A lot of us have heard the adage, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi). After ruminating on that adage today, I got around to thinking how you never see this quote in a context; it always stands alone on a bumper sticker or mug. In an effort to find out more, I googled the quote — and came across this interesting NYTimes Op/Ed which discusses the problem with misattributing and changing the words and ideas of other people; not surprisingly, a lot gets lost in translation.
As it turns out, popular adage “Be the change you wish to see” is a simplification of a longer quote by Gandhi — too long to put on a bumper sticker, of course, but even more worthy of knowing. While the “bumper-sticker” quote expresses some of it, it certainly doesn’t express all of it (… you can only fit so much on a bumper sticker, I suppose).
The popular adage goes as follows:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
The original quote goes supposedly like this:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. 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. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
(Source: VOL 13, Ch 153, General Knowledge About Health; Page 241, Printed in the Indian Opinion on 9/8/1913 From The Collected Works of M.K.Gandhi; published by The Publications Division, New Delhi, India.”)
The author of the Op/Ed, Brian Morton, writes about what is lost in translation:
Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.
Does the popular adage suggest “that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior”, as the Op/Ed suggests? Personally, I’m not sure about that – because for many, “being the change” does entail acting in such a way that influences the behaviors of others. Is it right to say that Gandhi (or any great thinker) spoke those words, even if the quote is more than 50% different than the original in both letter and spirit? I don’t know about that, either. Still, there is one clear point: it’s almost always worth it to seek out study the real words of our heroes and great thinkers because what we exposed to in everyday life is only the surface; the bullet point that summarizes years of work and thought (and often modified/oversimplified to fit the moral agenda of the day — or a bumper sticker).
Cheers to enduring curiosity and neverending study of things beneath the surface .