The University of British Columbia (UBC) students who wanted to get involved in the community through the Learning Exchange sometimes explained their interest in volunteering by talking at length about their commitment to social change or social justice. More often, students just said, ‘I want to make a difference” or “I want to give back.” Sometimes I or other Learning Exchange staff tried to get students to be more curious about why they wanted to volunteer. Many students seemed reluctant to dig deeper.
It seems to have become cool to aspire to be a social change agent or a social entrepreneur. I think it is crucial for people who want to make change in specific communities, or institutions, or the world to examine their motivations carefully. As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
What is at the root of the impulse to make change in society?
Several motives can inspire people to become social change agents. You can feel that you are privileged to live in comfortable circumstances and want to share your good fortune with others who are less fortunate. This is the charitable or altruistic impulse. Or you can feel compassion for others who are suffering and feel compelled to alleviate that suffering. You can feel anger about the situation of people who experience racism or other forms of discrimination and decide to reform the social system(s) that underlie this injustice. Or you can be motivated seemingly less by emotion and more by reason, e.g., you might want to reform an institutional system because a comprehensive analysis of how it operates has revealed serious shortcomings. You can be driven by a belief that the world can and should be a better place.
You can be motivated by a combination of these influences. And different motives can predominate at different times in different contexts. For example, you might have a set of beliefs about systemic classism and the need for social justice, beliefs which provide a consistent backdrop to spontaneous feelings of compassion that arise when you are approached by a homeless woman asking for spare change.
All of these are laudable impulses. How can they lead to hell?
All of these impulses arise from a dissatisfaction with the way things are. In addition, for most people in Western societies, these impulses are based in a mostly unexamined assumption that the sources of dissatisfaction represent errors and that humans can and should correct the mistakes. The western, Judeo-Christian, Enlightenment, scientific, modernist project rests on these assumptions. Stated simplistically, the project seems to be to make a world where everybody is comfortable all the time. I understand this chain of historical and cultural assumptions and beliefs. I am immersed in it and have acted on the basis of it at many points in my career.
But I have also been exposed to a different set of assumptions and beliefs. Buddhist teachings about mindfulness advocate that we clearly perceive and “accept” things as they are. I put the quotes around “accept” because I think what is meant in the teachings is not what most people in Western cultures understand when they hear this word. “Acceptance” in the highly psychologised culture of the West has come to refer to “being okay” with something. It refers to the endpoint of a series of mental moves that neutralizes the power of the thing being accepted. These moves can include rationalization, denial, repression, projection, negotiation, and resignation. The result is a restoration of the status quo.
In contrast, what the Buddhist teachings mean by “acceptance” is the end result of an unflinching investigation into “the way things are”—a plunge into the depths of reality that cuts through emotions such as aversion, fear, grief, or anger not by pushing them to one side and covering them over with a blanket of reason or forgetfulness but by fully exploring their nature and texture without judging them, without viewing them as errors. Accepting the way things are in the Buddhist view means seeing the world as it is including all its contradictions (including pain and joy, beauty and horror, love and fear, strength and vulnerability). Further, it means not taking any of it personally. The end result is a shattering of the status quo.
I have been under the influence of these two very different ways of looking at life in general and social problems in particular for many years. Sometimes I take my own vulnerability and the suffering of others very personally and put enormous effort into trying to change the conditions I believe are at the root of this suffering. Other times I am able to hold the vulnerability and suffering in the world in my quivering heart and know that in that moment my primary task is to stop and listen for voices other than my own.
Why motives behind the drive for social change matter
There is no question that social change efforts in Western society have led to important benefits. Many valuable programs and services have been created; a public social safety net has been established (although it is being weakened by neoconservative and neoliberal ideologies and policies). But, too often, the usual taken-for-granted approach is tinged with aversion—you wish the problem did not exist, so you turn away. Or, deep down, you fear that you, too, might be vulnerable to the same problem, so you create distance between yourself and the people who are suffering—you make them “other.” This can lead to scapegoating where the other is cast out of society or to over-professionalization where the other is relegated to marginal social roles. Or, deep down, you feel that you do not deserve the good fortune you enjoy, so, out of middle class guilt, you dedicate yourself to helping those less fortunate or changing social systems that oppress others.
All of these motivations are linked to two assumptions: first, that you, personally, have a responsibility to do something about a particular social problem and second, that you (or people you align yourself with) know what to do to resolve the problem. But these assumptions can prevent you from looking at the problem closely enough and with enough curiosity to see it clearly.
On the other hand, if you are prepared to “accept” the existence of the social issue, you can let the nature and flavour of the issue insinuate its way into your heart and mind. If you create a container for the issue, if you let it “cook” within you, an alchemical process can occur, which will result in a mature, not only reasoned but deeply felt, impulse to act. Ideally, this impulse will not be tinged with the compulsiveness that arises when you take something too personally or are driven more by aversion than curiosity or compassion. One Buddhist teacher I have studied with says that the doorway to genuine and deep compassion is feeling overwhelmed and helpless in the face of the suffering in the world. This suggests that, contrary to Western ways of thinking, wise and compassionate action is rooted in profound vulnerability and grief. It is not rooted in what we, in the West, consider to be strength and competence.
The other problem with the usual Western approach to social issues, is that it can lead to a dangerous hubris. You can fall into the trap of thinking you are the good guy, above reproach. When the Learning Exchange was first being developed, a UBC professor with a great deal of experience in the Downtown Eastside advised me that our primary ethical guideline should be to “do no harm.”
From the perspective of a Buddhist orientation to social change, it is extremely naive to state this ethical guideline in this way. The principle of non-harming is fundamental to Buddhist morality. Buddhist practitioners aim to avoid or minimize harm to other living beings. But even monks doing walking meditation step on ants from time to time. To pretend that your own hands can ever be completely clean is a conceit that blinds you to the realities of life in a complex world, one where even the most laudatory action can have harmful unintended consequences. It is only when we acknowledge that our own hands, like everyone else’s, are not clean, and that we are all complicit in one way or another, that we have a chance of seeing clearly enough to take skillful action.
But herein lies the problem with approaches to social change informed by Buddhist or other similar philosophies. It can be extremely difficult and painful to attain this kind of understanding. Further, especially in Western societies and institutions, it can be almost impossible to sustain this perspective as a basis for action because of the weight of contradictory cultural stories about how the world works and what roles humans play in it.
The danger of taking it personally
My description of the unfolding of the Learning Exchange and my analysis of how it moved along the innovation and institutionalization arcs of the adaptive cycle provides an example of the challenges involved in learning to be a change agent. When I first started working for UBC in the Downtown Eastside I felt like the midwife to the ideas and possibilities that were emerging. I was trying to ride the currents of this force that seemed to have a life of its own. I was relaxed, willing to take risks, playful even. I did not feel like this new initiative was mine.
Gradually, as the Learning Exchange took shape and I took on the role of its leader, I became more controlling. My grip on the initiative tightened. The Learning Exchange became mine. As the Learning Exchange became successful, I started to have something to lose, including my personal “investment” in the work. At the same time, others were giving me credit for the success of the Learning Exchange. This reinforced my identification with the Learning Exchange, both in the sense that I felt my professional identity was tied up in it, and in the sense that others equated me with the Learning Exchange.
From the perspective of Western approaches to social change, these developments had good outcomes. You can see this perspective reflected in my descriptions of how and why the Learning Exchange succeeded. For example, the Learning Exchange developed a clear sense of purpose, the staff team had a sense of ownership, and the initiative had a strong brand.
But these developments cast a shadow. The motive behind the evolution of the Learning Exchange, its centre of gravity, started to shift. Instead of me following the emerging life force of the Learning Exchange, I started directing it, using my own ideas, values, and aspirations for the Learning Exchange as its driving force. Instead of listening, I gave orders. Instead of being content to sway dangerously from a perch on a tightrope, I strove to find solid ground within the institution. Instead of acting from a stance of uncertainty and vulnerability, I thought I needed to be in a position of strength.
This kind of shift may be inevitable. This kind of shift may be essential if innovative social change initiatives are to move through the adaptive cycle, beyond exploration to conservation or institutionalization. Moving from the margins to the centre may require initiatives or people to legitimize themselves in forms recognizable to the powers-that-be. It may be necessary for emergent creative ideas to be given concrete form through the exercise of willpower and individual intentionality.
But from my current vantage point, more than three years after leaving my position as Director, I regret that I went from being the midwife of the Learning Exchange to seeing myself as its mother. I think this slide into being too strongly identified with the Learning Exchange clouded my vision, blunted my hearing, and numbed my instincts. I do not know exactly how and to what extent the Learning Exchange suffered from my becoming bound in the straitjacket of over-identification. But I am pretty sure that harms were done.
The way things are
What could I have done differently? I became too heavily influenced by the Western perspective that it is an error that humans are suffering, and that humans have a mandate to correct the mistakes that cause suffering. Further, I assumed that I could decide what the correct reality should look like, that I could design interventions, build logic models that specified particular goals and outcomes, and then take steps to make that different reality appear. I should have paid more attention to the Buddhist perspective that the human condition inherently entails suffering. We are vulnerable beings. We cannot control the world. This does not mean that we do not try to reform unjust or ineffective institutions or experiment with social innovations or help those who are in need. “Accepting” the inevitable suffering in life does not mean passivity or indifference. But it does require a wise understanding of the limits of the rational mind and an appreciation of the mysteries in life.
There is a vitally important difference between an egotistical intervention driven by a belief that you have the correct answer to a problem that needs to be eradicated and a humble act driven by a feeling of compassion for someone who is suffering or an impulse to move in harmony with something bigger than oneself. These are fundamentally different motives: to correct, dominate, or improve a situation based on your own analysis of it vs. to follow or serve the unfolding of a situation based on the realization that you cannot possibly know or control all the forces at work. Put another way, the difference is between exercising the power of the individual will or ego to change the way things are according to your own image of the way things should be, compared to enhancing the power of the way things already are (which includes your impulse to make things better), knowing that you cannot pre-determine how things will turn out.
I know how difficult it can be to achieve this stance of listening and responding without attachment to particular outcomes. There is very little support for such a stance in Western cultures and institutions. In fact, the need for change initiatives to achieve defined, measurable outcomes has become a fetish in Western institutions. But I am convinced that social change agents need to cultivate the skills of deep listening and radical curiosity.
I am not saying that it is a mistake to feel a sense of responsibility to alleviate suffering or to change unjust systems. I am not disavowing what I have said elsewhere about the value of feeling confident and having a sense of purpose. I am saying, “Beware of the toxic effects of unexamined assumptions and emotions like aversion, anger, pride, and fear. Be alert to unintended consequences as well as unhealthy attachments to particular hoped-for outcomes.” I am advocating for a stance of humility not hubris, courage not comfort, vulnerability not strength of will. I am suggesting that social change agents need to learn to relax and ride the waves of change like surfers with a healthy respect for the forces at work.
For more on these topics, see the other articles in Learning to be a change agent.
For more on social marginalization and social justice, go to the Reflections section.