I asked the cloud this morning for blog ideas. Kelly suggested spaceships, and although cosmology and quantum physics have long been interests of mine, it felt a bit heavy.
Chris gave me a suggestion that also felt heavy initially, the words ringing in my ears like doom and gloom:
“Nuclear energy? Earthquake preparedness? Peak oil? The inability of the UN to do the very thing that it was created for?”
When I asked if this was his intent, he corrected me, and responded with:
“It is not doom and gloom, it is today. I am having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that this is reality and not some dystopian novel – people need help making sense of it, but then again everybody loves kittens ”
So we have him to thank for the title as well.
Chris raises a really good point. There’s a lot of bad stuff happening right now. Everywhere we turn, there’s media telling (/shouting at) us about a new catastrophe. The subprime mortgage crisis, the global financial collapse, the proliferation of nuclear arms and energy, riots, government crack-down and suppression, crime, war, earthquakes.. tsunamis..
It’s hard not to despair and feel overwhelmed isn’t it?
Let’s start with the gutpunch: There’s only so much any of us can do to change the world. We all have limitations. I have limitations. You have limitations. Even someone with as much power as Barack Obama, has limitations. So what hope do we have?
This post contains some of my methods for coping with the world around us. As with any piece of advice, take what you can from it. Ask yourself if these things would actually work for you, rather than mindlessly assuming they will and getting discouraged when your brain doesn’t work exactly the same as mine. There should always be something you can find to agree with, and something to disagree with. The balance of what lies in the middle is for you to figure out.
Here we go!
Find meaningful ways to express yourself
Right now, you’re reading my blog. This is one of the ways that I express who I am. It allows me to share with people the way I feel about the world. How I see things. What concerns me, and the things that help me move through that concern.
I dance and love sharing my sense of humour with friends for the same reason. It’s an opportunity to connect with the people around us, and let them feel who we are. It’s a way to plug in to something deeper than just you, or me. (and if you’re skeptical, I can attest to the fact that sharing a moment of creativity with someone can be every bit as cathartic as sharing sorrow or a burst of laughter)
We are social creatures, and socializing with each other is a pretty important part of that. Simply communicating how we feel with those around us helps us engage with opinions and inspiration that exists outside of our own head. We can share the burden of sorrow with someone close, appreciate the good things that we have with family members, and understand both the tragedy and the comedy that exist in the world around us.
The more you can engage your sense of self-expression, the better you will be able to open up and share part of who you are with the people around you. The more you are capable of doing this, the better you will be able to appreciate our existence, and what you have in your life.
Which segues cleanly to my next point..
Learn to be comfortable with your entire spectrum of feelings
I was walking home from work the other day. As I walked down the stairs from the Chinatown sky-train station (there’s about three sets of terraced stairs), one guy, walking up the stairs with his friend, lost his step and slipped. His response to this relatively benign accident was to turn around, throw his smoothie as hard as he could at the cube-van parked at the bottom of the stairs, and shout “it makes me so fucking annoyed”. This guy was not comfortable with the feeling of being embarrassed.
You can try to shut out or suppress these emotions, but much like the Mensa candidate that threw his smoothie at the cube-van, they’ll find a way to surface.
You don’t have complete control over your life. You don’t even have that much control over your life. If you want to find some inner peace, you’re going to need to learn to accept that fact - it’s not going to change, so you have to. More specifically, you have to change the way you deal with it.
Negative emotions are as much a part of our lives as positive emotions. By learning to accept that there are times when we need to feel and express our sorrow, anger, regret, and fear, we can better equip ourselves to live with who we are. Ride out the wave, and be sure to catch the next wave of positivity back up.
Learn to sit in the emotion (but don’t wallow in it), and avoid throwing the proverbial smoothie. (As you can imagine, the other 15 or so people around were equally impressed with his action).
Be the change that you want to see in the world
This is probably the single biggest thing you can do to help yourself deal with the world the way it is. This piece of advice is often touted by people that have no idea what it actually means, to the point of almost being a platitude (I guess it’s fun to quote Gandhi). But that’s okay – you don’t have to concern yourself with what other people are doing. That’s the whole point of this piece of wisdom. Concern yourself with your own actions.
How many of us know someone that rages about what other people are doing on the road, and as a result, end up being worse drivers themselves? Spoiler alert: We all do it. As a matter of fact, this is an excellent place to start trying to make this change. ”Adam, you’re a moron”, the voice in your head says as you read this. ”How would trying to be a better driver make me better equipped to deal with the inequality in the world?”
To your voice, I ask what chance you have of practicing a philosophy of understanding and acceptance if you can’t even put it into practice while you’re doing a common everyday activity like driving. You don’t simply need to understand and accept people’s mistakes – you need to be comfortable with the fact that the world is unfair. This is a good place to start.
Now, I said above that we all have limitations. And I’m right. But that does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that we are powerless to effect the world positively. In the grand scheme of things, there’s a very simple way to turn back and reflect on your life up to this point. Have you lived your life in a manner that has contributed more positivity, rather than negativity, to the world around you? If you can answer yes, then you have helped make the world a better place.
If you answered no, or are trying to bargain with yourself in order to be able to answer yes, ask yourself why this is the case.
Everyday, I pass two guys panhandling. Initially they asked me for money, but I would always tell them no, and wish them a good day. It’s gotten to the point now that we recognize and greet each other whenever I walk by throughout the day. One of these two guys always smiles and wishes me a good day. The other guy has never once smiled. How do you think they would each answer the above question?
Now, I’m not so naive as to suggest that my situation is anywhere near the same as theirs. But regardless of the situation you’re in, you will always be presented with opportunities to spread either positivity or negativity. At this most fundamental level, ask yourself from time to time which you are doing, and try to adjust your attitude accordingly.
Is sharing a smile with a stranger going to solve the UN’s problems? No. Of course not. But is anything else that you can do going to achieve that either? The best we can do is try to lead by example and encourage the kind of behaviour and warmth that we want other people to exhibit. It’s not going to change the world, but everything has to start somewhere – why not with you?
Think about it…
A lot of people have spent a lot of time thinking about these things. Philosophy is arguably one of the oldest schools of thought, and people have spent a lot of time thinking about these difficult questions. Why isn’t the world fair? Does it actually mean something that inequality exists? Socrates did not spend his time thinking about the oppression in Libya, but he and many other philosophers have certainly contemplated similar concepts abstracted.
Subject yourself to some philosophy. While gazing at your navel will not create change in the world, it will help you gain the ability to put some perspective and distance between yourself and the overwhelming amount of tension, fear and calamity that we get presented with on a daily basis.
A good place to start, for those of you with a cerebral bent (and I did tell you that not everything here would work for everyone, didn’t I?), is the Philosophy Bites podcast. I especially enjoyed hearing the most recent episode about Montaigne’s brush with mortality and how it affected his approach to death (and consequently, life)
Tune out and find some quiet pursuits
It’s a lot easier to get overwhelmed when you’ve got someone shouting it in your face every couple of minutes. Even more so when you’ve got thousands of different voices doing the same thing. While the inexorable rise of the Internet and technology has been a boon to our civilization, it has introduced a lot of noise to our daily lives.
Many of us don’t even realize how much time we spend attached to a digital device, and consequently, how connected we are. While connection is a good thing, we must never forget how important balance is. Discover some quiet pursuits that you enjoy, and make sure that you make the time to disconnect and engage in something focused and peaceful.
Physical exercise is a good starting point, if you’re the type of person that can use this sort of activity to ground them. If you’re the kind of person that is prone to competition, you may find that exercise fills your head with noisy thoughts about beating your previous time, what to eat to maximize your training, what you need to do right when you finish to stay on time, and so on.
Devote some time to something like reading, fishing, or even taking walks. Do something that allows you to peacefully disconnect and engage with yourself for a period of time every day. Giving yourself some downtime will give you time to think about the bigger picture without being constantly prodded by the immediacy of the short-term.
So that’s how I interpreted Chris’s suggestion for a blog topic. You may have a different interpretation. If you do, I encourage you to express that opinion in whatever the most positive manner you can think of is. That doesn’t mean that you post something on Facebook like “Japan got struck by a tsunami. Yay!”, or pretend that everything is kittens (everybody loves kittens right?). It means that you spend a little time and think of how you can both express what you want to say while providing some positivity behind it (Posting a link to the red-cross donation webpage would be a far better way to express your concern and compassion for Japan in a positive manner).
Above all, make sure that you take the time to appreciate what you have in your own life. As I said, we don’t have that much control over our lives, and tragedy can strike at any minute. The way you protect yourself from that is not to live in fear of the possibility, but to instead spend as much time appreciating what you currently have. Don’t take life for granted.