The growing movement sparked by the outrage over George Floyd’s murder — and countless others, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — has led to a long overdue reckoning with racism in our country. Symbols that were once celebrated are being rightly taken down. But true change at the systemic level is going to have to include change at the personal level. We have to decide who we want to be, not just collectively, but as individuals. And we have that power. Real change has to be grounded in the belief that people can be better.
The idea of redemption and possibility is at the heart of every spiritual tradition, and many political movements. No one is ever perfect. And at the same time, no one is ever beyond redemption. As Nelson Mandela put it, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
We can always become a better version of ourselves. In fact, we’re driven to. We all have within us that drive for becoming, for self-discovery, for meaning. As Michelle Obama wrote in her best-selling memoir, Becoming, “For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”
So how do we tap into that vision of a better self? That’s the work of a lifetime, but it starts in small, everyday ways. It’s about changing our behavior — not just manners or etiquette, but behavior that flows from the heart.
In his study on the roots of selflessness and altruism, Dr. Ervin Staub from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, looked at those who had risked their lives in order to protect Jews during World War II. He wanted to see what made someone choose to be an ally as opposed to a bystander. “Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps,” he told The New York Times. “Heroes evolve: they aren’t born. Very often the rescuers made only a small commitment at the start — to hide someone for a day or two. But once they had taken that step, they began to see themselves differently, as someone who helps. What starts as mere willingness becomes intense involvement.”
It’s exactly how habit change works — by being willing to take a first step, believing in the possibility that we can be someone better and then following our aspiration and continuing to take small steps. That’s how we can transform ourselves. We become virtuous by the practice of virtue, empathetic by the practice of empathy and compassionate by the practice of compassion. We build up our moral muscle by exercising it. Without the authority of this moral instinct to improve ourselves, our ethical sense becomes nothing more than a fear that there may be something or someone watching.
Theoretically, even our criminal justice system is built on the idea of redemption. For most crimes, there’s a release date. It’s an implicit acknowledgement that we’re more than our worst moments, that we are capable of becoming our better selves. But, in reality, as Van Jones shows in his compelling eight-part CNN series, “The Redemption Project“: “American prisons are built on the idea of retributive justice, where the primary goal is to punish and seek vengeance… The problem is that adding harm to harm inevitably produces more harm. Too often, people come out of prison bitter — not better.” Restorative justice, he wrote, “shifts our understanding of crime and punishment and asks us to use a completely different logic. The goal is not to create more damage, but to create more healing.”
Focusing less on ourselves, reaching out to others and widening the circle of our concern are the best ways to create more healing and to connect with our better selves. We’ve long known the power of connection and empathy. “No one can live happily who has regard for himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility,” wrote Seneca in A.D. 63. And science has confirmed that empathy, compassion and giving — which is simply putting empathy and compassion into action — are the foundation of both our well-being and our better selves.
History is moving very fast right now. And that’s as it should be — the building blocks of systemic racism should have been toppled long ago. But to make the most of this moment and create lasting change — and bring others along with us — we also need to remember the healing power of redemption. As author and activist bell hooks asked: “How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”
There are many ways to put it to work. In New York, a new group of over 400 Black stylists, editors, models and fashion and beauty executives has come together to create the Black in Fashion Coalition to promote diversity and Black advancement in the fashion and beauty industries. Part of the effort involves moving past cancel culture to what co-founder Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, calls accountability culture. “We want to allow people to rise to the occasion of changing,” she said.
We all need to be accountable both to our communities and to our better selves. And there’s no time to wait. As the 19th-century poet Adelaide Anne Procter wrote, “We always may be what we might have been.”
The key, as Dr. Staub showed, is simply taking that first step. That is how the big changes we need will be made — and sustained.
Subscribe here for my Weekly Thoughts Newsletter, where you’ll find inspiration and actionable advice on how to build healthy habits, resilience and connections in our unprecedented times.