Ideas·Massey Lectures

A human rights lawyer's four simple ways to make the world a better place

During his cross-country CBC Massey Lectures tour, human rights lawyer Payam Akhavan dished out four simple pieces of advice for how individuals can improve the world. Here's what he thinks.
Human rights lawyer and McGill prof Payam Akhavan was this year's Massey lecturer. He traveled across Canada, speaking about human rights struggles and the search for a better world. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

CBC Massey lecturer Payam Akhavan knows that searching for a better world is a daunting task. That's why the human rights lawyer and McGill professor came up with a few simple ways individual people can make a difference.

During his lecture tour across Canada, many people asked him just how they could help make a change. Here's some advice he gave them.

(Ben Shannon/CBC)

"Ask yourself what you want to look back at when you are at the end of your life. 

Gaining perspective on what really matters helps ensure that we don't waste our precious time pursuing illusions.

Live an authentic life in search of truth, and busy yourself doing meaningful things, like seeking justice and helping the voiceless, whether at home or halfway across the world. It is the best gift you can give yourself!"

(Ben Shannon/CBC)

"Sometimes we look at the rich and famous, or watch terrible events on the news, and feel that we can't make a difference. That is absolute nonsense! Our choices matter and the most profound change comes from the bottom up rather than top down.

We should begin with the way we speak and behave, at home, at work, in our communities, because those daily choices are ultimately reflected in the world that we witness around us.

We have to lead by example, not empty words, and never forget that over time we can touch many lives in deep and meaningful ways."

Here's an example Akhavan gives of a simple gesture of peace:

“A gesture of peace”: Payam Akhavan shares an amazing story of human kindness that he learned from Chief Donovan Fontaine

5 years ago
Duration 1:23
“A gesture of peace”: Payam Akhavan shares an amazing story of human kindness that he learned from Chief Donovan Fontaine
(Ben Shannon/CBC)

"If we want to make the world better, we need to listen to those that suffer, and learn about the causes and consequences of attitudes and acts that result in the injustices that we witness.

By listening and learning, we can better understand where to focus our efforts to have the most impact, and we may also come to realize that simply giving an ear to those in distress is itself vital to healing wounds and retrieving human dignity."

(Ben Shannon/CBC)

"If you want to make the world better, forget about instant gratification! Lasting change requires determination and sacrifice. Sometimes we have to lay the seeds even if we don't immediately see the fruits.

We shouldn't be afraid of painful struggle, and instead welcome it as the best path to realizing our immense human potential. It is easy to be cynical and give up, just as it is easy to be idealistic without paying a price for our beliefs.

Discover the depth of your compassion and let it overwhelm both fear and selfishness."

All five parts of Akhavan's Massey Lectures were broadcast on CBC Radio's IDEAS.
Payam Akhavan of McGill Law (Vincenzo D’Alto/McGill University)
 If you missed it, you can listen here:

The lectures are also published in book form by House of Anansi.


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