Factors for a Transformational Life: Intention, Commitment, Action
As discussed in the previous column, empathy alone does not necessarily make people take action on behalf of others – much less the kind of conscious action that leads to transformation. Feelings in and of themselves are just not strong enough – particularly when other factors are in play (outer pressure, inconvenience, ideology, direct orders from others, etc.).
Being a member of a ‘civilized society’ also does not cut it, as members of the most civilized societies have perpetrated the most criminal acts upon their fellow citizens. The Soviet Union, Rwanda, Germany and other countries during the Third Reich, North Korea, China – all of these are or were relatively civilized societies. So if empathy does not cut it, and being a part of a ‘civil society’ with its clubs, culture and philosophy does not imply action on behalf of others, what does?
Generally one needs to have four factors in order to have the internal resources to act to help one’s fellow human beings – and these factors are also necessary to live a transformational life: these four factors are Intention, code, commitment and action.
The first is intention. One needs to have the strong intention within oneself that one will act to help others when the need arises. This is a specific and explicitly spelled out thought that one either decides on one’s own or has inculcated in them by others – parents, teachers, clergy, etc. Wherever it comes from, one needs to own it and internalize it as something that one feels strongly about and will act on even when it is difficult.
The next step is a code. A code is a set of specific moral values or ethical principles. It is a creed by which one lives one’s life. Various studies have shown that people who have a clear moral code or set of specific values tend to act in accordance with them even when the going gets tough. This is why ‘civil’ societies can be so uncivil. Unless that ‘civilization’ includes actual ethical values that are inculcated in families, taught in schools and modeled by both leaders and citizens, the thin veneer of even an advanced society can quickly crumble. What is true of societies is just as true for individuals – whether they are part of a lab experiment (look up ‘Zimbardo’ or ‘Milgram’ for two well-known examples) or whether they are people making real-life decisions about whether to shelter Jews, Tutsis or others at risk of their own lives (two interesting books on this topic are ‘Conscience and Courage’ by Eva Fogelman and ‘The Heart Has Reasons’ by Mark Klemper). Having a specific set of values and a clear code for action makes all of the difference.
The next step is commitment. One needs to not only have the general intention to live a life that values and helps others, one needs to not only have a code and set of values that give direction during confusing or difficult times, one needs to have made the internal commitment both on a general level as well as in each specific situation that one will act in accordance with that code or values when the situation arises.
Last (and most important) is action. Without action, all of the above is just theory. One needs to take the overall intention, the specific values, the commitment to act and then one needs to actually get into motion in each situation that calls for it. It is this last step – action – that makes all of the difference. It can be an action as simple as smiling at someone who looks sad – or it can be as profound as saving a life when the circumstance arises. In the next column we will spell out the principles and values of a transformational life.