What is it that counts?On July 23, 2020 by Usama
Why do you carry the dreams you do? Why do you want to change the world for the better? What is it about a world that you ultimately will leave behind you that has you making the sacrifices you do for the sake of its betterment?
These questions are ones that I have been juggling for several years and I believe that many people who comit to social action find themselves asking these questions. Over the years I have answered these questions in different ways and I believe that over time the answers have become more mature – more than anything I believe that the maturity has come about through aging and what it does to ones life’s expectations.
As a young person there are two major forces gaining momentum within you – on the one hand there is a growth in ones ability (real and perceived) to defy obstacles and persevere against adversity and on the other hand ones understanding of the world continues building pace. Due to these developments the young person might come to see the world as a place full of conquerable opportunities.
Not every young person follows this developmental trajectory however and many details still matter. A young persons fervor can become tempered by other people or by a severely debilitating health condition or through overpowering life-outcomes. For those young people who haven’t been battered into helplessniss or tightly constrained into reclusiveness there might instead emerge a pride and elation that can support a comittment to magnificient future achievements. Young people who find themselves capable to set things into motion might come to see themselves as lucky or gifted and may feel a personal responsibility towards making the world a better place for the less fortunate. Even as they face adversity these young people may continue believing that within them remains a dormant capacity awaiting an opportunity to come into full fruition. So why would any of this be a problem?
Unbeknownst to the self-proclaimed social justice warrior there is a very sensitive problem that seeks out people who are zealous in their pursuit of change in society. The dilemma can be summarized as follows; Of the things you would like to accomplish for the “better good”, which things would you like to personally experience and which things would you appreciate if they were to come about regardless of your presence?
Once you stumble upon this question you need to consider something that may not have occurred to you before – is the change that you are fighting for important in itself or is it an arena where your feelings of being important are allowed to freely roam around? When the ask yourself these things there emerges a disconnect between how the world “should be” and your perception of being a “key component” in the process of change. What if the world didn’t need your effort in that particular issue – who would you be if you were rejected from that sphere of influence? Are the things you do for the “better good” done of altruism or are you secretly hungering for recognition? Would you be ready to stick to your struggle of only personal conviction even if you were to be abandoned, vilified and no progress would be likely for a foreseeable future? Would be willing to help forward a movement as an invisible force never to be credited or appreciated for its success – only for the sake of its importance?
Questions like these can get you “stuck” and make you feel like an imposter and a hypocrite who portrays a virtue that all along has been lacking. Before you go there, I would like to remind you that maybe you actually have the leadership qualities and personal characteristics that make you best captain anywhere around. So lets try to make something useful of these questions!
I believe that the honest answer to these questions is that every comittment we make is personal. When we get involved in the “big issues of our generation” we want to see results because the outcomes have an immediate impact on our lives and the lives of people who matter to us. Furthermore, we wish to be deeply involved because these “bigger issues” interpenetrate every aspect of society as we have come to know it and thus tend to overshadow so many of the things that otherwise would have seemed more important if life had been different. So maybe at least some portion of your eagerness to be involved in “the movement” is the restless behaviour of a person who is jostled by the constant presence of a perceived injustice.
What I am saying is not that you should put aside every “larger than life” aspiration of a fear of being driven by self-interest. I am just suggesting that you ask yourself why certain outcomes matter for you and that after this first step you sort out the limited share of those outcomes where you believe you have a pivotal role to play. The next step is to ask yourself why your contribution would require your personal oversight – are you really irreplacable? Failing to circumscribe your possible impact within an overarching narrative may fool you into believing that it is only through your presence that the arch of history will follow a certrain trajectory. This is where idealism can turn sour and decompose into various degrees of megalomania and tyranny – an activist who fails to acknowledge having become one with the cause can become so intoxicated in righteousness that it may appear justified – for the greater good – to maintain ones authority and influence at any cost (see also “self-serving bias” & “fundamental attribution error”). If you manage to keep these pitfalls in mind then go ahead and change the world – just don’t get high off your own supply and start getting used to the thought that your success might not be more far-reaching that having set into motion things that you might have to leave unfinished.
From a religious vantage point the aforementioned discussion gains yet a dimension. If a person or a movement feels an urgence towards creating “necessary change” they need to ask themselves why it would be the case that they are a necessary enforcer of that change. Maybe the urgency of the matter is a mirage caused by a wish to do away with personal affliction and maybe the unwavering comittment ultimately is underpinned by a wish to see a desirable world within ones own lifetime. Neither one of these motivations is inherently problematic – rather the problem lies within ones inclination to adjust moral boundaries in order to not be held back from achieving either motive. If these motivations were left unchecked you might end up creating chaos and destruction in the pursuit of a goal that was never entrusted to you to begin with. In the Islamic tradition we believe that ultimately it is God who oversees all matters and that Gods will is not exclusively deployed through self-appointed men. There is a fine line between promoting religiousity and being uneasy if there doesn’t follow a swift capitulation that lets you feel the satisfaction of having had a heavy impact. From an Islamic vantage point you need to put aside any impression that you are the last stronghold before the abyss. The Islamic way of making change starts with saving yourself, after that your family, after that your local community, after that society at large. Chosing to take your chances at saving society at a cost of putting aside the more essential priorities is almost always a really terrible idea.
About the content
Modern societies are a noisy mess composed of the intersections between a plurality of needs, instincts, desires and hopes. Within this shared space people of all varieties seek ways of settling their differing outlooks – the outcomes are often to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. The texts on this blog are my personal effort of trying to make sense of the friction within human society.