What is freedom? Can freedom and commitment go together?
“What did you do before pursuing Vedanta full- time? What guided it? ” these were some of the questions people asked me here, in the Vedanta course in India. In response, here is a reflection of my personal journey of freedom and commitment as well as some factors for consideration to lead change. What is freedom?
When I was younger and foolish, I used to think that Freedom meant I could do what I liked and avoid what I disliked. Words like ‘commitment’, ‘duty’, and ‘responsibility’ were words that only elder people used, especially, when they wanted to give advice. Freedom was being free from responsibilities and commitments. Yes, that was it. As I grew older and wiser (hopefully), there seemed something wrong with the earlier understanding of freedom, the understanding of independence.
My work, in Mumbai involved running a counselling centre for street children – children who were abandoned and had run away from home. In listening and responding to the heart- rending stories of loss and hope, courage and helplessness, family reunions and family break ups, there was a lot to learn. We worked with children affected by drugs, violence and abuse, to see how, with small steps life could be changed – for the better. Perhaps, problems with the step mother may still be there for little R, still his positive, supportive relationship with his sister and teacher in school could help R work hard in school. And so life continued, allowing us to help 30-40 children and youth, one child at a time.
For restless me, that was not enough. More children had to be reached out to. That was non- negotiable. Around this time, my exposure to Vedanta, my limited understanding of India – its political, socio-economic realities, my understanding of Indian culture and how it has sustained dharma grew exponentially. As an Indian citizen, 15th August- Independence Day, over the years came to be associated with a lot of symbols: the tricolour flag, the national anthem, watching the Republic Day on TV, patriotic songs etc.. Rummaging through the symbols, there were a few things that became evident – India’s independence lay in living independently – her culture, her ways of living, her ways of doing things, the thought processes that unified India and most importantly India’s people that carried the above from generation to generation. Independence from the British, as important as it was, was a return or a regaining of the independence that belonged to India in the first place. What does living a life of freedom mean?
From the sceptical and cynical thought process of “India is so corrupt, nothing will ever change, the politicians cannot be counted on…it had a glorious past but the reality when we look at the living conditions of some people stink.” etc, it changed proactively to, “ I will do what I can for India because it needs to be done. I am privileged to be born into this great, free country; I owe it to this country to preserve its heritage and culture. Culture is transmitted from generation to generation by its people. If culture has to be protected, its people need to be protected. Children and youth especially the ones who are disadvantaged, need to be protected the most. ” From the thought process, of “What can one person do?” it changed to, “Change always starts with one person.” As we started to align with agencies that worked with children and youth in the country, every year more than 12,000 children‘s lives began to be changed across the country. This phenomenal work continued for 10 years and still continues. The bondage of children and youth from limiting conditions of illiteracy, poverty, violence were being loosened, bit by bit. Some of the changes were: better access to education, getting off drugs, returning home, getting medical care, having supportive relationships, improvement in conditions of government homes for children, increased sensitivity of police to children.
For restless us (by then me had grown to we – a committed group), that was not enough. What about the families? What about the government systems for care and protection of children? How can change be positive and sustainable? And so, another series of projects began, which collaborated with the government systems, challenged them, held them accountable by doing something simple – asking them to explain themselves on what they said they would do and what they actually did. By mobilising the power of a group and collective thinking, pressure on government systems was built not by taking them to task but focusing on good governance – as citizens, how could we help the government do its job better? It was not taking a helpless victim stance, “Government should protect the weak, after all we have no power.” It was taking a proactive position, “as citizens, we have certain rights and we fulfill our responsibilities. What can we do to ensure that the Government fulfil its responsibilities?” After all, the Government systems were not made up of people from outer space, but people like you and me. It was not easy. It is never easy but we recognised that change takes time, patience and perseverance.
The status of freedom for India and her people lies in being free from limiting conditions of bureaucracy, corruption, illiteracy, poverty and indefinite dependence on bigger countries for international aid. Living the Freedom did not mean doing what one liked or disliked. Living the Freedom meant living a life of commitment to freedom - doing what is required to be done, changing what needs to be changed – promoting conditions suitable for the well being of citizens in all respects. So that the nation thrives and prospers.
How did we manage to contribute to social change and live a life of commitment to freedom? What are the things to consider if one wants to lead change?
- You are a leader if you can lead change in your own life. It is better to sort ones’ life out before trying to help others sort theirs.
- Identify a condition (problem) that needs to change: A problem is any condition that compromises the well being of a person, group or community. This requires seeing the situation of the group objectively and hearing their perspective. It is not imagining a problem where there is none. Most people try to fight helplessness by distracting themselves or rationalising it. Transform helplessness into doing what needs to be done and what will have an impact. Identify any social problem in the neighbourhood, community. It could be children in need, older people who need some support, friends who require some assistance in a skill that you possess.
- Define change using SMART principle – Change that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time bound. An example of a change statement we implemented: xxx children in need on the streets in 8 states of India would be protected and have overall development in xx years. The numbers of children were specific (based on research), ‘overall development’ – educational, physical and emotional development focused on being attainable and realistic. The number of years to be taken for this indicated the time bound aspect- is it short/medium or long term that could be achieved. A good change statement incorporates a change that leads to the well being of people and is a condition that is sustainable.
- Always keep the big picture in mind and commit to change – Change is never ever a magical overnight process. It requires careful, meticulous planning of time, people and resources involved. Changes in a society take generations, that does not stop us from doing what needs to be done. Identify factors that support and constrain factors for change. Needless to say, have a tentative plan. Anybody who has tried to implement change at a personal level, for example quitting smoking knows that there are many steps forward and backward that one takes. In the end, being on the path matters, despite setbacks. When one focuses on a change statement or the goal in other words, one plans backwards in terms of the most effective and efficient ways to achieve it. Just because one has 1000 blankets from a wholesale factory, does not mean that what the children in South India need the most are blankets.
- Focus on what you can do and not on what you cannot do: The reason many of us get frustrated and feel helplessly paralysed in a problem situation is because we focus on what we cannot do. The moment we break down the solution into a series of simple steps and start to focus on what we can do, given the resources, time, skills we have, things start to shift.
- Just do it
- Share your story of change. Real life stories have a magical power to inform, inspire, promote independent thinking and integrate learning. I just did.
Happy Independence Day! Happy Living a life of freedom!