“You have given me some stepping stones that feel solid. Real. Methodical. Most importantly to me – Authentic. I guess the hardest part might be to keep ‘enthusiasm’ as you say, to not become too cynical or complacent. As I see it, complacency leads to a kind of soul death.
“When you watch or read the news, it’s almost all bad between the climate change crisis, no certain future, political polarization and arguments between everyone, the pandemic. On some level, and many of my friends feel the same way, it’s hard to find the point in it all, especially in working a daily grind for a mediocre job, with no guarantee whatever job I choose will be relevant or if we will even exist in 20 years. How can I not be overwhelmed by that? Also, I read on another of your posts something you said about ‘passing on virtues’ that seems related – can you say more about that?”
Yes, your generation has inherited a range and size of tumultuous issues that can be intimidating. But it’s important, too, to recognize that the core human struggles – of personal identity, relevance and meaning, the search for inspiration and serenity, worry and doubt about the future, and even whether or not there is any point in our efforts – are not unique to this period of time and have been with us since the beginning of recorded human history.
We do have a fine collection of excellent recommendations for, and examples of, how to handle it all, especially since the Axial Age, wisdom passed down by some of the greatest souls humanity has to offer (many of them and their contemporary proponents highlighted throughout this blog). This itself is an example of passing on virtues, and they are worthy of study and practice so that we, too, pass them on. Indeed, this is more crucial than ever with the relentless bombardment of bad news via modern technology, causing a heightened awareness of formidable issues and the ensuing intensification of existential overwhelm, confusion, and anguish.
Overwhelm is a reaction to our perception of unworkable size. That is, it’s emotionally, physiologically, mentally, and spiritually disturbing, and exhausting, to stare too intently at the mass and number of events and problems that are beyond our personal control. Taken too far or too often, this can become a kind of unhappy, paralyzing voyeurism.
Taking your question literally – “How can I not be overwhelmed by that?” – the first gesture is to guide your attention to what you can control.
Gathering our attention into our actual sphere of influence, the space and time that we can directly manage and affect, is itself the essence of wisdom. Various schools of thought have described this as being in the moment or bringing our full presence to the task at hand, whatever that may be and however inconsequential it may seem (even just breathing and holding a graceful posture). And it is through such full-bodied, in-the-moment attentiveness that we are able to transcend unnecessary mania and stress, recover our sense of wholeness, and regenerate our faith in “the point of it all.”
Such a conscious honing in does not require us to ignore larger issues we face as a community or species. Each of the issues you list is malleable at least within our personal engagements. For example, if you find political polarization and arguments to be an upsetting concern, then choose to not fuel them within your own interactions. Be the composed, discussion-advancing presence that you feel is missing. The same for the daily grind in a mediocre job: bring more acute intention – this passing on virtues – to the mediocrity, thereby setting a different standard for how that time is engaged and what is produced from it. This is exactly how mediocrity is transformed into the extraordinary, and it’s also how we pry open doors to opportunities previously unimagined.
In my experience, excellence and even greatness are not contingent on the apparent importance of the frame or how many people are watching but are about the virtuosity one brings to their show, whatever that show is.
And, taking your lead from the list of qualities you value: solid, real, methodical, authentic, and enthusiastic is about as good a recipe as we can come up with for applying ourselves (maybe add a pinch of unassuming generosity and of wit to spice it up a bit). Authenticity especially is a game-changing virtue, and something I constantly seek out, whether that be in a conversation, a restaurant, the way someone walks down the street, or the expression on their face, in a film, book, or song. I’d guess this is true for you, as well, as I know it is for every exceptional person I’ve met.
I see authenticity as sincerity with deep roots, and it is one of the very few things that light up my day in surprising ways, regenerating my own enthusiasm.
Change on a large scale always starts with the individual. Each of us has the power to design and craft what we want that change to be within the sphere of our presence and interactions. The virtues we embody within our own sphere do touch others and impact their experience and understanding of the world, their considerations and actions, often in ways that are not immediately observable. That’s possible within the simplest exchanges, even with complete strangers. Equally significant, in immersing in our own microcosm of what we can control and affect – not later or before or other or more but in this place, this time, this way – we free ourselves from overwhelm and find that our agency to manage our world with greater assuredness is restored.
Who is this young person in our midst? Who has brought such wonderful questions, observations… and Authenticity to the table? I feel less overwhelmed already. Thank you.
“Gatherng our attention into our actual sphere of influence, the space and time that we can directly manage and affect, is itself the essence of wisdom. Various schools of thought have described this as being in the moment or bringing our full presence to the task at hand, whatever that may be and however inconsequential it may seem…”
Some elements that might support the above from the ” Dead poets society “:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
― N.H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society
“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
― Tom Schulman, Dead Poets Society
“Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn’t that right, Todd? And that’s your worst fear.”
― Tom Schulman, Dead Poets Society
This passing on virtues through time and space may be one of the noblest things a human being can devote himself to and humbly, creatively even joyfully play his/her part in the evolution of the long arc of life. People will eventually die but their virtues and qualities will hopefully be passed on (if you are an artist then there will be traces left in your art somehow) and are absolutely essential to the survival of our species. It looks to me that animals or plants are much further ahead in that field than we are and that we have some serious catch-up to do.
I have always liked how you return to practical simple applications to show that the power lies within us if we can go beyond our complacency, complaints, apathy, laziness or fears.
After reading your post I did practice being more in the “now” throughout my days and it was relieving, satisfying and surprisingly simple. That doesn’t mean I’m not overwhelmed at times but those little moments offer relief and the sense of having at least some control of my immediate environment, it also calms down my nervous system which can only be a good thing for me and others around!
Thank you also for keeping this colourful oasis of wisdom here (your blog) alive, vibrant and so genuinely unique.
I second DLB’s comment about the virtues exhibited in Dinah’s questions and observations, especially authenticity. There’s something relieving in seeing a younger person take on such challenging subjects so sincerely.
If I may: There seems to be a renewed interest these days in themes around the idea of expanding consciousness. You’ve included in this blog links to some of the modern writers and artists spearheading such inquiry, such as Oliver Sacks, Kendrick Lamar, Nick Cave, Maria Popova, and Jonathan Haidt.
Question: How do you see information related to this process; in other words, is it important to be “up to date” on what’s happening internationally in our pursuit of expanding our own consciousness? Or is that collection of information just another indulgence in, as you say, “unhappy, paralyzing voyeurism”? And related to this, what do you think about public speakers/philosophers such as Jordan Peterson, Daniel Schmachtenberger, and Ken Wilber?
Many thanks for all your work here.
An acutely necessary conversation. Thank you.
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