It’s not wrong or foolish or naive’ to want to change the world. Lord knows there’s a lot out there that could use changing.
Many people can encounter a problem, however, when they get so wrapped up in changing the world that they deemphasize the necessity to invest in and change themselves, in order to live their values and achieve their goals.
There is a distortion cognitive therapists often encounter called “dichotomous thinking.” It occurs when people come to believe that they must function with a black and white worldview, in which no gray area exists.
It’s a worldview that is very zero-sum— in order for one thing to be true, all other things must be false.
Black and white thinking is really good at contributing to depression and anxiety. It very frequently leads people to think that if they’re not a complete success, they must be a total failure. People who think in black and white terms often assume that if they’re not completely in control of a situation or a problem, that must mean that situation or problem is completely out of control.
It’s a miserable way to live.
Black and white thinking also tends to encourage people to view societal change and personal change as a zero sum game.
If it is partially society’s fault that I’m experiencing difficulty, their thinking goes, then I am powerless to attempt to change my life on my own.
This is a false choice.
Even in the midst of changing society for the better— efforts that most often need to be big-picture and long-term— we still have opportunities to effectively work on changing ourselves, adapting to situations, developing our skillsets, clarifying and living our values.
Because society needs to be changed doesn’t mean that WE don’t need to change.
No matter how passionately we believe in the necessity of changing society, and no matter how onerous we imagine our own responsibility to change the world is, we STILL have to make the time and effort to manage our own lives and resources in ways that allow us to live our values and achieve our goals.
How do we find this balance?
First thing’s first: we have to avoid the feelings of hopelessness and being overwhelmed that can happen when we contemplate how screwed up the world is in many respects.
I know, I know. The world has its problems right now. Politically; culturally; socially; spiritually.
No matter what one’s political viewpoints or religious affiliations or socioeconomic class, it’s increasingly obvious that there is a lot of work to do out there in the world.
And there is no doubt that many people take very seriously their responsibly to be part of the solutions, not part of the problems.
But avoiding feeling overwhelmed involves getting very realistic about the roles that we, as individuals can play in solving the world’s problems.
We can do what we can do.
Some of us can do more than others for various reasons. Some of us are more limited in what we can do.
But wherever we are, whoever we are, we need to be aware of and accept those limits, or else we run a very real danger of becoming needlessly burned out.
As we do the work we need to do to radically accept the limits of our power and responsibility in changing the world, we also need to remember that we are of absolutely no use to the social, political, or spiritual causes dear to our hearts if we aren’t also working on and taking care of ourselves every day.
I know, I know. Social movements and political revolutions have a long history of glorifying sacrifice and selflessness. The narrative out there is that “the cause” is more important that any individual’s life.
I would respectfully disagree. Just as we have a responsibility to the larger causes that we care about, we have serious and real responsibilities toward ourselves and the life we have been given stewardship of.
Remember, even in the midst of his chaotic song “Revolution,” John Lennon repeatedly assured us, “You know it’s gonna be all right.”
It will be all right…but we need to take our own needs and quality of life as seriously as anybody else’s for whom we fight politically, socially, culturally, or spiritually.
You don’t need to choose between making the world a better place and taking care of yourself with compassion and realism.
Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
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