Actions as Antidotes -- Working for Change
There is an old riddle that asks, "What's the
difference between ignorance and apathy?" The lamentable
answer is, "I don't know and I don't care."
In fact, most of us do know the difference between being
ignorant (lacking education or knowledge, from the Latin
"ignorare," meaning "not to know") and being apathetic
(feeling or showing a lack of interest or concern, from
the Greek "apatheia," meaning "without feeling"). But
despite our awareness that the direction in which we are
headed is leading us to a dismal future, and propelling
our children toward an even more catastrophic scenario,
we just don't seem to care about changing it. Or, more
accurately, we do care when we first hear about the
bleak details --
* that twenty percent of all of our children are growing
up in poverty, a 21% increase since 1970;
* that one in every four homeless persons in cities is a
* that the rate of suicide among adolescents has tripled
* that violence is approaching the position of being
America's number one public health problem;
* that the carnage of street gang-related murders in the
United States is higher than that of Belfast;
* that among youths age 15 to 19, the risk of being shot to
death more than doubled in the past decade;
* that in addition to violence in the community, at least 3.3
million children are at risk for witnessing parental abuse
each year, a conservative estimate because of under-
reporting of domestic abuse;
-- but our sympathy ebbs just as fast as it is aroused.
We are overwhelmed by competing disasters and are
suffering from what writer Anna Quindlan calls a
"hardening of the arteries of kindness." We are burned out.
We are suffering from compassion fatigue.
The malignant and corrosive forces in our
society which are threatening the future of our children
are also traumatizing those of us who are their caregivers,
diminishing our potential ability to meet their needs.
A 1992 Harris poll backs up this theory with a frightening
statistic: 89 percent of adults live in chronic stress.
When we are immobilized by this stress, and by our
own despair and resistance to change, we can't do
much to help our children. We compound their problems i
Compassion wasn't always such a difficult response. The
world was seen as a much simpler place with areas that we
broadly described as "Asia", or "Africa", or "the Soviet Union."
World disasters weren't broadcast into our homes with the
same immediacy we experience today. Closer to home, the
mentally ill were locked away in institutions, not set adrift to
homelessly wander our streets; teen pregnancies and suicides
were not openly discussed; the "isms" -- racism, sexism,
classism -- were rarely an issue. There were simply fewer
things to which we were called upon to be sympathetic.
In today's world we are exhorted on a daily basis to be
"compassionate" toward the poor, the misguided, the
homeless, the victims. World and neighborhood conflicts,
however, are not as neat and trim as they seem when we
watch them on television, sandwiched between advertisements
for credit cards and fast food. Relief efforts take months
or years, not the microseconds it takes the media to draw
us into the disasters. They quickly become old news.
Fatigue and boredom set in. We throw away the unopened
fundraising letters; skip the current updates in the paper;
turn away. We literally and figuratively change the channel.
Reactions to Troubled Times
In her insightful and prescriptive book, Despair and
Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, Joanna Macy cites three
ways in which people respond to the slew of requests for
understanding and assistance in the face of today's social
Unless they become personalized, social problems
appear as abstract concepts to most of us. If they don't affect
us directly (seeing them in action in film or on television
doesn't count), we find it hard to believe that they really exist.
So despite the increasing frequency of violence, racism and
hate crime in this country, many people refuse to take it
seriously because they simply don't believe it.
Until the break up of the Soviet Union, it was the
possibility of total annihilation that we denied. Today, as
our inability to accept differences among one another grows
and the instances of conflict and violence hit closer to home,
we do not deny the danger of our situation so much as what is
at stake. As Ms. Macy says, "the human mind is tempted to
acquiesce to the triviality of its own existence. It is tempted to
say, 'what is so special about human beings?' "
Repressing the knowledge of the rising tide of hatred
and violence drains us of the very energy we need to fight
against those phenomena. On one level, we lead our lives
thinking that nothing much has changed as we take the children
to school, shop at the malls, and attend the religious services
of our choice. But we know on another level that everything
has changed. And without the knowledge of how to integrate
these two layers of consciousness we live in both of them, with
the vague feeling that our own neighborhoods could go at any
I would add a fourth response to this list:
Despair is an acknowledgement of the shortcomings of
human beings, the despondent awareness that the lives we dreamed
about may not come to fruition, the painful realization that
we cannot shape the world according to our desires simply
by wishing it so. It is an overwhelming sense of futility
and defeat, coupled with a loss of hope. Our real problem
is not indifference; it is dread.
Not surprisingly, living for years under the shadow
of a world that we perceive to be disintegrating gives us
every reason to feel overcome by despair. It takes a
mammoth toll on our lives. Whether we call it "burnout",
"compassion fatigue" or "despair," it anesthetizes us,
and can create a sense of isolation. Like rats in a
laboratory, which turn away and busy themselves in a
frenzy of unrelated activity when they are introduced to
a threat which they cannot remove, we similarly develop
a frenzied appetite for pleasurable activities and frantically
consume massive amounts of goods and entertainment
After we live for so long with this inchoate sense of
social illness, we begin to blame others for our
situation, creating scapegoats toward which to focus
our anger. Our ability to be clear about our lives
diminishes. Studies have shown that at moments
of heightened danger, the measures of cognitive
functioning are consistently lower. Under such
stressful conditions, the information we do choose
to take in is not processed well. The repression
of a strong emotion such as despair, it seems, greatly
impairs our capacity to think.
Commitment to Change
As parents, educators, community leaders and friends of
children everywhere, we have a special commitment to
the future. We must learn to confront our despair; to
acknowledge that what we fear will not go away; to
break the taboo about dealing publicly with our concerns
about the future by deciding that we as individuals,
families, schools and communities are willing to talk
and are open to listening; and to truly believe that it is
our responsibility to do so. As the awareness of our
social problems increases, we are being presented
with a rare window of opportunity to significantly
improve the chances our children will have for a
better future. Whether we look at the issues from
an economic, political or social perspective, it is
imperative that we recognize the need for change.
There are different ways to think about change:
physicists see change as happening when you have
enough pockets of energy in the right places;
biologists see it in evolutionary terms; economists
see it in terms of market forces. Whatever way
we think about it, change is an inevitable fact of life.
Most of us, however, are profoundly ambivalent about
change. We applaud it in principle, but obstruct it in
practice, disliking alterations in even our smallest daily
routines. We prefer that it happen to someone else,
look for ways to avoid or derail it when confronted
by it, and have chosen "loss" as our primary
metaphor for it. In fact, it has been determined that
we go through the same stages during change that
we do during mourning, apparently suffering the
same kind of bereavement from the loss of continuity
in our lives as from the death of a loved one.
Resistance to change is both unavoidable and normal.
As with all living organisms, it is our natural inherent
reaction to try and stop anything that we perceive as
potentially harmful, destructive or threatening. When
we oppose change, we are struggling to remain inside
of our comfort zones -- those areas beyond whose
boundaries lies confusion and chaos -- in order to
maintain consistency and balance in our lives.
One way of becoming comfortable with change, and to
successfully implement change in our homes, schools
and communities, is to understand some of its various
* If people are to commit themselves to innovation, risking
the inevitable anxieties and discomfort that accompany it,
they must find the mission and the new objectives both
preferable to what they are currently experiencing, and
perceive them as achievable;
* People who possess the readiness for change -- who are
flexible, energetic and invested in it -- will progress
through its stages much more easily than those who
don't. People who are more rigidly vested in their
personal concerns, such as maintenance of power and
position, are more sensitive to the stresses of change,
leaving them less willing participants.
* One of the greatest needs during change is technical
support -- training and materials -- and clear
communication. It is a dictum of organizational change
that the larger the innovation the greater the need for
communication. Remembering that change usually
begets automatic confusion and misunderstanding, and
that that commotion, if unchecked, will spell failure, will
help assure clarity throughout the process.
* During the early stages of change, when uncertainty is
change even modest amounts of reassurance and
recognition is a strategy repeatedly endorsed in studies
of change. Recognizing the willingness of people to go
through the often frightening process improves both
morale and motivation to continue moving forward.
Where Do We Begin?
To paraphrase Alvin and Heidi Toffler in their book,
War and Anti-War, creating harmonious communities
cannot depend on first solving all of our social, moral
and economic problems. The issue is not how to
build consensus in a perfect world but in the one in
which we are actively living and creating. We can't
wait for governmental grants to appear, for everyone
on our block to join up, or for our leaders to give us
the go ahead. Each of us needs to believe that we
can make change happen, join our efforts with other
like-minded individuals, and at the very least say "no" to
anything we feel is going in the wrong direction.
There is a story that is told about a man who was
watching an old woman walk along an ocean beach.
She had a strange pattern to her stride -- every few
steps she would stop, bend down, throw something
in the water and then walk along some more. When
he came closer he saw that she was picking up live
starfish that had washed up on shore during the
previous night's storm and was throwing them back
into the ocean one at a time. He was appalled at the
lunacy of her effort.
"Do you realize how fruitless a task this is? " he asked.
"There are literally thousands of starfish along the shore.
You're saving them one at a time! What possible
difference does it make?"
She listened politely to what he had said, bent down,
picked up another starfish and gazed at it thoughtfully
for a moment.
"It makes a difference to this one," she replied as she
threw it back into the ocean.
It is crucial to the future of our children that we
comprehend and trust this simple fact: individuals
can make a difference: all the difference in the world.
It will only be through the persistent efforts of
each of us that necessary changes will be made to
allow our children to live, learn and work together
to achieve common goals in a culturally diverse
world. Without change and immediate intervention,
they will become the next generation that sets in
motion the same processes of conflict and hatred that
they are experiencing today.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
* Decide that you will help; but understand first, act later.
* Consider your comfort. Is there one issue or another
you feel comfortable addressing? Which strategies to you
* Understand that things happen for a reason, that we
live in a cause and effect world, and that we can change
the way things turn out if we influence the causes. This
is called "empowerment", and it is one of the most
important concepts to comprehend when trying to make
changes happen around us. We can be most effective
when we feel that we have some control over our lives.
* Recognize that the enormity of the problems has
advantages: everyone has an opportunity to help find
solutions and each of us can make a big difference.
* Begin with one thing that needs attention. Perhaps
you have read something in this book that has sparked
your interest. There might be an issue in your community
or school that needs attention. It needn't be a big job or
a big issue, but overcome the inertia and start somewhere.
* Get to know the issue. Learn by reading, attending
meetings and lectures, watching films and videotapes,
and talking to others who are involved.
* Have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish.
As much as possible, identify your goals and develop
an action plan for achieving them. But also expect
your ideas about change to evolve over time. Change
is an organic, not a static, process. Expect change to
be turbulent at times and almost always slower than
you think it will be.
* Rather than reinventing the wheel, build on what
already works. Find examples of successes in other
communities and schools and model your action plan
* Know why you are getting involved, what prompted
your effort to make changes, and what your purpose is
for being involved.
* Develop a base of support including others who share
your ideas and dreams and those who will offer you
moral support even though they themselves are not
involved with your change work.
* Become a teaching group by building capacity in others,
exponentially expanding the efforts of your group.
Determine which skills your group members already have
that they can pass along to others, and learn from each other.
* Planning your time carefully can serve as one of the
best defenses against burnout. You will be calling
yourself a failure when you aren't one if you plan your
time unrealistically. For example, when making out
your schedule, allow for lag time. Everything will take
much longer than you think it's going to.
* Know the difference between flawlessness and excellence.
Good work need not be perfect to be effective.
* Don't play "total expert." Acknowledging what you
don't know makes you more trustworthy. But do your
homework so that you can be responsible for what you do say.
* Use your strengths and personal resources:
knowledge of the issues;
ability to work with people;
support from family, friends and co-workers;
ability to run a meeting, organize others, speak in public;
connections to powerful people;
visibility in your community;
ability to write clearly.
* Don't be afraid to share personal experiences.
The dangers we are dealing with are abstract and
remote from many people's daily lives. The issues
become more real for them when they see that they
have affected real people.
* Formal and informal support from top officials is
crucial. Look for the power in your community or
school because that is usually where change is controlled,
and learn how the system works. Who holds the power?
Where are decisions made? How are they made? What
are the relationships between those who make the decisions
and those who benefit from them? Who pays to have the
decisions of the power group carried out?
* Find out if those you work for and buy from support
your views so you can make conscious choices. If you
own stock, attend shareholder meetings and raise issues.
* Your voice is important so get in touch with your
congressional representatives and senators. Send a
letter or make a local phone call. Ask five friends to
do so, too. Altogether your team is equal to 900
people -- a phone call represents the view of fifty;
a letter represents the view of 100; a phone call and
a letter is 150; a telegram is 250.
* When you write letters, use these tips to make it easier:
Keep an "action file" of current articles together
in one place;
Address and stamp several envelopes at one time;
When you are asked to write, do it immediately;
Write to your senators every week or two before
each vote on the issues. Write to your
representatives each month and
before each vote;
Keep it short and simple;
Do not mail preprinted letters. Use your own words
Be specific about what you want them to do.
* People are less likely to reject your views if you can
show them how a new idea fits in with what they already
believe, and if you have anticipated their fears and concerns
in dealing with the issues. Address them before they have a
chance to surface.
* Ideas that seem silly, weird or alarming may not be viable
solutions themselves, but if you can take them seriously
enough to use them to start fresh trains of thought, they
often lead to new and much more practical possibilities.
* Community service is not just for high school and college
students and adults. We can start with the very youngest
children, reinforcing their behavior through childhood and
adolescence into adulthood. Most children have a very
keen sense of justice and care as much as we do about
others who are hurt, and can contribute their energy and
skills through structured experiences. Public service can
help empower them, too, to live lives of dignity and
purpose while channeling their energy toward constructive
responses to diversity, change and conflict.
* Be willing to let go of a discussion at the right time.
There is a moment when it is best to leave things as they
are in order to allow interchange to occur, and you may
never know if change has occurred as a result of your
discussion. To develop patience it might help to trace
those experiences when you went through personal change
and the change agent -- a book, a film, a speaker, an
encounter -- had no idea you were affected.
* Avoid what Joe Flower, editor of "The Change Letter"
calls the "Daddy Syndrome" where we refer upwards to
what "they" think we ought to do -- the government,
our boss, the past. Trust your instincts. If you believe
in what you are doing and you believe that what you are
doing is right, you will not only draw others who share
your beliefs, you stand a terrific chance of drawing in
others who are skeptical, curious, unconvinced and/or
just plain unenlightened.
* Don't wait until the job is finished to celebrate because
it rarely is. Commemorate the incremental changes, and
give yourself and others credit and recognition frequently
along the way.
* It takes energy to care, and to do so requires physical
stamina. Care for yourself with the same energy that
caring for others requires. It may mean something as
simple as eating properly and getting enough sleep.
* Maintain your personal focus during the course of
your involvement. Being personally centered helps to
provide energy for all of the facilitating, listening and
mediating work which goes on. When you feel heavy
resistance from a group or the community, always try
to return to what is personally important and meaningful
in this work for you.
* Give yourself permission to seek privacy. Recognize
that it's a priority you owe to your health and well-being
to meet. Removing one's self voluntarily from one's
habitual environment promotes self-understanding and
contact with those inner depths of our being which elude
one in the chaos of day-to-day life.
* Develop and maintain hope, not optimism. Optimism
is an expectation, a tendency to expect the best possible
outcome. Its opposite is pessimism. Hope on the other
hand is a proactive commitment, a confidence in, and
dedication to the future. Hope takes a realistic view of
the present and does what it can to bring about a positive
future. Its opposite is despair.
NOTE: The text above is from the recent book, Teaching Peace: How to Raise Children to Live in Harmony -- Without Fear, Without Prejudice, Without Violence_ by Jan Arnow (Perigee/Berkley, © 1995 Jan Arnow, ISBN #0-399-52155-0, $12.00). In each chapter there are additional charts, quotes and sidebar sections that have not been uploaded. If you are interested in seeing these additions, please contact the author directly (email: email@example.com); (snail mail: 2025 Maryland Avenue, Louisville, KY, 40205); (telephone: 502-454-0607); or buy the book!
This is copywritten material. Please do not distribute without the author's permission.
You May Read The Entire Book Online
Chapters 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - Introduction - Bibliography
Go to Chapter 8.
Return to: Books ------Go to: Site Map
Top of Page