From reining in Wall Street to preventing the next oil spill and tackling global climate change, we often hold back from taking important public stands because we’re caught in a trap I call “the perfect standard.” Before letting ourselves take action on an issue, we wait to be certain that it’s the world’s most important issue, that we understand it perfectly, and that we’ll be able to express our perspectives with perfect eloquence. We also decide that engagement requires being of perfect moral character without the slightest inconsistencies or flaws.
Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, tells the story of how his grandfather’s family mortgaged everything they had–their land, their jewelry, everything of value–to send Gandhi to law school. Gandhi graduated and passed the bar, but was so shy that when he stood up in court all he could do was stammer. He couldn’t get a sentence out in defense of his clients. As a result, he lost every one of his cases. He was a total failure as a lawyer. His family didn’t know what do to. Finally, they sent him off to South Africa, where he literally and metaphorically found his voice by challenging the country’s racial segregation.
I love viewing Gandhi not as the master strategist of social change that he later became, but as someone who at first was literally tongue-tied–shyer and more intimidated than almost anyone we can imagine. His story is a caution against the impulse to try and achieve perfection before we begin the journey of social change.
“I think it does us all a disservice,” says Atlanta activist Sonya Vetra Tinsley, “when people who work for social change are presented as saints–so much more noble than the rest of us. We get a false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, they never had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light. But I’m much more inspired learning how people succeeded despite their failings and uncertainties. It’s a much less intimidating image. It makes me feel like I have a shot at changing things too.”