Doing Inside Work
After having been inside so much in recent months, I took the summer to be outside in nature doing things I loved as much as possible. It was amazing to be with people and to be out of the house, and this time of quarantine has also been a great time to do some inside work - for many of us projects around the house - and for myself, also work on me.
In order to turn around and do something better, we must first escape the vicious circle of self-righteousness and denial. And that calls for the humility to say, "I'm sorry. Please forgive me." - Desmond Tutu
having or characterized by a certainty, especially an unfounded one, that one is totally correct or morally superior.
I have become convinced that if this characteristic no longer existed, neither would most of the problems and disagreements in our society. This viewpoint came about gradually as I realized just how much righteousness I was carrying around and the impact it was having on my own relationships. I have been described by some as a know-it-all. At first, I was taken aback by this less than flattering description of my desire to share my own growth (like I’m doing right now).
There is nothing wrong with sharing what we’ve learned with others. In fact, it’s almost a requirement for any of us to actually change and improve. It’s in the way we do it, I guess. I have always loved Maya Angelou’s quote, “When you know better, you do better.” Just because something is better for me, however, doesn’t mean it is better for everyone or even anyone. For instance, I no longer believe there is such a thing as the perfect diet. Each of us is unique with our own body chemistry, caloric needs and digestive quirks. Balancing what makes us feel good physically with what brings us enjoyment is an art each of us must discover for ourselves, and there are countless factors that weigh into that calculation, making it extremely complicated.
It is not necessarily easy to see our own sense of righteousness. It’s kind of like that old joke about two fish swimming in the ocean: one fish says to the other, “how’s the water today?” The other fish replies, “what’s water?” The way we see the world is the way the world is, and it’s quite difficult for us to see another point of view, much less fully understand or empathize with it. I have been blessed (cursed?) with the desire, at least, to empathize with others. It doesn’t mean it’s always possible for me, but the pull is strong to try.
As an empath, I can feel the pain of the world. I don’t notice it as distinctly individually (though I’m sure it’s there, like the water), but I feel it strongly in the collective. I often play devil’s advocate because I can fairly easily put myself into the mind-set or at least the feeling state of a group I don’t belong to. Because I can feel so keenly, I can get frustrated that others can’t or don’t seem willing to. It’s easy for me to forget that not everyone has this skill or even the desire. Expecting them to is a form of self-righteousness in itself.
A couple of incidents highlighted my own sense of righteousness to me and set me on a path of seeking others, and trying to weed them out before they took over. It is a bit like pulling dandelions from an infested yard – a long and tedious chore. I found it easiest to begin with recognition of certain conditions that bring it out in me, primarily particular groups or settings that encourage agreement or foster disagreement. Knowing what those were helped me either avoid them or mitigate for the tendency when I was in them.
Oh, I still get up on my high horse from time to time. I do recognize it now, though, often smack in the middle of putting my foot in the stirrup. Sometimes I’m able to stop before swinging my other leg over, and sometimes the momentum carries me right up into the saddle. If I’m lucky, I can occasionally humbly acknowledge my position and come down from my mount, and other times I jauntily ride off into the sunset head held high, superiority firmly in place. I have come to see the futility in that stance, though, and I’m pleased that I take it far less than I used to. Instead, I attempt to stop and question my own reactionary feelings, take a pause and try to respond with curiosity rather than righteous indignation or judgment (IF I respond at all – sometimes remaining silent IS the best approach).
Right now it seems like this kind of righteousness is everywhere in the stances we are taking from mask wearing, to political beliefs and from how we feel about certain social movements to whether or not we buy into conspiracy theories. It is not the positions themselves that are problematic, but rather the moral judgments we automatically make about those who disagree with us. Those judgments fail to take into account the myriad of influences that inform those stances for each one of us – complex indoctrinations over decades as well as what we are dealing with in that particular moment. Our opinions and beliefs are just that and not, in fact, the sum of who we are as people. They are not inherently, and nor do they make us – good or bad, right or wrong.
I commented recently that the social media posts of a friend are not in alignment with who I know him to be as a living, breathing person – mostly in tone rather than content. The response of someone else to my observation was that his fear about a certain outcome was causing him to be forceful in his stance. Aha. Yes, fear has us behave in ways we mightn’t normally. And it’s just ONE of the thousands of emotions – though perhaps the most powerful one – that impact our actions. Additionally, we almost always respond quite differently on social media or over technology than we would if talking to someone face-to-face.
The Stoics have been on my reading list during the pandemic, and I have learned quite a bit from their philosophy. The core takeaways (in my own words) are to pay more attention to “in here” than “out there” since that’s really the only thing I can control or should try to; and to do my best to eliminate toxic emotions since our emotions are the window through which we see the world. As always, it’s an inside job. Thanks for letting me share my inside work with you.