For the second year in a row, and the seventh time this century, Time Magazine has honored a movement or group of people working largely outside conventional leadership platforms as their “Person” of the Year (POY). While some are already framing this choice as a rebuke of the current President by a hostile media, a different interpretation is possible if we set aside our partisan and political lenses. After all, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were each honored as POY only twice during the eight years of their Presidencies.
Time’s decision, at least through one frame of reference, celebrates an important paradigm shift that is taking place in the twenty-first century, one where we appreciate the collective importance of “ordinary” individuals for determining the shape and substance of the system that we live within.
For years (centuries, in fact), we have revered powerful, charismatic or privileged individuals for their impact on our social, economic and political lives. While there certainly have been people whose extraordinary courage, insight or skillfulness allows them to have a lasting and far-reaching impact on the world in a given moment, it is important to remember that these individuals are, and always have been, embedded in a system which is shaped by all of us through our action and inaction.
Of course, some of us have platforms that give us wider reach and influence. But each of us can make choices that move our communities closer to or further away from the ideals on which a healthy modern democracy is based, as is highlighted by Time’s choice.
Change can come from any part of the system when we accept our own responsibility for it.
Each of the “ordinary” people engaged in the movements honored by Time in 2018, 2017 and the five other years since 2000, have understood an essential truth about complex societies … that we are not separate from the world and each other, but part of one interconnected and incredibly dynamic system. They have also acted on a second and related essential truth … that change can come from any part of the system when we accept our own responsibility for it.
This requires us to make a profound and difficult shift where we set aside the comfortable view that problems are created by someone or something “out there” (terrible leaders, awful parents, poor marketing strategy, a bad economy …), and embrace instead the view that our own action or inaction creates the very problems that we experience and that we can therefore provide solutions to those same problems if we choose to act differently.
We have been trained to define ourselves by the limited roles we play in various aspects of our lives rather than as whole human beings capable of incredible feats of creativity and independent action.
Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, refers to our comfortable belief that problems are “out there” and “not mine to fix” as a learning disability that prevents us from seeing how we can influence the social systems that we are part of. He argues that we have been trained to define ourselves by the roles we play in various aspects of our lives (wife, father, manager, plumber, student, nurse practitioner), rather than as whole human beings capable of incredible feats of creativity and independent action. When we focus solely on these limited and isolated identities, we are less able to see how our actions can and do influence the system around us and we are less likely to take personal ownership for the things that happen around us – at home, at work or in the broader global society.
If not me then who?
In contrast, each of this year’s POY honorees (as well as countless others who have not been celebrated in this particular way) has accepted responsibility for shaping the world. Each one has used their available skills and platforms to make a difference. They have, in the words of one nineteenth century philosopher, “come to the frightening conclusion that they are the decisive element.”. In their daily lives, they are answering the question … “if not me then who?”
Their example helps us appreciate that each of us has the power to exert an influence (however small) on our world, especially when we act mindfully and in concert with others. They help us see that we can move beyond the eighteenth century view of the world as hierarchical and under the control of a powerful few. Each of us is, indeed, the decisive element if we choose to accept the awful responsibility of that knowledge.
Since 1927 there have been 17 POY covers celebrating movements, causes, groups of people or non-human recipients. Seven of those (almost half) have been honored since the turn of the century, as follows:
1950 | The American Fighting Man; 1956 | The Hungarian Freedom Fighter; 1960 | U.S. Scientists; 1968 | The Apollo 8 Astronauts; 1969 | The Middle Americans; 1975 | American Women; 1982 | The Computer; 1988 | The Endangered Earth; 1993 | The Peacemakers; 2002 | The Whistleblowers; 2003 | The American Soldier; 2005 | The Good Samaritans; 2006 | You (content creators for the www); 2011 | The Protester; 2014 | Ebola Fighters; 2017 | The Silence Breakers; 2018 | The Guardians and the War on Truth.