Self-Improvement

Most Americans would like to be less judgmental and more compassionate. They’d like to love their “enemies.” They want to engage with others as equals. They know that trying to relieve suffering can be rewarding. When they think deeply about it, Americans realize:

  • The individual and the community are interwoven. What affects one individual affects every individual.
  • What serves the individual serves the community, and what serves the community serves the individual.
  • The Earth is a spaceship and yes, all humanity is in this together.
  • There’s no irreconcilable conflict between self-interest and community-interest, though there’s often a tension.

Building an effective compassionate, transformative movement will require activists to liberate those innate instincts. As James Baldwin said, “The things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

For various reasons, however, most people are not committed to ongoing self-improvement. Instead, they reflect one or more of the following characteristics. They:

  • Fail to acknowledge mistakes and resolve not to repeat them.
  • Aren’t ready to pay the price required for self-development.
  • Seem to believe they pretty much have it all together, have matured as much as they can, and are coping well enough.
  • Are afraid to fail. 
  • Believe that being widely recognized as very successful is terribly important.
  • Are rooted in an identity that is based on how well they climb social ladders.
  • Proceed with lives of quiet or not-so-quiet desperation.
  • Find a comfort zone and choose to stick with it.
  • Submit to some people, dominate others, and relate to few as equals.
  • Respect members of their “tribe” and demean “the other,” which gives their life some meaning.
  • Follow leaders because when they do so they have fewer decisions to make.
  • Since prospects for success are often dim and challenging top-down structures can cause conflict, lead to frustrating failure, or subject rebels to punishment, they choose to avoid the effort.

The reluctance to engage in self-improvement is even more true of political activists who focus on the outer world. The pressure to stop injustice and relieve suffering is enormous. Taking a break to engage in self-examination can seem like self-indulgent navel-gazing; there’s no time to waste. The prevailing attitude is: “We have the answer. Join us, and we’ll impose it on those who don’t understand.”

But that outer-focused activism reinforces the System, which many activists say they want to reform. The extreme focus on measurable, written policies reinforces materialism, the belief that only physical factors matter. And focusing on crushing enemies helps to divide and conquer. Potential recruits are turned off by preaching, strident speeches, fear-mongering, scapegoating, ad hominem attacks, hate, uncontrolled anger, verbal violence that nurtures physical violence, and the failure to engage others in problem-solving collaboration, negotiation and compromise. Overcoming those tendencies isn’t easy.

The first step is to commit, really commit, to serve the common good of all humanity as well as one’s own people, the environment, and life itself. A commitment to that mission requires a dedication to self-improvement. Constantly remind yourself: I am not the point. The local is global. The global is local. The personal is political. The political is personal. Connect the dots. Plant seeds. Understand and describe your efforts as one step toward global transformation. Place your work within the context of the Big Picture. Stay focused on the mission. Transforming the world into a compassionate community of individuals who respect one another will require widespread, ongoing self-development, egalitarianism, collaborative leadership, and love.