Want to make change happen? Focus.
The past three years, I've spent a lot of time researching and thinking about what a society designed to optimize kids' mental health would look like. As you can image, it looks vastly different from our current profit-focused, consumeristic, fear-based society.
A society designed for optimal health values cooperation, kindness and living in harmony with the planet and all its inhabitants. It enables parents and caregivers to spend lots of quality time with their young children. It has a student-centered approach to education and values children for who they are, not what they do. It ensures all people have enough—clean water, real food, clothing, housing, natural spaces, meaningful work, creative space, community…
It is people-focused, resilient, inclusive, tolerant, just.
This may sound like a dream world to some, but I (must) believe it is possible to shift our society to one that values people over profit and planetary health over economic growth. This shift—or transition—will not be easy. Indeed, to transition from where we are today (a society that causes immense mental distress) to a society that promotes optimal mental health requires significant social change.
When change feels impossible
A couple of weeks ago, Professor Kunkel wrote a post on the topic of global citizenship and social change in response to students' feelings of disempowerment and overwhelm related to social change. She concluded that we can make a difference. We can challenge the systems. "We can live as if all people matter."
I could relate to Kunkel's post, because I also encountered a sense of overwhelm from a student when I recently guest lectured in a social work class on the topic of mental health as a social issue. Although I was preaching to the choir, one young woman had the courage to comment, "I love everything you've told us today, but it seems impossible to get there…" (And she gave several good reasons why.)
I'm not an historian, but I'm sure it seemed impossible to end the feudal system in Europe. I'm sure it seemed impossible to end slavery in this country. And I'm sure it even seemed impossible to allow women to be ordained pastors in the Lutheran church. This didn't stop people from working together to challenge the status quo—and it made a difference!
Yes, it may seem impossible, but we must keep trying to make the world a better place for all people. As Kunkel reminds us in her post, collective action is powerful.
Focus on one thing
If social change feels overwhelming, here is my suggestion: focus on one thing.
We know we accomplish more when we do less. When we focus on one thing—when we give all of our attention to one issue—we have a much greater possibility of making health-promoting change happen.
For example, if you are a teacher, practice unconditional teaching and challenge the out-of-control testing culture. If you are a parent, advocate for fair, flexible work time at your organization. If you're an entrepreneur start a Benefit Corporation or a worker cooperative.
Combine your cause with your passion (and if you haven't found your passion, be sure to attend a liberal arts college—yes, I work in marketing). It's much easier to find energy to fight for something you’re passionate about! For me, that's creating resilient, sustainable, health-promoting communities.
My next step is to start a Transition Streets group in Decorah this coming January. And if there's interest, we’ll start one at Luther College as well!
I am slowly realizing that I can't do it all—at least not if I'm going to be effective and remain healthy. A recent article by physician Gabor Maté on how to build a culture of good health served as an excellent reminder. He highlights the connection between the mind and the body and specifically indicates that stress leads to all sorts of physical and mental ailments.
Maté writes, "When we take on too much stress, whether at work or in our personal lives, when we are not able to say no, inevitably our bodies will say it for us."
You can't do it all. And you won't do anyone any good if you're sick and unable to get out of bed—or off the couch.
Hence, we must build self-care into our social action plan. "Give yourself, as best you can, what your parents would have loved to grant you but probably could not: full-hearted attention, full-minded awareness, and compassion. Make gifting yourself with these qualities your daily practice," Maté suggests.
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Change is inevitable. Our current way of life is not sustainable. You can be at the forefront shaping our future, or you can watch it unfold on television. I invite you to visualize the future you want for yourself and for our children (and their children) and start taking intentional steps toward that future—one issue at a time.