To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right. — Confucius
Everyone I know wishes they could change the world. I bet you do, too.
In conversations with my friends, psychotherapy clients, and therapist colleagues, I hear more distress than ever before about the fever-pitch levels of discord, disharmony, hatred, suspicion, and negativity that are swirling through our communities right now.
In the middle of such painful uncertainty, I’m also touched and inspired by the fact that so many people I know are refusing to succumb to the paralysis-inducing fear that this kind of societal negativity naturally evokes. They march, make phone calls, host postcard-writing parties, offer aid to immigrants, facilitate healing, examine their own biases, and lead idea-generating discussion groups.
Yet even though societal strife is pushing some to play a more active role in their communities, being engaged in this way is new or overwhelming to many. So it’s easy to feel paralyzed about finding a way to make any real difference.
It takes a while to discover or create opportunities for contributing your energy to the wider society in a sustainable way.
And even when you’ve found a project or a cause to pour your life energy into, you can still feel kind of anxious when you wake up each day to the turmoil that surrounds you, aching to do something to make a difference.
That’s why it’s important to remember that:
You Don’t Have to Perform Miracles to Make a Difference
We are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you. — Rachel Naomi Remen
What Ms. Remen says is amplified by this central point from Interpersonal Neurobiology:
Our minds consist of processes that are both
– contained within our individual bodies, AND
– flowing between us and other people via social connection.
That is, our brains contain resonance circuits that cause interpersonal experiences to directly influence how we mentally construct reality.
Just how can that idea bring you solace in these troubled times?
The fact that human minds are socially wired means that you can make a difference in the larger societal mind with every social interaction you engage in.
That is, you instigate ripples of kindness and respect in your broader community each time you treat another person, place, or animal with understanding and positive regard.
This nugget of knowledge has inspired me to make a daily practice of “setting my heart right” as part of my contribution to healing the wider world. I use Confucius’ idea of setting my heart right to bring active and mindful awareness to making my kind feelings toward others more visible:
I make eye contact with the checker at the convenience store;
I hold the door open for another person even when I’m in a hurry;
I hug my friends when I greet them;
I nod at the homeless veteran stooped on the corner even when I don’t have money to give.
The opportunities are endless.
Changing the World One Social Interaction at a Time
What we practice, we become. What’s true of playing the piano or throwing a ball also holds for our capacity to move through the world mindlessly and destructively or generously and gracefully. — Krista Tippett
One day I was checking out at a local grocery store that prints the names of hometowns on employees’ nametags. I noticed that my middle-aged checker hailed from a distant foreign country and that she was new to the English language. Instead of hurrying through the grocery-checking process with mindless efficiency, I engaged with this human who was bagging my butter and eggs.
“How long have you been in the U.S.?” I asked
“About nine months,” she said.
“That’s a big change! What brought you here?”
“My son came here to go the university and decided to stay after he graduated. My husband and I didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives living so far from him. He’s our only child.”
Being the mom of a young adult child myself, and having been deeply rooted in my community for over 30 years, the enormity of the sacrifice she’d made to leave everything behind to live near her son hit me in the gut. My heart split open with love for her, and tears sprang to my eyes.
“Wow! That’s a big move for you! That sounds like a difficult choice.”
Scan, beep. Scan, beep.
She plucked bananas from my basket and held them in silence for a moment. She took a breath and glanced up at me.
“It was. I’m an accountant. I had my own business. My husband is an engineer. He’s mowing lawns right now.”
I could hardly hold back my tears. “What a sacrifice. You must really love your son.”
She nodded and handed me my receipt.
I looked her right in the eye and said, “Thank you,” with more gratitude than I’ve ever expressed to a grocery checker.
And right there in the grocery store line, this accomplished accountant-mother-turned-grocery-checker said in heavily accented English, “Do you mind if I give you a hug?”
She walked out from behind the cash register as I reached out to her. We hugged. We cried. I walked away changed.
I know I made a difference to her that day, just by acknowledging her humanity with small talk. And the way she received my momentary kindness touched me to the root of my soul. My heart swells and I cry every time I recall her open and grateful face, even now while I’m writing this.
That interaction was a simple moment of human connection. Yet it was life-altering for her and for me.
You can have moments like this, too.
You can “set your own heart right,” and mindfully attend to the emotional signals you broadcast in everyday moments of your life.
And you will have an impact on your community. Starting now.
The Power of a Loving Gaze
Another take on the idea of making a difference through your own mindful social engagement appeared in an interview I heard with poet Marilyn Nelson in Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast.
Ms. Nelson referred to a kind of prayer she read about in a book written by a nun who lives as a hermit. The nun offers a kind of prayer which she calls the prayer of the loving gaze:
Just put your love into your eyes and look at the world with that gaze and that’s what contemplation is about, really. It’s learning how to find that gaze in yourself and to put it in the world.
I take heart when my basic intuitive sense as a human aligns in these ways with science, literature, and wisdom traditions to point to a current of love and healing that’s available to us all.
You really don’t have to wait to find your perfect cause to take action to heal our world.
In small moments, you can mindfully turn your loving gaze out onto the world that touches you. Right now. Today.
And your kindness will ripple out into the interpersonal mind in ways you are too small to predict.
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Previously published at medium.com/CORTherapist