the better world handbook

building a better world

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." M. K. Gandhi

We have become a nation of sleepwalkers. We look around at the world's problems and wish they would go away, but they stubbornly persist despite our most heartfelt desires. So we end up living in a kind of ethical haze. It's not that people are bad or that evil is winning some kind of eternal battle. The vast majority of us have good intentions when we go about our daily lives. It's that we have been lulled into a sense of complacency around the world's problems, like they are less than real occurrences so we react similar to how we might normalize strange events that occur while we're in the middle of a dream. We are stuck in our daily routines, living on auto-pilot when it comes to the rest of the world.

People starve, communities fall apart, violence thrives, families fade, and nature disappears, and we continue on with our lives as if nothing is wrong. But like a whisper in the back of our minds that stays with us always, we have the feeling that something has gone awry. We have lost our faith in each other. Politicians are corrupt, lawyers win cases without justice being served; it seems that everything and everyone is for sale. Nothing remains sacred. We feel that perhaps we can only truly rely on ourselves. When these negative beliefs become widespread, we disengage from the outer world, recoiling into our own personal lives. As we withdraw, we see our society rushing aimlessly toward an unknown future without any sense of morality or conscious purpose to direct it. Awash in a sea of knowledge, we lack the wisdom to guide our own destiny.

How did we end up here? Of late, many people have begun to point the finger at a culture that breeds apathy. In fact, beneath apathy there lies an even bigger culprit, cynicism. Cynicism may be defined as the deeply ingrained belief that human beings are, and have always been, inherently selfish. Cynicism in this form is not just a long-term emotional state or adopted intellectual philosophy, it is a way of relating to the world. As a consequence we begin to see the world as a place that will always be filled with social problems because we are convinced that people look out for their own best interests above all else. It is the fundamental destruction of hope.

The most that you can strive for under this kind of a world view is that you become savvy enough to pursue your own self-interest in such a way that you come out somewhere nearer to the top rather than the bottom. The pursuit of happiness is relegated to an equation that consists of accumulating material wealth, increasing your social status and having the freedom to indulge in any pleasure you desire. Helping others, giving something back and making a difference in the world no longer show up on the radar of popular culture. People who decide to seriously pursue these less common goals are often labeled as odd, naïve, overly sentimental, unrealistic or simply irrational. In a world of constantly increasing complexity, this kind of cynicism becomes the safest, most strategic position to adopt. It involves no action and thus no risk. Cynics can portray their inaction as more rational, objective and even more scientifically founded than people who are taking action based on incomplete information. Consequently, apathy becomes an acceptable state of being.

So what happened? How did we become this cynical? Simply put, our modern society manufactures cynicism. Everyday we are bombarded with media reports, both locally focused and from around the globe, of crime, disaster, conflict, scandal … anything dark and sensational enough to generate a headline. The stories are presented in a manner that is usually too brief to gain any meaningful understanding of the problems and that lacks any options for us to contribute in any significant way to their resolution. These waves of negative imagery wash over us relentlessly as we try to keep up with what's happening in the world around us. Like sponges, we absorb this negativity, and it spills over into how we look at and, ultimately, how we act or fail to act in the world.


1. Finding out about a problem
2. Wanting to do something to help
3. Not seeing how you can help
4. Not doing anything about it
5. Feeling sad, powerless, angry
6. Deciding that nothing can be done
7. Begin shutting down
8. Wanting to know less about problems

Repeat until apathy results

The Cycle Of Cynicism (see above) begins when we first find out about a social problem through the media. When we initially recognize that others are suffering, our immediate reaction is to want the suffering to stop. We even wonder if there is anything that we might be able to do to help. When no viable avenues for action are presented, and we fail to generate any ourselves we end up feeling powerless to help the suffering we have just witnessed. This knowledge that others are suffering and we can do nothing to stop it saddens us. We may become angry and blame people in positions of power for not doing anything to stop it either. We feel that we are good people, but we see an injustice and we don't do anything about it. In the end we reconcile this dissonance by accepting that perhaps nothing can be done; the problems are too deeply rooted and we are powerless to change them. We then initiate process of slowly numbing ourselves to the suffering, and because knowing this kind of information about the world only results in taking on negative emotions, we subtly begin to avoid finding out about the suffering in the first place. Over time we end up shutting out most of our society's social problems and retreating further and further into our own insular personal lives. We become apathetic.


1. Taking personal responsibility for being a good person
2. Creating a vision of a better world based on your values
3. Seeking out quality information about the world's problems
4. Discovering practical options for action
5. Acting in line with your values

Repeat until better world results

The $64,000 question now turns out to be, how do we break out of this cycle of cynicism? First, we must stop blaming others for not doing anything and begin to take personal responsibility for being good people in the world. No one else can do it for us. We need to seek out information about our world's problems that provides us with a basic understanding of what's going on as well as a variety of options for action. We have to generate a form of practical idealism based on well-informed actions that are accessible to all of us and that actually make a difference in the world. Each of us must decide what we want our lives to stand for, how we can uniquely contribute to a better world. By thinking about our lives in terms of what we can provide for the next generations rather than we can take for ourselves in this lifetime, we are choosing to create our own destiny instead of leaving our children's future up for grabs.

As a society we must reconnect to a set of values that re-ignite our collective humanity so that it burns bright within each of us. No society survives for very long without a moral compass to guide its evolution and progress, especially not one as powerful and rapidly changing as our own. We need to bring our values back onto center stage as a people. We must consciously choose a set of core values that every one of us can embrace despite our many differencessÿvalues like compassion, freedom, equality, justice, sustainability, democracy, community, and tolerance. Then we have to go about deliberately building our society as a place that increasingly reflects and nurtures the growth of these values in the world. We create this world by having each of us individually choose to live and act in ways that more closely reflect our own personal values and those values we share as a people. We must begin by creating a vision of a better world.
We can all imagine what a better world might look like - a world where peace, justice, compassion and tolerance prevail or where each person has more than enough food, shelter, meaningful work and close friends. Think about the world that you would like to live in. Let yourself imagine the possibilities of a world that you could be proud to leave for your children. What does a world look like with more love, acceptance, patience, understanding and equality? This vision of a better future will provide you with an inspiring goal to work toward and will keep your passion alive for the journey ahead. Along the way, we must be aware of the many traps that will stop us from making a difference in the world.

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