In The New Yorker dated Jan. 15, 2018, writer Alexandra Schwartz reviews books about self-improvement. In 2018, not only is there a fad for striving to improve every aspect of one's being -- there are also gadgets and books and apps and coaches to exhort us, measure our efforts, and reward us for being "accountable." She says, "Self-help advice tends to reflect the beliefs and priorities of the era that spawns it. ... In our current era of non-stop technological innovation, fuzzy wishful thinking has yielded to the hard doctrine of personal optimization."
Does all this make you feel a bit tired? It does me. I know for sure I can't "optimize" everything all at once -- if in fact I can "optimize" anything -- even though self-improvement is part of my vocation and I want to be a good example.
It's a tremendous privilege to have time and space to choose to exercise during free time, or to cook healthy meals most of the time, or to get eight hours of sleep. Working people are fortunate if we achieve one or more of these healthy habits during some portions of our life, let alone "optimizing" all the details. (I keep putting "optimize" in quotation marks because it sounds so snootily privileged and reminds me of "They have no bread? Let them eat cake.")
If you're thinking about making a change -- if you are wanting to improve your well-being or your self-image in some way -- I want you to do one thing before you choose a new healthy habit or goal to pursue. I want you to tell yourself (mentally, aloud, or both) many, many times a day, "I am exactly the person I should be" or "I am who I am, and that is the fact, and I'm good with that." The real key: you have to say it without immediately thinking, "But." No matter how long it takes for that "but" to stop showing up (and this means you must cultivate patience).
I want you to feel the calming effect of accepting yourself as you are. In a calm place, we can look around with deliberation and decide what appeals to us. In a calm place, we can see the good things in our life, not just the stressful ones. In a calm place, we can choose to work on a good thing to make it better or bigger, or we can choose to work on a problem.
Throughout this lifelong process we need to keep practicing self-acceptance and patience. And this is something anyone can do, no matter how limited time and money are.
Personally, I've been through times when major changes felt like major failures. After muddling through a few of these as a young adult, I stumbled onto the peace of self-acceptance when it seemed I was powerless to do anything else. After finding that calm, and figuring out how to glimpse it again when it started to dissipate (because even a glimpse helps!), I saw that from that place of quiet I could appreciate the good things about my life and I could figure out how to improve it further.
So, before you feel too exhausted by all the means available for consumers to "optimize" themselves, practice self-acceptance and patience, and if you can, find someone to support the process. Let me know if I can help.
The photo is of a collection of figurines secured to a tree root ball on a street near me. I love this display.
Thanks for reading.