Change Yourself Before you Try to Change the World

Nigus Getahun, Columnist

Now more than ever, we see a rise of social justice concerns among the population, and an increasing level of youth involvement as more and more people attempt to advocate large-scale social and political change. This shift of culture seems like a great phenomenon on the surface–after all, “change the world” is an idea we’ve been told since childhood. But, I’m here to advocate for an idea that seems to be left out of the change agenda: the idea of changing oneself before attempting to change the world.

The world is harsh. Buddhism’s first noble truth is that life is suffering, and it’s only natural that the right response would be to act as a hero, and take the moral high ground by advocating changes that could give us the illusion of being part of something great. Although it is true that we have the ability to make a difference in the world, we can only do that by changing ourselves first. Jordan Peterson, a recent controversial figure, professor, and clinical psychologist, writes about this in his best-seller book, 12 Rules for Life. In the book, he lists as his sixth rule: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” Peterson suggests that we should start small and work on changes that we can control before we try to champion for bigger ones.

An excerpt from a 12th century poem written by an unknown monk also talks about this: “Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”

Our self-righteous nature makes it easier to judge the world, blame our problems on the feet of reality, and advocate for large scale changes that we have little to no idea about. More difficult is to focus on ourselves. The truth is, life will always be difficult, it’ll be harsh and full of suffering. You can change that, you absolutely can, but you need to change yourself first. It’s only through changing yourself that you could change the world.