On December 18, 2014 I visited Amman, Jordan, to participate in #DDX – a conference hosted by the Munathara Initiative. Founded by Belabbes Benkrada in response to the Arab Spring, Munathara is a Tunisian-based online and television debate forum that aims to foster the participation of youth, women and marginalized communities in Arab public discourse. The theme of this conference was ‘There Won’t Be Change Unless”, and all 24 participants – previous winners of Munathara’s debates – were invited to present their own view on what this meant. We had poetry, song, rap and dance and a number of stirring and inspiring speeches (translated on the fly via Facebook Messenger so that I could follow along!).
I was the only Westerner invited to present, and feel both humbled and honoured by the manner in which all participants in this groundbreaking endeavour engaged with me. I’ll be writing more about how my experience here in the Middle East has transformed me and my theory of change soon. In the meantime, however, this is the transcript of the talk I delivered.
We live in potent times. Every day, it seems, brings us simultaneously closer to extinction and salvation. Every day we observe and experience the unconscionable brutality and the incontrovertible compassion of humanity in equal measure. Every day we turn on the tv, tune in the radio or jump online to discover that, in ways both large and small, the human species has both honoured and failed not only its future generations, but its current ones as well.
And, if you’re anything like me, every day you wake with the fervent hope that on this day you might contribute to shaping something new, something better, something lasting. Perhaps, on this day, in this place, at this time, you might participate in writing a new human history.
Yet hope, as profound a force as it’s considered to be, is not what we need in order to effect world change. Hope, as much as it might be a beacon that gets us back on our feet when we’ve been knocked down, is false.
Hope takes us away from the reality of our experience and transports us to a fantasy that makes the intolerable at least passingly acceptable.
In this way, hope makes us unwitting accomplices to all that we would seek to change. I am not suggesting, however, that the solution is to be hopeless, simply that being hopeful is not the same as being helpful.
Over the past twenty years I’ve been fortunate to travel the globe and work with thousands of individuals and organizations working to create a better world. And what I have both observed and experinced is that humans are all essentially the same.
We are born to love, and learn to hate, are born fearless and learn to fear, are born innocent and learn guilt, are born free and learn imprisonment.
No matter who we are, where we are or where we have come from – man or woman, young or old, rich or poor, light-skinned, dark-skinned or somewhere in between – we all want fundamentally the same thing – the right to live and to love peacefully and joyfully regardless of our seeming differences.
And perhaps because of this idea that there is a ‘me’ and a ‘you’ and a vast gap in between, we fail to realise that we are not as different as we believe. We feel the same, think the same and adhere to what are fundamentally the same ideologies. In our world – the world in which we’re standing today, a world in which we believe that we can be a vast and powerful force for good –
we seem to spend far too much time in service to ‘difference’ – and convincing others that they should think as we think and act as we act – rather than pausing and recognising just how alike we are.
Around the world, hundreds of millions of people are powering tens of millions of organizations and deploying more than $350 billion a year toward solving our most pressing social, environmental and economic challenges. Yet while there can be no denying that we have made – and continue to make – great strides forward, there can be also no denying that we are now facing the greatest collective crises in recorded human history.
We are at war – let there be no doubt about it. We are at war with superstition and foolishness and willful ignorance; we are at war with corruption, disease and moral deficiency, with failing national economies, dictatorial regimes, corporate personhood, gross over-consumption, drug trafficking, human trafficking and greed. Worst of all, we’re at war with each other.
And while an enormous amount of time, energy and enthusiasm has been expended to reverse this suicidal pattern, despite at least $10 trillion being deployed through philanthropy, foreign aid and impact investment over the past fifty years, all we can say with any degree of certainty is that, collectively, things have got worse.
So what does this tell us? Does philanthropy work? Does foreign aid? Does capitalism, democracy, debate or prayer?
The answer, I believe, is sometimes – but certainly not always.
Perhaps, after millennia of seeking to reshape the world according to our desires it’s time to permit the world to reshape us according to its.
Perhaps it’s time to remember that we are children of god and not gods ourselves.
So what are the preconditions for change? Who do we need to be, what do we need to know, what do we need to have and what do we need to do in order to usher in a new era of compassion, intelligence, equality and, dare I say it, love?
From my experience, I believe there won’t be change unless we change.
There won’t be change unless we hold ourselves to a higher standard than we have become so comfortable, so arrogant and so righteous in holding others to.
There won’t be change unless we consider the possibility that, despite our accumulated knowledge, intelligence and experience we may, in fact, be wrong. About everything. There won’t be change unless we are willing to learn from the past and break with the past simultaneously.
There won’t be change unless we use both our hearts and our minds, unless we embrace reason and devotion equally and we are more interested in being loving than we are in being right.
There won’t be change unless the young hold hands with the old; unless women and men are offered equal opportunities in education, business and public service; unless the accident of our birth – our race, our gender and who we are predisposed to love is something we no longer feel compelled to defend.
There won’t be change unless we are willing to let go of all that we use to define us as ‘different’ – age, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, education, language, economic power, intelligence, beauty – and begin to see each other as family.
There won’t be change unless we wake up to the sheer lunacy of destroying the the environmental systems we all depend upon for our survival.
There won’t be change unless we are willing to get up off our knees and stand for what we believe; unless we are prepared to risk – everything – in the quest for a better life for all. Finally,
there won’t be change unless we realize that nobody – absolutely nobody – is coming to save us.
We’re all culpable of course for the state of the world – perhaps some more so than others. And as I’ve spent time in the company of these remarkable youth over the past few days I feel some small measure of remorse for the fact that, while you’ve probably done the least to contribute to the colossal problems we’re facing in almost every aspect of the human experience, we’re now relying upon you, to a lesser or greater degree, to fix them.
It’s not my intention to dull your enthusiasm. If anything, it’s to sharpen its edge, to ensure that as you go out into the world and continue to commit yourselves to being the movement we so desperately need, that you have access to the weapons you need to be successful in this war, to bring about massive change, and to catalyse, focus and unleash the immense force you carry within you both individually and collectively.
Despite having access to more information and more resources in any given moment than at any other moment before in history, despite our various communication technologies having shrunk the world to the size of a pinhead upon which angels might dance, despite the global economy being valued at somewhere in the region of $36 trillion a day and we (in the west at least) living lives that would surpass an ancient greek’s conception of how life must have looked on Mount Olympus; despite being healthier, happier, more self-aware and more informed than at any other time in recorded human history, the only way we are likely to win is if we finally, inevitably and undeniably realise that the cost of losing is everything.
We’ve always had what we needed to make change. It’s always been right here, scratching away at our awareness, but we’ve been far too measured, far too nice, and far too diplomatic for far too long to get the message through – to ourselves and to others. When I look out at the state of the world, I don’t think there can be any denying that diplomacy has failed.
The greatest weapons we have at our disposal – the greatest weapons we’ve ever had – are our intellects, our hearts and our self-awareness.
Cultivate these, hone your intellect to a razor sharp point, open your heart more and more so that, rather than become inured to the suffering of the world, you can carry more of it, and use it as the fuel you need to warm yourself, feed yourself and light your way whenever you feel cold and hungry and alone. And you will. Above all else, if you don’t have any sort of self awareness practise – yoga, meditation, dance or prayer – then get one.
While we may well be at war – and I’m sure there are some here who would disagree with this – there can be no denying that we are – all of us, every single one of us – in service to the gods. We are in service to the gods of war and the gods of abundance, the gods of wisdom and the gods of love.
We are in service to the gods.
This work that we’re all here doing, this cause with which we’re engaged, is both an honour and a responsibility. It’s also the most inspiring, rewarding and necessary work, and I’m constantly humbled by the fervour, the courage and the commitment of every single changemaker I meet.
On the walls of the oracle at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi are inscribed two words that more than any others can shape, inform and guide us as we continue down this path:
After all, if we do nothing other than come to a deeper appreciation of who we are, if we can begin to see ourselves more fully in each other, if by our very way of moving in the world we can demonstrate to those around us through our quiet self-assurance the relative rightness of an approach to living that recognises all things as sacred, surely this, above all else, is what Gandhi spoke of when he exhorted us to ‘be the change’.
As you continue down this path – not just today, but in the days, weeks, months and years that follow, remember the words of the beloved 13th Century Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī:
Live where you fear to live