“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Gandhi

I think it’s safe to say that almost all of us in the fields of international public health and development have seen, heard, Tweeted, posted, and been inspired by these words at some point in our lives. Gandhi’s sage words of wisdom are so ubiquitous – plastered on bumper stickers, magnets, coffee mugs, and greeting cards – they have entered the realm of cliché. But who among us has ever stopped to really examinethe meaning and implications of this cliché for our work?

A colleague of mine recently reflected on Gandhi’s omnipresentwords. After years of interpreting the message as “if you want change, do it yourself,” and struggling with the fact that this “fix it” mentality often results only in burnout for“the fixer”:

I’ve realized that Gandhi’s message is actually probably telling us something quite different. We must recognize that his verb choice was intentional. He said, “be the change,” not “do the change.” … This is really very different, than my “fix the world all by yourself” concept. The verb “to be” in this context gives us agency in addition to responsibility. (http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=c33d42035c6a392cff5e39d4f&id=be0a124682)

All these years, I too have been missing the real message. For me, “being” the change has always meant working to fix the numerous social injustices in the world – poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, etc. It meant making social change the object of my higher education and career. It meant a personal commitment to struggling against the forces of oppression and injustice in the world.

This orientation toward the phrase “be the change” was largely the result of my individualist Western cultural orientation. At the risk of sounding reductionist,in the West, when we meet someone, one of the first questions we ask is “What do you do?” We define ourselves by our jobs, titles, and accomplishments – by what we do rather than who we are. In many other cultures (including Gandhi’s native India), individuals are defined not by their work but by their relationships to one another, on their presence and role in the community. In this collectivist worldview, the responsibility to others inherent in the verb “to be” far outweighs the agency emphasized by the Western individualist worldview.

For better or for worse, the majority of international public health and development organizations are embedded in this “do”-centric worldview that inevitably impacts how these organizations approach their work. What would happen, though, if we were to shift from “doing” to “being”? From creating change to exemplifying change?

Maybe we would focus less on appeasing donor demands and more on addressing the actual needs of the communities we serve. Maybe we would hire fewer in favor of training local staff. Maybe we would emphasize the quality of our work rather than the quantity of vaccines administered, water pumps constructed, or individuals tested for HIV. Maybe we would do these things because we would finally see ourselves as being part of the communities we serve, rather than doing things for them. And maybe then we would finally come to appreciate the power of “we” over the power of “me.”


One thought on “To be, or not to be…

  1. Remarkable synchronicity. This is an excerpt, with slight modifications, from an email I sent to a friend only 30 minutes ago:

    “I recently went to a talk by a great Buddhist teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, who spoke extensively about the distinction between being and doing. As in, we all “do” acts unto the world around us, but who we are is something deeper and more fundamental — this is our “being.”

    A common confusion, especially in our elite, Westernized circles, is that working on personal transformation — becoming the embodiment of compassion and loving-kindness — is a selfish pursuit — while working on outward transformation — “changing the world” — is a selfless pursuit. There is a longstanding debate about whether one must “change the world” for the right reasons, or whether the ends justify the means. [The narcissistic and mean behavior within NGOs] is a strong empirical argument that they do not.

    Doing “good” without “being” good is hypocrisy. The real measure of a person’s compassion and loving-kindness is how they treat everyone they come into contact with on a day to day basis — starting with the people who are right around them. The only way a person can treat others in a low way is if they are working from ego. Changing the world is a valid pursuit only when it is an outer manifestation of an inner condition, a compulsion to “bear witness” to the suffering of others. And, by the way, someone who is truly compassionate and loving does not selectively bear witness (e.g. to the suffering of only poor Indian children), but always, to everyone — notably, their colleagues, friends, family, strangers — and it is only the ego that self-servingly, opportunistically imposes a value judgment on which situations and people “deserve” or call for compassion.

    If working at Teach For India taught me anything, it is that little kids and their families living in urban Indian slums — though they do not have the same opportunities, or access to healthcare, or clean water or healthy food — they know what it is to find contentment in their lives just as well as you and I. I walked away from that experience understanding that I had, on occasion, imposed a judgment of need on them in order to serve my own ego. I now know that any work I do in service must be of the authentic variety, bearing witness to the suffering of others out of a heart-felt compulsion to do so.

    How few understand what Gandhiji really meant when he said, “we must BE the change we wish to see in the world.” “

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