Monday, July 11, 2011

Being the change and keeping your cool while things fall apart.

We can be forgiven for being a bit overwhelmed by it all. The world is going bankrupt; there’s crime and corruption everywhere; columnists are warning us of another economic collapse; some are talking of revolution while Julius Malema has been arguing that the fist never ended; labour leaders are talking about a ticking time bomb and scientists and environmentalists are postulating about the coming of nature’s wrath.

What is even more disturbing is the exasperating helplessness in which all of this babbling is happening. When and if, solutions are offered they are mostly done from some armchair position that always has a phrase such as “they must” or “they should”. Even the occasional “we should” is within the context of the collective “we” as a species, country, society or nation…not the royal plural that implies some form of self-accountability. In one swoop we have handed our destiny over to “them”.

We know what everyone else must do. We’re just not too sure of what we must do ourselves. Most of us have little option but to carry on as if we were not warned; to put on a happy face and be optimists rather than sourpusses spreading negativity until even our nearest and dearest stop visiting or cross the street when they see us coming. After all, we have been told by the sages of the past and present not to get thrown by things that are out of our control – to “accept them” as the serenity prayer suggests. Those with assets tinker hesitantly in response to the investment advice or disaster hedge of the week. Those with billions may feel more comfortable but not totally immune to conditions that could affect all of humanity. After all, “no man is an island”.

I was reminded of the dilemma facing us in a discussion with an acquaintance this week. We were talking about an article I had written more than a year ago, in which I had mooted the possibility of massive sovereign insolvencies and how little things had changed. There was a clear expectation from my friend of investment advice or a tip that would create some or other magical immunity: something I am not remotely qualified to do.

But it also reminded me of how narrow perspectives have become and how the only solutions being sought are in the preservation or accumulation of material wealth – the very motives that have arguably created our problems in the first place. Today, more than ever before, societies and most individuals define themselves by what they physically possess: by what they have, not by what they do. Small wonder that we have created a modern world that can more easily than before, fall apart at the prospect of losing those possessions, or having that material wealth eroded.

The primary intention behind all endeavours for most human beings must surely be inner peace and serenity. The belief that this can be achieved largely by material possessions has been challenged by leading experts in psychology and in human studies for centuries. Research findings and experimental data suggest the opposite: that the pursuit of material wealth detracts from contentment and that possessions are just as likely to create discontent as alleviating it. It’s not an easy message to accept, so I won’t dwell on it again.

But there is much we as individuals can do to enhance our emotional immunity. Letting go of things beyond one’s control, does not mean letting go of how one can respond to them. Ultimately, systems have to succumb to human behaviour; they are nothing more than an extrapolation of our behaviour. If our behaviour has got us into the mess we are in now, then logically a change in that behaviour will get us out of it. That behaviour has to start somewhere and there really is no sense in being part of a stressed out herd even if that herd is carrying all of us to a precipice.

There are many techniques for serenity at an individual level. They have filled many pages of self-help and modern motivational paraphernalia. Most of my readers will be aware of them and will be able to add quite a number to the following few. The most overriding one to my mind is to draw up a balance sheet of one’s expectations and aspirations. Expectations are those things we believe we are “entitled to”, or that should happen as a natural outcome of being a member of a society. (I would not suggest using the Constitution as a guide). Aspirations are those things that we know we have to work at to achieve and that we hold ourselves accountable for. Reducing the former and increasing the latter is a powerful method of regaining control on one’s life. As a nation, of course, it will unleash the best we can be. It literally swings collective behaviour from get to give.

This relates to another aphorism and perhaps a trite “Oprahism” that nevertheless is incredibly powerful as a technique for mental health: we are seldom in control of what we get out of life. We are far more in control of what we give. Giving is not about charity, but about giving the best of oneself in all circumstances, and being prepared to make a contribution to the world around one. It is that giving which enables receiving and makes getting possible. To insist on getting as a condition for giving actually impedes the process. We have created a constraining wall of self-interest. Making material self-interest a condition for action is seldom an enabler. It is more likely to disenable. Of course this applies less to normal transactions in which getting and giving are predetermined. Although even here, I would suggest that there is far more room for generous behaviour than we may think. But the most important decisions we make in life are seldom about transaction.

Combining outgoing and externally focused behaviour with minimum expectations is the only real security we have while the world falls apart around us. It is the one way of keeping that happy face without being part of the cadre where ignorance is bliss.

After all, if you lose yourself when you lose your possessions, you did not have much to begin with.

And proving the point of this whole article, I know that most of the responses will be “tell it to them”!

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