If Not Me, Who? If Not Now, When?
The world is my country. All mankind are my brethren. To do good is my religion.
– Thomas Paine
I love that quote. That’s from ‘the’ Thomas Paine, author of the Common Sense pamphlet that inspired the American Revolutionaries. And from the quote it seems obvious that his idea was to serve the whole of us, that this was his founding ideal, his big idea, and he was just looking for a place to get the party started. It’s provides a very different lens than the way many of us think of U.S.
Because I can see my commonality with my fellow human beings, I like to think of myself as, and behave like, a peace maker. I enjoy resolving conflict, whether it’s between a parent and child, spouses, business partners or team-mates, or a city council that has lost its way. In fact, a friend recently suggested that I write a letter to the editor of my local paper about what I would do with congress if they invited me to help them resolve their conflict. And I think I could do it! I’d likely apply a similar approach to what I did with the Ashland City Council, focusing first on attitude, then behavior, then organization. But when it comes to peace between nations, cultures and religions, this business of working for peace is a sticky situation.
It is the nature of stress that if you perceive a threat, then you must resist it until you are exhausted. And I perceive some real threats, threats that I take very personally because they are threats to my loved ones, on the planetary level. Start with terror organizations and nuclear armed rogue nations. Add in the corporations that have no moral or ethical center, raping and pillaging the future to feather their nests in the present. Sprinkle generously with too many chemicals to count filling our air, soil and water. Don’t forget the clear-cutting and overfishing, or the island of plastic that floats around the world strangling the life out of the ocean wherever it goes. Now, to keep it interesting, toss in some money grubbing politicians and gun-for-hire lobbyists whose work it is to keep change from happening or to make things worse in order to make things better for their soul-less clients. And let’s not forget that stressed out people can go crazy, and there are lots of stressed out people ready to pick up a gun or climb out on a ledge, and the number is growing daily.
At the same time that I contemplate all the potential threats, I know that fighting or withdrawing from a threat may strengthen it. It seems t0 me a basic rule in life is at work here.
What you resist, persists. Said another way, if all you know is what you don’t want, you will get more of it.
Our brains are organized this way. It’s your reticular activating system, and it’s scanning the billions of bits of sensory data bombarding your nervous system looking for relevance to what you care about. If all you can do is identify what you don’t want, your brain thinks that’s what you care most about. So if you tell your brain what you don’t want , it will immediately set to work finding evidence of it. Tell your child what you don’t want him or her to do, and it becomes an invitation for it. Fighting and withdrawing from a perceived threat only works until you’re exhausted, at which point that threat, if it’s real, overruns and overcomes you.
The only value in perceiving a threat, as far as I can tell, is recognizing it as a call to action. Not the action of mere resistance (though sometimes, like in the Civil Rights movement and Women’s Suffrage movement in the US, the Green Revolution of Iran, or Tianemann Square in China, resistance is a painful yet necessary first step to draw attention to your plight), but of taking aim at a different outcome than the one threatening to happen. It’s that basic question: If you don’t want ‘that’, what do you want? What makes it so hard to answer is that we are too easily blinded by our fears and our answer is usually the first thing we can think of to minimize the fear, or make the fear stop, or make the threat go away.
But identifying a real outcome is essential, because it is the way out of stress, away from exhaustion and death. Vague generalizations won’t do, either. You have to be specific. What do you mean when you say you want ‘that’? And if you’re going to move towards that, what will you do with the habitual behaviors that worked so well to protect you in the past? How are you going to change what you’re doing in the present in order to get that different outcome in the future?
Since the only corner of the universe I can be sure of improving is myself, primarily because I have no control over anything outside of myself, it’s my choice to make about the part I will play and how I will play it. I choose to use my short season upon this Earth to better myself, and then put my personal improvement to work for the betterment of the world around me. I have no guarantees that my desired outcomes will ever come to pass, but I can guarantee my own persistence and determination to do all I can for as long as I can.
And really, just doing my part is enough for me. I’m doing what I can do. Who knows? Maybe I’ll inspire you by my example. Maybe I’ll enroll you through my persuasive communication. Maybe you and I can pool our resources and share the burdens of our efforts too, on occasion. But it’s down to me. That’s where the difference lives. If humanity is an experiment in the universe’s laboratory, the experiment is running on free will, and that means that it’s up to each of us. We can choose to work for success, but there’s no guarantee, because how the rest of you play with me determines to a great degree what I can be. We’re all connected. We almost all of us have a stake in the future.
There is a place where neither us nor them has any real relevance. That’s when the desired state is initiative. Groups can’t take initiative. Only individuals can. It’s one of the things we all have in common. So I’m taking the initiative. I’m choosing to work for a future worth living in. I hope you are too. Because if we’re going to come together, we’ve got to get over ourselves, get past our prejudice, projections, and limiting assumptions. If we approach everything as a potential threat, we’ll be too exhausted to think straight. Better to accept the unacceptable, identify a clear connection, find common ground and build on it, and take small steps forward. I do my part, you do your part, then we together can play an ever bigger part.
Here’s the alter call. I encourage you, urge you, and our descendants are begging you, please do your part. Disrupt dysfunctional patterns in yourself. Make some new distinctions so that you can notice that when people have a different view than your own, they have it for a reason they consider a good one. Notice something you hadn’t noticed before. Understand something in a new way. Recognize that fear is as irrational as it is necessary, and perhaps wisdom is learning the difference about when to act on it versus when to act in spite of it.
This concludes my series on ‘Moving Beyond Us/Them Thinking.’ But I’ll be back next week with a post on another topic related to persuasive communication and life skills. Until then, your comments and feedback are always welcome.