We are the enviroment

[This is part two of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: I can­not save the envi­ron­ment; I am the envi­ron­ment.

I wrote the above back in 2010, directly influenced by this TED talk by John Francis:

I had studied environment at this formal level, but there as also this informal level. As I learned about this informal level, I also learned about people — about what we do and how we are. And ‘environment’ changed from just being about trees, birds, and endangered species, to being about how treat each other. Because if we are the environment, all we need to do is look around us and see we are treating ourselves and how we treat each other. (John Francis, Walk the earth … my 17-year vow of silence)

This thought experiment still haunts me. Ready? Visualize any ecological crisis or degradation — from oil spills to climate change, from pollution to fisheries — and ask: how is this situation related to the way humans treat one another?

From this vantage point, it suddenly seems that human-to-human relationships are not distinct phenomena in the world, as if unrelated to the ecology in which they transpire. The environments we live in — and the vitality of the ecology we depend on — is ultimately the sum equation of how we treat each other.

We are the environment.

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If you can’t do anything about it, why are you worrying about it?

[This is part one of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them. I have noth­ing to lever­age for my own hap­pi­ness except my own attitude.

Since writing the above paragraph in 2010, the pursuit of distinguishing between what is inside and outside of my control and has become something of a personal anchor in life. Reading the extant writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others over the past eight years has doubtlessly influenced this journey in significant ways. I am intrigued by no end with this broader philosophical tradition.

Today, the mantra for me goes like this: There are only two kinds of problems in the world — problems I can’t do anything about and problems I can do something about. Neither category of problem deserves anxious energy. If I make a list of all the things I can’t control in the world, I have a list of things about which my worry will have zero effect. If I make another list of things I can change in the world, worrying about them only detracts energy from doing something about them. The more things I have listed in these columns, the more things I don’t have to worry about.

On the list of things I can’t control are the names of everyone I know. I still think the most liberating realization in the world for me has been realizing that I cannot direct or manage the thoughts, feelings, and decisions of others. Herein is freedom from the curse of trying to be a hero. (As Dietrich Bonhoeffer surmised: a community is only as robust as its members are untangled from one another’s expectations of community itself.)

The proposition that “I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them,” continues to be a cornerstone conviction.

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Everything I Have Learned So Far, and then some

I hit a milestone birthday this weekend: 40 years on the planet.

Reflecting, as one does at times like these, I decided to revisit a post I wrote in 2010 titled Everything I’ve Learned So Far. I dug this out of the archives because I was curious: how much, or how little, have these convictions changed for me in eight years? If I was going to write a 2018 edition of Everything I’ve Learned So Far, what would I omit or add?

For the most part — for better or worse — 32-year-old James sounds suspiciously not unlike 40-year-old James. At the same time, a lot has changed. To recap: I’ve been married to an incredible person for these eight years, who has taught me so much. I have almost completely changed the direction of my so-called career path. On top of all this, I even had the immense privilege to spend three and a half years writing along the way. In sum: it has been a significant eight years.

In the intervening years, these sixteen ‘life lessons’ have been tested, stretched, forgotten, re-learned, and developed. There have certainly been a few additions. And perhaps some remain less front of mind today. Either way, I am going to make some space to ponder and write about each of “things I had learned so far” as a 32-year-old and revisit them from the perspective of my forties. My goal is to reflect on one per week.

I humbly own the fact that this onset of contemplative energy is wholly inspired by turning 40. I am intrigued by the cultural significance associated with the passing of decades. But like the countdown of a New Years celebration, a big round number seems as good of a reminder as any to intentionally pause and ponder life.

If I have the good fortune of another 10 years on this planet, I will hopefully look back on this reflection (in 2028, in my fifties!) through yet another decade of existence. I want to believe that wisdom compounds with age — or, at very least, that every year adds another year’s worth of experience and learning through which to see and describe life.

(I’ll tag the subsequent posts in this ‘series’ of reflections as life lessons.)

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Ironic Kōan

You only live once (YOLO), so don’t stress out over all that carpe diem stuff.

True stoics do not get excited about abandoning their passions.

The desire to be liberated from attachments is no less a craving to which you can cling.

Do not stress out over the acquisition of a stress free life.

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Everything I’ve Learned So Far

I had a birth­day recently, so I thought I would write down every­thing I’ve learned so far.

I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them. I have noth­ing to lever­age for my own hap­pi­ness except my own attitude.

I can­not save the envi­ron­ment; I am the envi­ron­ment. [Great les­son from John Francis.]

Health — while prob­a­bly the eas­i­est thing to take for granted — is the most frag­ile gift I will ever have. It is the ful­crum upon which every­thing else balances–I will respect and nur­ture it as such. To seek health is to seek life. They are synonymous.

I have about 112 hours of con­scious life to live each week: wis­dom dic­tates invest­ing at least one of these hours to med­i­tate on how I will use the remain­ing 111 hours.

All is imper­ma­nence. Change is the only thing that remains the same. Fluc­tu­a­tion is the solid­ity of life. There is con­stant change under the sun, and this is noth­ing new.

Bore­dom is a symp­tom of chronic uncre­ativ­ity and lazi­ness: it’s pres­ence is an all-bells alarm that pri­or­i­ties are seri­ously out of whack.

Accom­plish­ing any­thing that yields a sense of mean­ing is first depen­dent on how I answer this ques­tion: what do I actu­ally want in life? The degree to which I find pur­pose in life is directly cor­re­lated to the degree of clar­ity with which I answer that question.

Choices, com­mit­ments and actions ought to be deter­mined by who I want to be, not in reac­tion against some­thing that I do not want to become.

What “really hap­pened” in the past will not affect me nearly as much as the story I believe about it, for bet­ter or for worse. Sto­ries are mean­ing; sto­ries are heal­ing; sto­ries are dangerous.

If hope is a mere illu­sion, then despair is no more imag­i­nary. Thus, be they illu­sions or not, I still have to choose between them.

Lead­er­ship is sim­ple: it is car­ing for peo­ple so much that it becomes obvi­ous what we need to do together and actu­ally doing it becomes natural.

I do not want to be famous, for the pur­suit of acco­lades and recog­ni­tion just wastes my time on a goal that would prob­a­bly ruin my life if I was actu­ally unlucky enough to accom­plish it.

All these lessons are worth ques­tion­ing and doubt­ing, because cer­tainty is a cir­cu­lar loop and it traps the mind if given a hold. I am always one assump­tion away from a dog­matic fun­da­men­tal­ism regard­ing any­thing I believe, right or wrong.

Pas­sion is the capac­ity to act on con­vic­tion and con­tin­u­ously ques­tion this con­vic­tion along the way. I am only gen­uinely pas­sion­ate about that which I am also will­ing to deeply question.

What really mat­ters the most is sim­ply this: who you love, who loves you, and how you define what it means to love.

And with this I will close: I will never assume every­thing I need to learn could ever be encap­su­lated in a sin­gle blog post!

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