Is it really important to practice what you preach?
Must we really become the change we wish to see in the world?
As I try to work in my life and community to create a peaceful and sustainable existence, these are questions that churn in my head daily.
On a personal level, I think a lot of us struggle with living out the values we hold - we have aspirations and ideals about ourselves and the world we live in that can seem hard to enact, even when the path might feel clear.
But when you start to talk about how the rest of the world could be - even should be - the conversation goes beyond issues of self-discipline, time management, or having sufficient support and encouragement. When we talk about sharing a message with others about how we want the world to be and perhaps suggest they change their behavior to get there, it becomes a question of whether there's a practical or ethical obligation to already first be living out that existence well as the messenger.
Some people say you have to transform your own life first before you can expect others to transform theirs at your suggestion. Do we?
In Favor of Evangelistic Integrity
There's certainly an issue of credibility that comes with bringing a message of change or new ways of looking at an issue. If you can't demonstrate that your suggestion is working well for you, how can you expect others to follow? If you don't follow your own advice, how can you speak with any authority? This is probably why we subject our spiritual, political, and community leaders to such thorough scrutiny and hold them to a "higher standard" - if they're to lead us in these critical areas, we think their levels of purity and integrity should be above and beyond ours.
Further, people generally look up to other people who model choices and lifestyles that they want to achieve themselves. When someone has fought a demon or barrier that we're fighting, and we see that they've won, it gives us hope and inspiration. Just as we might only expect true solace in the loss of a loved one from someone else who has experienced a similar loss, we tend to open ourselves more to the teachings and suggestions of those who have gone down the path we're on now and found something good.
As a practical matter, you can get a lot of useful information from practicing what you preach (depending on the topic). If I'm to encourage people to use a rain barrel to collect rainwater for re-use, it helps a lot if I've actually set up a rain barrel and put it to use, as opposed to having just read about it on the Internet. I can still offer the initial suggestion, but when they ask "how will I attach it to my gutter system," and I give them a blank stare, my utility in the conversation is limited.
Against Requiring That You Become the Change First
Why might we not need to practice what we preach? What could possibly justify this seeming lack of integrity?
For one, we might have a sense of urgency about the changes that we're suggesting, and the overwhelming number of things that need to be changed, such that we don't think we have enough time to really become the change we wish to see. If it takes me three years to figure out how to be an expert on growing my own food, should I really wait that long to start talking to others about how they grow their own food? If I know that a community tool shed might benefit a friend's community but I haven't had time to start one up in mine, should I wait to suggest it? I'm not sure that there's enough time for such delays.
Another big one for me: if the positive impact you can have by being a hypocrite is greater than the positive impact you can have by demonstrating total integrity, why stand on principle? Doesn't the practical nature of the need for changes in our culture dictate an imperative to act, even as hypocrites?
Former Vice President Al Gore is a great example of this question in action: the lifestyle choices that are implied in his "Inconvenient Truth" talks would probably suggest that flying around the world using fossil fuels to visit hundreds or thousands of audiences every year is not sustainable. But, if Al Gore didn't do those things, awareness about climate change would be much lower than it is now. Some have criticized other parts of Gore's lifestyle - where he lives, what he drives, etc. - but I think it would be hard to deny that he's significantly reduced the collective carbon footprint of so many people that those concerns fade away, from a purely quantitative standpoint.
I think about this with some the historically environmentally harmful processes that are involved in the production of the high-tech equipment that powers our Internet connected existence. Lots of people, myself included, use that Internet every day to lobby for more sustainable production processes (or name your other favorite social justice/environmental concern), and the irony can sometimes be hard to swallow.
There are myriad precedents for flawed human beings creating significant and lasting positive change, sometimes even in the areas where they were flawed. There are the pastors who guide families of their congregations through moral crises while quietly abusing their own spouses or children. There are the civil rights advocates who changed the world but struggled with inner demons, the political leaders who spread messages of hope and peace while ignoring their own pessimism and violence. It's hard to suggest that any of the figures who have shaped our lives for the better while failing in some other area should have withdrawn from their messages of change, though perhaps they should have been more transparent about and aware of their failings.
Lastly, living out a certain model of change or personal transformation sometimes requires being surrounded by others who are doing the same, perhaps even in such quantities as to trigger a tripping point before the actual transformation is possible. If I want to get around town by bike more instead of car, I might encourage others to do the same, but I might not actually live that desire out until my community becomes more bike friendly. As much as we can desire change, speak about change, advocate change, sometimes we have to be a part of a movement of others changing at the same time to actually live it out.
Some especially tricky areas to think about:
- What kind of a model do we present for our children? Do we encourage them to favor practicality over integrity or vice versa? Will they know where to draw the line?
- The question of the use of violence often brings up these dilemmas. Can I harm or kill one person in order to heal or save the life of another? If I seek peace and abhor war, how do I respond when corporations and governments and polluters conduct war on my community, my water supply, my environment? What does practicing peace look like then?
- We must be careful not to construct such duality in our lives that we can justify any lapse of integrity. Our sense of self and the values we stand for does seem to matter quite a bit in terms of happiness, ability to connect and love others, and more. There may be some joy in preaching successfully, but it's hard to imagine a fulfilling existence that is only about spreading the word and not benefiting from it.
So, those are some thoughts that fly around in my head when I try to answer that question about practicing what I preach. My conclusions? I don't have any solid ones to offer, but here's where I'm at right now:
- I think we can educate and create change from a position of aspiration, without achieving personal perfection in a given area.
- We must be transparent about and vulnerable to our hypocrisy and its impacts, sometimes asking for forgiveness.
- We must respect those who do want to stand on principle and only speak out from a place of successful personal transformation, and they will hopefully reciprocate.
The change I wish to see is bigger than me and my personal struggles with integrity, but all we really have is what we do with our time here...I'll be content to be remembered as one who struggled, but acted anyway.
One thought on “On practicing what you preach”
When I'm put in the position of advocating something I haven't tried myself, I usually take the route of "I haven't tried this yet, but I hear..." or
"I haven't gotten around to trying this myself, but you might think about looking into..."
I think as long as you're open and upfront about your personal experience, it's legit. Obviously it does make a more forceful statement if one actually does practice that stuff, but not everything works for everyone, so sometimes we have to suggest possibilities for others that would never work for us. Then you just have to point out why that solution might be a good fit for your audience's specific situations, like "This would never work for me or most people, but one thing I've heard which may be exactly what you're looking for is..."
Keep up the good work!