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Not a sudden revolution in human nature but a gradual evolution in human institutions

Tony de Mello

My internet rambles threw up a contemporary philosopher that I hadn’t encountered before: Tony de Mello.  Catholic priest from Indian, Tony de Mello challenges our yo-yo swings between the idea that we can and should control the world and our irritation when we find out that we cannot.

With western thinking, frustration often drives us to despair

Tony de Mello uses a good example.  Someone jumps the queue and it irritates us.   Would we, he asks, take a sledge hammer to ourselves?   Why do we punish ourselves with a bout of ill temper?

Does putting aside our ill-temper mean we should accept unfairness passively?

Should we do nothing about the queue-jumper?  Quite possibly. Particularly if we are feeling ill-tempered.  We are unlikely to be effective.

But we shouldn’t be passive.   Our first task is to attend to our ill temper.  Then when we are in a clear and positive state of mind, we can see what if anything can be done.

Choices in tough conditions

In a separate post I found a longer description of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl’s explanation of the choices that we face under the direst of circumstances.

These are the three rules of thumb which I’ve tried to make concrete because I am still more comfortable with explanations of what “I do” rather than explanations of what “I be.”

#1 The world is not ours to control

I do feel better when I let go.  I can understand the world as scientist.  I can represent imaginative changes to the world as an artist.  But as a celebration of what is miraculous rather than as a need to control it.

#2 Other people are not here to do my bidding

It matters not whether I use force or charm.  People are not here for my purposes.

Rather I am able to build good relationships between myself and others.

#3 Accept that other people express fear, anger, pain, misery and spite

Of course, people will not be nice just because I am willing to be nice.  How nice are people when they crowd onto a commuter train or worry about their job security?  They will do what they will do.

What I am able to do is to be realistic about what they are feeling and doing and concern myself with how I react.  How does my interior world echo back events in the world to me?   What am I making of these events and am I absorbing their unpleasantness into my life?  It can be hard to remember that they are not here to do my bidding.  Nor I theirs.

To become discomposed by their actions is like remonstrating with boiling water for being hot.  I need to get a grip on irrelevant emotion, step back and consider the circumstances and my goals.

A gradual evolution in human institutions

When Barack Obama accepted his Peace Prize in Oslo this week, he quoted J F Kennedy.

“Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace–based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions–on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace–no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process–a way of solving problems.”

People won’t change.  But I can contribute by the slow improvement in the ways that we settle our differences.  And I can be realistic and expect to renegotiate our differences continually.  Daily. Calmly.

JFK went on.

“With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interest, as there are within families and nations. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor–it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that


We all inhabit this small planet.

We all breathe the same air.

We all cherish our children’s

future. And we are all mortal.


“Enemies between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever.  However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors.

So let us persevere. Peace need not be the impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.”

So I can persevere.  I need not be at odds with the world.  I will get further by not expecting perfection.  I will get further “By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.”

For that, I need to be in good shape.  To be in a good temper with the world.  It seems selfish to be happy.  It also seems tautological.  But it seems true that to be happy we must be happy.   Yes, here is the “be”.  As I am not that good at “to be”, I will just do happy!  I will not ignore the world. But first I will do happy.  Then I can attend to our relationships and institutions.  And then maybe the world won’t feel as it it needs to be controlled!

Maybe that is the goal?  To live in a way that we don’t feel as it the world is dangerously out of control.  First, attend to ourselves.  Then to our relationships.  And then we can celebrate the world as scientists and artists.

So an Indian Catholic priest, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the holocaust, a Roman Catholic President and Kenyan Ecumenical President ~ why do we find it so difficult to grasp what they are saying.  Well, begin by being happy.

Three video clips of Tony de Mello talking are here.

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