Lessons for Navigating Our Inner World for Social Change

So much can seem both so important and so out of our control; politics, pandemics, the economy, systemic racism and other oppressions, health diagnoses, natural disasters, violence, and more. I see in so many of us, including myself; anxiety, angst, overwhelm, exhaustion, despair, escapism, and more. All those feelings are real and understandable. They can also be obstacles to effectively creating the social change and progress we (individually and collectively) hope for and need. I’ve been turning to some old and some new lessons to help me navigate my inner world so that I can be as clear, grounded, engaged, and effective as possible creating the change in the world beyond me.

Wolves Within

Here’s a succinct parable credited to Cherokee and other indigenous traditions.

A Native American boy was talking with his Grandmother. “What do you think about the world situation?” he asked.

The grandmother replied, “I feel like two wolves are fighting in my heart. One is full of prejudice and hatred. The other is full of love, forgiveness and peace.”

“Which one will win the fight in your heart?” asked the boy.

To which the grandmother replied, “The one I feed.”

I was introduced to this more than 20 years ago and it is a wonderful and simple reminder. So many of us pay close attention to what we eat and drink but we are not so intentional with the information we consume. I’m trying to cultivate conversations, my social media feeds, the music I listen to, the tv and movies I watch, the podcasts I listen to, and more to feed the wolf within me that is engaged and compassionate.

Don’t Argue with Reality – Tara Brach

Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach reminds us in her book Radial Acceptance, that as long as we are arguing with reality, we cannot engage with it. As long as we bemoan that it is raining, we can’t move to decide if we want to change our plans or bring an umbrella. We cannot work for social change around racism until we acknowledge that it is real. We cannot work to unseat an egregious political figure or party until we acknowledge that they have been elected. We cannot heal from our childhood sexual abuse until we acknowledge that it actually happened.

Radical Acceptence – Tara Brach

Brach explains that the two wings of radical acceptance are mindfulness and compassion. Mindfulness is being fully aware of what is happening in the world and within us. No delusions. No exaggerations. No catastrophizing. No pretending. Compassion is being wiling to take action, large and small, to be compassionate with others and ourselves. Compassion might include social change like voting, donating, giving yourself a break, calling a friend, giving someone else grace, or protesting.

Let go of control. Claim agency.

The only thing we have control over is ourselves. Most of us feel out of control because we try to control too much; weather, boss, news, sports teams, or a child. When we try to control things beyond us, we will feel out of control. At the same time, most of us give up agency we have over what is within us; thoughts, perspective, actions, boundaries, how we communicate, or how we talk to ourselves.

How can I give up as much control as possible over what is beyond me & simultaneously claim as much agency as possible over what is within me?

Hope – Shane Lopez

Hope is so hard to come by and so critical in difficult times. I love Shane Lopez’s definition of hope. In his book, Making Hope Happen, he described hope as thinking “that the future will be better and that you have a role in making it so.” He describes the first part as optimism and the second part as agency.

Resist Cynicism

Cynicism can be a tempting way to try and prove how smart we are, but let us not confuse cynicism with critical thinking. Cynicism is an excuse for disengagement. I love Brain Pickings author Maria Popova’s reminder “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.”

Anger is often pain and fear expressed externally.

If you feel angry, what are it’s roots? Anger is often a secondary emotion. On Being host Krista Tippett explained in her book Becoming Wise, “Anger is often what pain looks like when it shows itself in public.” Buddhists often see anger as rooted in fear. Anger can also be a call to fairness and justice.

Culivating Anger of Fierce Compassion

As I’ve written previously, moving away from self-righteousness and destructive anger toward social change, social justice, and liberation is not a new idea. I’ve recently been exploring this through Krista Tippet’s wonderful podcast On Being. I first made this connection listening to Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman talking about loving your enemies and the idea that “love” is not always gentle and kind but it can be powerful. Thurman described trying to transform his destructive and self-righteous anger into something grounded in love, which he calls “fierce compassion.” He then described how tempting it can be to just describe that self-righteous and destructively anger as “fierce compassion,” when that’s not really what it is. Then I listened to His Holiness the Dalai Lama describe his own anger at deep injustice and how poorly it serves him and his cause. In another On Being podcast, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Ticht Nhat Han talked about importance of teaching mindfulness to police and the misguided ways of the war on terror. He explains how little self-righteous anger served him as he was struggling to survive, protest, and end the War in Vietnam and how little it serves us now. Desmond Tutu explained how letting go of his destructive anger at the violent oppression of apartheid in South Africa was key to his ability to lead the effective over-throw of apartheid. He also explained the role of both truth and reconciliation in creating real accountability and not just escapability in the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. People weren’t just forgiven, they had to tell the truth of what they had done. Finally, I listened to John Lewis explain that although he was willing to let his skull be cracked in his quest for civil rights, he would not let his soul be taken by giving it over to self-righteous and destructive anger. Although all of these folks had different definitions for anger they were all clear that a self-righteous, destructive, retaliatory, and resentful anger was destructive to the cause, buttressed the status quo, and further eroded the humanity of all involved, including themselves.

Choose Joy – Maria Popova

Each year Brain Pickings author Maria Popova chooses a theme or a lesson from her year of reading, thinking, and living. This year it was “Choose Joy.” As she explains, “no matter the outer atmosphere of circumstance, one must lift the inner cloudscape by one’s own efforts, or perish under it.”


Equanimity is not only focusing on the good naively. Equanimity is holding all of it. Equanimity is acknowledge the both/and, the light and the dark, the ying and the yang. It is acknowledging that the uncertainty of a presidential election is stressful AND there are places where the outcome of presidential elections is never uncertain because it is pre-determined. Both/and.

Rebellion vs Revolution – Grace Lee Boggs

We recently watched the this documentary on Grace Lee Boggs. It was a reminder that the struggle toward justice is not new but on-going and that steps backward are a part of progress. A central focus of her intellectual power and personal evolution was Boggs’s shift from strategies of rebellion to revolution. Revolution is about creating change in systems, structures, hearts and minds, and within ourselves. The harder things get the more tempting rebellion might become. How do we create the change we are seeking for the betterment of us all?

Justice is what love looks like in public. – Cornell West

As I’ve written before, this quote by Cornell West has become a bright line for me in deciphering when I am doing good social justice work and when I am being self-righteous and making it more about me and less about justice and equity. I’m constantly trying to get my social justice work to look more like love lived out in public. I’m also seeing greater negative impact (ineffective, harmful, and perpetuating oppression) of social justice that doesn’t look like love lived out in public. Love doesn’t always appear nice, quiet, and polite. Love sometimes appears like disappointed anger, especially when those we care so much about and expect so much of let us down. Anger grounded in love looks a lot different than anger grounded in trying to prove that I’m right or better than others. This isn’t about isn’t about tone policing, which focuses on making those who experience privilege more comfortable. This is about trying to find what will be most effective in bringing about more justice.

Good Trouble – John Lewis

We also recently watched Good Trouble about Civil Rights legend and US Representative John Lewis. He continuously and mischievously recommended getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble.” It was powerful to see Lewis so sincerely concerned about the end of democracy in the United State, while also believing to his core that equity, justice, and freedom, or what the non-violent civil rights leaders call The Beloved Community was inevitable.

Reconciliation – Nelson Mandela

I recently listened to Oprah’s interview with Nelson Mandela. It was a great reminder that these are not the worst of times. We have been through worse and overcome much more. It was also a powerful reminder of the importance of reconciliation. Mandela explained that reconciliation was the approach his government took, not because they (white South Africans) deserved it, but because we (black South Africans and all of South Africa) deserved it. How do we bring people together and open ourselves up to the possibility and then the hard work of reconciliation.

Power Over or Power With, To, and Within – Brené Brown

Brown gives a great overview of these different kinds of power in her opening to this conversation with Joe Biden. She also offered this PDF overviewing these concepts of power and leadership in the show notes for this episode. How do we make sure that in our quest for justice and change that we do not replicate Power Over dynamics justified by a belief that our intentions are good and our outcomes justified.

Self-care, Community Care, Self-Compassion, and Healing

I keep finding myself in conversations with people who know they are depleted and overwhelmed and aware that they are taking this out on others and themselves. They are eager for ways to be restorative with themselves and rejuvenate so that they can do less harm, be more fully present, and engage in ways that align with their values. “Self-care” is a term that has been overused and it’s meaning lost or mis-used for profit and to fuel consumption. I like this complexity of self-soothing, self-care, community-care, and structural care. Another useful framing is Kristen Neff’s work on self-compassion. How do you not just feel compassionate but also to take compassionate action toward yourself? What are the activities the rejuvenate you? The things that you do where time vanishes? The activities that bring you joy not just when you are doing them but long after you have done them? How can you do them more? There are also these 6 keys to addressing the biology of toxic stress from Nadine Burke Harris; sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, mental health, and healthy relationships.

Live On Purpose and in Alignment with Your Values

We all have purpose and we all have values, but if you can’t name them right now, then you can’t use them to make day to day decisions. One of the things I do with my coaching clients is help them get clear about their life’s purpose and their core values. Being able to name these, memorize them, and share them with others allows you to put them to work to serve you. When you know your life’s purpose it can guide changes and decisions from whether or not you should change jobs to how you spend time with your children. When you can rattle off your core values from memory you can better recognize when you are out of alignment and use those values to guide how you respond to the nasty email, which organizations you support, and how you want to spend your one wild and precious life.

Want to work more closely with Keith?

Leaders and organizations turn to Keith as an authentic educator, trusted leader, and unconventional scholar helping them advance leadership, learning, and equity.

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *