We humans seem to have a penchant for either/or thinking. Maybe this is because so many things seem delineated as opposites: night and day, young and old, hot and cold, black and white. But between the poles lie dawn and dusk, middle age, tepid temperatures, and many shades of gray. Still, in our media, in our political system, and in our thinking, we too often gravitate to either/or thinking and ignore what lies in between.
For example, how many of you remember this scenario: Either we save the northern spotted owl and loggers lose their jobs OR we save logging jobs and sacrifice owls? This was truly how the issue of the endangered spotted owl was presented in the news and by politicians, and back in the 90s, lawn signs advertised which side the homeowner was on. How crazy that we weren’t all diligently seeking to save owls and jobs by coming up with viable solutions for both.
These days, there’s an insidious, and often unspoken, either/or that is sapping the energy and creativity of those who could otherwise be engaged in contributing to meaningful positive change, and the followers of the sides often don’t even realize that they’ve made a choice.
There are those people who care about making a difference who are diligently attempting to make personal lifestyle, food, and product choices that reflect their values. They opt out of driving or join a car-sharing program or choose a Prius; they eat low on the food chain and are organic locavores; they put up solar panels, use only compact florescent bulbs, and join co-housing communities; they consume few material products and choose used items wherever possible. They are trying to live as sustainably, ethically, and peaceably as possible and they find support and guidance in the many books, blogs and websites that promote simple living.
And there are those who work tirelessly on policy changes, but whose lifestyles reflect surprisingly large footprints. They may be actively involved in the political process or in system changing. They try to influence those in positions of power. They attempt to modify or create laws, but they don’t necessarily try to minimize their own personal impact through their food, clothing, or lifestyle choices to any great degree. Many realize that their individual choices won’t amount to much, and so they put all their energy into effective changemaking.
Between these two poles of course lie all those activists who do both, but it’s surprising how many people congregate around these poles as if their approach was the best. In my book, Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life, I share what I call the 7 Keys to MOGO (most good) to give people some tools for putting the principle of the book into practice. Key 4 is: Model your message and work for change. The reason this is one key and not two is because modeling one’s message and working for change are two sides of the same, crucial, coin.
Mahatma Gandhi was once asked by a reporter, What is your message? Although Gandhi was rarely reluctant to share his (huge) message about freeing his country from British rule using only non-violent methods, in this case he responded by jotting down on a piece of paper, My life is my message. When I first read this, I was brought up short. I realized immediately that if Gandhi’s life was his message then my life was my message; that each of our lives – whether we like it or not – is our message. The real question then became, Am I modeling the message I want to model?
Those who try to minimize the harm and maximize the good they cause through their daily choices (product, food, transportation, etc.) are working to model their message. They are striving to live with integrity. And while it is true that their individual choices won’t amount to much in the scheme of things and won’t change the world, their choices are critical components to a good life. Why? Because by embodying their values they are not only inspiring others through their modeling, they are also demonstrating that other ways of living are possible, life-affirming, desirable, and healthy.
But if these same people stop there and do not engage in systemic changemaking, their impact is simply not significant enough. Given the grave and entrenched problems we face (which readers of this blog don’t need enumerated), no amount of local grains, bike riding, and compact fluorescents will amount to much.
That is why those who are changing systems – whether in law, engineering, production, agriculture, medicine, and so on – are so necessary. The hummer-owning, daily meat-eating, mansion-dwelling, jet-setting person who creates green technology, for example, will likely do far more good than a cabin-in-the-woods-dwelling, food-independent carpenter.
Here I go, creating either/ors. But there are those who criticize Whole Foods patrons whose primary goal is to live as green as possible, and others who criticize the rough-around-the-edges activists who stop at McDonalds after a day of lobbying. The truth is that we need the people who are obsessed with their every choice to focus more of their energy on engagement in changemaking (through their work, their volunteerism, their activism and their participation in democracy), and those who are tirelessly working for change to make sure that they are actively embodying their values through their daily choices so that they are models of integrity.
Modeling your message and working for change must never be separated as an either/or but rather embraced as a both/and. And when we do this, we discover that we are more likely to have a significant impact because we become ever more eager to learn and do all we can to make a true difference as models of a better life and world and as actors in its unfolding.
This is a guest post from Zoe Weil, author of Most Good, Least Harm.
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