In these turbulent times, there are many people promoting their personal vision for the future, and asking for our support in making their vision a reality. This article is about who I look to for leadership, and why, and how I choose to lead my own life.
What is Scapegoating?
I’m remembering a talk by an environmental activist that I once attended. Throughout the speaker’s talk, I found myself feeling uncomfortable. Some of that discomfort was about the strategies the speaker was advocating—but there was something more fundamental as well. I had the sense that the speaker was condemning a category of people as unworthy of consideration—a category of people (at best) to ignore, or (at worst) to blame, judge, and destroy. The emotions that tend to accompany this way of thinking range from indifference to righteous anger and hatred. For the purposes of this article, I’ll call this mindset “scapegoating”. In this case, the speaker seemed to be scapegoating industrial civilization itself and all the technology and people involved in supporting it.
Personally, no matter how intelligent someone may seem to be, and no matter how well-thought-out their theories may seem to be, I don’t trust theories, strategies or actions that come from a mindset of scapegoating. If I could see care for all living beings behind the speaker’s words, I would have given his theories much more credence. I did see care behind his words, but it was conditional and partial—a love of nature and animals, a love of some people but not others, a love of people who behave in certain ways that he approves of.
An Alternative to Scapegoating
Personally, I want everyone’s needs considered—I’m unwilling to scapegoat, unwilling to deem anyone’s needs unworthy of consideration. I don’t want to scapegoat people who scapegoat, either! I want to respond to them with care and compassion—and at the same time, it’s unlikely that I will look to them for inspiration or leadership.
Rather than creating scapegoats and making it our mission to destroy them, I prefer that we understand the world in ways that support more compassion, care, and understanding. I want to live in a world where everyone’s needs matter—indeed, where the needs of every living being matter. I want everyone’s needs considered, by as many people as possible, in every action that gets taken. Every action then becomes an expression of love.
Transforming Scapegoating to Compassion
When I find myself scapegoating someone, I try to notice this and recognize it as an opportunity for my own growth. I have found cultivating empathy to be an especially effective path for that growth. For a taste of what I’m talking about, try this: think of someone who has done something you don’t like. It could be your husband, your neighbor, a politician, a corporate executive—whoever. What feelings come up for you about what that person has done? Now, consider this—what needs might the other person have been trying to meet, when they did what they did? Can you imagine yourself in their shoes, and see things from their perspective? As you sit with this process, see if you can open yourself to a shift in your state of mind toward more care and compassion, for both yourself and the other person.
It’s true, there is much greed and self-interested behavior in the world. Many people do not think and act with the interests of all living beings in mind. I want to be clear: I’m not advocating that we sit idly by while others get their needs met at our expense. Furthermore, I believe anger is often a natural, healthy response to oppression and exploitation; I don’t see our anger as a problem unless it disconnects us from our compassion. To me, holding everyone’s needs with care and compassion is quite compatible with clear boundaries and forceful words and deeds. For me, what makes the difference is not our words and actions themselves, it’s the mindset behind our words and actions.
Taking One Step at a Time
Life without scapegoating is more complicated in many ways. This is a more challenging way of looking at the world—there are no clear “bad guys” and “bad things” to blame, judge and attack. So what to do then? How do we address the huge problems facing our planet? For me, the answers are often quite simple: I do what’s right in front of me. I take the obvious next step forward. I try to use my unique strengths and my unique circumstances to take action the best way I can, in service of all living beings. That might look like writing an article, harvesting cucumbers from my garden, patching my roof, going over to a friend’s house for dinner, or starting a global organization to promote my values.
These actions might not sound very dramatic, but ultimately, I trust this way of thinking and acting more than I trust grand theories for social change. If everyone were to value the needs of every living being, and act from that mindset, imagine how the world might be different. That’s a world I’m willing to work toward creating. I can’t give you specific instructions on what to do to create that world, but I do suggest that you look inside yourself to find the unique gifts you have to contribute and the unique opportunities available to you. I suggest you look within yourself to identify your own opportunities for internal healing and personal growth. And choose carefully who you look to for leadership and inspiration.
Photo goat [DSC00900 edited] is by Mike B in Colorado.