By damali ayo
“Change is not for the faint of heart.” Someone told me this once, and it stuck with me. I was sitting in a room full of women trying to recover from dieting, binging, starving and a plethora of other food addiction behaviors. I had raised my hand earlier in that hour and said, “I am a compulsive dieter.”
It was just one of the many groups of similar people, or one on one with a therapist, on the phone with a friend on a similar journey, or being coached by a mentor who has walked one of the paths I have found myself on in my lifetime. These are humbling journeys that evolve me from being unwell, to understanding what is wrong and why, to learning how to heal, to the reward of a daily maintenance of real lasting change.
Along that journey I have had to re-learn one thing over and over, and that is this: people only change when they decide to, myself included.
In my work in fighting racism I started to suspect this early on, but my passion as an activist, and determination to change the world and everyone in it through my own sheer will drowned out the voice of reality. I continued to push people into mock-change because I needed to feel that my own world was safer and had space in it for me to exist. I needed people around me to change so that I could attempt to live my own life. I was left heartbroken and scared when the people I sought to influence did not change at all, did not change they way I wanted them to, or when the change did not last, which was frequent.
One day I was on the phone with one of my favorite people, someone I call my “kid.” A young man who came into my life when he was homeless, thrown out by his father for his gun and drug dealing, unable to connect with his absent mother. He lived with me for a short period of time that had a lifetime of impact on us both. After he left my care, he took off on his own in a stubborn teenage huff, leaving a six-year gap in our communication. When he returned he had finished military service, put himself through college and law school and was starting a clerkship fueled by his own passion for social change. This day on the phone, well into his reformed adulthood, he expressed his frustration for the people around him who did not seem to want to change, and when they did, that change lasted for only a short time. I listened to his voice, the voice of a person who had undergone one of the most poignant, self-directed personal growth journeys I had ever watched, someone who I had come to hold as a treasure and an example. I heard in his voice the frustration of a person who had worked hard to make the world better by making himself better as he watched others grow tired, find change inconvenient, be distracted by other “interests” and give up. I heard my voice in his.
We agreed that day that not until people know real growth, until they have experienced what it means to commit to real change on their own that we will see lasting change in the world around us.
Yes, thankfully we can institute laws and supposed “order,” but we have seen and will continue to see that those things that seem permanent can be undone. The structures can only change when people look in the mirror and say, “I need to change. I need to change me.”
It is clear to me, after all these years, that if individuals are not prepared to undertake real personal growth, then the culture as a whole cannot grow, and any glimmers of growth will not be sustained. I have watched many people give up when it gets “too hard” or too long-term. Personal growth is a life-long commitment, an every day thing. So is social change, but we treat it like it’s a one-time effort. Only people who are willing to change from the inside can sustain the social change around them, because they will not be directing it, they will be being it.
This is a hard fact for some activists to accept. When I finally got it, I was in the middle of a workshop and I ran out of the room crying. I had invested so much of my life in trying to dictate to others how they could and should think and behave. It took some time, and some serious recalibration of my world-view, but eventually I realized that the way I make the world better is by changing myself. I had to change the way I thought and behaved.
This is why I am unimpressed with the “hipster” approach to racism that is generating infinite websites, clogging my email box, and churning out hit TV shows. After the Zimmerman verdict this kind of shallow response has only increased. It is all about winning praise by pointing fingers at other people and saying, “Bad person, bad.” Those who engage this approach are not scrutinizing themselves. Worse, when they point at others, they seem to do so in order to make themselves appear and feel better, summarily raising them above any need for scrutiny. This will get us absolutely nowhere. Real change comes with the reward of a better life and a better world, not someone telling you how clever you are.
We cannot change the world we point fingers at. We can only change ourselves. We are the world. That’s not a cheesy song from the eighties, it is the simple truth. Those who have the courage to examine themselves embark on a lifetime of humbling, grueling, rewarding evolution. It is in this courage where true hope lives.