You can get wisdom from almost anywhere, if you look.
In one of my favorite Rifts books (Rifts being a tabletop roleplaying game by Palladium Books, whose magazine published my first short story), Coalition Wars – Cyber Knights: Siege on Tolkeen Four, the following bit of wisdom is offered by one knight to another:
“Life is full of choices. The funny thing about decisions… they follow you wherever you go. You can’t escape them. You have to make some kind of choice and live with all that comes with it. Even running away is a choice. Once cast, each decisions makes ripples like a stone thrown in a pond. Good or bad. Large or small. They affect our lives and future. They also touch many others and change their lives. So how can anyone make such a decision when such weight hangs on every choice? With an open mind and caring heart. To try and do what is good. To try one’s best. For what more can any man do?”
This is incredible wisdom. I myself was inspired from a young age by the Cyber-Knights, knight errants roaming the land protecting people in the aftermath of the apocalypse.
This wisdom is one of the secrets that anyone who wants to avoid vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue or burnout has to learn. It puts our duties at the center. We can’t control how other people will behave or how the world will react. We can only control how we fulfill our duties and the contents of our hearts.
In a conversation with a wonderfully heroic friend of mine, I realized how much comment this concept deserves. Her wisdom is represented here, as well as what I hope is my own.
First: This is not just moral wisdom, but psychological wisdom. So many people refuse to embark on a quixotic or chivalric quest, helping their neighbors and tilting at the windmills of the world (and there are many giants people think are just windmills), because of fears that this wisdom dispels.
What if I do something wrong? What if I unwittingly hurt someone? What if I back the wrong cause?
You always will make mistakes. Sometimes you won’t act when you should, sometimes you act when you shouldn’t.
At the most simple level of analysis, we have to let the pieces fall where they may because we can’t perfectly control outcomes, only results. Being afraid to do things where we can’t control the outcome locks us into a negative and limited mode. It prevents us from being leaders, from delegating to others, from giving others a chance to shine.
As Howard Zinn has said: You can’t be neutral on a moving train.
Moreover, we intuitively know that inaction is not just morally equivalent to action, it’s even emotionally equivalent. When we are forced to let someone drown (literally or metaphorically) because we don’t have the resources to help them without drowning too, that is exhausting. It is even traumatizing. But it is an example where inaction is preferable to action.
Second: We never make just one decision that defines our entire world. In fact, we make decisions each second of our lives. As long as we are consciously acting, or even sub-consciously acting by instinct and habit, we are making decisions.
This means that each decision we make is in context of every decision that we’ve made. We can’t make a decision to break a vow, even if it might be convenient or good, because that violates our authenticity to a previous decision. We have to be authentic to who we are.
It also means that we have to adjust our actions in response to previous ones. We charge forward, yes, but we also go back to places we’ve been in the past. We monitor previous successes insofar as possible, work on maintaining successes that we’ve achieved, work on building organizations, and even must sometimes go back and fix a mistake.
One of the chapters of Skillful Means is a chapter on trusting our instincts and our love for others. We need to empower ourselves to act based on what we know.
Chogyam Trungpa, a Buddhist teacher, has incredible wisdom on this front when it comes to our instincts. He points out, “It is necessary at this point to take a leap in terms of trusting ourselves. We can actually correct any aggression or lack of compassion—anything anti-bodhisattva-like—as it happens; we can recognize our own neurosis and work with it, rather than trying to cover it up or throw it out”.
Because “bodhisattva” can be read as “hero”, “superhero”, “knight”, “enlightened warrior”, “warrior of wisdom”… you can translate the idea many ways. We all want to be centered and loving practitioners of what we do, and we want what we do to be positive to others.
Of course, when we begin, our instincts will be imperfect. Rusty. They can’t be anything else. You have to start and often fail before you can continue and succeed. The most admirable heroes are those who worked for so long, against their own limitations, struggling against lack of talent, until they got it right.
And when we work with others, it’s rarely one speech or one action, no matter how noble and lovable and incredible, that will change them. It’s more about dedicated effort. It’s the cumulative impact of little things that pulls people out of darkness. Hope needs as many pinions as possible to stand.
Third: This wisdom frees us from a “Putting out fires” mentality I’ve seen so often in changemakers.
All too often, we run around like chickens with our heads cut off, trying to put together each broken part of life.
That’s a fine place to begin, but it’s just not sustainable. It puts us into panic mode all of the time. It makes us erroneously believe we’re the only thing standing between the people we love and disaster. In fact, that is very rarely the case.
In life, I have found myself very often being the last line of defense. I have found myself being the person someone spoke to right before they were about to lose hope utterly. This is tremendous responsibility. If I was afraid of that responsibility, if I had run, I would have done harm. But the philosophy above let me think of myself as the vanguard, the last bulwark. Maybe I’ll fail too, but damned if I’ll let that happen easily.
Fourth: It frees us from the intrinsic problems of a bad causal model.
As human beings, we naturally embrace a billiard ball causal model. We think of the world as clockwork. We look for a single cause: I got sick because I didn’t wash my hands.
But the world isn’t like that. It’s multi-causal. In sociology, we know that any one variable, any one part of the social world, will never explain all of the variation in something. People get sick because they didn’t wash their hands, because their diet may be poor, because they may not exercise, because they are not sleeping well, and because other people in turn made the same mistakes and themselves became vectors for infection.
If I try to work with someone and they commit suicide, even if I could be plausibly called the proximate cause of that suicide, I wouldn’t be the only cause. Hundreds of people failed them before.
That reality seems terrifying, but it’s actually liberating. It means our actions are oriented at increasing the likelihood, on average, of good outcomes. And if we do that well, we can make ripples that grow and spread with good outcomes beyond imagination.
When we imagine that something is exclusively our fault, it is rarely sober rationality talking but ego. Human beings would often rather believe that they are responsible for something horrible than accept the fact that they are actually largely (but never totally) powerless against the array of causal variables against them.
Finally: A smart person who loves themselves enough to insure that their efforts are sustainable finds a knightly order.
We have to accept that no one can do it alone. Superman had the Justice League and Lois. Charlemagne had the paladins. Luke had Han, Leia and Chewie.
One of the best things that someone aspiring to change others’ lives can do is find people who will support them. It doesn’t have to be an organization per se, though that certainly help. It can be a network of friends who provide insight and support. I myself am largely freelance, while others I know find themselves pledging to professional organizations, but I suspect that everyone who succeeds does it with the help of others. An upcoming post in Skillful Means will concern our internal army. I couldn’t engage with others with the confidence and love I have it I hadn’t had hundreds of people along the way directly or indirectly engaging with me.
Ultimately, the most important thing to take from Sir Segaya’s wisdom is this:
There is no starting to do something good. There is no possibility for you to stand still, because the world is moving around you.
As long as that’s true, how can you do anything but try to make sure it doesn’t move toward destruction?