“How would you see yourself as being an architect of change in your own life? It might be at your dinner table, it might be out in the world, but that’s a core question to bring to the surface at this time in our country.” ~ Susan David
What follows is a bit of free-wheeling train of thought about reading, writing, and making sense of what to do when we don’t know where to start, with some links to posts and articles I’ve enjoyed in recent days.
If not now, when?
“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” ~ Hillel the Elder
Until preparing this post, I never knew where the phrase “If not now, when?” came from, or even that it did have a specific origin. Were I better acquainted with Judaism, I would have known that it is part of a longer quotation by Hillel the Elder, a Jewish leader from Babylon who lived during the reign of King Herod.
The name sounded familiar: my first introduction to him was in a book I indexed titled Aphrodite and the Rabbis, in which the author, Burton L. Visotzky, refers to Hillel as “the rabbis’ George Washington,” a kind of founding father of modern Judaism (the Jewish campus organization Hillel International is named for him). He is known for his charity, humility, and compassion for the less fortunate.
The maxim “If I am not for myself…” is rich with notions of duality, identity, purpose, and meaning. Another of Hillel’s sayings is “Do not say ‘When I free myself of my concerns, I will study’ for perhaps you will never free yourself.”
If we change just one word, it becomes “Do not say ‘When I free myself of my concerns, I will
study write‘ for perhaps you will never free yourself.” Take the time to chew on that. Not only do we often wait to have the time to study or write or be, a wait that can be indefinite. More important, we might be approaching the issue backward. Perhaps only through studying or writing or actively being, will we free ourselves. (See also Modern Lessons from Hillel at NPR.)
Tiny Tweaks and Everyday Heroes
In Maria Shriver’s interview with Susan David (author of Emotional Agility), titled “Embrace Authenticity: How to Break Free from the Tyranny of Positivity.” David encourages us “to hear the heartbeat of our own why”:
We live in a world where everyone is telling us what to think, how to look, how to feel. There’s fascinating research showing that we are subject to social contagion, where we start subtly picking up the behaviors of others. We go into an elevator, everyone’s looking at their phones, so we take out ours.
Especially for highly sensitive people, living in an atmosphere of high anxiety can mean we are continually picking up on and wrestling with others’ emotions. In turn, we are less connected, both to ourselves and others. More distracted. Tenser. Less responsive. Simply being aware of this dynamic is a good first step. Once we have a better sense of who we are and who we want to be and why, we can make choices that support those values, even if it is, as writer Pam Parker explains in her blog post, we choose just “One Damn Thing“:
Again, from Susan David:
[It’s] tiny tweaks: the tiny tweak of “I love this person—but every time they come home from work I hardly get up from my computer to even say hello to them,” or “I want to be a present parent and yet I’m on my phone at the dinner table.”
Make a small change. We can take a habit that we’ve already got and piggyback onto that habit in ways that are values-aligned. You put your keys into a particular drawer? Put your cell phone into the drawer, as well, so that you have a conversation with your child where you aren’t on the phone. Read more
Viktor Frankl wrote, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me.” Or, to use the terminology of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, we can choose to respond by being an everyday hero in our own life in even the smallest of ways, including the heroic journey of a creative life.
(Your) Words Matter
On the “Who am I” page of her website, UK writer Aliya Mughal shares the following:
I’ve built my life around words. Why? Because words matter. Clarity of thought and the beauty of expression lend quality and vision to everything in life.
Her post “The power of words in an age of anxiety” is a powerful argument for the value of fiction and poetry—especially during times when we feel too anxious or depressed or frazzled to exchange this world for another—and “why reading is such an indispensable pastime in those moments when reality lets us down.”
Milwaukee writer Jocelyn Lee adopts a similar approach using nonfiction. When she is “discombobulated” by news and opinions and life, she reads ten pages a day from self-chosen subject areas:
I noticed that by adopting this practice, I have better conversations, sleep relatively peaceful, I gain new found optimism, I am more mindful, a little smarter, and acquire the energy I need to concentrate on those things which matter. One of which is working on my own novel. Read more
Now more than ever we can embrace words, whether reading or writing, in the service of freedom and purpose, and not just when we write to persuade. Sarah Kendzior, an expert on authoritarianism, wrote an important essay in November about being our own light when life grows dark (even if you don’t agree with her politically, her argument about personal freedom applies to everyone):
Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.
We need to listen for, hear, and heed our own unique voice. Kendzior reminds us that no one can “take away who you truly are”:
[Y]ou need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.
But most of all, never lose sight of who you are and what you value. Read more
What does this mean for ordinary people like you and me? We can embrace this moment, this time, however fractured and uncertain we feel, as an opportunity to figure out who we really are. If we are writers or artists of any kind who have never truly committed to a creative life, then we need to be that person. Now. Today. One or one hundred or one thousand words at a time. That’s how we not only persist but thrive.