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Nope, you can’t “be the change” alone

“Positive Attitude” Bullshit: On the dangers of “radical self-love”, reads the title of what I think is a provocative post that brings together important reflections on the “personal and the political” that may be of interest to my fellow readers.

Having travelled between “world-out-there” humanitarianism and “world-in-here” western psychology and meditation for a decade, I often see a clash/encounter between personal and structural transformation (or lack of). I hang out with the action people, those who get stuff done to change the system and snark at personal transformation – and I sense that “doing” is not enough. I sit with the reflective people, those who believe that we can change the world by changing ourselves – and I definitely know that something is missing, “being” is not enough. The communication between the two seems limited, superficial and when it happens it’s just a bit “hippiesh” in style.

An interesting quandary: I can’t be the change alone, no matter how many times I quote “Gandhi“. Neither do apolitical humanitarianism or political activism without personal change stand any chance of transforming the world.

But I’m digressing here. It all started with a critique of the power of positive thinking as a way to transform the world, or at least one’ own world.

To be or to do?

I guess this has been one of the questions for me: how much agency do I have in making the world a better place by being a decent human being, while navigating the challenges of being ethically aware, and keeping my sanity, and how much do I need to rest my case because the world is a mess solely due to structural failures, and mine are just pathetic attempts to feel good about myself? In other words, is it worth doing something or should I just sit and “be”?!

For me the way to address this dilemma is not an either/or answer. What I think and how I feel about myself matter, but with no appropriate action in the world, I’m sorry to disappoint, it’s just a feel-good attitude which at best can achieve personal wellbeing. That alone won’t change the world. Yet as humanitarians who want to affect the world out there, it’s time we take into account that action without space for reflection runs the risk of becoming a form of pathological altruism. A mode of doing that ends up shaping institutions that are insensitive to caring for their own people with the excuse of rushing to change the world. Can I be an abusive boss and still deliver much needed medical care in emergencies and save lives? Sure I can, I just don’t wish it on anyone to work with me.

This is a very personal reflection, it’s where I sit now, unsure on how I can contribute to the world out there, and perplexed about the idea of inner transformation as a vehicle for global change. You may have noticed I haven’t discussed self-care as an individual strategy for a while. My last post explaining “why self-care is not enough” pretty much sums up my views, and opens the door to addressing structural responsibilities to understand human suffering (which is not a mental health disorder). The suffering of aid workers, and the suffering of those we are meant to serve.

Self-care and staff care turned out to be entry points to discuss questions that are much more pressing for me. Questions that have brought me back to my philosophy studies, ethical questions which in the case of humanitarian work revolve around the promise for a better future, radical values such as humanity, respect, “empowerment”, participation. And the rather disappointing everyday reality of humanitarian organisations, where these very values are paraded on office walls and websites, yet are still too often disregarded when it comes to showing humanity towards one another, in ordinary, everyday relations. As an aid worker recently told me: “We value people, just not our own.”

Mind the gap: ideal and real

The gap between ideal and real remains wide: people get into aid work for noble reasons, or at least with some aspirations, only to discover that there’s no room for activism in aid work (by the way, maybe we need to have a discussion about what activism looks like in 2015, because to me it’s no longer about signing petitions and going to rallies).

On the road from ideal to real, some aid workers become jaded and cynical before giving in and adapting to a dysfunctional setup. Others burnout. Others simply leave (of course many stay and do a good job without going insane). I repeatedly discuss burnout as the manifestation of a broken way of living and working, and no amount of positive thinking, mindfulness, yoga, or whatever is the latest hip fad, will put that right. Again, it is a structural problem. But just know, you and me are part of that broken system when we fail at moral courage, when we just shut up and keep our head down, when we keep repeating that to work in aid one has to toughen up and stop being so sensitive.

I’m glad to see that more words are being spent on the illusion of positive thinking – as if that alone could change the world, a misguided and misguiding idea. Yet, thinking does play a role in informing action – that would be critical thinking, more than positive thinking. The world doesn’t change because I sit and breathe, so yes let’s challenge all that new age nonsense, the secular spirituality with no ethics. Meditation was never about some “feel-good, love yourself, go girl!” attitude, nor about enhancing productivity, as one may be led to believe by a quick search on “mindfulness and productivity” (I’ll spare you the links). Sitting in silence may help me to pause, take stock, reflect, and rest so that I can bring constructive disruption and not exhaustion to my action. What remains, is that poverty, injustice, war, occupation, are structural problems that require political solutions. But again, if I’m constantly stressed and all doom and gloom, not only the system remains unfair, but I become part of the problem.

Changing the world? Changing my attitude?

Today I’m not as convinced as I was in my early days, that “changing the world starts from within”. Instead I wonder if “changing the world starts in between”, in between people, in relationships, in the way we treat each other, as well as in a radical transformation of the way our institutions operate. So yes, I do have some agency, but no, the world does not dramatically change just because I’m more kind and compassionate. I don’t believe that I can transform the world because I think positive thoughts, or ruin it by radiating bad vibes on an off day. Though, my attitude and behaviours for sure matter, and if you think otherwise try a toxic work environment day in and day out, try an abusive boss or partner. You’ll soon experience how people do have the power to make your life heaven or hell.

So while I share the view that positive thinking is useless for most, helpful for few and possibly harmful for some (see this great animated video), I do hope we won’t be now invaded by a stream of cynical negative thinking, just to balance things out. If positive thinking won’t change the world, I doubt that negative thinking and ranting over the state of the system will.

I, for one, am interested not just to explore but to “live”  in that space where critical thinking and reflective practice meet justice and the capacity to love oneself and others. How? I don’t know. I just envisage this as the activism and humanitarianism of the 21st century, not rallies or charity, but something new, where institutions don’t break people’s spirit, where personal wellbeing is not chased in isolation, and where “doing” and “being” are not mutually exclusive.

I have no idea how the critique of positive thinking led me to this, but that’s where I am now.

aid workers' staff care


One Response to Nope, you can’t “be the change” alone

  1. Shelley Ashley says:

    Really love this article as it expresses where I feel I also sit. I wonder how many more of us ‘in betweeners’ are out there…

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