Are we just playing with blocks?

“If what we change doesn’t change us, we are just playing with blocks”—Marge Piercey.

I have been plagued with this quote for a little over a week now. It came to my attention through my freelance work with a service organization dedicated to approaching social change by rethinking it and developing individual connections with the problems we are trying to solve. The relevance of these words in life, though, have left them ringing in my head since I read them.

We speak so much of change. Whether listening to the news, talking about our jobs, or reflecting on our lives. Quite understandably, we sense something is not right, so we set out to correct where we have gone wrong. But I often wonder if we are focusing our efforts in the right place.

Change is perhaps the only constant in life. It seems counterintuitive, but we all also know it to be true. Just as every pain eventually dissipates, every joy will soon wear off. It is one of the great tragedies and wonderful pleasures of life—time washes everything away. However, the tricky thing about change, and perhaps the part we don’t always admit, is that it also applies to the good things. Nothing lasts forever. Life moves on.

The context of this piece comes from personal perspective. I have spent the last year studying for a Master’s degree in International Development. As a multidisciplinary degree featuring economics, sociology, politics, and anthropology, its main focus is on what has become known as the Global South—or to avoid euphemisms, the world’s poor. Benevolent in nature, this degree aims to arm people with the tools to head out into the world to try and correct some of the injustices thrust onto some and avoided by others simply by the coincidence of where they were born.

In general, I have been more than satisfied with this degree. It has allowed me to apply some of the experiences I have lived and the perspective I have gained about the world in a more analytical, critical nature, and this has allowed me to feel more prepared to do something which will have meaningful impact.

Somewhat ironically, though, is that for all the material covered in this degree, we have left untouched one of the pillars of such a field of study, the concept of development. No matter which way we slice it, there is an assumed demarcation between a “developed” world and one that is “un-developed”—the term usually used is “developing.” Little attention is paid to what this word actually means, though. There are certain assumptions about it—economic growth, expanded civil rights, equal political participation, etc.—but not much effort is spent on defining what it is we really mean, on determining what it looks like to be “developed.”

So this brings me back to the idea of change. There is a quote from the Buddha that reads, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” He is saying that all that exists is a product of ourselves, indicating to understand the world without, we must first understand the world within. I know it likely seems strange to quote the Buddha, but in many ways he was one of the first International Development professionals. He was a rich man who had everything, yet he still suffered, and he witnessed great suffering around him, so he set out on a quest to bring peace and happiness to life.

There seems to be this idea that change is something we must bring to the world. The idea being, “I’m okay, but others need to get with the picture.” I am just as guilty of this as everyone else. Whether dealing with political problems in the US or global inequalities, it is easy to remove myself from the problem and focus on creating change elsewhere. Judging by our actions, this is something we all do, whether we realize it or not

Returning to the quote from the Buddha, let’s, for the sake of conversation, expand it beyond the individual. Imagine for a second we as humans belong to some collective consciousness, some common existence we all connect to but don’t understand. Perhaps this sounds a bit far out, but take a step back and you’ll realize it’s not. Emotions and states of being such as love, intimacy, fear, and hate exist across all cultures and cut through all the barriers we have constructed in front of us, and some well-renowned particle physicists have even dedicated their life’s work to the idea of consciousness. Thinking of the world in this way brings us all together as “one.” We are different, of course, but we share something from which we cannot break away.

From this perspective, we should see how the root of many of the problems we seek to change lies within us as people, individually and collectively. All that we see in the world can be found inside us, and all that can be found inside us can be found without. If there is evil in the world, there must be evil inside of me. If there is love, I must have it too. All of the complexities of the human existence live within each of us, but situations often dictate which ones reveal themselves, distracting us from this truth.

For example, I don’t feel capable of harming more than a fly. In fact, I am slowly making the conversion to a life of non-violence (not consuming animal products), but if someone were to threaten my mother, sister, girlfriend, or anyone else I hold dear, I would not think twice in letting fists fly, and if push came to shove, I would choose the life of those I love over the one putting them in danger. So while I am not a violent person, I accept there is violence within me. It is up to me to understand it, accept it, and live with it. The same can be applied to every human vice and virtue. They are all there, situation and choice will flush them out, but if I choose, I can control them.

My point is really this: there is no such thing as perfection. There is no final state. It seems, and please correct me if I am wrong, that when we preach for change, we are hoping to achieve some state where all is well. But this will never happen, for as we know, nothing is forever. Things may get better, but time will erode them just as the ocean will always erode the dunes. We may lament it, but we are powerless to it.

This applies unequivocally to the concept of development. We recognize things are not right—no one will stand here and say we should do nothing about the often miserable living conditions experienced in some of the world’s poorest nations—but dividing the world into developed and not-developed assumes one has achieved this final state and that it is her responsibility to help others get there as well.

Approaching the problem like this will do nothing. For some empirical evidence, just look around. The world has been ‘developing,’ ‘changing,’ and ‘progressing’ for centuries, and the concept of ‘development’ has been a major topic since decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the focus of these efforts has been on economics, yet inequality on a global scale is perhaps higher now than it ever has been. This is because the ‘developed’ world is not developed, it is just richer, and it can use this money to mask its imperfections, whether through mindless distraction, economic pursuit, or military aggression. ‘Developing’ the rest of the world will not rid us of these problems, it will just put a blindfold over our collective eyes.

So as the world gets more and more complex, which it surely will, I ask we stop looking around for things we can change. We’ve been doing this for centuries and yet have found no response to perpetual war, endemic poverty, and every other type of human suffering. They exist all around us, they always have, and they always will. Instead, I ask we turn our gaze inward, accepting our impermanent and frustratingly imperfect existence so that we can learn to live with it.

If you’re upset with ignorance, dive into your own. If you’re fed up with greed, look for it in your own life and weed it out. If you’re hurt by injustices, correct those you contribute to, consciously and subconsciously, each day. If you don’t think you possess these qualities, think again. They’re there, but maybe just not where you’re looking. My own personal self-exploration has led me to this truth, and my battle to uncover these imperfections and learn to live with them guides my life. The change we are really seeking is right in front of us, we just need to admit it.

The easy response to this request to change the world is, “What can I do? I am just one person.” To this, I simply respond: everything. If we as individuals can master our own contradictions and imperfections, we as a society, or as a species, can do the same. To come down from the spiritual and connect to science, remember that the tiniest of changes in nature, such as replacing one molecule with another, can bring about monumental changes. And while those changes seem small, they are far from easy, but that’s the challenge we all must undertake.

So this is a call to stop trying to change the world, and instead, change ourselves, for if we don’t, we are just playing with blocks.