“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”-Mahatma Gandhi
Yes, my friend, it’s time to talk about change. Some changes, like my mood becoming much more hopeful this week, are quite welcome. Others, like the myriad of changes that have descended upon us all recently, are unexpected, unwanted, and at times extremely unpleasant.
I don’t know how you handle change, but I recently noticed a distinct pattern in how I process major life changes. Just as there are stages of grief, I tend to deal with change in three specific phases:
Phase I: Optimism.
If it’s a self-imposed change: “Change! Exciting! This is going to be great because of X, Y, and Z. I don’t seen any downsides to this new situation at all!”
If it’s an externally-imposed change: “Change. All right, this wasn’t what I would have chosen, but it’s going to be okay because of X, Y, and Z. In fact, there are a lot of positives to this new situation if I look hard enough. This is going to be great!”
Phase II: Freak Out.
Either flavor of change: “I don’t know how I ever thought this was going to be great. I have no idea how I’m going to: find the time to get everything done, deal with all of these new stressors, handle all of the different pressures at home and at work, make everyone happy, avoid disappointing anyone…”
Phase III: Acceptance & Growth.
Also any kind of change: “Okay, I’ve kind of figured this out. I feel more comfortable with my situation and will continue to do what I can to make this new normal work for me and the people counting on me. It might not be as great as I was expecting or hoping for, but it’s good, and I’m good.”
Then there is the unofficial Phase IV: Repeat.
As obvious as it seems in hindsight, I only recently realized that I do this every single time a big change comes along. And even with this understanding, I still am unable to change my behavior–temper the excitement and expectations, mitigate the meltdown, or, ideally, jump straight to Phase III.
I also realized in the past five years or so that although I’m someone who admittedly does not handle change well, I often subconsciously seek it, especially when things are calm. Aside from career changes, there was a period of time when I moved into a new apartment or home every year (ostensibly for logical reasons, but who knows?). And to give you a sense of how well I handled those changes, my husband resorted to keeping a bag of gummy bears on hand when I would inevitably get upset on moving days.
So, during this time of what feels like constant change, can we approach it with an intentionality that might help us find our purpose? I’m not totally sure, but perhaps the purpose-driven life of someone who has successfully used change to leave an indelible mark on the world can. This week, we will examine one of the most well-known public figures whose purpose quite literally changed the course of history: Mahatma Gandhi.
Mahatma Gandhi was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1869 in a small town on the coast of what is now the Western Indian state of Gujarat, but was then part of the Indian Empire. The youngest of four children, Gandhi was born in his family’s home and spent the first eight years of his life roaming around restlessly. His sister recalled that his favorite activity during that time was “twisting dogs’ ears.” (Strange, but I sort of get it.) At age nine, Gandhi began attending the local school, where he was a mediocre student overall and known among his classmates as a shy, “tongue-tied” boy.
When he was 13, Gandhi married his 14-year-old wife via an arranged marriage, as was the custom at that time. He completed high school and began attending college at the only institution in his region, but he dropped out before completing a degree. Around this time, he also lost his father and his first child within days of birth in the same year. Up to this point, change for Gandhi seemed only to mean anguish and disappointment.
After he left college and returned to his hometown, Gandhi learned about an opportunity to study law in London. Although his wife had just given birth to their second child, he decided to embrace change and pursue that path. To give his wife and mother comfort in the face of this drastic change, Gandhi promised that he would not be corrupted by Western culture and would steer clear of women, alcohol, and meat. With their blessing, Gandhi earned his law degree from University College, London, gaining confidence in his convictions and in his public speaking abilities along the way.
Gandhi then returned to India in 1891 at the age of 22 and attempted to start a law practice in Bombay. Unsuccessful in the courtroom, he was forced to close the practice and take on clerical legal work to make ends meet. Then, Gandhi received a call from a contact asking him to consider moving to South Africa to serve as the attorney for a shipping company. Though the pay was scant, he had few other options, so Gandhi took the job and moved to Johannesburg. He spent the next 21 years in South Africa, and the experience there changed him and the course of his life considerably.
Before moving to South Africa, Gandhi had considered himself British first and Indian second. As South Africa was also a British colony at the time, he expected the British there to treat him as an equal under the Empire. Instead, he experienced severe racism and discrimination. Gandhi was beaten when he tried to sit with white Britons on the bus, kicked off of paths that people of color were not permitted to use, and even pushed off a train when he refused to leave first-class. According to scholars, the unexpected realization that the British viewed India as inferior dramatically changed his perception of the world and his life’s work. Instead of continuing on as a rank and file attorney, Gandhi began fighting for the rights of Indians (and later, black South Africans as well) by organizing his community and peacefully resisting the discriminatory laws.
“If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.“-Mahatma Gandhi
By the time Gandhi moved back to India in 1915, he was known around the world as an Indian nationalist who could effectively lead and organize others. Over the next 30 years, he used nonviolence and civil disobedience to protest British rule in India. Perhaps his most famous effort was the Salt March in 1930, when Gandhi and dozens of volunteers marched 241 miles to protest the British tax on salt. The British reacted by beating hundreds and imprisoning thousands of Indians who barely lifted a hand in response. The horrific story circulated worldwide, bringing global attention to Gandhi’s cause and igniting the national Civil Disobedience Movement.
As part of this movement, Gandhi began wearing his ubiquitous homespun loin cloth as a symbol of his support for the Indian poor and a boycott of British and other foreign goods. Through changes both large and small, Gandhi unabashedly pursued his life’s purpose of freeing India from British rule through nonviolent means.
However, Gandhi’s story, like any person’s story, is not perfect. His life’s work also inadvertently lead to the partition of his country, something he opposed. The creation of Pakistan epitomized the challenges he faced in trying to unite Indian Muslims and Hindus–challenges that led him to alienate his supporters at certain times. In his early days in South Africa, Gandhi also initially differentiated between Indians and black South Africans to argue for Indian rights. And, of course, the end of Gandhi’s story is not one befitting someone whose ideas influenced future change makers like Nelson Mandela. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who shot and killed him at a friend’s home. He was 78 years old.
Mahatma Gandhi’s life was undeniably purpose-driven and objectively meaningful. And though I doubt I will ever do anything as significant during my time here, is there something we can take from Gandhi’s life and apply to our own to ensure that we leave whatever mark we are meant to make?
Of course there is. In fact, there are many lessons I think we all could learn from Gandhi’s life, purpose-related or otherwise. But for this post, I believe the most salient lesson we can take from Gandhi is this: Change is inevitable and unavoidable, but we must have the courage to make changes that will bring us closer to finding and fulfilling our life’s purpose.
Gandhi showed incredible courage throughout his life, but especially when making the changes necessary for him to become the transformative leader we remember him as. If he had not left India for London to pursue his law degree, he might have remained “tongue-tied” and shy–hardly the characteristics of an influential activist. And if Gandhi had not moved to South Africa, he might have continued to live under the false assumption that the British were treating Indians fairly, never to fulfill his world-changing dharma.
You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.-Gandhi
While I don’t believe this means we all have to uproot our lives to courageously embrace change (especially during a time when we can barely leave our homes, much less our cities or countries), I do think we can all closely examine our lives to determine if conscious change could point us in the direction of our purpose.
For me, this might mean examining how I react to change in the moment, rather than lament my responses in hindsight (and possibly move more quickly to Phase III, without needing gummy bear back-up?).
If nothing else, being quarantined is certainly good for introspection, right? Rather than ruminate on our flaws or approach this as a time for “self-improvement,” though, perhaps we can learn from Gandhi’s example and make a change in our lives, no matter how small, that could help shine a light and guide us towards a more rewarding, purpose-filled life.