I was reminded last night of how difficult, but essential, the human capacity for reflection is when efforts to improve a bad situation go unnoticed. That reminder came from viewing the 2005 movie Crash, which makes this point very powerfully in a couple of the five interweaving stories it presents. One story showed a detective seeking the love of his mother through efforts to locate his erratic, charming and “occasionally criminal” brother, and how his mother’s favoritism for her more unconventional son blinds her to her first son’s desire to help and be closer to her. Another scene shows a young police officer bending the rules to let off an irate man he recognizes as being the victim of his patrol companion’s act of racism the night before, without any hope of being able to explain to his colleagues why he’s doing so.
Both of these vignettes demonstrate a number of things: 1) Efforts to “do the right thing” are frequently invisible, 2) Silently pursuing those efforts without any outside recognition demands an inner strength, one based on an active conscience, and 3) Pulling this off is next to impossible unless a person has enough self-regard to be able to trust his inner compass enough to stay the course.
That self-regard is hard to sustain for a 4th reason working to sabotage acts of conscience: the societal meta-narratives that encourage people, particularly in the U.S., to always be “announcing” their good deeds, to be endlessly self-promoting, to “cut through” everyday noise by forcing one’s self to stand out from the crowd.
Because of the magnitude of these difficulties, doing the right thing always leads - though not necessarily immediately - to a transformation of self. Honoring one’s own conscience through action is a major psychological and spiritual contribution to self-awareness. It is also the most powerful antidote to the growing normalization of narcissism in the society because, quiet simply, it translates the product of a person’s reflections(inner world) into actions benefitting others(outer world).
That has powerful implications for the social change so many people in so many countries are currently demanding. Contradicting greed, corruption, manipulation, arrogance, irrationality and many of the other ills currently woven deep into the “operational fabric” of how the majority of individuals and organizations still function requires enormous commitment and courage not just at the protest level, but at the psychological and spiritual level. Because of the invisibility mentioned above, doing that work demands a solid sense of self - one that can endure long periods of being unnoticed. Because of the link to personal conscience, doing that work requires the capacity to reflect - to make a connection with one’s own inner compass. Because of societal pressures to behave in more self-absorbed ways, it requires critical thinking capacity, emotional resilience, and self-belief tethered to one’s own direct awareness - not to an ideology.
It doesn’t hurt to also have people in your life who do appreciate what you’re doing: we are social animals, not islands, and getting with people who genuinely understand our efforts serves to contradict the rising sense of being “crazy” that is always evoked in the personal psychology of anyone consciously riding against the current. It’s a way of contextualizing the self-belief that emerges from repeated acts of conscience done over time.
All of this is fragile, so beware! You might find yourself contextualizing yourself with others in a dogmatic, ideological way without even knowing you’ve done so. Or having the appropriate shields you've raised as a buffer against the societal meta-narratives ridiculing you for your actions wearing down unknowingly, driving you into pockets of despair. Witnessing your actions(mindfulness), cultivating authentic relationships, and deepening your self-compassion to the point where you accept the fact that you won’t always have the courage to act on your convictions are general guidelines worth remembering.
More power to you.