“Be The Change You Wish To See In The World” — Misattributed, Misused, And Obscenely Underappreciated

Caitlin Johnstone
Jul 8 · 7 min read

Name a quote by Mahatma Gandhi.

Odds are the first thing that jumps into your mind is the famous, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s a good quote. It’s pithy enough to fit on a bumper sticker, and it resonates deeply with something inside us all which tells us that it points to something true and valuable.

But, like so many other pithy bumper sticker quotes we see floating around today, these words were never spoken by the person they’re attributed to. What Gandhi actually said was this:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

Oof. That’s a bit more confrontational than the popularized version, isn’t it? Change my own nature? I thought we were talking about something light and easy, like not wearing fur or buying fair trade coffee beans.

That’s how “Be the change you wish to see in the world” tends to get interpreted today. It’s a line that is so commonly regurgitated in our society that it’s now cliché and almost meaningless, something you see on cheap keychains at the mall and scan over without really reading, but assume you understand because you’ve seen it so many times before. If pressed to really think about it, most people will say it means something like make the changes in the world that you want to see. If you don’t like factory farming, become a vegan. If you don’t like poverty, volunteer at a soup kitchen.

But that isn’t what the quote says. It’s nothing like what the original one by Gandhi says. It’s not even what the stripped-down bumper sticker version says.

Even if you look at the popularized version of the quote, really look at it with fresh eyes that haven’t seen it thoughtlessly regurgitated by corporate liberals and plastered on K-Mart products, you come away with the same message as the original. It doesn’t say “Do the change you wish to see in the world.” It doesn’t say “Enact the change you wish to see in the world.” It says “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It isn’t referring to a mere change in behavior or lifestyle, it’s saying change who you are as a person. It’s saying change your own nature to change the world.

This is night-and-day different from the conventional interpretation. The conventional interpretation of the quote exists as a vapid platitude that people make fun of hippies and New Agers for over-using. A deep, visceral understanding of that same quote, however, conveys more wisdom than all religious texts in the world combined. It’s a call into a transformation that is more real than childbirth. More existentially confrontational than a terminal cancer diagnosis.

The first challenge of the quote is to get you thinking hard about what changes you do in fact want to see in the world. Most people never even get that far into it. Few have actually thought hard about what kind of world they’d like to see in a positive way that actually envisions what that world would look like. Most people only think in terms of the little partisan battles they’re seeing currently: universal healthcare, immigration policies, gun control, austerity policies, abortion, LGBTQ issues, police brutality, etc. Few people get as far as sitting down and deeply contemplating a positive vision for the kind of world they’d like to help create.

When I make an inventory of the changes I wish to see in the world, I know I want to see people consistently choosing health over the illusion of security.

I want them making choices with the highest interest of everyone concerned over their own self-interest, even if those choices make them feel exposed or vulnerable because they appear to go against their finances or tribal groupthink, or are outside their comfort zone.

I want people to be collaborative rather competitive.

I want people to start trusting that the steps will appear in front of them as we forge a path onto a new, undiscovered route rather than retreat to the well-trodden highways because they are familiar even though we already know they lead the wrong way.

I want to see people giving up their tribalism and embracing their humanism.

I want to see people loving themselves deeply enough to love others meaningfully and with clear eyes.

I want people to rise above the competing narratives and make their distinctions according to actions and reality rather than the stories of the manipulators or their own internal manipulations.

I want people to have the wisdom to acknowledge where they have power and privilege and use it courageously, and where they are powerless so they may force those in power to change our suicidal trajectory immediately.

I want people to tell the truth, even if at first it’s only to themselves.

I want people to choose life over death, every time, without hesitation, and I want them to always seek their solutions in life and healing and harmony and reject the solutions offered by death, destruction, manipulation, sabotage and chaos.

These are just my personal desires for the world. After laying those out, the next challenge posed by “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is far more serious, and, if undertaken, will remain front and center in your attention the rest of your life.

Looking at the changes I wish to see in the world, I endeavor to be someone who consistently chooses to press the “health” button even if it scares me, or others, or both.

I try to be someone who always chooses in the highest interest rather than manipulating it slightly so I get a bit more or I look a bit cooler.

I try to tell the truth even when my tribe is yelling at me to shut up, but I try to have the wisdom to only do that when it benefits everyone and not just to seek drama or attention.

I try to trapeze through life using my inner compass because I know for sure that my old paths never led anywhere good.

I try to not manipulate others, and I try to not manipulate myself in order to pretend to myself that I’m not manipulating others.

I try to love the parts of me that I see in others, especially those parts that make me cringe, but also I try to love myself enough to walk away from someone whose patterns are hurting me.

I try to make distinctions by what I see people doing rather than what I hear them saying, and I try to integrate my thoughts and my actions as much as possible.

I try to use my power and privilege for the highest interest of everyone, but I refuse to take responsibility for things outside of my control, and I pledge to hold those who do have that power to account.

I try always to tell the truth, even if it’s just to myself at times because in that instance I don’t have enough power and privilege to speak it without getting unjustly punished. But if it’s in the highest interest to take unjust punishment, then I choose that.

I choose life, every time, without hesitation, and I want to heal any blocks either in me or outside of me that is resistant to turning every atom of my being towards life and healing.

Of course I fail a lot, but I hope to continue to noticing when I fail and course-correcting as often as needed, because getting this right is much more important to me than feeling like I’m right. I want this more than I want the story of having this already. I want to change the world more than I want the story of changing the world.

Crucially, I want this more than I want “me”, more than I want the personality that I think of as “me”. Whole parts of my identity have had to die in order to change into something healthier and more agile, and there will be many more parts of me that have to die in the future, and I welcome that. I welcome that with a deep breath of trepidation because it’s not easy, and in the moment before letting go it feels like I really am dying, but I know that it has to happen, and the more I do it, the more positive reinforcement I get as my reluctance gets overridden with curiosity as to what will manifest in the space I’ve created. And I know that in any case it’s better than the alternative, which is a slow, actual death through stagnation.

Beyond the bumper sticker, I’m pretty sure ol’ Mahatma was on to something pretty huge. I’m pretty sure this is how we fix it. It calls to mind that other hackneyed chestnut, The Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” another saying that has eroded into superficiality but contains some deep wisdom if you take it on as your calling. If we all individually took sincere responsibility for the only thing we can actually change — ourselves — then the knock-on effects are unquantifiable.

And, inevitably, world-changing.

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Caitlin Johnstone

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Rogue journalist. Bogan socialist. Anarcho-psychonaut. Guerrilla poet. Utopia prepper.