Why wanting to make the world a better place doesn’t require the world to become “a better place”.
By E.F Nicholson
Asking yourself what is the point of caring about the world and all its injustice, suffering and hardship is an easy mental trap to fall into at times. On the surface at least, it seems that there is very little we can do to change it. The economic and political systems that profit from the destruction of the planet, people and species we share it with seem so vast and so insurmountable you could argue why even bother. Yet something in us does bother, and that something fails to be vanquished and succumb to hopelessness and despair. It’s not necessarily based on reason or logic, or the activists’ argument that “when enough people come together” things change. Rather, I think it comes from a deeper, more intuitive part of who we are. A kind of deep, unconquerable knowing that our lives have significance and meaning. Yet we come into problems with that truth when we try to measure that inner sense of meaning against the outer definitions of what we are told is valuable, worthy of measurement and importance.
When we look the world and want it to be a fairer, safer and more just place for everyone and see the reality of how that ideal is so far from the truth of how things are, it can naturally lead to despondent conclusions. Just looking at climate change as a standalone issue, everything points to humanity coming close to extinction, be it 20 or 150 years from now. There is absolutely nothing on the horizon or in the pipeline that looks like anything is going to divert humanity off this trajectory. Despite warnings, in the face of all the evidence, it seems like unless there some kind of intergalactic alien intervention, we are going to flush our species (and thousands of others) down the proverbial toilet, all for the price of an affordable McHappy meal. That’s not even looking at nuclear winters, pandemics, global poverty, permanent war, etc., just to name a few other minor concerns facing the human race. I can’t unknow or deny the dire reality before us, yet I also can’t afford to be weighed down under all its gloomy and bleak conclusions. So with that in mind, what it seems to be both honest about the way the world is, but hopeful and happy enough to contribute, all requires me to shift how I view and evaluate my contribution.
When I’m caught in a linear way of understanding time and my efforts and measuring them according to whether they “are” or “are not” getting to some end goal of the world “being a better place”, I have a problem. First, measuring if, when, or how the world is a “better place” is extremely subjective. Let’s face it, even if we avert a climate doomsday, will there ever we a point where there is an announcement broadcast across the world saying, “OK, put down whatever you are doing. It’s now official — the world is in fact a better place. We finally got there, guys, three cheers for humans!! So relax, kick back, and enjoy the rest of eternity.” As for many people, one of my biggest problems with the concept of heaven was wondering what the hell anyone does all day in a perfect place. I envision the evolution of human consciousness as an ongoing project, and making the world a better place is something we should see as essentially never ending.
Yet even more crucial is understanding that we do things because they are the right thing to do, not because of the result and outcomes they yield. Mark Twain said, “You can never do the right thing, wrong.” We don’t love our kids because we think it means they’ll look after us in our old age. We aren’t there for friends when they need us because we think they will owe us a favour. All the good, generous and loving acts we do day in day, day out, we do from a natural and human part of who we are that just feels right. Not that we don’t all times fall prey to our ego, with all its pettiness and insecurity, but by and large we give, love and care without concern for the outcome.
So when it comes to making the world a better place, we shouldn’t measure its value based on the objective achievement or outcome. Most of us are making the world a better place even if we don’t define it as such. Social activists, environmentalists or left wing political campaigners are only some of the more obvious expressions of that desire to “make the world a better place”. Truth is, just being a decent parent, son/daughter, friend or husband/wife, despite all obvious our flaws, puts us in that category. Just doing your utmost to the follow the maxim of “do no harm, don’t be an asshole” means you are making the world a better place.
None of us should vainly assume we can know fully the impact of our interactions and efforts in relationships to how things work out in the grander scheme of things, which comes back to the original “knowing” I wrote about earlier in the article. I think that deep down we know what we do matters, even if it contradicts the means the current society and culture have given us to determine what’s deemed “noteworthy”. Right now, the message we are given is that unless what we do is publicly venerated or appears to wield great social influence, then it immediately falls under lacking importance. Yet something deep down whispers to us otherwise. Do you think Martin Luther King Jr.’s great-grandparents ever assumed their lives would be inseparably linked to the life of a man who would end up making such extraordinary social change? The same goes for all the famous or renowned scientists, artists, activists, poets or inventors, etc. They all at some point came from the lives of unmemorable and unremarkable people like ourselves. As we are all here for a very short and brief moment in time, we need to try make it as simple as having “do we bring more love into this world through our words, deeds and relationships?” as the defining question as to how we better the world. If our means of doing that is some kind of social activism, fantastic. If we dedicate our lives to caring for our disabled child, brilliant. If we choose to simply heal our wounds from our childhood and parent better than we were parented, good for us. There is no right or wrong way, better or worse way of being more loving.
If I measure the value of my effort to make the world better place on that, then it allows me to breathe and relax a little, as unlike halting the eminent demise of humanity through escalating climate change, bringing more love into the world day to day is a doable and attainable objective. Then, if you believe in the Buddhist understanding of rebirth, we just keep coming back over and over, lifetime after lifetime, with the aim to increase the degree and depth of that love and awareness.
I don’t believe we should negate our inner world for the sake of societal goals but I also don’t feel we can afford to shut out the world and just “work on ourselves”. Our inner and outer worlds are intrinsically interconnected and we can never escape either. So as I embark on a new project I feel may make a tiny contribution to the betterment of the world, I do so not worrying if it “will or won’t”, rather I do so knowing I can’t lose either way. I don’t need to do anything grandiose or magnificent (even though my ego loves the idea). I don’t need to make a massive impact on society or leave a legacy my kids can marvel at. All I need to do is keep remembering to try to give more than I get, to endeavour to come from love rather than fear, to work to be more aware than unconscious, more creative than judgmental, and just that alone is enough. Just that and nothing more will make the world a better place — well, actually, it IS making the world a better place. And what more could I ask for than that?