In mainstream US culture we have prioritized outcomes over process. As human beings, we have relatively short attention spans with memories lasting one brief lifetime. Because this is so, we often use immediate outcomes as the sole measure of our actions, disregarding the journey we are taking toward our goals. Our medical system is moving increasingly to an outcomes based reimbursement system. Our educational system has prioritized test scores above other aspects of learning. Our justice system focuses almost exclusively on crime statistics. Politically, we find ourselves sacrificing integrity for a promise of the fulfillment of our desires. All of these strategies have resulted in unintended harmful consequences for our nation.
A more radical view is that ends don’t justify means – rather, the means themselves are of utmost importance. Peace activist Mahatma Gandhi advocated for a systematic application of non-violent principles each step of the way toward a goal. In this view, compromising one’s highest values in the name of pragmatism or to get what we want is never appropriate. If we adopted this way of being, it would mean that we would reject dissimulation, manipulation, coercion, domination, etc. as methods for achieving our goals. This seems almost unimaginable to most people. Yet when we use violence as a strategy and it seems we are “winning” in the short term, we often discover there is an immense cost to us over the longer term.
It’s easy to succumb to a misguided belief that it’s a sustainable solution for individuals or small groups to hoard happiness. This comes from a mind of fear, mistrust and scarcity. The negativity bias our human brains share, when unexamined, can lead to an over-focus on “I, me and mine“, disregarding or underplaying our fundamental interdependence. As a young person I was assigned to read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck in school. This novel explores the dangers of excess, cycles of oppression, and how the seeds of social unrest and violent revolution are sown in a growing gap between the haves and the have nots. It depicts a self-perpetuating cycle of taking, in which the extremes of overindulgence and desperation bring out our baser instincts and lead us to compromise our values. In one climactic scene, the impoverished and enraged majority ransacks the homes of the wealthy few, leading to a fresh repetition of the cycle of suffering.
In order to create lasting beneficial change we have to start where we are, which means we have to meet and accept what’s here – warts and all. It isn’t helpful to ignore unpleasant realities or try to leap over them. No matter how misguided or repugnant another’s views may seem to us, they must be heard before there can be the possibility for change. In music therapy there is something called the iso-principle, “a technique by which music is matched with the mood of a client, then gradually altered to affect the desired mood state” (Davis, Gfeller, & Thaut, 2008). This approach is also used in talk therapy when therapist affect and tone mirror the client and gradually shift toward a more equanimous state. When you think of your own experience, you will know this to be true. If you were feeling exhausted, down in the dumps, or irritated and somebody played the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, how would that impact you? Once I was in a car accident and in the aftermath, the radio kept playing this lighthearted tune making the experience even more disturbing. Study after study shows that we are more likely to connect when we feel in synchrony with one another.
Taking the time to examine our actions toward a goal and making sure they are in alignment with our highest values, even when we are feeling threatened or insecure, takes quite a bit of courage and equanimity. To be able to listen whole-heartedly, even when we initially feel anger, fear or disgust, requires much patience and compassion. Fortunately, all of these beneficial attitudes can be cultivated through practice. When we learn to be mindful of what is happening inside us and make space to see the bigger picture, it is more likely that our responses will be wise and beneficial.