Embracing Real Self-Improvement
Without a push, most of us would remain as we are
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“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” — Dr. Viktor Frankl
Each of us are in a continual evolution from who we are to who we will become. Despite this continual changing of our identities, we make the mistake of assuming the current model is the same as the one which will be here a year or more from now.
This is called the End of History Illusion. We believe, mistakenly, who we are now is the final and complete version of ourselves. Sadly, that’s just not the case.
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Every year I look back at the previous years version of myself, or farther back if I’m really indulgent, and think, “Wow, what an idiot. I’m vastly superior to that guy.” Without fail, this has been a pattern which has been repeating since age seven and is likely to continue until I’m eighty seven.
Despite this continual trajectory upward, I really start to like the version of myself I happen to be at the time. The current iteration is always, “perfect.” The blemishes which are very apparent and very troubling are also very overlooked.
I become comfortable with the current reality, my current self, and my current circumstances. Sounds like perfect contentment, right? Sadly, among the ways in which we do improve and grow comfort is not one of them. In fact, it is stress and misery which builds greater character, strength and mastery than all the warm blankets and bonbons of the the world ever could.
In the Odyssey, we hear of Odysseus and his men traveling to the island of the Lotus eaters. When they eat of the Lotus fruit, they lose all desire to return home and are instead content to remain on the island until death.
They became satisfied with only the present, instead of pressing on toward the hope in the future. It is an apt illustration which applies far too readily to most of us in our daily existence than is charitable to admit.
The moment my lips begin to touch the Lotus fruit and the illusion of contentment with my present reality starts, it is all violently shaken up. My prior life becomes shattered in chaos, my current identity becomes visibly battered and is not up to the challenge of the new reality in which I must exist.
These seismic shifts of life are recurring to some degree or another in the lives of everyone, coming in various forms and various means: work, relationships, family, health — take your pick.
In my scenario, often this change is triggered by the evoking of a terrible force which is consigned the darkest parts of life: My own emotions.
To the logician, these petty things called feelings often seem to get in the way of rational thought, and tend to be the principle cause when my world goes to pieces. It makes some sense, as it is an admitted weakness and is therefore the easiest way to push me to action.
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Recently, when speaking with a farmer friend who raised salad greens, he told me one of his biggest customers was going to start raising their own salad greens.
This puts him in a pickle with his lettuce. Since it was the off-season, he didn’t need to make a decision immediately, but he realized it was an opportunity to stop farming full time. He had already been considering changing careers, and this was a push to move him in that direction.
Without a push, most of us would remain as we are. Why do anything different? It takes an inciting incident to transport us from the known to the unknown, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the shire to the gates of Mordor. These incidents may be harmless or harmful, the point is they strike with such intensity we have no other choice but to go forward and abandon the hopes and comforts we leave behind.
This is essential for our personal journeys and our development as people. The irony is, the tougher you get and the better you become, life throws bigger and bigger struggles at you to shake up the status quo. We cannot expect life to get any easier, if we’re doing it right it’s really only ever going to get harder.
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Strength is built in struggle. It’s why people lift heavy things at the gym and why you don’t want to anger a mother of four children. Each time we have to become the next version of ourselves, it is defined by the struggle we have faced.
The circumstances of that rebirth are imprinted into the structure and identity of who we become next. This can either be a great benefit, or a great harm depending on our perspectives.
There was only once I can actively recall becoming worse after an incident. Instead of choosing to take my licking honestly and fairly, I took the low road and allowed it to harden me in the bad way.
Good rule of thumb, when you are already remote and emotionally unavailable by nature being a jerk is always only two steps away. I took more than two steps. Choosing to embrace being mean spirited and amoral I ended up hurting not only the people around me, but myself in the process.
Recovery occurred rather swiftly, as that particular iteration of myself was one of the shortest lived models which made it past the showroom floor. I haven’t let myself forget it, letting it remind me how the constant change of who we are isn’t always guaranteed for the better. It takes will and conviction to take the mess life throws at us and turn it into the foundation of our growth.
History is filled with the stories of great men and women who faced struggles and chose to become all the better for it, because of that we are graced with the greatest of poets, inventors, philosophers and saints. They chose growth instead of bitterness when life hit them, and we are capable of doing the same.
It is not a matter of if change occurs, but when. The struggle will face us again and again, taunting us to get back up and give it our best shot. The only thing we can control within this mess is the attitude we bring to the given situation. If we sulk in the disillusion of our former lives, we easily become embittered to reality. Longing for the days past which can never be regained. A better option is to embrace the reality of change, accept it for what it is, an opportunity for continual growth.
As special and great as the person you now are might be, you probably suck on some fundamental level even if you don’t care to admit it. You are flawed. I am flawed.
Those are indisputable facts which no amount of recasting of our characters will ever change. As we grow and mature however, the we see those flaws more readily for what they are. They can become acknowledged and mastered, instead of becoming our masters.
Approaching the difficult moments with a mindset for growth isn’t easy. It means we first have to admit the faults of who we are at the present. If you’re unwilling to do it, don’t worry, life will do an incredible job of proving it whether you like it or not. Once we have renounced the old world and the old self, we can approach the possibilities of the future without holding onto regrets for what once was.
When the Children of Israel were traveling through the desert to the Promised land, after they had seen God part the Red Sea and destroy the Egyptian chariots, they began to complain. They tired of God’s provision of mana on a daily basis, they cried out saying, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” — Numbers 11:5 ESV. They considered the food and the illusion of comforts all the while forgetting the chains they wore in slavery. Admittedly, on more than one occasion I’ve fallen into this trap, imaging the past as a glorious time when the struggle was absent, ignoring the reality of the situation.
Author Robert Green coined the phrase Amor Fati, which means to love fate. It means to not simply accept what happens, but to embrace and love it. It’s easy enough when we’re comfortable, but an indescribable challenge when our life becomes overhauled. Taking hold of this mindset brings us from a place of apathy toward our circumstances to engagement. Embracing the wreck of the moment for the growth it will provide if we can keep our heads in the storm.
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Do not grow attached to who you are or the circumstances in which you find yourself, they have the same permanence as the flowing of a river. At the same time, take this knowledge as a hope. You don’t need to remain the same person you are now next year, you probably couldn’t be if you tried. As change forces us into growth we have the opportunity to become reinvented into something new and better than we were before.
Instead of just looking back at how foolish or stupid the past versions of myself were, now I am asking how foolish the current iteration is. I’m actively asking how I can become a better version of myself next year.
When I see the alarm saying my world is changing again, I don’t huddle under the furniture and hope it passes me by. I am choosing to embrace a quote by Ernest Hemingway, “The true nobility is in being superior to your previous self.”
My history doesn’t end here, and neither does yours. Embrace the struggle, change and challenge as the moments which shake us out of our lethargy and force us to change who we are.