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Reading the news can be overwhelming. From the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to reports of giant holes in Siberia due to climate change, it’s difficult to sort through the plethora of issues around the world. I feel like I ought to do something to help but am reminded of Sheena Iyengar’s talk on TED wherein she points out the paralyzing effect of too many choices. Considering the number of causes and people who need help, how does one prioritize?

Where are we?

This is not the first time I’ve felt this way. I once told a friend that I wanted to go abroad to volunteer in some poverty-stricken country. My friend asked if I had the will to help those abroad, why I don’t start with those in my own backyard. He then took me to a local homeless shelter where I found many individuals with stories as worthy of compassion as those I had heard about from other countries.

Over the years I have encountered numerous stories of both local and “distant” characters. However, I must confess that despite the worthiness of each case, I have yet to sustain action on any of them. I began to question my motivation. It was depressing to say the least.

I think part of the problem is that the definition of “backyard” is not clear. What constitutes one’s backyard depends on where one perceives one is situated. What is a location? For those who study geography, they are well familiar with the social, political and economic factors that influence the definition of a place. And that’s not to mention the technological inventions that have shrunk the perceived “distance” between places.

I currently live in Vancouver (founded in 1886), British Columbia (founded as a British colony in 1858 and became a province of Canada in 1871), Canada (founded in 1867). This area has also been recognized as traditional Musqueam territory for thousands of years. Before moving here, I lived and worked in South Korea and Toronto, studied in Ottawa and was born in Victoria. My parents are from Hong Kong and my grandparents are from different parts of China. Depending on how far back one goes, we may all well be from Africa or even outer space! So, how is one to define the borders of one’s “backyard”? And even if we are able to do so, how do we choose which “place” to associate with more?

Who are we?

Some people may prefer to associate themselves not with place but with their gender, political ideology, religious beliefs, professional occupation or personal interests.

Recently there have been many talks on the benefits of practicing mindfulness. According to Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, we need to start with ending the violence within ourselves and in our relationships with those around us. From there, our goodwill and energy might then spread to create true peace in the world.

If you do not know how to take care of yourself, and the violence in you, then you will not be able to take care of others.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh

I found myself both deflated and inspired by this approach. On the one hand, it feels anti-climatic. Socially, I believe many of us – at least in North America – have been brought up to seek external measures for success (money, political influence, etc.). Seldom are introspective gains (personal and spiritual development) as celebrated. For one accustomed to such orientation, suddenly taking away the objectives of social recognition and reward might feel a bit emptying. On the other hand, as the 2011 documentary, Happy, demonstrated, human emotion is often independent from material circumstances. So, by placing the onus on the individual to be responsible for finding peace within him/herself, it makes the feat of “saving the world” a little more accessible.

That said, the definition of “self” is no more clear than the determination of one’s location. As soon as we are born, we are someone’s son/daughter/sister/brother and citizen of a town/city/province/territory/nation and have all the socio-political labels associated with those. And that is even before we can decide for ourselves – or have decided for us – what our professional/personal inclinations may be. Thus, one’s “wellbeing” may differ depending on individual circumstances and the question of “where to begin” remains.

A call for self-determination

We each have multiple identities. For example, depending on the situation, I may be considered Canadian, female, Chinese, human, an employee, a friend, a global citizen, a composite of H2O and carbon dioxide, etc. But who is to decide which aspect(s) of my identity is (are) ultimately more important than the others?

In my observation, many of the conflicts of the world seem to stem from situations where labels of identity – racial, gender, ethnic etc. – are applied in such a manner that one group becomes disenfranchised in favour of another. Slaves were exploited by colonialists, women were subordinated by patriarchal society and indigenous people were confined by arbitrary laws.

Nonetheless, while there is no denying that some of us have access to more choices than others, I believe it’s a greater shame to squander opportunities to act (however limited) on discussions about who is more or less pitiable as a “victim of circumstance”. Few of us have the level of influence necessary to change circumstances for everyone else. That is not to say that we should not be willing to help one another. On the contrary, I believe the significance is in how help is provided. Are we providing help such that we enable others to help themselves? Or are we simply making them more dependent to satisfy our own egos?

I would like to propose that if we are to be tasked with the responsibility of acquiring our own peace that everyone should have the opportunity to choose his/her own identity. No matter how difficult, it is essential that we develop an awareness for how external circumstances (social, political, economic, etc.) affect us and then make a deliberate choice (to the extent we are able) regarding how much influence we would like those factors to have on our internal orientations.

“Put yourself in a state of mind where you say to yourself, ‘Here is an opportunity for me to celebrate like never before, my own power, my own ability to get myself to do whatever is necessary’.”Martin Luther King

By starting with self-determination, we take responsibility for ourselves and our circumstances and everything we do should then help to liberate ourselves from both our external and internal conflicts.

Conclusion

I am not exactly sure where my desire to engage comes from but I suspect that part of it may come from my desire to find a purpose – to find a place from which I can contribute to this life and the world. For however I may have arrived to this life (family and parental circumstances) and wherever I may go after (whether or not there may be an afterlife), I have decided that I want to give my best effort and make the most of the opportunities/challenges that I am presented with.

I am fortunate in that I was born to a time and place wherein I am relatively free to choose what I want to be. Confusion and fear still persists all around and within me but from my chosen perspective, I am able to decide on a course of action for myself. It is, of course, work in progress but perhaps, by connecting with more like-minded individuals, we can further inspire each other to find our own salvation from anger and aggression. Thus, we may have already begun to save the world.