Personal Responsibility in a World Gone Mad
Ten ways to take control of your life:
We’re not even a month into this year, and it already feels like a dumpster fire. Usually, I’m an optimist, but ongoing political angst, the vaccine debacle, growing deaths from Covid worldwide, the discovery of new virus mutations, the frustrations of navigating life on a daily basis with so much of “normal” being upended by closed schools and businesses, the patchwork approach to Covid prevention and precaution…who’s exhausted with me? And we haven’t even considered the long-term impact to the economy, exponential national debt, the growing number of individuals thrust into financial instability…the “newly poor”…by Covid…it’s hard to see the path back to a life that looks right side up.
So much of this comes down to control. What can any of us control? Even in good times, when life feels stable and more predictable, control is mostly an illusion. We just don’t see that clearly in “normal” life because we don’t have to. Normalcy lulls most people into routine, and doesn’t foster introspection.
But today, we’re anxious, tired, questioning what to believe, asking when the vaccines will make a difference to our collective health crisis, wondering when we can visit family, see friends, eat in restaurants, send kids to school. In other words, when can we get back to living? The growing mental health crisis is a reflection of the general mood.
So back to the question, what do we control? The only real control we have is over ourselves, and even that is limited. Many people did their best to avoid Covid but still got it. The experience of Covid is largely beyond personal control. Other people’s choices: beyond our control. Politics and the big picture of national direction: beyond personal control. Most economic impacts are beyond personal control. Certainly, the average individual has no sway over the stock market, financial policies, or interest rates. We’re all subject to forces larger than us.
This is what I come back to when I feel myself spinning: I can control my thoughts, my actions, my motives, and most of the time, my words. I’ll acknowledge I’ve sometimes spoken too quickly, said too much, or spoken out of anger. No one gets it right all the time. But this is what we can do:
- Live with integrity. That means living honestly and speaking honestly. But I have a caveat to this: I believe kindness should be part of the formula. I don’t believe in using integrity and honesty as an excuse to be unkind with words or actions. It’s a personal balancing act, but important to achieve. Honesty should never be weaponized.
- Do the right thing, whatever you believe that to be. My husband has a saying: “Get caught doing the right thing.” What he means is: even if you don’t have permission or authority, if you have the ability to do something you believe to be “right” in a given situation, do it. Like the idea of asking for forgiveness rather than permission, it’s better to find yourself defending a decision to take action and do something you believe to be good, helpful, necessary, etc., than to live with regret or guilt because you sat on your hands. To be sure, doing the right thing doesn’t always end well for the hero. But I still think it’s the only way to live. And if I pay a price for doing something I believe is right to do, then so be it. I can live with that.
- Be proactive. Look ahead and be prepared as best you can. Throughout history, people who survived and flourished were the ones who were prepared. No one can forecast the future, but we can all make thoughtful plans for the unexpected. Save if possible. Be cautious about financial commitments. Live beneath your means. Do what you can to live a healthy life. Think through “what if” scenarios. If you’ve considered what you’d do in difficult situations, you’ll be less likely to react with panic, and more likely to fall back on strategies you create when you’re calm and unhurried.
- Have a plan for yourself and work the plan. Make it as grand or detailed as you need to stay on task and see progress. If you don’t already have a plan, look for books, apps, or other tools you can use to find inspiration, practical wisdom, templates, retirement models, etc. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to craft a vision for your future, but you do have to know what your ultimate goal is before you can chart the path to get there.
- Look for opportunities to do good to others. This approach to life creates a lot of goodwill and can open up potential you can’t imagine. But the caveat here: try to do this with pure motives. If your real motivation is self-serving, that will show through. There’s no doubt that being helpful and generous will be reciprocated by others, but let that be a side benefit. And be honest with yourself about your motives, you’ll sleep better.
- Accept reality and understand that life is not fair. Some people get lost in their perceptions, cynicism, pessimism, and bitterness. National decisions, elections, legal trials, the court of public opinion, trends in culture, the ups and downs of the economy…my personal views may, or may not, be aligned with outcomes. Guess what? None of these forces is influenced by what I think. Life isn’t fair, but I can’t help that. I can get lost in that frustration, or accept it, and let go of things beyond my power. Of course, I have opinions about everything. But I don’t need to drown in them. Obsessing over issues I can’t change does a lot of damage in the long run, and keeps me from seeing the good in my life.
- Be the person you want to be regardless of the forces around you. But don’t be a martyr or a long-suffering saint. To be honest, those personas aren’t very endearing. Do what you can to be positive and encouraging. Be the voice you want to hear. One of my favorite quotes is: “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” You know what would lift your spirits, encourage you to keep going. Be that for others, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself in a better place too. I don’t know how it works, I just know it does. I’m not talking about putting on a “fake” face, but about acting “as if.” It’s a fine line sometimes…the difference between false cheerfulness and realistic hope. I think you feel the difference in your heart, and others can see it in your face.
- Remember that many situations in life operate on a pendulum. What goes around comes around. Nothing stays the same. That’s both good news and cautionary news. If you’re in a good place, it won’t last forever. And if you’re not in a good place, it won’t last forever. Wherever you are in life, think about what you can learn from your circumstances. Enjoy the good times and be thankful for what you have. Health, life, wealth, jobs, relationships…these can all change in the blink of an eye. Recognize that and you’ll be better prepared to navigate the currents of life.
- Look to the long term. Be thoughtful about where you’re trying to go. If you’re tending a family, building a company, nurturing a career, growing a reputation, creating a legacy, you have a vision of what you hope will happen. Let that vision inspire you, keep you going, and be your reward for the work. The truth is, whether we realize it or not, all of us are leaving a footprint and influencing others. Take charge of what that imprint will be. How do you want to be remembered? Whether you influence a few people or many, your life will affect others. You get to decide what that looks like, and it’s less about your material success and much more about who you are as a person, a parent, a spouse, a son or daughter, an employer or employee, a friend…who are you in all these relationships? Your story and your connectedness, not your money, is the real inheritance you leave behind.
- Take care of yourself. You can’t care for others if you’re dying on the vine. It’s a common trap that people fall into without recognizing their own depletion. Whatever tools appeal to your ability to create balance, health, serenity, etc., adopt them and practice them regularly. Taking care of yourself first is not being selfish, it’s planning ahead. Like the instruction on flights to put your oxygen on before helping others, self-care isn’t self-serving, it’s wisdom.
- Bonus point! Practice gratitude. I know this suggestion could fit in several of the points above. But this is so critical, in my opinion, I think it should stand alone. Of the many things we do to have a positive attitude, having a thankful heart is the most important.
This is my list, the strategies that keep me sane and focused. What about you? Do you have routines and beliefs that are your bedrock in rocky times? If not, feel free to borrow anything here that resonates. And be careful about what buildings you jump into!