Are we ever really led by other people? I used to think that made sense – people lead, people follow. I follow someone else’s lead. It still does make sense. However, I’ve started to wonder lately if this tells the whole story – a person follows another person. I think that my choices – sometimes conscious, sometimes not – about whom to follow are determined by my relationship with my self. In other words, I don’t think I’m ever really following anyone. Instead, I am always following my self. A key question is: What direction am I giving my self?
My mantra is that life is a collective creative process. Even my so-called ‘individual’ life is created collectively. From its very conception, my life is formed through relationship. In this way, I am interdependent and constantly impacted by what’s going on around me – who and how other people are being, systems and structures, what the planet is up to etc. I could use this – and I am sure I have – as an excuse to absolve myself of responsibility within the collective: “That’s the way things are here.” “Passed down through the genes.” “That’s just kind of the norm.” “I’ve always been like that.” “People can’t change.”
But I don’t want to do that. Quite the opposite. I want to own up to my responsibility within the collective. This past year, in a myriad of ways, I have landed on the belief that owning up to my responsibility entails accepting that (a) I have power and the obligation to be conscious of my actions and what they are bringing to the collective (b)people can change and I can change.
Adult to child: “Why did you do that?”
Child to adult: “Janie did it first!”
Adult to child: “If Janie told you to jump off a bridge, would you?”
I haven’t heard that line – the one about the bridge – in a long time. When we were kids, it was about not giving into peer pressure, especially when it was going to lead us into doing stupid and possibly harmful things. Why don’t we use this line more with each other as adults?
I think we don’t hear/say this as much as adults because so much of what we do is just ‘the way things are done’ on a day-to-day basis. If we really gave thought to ‘what am I doing and why?’ we might be stopping in our tracks a lot throughout the day. However, our days aren’t wired so much for stopping in our tracks are they? What’s more, whether I am talking about Parliament, Congress, a small business, a large corporation or a whatever-size social justice campaigning organization, it isn’t easy to challenge the norms – not just because of lack of time.
Sure, a campaigning organization’s work might be all about challenging the norms of government. Yet, often the cultural norms within the organization give rise to oppressive, discriminatory, bullying relationships. At the same time, the way we campaign can feed cultural norms that are ultimately undermining the very values we espouse. For example, we can step into the habit of thinking of policymakers as ‘the enemy’ and frame all our actions in ‘us vs them’ and go about – as do the policymakers – being defensive and stuck in rigid posturing. This tends to leave us with so-called discussions that involve a bunch of people yelling at each other or politely dismissing each other. It rarely results in outcomes that serve a greater good.
Back to the question of self-direction.
In all the madness – and it is madness – I’ve come to see how the one thing I have control over is my response. If, indeed, I do respond rather than react. Much of the time I’m just in auto pilot or semi-auto pilot mode. Usually this is fine – I go about my days harmlessly. Well, I seem harmless to me. But when you multiply what I’m doing by millions, it isn’t so harmless is it? And this is how we live together. Millions of us doing what we are normally doing without thinking much about it because we can’t really see the cumulative impact.
When I think about the millions, I can get overwhelmed and think “What is the point of me trying to be conscious and do things differently, if it will take millions to change anything?” Well, one million begins with one. And it happens that the one person I can change is me.
If this is all too abstract, think about recycling. We all used to throw away our plastic bottles without thinking. Now, many of us recycle without thinking – especially if it is made easy for us to do so. This is proof that change can happen. And not everything we do in auto-pilot is ‘bad.’ To switch from one behaviorial norm to another requires consciousness of our actions and then acting differently, ultimately without thinking about it. But don’t let this example fool you – we still get so easily duped. Think about how much plastic we are using in the first instance with our obsession with bottled water. Sure, it is good to recycle plastic. But wouldn’t it be better if we weren’t creating so much plastic in the first place?
What happens is that we pat ourselves on the back for a what seems like a positive shift and then we get complacent and fall back into auto-pilot. Well, until something or someone nudges or pushes us.
Now I might do things differently in how I relate to people and planet because I see someone else doing things differently and it inspires me. I could think I am following those people. I am. My choosing to follow them, however, depends on what’s going on inside me. What beliefs, attitudes and assumptions do I have about my own power, about my self-worth about my relationship with the planet etc? These – beliefs, attitudes, assumptions etc – are what guide me and my choices about what/who inspires me and what I choose to do in response.
Sometimes, after all, I can be nudged, pushed or metaphorically slapped in the face to change a behavior. But I keep doing it. Why? Because of my relationship with my self – because of some direction I’m following that is in my head and heart. While this relationship with self was a collective creation, in any given moment, I am the only one who can take responsibility for what I give rise to out of that relationship. Do I fall into old, destructive behavior patterns or do I go “Whoaa. I’m about to do that thing again. STOP! I don’t want to do that thing. Okay, I’m going to pause to observe what I’m thinking in my mind and what I’m feeling in my body and really check to see if I’m heading in a direction that serves well-being – of my self and others.”
I’m not finding it very easy, this stepping into conscious self-direction in order to take responsibility for who/how I’m being and my contribution to the collective creative process that is how we live together. It is like learning to walk. I keep stumbling and falling. I keep doing destructive or stupid things over and over again – only now, in some ways, it all seems worse because I’m AWARE of it. Just like a toddler learning to walk doesn’t beat him/herself up for falling, neither should I. Each change is one step at a time that begins with being open to greater awareness and occurs through dogged persistence and self-compassion.
But that’s not all of it. As I said earlier, it isn’t time that is the only barrier to change. Sometimes behavior changes I want aren’t about obvious patterns – they are more about stepping out of line with cultural norms. And this can be HARD. I’ve been at work for instance, and done things that just felt like they could and sometimes should be done differently. And the only way for this to happen would be for someone to speak up. It is one thing to change my self and my ways of being, it is another to step up and explicitly challenge a collective.
I think I will leave off here and save that topic – challenging the collective explicitly – for another posting.
In the meantime, I ask: How conscious are you, of the directions you are giving your self?