One of the most famous quotes repeated on the internet and printed in various self-help books is the following, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
While these words are usually attributed to Gandhi, it is unclear if the quote actually came from him. Still, whoever said it, the sentiment is both valuable and important. But what, exactly, does it mean?
The truth is, voluntary service is one of the foundations of any free society. While government takes care of a number of societal problems, some challenges are more effectively handled by voluntary organizations or individuals who see needs in the community and set out to help. Indeed, this is the basis of community.
Voluntary service blesses communities by providing needed manpower and donations in various charities, the arts, hospitals and care centers, schools, out-of-school activities for youth and children, holiday celebrations, and many other venues. If you’ve ever participated in a service project to clean up a neighborhood, sang holiday carols at an long-term care facility, coached a youth team, prepared survival kits for international victims of floods or earthquakes, donated to Goodwill or a second hand store, or helped out a local church group or scouting unit, you’re already part of “Being the Change.”
Such service is an excellent way to show your citizenship. In fact, the word “citizen” is related to the words “city,” “civic,” “civil,” and “civilian.” It is also related to “civilize,” which is what we do with our neighbors when we put aside our own needs for a few hours and serve others, and “civilization,” which is what we are building during such efforts.
Without voluntary service in a society, a lot of the heavy lifting needed to run our towns and cities simply wouldn’t get done. In fact, two more related words are “culture” and “enterprise.”
First, culture. Any culture is simply a composite of the choices and actions of all its inhabitants, and those cultures where voluntary service to others is a high priority are generally happier, more positive, and more prosperous. For example, the Compact Oxford Thesaurus lists the following as synonyms of civilized: cultured, cultivated, refined, enlightened, advanced. We can “Be the Change” in our communities and nations by taking direct action to serve people in need.
Second, another way to “Be the Change” is to engage in free enterprise. This is an interesting phrase, and it has a truly powerful meaning. Free enterprise is any behavior or choice that a person or group makes in order to try something new and, hopefully, better. Often free enterprises are business ventures, but they can also be as simple as service projects or charitable events.
One of the best things about a free society is that people don’t have to wait around for government to do everything. Instead, each of us can look around, see things that are needed, and freely take action. Of course, it’s important to do little research first and make sure to do things wisely and legally. In this process, sometimes you’ll find that a group of people or some organization is already hard at work on the very thing you want to help with.
Without getting too nerdy here, it’s worth pointing out that the Star Trek movies popularized the idea that “enterprise” is connected with the phrase “Boldly go where no one has gone before,” and that’s exactly what free enterprise is all about. It consists of using creativity and innovation to make a difference in our communities, towns, and cities. Free enterprise is using our freedom to really improve the world—a little bit at a time.
This seems to be exactly what “being the change you wish to see in the world” is all about. If you’ve been thinking about something important that is needed in your community, or if you’ve felt that something is missing in your life and you want to really make a positive difference, voluntary service is a great way to get more involved.
For some people, the idea of starting an organization in order to help others is exciting and even refreshing. If that level of effort seems too big for you, look around at the various non-profit, community, and business organizations in your area that are doing important things to make a positive difference. Then research some of them and find out how you can help.
Just a few hours of personal service or a few dollars donated can sometimes go a long way in helping a lot of people. Look around. You’ll be surprised by how much some organizations and individuals are doing that really helps—and how much a little help from you can make a huge difference in their success.
This is one of the most effective means of real citizenship. When free enterprise flourishes because more citizens are seeing what is needed and taking action—big or little—our whole society improves. You really can “Be the Change,” just by finding good efforts in your community and helping them succeed.