What stops us from doing what we know is right? Why, when we profess to endorse a belief, value or idea, are we unable to embody it. Most of us hold ideals and whilst living up to these ideals can be challenging, why are we unable to try? What is the personal cost of falling short of our ideals on a daily basis?
Are we sickened inside that we are less than we think we should try to be? Do we feel a sense of disappointment in ourselves as we reach the end of another day that saw us fall short of even trying? I don’t think so. In reality, I suspect most of us greet dusk by taking refuge in our couches, turning the television on and stuffing sugar or wine down our throats until we can’t think at all. Is it possible that if we all tried harder to act in ways that we knew were right, that instead of blocking our true selves out by escaping into our marshmallow cocoons, we just might reach the end of the day feeling a rewarding sense of achievement?
I know that many people profess to just not caring about much beyond their own immediate wants and needs. Taking on that kind of apathy is beyond my abilities and to these people I send heartfelt wishes that they may one day make room for more than their own self interest. I’m speaking instead to those of us that profess to give a damn. If you can name one or two beliefs that you hold dear, express concern over a couple of issues facing the world today or show a healthy interest in what constitutes right or wrong, then you are capable of doing something with your thoughts beyond just thinking them.
So why don’t we? Whilst we enjoy passionate debate at dinner parties about what’s wrong with the state of the world, quote facts about world poverty and profess to be committed to social justice and equality, not many of us manage to do anything beyond publicly raging over a glass or two of red. Instead, we come up with lots of justifications for why we can’t do what we know we should.
We’re too exhausted to volunteer and anyway, our own families need us. We really are planning on setting up a regular donation to a charity, but we want to get our credit card balances down first. After we buy this new outfit, we’ll stop spending money on clothes we don’t need, honest, we will. We know that eating meat causes suffering, but we just can’t give up our favourite meal. We didn’t mean to spend an hour gossiping about our colleague, it just sort of happened. Next week will be a better time to stop smoking and start exercising. Just not now. Not this moment. In some unspecified future tense, we all pledge to start being the people we want to be and in the process we run so far away from ourselves that we don’t even remember who we believed we could be.
Like some giant global excuse note, we’ve given ourselves a free pass to acting dishonourably. We’ve all gone soft on ourselves. In our justifications, we all sound the same. I’m doing my best. I’m just going to be kind on myself. I’m not going to beat myself up. I deserve it. I’m moving on. I tried once. I can’t be bothered. I’m on a journey. I don’t care anymore. This is who I am. Although self flagellation is undoubtedly self indulgent, isn’t it time we got a little tough on ourselves? Turned off the distractions and the justifications and spent some time with the vision of who we believe we can be – and started on the path to being that person?
Why is it so hard to try? I don’t believe it is. I believe the real resistance is that we fear meeting the reality of ourselves head on. If we take the time to think through what we value and believe, and how we ought to be living to embody what we know to be right, we may just discover that we are not making the choices we want to be making. That we are falling well short of our ideal. Having a quick lump of chocolate and a couple of wines keeps the doubts at bay and blurs the edges enough to make them fade away.
It’s painful to examine our shortcomings. For some of us, to do so is to enter a very dark place that we fear we won’t emerge from. Self loathing is a quick sand coat that can wrap itself around us and pull us further and further from the ability to take any kind of action. Hating ourselves may be even less productive than losing ourselves in intoxicants of one kind or another, but self knowledge is never a bad thing, and entering the dark is necessary if we plan to eventually walk in the light.
We’d much rather feel good than bear the discomfort of knowing how far short we fall of our ideal. Addicted to instant gratification and feel good pleasure bites, we reward ourselves constantly and begin anew the search for our next gold star goody. Like vigilant parents protecting our children from the pain of negative emotion, we arrest our dis-ease before it arises by saturating it with a hit of feel good attitude. I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all just fine.
Only we’re not. Here’s an experiment for you. For the next month, cut out alcohol. If you’re an out of control shopper, stop. Stop smoking and eating rubbish food. Stop gossiping. I’m not suggesting you stop having fun for a month, just that you take a break from anything in your life that you suspect you are relying on to make it through the week. By all means keep doing the good stuff. Keep exercising, meeting up with friends or whatever you do that’s a healthy way for you to de-stress. Just remove the quick fix junk that allows you to take a break from yourself.
The insights possible from this experience are many. You may find that it turns out you don’t have the skills to manage conflict, disappointment or even mild discomfort.
After the first couple of weeks, a nagging sense of discontent might begin to arise that prompts you to wonder if there shouldn’t be more to your existence than there currently is. It might turn out that being sober, aware and awake to your reality allows you to notice that all is not right with the choices you are making. And it’s at that moment that the whole exercise becomes worthwhile.
By taking away all the things we use to distance ourselves from the realities of our lives, we force open a portal of potential. Although it’s probably possible to open this portal without the suffering of withdrawing our pet rewards, it’s more likely that we’ll stay lost instead in our justifications and pleasure domes and never really get there. In order to be all that we want to be, we must first know who we are without the distractions and illusions.
We must make the space to ask ourselves what we want our lives to be. Although this process is a little horrid, I wouldn’t want you to think that it’s not worth the discomfort. Sure, you might not like what you find. You might realise that you were not really living in your life so much as medicating yourself from the side lines. But it is from this self knowledge that we are able to begin to build a life well lived. We have to see the justifications we use to stop doing what we know is right, before we are able to start the work of removing them. If we don’t, we run the risk of either being in a state of constant disappointment in ourselves or raising our glasses to each other for yet another collective ‘cheers’ to the soft state reality we mistake for real living.
I’m not suggesting it’s possible to be perfect. I’m not. I will never be. But it is possible to make some hard choices to try to bring our actions into alignment with what we think is right. If you are putting your own small pleasures ahead of the real good you can do in the world, you are not being all that you can be. If it’s too hard and you know you should, but just not today please because you tried it once and it sort of sucked – try again.
Who are we to think that we have the right to defer our goodwill for a future time when we’re feeling better about it? In the meantime, while we wait for the stars to align, people are suffering as a result of our inaction. If we need further motivation to take our brand new high heels and kick ourselves to action, it’s not difficult to find it. Consider this. Each year, 10 million children die of poverty related diseases. It takes around $200 US dollars to save a child’s life in the developing world. How much was your new handbag? Don’t you already have three perfectly fine handbags?
Around the world, one child dies of hunger related causes every five seconds and yet there is plenty of food to feed all of the people on the planet, if we just produced it more efficiently. Did you know that we get back one kilogram of beef for every thirteen kilograms of grain it takes to feed a cow? If we took that thirteen kilograms of grain and fed it instead to the world’s hungry, than we have more than enough food to go around. But you enjoy your steak tonight, go ahead, you deserve it. Despite the fact that many children go to sleep hungry, the annual cost of obesity in Australia is estimated at $3.7 billion. Why don’t these facts spur us into immediate action? Why aren’t they enough to make us move forward boldly to do as we wish we could?
The answer to that is undoubtedly complex and perhaps in the end just not knowable. Perhaps some people just don’t care about the problems they cannot see. But if you do care, if you’re one of the people that knows in your bones that you can and should be doing more to align your beliefs with your actions, then you must. Aside from the benefits your actions will bring to others, you will find that the rewards for yourself are rich and real. Bringing ourselves in alignment with our visions of who we want to be might take courage and commitment.
It might ask us to sacrifice some of the small pleasures we show a preference for, in pursuit of greater gains for the wider world. Instead of giving our struggles and justifications permission to de-rail the work of reaching our ideals, we must embrace the discomfort of re-scripting our actions so that we can begin the work of living a life well lived.