“Bad times, hard times—this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.” ~ Saint Augustine
A few weeks ago, I got a call from a good friend I hadn’t spoken to in a couple of months.
Normally, we would trade stories from the past few months of our lives and then shoot the sh*t about college football (a shared love) and call it a night, feeling refreshed.
Instead, our conversation focused on mass shootings and hate marches. The gross immaturity displayed and the outright lies told from our elected leaders. ICE raids, excessive force, and moral ambiguity about bigotry. And, finally, the deaths of people, famous and not, who meant a great deal to us.
We both acknowledged how heavy the world feels, how challenging it was to handle our own business and still find the energy to help right the multitude of wrongs in the world. The heartbreak of so many was inexorably linked to our own.
We ended the conversation there.
After our chat, I was able to gain some perspective. Emotional release tends to refuel the proverbial tank. I was reminded that struggle is unavoidable and despite the volume of our nation’s struggles right now, we still have access to the tools we’ll need to change our world. America is not an entity of its own; each of us is its steward. And because we are ever able to improve ourselves, we are equally able to improve our world. The call to do that self-work has never been harder to hear or more desperately in need of answering.
Here are three simple, but not necessarily easy, reminders to start improving ourselves and our times.
1. Tune out the noise. We are all in this together.
I believe, maybe naively, that all of us are entitled to a basic level of respect and that, with great effort, even those who wish to deny that respect to others can have their minds changed. For me, and many of the great men and women who inspire me, the changing of minds also requires the changing of hearts. I think there is no room for dereliction here: we must put every effort into condemning hateful ideas and actions—but we should never condemn the man or woman who holds them. We have to leave a door open for change, and it is our responsibility to meet others with empathy and respect. Rarely has a hateful heart been changed by hate returned.
Unfortunately, our national dialogue has devolved into an endless series of tribal shouting matches. The way we are currently talking to one another has made easy work of othering those who disagree. It is imperative that we change the nature of our conversations both to preserve our best means of resolving our biggest problems and to ensure that we recapture the fundamental values we hold dear.
Somewhere along the line, we confused the existence of a right for a commandment to exercise it incessantly. It is an undeniably beautiful thing that some of us live in a country where we are legally allowed to speak freely, but the democratization of content with the rise of the internet has, however, forced us to confront the absurdist end of that freedom.
It is true that we are all “entitled to our own opinions.” But the world we need can’t be built on entitlement. If we want to change the nature of our conversations and bring intelligence and empathy back into our dialogue, we must shut out the worst elements of our public discourse and choose humility and education over arrogance and volume. When we offer baseless opinions, engage in virtue signaling, parrot the arguments of others thoughtlessly, or, worst of all, knowingly champion misinformation and deception, we succeed only in denigrating ourselves and our world in pursuit of a satisfied ego.
We must be willing to admit what we don’t know and then do the work of reading and researching. This will not always be a comfortable process. We do not need a formal credential to validate intelligence, but we do need curiosity, effort, and courage, both intellectual and moral. These are non-negotiable.
We should form careful opinions of our own from the information we gather from reputable resources and experts—for above all, we owe it to ourselves to be thoughtful and prepared to promote compassionate values with a conviction that can only be earned with work.
We can, and must, reasonably disagree about policies and ideas. The minutiae of living in the world and governing a society will always, in our immediate future, give birth to disagreement about best practices. But, we need not cede ground on the fundamental belief that all human beings are created of equal worth and deserving of safety and dignity in their pursuit of a meaningful life.
2. When you see people doing cool things or succeeding, support them!
This one is really easy. If friends, family, strangers, celebrities, or pseudo-celebrities are making or doing something you’re into, support them! If you can afford it, buy an album or painting, or donate to the GoFundMe or KickStarter.
If you can’t support them financially, no worries! Give them a shout publicly, or privately. Share their work with others. Do your part to ensure that the people making stuff you find meaningful can continue making that meaningful stuff. The world is better when we lift each other up and real creation gets real support. Period.
In an effort to walk that walk, here are some things I am really digging right now:
Amazing hiking, climbing, and nature photography from a guy whose subject matter is also one his greatest passions:
A personalized set of services including yoga, reiki, and coaching, from an incredible woman who will help get your mind, body, and soul right.
A beautiful effort to increase access to education for children in countries where that right is often lost. Founded and run by two badass women and teachers, who saw the problem firsthand and wanted to contribute to the solution.
And, of course, a great piece from one of my favorite Elephant Journal writers, Sarah Norrad. Sarah’s work, always manages to be relatable, informative, and unique, and she frequently makes complex and highly charged gender topics beautifully accessible for me.
3. Look to give, not to get.
Modern society and culture often send us the opposite message. We are told that our goals and desires are paramount. Our economic system relies, heavily, on the assumption that each of us will act in pursuit of our “rational self-interest.”
If we want to be fulfilled, and start putting the pieces of ourselves and the world together, we need to detach from consumption. Used as a basis for joy, it inevitably leads to tragic and depressing returns.
Our consumption obsession carries over into our relationships, where we ask romantic partners and friends to give more and more of themselves to provide us joyous, passionate, exciting, hilarious, dynamic lives. To serve us, like a new iPhone, as a commodity for our joy. We take it for granted that the people in our lives serve a purpose for us, but do we serve a purpose for them?
Work, compromise, empathy, humility, and sacrifice, are not traditionally sexy words, but, when practiced in life, they light you up. They are the essential elements of high-functioning relationships and a high functioning society. The demands and mundanity of life, in the long-term, can not be handled selfishly. Figure out what you have to offer at your best and provide it—without expectations of return.
Every day our goal should be: Less me. More they. More we.
I truly believe that walking in these three ideals will better our quality of life—it certainly has for me, and I still fail routinely at all of them. If enough of us take the challenge of self-improvement and ownership, we’ve got a chance to change the times, too.
It will sound like a familiar refrain, but it is urgent that we do so now. We get the world we deserve. Let’s make sure that we honor ourselves enough to deserve something beautiful.
Author: Matt Ahlstedt
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Social Editor: Travis May