“Personal transformation can and does have global effects. As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.” – Marianne Williamson
This pandemic is challenging us on multiple fronts. It challenges our need to know what is happening and what is going to happen; it challenges our desire to be, and feel, in control; it challenges our sense of safety and security; and it challenges our confidence in what to do next. Most profoundly, it is challenging who we are, and who we see ourselves to be.
Any significant change involves at its core, a change in identity, and this is what makes times like this so difficult and painful. When I wrote my first draft of this piece, George Floyd was still alive. He had not yet had the breath literally squeezed out of his body by a knee to the neck. People of all ethnicities and ages in cities all over the world had not yet broken their shelter-in-place and social distancing orders to hit the streets in protest. If recent U.S. polls are to be believed, there has been a fundamental shift in public consciousness. And for many, this has been a profound experience of a deeper and disturbing reckoning with aspects of our own identity, our own conscious and unconscious biases and our own unseen and unacknowledged privilege.
This pandemic has been an instrument of revelation, creating the perfect storm of conditions for a seismic realization of inequities in our societies and their brutal impacts. Some are calling this a turning point. That remains to be seen. But it is for many, an example of when something profound comes out of our blind spot and into our conscious awareness. That shift creates the ground conditions for transformative change.
Moments like these feel shocking, disorienting and often painful. They can be revelatory and release us into something more expansive, offering us the capacity to affect change in ourselves and in our world, or they can frighten us and have us dive for our defenses, resist and try to either shrink back or lash out.
This is the psychology of genuine transformation.
If we stay open and curious about what is happening within us and how that is connected to what is going on around us, then we can see ourselves and our impact on the world more clearly. It is what we do with that insight, personally and collectively, that will either create the conditions for transformation or the conditions for resistance and retrenchment.
A lot of people are asking “What can I do?” “How can I contribute?” The advice that many activists are giving is first, educate yourself. Listen. Take responsibility for your own education, don’t expect others to do the work for you. Whatever the change, it begins with a willingness to change who you are in relation to the change you want to see. And that begins by listening and being willing to hear things you may not want to hear.
Confronting aspects of our identity that are in the shadows, are not pretty or virtuous, can be very painful. Perhaps they are aspects of our identity that are racist or biased or simply having an unintended harmful impact on others. We can recoil. We can feel shame. We can feel guilt. We can judge ourselves. These feelings, while perhaps appropriate, are not always useful. They can raise our defenses, have us resist and withdraw, or worse, have us lash out. They keep us from progressing and continuing the work of transformation. It is during these times that we need compassion – compassion for the people we have harmed and compassion for ourselves. We need to listen to and be open to feedback from others, particularly those who are hurting. We need to face and own our culpability but not get stuck there. Dwelling there in a state of self-flagellation or self-loathing is just another form of self-indulgence, making it all about us. The world needs us to acknowledge and move beyond it.
The world needs us to grow. The world needs us to change. The world needs us to lead.
Image by James DeMers