I was reading a commentary on The Book of Proverbs a few days ago and was floored by the suggestion that the collection of Biblical sayings were not meant to spur the reader to in any way change the world, but to adopt wisdom and effective stewardship within the world presented.
I’m not saying the world is not messed up and that it should not be changed. Geesh. Planet Earth is a hot mess. I was just about to write “especially considering the year we’ve had”, but that isn’t even true, is it? Sure this has been a challenging year, but do we really want to measure it up against years that included The Holocaust, The Inquisition, or The Crusades? The French Revolution was a nightmare. The world is and always has been a mess.
And, hey, let’s be brutally honest about our posture when we talk about being an agent that “changes the world”. What we really mean is this: I want to win the world to my side of things; I want to feel better by guiding society into my idea of what it should be; I want to avoid pain by changing the circumstances that surround me.
Here is the thing: I can’t really change the world. Not in the way I hope to or in the way we talk about it. Perhaps more to the point, if I am one of the few historical people who single-handedly alters society, it will only happen under two conditions:
The first is that others agree, adopt, defend, and promote whatever it is I have “done” to change the world. In that regard, it is not really something I can control (whether or not people follow my lead) just like I cannot really control the effect my thoughts and actions will have on society.
I am talking about control here. I can’t control society, what it thinks of me, or how it trends. I can have a great idea, and take noble action. But I am just as likely to be killed or ignored for it as I am to be supported and followed into cultural revolution. The majority of it is beyond my capacity.
The second condition that would be necessary for me to “change the world” is for it to be a side-effect of who I am. Not just something I do or a cause I support. But a result of my choices and my character. What I mean is, there is no button that says “press this to change the world”. I will make my choices based on my values and what matters to me. As outlined above, if the world changes as a result, it will be due to factors beyond my control.
So, here is the thing. I give up on trying to change the world. Because if I am honest, that is what I have been trying to do my entire life. I’ve been sure that if I am ever going to feel a sense of purpose or peace, the external circumstances on this planet are going to need to change. So I turn all my effort and attention into trying to make others understand just how much I need them to do or be what I want them to do or be. Which, coincidentally, includes approving of all I say and do.
Perhaps in all my efforts to change the external world, I have left a lot of internal change on the table. I am not asking myself the questions, learning the lessons of perseverance and perspective, because I am trying so hard to teach the world what it needs to learn.
I keep thinking the world needs to change. Maybe I do too. And maybe by trying to “change the world”, I’ve been putting the cart before the horse.
To be clear, the world DOES need to be changed. And I would love few things more than to see it happen. But to focus on it is to lose sight of what I can control.
The world is a mess and all historical signs suggest it will continue to be so. Why do I hold onto this idyllic idea that it can and should change under MY watch and that, even if it does, it will bring the happily ever after I assume it will?
I hope the world changes. But I am not going to try to change it anymore. I am going to try to change me. To be the best version of myself. To ask myself hard questions, pay attention to conviction and accountability, pursue truth in community, and learn from my mistakes. To see the opportunity in every day, in every choice. If the world changes, so be it. I pray it does. But if it doesn’t, life is after all just a giant arena of circumstances wherein I get to decide the kind of person I want to be. I am tired of allowing the unchanged world to change me.