The Personal Is Social

Inner Transformation as the Foundation for Helping Others

By Natalie Evans

News headlines around the world tend to read the same: violence, oppression, destruction, corruption, outrage. With this constant barrage of social ills, you would be hard-pressed to find a person who is completely content with the state of our world. We all wish for something more and yet often feel powerless to make concrete change. We don’t know how. This is because the piles of problems that accumulate on our planet seem insurmountable. The question always surfaces: how can I make an impact? Should I even try? The answer comes from the realization that social transformation begins within each of us.

Beyond the Blame Game

Often, we attribute our powerlessness to other people, institutions, or forces. This is when the “blame game” comes into play. We accuse: “You’re wrong. You’ve created this for me. I’m the victim.” But this is not the complete truth. While we are certainly impacted by social conditions as well as the actions of others, other people don’t have control over our emotions, reactions, and inner states. And so, the most important way that we can create a positive inner transformation is by taking accountability for our own actions, especially when it might feel easier to fault others. As Center founder Daisaku Ikeda explains, “Human revolution means turning our lives in a positive direction, from unhappiness to happiness. It is the transformation of the tendency to allow ourselves to be swept along by force of habit or to feel ourselves at the mercy of the whims of destiny.”

An example of this might be seen in a person who loses his job, an event known to be among the most stressful that anyone can experience. According to the ideals of human revolution, instead of blaming the employer or outside forces, the person suffering this loss should focus on, first, developing a personal attitude based on taking responsibility for one’s own actions and, second, creating the conditions for potentially better employment. He or she would take this negative experience and turn it into an opportunity to find inner strength and joy and using it as an opportunity to encourage others in a similar experience — realizing Ikeda’s shift from “unhappiness to happiness.“

By focusing within, you can transform yourself in a way that makes you more available to others. In an interview with the Ikeda Center, social healing facilitator Judith Thompson asserts, “We have this mistaken view of self-compassion as selfishness . . . but really we know that we have to be able to access, feel our pain, feel our own sorrow before we can become available fully to others.” (1) It’s tempting to think that in order to be compassionate and caring, you must put others first. But if you are not in a positive space to begin with, you might even make matters worse for those you are trying to care for. In an Ikeda Center video entitled “The Power of Respect in Education,” teacher and peace activist Matt Meyer illustrates this phenomenon: “If [a teacher] comes in to a classroom sick, [the students] will know. If you come in unhappy, woke up on the wrong side of the bed, they'll know. But that's also true if you come in with a sense of hopelessness, with a sense of fury, with a sense of disrespect . . . And then at the end of the day, if you as a teacher find out that you've been disrespected, what a surprise.” (2) So, even though you may believe (and may even have been taught to believe) that in order to help others you must be selfless in a way that disregards one’s own needs, a powerful catalyst in social healing actually includes a focus on self-healing.

The Challenge of Dialogue

Take a look, for example, at the upcoming 2016 presidential election in the United States. There is a constant stream of blame: between candidates, towards candidates, from candidates, between parties, and in every direction. Many citizens feel completely hopeless about the current political situation. I’ve heard the phrase “I’m moving to Canada” more times than I can count, from people of all different parties, classes, races, and ages. Rather than an expression of integrity, in my view it is a form of surrender to let the current state of politics affect your life in such an extreme way. Maybe you can’t control the fate of the election and maybe the outcome will make a serious impact on your life, but it’s important to focus on what you can do.    

I recently had a heated political discussion with a close friend whose views greatly differ from my own. I felt my anger rise as he repeatedly rejected a personal view that I felt, at my core, to be absolutely true. Our growing irritation clashed until we finally both left the conversation fuming, neither able to convince the other of “the truth.” I thought, “How can he believe that? He’s wrong and ignorant and I need to teach him what’s right.” He had the same thoughts about me, and because of it, this conversation weakened our friendship. So, why don’t we listen to others? Researchers at the University of Michigan did several studies where, when they showed people news stories with corrected facts, people still held on to their assumptions. Amazingly, rather than changing their minds, it actually reinforced participants’ original beliefs.

If this is true, if confronting others with facts is counterproductive, how can you approach a challenging dialogue? It is a difficult thing to open your mind to an opposing outlook. But it is possible that instead of approaching someone with well-rehearsed arguments, you approach each person with compassion, love, and an attempt to truly understand where he or she is coming from. After all, our perspectives are a product of our upbringing and experience. My friend’s beliefs didn’t lack context; they were fostered with influences from his community, family, education, and peers. Returning to the idea of human revolution, maybe if I had been in a more positive space myself, and been able to approach our conversation with an open heart, it wouldn’t have ended in anger and frustration. For a long time after this conversation occurred, I noticed that I was often lacking in compassion during interactions with others, only focused on proving that I was right. This self-reflection allowed me to realize later that my friend wasn’t ignorant and he didn’t have ill intent in our conversation. He was simply stating what he believed to be true. And being able to accept another person completely is the first step in creating a more peaceful world—one smile, conversation, or relationship at a time

Historian of social transformation Vincent Harding explained this with insight: “In the struggle for freedom and justice and peace and well-being, love means that we commit ourselves to seek to do everything that we can to help the other—including the opponent other—to achieve her or his best possibility. And that we therefore choose the tools of struggle as those tools which will open the way to the enemy becoming the best possible human, rather than simply a defeated opponent.” (3) This is true of both friends and political candidates. Don’t we want the best for our country and our world? And if so, shouldn’t we want the best for all people of the world, even that political candidate we can’t stand?

It may seem easier to blame others or wait around for external forces to change our situations. But if we feel that we have no control over our own lives, we live in a sad and disempowered world. In truth, once you take responsibility and accountability for your own circumstances, it becomes more possible to experience the joy that is all around us. Once you’re in that empathetic space, it can only expand to those whom you meet. In fact, researchers from Harvard Medical School found that if you have a happy friend who lives within a mile of where you live, your chance for happiness increases by 25 percent. If this friend is your next-door neighbor, it increases to 34 percent. (4) When you feel a positive emotion, it radiates, and there’s no limit to how far it can go.

As Dr. Harding understood, “I think that in this struggle for a just and renewed social order . . . we’re trying to create a social order not simply in which we can be treated right, but a social order in which all of us can find our greatest potentials realized.” (5) In order to build strong communities and a stronger world, each of us must look inside of ourselves and begin a journey of self-transformation towards happiness. Working on your own potential is the surest way to nurture the potential of others.


1.See Judith Thompson, "The Necessity of Self-Healing."

2. See Matt Meyer, "The Power of Respect in Education."

3. See Vincent Harding, "Love and the Struggle for Social Transformation."

4. See the Harvard Gazette online, "Happy Friends Can Make You Happy."

5. Harding, "Love and the Struggle for Social Transformation."


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