Tired of a world gone out of whack? Sick of pervasive dysfunction?
Start by locating the problem. Most of us misunderstand where the troubles really begin. We think of them being “out there.” Mark Twain put it thus: “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”
But Pogo, another irascible observer of human foibles, suggested we turn the telescope around: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Much of what we dislike about the world is actually stuff we dislike about ourselves. If, for instance, we deplore selfishness and see the world as an uncaring place, chances are we’re projecting our own inner shortcomings out onto the screen of everyday life, thus freeing ourselves from responsibility for the self-absorption that keeps us cut off from others. The human mind is a tricky mechanism. It allows us all manner of self-deception.
But whether or not you buy the idea that the world as you see it simply mirrors what’s actually inside your skull, the principle of fixing the world by fixing yourself makes sense.
If, say, you replace your irritable driving habits with patience and courtesy, our roads automatically become safer places. Granted, they might still swarm with hair-trigger idiots who pass you on the right when you’re turning left, but there’ll be one less idiot among them.
How else can you single-handedly improve the world?
By fixing anything in your own life that’s out of synch.
You could, for instance, give away things you no longer need. You could resolve to spend a few minutes each day in quiet contemplation. You could clean up the garage or bedroom or basement or back yard. You could take to recycling and not buying products that aren’t recyclable, with the goal of reducing your own output of trash. You might make it a point to beautify your corner of the world by planting flowers or shrubs or tearing down or repainting a scruffy outbuilding.
Each thing you do to make the world less frenzied, less thoughtless, less ugly or less polluted contributes directly and immediately to making it a better place. To the extent that you stop being part of the problem, you automatically become part of the solution.
It’s true that you can’t wave a magic wand and put an instant end to war and famine. But you can learn to resolve conflict peacefully in your own life, and you can contribute food and clothing to people in need. Fact is, you can do dozens of things that contribute to world transformation.
Make it a habit to encourage everyone you meet. Refrain from gossip. Donate a few hours each month to some cause you find worthy. Take the initiative toward healing a falling-out with someone you used to enjoy. In place of always being right, choose instead to listen to what others are trying to say.
Life is shorter than we think. Opportunities to be together don’t last forever. He who dies with the most toys doesn’t actually win; he simply leaves the world more cluttered than it was before he lived.
If you’d really like to improve the world, you can. The key is to start with yourself.
Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel