The personal, not the political

There is nobody on the planet, neither those whom we see as the oppressed nor those whom we see as the oppressor, who doesn’t have what it takes to wake up.The Pocket Pema Chödrön (156)

Human change is always personal, not political.

Yes, all social concerns are in some way “political” concerns (Greek politikos, from politēs “citizen’,” from polis “city”). But our feelings about a concern are personal reactions to the concern, not pragmatic steps toward remedies. And often our impulse to demand political solutions arises from the impulse to escape those feelings.

We can feel intensely about the hurtful ways of this human world. We can suffer with empathy for those who suffer, and we can burn with anger towards those who cause suffering. We can long to heal—and to punish.

In “Fouling the public sphere,” I wrote about the dangerous power of social media to spread our sense of outrage. When we share or retweet without pausing to discern our own motives, we amplify public outrage without adding any salutary information or ideas to the discussion.

We all need support and encouragement to be aware of what we think, what we say, and what we do.

What changes my feelings,  my mind, my behavior? Direct personal experience.

Yes, that experience does including reading, watching, or listening to information and opinions. But what compels me at gut level to want to change is firsthand dealings with another whose own real presence I cannot ignore.

I can, for example, write or share all sorts for passionate pieces about homelessness, but when I meet a homeless person on the street? My first impulse is avoidance, escape. Then guilt, then resentment.

It takes an inward conviction to persuade me to engage with that person as a specific, individual human being. In making that choice, I have no guarantee as to the quality or outcome of the exchange. I step out past my own wish to control events. I expose myself.

Prosperous couple & bag lady on a bench

What about the other person? What changes them? The direct experience of not being able to avoid dealing with me as a specific, individual human being. Without guarantees.

Cultivating a mind that does not grasp at right and wrong, you will find a fresh state of being. The ultimate cessation of suffering comes from that.

My outrage cannot change the feelings, will, or behavior of those who cause me outrage. Nor can demonstrations. Nor can political intervention.

When I awaken inwardly to the hurts and needs of others, the only real thing I can do towards change is to treat firsthand with those who do the hurt. And that means meeting each of them as specific, individual human beings…and listening to their inward distress.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Mike Shell

Image: “Invisible,” by Mike Shell. Woman sleeping next to a well-dressed couple in Square Dorchester, Montréal, Quebec, Canada (8/8/2013).


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