I’ve been sitting with a particular question lately that haunts me, in many ways:
How are we to make sense of our lives, let alone our efforts at growth, change, maturity, acceptance, work, relationships, spirituality, any and all of it, when our world feels like its going to hell in a handbasket?
What follows is definitely not a be-all-end-all “fix” to this dilemma, or even an answer to the question itself, but it does reflect the process I’ve walked myself through over and over and over again…
Name what’s true.
The tendency and seduction is strong to tie the value of our work, our very being, to some kind of measurable, seen-and-felt impact. Said in reverse, the tendency and seduction is strong to devalue our work, our very being, in the face of this messy, broken world.
Also true: all of this is overwhelming — and hard. We don’t know where to look, where to turn, what to believe, what to do. Any focus on our own reality somehow feels selfish and small — privileged and entitled.
Go small anyway.
Just for now, not forever. For the sake of this practice, hold a situation in mind and heart that feels futile — with little-to-no hope for change. Something close to home. Your very personal experience. Past or present.
- A job in which you are miserable.
- A marriage you don’t believe can get better and you can’t see how you could ever leave.
- Regret over a relationship that ended or was irreparably broken with no way to heal or fix it.
- Financial stress and hardship.
- Fill in the blank.
In my experience (with every one of the examples above), it is very easy for me to throw my hands up, to give up, to let my shoulders slump as I take a ragged breath, to resign myself to what “is.” I feel small in comparison to the “largeness” of the situation.
Acknowledge default behavior.
When things feel futile and hopeless, my frequent default is to believe I have no control. I’m completely stuck and immobilized. Which makes online shopping or another glass of wine or NOT writing and/or watching Netflix feel like not only the best choice, but the only one. When I feel like I have no control, I exert even less of it.
Name what’s true again.
I DO actually have control. No matter how big, how dark, how hard the reality, I am never stopped from looking closer at myself. There is ALWAYS more for me to learn, to see, to acknowledge, and to name.
Go within and look closer.
- The miserable job: I can pay attention to where I am compromising myself, complying, people-pleasing, and not telling my truth. And I can choose to do things differently.
- The marriage: I can be honest about my participation in the dynamics that exist in the first place — not in blame, but with honesty, clarity, and awareness. And I can choose to change those dynamics.
- Regret over a relationship: I can look back at my own behavior and better understand who I was when I made the choices I did — and why. I may not be able to mend the fences or bring the person back, but I can offer myself understanding, forgiveness, and grace.
- In financial stress: I can look at and understand my money story — where it came from and what it inflicts. I may not be able to miraculously pay off college loans, a mortgage, or sometimes even cover monthly expenses without struggle, but I can change my beliefs about what this means (and doesn’t) and how much of my identity I’m willing to have hooked to money’s power.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl
Now, widen the lens.
When we see (and employ) the ways in which change is possible in our own story, our own struggles, our own life, we can then begin to imagine (and hope for) ways in which it is possible on a much larger scale. We are not immobilized. We are not absented from all control. There is ALWAYS opportunity for change — no matter how dark the day, how dire the circumstances, how brutal the story.
** An important caveat: There are, to be sure, many situations in which people do not have the privilege, agency, or choice of which I speak. I do not mean to be remotely trite or in any way communicate that doing “some personal work” will afford the kind of healing and transformation deserved by those who are victims of violence, war, and so many other horrendous and unjust realities. Which is why our change matters all the more! **
Name what’s true. Again.
Our personal work, our self-reflection, our ongoing commitment to growth and transformation IS what makes any and all the difference in the larger world.
Do the math.
Imagine what would happen, what would change, if even a small percentage of us actually took our personal growth seriously, if we put effective boundaries in place, if we said “no,” when we meant it, if we never said “yes” when we didn’t mean it, if we were 100% ourselves 100% of the time, if we learned to extend ourselves grace, if we silenced our caustic and critical self-talk, if we trusted our own wisdom, if we lived in alignment with our deepest beliefs, values, and hopes.
Multiply it again.
“One person of integrity can make a difference.” ~ Elie Weisel
Personal work, personal growth, looking within, focusing on self…it matters. Even, and maybe especially, when the world seems to be falling apart. We DO have agency, control, and influence. And that changes relationships, workplaces, families, social media’s influence (maybe even for good), legal systems, social structures, cultural expectations, politics, policy, national interests, global concerns, world peace.
Too big of a leap? It’s the ONLY leap to make, from where I sit.
Individual lives, singular stories, the smallest of choices, change everything!
When we see and believe how single stories have wielded enough power to create this world, then re-visioning stories, telling new ones, healing the old ones, and living redeemed ones has the same power — and exponentially more.
The person across the street. The Russian military member who lays down their weapons and refuses to fight. The woman in front of you in the checkout line. The Ukrainian mother who is doing everything in her power to keep her children alive. The barista who is steaming milk for your latte. The senator who introduced the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. My daughters. Vladimir Putin. Your mother. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Best friends. Me. You. We all live individuals stories that are changing the world.
“Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
So yes, I’ve answered my own existential question — at least for the time being: my writing about all of this matters. My work matters. But within and underneath it is something that matters far, far more: YOU! Your work matters. Your self-care matters. Your personal growth matters. Your relationships matter. Your story matters. Even now. Especially now. Because one single story can — and does — change the world.
May it be so.