It’s Not Just Personal
Here in America, we have made life personal. We assume that the basic unit of existence is the individual who is free to make choices based on their self-interest. We are then responsible for the life (our life) that flows out of these choices. If we have the right attitude and are willing to apply enough good old elbow grease, we will end up prosperous and happy. The corollary to this belief is that personal difficulty and/or lack of success, is merely an indicator of insufficient character and effort.
Though there is some truth in this point of view, it ignores our inescapable location within the personal, social and natural environment. We all live and die in a web of mutual causality. We exist within a context of relationships, beliefs and circumstances that are beyond our direct control. Any decision we make, any action we take comes from a host of causes and conditions, some we may be aware of, and many, we are not. There is no such thing as an individual human being.
But we humans like things to be simple and we tend to fall into one of two views: either we are responsible for our lives or we are victims of forces beyond our control. As with most dichotomies, the most useful way forward is some middle way that honors the truth in both sides.
I do believe that each one of us does indeed have some responsibility for our actions and inactions. What is important to you? What will you do about it? These are essential questions that have a huge impact on the quality of our lives and touch the world around us. If you want to make a difference in the world, what can you do, right here in your present circumstances, begin to practice making a difference? If you think people should be more respectful of one another, how do you start acting more respectful? Or courageous? Or compassionate?
When we act in alignment with what we love, even in small ways, we come alive. Though our values are a receding target that we will never ‘reach,’ they are a compass that can guide us. When you’re traveling east, each step east is a fulfillment of your intention.
But it’s not just personal. Each of us is born into particular circumstances. Some of us are born into more stable environments where we feel reasonably safe and get more than enough to eat and get to go to school. Others are born into violent environments where we are neglected and abused – by our caretakers or by the world around us. And everything in between.
And the world around us views us in particular ways based on our skin color, our gender, our speech, our appearance. These social judgments and prejudices we encounter effect our every move and influence the outcome of everything we do. Though they appear to be ‘personal’, they are actually cultural and political forces played out in our personal experience. Some of us have benefitted from forces that have been mostly invisible to us. Other of us have been victimized by attitudes and beliefs that have nothing to do with who we truly are.
While we should be aware of the power of our capacity to chose, we should also remember that we are embedded in a culture that is working itself out through our personal lives. As we exercise our personal power to choose what we give our life to, we also need to continue to see more clearly how power and privilege play out in our lives and in the world around us.
To paraphrase what my friend and colleague James Cordova said last night: “You’re not in control and everything you do matters.”