were at least as important as his meditation, nonviolence and wool-spinning simplicity, and were seldom negated by his shadow idiosyncrasies.

This is actually good news for most of us and for our hopes to make a better world.  Personal transformation is often as difficult as social transformation.  Good people who dedicate themselves to intense personal development and spiritual practices often find that after years of work they still constantly fall short.  And it may do little to empower their transformational impact.  Perhaps most importantly, there’s nothing about personal development work that tells you where to put a lever to transform a social system.

Personal maturity, sanity and enlightenment are precious gifts in any effort for social transformation.  But — luckily — we don’t need to be fully mature, sane, or enlightened to make profoundly positive contributions.  We can be exactly who we are.  And the people of the world do not need to be highly evolved in order for our economic and political systems to help them collectively behave in ways that heal and transform the world.  Although we need at least some enlightened, well informed, competent and wise people to lead the way or catalyze latent transformational energies, we can actually make much better societies and more sustainable civilizations with most people pretty much as they are.  If we think well about how to design our social systems, learning and redesigning them as we go, the resulting transformation will provide humanity with good environments and centuries of time for individuals to evolve into greater maturity and awareness.

The more developed, knowledgable, skilled we each can be, the better.  And the higher leverage we can apply, the better.  But the main thing is to find where our gifts and passions meet the world’s needs, and then to work on that to the best of our ability, collaborating as much as possible with each other and learning more about ourselves and the world as we go.  And every now and then, as we learn and grow, to let ourselves become uncomfortable with the limits of our impact, and to expand our perspective, our life energy, and the story of who we are to make an even bigger difference for Life.



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