By Tony Schwartz, HBR, August 11, 2011
I can’t ever remember living through such poisonously polarized times: the left and the right, immigrants and their antagonists, and perhaps above all, the haves, who have ever more, and the have nots, who have ever less.
As William Yeats put it, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Doesn’t it increasingly feel that way?
We each move frequently between at least two realities, unaware we’re doing so. The more primitive one is instinctive, reactive, survival-based and selfish.
The higher one allows us to be intentional, reflective, future-oriented, and generous. In this state, we’re capable of shaping our deepest values, delaying gratification, and making sacrifices that serve the greater good, including our own.
Ask virtually anyone to tell you their mostly deeply held values, and they’ll invariably describe noble ideals such as kindness, compassion, honesty, fairness, respect for others, courage, and generosity.
The challenge is that our survival instincts so often overwhelm our more virtuous ones. In fear, which so many of us understandably feel in these difficult times, we contract. We become more mistrustful, vigilant, self-protective, and righteous, which only makes the fissures between us grow wider.
So how do we learn to rise to our best selves more often?
The first answer is to acknowledge how often we fall short of the ideals to which we aspire–and how much help we need in living them more fully. We need humility in place of hubris, and even a sense of shame, where it’s warranted, as a spur to behave better.
Instead, we too often use our highest intellectual capacities, after the fact, to defend, rationalize, and minimize behaviors that actually violate our professed values. Or to blame others, or circumstances beyond our control.
I see this in myself every day. I value a healthy body, but I succumb to unhealthy foods. I believe deeply in kindness, but I don’t always act kindly. I am appalled at the fact that we’re profligately burning down our planet’s limited resources, but I live in a house that’s far bigger than I need.
I’m outraged by the fact that billions of people live in abject poverty, in the midst of plenty, but I continue to live an exceptionally comfortable life, and only allocate a modest percentage of my income to helping others.
And I rationalize. I tell myself I do more than most. That my work is about helping people. Or I try not to think about my contradictions.
The second step–mine, ours–is to actively challenge our infinite capacity for self-deception. In the simplest and most personal terms, that means seeking to hold ourselves more accountable to our deepest values, through our behaviors, every day.
It dawned on me thinking about all this recently that I need to be more literal about accountability, because otherwise the relentless demands of everyday life simply take over.
I decided to start keeping track, in a daily journal, of how I’m doing. If I say my health matters, what did I do to take care of it? What did I eat, and what exercise did I do, and how much did I sleep?
If I say kindness matters, how did my behavior reflect that, or violate it? I’ve already begun doing more pro bono work, in an effort to better serve the value of service to others.
Each of us is either adding value to the world we live in, or spending it down, by the sum of our actions. That’s true no matter how you spend your days.
As Marian Wright Edelman put it, “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small differences we can make which, over time, add up to the big differences that we often cannot foresee.”
Some of those involve taking better care of yourself. Others involve taking better care of others. Living intentionally, and by your deepest values, requires not just awareness and intentionality, but also sacrifice.
We all instinctively and automatically move towards pleasure. It takes no effort to be impulsive or reactive. What’s endlessly difficult is to challenge our comfort zone, to transcend our survival instincts, and to reach beyond ourselves.
We need each other for that. Who can you recruit to push you, and cheer you on, and hold you accountable to your commitments, while you do the same for them?
We’re all in this together. Like it or not, we live in an increasingly interdependent world.
We’re either growing, or we’re getting weaker. There’s no standing still. Whether you shared his politics or not, Eldridge Cleaver was right. We’re either part of the solution or we’re part of the problem.