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The Origin of Social Change

The origin of social change is deceptively simple. Two or more people persist around an idea. They give it endurance. Creating anything at all means consistency of attention on converting an idea into a visible form. If many are involved, everyone applies themselves to the same idea, focusing similarly.

One person starts this going with another by offering an idea and the other responds. Once that happens, a subtle decision occurs that’s internal to the individuals and may not even be explicitly put into words. They rank it on their scale of priorities, assigning it the slice of time they will devote to it. For it to be life changing, they have to perceive it as life changing and acknowledge its encompassing character. In order for them to recognize such far-reaching implications, they may depend on someone else's explanation.

Backing off to consider the one offering the explanation, it must seem important to the one offering it before it's likely to be considered important by the one hearing it. If the one expressing it considers it life-changing, he or she conveys such importance by a host of qualities. Is the idea simply one of many in the zone of opinions he acknowledges to be insubstantial for changing anyone's life? If so, the other also has little reason to apply it deeply. I would not expect opinions that barely shift my own attention casually to cause someone else to change their life.

People have a world of opinion under construction in their mind similar to a do-it-yourselfer improving his home. He sees a piece of furniture, buys it, and gets rid of something else. He partitions a room, puts in a new window, tacks on an addition, and so on. There’s an expectation that the house is an expression of his preferences.

The purpose of the house, however, may be more than that. Let’s say he has aging parents and a brother who’s a disabled veteran in need of a home. He still has preferences, but now a different organizing principle for what he does. His primary need is to be able to house his parents and brother comfortably. He doesn’t give up expressing his preferences; will choose design and colors and space and furniture to match his resources and tastes. A different concept becomes central, however. We can call his care for housing his relatives the first cause. The influence of such an idea is far reaching.

1. What is my first cause?

Ponder on how to answer this question in your life overall, because it drives everything else you do. Weighed against our desire for change in society, we can discard many forms a first cause might take as being ineffectual or even counterproductive. If you say, for instance, “What I really want to do is look good,“ then activities that take you out of this comfort zone become unthinkable, and you’ll confine yourself to an ineffectual orbit of action. If your view is, “I want to do what benefits me and my people,“ then your constructive activity may overlook a range of other needs that might be urgent and some of your actions may even cause problems for others. If you confine yourself to economic needs, higher values may suffer. If your interest is in gaining power, you make others trust you less and drive them to increase their own power. To begin to be the conscious origin of something positive, you first recognize your current first cause and its extended effects.

2. What determines what is possible?

The answer, in a word, is context. A first cause operates always in a context . This consists of the existing situation in all its conditions, limitations, and possibilities, yet a key feature of context is that it's always changing as we enter a new minute, a focus of attention, and a location. If our intention is too narrow, we may fail to apply it. A man might, for example, harbor even an intense desire to change US society, yet the only context in which he thinks he can do that is is to vote. So every year or two he takes a few minutes to seek out the only context in which he believes he can express his desire, regardless of how deep might be his needs or urgent his values.

More realistic thinking is noticing that at every moment we're in some context and can bring our first cause into it. Let's say I'm driving and see a stranded motorist. I can include this context in my intention: “When driving, I'll be on the lookout for urgent needs I can respond to.” I can add many other contexts in which to express my intent--while talking to a friend, talking to a stranger, planning my day’s activities, writing a letter, preparing an article, gathering information, developing a competence, or assisting someone in meeting their need. In short, I can apply myself as the first cause of good results throughout my day, everywhere.

3. What will I make my habitual first cause?

Many are content with efforts that are random and accidental. Their first cause could be described as “Respond to conditions around you so as to be accepted and happy.” This version is more positive than countless others might be, but it also leaves one vulnerable, depending on circumstances outside oneself for make one content.

For the person who wishes to aid society, I suggest two critical features in their personal first cause: unconditional love and total responsibility. These unite in a state of mind that is poised to apply itself to any context. It is a consistent stance of enhancing the good in any available way, a lifetime hobby of finding personal satisfaction in creating good outcomes. This decision is empowering because its expression depends completely on one’s own choice rather than on external conditions. One looks at the immediate context and asks “Here and now, in this location with these people under these conditions, and with the resources of mind and effort right now at my disposal, what possible good can emerge, and what is my role in it?”

4. Deliberate social change occurs as people share the same habitual first cause.

Because people constantly respond to conditions, social change occurs steadily and somewhat accidentally. The more severe the emergent conditions, the wider the range of responses we might presume could occur. As conditions deteriorate (e.g. in pollution, crime, ignorance, illness, poverty, and instability), then a response from more comprehensive ideas becomes more important. A new concept must stretch available energy to a larger context. From being immersed in the local, face-to-face conditions, one realizes that systemic circumstances bring about the local conditions and that we must address and manage them. It's sobering to realize that the local polluter’s discharges are the outcome of the activity of the entire electoral system of the United States! Similarly with violence in the streets, poverty, and all needs associated with civil life: the whole system conspires to bring these about. To influence any local condition, we may need to join our efforts with millions of others asserting the same first cause,and bring its application to an unlimited array of local contexts.

5. Once willing the best, we activate it in our present context.

You, just now reading words I send you, take on a role parallel to what you'll experience in countless future conversations as weeks pass into years. I or someone else suggest an idea to you that might enhance you and enable you to enhance others. Something passes between us. You then have a space in which to dispose of or respond to it. Perhaps our exchange by means of the paragraphs above is complete and nothing further is needed, but an idea transmitted opens possibilities for further transmission. You may decide to pass it along to someone else, and awaken their understanding of the ideas we've touched on: first cause, context, unconditional love, total responsibility, and a shared social outcome activated in the present. Similarly to how the activity of your vehicle steadily moves you from one context to another, your life plants you again and again in novel circumstances that invite your application of your first cause, your choice to make it real, and to transmit it to others.
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