from A Meaningful Life
Making a Real Difference in Today’s World
Everyone who wants to make the world a better place faces the same challenge: opening people’s hearts and minds to new ideas.
The Bottom Line
Those who are successful in making the world a better place are students of human nature. They understand that each of us is born with a certain intrinsic nature, raised to follow specific beliefs, and taught to hold particular prejudices. Over time, we discover new “truths” and abandon others, altering our attitudes, principles, and values.
Even though we can recognize that our belief system changes over time, at any given point, most of us believe our current opinions are “right” – our convictions well founded, our actions justified. We each want to think we are, at heart, a good person. Even when, years later, we find ourselves reflecting on previously held beliefs with a sense of bemusement (or worse), it rarely occurs to us that we may someday feel the same way toward the attitudes we now hold.
Effective advocates understand this evolution of people’s views, and, furthermore, recognize they can’t change anyone’s mind. No matter how elegant an argument, ultimately, real and lasting change comes only when others are free to explore new perspectives. Of course, there is no magic mechanism to bring this about. The simplest way to encourage others to open their hearts and minds is for our hearts and minds to be open, believing in our own potential to learn and grow. I believe sincerity and humility are imperative for advocates, because no one has all the answers.
Recognizing this, I worked for years to set aside everything I thought I “knew,” so as to find what is fundamentally important. I came to realize that virtually all our actions can be traced to two drives: a desire for fulfillment and happiness, and a need to avoid or alleviate suffering. At the core, something is “good” if it leads to more happiness, and something is “bad” if it leads to more suffering. This may seem simplistic at first, but it really does allow us to cut through confusion, providing a straightforward measure by which to judge the consequences of our actions and evaluate our advocacy.
In his book Painism, Richard Ryder points out, “At its extreme, pain is more powerful than pleasure can ever be. Pain overrules pleasure within the individual far more effectively than pleasure can dominate pain.” Because of this, I believe that reducing suffering is the ultimate good, and must be our bottom line.