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Personal Transformation: A Personal Integrity

by Erwin B. Laya

A philosophical reflection on social change

Society is replete with examples of persons who say one thing but to do something else, of individuals whose left hand pretends not to know what the right hand is doing, of people whose actions belie the very convictions they claim to cherish. While government officials and darlings of the media have the lion's share of public criticism, it only takes a modicum of self-examination to realize that all of us, in varying degrees, are troubled by the universal weakness of humanity, a factory defect characterized by the old adage: 'follow what I say, do not follow what I do.'

Many of us are familiar with the primary school textbook story of the boy who is model of behavior in school, but a little demon at home. In a very real sense, all of us are like that. We are plagued by a dichotomy between our actions and convictions, between what we know is right and what we actually do, between ideals and the reality of our personal faults. The double standards of judgment that we frequently, often without realizing it, apply to other people bears this out. We are quick to criticize the faults of other people, harangue the inconsiderate family member, or brand the government official spineless, but seldom give second thought to the possibility that perhaps we too are insensitive to the needs of our friends, or of our families, or make small compromises in our work. The cartoon character Charlie Brown speaks eloquently for us all: 'I love people. It's humanity I hate.'

Our flawed human nature, without exception, is always torn between the convenient, immediately apparent course of action and the more difficult path that must be trodden by those seeking what is authentically and objectively the correct thing to do.

Very often, we avoid directing this critical ray of judgment at ourselves. After all, criticizing other people is always the easiest and socially fashionable thing to do. We jump deliciously at the chance to point out the mistakes of people, but are slow to cast the same critical eye upon ourselves. While it seems that the acceptable norm is to become the self-righteous watchdog of government ineptitude and excess, or the loud conscience of the errant family member we accuse of never being able to do the right thing, or the responsible manager who corrects wayward subordinates at every turn, we nevertheless have to train the magnifying glass at ourselves. Often, we forget the truism that all charity begins at home — indeed, within ourselves. We should examine our own actions for the very faults we find in others. Perhaps we don't because subconsciously the discomfiting truth is that we are guilty too.

All change begins within. Improving society starts with self-improvement, which comes only with self-scrutiny. To change the whole of society, we begin with the individual parts that make up the whole, namely ourselves. All of us should therefore struggle to improve: in our use of the time, space, and other resources at our disposal. People must examine themselves critically: how have we deployed the resources made available to us? This is premised on the assumption that what we do redounds to the benefit or loss of others. This self-examination should boil down to the smallest things. Have we made good use of our time, starting our work on the dot, acting with a sense of urgency, and striving to finish ahead of schedule? Have we pushed ourselves to put things in the right place, keeping clean internally, and externally, maintaining only the essential things we need to work well, maintaining things so they can be used by others, and contributing to the general cleanliness of our surroundings? Have we been systematic in deploying our resources, employing them where they can be most beneficial, setting targets, following an orderly sequence, and operating within an effective framework? Because Providence has given us limited capital, we must make do with this scarcity, ordering our time, space, and other personal resources within a framework that benefits everyone. Our small activities — precisely because they take up space, time, and energy and therefore affect everyone else — should pass scrutiny before we even think of carping about other people's shortcomings.

This personal self-scrutiny is the flaw many self-styled advocates of social change overlook: they claim that oppressive social structures must be overthrown and replaced before any meaningful improvement in society can take place. They fail to see that the large social problems we see are, very often, the accumulation of small, individual weaknesses of the people who make up the system. This explains why, as is the case with failed communist societies, the substitution of the old 'oppressive' structure with a new 'liberating' one does not work unless their formulas call for change at the grassroots. Very often, only the players are replaced, with no real improvement to speak of. Historical evidence support this: invariably, the new structures merely aggravate the social excesses they intended to eradicate.

Thus any agenda for social change is bound to fail if it lacks the core formula of personal transformation. Without personal discipline, and personal integrity, no master plan for improving society can succeed.

© Erwin B. Laya 2005