A few years back, I saw a sticker that read, “Be the change you wish to see in the world. –Gandhi.”
My knee-jerk reaction was annoyance because the sticker was affixed to the bumper of a car that turned left in front of me. I was in the middle of a long stretch of bad days, so pretty much anything would have set me off.
My search for happiness during that bleak period seemed fruitless, most likely because I didn’t know that happiness is not a destination where, upon arrival, we get to unpack our bags and stay forever.
Happiness is just one of many “rest stops” on the highway of life.
Just as rest stops are meant to come and go, so is happiness. We recognize a feeling in our conscious field, stretch into that feeling for as long as needed, and eventually, get back in the car and “drive” until the next one comes along.
Of course, there are other stops along the highway as well: loneliness, excitement, hope, anger, longing, etc. Eight months after ending a toxic relationship, I was spending an inordinate amount of time at the rest stop of shame. Not only had I allowed myself to stay in a relationship with someone who treated me poorly, I felt like a failure when the relationship ended. Seems I had special talent for beating myself up, both coming and going.
Each one of our feelings speaks to us in its own unique voice. For me, shame sounded like, “You’re a loser!” or “You’re boring!” or, my personal favorite, “No one will ever love you!” The voices of our feelings can tell us things that feel true but, in fact, are not true. When I heard the voice of shame, it took everything in my power to fight the urge to isolate from a world I was convinced I didn’t deserve to be part of.
The world seemed pretty dark at the time and I worried I would never find the light again. (This is what hopelessness sounds like, by the way.)
It was at precisely this time that Gandhi’s words came along, disguised as an obstacle in my path. Seeing those words reminded me that we cannot control how we feel; we can only control what we do with how we feel.
While I could not control shame, I could control how small I allowed it to make my world.
I had no idea how to “make” myself happy, but I was desperate to try anything. I decided to conduct a little social experiment to test Gandhi’s words. Because I wanted to transform shame into happiness, despair into love, it was up to me to sprinkle happiness and love into the world.
I called the experiment “The Mizvah Project” and challenged myself to perform at least one good deed per week. The good deed could be any action, small or large, as long as the net result would put more positive energy into the world. I wasn’t feeling too positively energetic at the time, so a week seemed plenty of time to do at least one small thing. (After all, starting from ground zero, there was nowhere to go but upward.)
Once the goal was set, I noticed a slight positive shift in perspective. I was no longer wondering what in the world could make the pain stop, I was asking myself what I could do to bring more love into the world.
The experiment began:
If I appreciated something about someone, I went out of my way to tell them. If I knew someone who was struggling and needed a sympathetic ear, I called and listened. If I saw a piece of trash on the sidewalk, I picked it up. A friend needed help redesigning her office, so I did it. If my son was having a bad day, I surprised him at school with takeout from his favorite restaurant.
Momentum didn’t take long to build, so I quickly bumped the target up to three mitzvahs per week. Augmenting the goal brought with it another noticeable shift in my worldview: a significant uptick in the compassion.
This was encouraging.
If a car turned left in front of me, I told myself the driver was probably lost and needed help; if someone was rude at the grocery store, I assumed they were having a bad day and needed extra patience; if I screwed something up, I spoke nicely and encouragingly to myself.
I began to believe—I mean in-my-core believe--that all human beings, even those who hurt us, are deserving of love and compassion.
It’s been years since The Mitzvah Project started. I am happy to report the shame that once felt like a constant companion has given way to greater connectedness with the people around me (whether they are trusted friends or complete strangers) and with myself. Overall, thankfully, I spend less time in despair and more time in contentment.
It hasn’t been all wine and roses since I started the project—shame still shows up on the highway from time to time. The difference is, where I once would have addressed the voice of shame with harshness and criticism, I now speak to it in a kinder, gentler voice; as if I were a child in pain.
Approaching our shame with loving curiosity eventually reduces shame’s need to manifest itself in ways that don’t serve us. Inside each of us is a deep well of love, patiently awaiting our own recognition. Mindful acts of kindness and compassion, however large or small, are the portals to this love.
If you have been spending more than your fair share of time at the rest stops of shame and despair, I urge you to consider asking yourself how you can bring to the world the change you wish to see.
The voice of shame may try to convince you that you cannot do it. Shame lies; don’t believe it. It is easy to overlook the gifts we can offer the world, just by showing up and giving of ourselves.
Perhaps there is someone in your life who could benefit from a pair of good ears and strong shoulders; a park in your neighborhood that could use a little clean sweep; an overdue birthday card that needs a stamp. Start small and, if you feel inspired, work your way up from there.
Shame can be stubborn and may stick around for a while, and that is okay. It is when we are visiting the rest stop of shame that we are most worthy of our own loving support.
When you feel the darkness, gently remind yourself that this is where you are right now; it is not who you are for always. Feelings are temporary—the next one will come along eventually. In the meantime, remind yourself that you are doing everything in your power to put loving energy into the world; this is enough.
Healing can be found in unexpected places when we embody the change we hope to see. Acting in service of bringing love and light into the world helps us find the love and light within ourselves. One good deed at a time, today’s despair slowly transforms itself into tomorrow’s hope.