If you’ve ever been part of a big organization, you’ve no doubt participated in some kind of activity involving helping to set the company’s goals and values. It’s the kind of exercise that is designed to bring people together and to get everyone focused in the same direction. Meetings are held, lists are made, and a large group of people is often then focused on some large, generalized plan for making everything better. Sometimes it works—a company experiences a big transformation, and everyone feels inspired, for a while. But mostly, change isn’t transformative if the focus is on the grand prize at the end of the road. Authentic change happens when the individual people who make up the organization all have a chance to transform themselves along the way. The same is true with relationships. If we concentrate on big, broad romantic gestures, it might look good on the outside, but it doesn’t do much for the overall relationship.
It turns out that the best and most important work happens right here in me.
In some ways, this is kind of my major lesson in life right now: The real work begins with me. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a person who needs a lot of fixing; it’s just that I’m the only thing I have any real control over. My role in whatever I do needs to be my focus. Whether it is a work project, or my relationship with my partner, or complaining about politics, transformation starts with me. I get it that I don’t have all the power, but I have no power if I simply expect someone else to do the work and make the changes.
I forget this often when I’m grousing about someone whose ongoing, selfish behavior is trying and frustrating. I often start recounting all of the ways that this person is disappointingly unable to change their narrative. I feel exasperated by their unwillingness to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and learn some important life lessons. If I’m lucky, this is often when I start to hear what I’m actually saying and be realistic about it: If I want change, I need to make change. If I want to feel less aggravated, centering all of my thoughts and energy on this aggravating person is not the answer.
I believe we each have our own set of lessons to learn in life. Whatever our circumstances, these same situations repeat themselves in various forms until we finally learn what we need to learn. This is one of my big ones. Having grown up in a family where there was considerable chaos, for example, I have spent a lot of my life trying to control potentially chaotic people and situations. My thoughts are often devoted to how to get ahead of the turmoil long before it even occurs. Truthfully, sometimes it never even happens, but I have done my due diligence to prevent it, whether it comes to be or not.
But I’ve finally begun to see that all of that energy would be better spent focused on myself and my reaction than on that external circumstance.
In other words, if I see what I perceive to be trouble coming, I’m much, much better off working on my response to it than on keeping it from heading my way. The latter really makes for the worst plate-spinning scenario ever, while the former could get me almost immediately to peace. If I think disorder is coming, I am more likely to feel better faster if I stay calm and take care of myself before I start putting up shields and barriers and defenses. Admittedly, it’s a basic idea, but I can’t believe how long it has taken me to get to this. For decades, I have focused instead on the big picture by trying to control everyone else’s plans and values and goals. It turns out that the best and most important work happens right here in me.
Much of what I’m thinking about here is related to daily life—relationships, work struggles, and the frustrations that come from helping other people manage their own struggles when they ask for assistance. In those settings, I’m learning that I have to begin in my own house, my own brain, and my own heart. I get it that my own inner peace about the world’s huge injustices will not really change anything in the big picture. Still, even in the face of brutality and unfairness, I am stronger if I work on myself first. It can help me focus, understand what I can do and where I can put my energies. It can also help me begin with peace, which is not a bad way to start any day, no matter what lies ahead.