“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.
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 (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 that 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.