Thoughts on Creating a Better World:
Part I: The Reality Check
Nov 3rd, 2012
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Early this year I decided that I needed to start taking better care of myself. Now this wasn’t some dramatic decision to drag myself out of a vicious cycle of destructive behavior... I just realized one day as I was folding my laundry that I have spent an awful lot of time trying to do my part to make the world a better place, trying to put others before myself, worrying about accommodating others needs before my own. Now this all came naturally to me and was generally something that I felt good about, but I also realized that in trying to do these things I often failed because I wasn’t at a place in my life where I was fully prepared to take those things on. The fact is that we cannot take care of others, let alone the world, if we haven’t first taken care of ourselves. In that moment I became aware of the fact that I had been neglecting myself for quite some time; ironic, because up until that point I thought I had been doing what I needed to do for myself; to be a good, “successful” person (according to some social standard that somehow imposed its way into my life). But perhaps it is that we spend so much time worrying about what we need to do that we don’t realize our actual needs. You follow? So I asked myself, what do I need to live a better, more fulfilled life? And I came up with three things to pursue: Seriousness, Happiness, and Honesty. These may sound like incredibly strange, or overly simple concepts to pursue, but for me its a matter of the utmost importance.
At the time I had been inspired by a German politician and political philosopher, Carl Schmitt, and Schmitt’s whole idea was that we needed to take ourselves more seriously. We need to pay attention to how we use our language, and what we say because if we don’t it will lead to an awful lot of confusion in the bigger world, where wars are fought and ultimately people die because of what they say or believe in. This resonated with me because I realized that I share my thoughts quite regularly, and express myself often with great conviction, and yet often my life does not reflect my words. Now, its not that I am a hypocrite but more that I had gotten into the habit of neglecting my own beliefs. I hadn’t empowered my thoughts through action. I had merely just engaged in the thought process and left my thoughts to collect as my actions (or lack there of) reflected a deeper issue of someone who did not know how to live by their word. I will be so bold as to say that all of us live this way, merely because we live in a society that teaches us to think bigger than we are capable of representing through our actions, and make promises bigger than we could ever keep (something as simple as the person who leaves a new years resolution unfulfilled, or who loves to debate solutions for local political issues from his living room sofa; more often than not we don’t take our thoughts seriously enough to act on them, leaving them in the realm of fantasy). Thus I came to the conclusion that in order to live a better life I needed to start taking myself (and my thoughts) more seriously as Schmitt would suggest; if I said I believed in something, or wanted to achieve something I had to take myself seriously enough to follow through.
The second thing, happiness, well that ideal stemmed from a realization of all the time I spent feeling nervous, anxious, depressed and unhappy. All of this energy spent on what I consider to be negative emotions. Now I know what its like to feel happy. Right now for instance, writing, I feel happy. Its not to say that happiness is doing what is easy. In fact happiness is actually a very difficult thing to pursue and an even harder thing to achieve, so let us not confuse happiness with a life lived easily. For me, dedicating myself to the idea of happiness meant that I would follow my heart. I wasn’t going to waste energy engaging in things that made me feel bad. For example living with people who made me feel bad about myself, or pressuring myself to be more social than I wanted to be, or working at a job that wasn’t right for me, in general pretending to enjoy things that I didn’t really enjoy. In actuality pursuing happiness is about sacrifice, because more often than not you’re going to have to give something up in order to get what you really want. For me being happy was really about being honest with myself about my needs, about who I am. Which is what led me to my third ideal, honesty.
In order to pursue the first two things I needed to pursue the third, and vice versa. Honesty is something that we often claim but rarely take seriously enough to live by. Honesty, like happiness, is a hard thing to achieve, often because being honest can be so painful. Take for instance the moment when I realized that for a good part of the last 10 years I had been seriously neglecting myself and my needs. That is a painful truth that most people live their whole lives comfortably denying. But I knew that if I was going to live a more fulfilled life than I had been living, that honesty was something I needed more of. I was no longer going to make excuses for the things in my life that did not sit well with me. If I really wanted to achieve all the things that I wanted in my life, I needed to be honest with myself about what I needed and the actions that I needed to take in order to achieve them. This last ideal would act as a check, as a way to assess my needs and desires, because if I was doing something other than what I needed or wanted to be doing, perhaps I didn’t really need or want those things to begin with. I was either being dishonest with myself, or being dishonest with others. Or perhaps I had a change of heart, which is totally viable. In either case, I decided that I needed to be (painfully) honest with myself about what I wanted and who I was, and live accordingly.
These three things have been the few things that I have decided not to compromise in a world where we are constantly pressured to compromise everything. I had to create boundaries for myself that I could be sure of, that I was unwilling to sacrifice. In a world where boundaries seem to something of a joke, I needed to establish something for myself that I would not give up. Of course, it much easier said than done, but thats what led me to this realization to begin with. I was living my life in a state of denial in order to accommodate everything else around me but myself, a state of denial that everyone lives in. And I just decided to stop that cycle, to stop engaging in this culturally imposed state of self denial. And I know your thinking, what does she mean “culturally imposed”? Well, the thing is that we all participate in this deception, because we live under the impression that living a happy life, a fulfilled life, or good life is ascribing to a prescribed idea of happiness, which usually means an ideal that society “markets “ as happiness; its what we see on TV, in movies, magazines, and posters. Instead of creating our own definition of happiness, we literally buy into one, at the expense of our wallet and ultimately our very soul. The fact is that for our whole lives, from the time we could walk, we’ve been told who to be and how to be, which is often a complete rejection of who we are inherently. We have been given the role to play, the boundaries have been set for us. We are taught how to think, but above all other things we are taught to worry. There is no denying that as a culture we spend a lot of time worrying about things that don’t really matter. Worrying ourselves sick over these things, fretting over the future and passing the very moment in which we are living and breathing, the here and now. Worrying about what we will be when we grow up, about who we will marry, about where we will work, about how many kids we will have, about the cars we’ll drive, where we will live, where we’ll go to school, and how we will get the money to accomplish all those things. Its not to say that thinking about these things in general is wrong, or that taking all those things into consideration isn’t the responsible thing to do. All I am saying it that our focus is often guided towards those things to the extent that we aren’t even given the chance to determine if those desires are really ours to begin with or some fantasy that we’re taught to strive for. Things in life that we are encouraged to fantasize about which we eventually despair over. Before we are taught to know who we are, we are first taught what to want.
We spend most of our time focused on how to achieve a social standard of success. The things mentioned above: marriage, kids, job, education, money... They are the essential goals for most people, and are not without value. But the problem arises when we put so much pressure on ourselves to obtain those things that we lose sight of who we are and what we really need in order to really be happy, and mistake the attainment of those things for happiness. Because we confuse the two, I am willing to bet that without all of those things, most of us would feel like social/cultural failures. Which all stems from a feeling of wanting to be important, of wanting to make our lives count for something. So we decide to live a life that convention has created for us in hopes that if we live according to a “standard of living” we will belong to something greater, something of importance. By doing this we think we are empowering ourselves, we become more significant because we are participating in a significant trend. “Belonging” is probably the most constant natural desire that we all have and share. The ironic thing about belonging, however, is that in our attempts to belong we often isolate the very person that seeks to be a part of something. As Nietzsche said, it has always been a struggle for the individual not be overwhelmed by the tribe. We put ourselves on the back burner, to belong to a society that ultimately cant distinguish one sheep from another. And in that very moment we are not empowering ourselves but rejecting ourselves. The more we seek to be a part of the greater, more important world that exists out there somewhere, the more we neglect who we are, our needs, our desires, our individuality.
Im not saying saying that we should not want to belong to society, or that its us against an evil society that imposes its rules in order to control us. But we need to realize that society as construct is here to help us live better lives, not determine who we are or how our lives should be lived. We come into this world fresh, brand new, unstained by the chaos of society. Each one of us has something to contribute to society, and I believe we are here to fix society, not to be fixed by it. Society is a constant reflection of the past, the status quo, and we must continue to challenge it in order to seek a better future. Thus we must first challenge ourselves by not ascribing to societal standards by default but identifying our own personal standards of living that accommodate our own inherent needs, true to our own spirit, our own ideals. Which means that we need to take action, to be critical decision makers, play an active role. Through our own participation we gain fulfillment, which is something personal and not to be defined by some generic understanding of what fulfillment is or should be. In the end, being apart of society does not mean conforming to it. The relationship between the individual and society is mutually beneficial, society is merely the stage and we are the writers of the script. We can either plagiarize the past or take the opportunity to write our own role in the story. Therefore let society not determine the role, or how we play it, but let each of us be masters of our own role and take into account our needs so that we might fulfill our life goals adequately.
On our journey to contribute to a better society, each one of us represents a potential solution to the problems of the past. The key word being “represent”, which is nothing but an empty word without action. Before we can create a better society, we must first seek to create better versions of ourselves; the solution to our problems are found within ourselves before they are manifested in our communities. Thats what I realized in March of this year. I realized that before I go dedicating myself to some greater cause, I must first be dedicated to myself, to my own cause and be sure of who I am. First we must take care of numero uno. Perhaps this might seem a little selfish, but perhaps being a little selfish is healthy for humanity. And maybe if we took more time to take care of ourselves, we would find ourselves needing less than we think, feeling less as though we are constantly grasping for air as we are being pulled under by the wave of life. As Ghandi said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” that is, manifest it first within and it will automatically influence the creation of a better world without. That is the ultimate act of empowerment, of self-realization, of equilibrium. We may never be the most important person in the world, but we can certainly be the most important person to ourselves, and by taking care of ourselves we are taking care of humanity; its the absolute first step. Let us learn first who we are, then how we want to live, and let us be uncompromising in our quest for inner understanding.
I will conclude my thought with the understanding that of course there are plenty of arguments and retorts to what I’ve said here. Present them to me if you’d like. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. My only request is that you think about what I have written, and consider the ways in which you live according to your true needs. True needs being something other than money, or material things, other than a life lived in response to societal demands. How does your life represent who you really are, or do you even know who that person is deep down? Are you happy, and if not why? I want you to think critically about these things, be honest with yourself and linger on this: in this long life of struggle and sacrifice where in trying to be “successful people”, we are constantly denying ourselves and our focus is constantly drawn outwards, what three things will you absolutely not compromise in order to be true to yourself, to satisfy the person within?