“Be the change you want to see in the world” is a tall fucking order.
Gandhi never said that, FYI.
Environmental catastrophe. War. Starvation. Wealth inequality. Systemic bigotry. These issues rend our humanity, but I am uncertain how to be the changes that would have even a modicum of impact. If I dwell on it, the sense of hopelessness, of feeling powerless, is paralyzing.
The song “Powerless” by Grammy-winner Nelly Furtado has the line “This life is too short to live it just for you.” It’s on my running playlist, and for the longest time I misinterpreted it as a breakup song. I figured she was dumping some guy because he’s too needy and she ain’t got time for that.
That’s not what the song is about.
Furtado sings of releasing yourself from limitations, drawing strength from what is important to you, living a meaningful life. But that “meaningful life” stuff is something humans have struggled with for millennia—it’s kept philosophers in business since antiquity—and this sense of struggle might be why the next line in the song is: “But when you feel so powerless what are you gonna do?”
What are you gonna do? A lot of people choose to not give a fuck. Not giving a fuck is popular. It’s a problem that arises when you see compassion and love as limited resources. What many don’t realize is that fucks procreate.
I’m not talking about literal fucking to literally procreate, but rather Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. That’s a fitness thing; it describes adapting to the demands we place upon ourselves. When you work at giving more of a fuck, you get better at it, are strengthened by it, and you develop enhanced performance to give more fucks.
My friend Daniel Wallen is one such example.
Dogs in Heaven
Will Rogers said, “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went.”
Daniel wrote a guest piece for this site, telling how his life “imploded in an instant.” He had undiagnosed bipolar disorder and launched into a paranoid manic episode that cost him everything. This was followed by a deep depression that had him planning ways to end his life.
Walking shelter dogs was one of the things that helped save him.
Several times a week Daniel visits his local shelter to take advantage of their “Doggie Day Out” program. He takes them for a walk, shows them love, and helps them get adopted by posting photos of himself with each dog to his social media, telling a bit about the adorable quadruped. Daniel’s love for these animals blazes forth and enraptures his followers. He is very good at helping these puppers find their forever family.
To the dogs, Daniel is a hero.
And his efforts return to him. Gilda Radner referred to dogs as “the role model for being alive” because
“they give unconditional love.” Daniel soaks in that love and it gives him a purpose that drives him; it helped him turn his life around after hitting rock bottom. But it echoes even further, because Daniel’s posts drive people to give a dog a home, and that home is made more loving because the dog is in it.
The World Loves a Hero
There is a 17-stage template for mythological heroism called “The Hero’s Journey.” It was popularized by Professor Joseph Campbell in the mid 20thcentury via his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. What’s fascinating about Campbell’s work is his revealing of a narrative pattern of the hero’s journey across mythology. Spanning continents and millennia, various peoples of the world who had no contact with one another were telling the same type of story about their mythological heroes again and again.
Campbell’s work has had much modern influence, from Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter, but the Force doesn’t exist, and neither does Hogwarts (much to my daughter’s chagrin).
The Hero’s Journey is fiction, and Campbell admitted its limitations for modern living, writing, “The community today is the planet … patterns of projected aggression which formerly served to coordinate the in-group now can only break it into factions.” He added that “a transmutation of the whole social order is necessary,” which sounds like another one of those “tall fucking order” things.
What are you gonna do?
Answer: Realize that it’s not all up to you, but some of it is, and enough people working together can create a sea-change.
The Butterfly Effect of Everyday Heroism
I have a black cowboy hat I’m fond of, and for ten days a year during the Calgary Stampede I have an excuse to wear it, despite it being decades since I last sat a horse. I was giving a talk at a Rotary Club during Stampede week, and excited that for the first time I’d have an excuse to wear my hat while presenting to a crowd.
I got halfway there and realized I left the damn thing at home.
I lamented this to the club president when I arrived, and without hesitation he removed the cowboy hat from his own head and placed it upon mine. He was willing to make the sacrifice of going hatless at a Stampede breakfast (kind of a big deal round these parts) for my benefit. It was a small, selfless act that nevertheless moved me. In that moment, he was my hero, because he gave of himself without hesitation to make a small bright spot in my world.
Modern heroism isn’t about slaying Voldemort, but rather making bright spots, an accumulation of which illuminates a new social order.
Skeptical? Consider chaos theory.
A branch of mathematics examining complex systems sensitive to small changes in initial conditions, chaos theory has been referred to as the “butterfly effect,” a metaphor that lets us imagine the minor air disruption of a butterfly’s wings culminating in tornado formation weeks later. Slight alterations at an earlier juncture can end up yielding widely different results farther down the line.
It’s why we imagine time travel as being so dangerous. It’s been covered in many a novel and film, but my favorite example is from a Halloween special of The Simpsons, when Homer creates a time-traveling toaster and his tiny actions in the past ripple across the continuum, creating massive (and hilarious) altering of the present.
We fear what effects a small change in the past may reap on the present, yet struggle to believe that a small thing we do in the present will affect the future.
In this Moment
Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are all recent examples of young women changing the world. Their efforts are both awe-inspiring and humbling, the way they’ve cast aside fear, throwing themselves into perilous positions to bring positive change to the world. It’s why we take notice. Their acts of heroism are the epitome of saying yes to the tall fucking order.
Not many can do that, but there are acts of great heroism to be done at any given moment, so I’d like to introduce Gabby Gonzalez. She’s been partner to my son over three years. Now a 20-year-old nursing student, when she was 18, she did something few others would.
Coming out of a Walmart, she saw a middle-aged woman in obvious distress, covered in blood, repeatedly cutting at her own arms with a razor blade. Everyone else walked on by, ignoring the distraught woman, some shielding their children’s eyes.
Gabby walked about five steps past the woman as her brain processed what was happening, but unlike everyone else, she then stopped.
“I thought, This isn’t normal,” Gabby told me. “She needs help and no one else is helping her.” She asked herself what she should do, and the answer that came back was, “I should step up.”
So, she did.
Gabby went back and asked if the woman was okay. The woman cried and said she was done with everything and wanted to die. Gabby asked if she could help, and then the woman put the razor down as she put her hands over her eyes and wept. Gabby grabbed the razor and hid it behind her back.
The woman demanded she give the razor back and Gabby said, “I can’t do that.” But the woman had another razor and used it to cut a strap off her backpack and attempt to strangle herself with it. Gabby leapt forward and grabbed the strap, eventually wresting it away from the woman. At that point, another woman came by and offered help, and Gabby told her to call 911. Gabby stayed with the woman, doing everything she could to keep her calm, to comfort her, until emergency services arrived.
Later, Gabby received the Award of Valor from the Calgary Police Service, but she wasn’t thinking of any such recognition in the moment. All that mattered was stepping up.
There is always a reason to step up, and there is more than one way to do it.
Imagine a street robbery. A man knocks a woman down and steals her purse, then runs off. Two heroes emerge. One chases down the robber, pummels him into submission and holds him for police. That hero likely gets applause and perhaps even TV coverage. The other stops to help the woman, who was hurt in the altercation. This hero calls for an ambulance and stays with her to provide first aid and comfort. They most likely will be unsung. But they’re both just as important, and in that moment the victim likely appreciated the hero by her side more than she did the vigilante.
Like I said, it’s not always about slaying Voldemort, but slaying the foe that resides within; the one that prevents you from reaching out and helping others in need.
What’s In it for You?
I’m not one to believe that the universe keeps some balance sheet of your virtuous acts and misdeeds then treats you accordingly. Rather, it seems logical to assert that if you cast a net of negativity out into the world, you will catch people in it, and that negativity will be reflected back upon you. In other words, treat people like shit, and they’ll likely treat you the same.
Beyond that, if you do something bad and get away with it, it is reinforcing and can lead to additional bad acts that perhaps become ever more egregious. Such behavior usually catches up to people, in one form or another. Yes, there are examples of the ruthless ruling and never getting comeuppance, but focusing on those is called “survivorship bias;” we see people attain high station via cruelty (often coupled with privilege) and fail to notice the far more numerous invisible ones who were punished for it.
Conversely, cast a net of positivity, and you’ll catch people in that too.
Giving a fuck. The operative word there, as much as I love it, is not “fuck.” It’s “giving.” It reaps rewards and is easier than you think. French philosopher and activist Simone de Beauvoir wrote of true generosity that “You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it cost you nothing.”
Together Against the Dark
To quote Simone again: “To will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision.”
But what is moral? What is right?
American Philosopher Richard Rorty asserted there is an absence of absolute moral laws, so instead of worrying over rightness, “what matters is our loyalty to other human beings clinging together against the dark.”
Do you like A Christmas Carol?
Do you have a favorite version? I do. It’s the one with the Muppets. Michael Caine is an Oscar winner, after all, and makes for a delightful Scrooge.
I used to joke that it’s a tale about how the rich need to be supernaturally terrorized into sharing, but that’s not accurate. It’s a story of love, of connecting with one’s own humanity through bonding with others, clinging with them, together, against the dark.
At two-and-half-million light years away, Andromeda is the nearest neighboring galaxy to ours, and it’s coming for us. Astronomers predict the Milky Way and Andromeda will “collide” in approximately four billion years, but despite our galaxy having hundreds of billions of stars, and Andromeda having about a trillion, it is highly unlikely than any individual stars will hit each other. That’s because the space in between is so vast.
Almost all in the universe is darkness.
And the only life we know is huddled together on a habitable speck hurtling through that void. The darkness fucking abounds, and every human has a metric shit-ton of it to face down in a lifetime. Doing so is made easier when you have others to cling to.
Scrooge was made to see the flashes of light in the void, and it transformed him. No longer was he a man saying the poor should hurry up and die to decrease the population. He reeled at the thought of Tiny Tim’s death; he could not let it stand. Ebenezer would become Tim’s hero, a “second father.” And as de Beauvoir said, it would feel as though it cost him nothing, because he too was saved.
Echoing in Eternity
“What we do in life, echoes in eternity.”
This adaptation of a Marcus Aurelius quote was said by an actor with an Australian accent pretending to be an ancient Roman. It’s Russell Crowe in Gladiator. He says it to encourage his men to ride into battle and slay the enemy so they can steal their land and enslave their people.
Perhaps not the most positive of ways to write history.
But the idea of having something we do have a lasting and positive effect is powerful. Living should be more than just existence, more than just taking up space, going to work and paying bills and bingeing Netflix.
If you desire to make a difference, to create a positive echo, here is how.
STEP 1: EXAMINE YOUR SELF
On a decrepit grave marker in Boothill Cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona there is an epitaph that reads, “Be what you is, cuz if you be what you ain’t, then you ain’t what you is.”
Step 1 is based on the first part of expectancy-value theory, a model of behavior change. Simply put, you’re more likely to engage in behaviors you expect to be successful at. This involves knowing yourself to be your truest self.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for living.” Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset complements this, proclaiming, “I am myself and my circumstances.” Because life is both what we do and what happens to us.
“If I can do it, anyone ca—” OH PLEASE JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP! If you can do it, you can do it. Doesn’t mean others can. I mean, I really hate that saying, because it overflows with bullshit. Not everyone has the same capacities. Privilege abounds in some, and disadvantage prevails in others.
Oppressive circumstances can be so overwhelming you can barely make it through the day. Sometimes, the heroic deed is putting your own oxygen mask on first, engaging in self-care, so that one day, you may have the ability to help someone else. Sometimes, the person you need to save is yourself, so please take good care.
Engage in self-reflection, and ask yourself the question: What kind of a heroic deed could I accomplish, considering who I am, and what my circumstances are?
Then take the next step.
STEP 2: EXAMINE YOUR VALUES
This is the second part of expectancy-value theory. It’s not just about what you can do, but what do you want to do? What type of heroic acts can you undertake that hold high enough value for you that you would be motivated to work toward it?
At the age of 20, Kathrine Switzer became another one of those impressive young women who change the world. You may have seen the famous photos from the 1967 Boston Marathon, where race official Jock Semple tried to tackle her because a woman was daring to run a men-only race.
Kathrine loves to run; it’s part of who she is. Her circumstances were such that she had been encouraged to run, which was rare for women in the 1960s, and she also had access to a good coach. Another circumstance was those photos being published, making her famous.
And what she valued was the idea of getting more women into running, so she coupled this with her identity and circumstances to make it happen. Five years later, in large part to her efforts, the Boston Marathon was opened to women for the first time. She also played a leading role in getting the women’s marathon into the Olympic Games in 1984.
Presently, almost 60% of footrace finishers in North America are women, due in significant part to Kathrine’s efforts. That’s one tremendous echo, and the mission continues to drive her more than half a century later.
With all this talk of giving, it’s important to caution about “pathological altruism.” It’s when you put the needs of others so much in front of yourself that you cause self-harm.
Give to be fulfilled, not drained.
STEP 3: LISTEN FOR THE ECHO
You are a time traveler, moving forward at a rate of one second per second. What you do today can echo in eternity, making the world better for the people in it.
“Father of American psychology” William James said to “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” I spoke of bright spots. Confucius wrote of how sincerity “becomes brilliant,” and 2,500 years later psychologist Albert Bandura used the scientific method to lend weight, asserting, “Most human behavior is learned through modeling.”
What we do, what we model, has the power to lead others toward their own heroic journeys.
When my wife was eight, she lost her mother to cancer. During her mother’s illness, she witnessed the kindness and compassion of doctors and nurses, who, knowing her mother’s prognosis, did everything they could to make the world a little less horrible for the family.
And it echoed, because their positive influence helped instill a passion in my wife to become a physician. She’s been practicing medicine for over two decades. She has made many lives better. She has saved lives. To many people, me included, she is a hero.
Our brilliant daughter has opted to follow her mother into medicine; the positive ripples of that compassion shown years ago echoes on into the future.
Do What You Can, and It May Be Enough
My son is the smartest man I know, and also the best one.
Yet he puts too much pressure on himself. Passionate about the planet, he’s gone into electrical engineering with a specialization in energy and the environment, and he’s acing it. He’s a young man on a mission to prevent environmental catastrophe for his and future generations, but he’s worried he won’t be able to.
He’s probably right.
A singular technological advancement won’t solve our problems. But he can be part of a larger solution. Remember, we’re “clinging together against the dark.” Together. Each contribution matters where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
My son likely won’t go down in history as some technological savior of humanity, but I expect he will still do amazing things that echo in eternity. In fact, he already has.
He’s become my hero. He’s the man I want to be when I grow up.
I was bullied as a young teen. I’d been a gentle child, and junior high beat that out of me. I created a false exterior of toughness to cope, to fit in. But it wasn’t who I really was, it wasn’t my true strength, and I was not happy. It’s taken decades to deprogram myself from that, to get back to my real self. It’s an ongoing process, and the person I’ve learned the most from in doing so is my son. He’s something of a Luke to my Vader. Sometimes he’s an obnoxious shit, but his pure goodness shines brilliant, and models for me how to be a better man.
I should mention that my daughter is likewise amazing, but there is also a fierceness to her that screams: Don’t fuck with me.
Sandwiches and Small Acts
Last summer my son and I went on a road trip to jump off high cliffs into freezing cold water. On the second day at Sooke River Potholes we were feeling a bit beat up and thought of making it an early day. Then Stefan arrived.
He was about halfway in age between my son and I, and his enthusiasm was contagious. We befriended him quickly and pushed each other to do more and more jumps. It was a great day, made so by Stefan’s friendly demeanor.
Cliff jumping is hungry work.
My son and I have hearty appetites, so I’d made us three sandwiches instead of two. The day before we’d put away three easily. Stefan had not brought a lunch, and without thinking I offered the third one to him. He’d made our day by his very presence. How could I not?
Earlier I wrote of The Muppet Christmas Carol. There is a scene when Beaker, one of the most delightfully pure characters ever created, gives the scarf off his neck to Scrooge. Deeply moved, Scrooge replies, “A gift? A gift for me?” The look on Michael Caine’s face in that moment … I always fight tears at that part.
It was an insignificant thing, this giving a sandwich, but the look Stefan returned … it was the same one. There was something in his eyes that revealed such a small act of kindness touched him. I bonded with another man over a fucking sandwich and it was beautiful!
Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make a difference to someone, to model good behavior, to change a path in the slightest way, to give something of yourself in a way that is valued by others, and by you. Be it a hat or a sandwich or something far more significant, it’s not the price of the gift that makes it valuable.
To sum up, in as few words as possible:
Know yourself, examine your values, seek the echo, give a fuck!
But realize this:
No one player makes a team victorious. No one battle wins a war. No solitary effort turns a tide.
One must persist. Societal change is all about the cumulative effect.
I need a hero. Bonnie Tyler needs a hero. You need a hero. Everyone does. So, fucking be one. As much as you can and as often as you can. Create bright spots in the world, and they will multiply, rippling across space and time, making you immortal.
If you enjoyed this piece, I wrote a sequel.
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James S. Fell, MA, MBA, has bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, the Guardian, TIME Magazine, and many other publications. His blog has millions of readers and he is the author of two books: The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind (Random House Canada, 2014). Order them here.