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Sunday, December 7, 2003
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

Back when I was a young guy, I wanted to change the world. For the better — really. I wanted to live in a world that one could be proud of. Or at least a world moving in that direction.

So what did I do about this desire? Well, it’s a long story. Let’s just say that although I’m not exactly the next Mother Jones or Mother Teresa, I did get involved in some things here and there that seemed to be headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, they didn’t always turn out to really be headed in the right direction.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder what I could say to a young person who might also feel the desire to change the world and wants to make a difference? About the only thing that comes to mind is the following. There are two approaches to making the world a better place. On the one hand, you could organize for some cause or try to get involved with some big organized movement. On the other hand, you can work as an independent agent and do what you can to live in a fashion that is true to the better world that you would imagine. You know, the Golden Rule and all that.

When I was a youngin’, the organized route seemed the only way to go. The single agent route seemed trivial and lame. Sure, you can be nice to your neighbors, but how is that going to change the plight of the poor and the downtrodden? What good is a smile when people are dying of pollution and other such injustices? The Bolsheviks surely scoffed at the independent agent theory.

But now that I’m an old guy, I’m really starting to thing that the single agent approach is often just as good as the organized route, if not better. I was involved both as a volunteer and an employee with an organization that was supposed to change things for the better for the inner city poor. After 15 years there, I saw a lot of happenings that didn’t make things better. There was a lot of ego and greed and stupidity and power politics and short-sightedness. Admittedly, we did do some good for the people of the city, but I still wonder if the overall balance between those we helped and those we hurt came out on the positive side.

So many of the organizations that were formed for the good of the oppressed usually wind up doing some oppressing themselves. The Bolshevik revolution is just the biggest, most obvious example. (The Republican Party also comes to mind … )

The individual agent approach is slower and more subtle. But then again, so is an individual virus. Put enough viruses into an organism and they can do some big damage. We don’t want to do damage — we want to do exactly the opposite. But perhaps the same approach can be used. Within recent years, scientists and technologists have discovered the power of using a large number of unorganized micro-agents to accomplish a task, as opposed to designing a centralized machine. For example, cleaning up a polluted beach. You can use big machines, but you might do better to scatter little beads with special chemicals or microbes in them that each clean up small areas of pollution.

If you are familiar with computer programming, you know that up until a decade ago, programs were written in a highly centralized manner. However, today, you write programs in an “object oriented” fashion, i.e. you program independent little “object” agents to attack little portions of the overall problem. You do have to think out the way that these little agents will interact such that they won’t be working at cross-purposes. But at some point you let them rip and watch them do their thing, oblivious to any master plan or major goal of the overall program. The computer gurus seem to believe that this is the better way.

Well, I’m not advising you against getting involved with a political party or a neighborhood organizing effort or a non-profit group or a church outreach program or a labor union. But do know that these kinds of things are much more prone to going astray than you might think. Don’t ever forget the power of small, personal ways of making the world better, e.g. telling the truth or going the extra mile to help someone or being pleasant or listening to someone else’s problems, or reaching out to an outcast, etc. Don’t let the organizational efforts justify personal meanness or other hurtful behavior.

Don’t go too far down the “means justify the ends” route. The Bolsheviks started on that road and eventually managed to kill many millions of people, probably more than any cause in history did. The group I worked for never intentionally killed anyone, thank goodness, but it did let down a lot of people who it should have helped and left a lot of people who wanted to help feeling quite discouraged. I myself recall an incident where we got some city money to provide housing for AIDS victims, but as soon as the NIMBY crowd started acting up, we cut and ran in a heartbeat. This was under the full awareness and direction of a highly centralized command structure. The order to forget about the housing needs of AIDS victims came right from the top. The boss felt that there were other ends that justified his means of breaking a promise.

Before I leave the idea of small actions, I want to make the point that it ain’t exactly a new idea. In the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, Jesus says that the Kingdom of God operates like the yeast amidst the flour in bread dough. Yeast — the perfect example of a multitude of tiny, independent agents that manage to change something (i.e., the mixture of flour and water). The Tao Te Ching also says stuff like this. E.g., verse Fifty Two: “seeing the small is insight; yielding to force is strength; using the outer light, return to insight”. Or Thirty Seven: “Tao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone; if kings observed this, the ten thousand things would develop naturally … without form there is no desire, without desire there is tranquility, and in this way all things would be at peace.” There are lots of other quotes like that in the Tao. I haven’t looked in the Upanishads, but it probably has words like this too. If you take the time, you can probably find other examples in ancient literature.

So organize away, but don’t forget the power of living out your dream of a better world in every stupid little thing that you do, no matter how trivial. If you’re hurrying to an important political rally and you see a nail or piece of glass in the road, stop to remove it. You may have done more for the cause of peace and justice that day in doing so than by the high-powered, high-visibility stuff that you will thereafter be involved in.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:26 pm      

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