Things don’t have to be the way they are.
This surprisingly controversial statement is at the heart of all social change, technical innovation, home renovation projects, make-up counters, and dreams for better lives for our children. One day, we lay eyes on some something and it hits us–”Oh honey, that just won’t do.”
The tricky part is what comes next. Once you see the problem, what comes next?
Seriously, what comes next for you? (Don’t think for a moment that you just get to sit back and read! I’m typing, so you’ve got to put in some effort, too!) What does it take for you to go to Home Depot and get what you need to fix the sagging fence? What shocks you off the couch and into a community meeting? A protest? What threshold must be met in order for you to start sketching your idea on a napkin? What astronomical alignment are you waiting for to start your book?
This is a particularly pressing question because I find myself wondering what has changed that has led me to start typing after years of talking a good game about starting my blog back up once I get my thoughts in order. Once I finished grad school. Once I learned more about leadership. Once I got settled into parenthood. Once I got used to my new job. And it’s not just blogging. I’m sketching out notes for potential workshops talking with friends about and on podcasts. What’s different now? How can I trust that I’ll keep this up? Why should I get my hopes up that this will be different from past attempts at changing my world?
The easy answer: I have homework from my leadership program that is challenging me to design and pursue an adventurous expression of my life purpose—a quest, if you will. I’m being a good student and doing the homework as assigned, wrestling with it head on while the coursework has my attention.
Another take: I have a toddler. Life may never be as sweet or as frenetic as it is right now. Little One is in a constant state of flux, a living embodiment of the power of transformation. A year ago, she could barely sit up on her own, and now she’s running, talking, and attempting to make her own lunch. Some days she wakes up and entire areas of cognition have been upgraded overnight. Oh wow, she can suddenly pick up cereal with a pincer grip. Hey, she knows to walk to her room when I say, “Time to change your diaper!” This creative, changing energy is contagious. At least blog posts are more sanitary than a pile of used Kleenex.
And another: The tension between my contentment and my unrest has hit a tipping point and something has to give. I have a *good* life. I have love and comfort and fulfillment and gentle intrigue and relatively benign things to complain about. I have financial security, physical safety, and the ability to indulge my dreams, rather than chasing them for fear of my life. This is an amazing life, and I have it because of a combination of privilege, social support, dumb luck, and hard work. And I know, deep down in my bones, that it is not enough for me and mine to have comfort. Things do not have to be the way they are. I must barter with Life for this ease, not with liberal guilt, but rather by contributing to positive systemic change.
This is the point where I want to curl up into a ball. There is too much that should be different. It’s all too big. I’m just not that important. Why even start when I know I’m just going to fail? At some point. Eventually.
And here is the giant pile of bullshit that smothers my (our) (your) good intentions and revolutions before I (we) (you) even get off the couch. Stories have great power to provide meaning in our lives, but we can’t fall prey to the narrative. We cannot define success as a well-defined plot arch that ends in a clearly obtained goal. And I’m not calling bullshit because life just doesn’t adhere to this ideal. I’m calling bullshit because this ideal doesn’t work in the real world.
Take a moment. Breathe this in: the world isn’t changed by solo adventurers in three-act hero’s journeys. There are no magic words, perfect policies, or definite movements. The world is a system of systems, and systems don’t work like that. They’re messy. Unexpected. Apply a ton of pressure to one spot, and the outcome doesn’t change. Sneeze on some other lever, and everything shifts. Into something you have never conceived. The difference may only become apparent long after your action—systems don’t care much about human timescales. You must be always present to what really is, not what we assume is there. And we must hold our dreams lightly in case they no longer make sense.
This is the paralyzing paradox: we cannot know the effect of our actions or our inactions. When we have the urge to act, we must do so with only the faith that it will ultimate serve.