From Busywork to Meaningful Action

by Ben Cislaghi

An intercession to the god of compassion for our siblings working on international human rights

The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become,
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations
The more thieves and robbers.

I take no action and the people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
I have no desires and the people return to the good and simple life

Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching, 605-531 BCE

In our heart, we all harbour a vision of how the world could be different. That’s the curse of our species: A body that suffers in the-world-as-it-is (cold, hungry, lonely or ill), and a mind that desires and envisions the world-as-it-could-be (warm, full of food, company, or health). It’s an awe-inspiring curse, a gift of survival. Our collective transformative mind allowed us to find strategies to (so it seems) reduce suffering. We figured out how to light fire, keep ourselves warm in winter, contain pain and cure deadly illnesses.

Children, in particular, are amazing creative beings. Their imagination is free and wild, they know how to “think without parapet,” as Hannah Arendt invited us to do. But as we age, most of us bury those imaginative children under layers of trauma, social norms, fears, and insecurities. We become convinced that we’re not good the way we are: we need to learn, grow, adapt. We must change to fit into a system of production, from humans to workers, under the false promise of one day joining the system’s elite. In this act of self-mutilation, our desire to change the world becomes barren, unimaginative. At best, if not lost, it becomes a craving to own and control the world. In the latter case, it can emerge as an outcome-oriented suffocating obsession. A story in which our very own existential meaning is to become part of a movement to improve the world, towards its next version.

The very system that tricked us into letting go of our imagination also tells us that if we move fast enough, if we deplete our bodies enough, we will eventually change the world. In the process, the technology-crowded strategies drive us to glorify the brain. The body is nothing more than the brain’s vessel. 

And that, as Damasio suggested, is the real curse of the post-Cartesian sapiens: betting all our chips on the brain, distrusting the wonderful ethical decision-making system that is the body. Instead of becoming one with it, as we adapt into cogs of the global industrialised West, we grow dissociated and disconnected from the body. We pathologise the clues that the body sends us – we call them stress, depression, anxiety and try to cure them. Emotions become obstacles, hurdles to sacrifice on the altar of the collective drive towards a beautiful, ethical, angelic and rational dreamland waiting for us at the end of an endless to-do list. The exciting purpose felt in childhood, when every day presented uncharted mysteries, transforms in adulthood into a work ethic built on, as the Buddha warned us, greed, ignorance, and hatred.

The human rights system is not immune to this disconnection. A disembodied intellectualised approach to promoting human rights transforms agents into objects, people with desires and wishes into problems to solve. Instead of taking the time to feel, understand and connect, we engage frantically in, as Heidegger called it, empty busywork. We bureaucratise care and loving kindness into administrative work. Rushing after our minds, spinning wheels on destination-less highways, we do nothing but increase the entropy of our eco-social-psychological system, diverting our energy away from useful work.

Yet all is not lost. In fact, quite the opposite. The seed of that abundant and unbounded imagination that we experienced in childhood can blossom again with every breath. To do meaningful human rights work, we must work on ourselves first. We must explore what is pushing us into a dehumanising work practice, understand our real intentions, how traumas, blessed egos, unsolved attachments are pushing us to rush on the highway. We can then walk a slower path, where our name won’t be glorified, but where there’s time to connect, feel, embrace the present, forget the outcome, and live in the process.

Embodied human rights work practice requires letting go of the anthropocentric, the kin-centric, the me-centric approach to caring. This is my prayer for our bleeding community of human rights workers, that we heal ourselves and say no to grant-making and implementation practices that dehumanise the other (human, non-human animal, or any living being). 

Mind you, mine is not a call to action. It is a call to inaction, or at very least, to slow down. An invitation to develop a compassionate intent for our work, a meaningful presence in the now. Stay with the present, stay with process, and the world will take care of itself.

Dr. Ben Cislaghi, is Associate Professor at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). His research work at the LSHTM has contributed to increasing the understanding of how gender norms affect people’s health and how their effect can be measured. (see this article, for instance). There, he leads a team of researchers and activists working at the intersection between gender equality, child protection, and ethics of international development.

Ben worked for various NGOs and International Organisations, including UNICEF, WHO, and ILO and collaborated with several Universities, including Stanford and Columbia. He was director of research for the NGO Tostan in Senegal for three years. 

Ben’s team is passionate about translating research into practice, and collaborates with several NGOs to increase their self-reflective ethical practices and integrate greater understanding of gender and social norms into their work. This commitment results in both translational research to action and accompaniment of small and mid-size NGOs working in low and middle-income countries. You can read more about his work here.