Rob Lancaster has worked with Initiatives of Change (IofC) for many years. On the basis that ‘only idiots never change their mind,’ he offers annotations (highlighted in bold italics) to his own story, written some years ago for an IofC India publication, Beyond Walls.
In 2007, I was at the end of my studies in Australia, and looking for a stimulating way to spend my final summer break. Volunteering at Asia Plateau, the Initiatives of Change centre at the hill station of Panchgani, India, nudged me down a path that finds me a decade later more heavily involved with IofC’s work than ever. I saw in IofC a context in which I can live the breadth of my conviction, such as it is. It’s been an effective container for going deeper and more honestly into a personal spiritual search.
For better or worse, I haven’t done too many spectacularly terrible things. But this can mask the equal reality that even the so-called ‘lesser’ evils that all of us demonstrate in different ways are the seeds of the greater hatred and bitterness in the world. As Alexander Solzhenitzyn puts it: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us…But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Personally, as time passes, it feels like my moral and spiritual missteps accumulate in disproportion to the virtuous steps, and in some ways the best and the worst of me has found new extremes. This can be disheartening, and also raises various questions around commitment and faith which I feel I have fewer answers to than before. But the reality of that dividing line in every human heart resonates as much as ever.
Globally, as we move further in time from the specific black and white of Solzhenitzyn’s context, there remains an abundance of black and white moral discourse. Perhaps IofC has a renewed role in holding the space for a more complex engagement with questions: as always, not treating ‘truth’ as relative, but staying anchored in the assumption that truth doesn’t sit with any individual or group, nor good and evil.
Tackling the ‘lesser evils’
There have been times when I’ve had to put things right. One example, from recent years, was from a simple email thread, where I was sharing some frustrations. After one missive, I received this response from a friend: ‘I find the tone of your recent messages quite high-handed, bordering on arrogant in places.’
It’s always rather deflating to get feedback like this. I knew my tone was a reflection of my own frustration and disappointment with my own failure to meet the standards I’d set for myself. I recognized whilst there were areas where others could be doing things differently, I needed to work more consistently on developing an appreciative approach.
I’ve worked on this since then, but it’s very much a work in progress. The journey continues, as does my own learning in writing helpful emails and - another challenge for me - picking up a phone (or headset for Skype) to call someone, rather than fueling the back-and-forth emails that are so susceptible to misunderstandings.
This was a fairly sobering few paragraphs to re-read; of lessons and principles I had allegedly noted and was working on years ago, and yet – in the broad strokes – could well have been written yesterday.
IofC is a space where my beliefs are refined, challenged, and nuanced. It doesn’t prescribe a particular religious framework, nor offer an alternative spirituality, but emphasizes that unless we move beyond our individual selfish preoccupations - including our pride, the ‘me-first’ attitude, bitterness towards others, and manipulation - aspirations to change the world are genuinely pie in the sky.
Going beyond the ego
If there are defining characteristics of the world’s problems, pride and ego are right up there near the top of the pops. The ego isn’t going to sanction its own demotion or demolition. That means the answer has to be beyond our ego and its superficial attachments to career, money, anxieties, and unhealthy relationships.
IofC is about searching for the ‘what’ that lies beneath our pride and the ‘how’ of applying it fully to our lives on an everyday basis. It offers tools and space for that pursuit by re-framing of the wisdom and truth in a number of spiritual traditions.
I’ve come to be less preoccupied with the specifics of what does and doesn’t qualify me for a good deal when I die, assuming there are options. The question is, rather, when I meet any person of any worldview—theist, hedonistic, atheistic, stoic, post-modern, or an eclectic, ever-changing mix, the list is endless—am I doing, to borrow a phrase, my utmost for the highest I know? If there is a love that surpasses human understanding, and I am able in some way to reflect that in the way I deal with people, then what they subsequently do or believe is neither within my control, nor something particularly worth worrying about.
Meeting others ‘at the point of their deepest need’
When it comes to engaging with other people, I often return to the idea of aiming to ‘meet people at the point of their deepest need.’ How often I walk into conversations with people conscious of how I am feeling, how I might be being perceived, what the other person can do for me, other tasks I have to do, other people I would rather be talking to than the person I am with, and so on.
Redirecting each of these questions to one simple question—what can I do for this person?—offers some of the ‘how’ to that question above. Sometimes perseverance will lead to all sorts of unexpected discoveries and unexpected friendships.
The world does need people who are more interested in what they can do for others than in what they can do for themselves. If people attempting to lead a selfless life can operate in teamwork, addressing themselves to the needs of the world and bringing the best of their skills and passion, then we are on a path that’s heading in the right direction.
One key Bible passage I regularly return to is the definition of love in I Corinthians 13. If I take it seriously it is enough to keep me challenged and looking in the right direction - and hopeful: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.’
At my favourite café in Oxford, a local priest and wise soul who used to do his informal caffeine-based ministry there would remind me periodically ‘love God and then do what you want.’ These are the sorts of simple—not simplistic—exhortations that are only the other side of complexity. Easy to resonate with, harder to embody. But like rivers know, as Winnie the Pooh points out, ‘There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.’