Change the what, now?

I’m thinking this morning about a topic we discussed during a class at the martial arts school last weekend; we were talking about what it means to be a leader, and someone brought up having a desire to “change the world.” We explored this a little bit and then moved along to discuss other aspects of leadership. But I’m back today, pondering changing the world. A pretty familiar subject for me, in some respects; what can I say, I habitually think big. Everything is connected, and I can’t help but to see things this way.

Sometimes being a little pedantic is a useful thing. This is a phrase that gets tossed about pretty lightly sometimes, and with hardly ever a nod toward definition. So, the pedantic bit: what on earth does “change the world” mean? What does “the world” mean? Some people will see “world” and translate that as “the planet.” Some people won’t give a thought to the planet, because their focus is on people, other humans. Some folks read “change the world” and assume it means changing the big stuff, political and economic structures, the UN, the World Bank, the global stock exchange, the G8. Presidents and parliaments, oligarchs and archbishops. Some people think revolution. Some think reform. Some don’t think about those things at all. Some feed the hungry, some hug the kids, some try to do their best job as often as they can. Who’s right? Who actually really gets this “change the world” business?

I think there’s room for more than one definition; I think anything that has to do with “the world” is potentially a big complicated thing, and there’s lots of room for different thinking and opinion. I’m not going to tell anyone else what changing the world should mean, to them: I would just suggest, my kind reader, that if you ever think about “changing the world,” make sure you know what it means to you. If you are ever urged by someone else to “change the world,” I think it’s a valid question to pose to whoever is doing the urging: what are you asking me to change, now? Try being a little pedantic. See if they’ve thought it through.

I won’t tell anyone else what to think “the world” is, but I’ve been following my own advice and thinking about what it means to me. Because I do think in big, connected ways, and it does matter to me that “the world” changes for the better. It behooves me to know what I really mean when I say that.

So what is “the world” to me? Well. Everything. The world is reality, is that which is. It should have capitals: The World. Maybe all capitals: THE WORLD. It should come with a big booming voice and some reverb. Because that’s the full meaning of “the world” to me. It’s everything.

(What did I say? I think big.)

Okay, so while I do think “the world” means “everything,” I recognize it’s not entirely a practical definition when we start to add in the idea of change. Maybe everything is connected, and maybe in some way I could personally affect the Horsehead Nebula, but that’s too much for my little human brain to wrap itself around. And I think the Horsehead Nebula is probably fine as it is, and frankly is already being taken care of by bigger, safer hands, so we’ll leave the far reaches of space and time alone. In practical terms, “the world” to me means this world, this planet, this Earth. It still means “everything”, but everything here. Rocks and sky and grass and trees and birds and ocean and valleys and animals and people. To me, most especially people.

It’s still too big, you see. I still can hardly get my brain around changing rocks and sky and grass and trees and birds and ocean and valleys and animals and people. I can only sort of do it if I stick to thinking about just one of those things at a time. I know I’m human, I only get one person’s worth of time and energy and ideas and motivation and vision. I’m not big enough to change everything. That’s not my job, not what I’m made for. So where do I put my time and energy and ideas? What’s the thing that most stirs my motivation and vision? What am I made for? What’s really in my own hands, what am I really able to change?

Because here’s the thing: if “the world” is everything, then whatever I change, anything I change, changes the world. If I tear a piece of paper in half, I’ve changed the world. Plant a seed, change the world. Drink a cup of tea, change the world. These words that I’m writing didn’t exist half an hour ago, and therefore the world is not what it was half an hour ago. I really, fundamentally believe this is true: the course of our daily lives, all of our small acts and thoughts, are continually changing the world, in some ways are continually making the world. The world is a process of change, more than it is a fixed thing. It’s unsettling, to think that reality is not as solid and firm as my mind and senses believe it is, but nonetheless I believe it’s true.

What’s really in my own hands? Where is my greatest sphere of influence, my field of action? What are the things I can, in the most literal way, change?

First of all, me. I am real, and therefore part of reality and part of the world. Change myself, and the world changes — even if none of that change reaches the outside and goes beyond myself, the world is still changed, if I become different. This is hard work, and deeply needful. So much of what we do is habitual and unthinking, we create so much of our world in autopilot, and we don’t even see what we have done and are doing. I look around my house and my life and I see things that make me unhappy. Whose doing is that? What lazy, uncaring human being is responsible for that? Look not farther than home, my dear.

Hard, deeply needful work: to change oneself. Change oneself, and thereby change the world one creates.

One step further, one step outside myself: the life I live. The places I need to go, the people I see there. The things I need to do. The active, daily choices of my life are part of the world, are my part of creating the world. Change those, and the world also changes. Changes in significant ways, because those people I interact with are also making choices, also doing things, also creating the world. We help to make each other by what we do, and then we all together create the world and change it. I can look back over my own life and see the tracks that others have made; I cannot see my own tracks across other lives, but I know I have left them. What have I crushed, and what I have I nurtured in those other lives? What reality am I responsible for? How will the world stand tonight, after I leave my tracks across today?

To change my world, change myself. Change my life, inside and outside. These are the things that are in my own hands, within my own power to affect. Here is where it always begins.

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3 comments so far

  1. Cat on

    I love this. I used to be active in a conservation group in the UK whose motto was “Think Globally, Act Locally”.

    You can only take one step at a time but if the flap of a butterfly wing can change the world, so can our small steps.

  2. Mardi on

    Hey, I was gonna say that about the butterfly creating a breeze that goes round the world.

    And you are absolutely right. As you often are. :)

  3. Lynn on

    And changing oneself is enormously rewarding. Just do it.


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