The virtue of focusing on yourself
Global renewal begins with each of us
I can't think of another time in my life where I've felt such collective tension. It’s there as I chat with friends, engage online, and consume across mediums. I feel it bubbling up everywhere I go.
There's a lot to fear: economic uncertainty, geopolitical uncertainty, climate uncertainty, and even food uncertainty. Behind these fears, I sense deep frustration. People are sick of the status quo. They are no longer excited about the trajectory of our country or our global society. We seem to lack a shared vision for the future.
This last piece is what scares me most. As John Gardner says,
"We shall renew neither ourselves, nor our society, nor a troubled world unless we share a vision of something worth saving"1
So we find ourselves in a time calling out for renewal. Yet, where to start?
I don't know how to solve any of the problems listed above. They are so much bigger than me or you. The stoics will tell us to just focus on what we can control. There's power and sanity in that. Yet, this mindset can leave us feeling helpless or guilty: "I can see the problems, I should be doing something".
I’m here to suggest that we should start with ourselves. Not because it is the Stoic move. But because it is the best place to begin to give us a shot at overcoming our collective challenges. The renewal of society requires the renewal of the individual. Focusing on yourself is not selfish, it’s necessary.
I'm going to quote John Gardner at length here because I think he captures it perfectly and I want to riff on his ideas:
"The future is shaped by men and women with a steady even zestful confidence that on balance their efforts will not have been in vain. They take failure and defeat not as a reason to doubt themselves but as a reason to strengthen resolve. Some combination of hope, vitality, and indomitability makes them willing to bet their lives on ventures of unknown outcome. If our forbears had all looked before they leaped, we would still be crouched in caves sketching animal pictures on the wall.
Second, I would emphasize staying power. Stamina is an attribute rarely celebrated by the poets, but it has had a good deal to do with the history of humankind. And with the life history of each person.
Nothing is ever finally safe. Life is tumultuous—an endless losing and regaining of balance, a continuous struggle, never an assured victory. We need a hardbitten moral that enables us to face these truths and still strive with every ounce of our energy to prevail.
But there is no possibility of sustaining ourselves in that effort if our values and beliefs are so weakened that nothing seems worth the struggle. First and last, humans live by ideas that validate their striving, ideas that say it's worth living and trying. What makes a collection of people a society is the cohesiveness that stems out of shared values, purposes, and beliefs."
Here's his TLDR quote if you just skimmed that:
"Renewal of societies or of individuals depends in some measure on motivation, commitment, conviction, the values men live by, the things that give meaning to their lives."
Damn! I get fired up every time I read these lines. The naming of never-ending change and evolution of life. The encouragement to retain our optimism, confidence, and aliveness. The reminder that nothing we do matters if we can’t sustain it. The urging to focus on our “values, purposes, and beliefs”.
To face our challenges, we need to be a collection of people capable of this combination of gritty confidence and resilience. We need to each evaluate, understand, and communicate our own “values, purposes, and beliefs” so that we contribute to a shared vision worth striving for.
I’m not suggesting that we all should retreat from the world to focus on ourselves. Or, that it’s prudent to wait until you’ve achieved some arbitrary level of self-mastery to begin tackling important work. But I am saying that these collective efforts will have a far better chance of succeeding if enough of us cultivate self-renewal in ourselves.
This may look different for each of us. For me, it includes strengthening physical health, enhancing mental capacities, healing past wounds, increasing emotional intelligence, learning valuable skills, building relationships, refining personal values, and more. Actions today that create conditions to help me rise to the unknown challenges of the future.
If this sounds overwhelming, pick a single area to focus on. Personally, I recommend starting with the body. Granted, I have a professional interest in people embracing physical activity. But through this, I’ve seen how it can unleash a ripple in your life. Progress is powerful. Exercise creates visible adaptation. You get stronger, fitter, and faster. You can do something that you failed at just a few days prior. These tangible changes remind you of your ability to drive change across our life. The world of possibility opens.
Physical progress also increases awareness of more subjective improvements. You notice shifts in your mood, confidence, energy, and more. When I speak of the renewal of the body, I don’t just mean your muscles or your weight. I’m talking about the whole thing. Your nervous system. Your metabolism. All of the interconnected parts that collectively give you your health and capabilities. These complex systems can improve or decay. Little tweaks in your sleep, diet, breathing and other habits can give you more energy and stamina for your pursuits. Vitality and staying power as Gardner would say.
Another powerful entry point to create a ripple of renewal is meditation practice. I am a beginner here but am fascinated by stories of people experiencing interconnectedness and expanded awareness. Mindfulness practices can reduce stress, improve mental health, increase cognition, enhance creativity, and support calmness. These are the mental conditions we need to “face these truths and still strive with every ounce of our energy to prevail.” And, the mental skills we need to problem solve and innovate.
Imagine a world where far more people had direct experience of a deep sense of interconnectedness. Sharon Salzberg hints at what might be possible:
I believe that the love we crave, and that we have available to give, is a healing force. Love is not soft and mushy. It is strong and resilient. It springs from the truth of our interconnectedness, and is powerful because it is aligned with what is true.
I believe in the possibility of a world where our interconnection is a deeply known and motivating force, where no one is left out, where the innate dignity of every person is acknowledged, and where hatred and fear and greed can be tempered. I believe in a world where change might be hard, but is always seen as possible, however stuck we might feel in any given moment.2
This world that Salzberg describes seems pretty sweet to me. But it requires enough of us to create conditions where “our interconnection is deeply known”. We cannot just read about it. We must each experience it directly if it is going to become a driving force in our lives and the renewal of society.
I’ll explore all the potential ways that the renewal of individuals can cascade into the renewal of society in future essays. My favorite example is how the simple act of starting a garden changes individuals and could change our world. For now, I want to highlight a few more actions that I believe are most critical for each of us to undertake:
Refine our values. Define our beliefs. Craft a vision for the future that we believe is worth striving for. Share our ideas. Find our people. Compare notes. Collect feedback. Inspire others. We each need to contribute whatever is within us so the best ideas, values, and initiatives can rise to the top.3
I’m inspired daily by all of the people already doing this. The thing that I love most about Twitter is the way in which it’s an arena for our collective ideas, values, and visions of the future. My friend Cécile captures this spirit perfectly:
Sign me the fuck up for “a collection of possible positive futures that we all find inspiration from”. This is the type of individual work that can quickly become a collective movement.
For now, I will leave you with one final quote from Gardner.
“The great virtue of a free people is to be that fertile seedbed, not— as some have supposed— to be always right or enlightened but to be the soil from which enlightenment can spring.
The capacity to germinate is in the individual seed. And the source of creativity for society is in the person. Renewal springs from the freshness and vitality of individual men and women”
If this essay sparked any ideas within you, I’d love to hear them. Same for feedback, disagreement, and recommendations for related reading or adjacent ideas.
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This quote comes from Sharon Salzberg’s article “Why Our Interconnectedness is Our Greatest Strength”
If you’re interested in exploring “what is within you to bring forth to the world”, I recommend the book “The Great Work of Your Life” by Stephen Cope
The cover illustration was created and generously shared by Silvia Bastos through CC licensing. Check out more of Silvia’s illustrations: silviamakesdrawings.com and support Silvia’s work: www.patreon.com/silviamakesdrawings