Did Gandhi say, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world?” Nope. The story is more complicated than that.
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In his bestselling book, “Earth in the Balance” (1992), Al Gore recounts the story of watching his six-year-old son be hit by a car, and the months he and his wife spent nursing the boy back to health. That six-year-old is now in his 30s.
He writes that “something changed in a fundamental way” for him that year, 1989: he turned 40, watched his son almost die, and lost the 1988 Presidential election. (He came in a distant “I don’t remember him running that year” in the primaries to Michael Dukakis.)
On the same page as that list, page 14 in the revised edition, he writes that,
“This life change has caused me to become increasingly impatient with the status quo, with conventional wisdom, with the lazy assumption that we can always muddle through. Such complacency has allowed many kinds of difficult problems to breed and grow, but now, facing a rapid deteriorating global environment, it threatens absolute disaster. No one can now afford to assume that the world will somehow solve its problems. We must all become partners in a bold effort to change the very foundation of our civilization.”
(The former Vice-President does a far better job connecting the personal with the political than I did for him just now, immediately above; reading the long quote on its own, as I was typing it, I was reminded of a tire-screeching/pulling-the-stereo-needle-across-the-record sound effect. I thought to myself, “One minute, he was talking about turning 40, and then? This is connected to climate change how?” Okay. He spends the first dozen pages in the book laying out his political credentials as a leader trying to avert the environmental catastrophe that we are now 20-plus years closer to than when he was writing. And then he reveals something that few politicians admit, especially politicians who still think they have elections to run in: open vulnerability and teachability.)
(My own Al Gore cred: the first vote I ever cast for president was for him, in 1988, in the New York State Democratic primary, which Michael Dukakis won. I voted for Clinton/Gore twice and Gore in 2000.)
In the next paragraph, he decides to include Mahatma Gandhi for some reason, and bumper stickers in the United States have not been the same since. Here is the paragraph:
“I believe deeply that true change is possible only when it begins inside the person who is advocating it. Mahatma Gandhi said it well: ‘We must be the change we wish to see in the world.’ And a story about Gandhi—recounted by Craig Schindler and Gary Lapid—provides a good illustration of how hard it is to ‘be the change.’ Gandhi, we are told, was approached one day by a woman who was deeply concerned that her son was eating too much sugar. ‘I am worried about his health,’ she said. ‘He respects you very much. Would you be willing to tell him about its harmful effects and suggest he stop eating it?’ After reflecting on the request, Gandhi told the woman that he would do as she requested, but asked that she bring her son back in two weeks, no sooner.
As Gore tells it, or, really, Schindler-Lapid tell it, the mother and son then visited Gandhi two weeks later and he delivered his health message to the boy: The boy should stop eating sugar. The end.
Thanking him, the mother takes Gandhi aside and asks why he had requested the two-week wait. “Because I needed the two weeks to stop eating sugar myself,” Gandhi is said to have replied to her.
And while reading that story, all of us, without prompting, go ahead and cast Sir Ben Kingsley as “cuddly Gandhi” in our movie version of this anecdote in our minds. If you have ever or will ever attend a 12-step fellowship meeting, I promise that you will hear someone re-tell this anecdote as if it appeared in Attenborough’s great movie biography, or in any print biography of the great man. I witnessed it this very morning.
The truth is no version of this story appears in any biography of Mahatma Gandhi, not those written while he was living, not any written after his death, not in any movie.
Further, the “be the change” quote itself is not in any collection of the great man’s writings or even sayings. There is a reason for this: He never said it. He never wrote it.
According to a writer named Keith Akers, the bumper-sticker-ready expression, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” can not be traced anywhere in the world, in English, Hindi, or any other language until the 1970s at the earliest. From the moment it first appeared, it has been connected to Gandhi, though.
Akers spent a couple of years trying to find the statement in Gandhi’s published and recorded works. His article, “Did Gandhi Really Say ‘Be the Change,’” concludes that the whole tale is a legend.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the notion, “Be the change you want to see in the world” or the like—it is a viable suggestion to make in many circumstances and it is a sweet extension of the Golden Rule, heck, it attempts to make the Golden Rule as practical as it is idealistic—but someone wanted to add some historical-philosophical oomph to the thought and that person decided to attribute it to Mahatma Gandhi. They could have picked Lincoln, FDR, or Katharine Hepburn.
Akers also shares with his readers the amazing and ironic situation in which, several years ago, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association used the “be the change” phrase in a pamphlet that it published that was aimed at educating school boards about making sure beef was a part of their school districts’ nutrition and wellness plans for the coming school year. It is not attributed to Gandhi, but there it sits, without a citation and and without quotes, in a document dated September 2005. A document about beef and its positive role in a youngster’s school nutrition. (If clarification is needed, Gandhi was—at the very least—not a person who ate steaks.)
In 2011, a writer named Brian Morton published in the New York Times an essay titled “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.” Morton also cites Akers’ article in his work. Morton expounds on several bogus quotations, including the “be the change” thought, and he authoritatively quotes something that he found that Gandhi did write:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
That’s not as catchy a statement as “Be the change,” but it sounds close to the same tune, like it is from a Mahatma Gandhi karaoke machine.
Morton calls this the “closest verifiable remark” from Gandhi on the idea, but he also does not offer a source so that anyone else can verify its closeness or its anything-else-ness. Do’h! So close, and yet … is this also a fake quote?
My own online search yielded several articles on spiritual websites that recount the mother and son and sugar story (some of them tell it quite vividly, making it sound like an adventure tale; really, some writers do go on. Perhaps I should be the change I want to see in the world and pipe down already … nah). They recount the tale of the trek to the spiritual leader, and they always include the “Gandhi” character’s request that they check back with him some time later (in some versions it is two weeks, in others, it is three days). And then these tales include the long version of the quote, the Morton quote, the more serious sounding quote.
There is no documented evidence Gandhi ever even said the alterna-quote found in Morton’s article. Be the change? He changed Gandhi to be someone who said, “Be the change”!
To call Gandhi a mere activist may very well insult his memory. At the least, Gandhi was an activist, so yes, I believe that backing one’s words with action is something that he would have thought counted for something. And he might have even said so, out loud or on paper in ink. But he was not merely a spokesman for his ideals, telling people how to live. He knew that personal discipline in one person can not change anything, certainly not a government, but that a lot of people of discipline can change big things like a government when they work together and push each other.
That’s a crucial difference. Those who like to vocalize the “be the change” quote are rarely heard speaking about changing unjust political systems or sparking revolutions; usually they use the quote to tell other people to smile more and be more sunny and thus make the world a smilier, sunnier place, no matter what. And anyone who doesn’t smile back? Well, it’s their fault. They just aren’t the change. It is as if we use Gandhi to justify our own small self-centeredness, which is something that Gandhi would possibly find tragic.
If you want to write a best-selling bumper sticker, water a big thought down to an insipid one, make it sound altruistic but really be about self-congratulation, and attribute it to someone long dead who really was a deep thinker but who would not have thought or even uttered the thing you are crediting them with saying. If there’s anything we need more of in the world, it’s quotes congratulating ourselves about our getting over the need to congratulate ourselves. FDR or Katharine Hepburn first said that, I think.
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Some of this first appeared in this space in June 2015.
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