One of the greatest illusions we have as Americans is that we rightly deserve everything that we have, or that we have justifiably earned everything that we have accomplished. While this may be true for a few, is it really true for most of us? If we are completely honest, wasn’t there someone or something in our past that made it possible for us to have greater access to funds, or to an education, or an inside chance at a job interview? Wasn’t there someone or some group that blazed the trail or opened doorways making it possible for us to be in the position we are today? Privilege, or lack thereof, clearly has a profound impact on the trajectory and satisfaction experienced in one’s life.

No matter what part of the world we live in, privilege seems to be a gift of circumstance. The great Midwestern financier Warren Buffett quips that many of us in America have “won the ovarian lottery,” the ultimate position of privilege he describes as being born a white person in the United States, a society that mandates access to a certain level of education, and is run by a government that continues to support some level of protection of a person’s basic civil rights.

But does it really make sense that the opportunities that a good life provides be determined in large part by the circumstances of one’s birth? Should the wherewithal to obtain a good education, land a decent job, or live in a neighborhood where children can play without fear be the luck of the draw? People without privilege are disproportionately and negatively affected by lack of opportunities and options. Many face daunting challenges just to survive, let alone thrive. Under their circumstances, how difficult it must be to find any amount of peace of mind or to have hope for a more secure and successful future.

A humane society should not require a privileged life to be able to feed, house, and clothe one’s children or to protect one’s family from harm. A compassionate society would mandate access to those basic needs for everyone, while ensuring access to a good education, healthcare and equal protection under the law.

Does having privilege then come with added moral responsibility? Isn’t it logical that those more privileged step forward with benevolence and be willing to stand up for others, and certainly, whenever possible, provide added opportunities? Can we really expect the conditions of the underprivileged and ultimately the world as a whole to change if those of much privilege do not help make social change happen? We must not only guard against the arrogance of privilege, but we must also be mindful of how our personal privilege impacts others, negatively or positively. Privilege can be used as a great force of social change if those who are privileged consistently view the world through a lens of compassion and goodness for all.

We can begin to accomplish positive social change by first acknowledging that privilege actually exists, and, with that rarefied capacity to make things happen, work for a more humane world. Considering how many people of privilege live in the United States alone, imagine what might happen if an additional ten percent of the population stepped up to help others; we could easily launch a positive change tsunami.

Empathy as the key to a more humane world

David Lacy, cofounder and columnist for iPinion Syndicate contends: “We have an empathy crisis in this country. Our fierce sense of independence and entitlement allows us to effectively shut off suffering for anyone but ‘our own.’” What is the impetus then that makes people more attuned to the challenges of others and makes them willing to put in the effort to make the world a better place? How can we foster a global society where people are motivated by empathy, mutual respect and interdependence rather than competition, individualism and nationalism?

By consciously choosing to recognize, understand and empathize with the circumstances of other human beings, we begin to level the playing field for all people. This action sets the stage for trust, justice, and personal growth. Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work believes: “It is this empathetic connection to others that gives purpose to our lives… a way to be our better selves. Becoming a compassionate and empathetic human being starts with a desire to do so.”

Empathy can begin with a simple conversation between two people, each willing to listen to the other, to be curious about the other’s circumstances. Pema Chodron, Buddhist teacher and author says, “We don’t set out to change the world. We set out to wonder how other people are doing!” Yet, it takes courage to be open and curious, to be vulnerable. “Vulnerability is the willingness to show up and do something without guarantees of the outcome,” claims Brown. By standing up and being courageous enough to be a listening ear, to bear witness, to be a willing advocate, or to provide an alternative opportunity, it is possible to create very different outcome for others. Brown goes on to say, ”With courage, love and empathy we humans can do anything!”

Loss of empathy might well be the most enduring and deep-cutting scar of all, the silent blade of an unseen enemy, tearing at our hearts and stealing more than our strength. Stealing our will, for what are we without empathy? What manner of joy might we find in our lives if we cannot understand the joys and pains of those around us, if we cannot share in a greater community.

– R.A. Salvatore, The Silent Blade

By fine-tuning our sensitivity to all of humanity, we will undoubtedly recognize greater societal opportunities. Mastering empathy could prove to be vital to the quality of our collective lives, may impact how humane our institutions become, and perhaps may be the catalyst to prod our respective governments into refocusing on a more conscientious approach to human rights. Empathetic behavior on a global scale may well be the critical skill set necessary to ensure the noble evolution of the human race and genuine caring for our planet.

This world cannot become a more peaceful and caring place without more people around the globe embracing these ideals. By giving voice to the oppressed and underprivileged we may also be securing our own continuing freedoms and privileges. In the apropos words of the great Nelson Mandela, “Our human compassion binds us one to the other, not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection—or compassionate action. – Daniel Goleman

If we choose what is next collectively, meaning that if enough people turn towards each other envisioning a more conscious future together, we will have the power to create a more peaceful world. Social activist Margaret Wheatly offers this advice: “We must develop the will to act. We can’t keep rejecting solutions because they require us to change… or give privilege to others! We can either turn away or turn toward” each other.

Getting to a Greater Peace

Developing a culture of peace truly begins with each of us. It starts by choosing to welcome a mindset based on empathy, a reality that actively seeks to undo hardships for the many based on privilege for the few. We must utilize privilege positively to fulfill the basic human rights of justice and peace for all people. Author Doug Noll, a full-time peacemaker and mediator contends, “Peacemaking by definition seeks to disenfranchise those who seek unfair advantage, who prefer to maintain disparities that favor themselves.”

Why does this concept of a more just world, a more peaceful existence for all, sound so farfetched when in the past century alone in the United States we have passed a Civil Rights Act, enacted the right to vote for blacks and women, eradicated several terrible diseases, witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and now have technology to keep us connected with each other around the globe in an instant? We absolutely have the ability to make very significant changes in our world if we recognize and focus on our vast similarities instead of our differences.

Imagine a world where people accept the premise that, firstly, each of us is a loving spirit above all else; secondly, a being of this planet; and then, only if necessary, identification by race, gender, country of origin, religious preference, sexual orientation, political persuasion, and all other personal ideations.

“We must awaken to the best in us,” writes author Guy Finley. “The best in us is that yet to be awakened aspect of ourselves: our higher consciousness. Regardless of our respective circumstances, we begin by realizing our personal lives and our world both hold infinite possibilities.” Striving for peace and a sustainable world through ethical globalization should be the center of our universal focus, and, at its core, development of trust and harmony through compassionate behaviors.

Randi Weingarten, labor leader and educator, entreats us to develop the empathetic heart: ”Those of us who aren’t regularly subject to outright prejudice have a moral obligation to do the hard and perhaps uncomfortable work of digging into unconscious and semiconscious behaviors and attitudes…. That includes taking a look at our own privilege. Human rights should be availed to all. How can we move forward if those of us who have enjoyed privilege our whole lives don’t at least try to understand the reality of those who have not, and try to address it. We must reclaim the promise of a better America for all.” Only then will there be peace in America and the collective will to open our hearts globally to others.

And in the resounding words of Nelson Mandela, “It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it.”