With the end of the year fast approaching, I will inevitably be posed the question – “Dallas what did you learn this year?” This is usually not an easy question, as I’ve found myself to be a slow learner. But maybe with this being a year of profound change, featuring nights I felt I had reached the height of my powers, and nights I felt totally inadequate, I’ve been a little more self-reflective, and that answer comes a little easier.
What I’ve learned this year is that change is possible, but it doesn’t come from the top-down. If I want to see positive change, that change must come from the bottom up, originating in small groups, down to the smallest level of all. Any change I want to see must start in me.
This reality carries with it the hope and sobriety of responsibility. It means I can drive positive change through my actions in small groups, but bringing that change about requires self-sacrifice. And no one likes self-sacrifice. I find the modern treatment of farm animals distasteful, but if that requires me to become vegetarian, sorry to all the chickens in industrial farms. I, along with many of my peers, abhor the hyper-sexualized in popular culture, but when it comes to keeping our own sexual desires in a healthy confine, we are much less zealous. This is in a way natural, as our flawed world means all idealism is built partly on hypocrisy, but it deprives me of the moral high group, and renders me a flawed instrument of change.
We have this idea that if only we had the best vision, with the most talented leaders, pursuing the right policy, then positive change would come through our institutions, making our churches grow, our students learn, and our communities more cohesive. The individuals in these institutions are deemed largely irrelevant as we pursue the perfect system. Only this isn’t the way things work. My small group was much more formative for my spiritual development than our regularly scheduled large group. My hall is much more important in terms of how I enjoy college than who is in student government or which administrators are in charge of socializing the student body. The small group is significantly more conducive to creating change than the large group.
This isn’t to say top-down vision and leaders aren’t important. Bad leaders, especially jealous ones, can certainly be a drag, and leaders on the top can provide direction for others to follow. However, the leaders in formal roles, whether they be the RA on my hall, the student leader in a small group, or the captain of a sports team, would be effective leaders without the formal role, which only serves to add to their credibility and authority. Their real power lies in being able to persuade others to follow them, and that persuasiveness would exist regardless of their formal title.
Taking it back into the political and social realm, we all would be better served if we stayed true to what we profess. A lot of people complain about virtue signaling, which is the public expression of sentiments designed to demonstrate your good character. There’s nothing necessarily wrong about this, only we’ve prioritized the signaling over the virtues. It’s that missing virtue that movements are built on. If you’re concerned about the environment, that starts with you being a better steward, carpooling and recycling, not demanding more stringent regulation. If you want to create a culture that values human life, you need to treat human life as precious, even when that inconveniences you. The same logic can be applied to almost any social issue.
You might think “what can I do? I’m just a small drop in a large pond.” But this is beside the point. If you want to succeed, you have an obligation to avoid hypocrisy. It is a movement killer. History is littered with examples of this. Almost every dramatic change has been the byproduct on those formerly in power failing to live up to their standards. Similarly, most of what we see as the good change coming from the top-down, such as governments banning child labor or creating public education, was actually more of government codifying pre-existing individual change. It starts with you.
I want our world to be better – more virtuous, more honest, more civil, less addicted to outrage, choosing deep intimacy over cheap pleasure, better stewards of what we have, and so forth. And our movement to that place is going to be one hundred small group moving there in their own way, and it begins with me.
Thank you for reading. This was more personal than usual, sort of an end of the year reflection. I know I said I’d have this posted last Friday, but with finals and the start of my Christmas break I’ve been a little busy. I’m seeing Aquaman Thursday night, and Friday I’ll post my full review of it. This is my first time reviewing a movie on here, so it’ll be fun. Next week I’ll have a piece called “the second advent”, coming out probably the day after Christmas. In the meantime, be sure to hit that button in the bottom right to follow, and I’ll see you then.