Political versus Personal Action

I admire people who would rather do good than feel good. Some such people become saints.

Extract from a portrait of Saint Teresa of Calcutta
Saint Teresa of Calcutta

Saint Teresa of Calcutta was an activist par excellence. She felt compassion for the poorest of the poor and weakest of the weak — and spent her time ministering to them in the the worst conditions imaginable. She saw a problem, rolled up her sleeves, and did something.

Personal action in the trenches is where it counts most.

I can’t remember who it was, but someone once told me that to improve the world, you start by improving yourself. As you progress in this effort, you work on improving your family, and then your town, and so on.

This is incredibly sound advice, incredibly hard work, and incredibly overlooked. As Leo Tolstoy famously said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Politics Out of Proportion

The world today is hyper politicized: Everyone is thinking of changing the world. Everything from football stadiums to corporate offices to Broadway theaters has become a venue for political statement making, position taking and virtue signaling.

Being engaged in political activity is not a bad thing in itself, but it is of limited value or even counterproductive unless it grows out of personal activity. Personal activity needn’t involve working in a homeless shelter in India (although there would certainly be nothing wrong with it). When people start at the political level and ignore the personal level, you are likely to see things such as —

  • People demanding legal punishment for hate speech who speak hatefully.
  • People demanding higher taxes to pay for welfare who donate nothing to charitable causes.
  • People demanding tolerance for all points of view who have no tolerance for points of view with which they disagree.
  • People demanding repeal of Constitutional amendments who have never read the Constitution, its amendments and the ideas upon which they are based.

These and similar approaches to effecting change really change very little in the grand scheme of things, and because they are inherently hypocritical, are likely to drive away, rather than win over, those who are nearest by.

On the other hand, when I hear people speak lovingly of others, especially others with very different perspectives, I’m inspired to do likewise. When I hear people argue Constitutional issues who have devoted years of study to them, I’m inspired to listen and learn.

Politics as Escapism

People have various motivations for becoming politically active. Some are admirable. Some are misguided. Pride make it difficult to accept the idea that we need improving — and easy to accept the idea that the world needs improving. Laziness is also a motivator — it’s easier to march in a parade or take a knee than read an 800-page history book or stand on a street corner in the dead of winter handing out sandwiches to the homeless.

For the average person, political activity is largely symbolic activity. It makes us feel like we are doing something constructive. On the other hand, personal activity is real, having real impact on real people. G.K. Chesterton illustrated this point perfectly as he gets to the essence of motherhood:

“How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.” G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World

Chesterton’s words bring to mind another important difference between personal and political activity. With personal activity, the stakes are higher — much, much higher. If your political cause fails to carry the day, there’s always the next political cause to immerse yourself in. But if you fail as a parent the consequences live with you in the deepest part of your soul for all of your life. By even if the effort seems in vain, the very pursuit of success brings with it an internal peace that political parading and political punch throwing will never match.

It’s the high stakes of the game that tempt the majority of people to look in every direction for change except inwardly. Think of the incredible faith and courage it took for Saint Teresa to put everything she had into her work, without compromise, without a contingency plan.

Perhaps this is why there are few saints.

A Game Worth Playing

Trying to improve as Tolstoy suggests, while recognizing the context of personal activity as described by Chesterton, is a game worth playing, and is not the grim undertaking my inadequate words perhaps are making it sound like.

Even when we think we have failed after applying ourselves to personal improvement and in our nearest spheres of influence, we may look back years later and find that we have succeeded. We may even surprise ourselves by how much we can accomplish if we apply ourselves. Win, lose or draw, it can never be a bad thing to fight the good fight, to apply ourselves diligently to matters of spiritual, intellectual and physical growth.

So upon further reflection, about those people I admire who are more concerned with doing good than feeling good — perhaps it is more accurate to say that people who do good are the ones who truly feel good.

(Image credit – Wikimedia Commons)

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