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Be the change

Thursday, June 21, 2007 by Marianne Elliott

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Joy Superhero necklace in Thai taxi

Today is summer solstice, International Day of Possibility and having trekked across Bangkok this morning to attend an Iyengar yoga class I’m feeling very reflective.

Wendie brought me a birthday gift when she came to Thailand last week.

Actually she brought me two – one was from my sister and it was a Superhero necklace by the wonderful Andrea. I chose it myself and chose for myself “Joy” which is exactly what I’m filled with these days as I emerge fully from the challenges of my winter and into the light of summer. The necklace is a colourful and joyful as you would expect and it looks deliciously summery against my Thailand tan!

The second gift was from Wendie herself and was a book of the sayings and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi on “Peace”. I used to have a teeny book of Gandhai’s teachings by my desk at work everyday when I was working at the Human Rights Commission. On days when I felt myself beginning to tense up or boil over with frustration I would let it fall open and take a little of Gandhi’s medicine.

This book has a beautiful introduction by the Bishop Desmond Tutu in which he talks about “ubuntu” which is a characteristic of goodness, the essence of what it is to be human. In his culture, he says, the highest compliment you can be paid is to have someon say “Yu, u nobuntu”, you have ubuntu. I love this concept, which has two parts. The first part is about beihng friendly, hospitable, generous, gentle, caring and compassionate. It is about being someon who will use their strengths on behalf of others – the weak and the poor and the ill – and not take advantage of anyone. The second part is about being large-hearted and open, about sharing your worth in every sense.

People with ubuntu understand that if I diminish you, I diminish myself.

Amongst the many thought-provoking teachings of Gandhi (did you ever notice how staunchly feminist some of his teaching are?) I came across an old favorite and it stopped me in my tracks.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world”

Simple as that, I’d read it a hundred times before, I’d even quoted it to others, believing it and valueing it’s wisdom. But this week I found myself coming back to the question that sits behind this teaching: what is the change I want to see in the world?

When I was younger I might simply have responded that I wanted the world to be more just. But I’ve grown to understand that justice without compassion can be harsh, and that justice done by the book, without intention, can be fruitless and unsustainable. So what really is the change that I want to see in the world?

There are so many answers to that question and I think I will keep exploring them in weeks to come, but some things are clear.

I want the world to be a place where those who are strong and powerful use that strength and power on behalf of others, especially of the weak, the ill and the poor. But more than that I want the world to be a place where little by little the powerful can let go, the strong can let go, where gentleness and compassion are the leading forces rather then control and dominance.

I want this world to be a place where those who need a little help can get it, where those who have a little more can share it. Where the accumulation of massive wealth doesn’t make any sense so people stop bothering to do it.

I want the world to move at a place which keeps in harmony with the rhythms of the planet, where we all remember the feel of being in tune with the moon’s cycles and the taste of eating the fresh produce that grows in this season. I want the world to need less things. I want the oceans and rivers to be clean and full of life, I want the sky to be clear and the air clean.

I want the world to be filled with ubuntu, with an understanding that we are all connected to each other and therefore when I harm you I am harming myself. I want the world to be free from violence, I want us to all find non-violent ways to confront and resolve our differences.

I want the world to change, and I’m happy to be reminded by Gandhi that the best and only way to be sure to be doing my part it that is to keep “being the change”.

About 12 years ago I arrived back in New Zealand after a ten month journey around Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Eastern Europe. What I had seen in the Occupied Palestinian Territories was about to change the direction of my career and my whole life. I travelled with the grandfather of a Palestinian friend of mine from Jerusalem, via the West Bank up to Tiberias. We had crossed several check points of the Israeli army. I witnessed violence that was routinised: humiliating and degrading violence against women, children and the elderly. I saw that this violence was being perpetrated by young people from a land of hope and promise, young men and women who were no more “bad” than you or I, but who were caught up in a military culture of fear, violence and oppression.

I decided that the world needed to change, I decided that my first step would be to make my own commitment to non-violence and I had the sanskrit “Ahimsa” tattooed onto my lower back. In the years that followed, when I myself was living in the Gaza Strip witnessing violent conflict everyday and being myself subjected to humiliation by the Israeli army for my sin of living and working in the Palestinian territories, I had to recall this commitment many times. It was a commitment not only to avoid physical violence, but also to avoid mental violence. I had committed to myself that hatred was not an option. I had committed myself to the path of trying to know and understand the person who hurts you and those you care for.

I kept my connections with family and friends in Israel, despite the incredible psychological, emotional and social struggle this often involved. I chose not to slip into simple impressions of “good” and “bad” and I tried always to see the soldiers as whole, precious people – despite the terrible things I sometimes saw them doing.

This was hard work for me at the time, I often felt fragmented, I sometimes longed to put my feet both down on one or other side of that divide between Israel and Palestine and stay there. Almost everyone around me had chosen their side and stayed there, protected by the company of others. I was always moving across those lines, both literally and figuratively. To get from my apartment in Gaza to my friend’s apartment in West Jerusalem I crossed Erez checkpoint and took a Palestinian share taxi to Ramallah, then I took another taxi to East Jerusalem, stopping at the checkpoint to change into a car with Israeli plates. This taxi would take me to East Jerusalem from where I would usually have to walk a little bit to the area from which Jewish Israeli cabs were available and willing to take me to Oded’s neighbourhood.

I crossed back and forth, trying to keep my mind and heart open, often feeling like a traitor, often feeling like an imposter. I answered the same impossible questions over and over again at both ends of this journey as I acted like a strange kind of ambassador “from the other side”. With Palestinians I was always challenging stereotypes about Israeli, with Israeli’s the reverse. I never got to be “on the right side” of the discussion.

But I tried, I tried to live with ‘ahimsa’ in that violent, conflicted place. I failed on many occassions, but I learned that wherever I go and whatever I do with my life the most important choice I will make everyday will be the choice to live well, to live with gentleness, with generosity, with open-heartedness and and open mind. In the Gaza Strip I learned that the only guaranteed shot I had at changing the world was to change myself.

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16 Responses to "Be the change"

  1. homeinkabul says:

    This is beautiful. You articulate well my problems with working in Afghanistnan – how do I prevent the stress of the country from making me angry & rude? I often fail.
    It’s like that Mary Oliver poem, right? I never heard of her but then her poems kept popping up everywhere…

  2. tiny noises says:

    You once again inspire us with your insight and your dedication to “be that change.”
    “I want the world to be a place where those who are stong and powerful use that strength and power on behalf of others, especially of the weak, the ill and the poor. But more than that I want the world to be a place where little by little the powerful can let go, the strong can let go, where gentleness and compassion are the leading forces rather then control and dominance.”
    I couldn’t agree more.

  3. kristen says:

    very inspiring. this is a call to action for me.

  4. michele watson says:

    Could you share the complete title of the Ghandi “peace ” book.
    I would love to read it but unable to find it at amazon.
    Great blog post!!

  5. Patricia Valenzuela says:

    Very inspiring. I just discover your blog and love it. If there were more people living like you, world would be much better.
    Thank you

  6. amy denmeade says:

    deeply wonderful words. thank you for sharing your insights.
    best wishes,
    amy d

  7. none says:

    I think this is one of my favouite posts from you and gave me alot to think about this week.
    I needed this.
    Thank you
    ((hug))

  8. Paris Parfait says:

    Very wise and wonderful words, dear Frida. Your post brought back a flood of memories from when I lived in the Middle East. xo

  9. none says:

    “You must be the change you want to see in the world”
    Just the quote I needed. Thanks!

  10. Oh I am so loving ubuntu. I did not know that there was a word for that!
    You are a blessed and self-aware soul, Frida.

  11. Margaret says:

    Thanks for this post, too. I also needed it. I am feeling a little down and lonely as I struggle with the exact same thing, “being the change that I want to see in the world…” I have been thinking about Gandhi alot recently and had actually been considering reading some of his writings. Funny how I came across this post 🙂 Serendipity I suppose. I too would love the title of the book.
    I hope you are also feeling better about the end of your relationship with the commander. I recently had a relationship end and am still struggling through it.
    May we be filled with ubuntu,
    Margaret

  12. Swirly says:

    It takes courage on so many levels to live up to one’s own standards. I have been thinking a lot about this idea of being willing to be the kind of person I want to be…it seems easy on the surface but can be challenging in many surprising ways. You are a peaceful warrior, and an example for us all.

  13. You post with such sincerity, Frida… I never feel as if you are just posting for the sake of posting something. Everything you say has merit and leaves me with a lot of food for thought. Gandhi was amazing and in today’s world, trying to live in a more grateful and gentle way takes a lot of courage- I am so glad to know you in this life…
    xo

  14. ceanandjen says:

    Goodness is this a gorgeous post; not only do you write with pure conviction, I absolutely believe that you live your life with this same conviction. There is no way that you could do what you with without it. I commend you on so many levels and I thank you for sharing your wisdom and your heart with us. Your words are food for serious thought and I do indeed believe that you are helping to change this world.
    xoxo

  15. Rahul says:

    Hi,
    I was just going through ur blog quietly, till I saw this post. As an Indian, I thought I should share sme of my feelings with you.
    The legacy of Gandhi is very complex. You might not be aware, but at a time when Gandhi and his doctrine are becoming more and more accepted outside India, it is being reviled and people are turning away from Gandhi specially in the younger generation in India.
    In particular, Gandhi’s philosophy is seen by many to be non-practical, Gandhi is seen as a master manipulator who sidelined many younger and more charismatic leaders in the Indian freedom movement, some people blame him for partition while others say he delayed India’s freedom. Let me elaborate on this.
    Gandhi is believed to have politically isolated, denounced and intrigued against other charismatic leaders so as to make sure that he always was at the apex of the freedom movement in India. These are people like Jinnah, who quit the congress in disgust and later went on to lead the Pakistan movement which later formed the modern nation of Pakistan on the basis of the two nation theory. Others were revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose who wanted an armed freedom struggle to throw off the British. Gandhi opposed them tooth and nails as according to him ‘ a just cause could only be achieved through just means’.
    He also put off a lot of the newly emerging educated burgeoisie by bringing in religous concepts, symbolism and imagery into the freedom movement. The very word ahimsa is taken from the jain/buddhist/hindu religion. This also put off the muslims and people like Mr. Jinnah who were extremely secular (keep religion away from politics types) and other muslim leaders. At the same time he encouraged radical and extremely orthodox mullahs among the muslims thus ignoring the emerging educated classes of muslims who went on to form the backbone of the movement for Pakistan.
    However, the thing that most people say about him is that without him, India might have been free a lot earlier. In particular, people point to the Civil Disobedience moevement which had set fire to the country, and caused unrest everywhere. At the very point that the movement was peaking, Gandhi asked for the moevement to be withdrawn because apparently a mob had set fire to 22 policemen in a remote indian village. He went on a fast, asking all his followers to stop the movement and basically asked for completely stopiing the movement at a time when people thought we were on the verge of independence. Many people say this was because he was losing control over the movement.
    So, in short a lot of the younger people seem to believe that he was just another selfish and powerhungry politician. When u look at all of this and also add the seeming impracticality of his teachings in a world which seems to follow brute force, it is easy to see how many people might suspect him to be not just impractical but a big humbug. When I was in college, I totally believed that Gandhi was a humbug as was(and is) fashionable among most younger people. However, as I have grown and seen different countries, I have come to appreciate Gandhi more and more and let me tell you why.
    If you look at the map of the world today, you will find that almost every country that got its independence through an armed struggle is suffering today. Many of these societies got their independence, but the guns and the bombs never left them. There is hardly a country there which has not seen military rule, dictators,assasinations of leaders or violent movements at some time or other. It is easy to pick up a gun for a just cause but even after the cause has been achieved, it becomes difficult to give up the gun. Look at Afghanistan, they were just fighting for their freedom from a foriegn oppressor- an extremely just cause and so picked up the gun. However, even after the soviets left, the guns didn’t and afghanistan has been in a tailspin since then.
    When u compare such examples to India and look at how India won its freedom (ie: largely non-violently) then perhaps it becomes easier to understand why despite numerous problems(massive poverty, multiple religions, ethnicities, languages etc.) India has had a flawed but functioning democracy since its independence. Today, i firmly believe that this is because of Gandhi and his policy of ahimsa. In the end, this ahimsa has endured and perhaps has had so many effects which do not seem to be immediately obvious.
    This is what has led me to rethink Gandhi, and I feel today, that he was much more far-thinking than many others. Ahimsa in the end has had practical and long-lasting effects, I still feel ambivalent about gandhi. was he a humbug-too good to be true??? he might have been, but the use of non-violence has worked for sure.
    I also feel that the use of our own traditions as a part of the freedom movement and having a leader like Gandhi who was a unabashed Hindu, wore indian clothes, dressed like a villager and spoke in our own language, perhaps has made us more confident and proud of our culture than many other countries which I feel are still excessively metally colonised(ie: kind of believe in the superiority of white skin). Ok, i don’t want to expand on this, as these are kind of controversial views(and of course, totally personal)
    anyway, just wanted to give u my own perspective on the practicality/impracticality of such an other-worldly concept as ahimsa.I really appreciate the struggle ur making. Best of luck in the future as well.
    Regards,
    Rahul

  16. Frida says:

    Hi Rahul,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment on this post. I am aware
    of the controversy and debate surrounding Gandhi as a person and the
    non-violence movement more generally.
    I’ve lived and worked in a number of different countries where the
    very legitimate and just cause of attaining independence and freedom
    was pursued through violent means. I can never judge the people who
    chose to take up arms in defence of their most basic rights – even
    after only two years living in the Gaza Strip I had days when I felt
    like taking up arms myself.
    But my observations are similar to yours – the cause may have been
    just, the short-term objeective of independence or freedom from
    occupation may have been achieved, but violence (even when initially
    in a just cause) extracts an ongoing and heavy price from communities
    and societies.
    I work with communities and families where violence and armed conflict
    have created deep and lasting wounds. Nevermind the honourable
    original intentions, violence has turned families and neighbours
    against each other in ways that they never forsaw and are now still
    struggling to repair.
    I have come to believe that the path of non-violence – though often
    slower and always more challenging – is worth pursuing for the long
    term benefits.
    Gandhi is a flawed and very human representative of this path – he was
    no more incorruptible than I am – and I don’t doubt that there is much
    truth in the analysis of his own power struggles. In my home country,
    Aotearoa NZ, we have our own figure-head of non-violence Te Kooti
    (from whom Gandhi clearly took some inspiration). As with Gandhi, Te
    Kooti is a controversial figure. But his teachings retain their value
    – impractical? Perhaps. But sometimes what seems most practical in the
    short-term brings unintended problems in the long-term. At least that
    has been my observation in my short time on this planet.
    Again – thank you for your thoughful comment. Because I use my blog as
    a personal diary rather than a political analysis I realise that my
    observations may sometimes seems naive – but I always appreciate
    thoughtful comments.
    Perhaps – in response to your comment I will consider writing a more
    analytical and less personal post about the concept and challenge of
    non-violence and the political complexity of Gandhi and other leaders
    of the non-violence movements around the world. Or maybe I’ll let my
    blog remain an account of my personal struggles to live by my
    principles and let more learned people do the analysis.
    In either case you have brought some interesting reflections into my
    quiet Friday morning.
    Thank you for that!

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