‘Being the Change’ in the time of Covid-19

By Margaret Hepworth
Image by Daniel Christiansz from Pixabay

Five Gandhian messages to reactivate today’s overwhelmed world

Margaret Hepworth

Messages of Ahimsa, Yindyamarra and Ubuntu are floating their way into classrooms in Melbourne, in China, India and Indonesia. In a COVID-19 lockdowned world, zoom has become my instrument of teaching. The threads of Ahimsa, a Sanskrit word meaning respect for all living things and avoidance of violence towards all living things; Yindyamarra, a Wiradjuri word meaning respect, nuanced by slow, honor, polite respect; Ubuntu, a South African word meaning humanity, beautifully phrased as, “I am because we are”, are being woven together in lessons that teach non-violence as a conscious choice. Non-violence for others, for self, for our planet. Words and concepts that show that across this world we actually do have an amazing humanity. We just need to reactivate it.

Covid-19 has given many of us plenty of quiet days. Lockdown! Bringing upon us what some have described as a Global Pause. Amid the fear and frightening consequences, we have also been privy to a world of change when humans are ‘sent to their rooms.’ Where nature is flourishing.

Covid-19 has given us time to think—where do we see the turns in the path of humanity? People are saying they want more kindness, more equity, more justice. Not only for humans! This current crisis is showing us a pathway forward to the fairer world we say we want to live in. On the eve of Gandhi’s birthdate, October 2, celebrated as an auspicious occasion by millions across the world as the Gandhi Jayanti, there are lessons we can all continue to learn.

As the author of The Gandhi Experiment—Teaching our teenagers how to become global citizens and the founder of Global Action Now, GAN, I would like to share five Gandhian messages relevant in our current context, if we are to take the action, ourselves, to achieve a better tomorrow.

1. “Be the change you want to see in this world.” What are people seeking beyond Covid-19?

Gandhi told us all to ‘Be the change’. Or did he? In an extraordinary occurrence of ‘fake news’ it seems he didn’t say the expression which has now become synonymous with the soul-force leader. However, Gandhi certainly embodied it. Apparently, what he did say was, (to paraphrase), “If you can change yourself within, the world around you will change.” It’s a deeply profound statement, with important implications for our growth through COVID-19 and beyond.

A short time into lockdown I posed this question and sent it out to a waiting world. “Moving beyond Corona, what is one thing you would like to see change in our world? The response was remarkable, the answers providing real insights into what people are sign-posting for change. There was a strong call for more ethical political leadership; practical and enforceable climate change action; wealth distribution and seriously addressing equity; a more responsible media; animal rights and more.

Human values got a big rap—“I would like to see relationships at all levels become very empathic and compassionate. Be it human to human, human to animals/insects, human to nature.” Kindness was called for, over and over. And a call for “a massive change in our relationships with ourselves and the planet.”

Are we heeding the call?

Be the change? How are you going to take your hope, your wish for the future, and apply actionable steps to turn it into a reality? When we examine the Gandhian phrase, “If you can change yourself within”, “Change begins with me” becomes a core precept. Remaining optimistic, solution and action focussed, will prove to be the mindset required to ‘Achieving the Change.’

2. ‘There is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.’ M.K. Gandhi. Creating a “Communitarian spirit”

My survey also drew this interesting response from several people: “What I wish for into the future is a “collaborative spirit, for the better good”. “It proved that the human spirit cannot be locked down. I believe for the world to change, the forces behind good will have to have increased conviction. Our best efforts in promoting soft power, climate change, human empowerment and animal rights will need to have a deep philosophical basis of respect to develop such a conviction.”

At our most recent GAN online forum, Carolyn Tate, author of The Purpose Project, spoke to us about creating a “Communitarian spirit.” I love this phrase. Carolyn is currently creating this spirit of building community through a food co-op in her local area. Knowingly or unknowingly, Gandhian philosophy runs high here—keep it local, create systems that support everyone involved—the farmers/ food producers, the local consumers, and the environment. Carolyn’s living example is a win-win-win. It’s the triple treat! Gandhians don’t go for threats. You only need to remove the H to move from a threat to become a treat. I wonder what you think the H stands for? For me, it is Hate, Hunger, Hopelessness.

In my work, mixing with people in such varied occupations and capacities, there is no end to what I see in people working for the common good. I constantly bring these into my workshops for young people to see these role models, these change-makers. I would like to see the media step up to high profile these examples of mindful action. That would be a Gandhian treat!

“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” Margaret J Wheatley. The creation of Communitarian spirit will help us build the ‘new normal’, or as the Centre for Optimism calls it, the ‘better normal’ we are seeking.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay
3. “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” M.K. Gandhi. A call to non-violence in a time of great violence against animals

Each and every day now for the past seven months we continue to hear the numbers. Numbers of deaths due to Covid-19. Numbers of people infected. Numbers going up somewhere in the world; numbers coming down somewhere else. What I have not heard in a very long time is any reference to sorting out the reality of the cause of the problem—human beings’ treatment of animals. In my workshops we learn about species-ism—the arrogance of humans to all other species on the planet.

The connection between human treatment of animals and the corona virus and other epidemics is well noted. Not just in one country, this has occurred in numerous countries and we seem loath to stop it. Infectious disease experts tell us that three out of four epidemics and pandemics commence when a virus jumps from an animal to a person.

They also tell us that the animals concerned are not always wild animals. Often, they are ordinary domesticated livestock such as cows, pigs, sheep, ducks and chickens. The conditions in which these animals are often raised and treated is beyond comprehension. The prevention of future pandemics is but one aspect of a need for change in our attitude and treatment of animals. Over two thousand years ago, Pythagoras had decided, “As long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other.”

Even in the Christian tenets of the Ten Commandments, I do not recall ever reading a suffix to the Commandment—Thou Shalt Not Kill. Where does it say, only humans? If we are calling to a non-violent world or taking the first steps to a less violent world, then the call begins for the most vulnerable. If the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated, perhaps we should be searching for the greatness of humanity, across the globe.

4. Developing our ‘inner swaraj’; inner governance

As much as Gandhi sought freedom for his country, and as much as utilising non-violence was paramount to him in achieving this freedom, he sought the same for within—an inner swaraj, an inner voice, an inner justice that would guide his thoughts, behaviours and actions.

Spending time, or as the group Initiatives of Change terms it, Quiet Time, practicing inner listening can provide us with answers to our troubled questions. I am testament to this, as over the last several years I have deepened this practice.

A respondent to my survey captured this well: “Corona has put humans in our place—we cannot control the things we have imagined we could like nature (virus/climate) and finances, we cannot control anything but ourselves. That is what each of us must learn to do.”

I recall one day, flicking through social media, I became so disheartened with the cacophony of noise—just blinding noise across the airwaves, distorting clarity on finding lateral solutions to the world’s issues. I remember in sheer frustration walking out to the balcony and clearly thinking, ‘How do I raise my voice above the din?’ A message came back, immediately, on the ether. ‘You don’t, you whisper.’

This idea of whispering made instant sense to me. I remember my mother, when we were young. She had 4 children under the age of 4. Can you imagine it? I can’t even imagine it from a mother’s perspective, and I was one of those children! What did she do when we got too noisy? Too bouncy? Too much? She started whispering. It was a tactic that worked instantly but she never explained it to me until I was a mother myself. The minute she whispered, we stopped to tune in our ears. What was she saying? The only way to hear her was to stop and listen intently. Then, magically, we would calm and begin whispering in response.

The world has enough violence and has had enough of violence. Whether this is physical, emotional, economic, political. Why add more? Whisper into the din, and, as Gandhi suggested, “begin gently shaking the world.” The world will calm in response. Remain stridently solution focused whilst we take action in our own domain, and our inner domain—our inner swaraj.

Let’s take this into the current realm where protest can rapidly become extremely violent. When people claim their civil rights, I understand the pain and torment being expressed. Yet they do have a choice as to the actions they next take. I would invite them to study, as others have done, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, the extraordinary effects of non-violent civil disobedience. When you claim your civil rights, make every attempt to make your rights civil.

I recently saw a different form of protest. Thousands of people standing in a public square in complete silence, protesting in Turkey. “Baffling the police by creating a calm curiosity, instead of tension and aggression.” It was labelled ‘A new form of protest.’ But of course it’s not new at all. It’s Gandhian-old, even older than his campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience. The power of silence. Fortitude. John Lennon explained it—“When you use violence, you are using the system’s game. Once they’ve got you violent, they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humour.” Gandhian philosophy invites us to practice our inner swaraj and our inner listening. Adhere to that inner voice of non-violence. Find new and lateral non-violent ways to solve our personal and our global issues. It can be done. “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” M.K.Gandhi.

5. Gandhi and taking action. Are the children really our future?

I hear this phrase a lot. ‘The children are our future.’ I understand the essence of this statement, that one day we ‘oldies’ will die and the younger generations will be the leaders of tomorrow. Yet, please, stop. I have been saying this loud and clear in my lessons on Global Citizenship—‘We are all our future.’ Please do not place this burden of responsibility on our kids to fix this mess. ‘Change begins with me.’ Every one of us has a role to play.

Let’s try this on for size. Gandhi was 45 years old when he returned from South Africa to India and began to lead a non-violent campaign to remove the overlords from his country. He was 60 when he led the symbolic Salt March, a 390 km walk to the beaches of Dandi, in violation of the British law that Indians could not make their own salt. Similarly, Nelson Mandela was 71 when released from prison and four years older again when he was elected as President of South Africa, beginning a new and significant chapter in his life and the life of the nation.

“Change begins with me” doesn’t equate to “Change begins with our children.” “Me!” Say it loud and clear. “Change begins with me.” And by me I mean you! Own it! Step up to it! How are you going to be the change? How are you going to begin experimenting with peace?

Our children and grandchildren will have a future when we all decide to step up and do more to co-create this future together. Each one of us has a part to play to #Achievethechange.

Once you go down the Gandhi Rabbit Hole, there’s no returning. You will be led on a merry dance, going ever more deeply into developing your own philosophy for your life and your values to live by, which in turn will ripple effect their way across the world. For me, sitting in my lockdown lounge-classroom in Melbourne, today I have 64 Chinese teachers in my Global Citizenship class—25 in class together, 39 online. They have just told me they will take this lesson into their classes—to teach their students not only to protect nature, but to love nature. Taking the learning to a whole new level of connectedness that our world is crying out for. Amazing humanity.

In the break time, the Chinese teachers in class get up, put on music and dance together, whole heartedly. I watch them through my zoom screen. Their fun is infectious. I dance with them in my lounge-room, a crazy joy-filled woman. Gandhi would be delighted.

Award winning author and educator Margaret Hepworth is an expert in teenage motivations & behaviours; a thought leader in peace education; the founder of education initiative The Gandhi Experiment; runs the Global Action Now monthly forums; an English and Humanities teacher of 30 years; author of The Gandhi Experiment—teaching our teenagers how to become global citizens; Clarity in Time; and Collaborative Debating. She is the recipient of the Sir John Monash Award for Inspirational Women’s Leadership 2016 and the IABCA Community Achievement Excellence Award 2019

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