Acting on Impulse: activism & altruism


The pull to activism

I’ve been curious about an impulse I’ve had on and off recently to jump on a ‘plane and head to North Dakota to support the presence of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. On one level I can see that might seem like a pretty bonkers thing to do; on another, it feels really quite sane. I have a partner, though, and family and other commitments, plus a very small bank balance; also, I’m not sure that would be the best way to help – although it could be. So the impulse may continue to come and go but I don’t expect I’ll end up buying an air ticket. But what I do want to make sure of is that I hold on to the sanity I believe is at the heart of the impulse.

When it comes down to it, what I think is welling up is the desire to act. The world is all out of kilter and I want to do something. And while I am doing things, things that are closer to home than the Great Plains of the US, sometimes these don’t seem enough and I feel a compulsion to do more. In the past I might have questioned this feeling, analysed it through a prism of scepticism. But my view on that has changed over the years. And more and more I’ve come across inspiring pieces of writing that articulate clearly and, for me, very helpfully on this complex area: this area of doing and giving, and who it’s really for and whether it’s appropriate; and why it does, in fact, make sense.

Reading to improve the mind

Recently I’ve been reading bits of a book that very much fits in to this category. It’s by Matthieu Ricard and was recommended by a friend and fellow meditator. It’s a big book and has been lying around on various shelves at home since I bought it on a whim a few months ago. Feeling the shock and distress about the US presidential election results and fearing on my part a reaction of impotence, I noticed the book again and picked it up. It’s called Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World – a title that’s not exactly nifty and that I imagine might compel many people to run a mile in the other direction. As well as not being short, the title might give the impression of being a kind of self-help-new-age type of book. It’s anything but. It’s a well written text exploring how careful scientific research has shown that altruism, rather than selfishness, is an essential part of who we are as human beings. Moreover, it makes a compelling case for how we can enhance this quality as individuals and, eventually, build a better society: just as with everything we learn, we can learn to be more altruistic – alter our hardwiring – and thereby over time affect our culture and institutions to evolve in this way too.

A pledge for change

I know such a change won’t happen overnight. But of course it won’t happen at all by not doing anything. So I’m choosing to act and to keep acting in ways that may be small or may be less small, in places close to home or further away from home, because I want to grow this quality of altruism so it becomes a habit, becomes second nature. Or hopefully even first nature.

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