Salima, the woman behind the collective photo project I’m participating in, asked me about my values in an interview. Even though it was the project’s theme, I found the question pretty difficult to answer. I did wonder, while shooting my roll of film, how photographs could possibly reflect values. But I said: integrity. Kindness. Being close to people who matter in my life.
Then I started wondering (of course), and I’m afraid that, once again. I was in a wishful-thinking mode. First of all, I realized that I don’t even know how to define “integrity.” I see it as a quality characterizing those who act out of deeply held conviction, and who do not waste energy on trying to sway others their way; an alignment between values and action. Do I possess it? Hah. I wish. Let’s say that I’m working on it. Kindness, yes, though I could be dropping more coins into street musicians’ hats. Anyway, how can I even say, “I am kind,” and not question it? Closeness? I am a pretty lonely figure. It seems like I do have a talent for antagonizing and abandoning those who love me the most. So, I don’t know. I am not convinced by this smooth talk I sell to the world. Words like violence.
I don’t always read as manically as I do these days – but at the moment I have five books playing simultaneously. One of them is “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The authors used to train elite athletes and then moved into the life-coaching sector (click through for a nice summary of the book.) The promising subtitle, “Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal,” raised my hopes high. I’ve always been crap at organizing my time – there, I’ve said it. Procrastinating, cramming, delivering at the last moment, and quitting if the stakes were too high have become my forte. “Forte.” I am also a pretty slow-moving person. It usually takes about a quarter of an hour for my neurons to start firing after the alarm clock goes off. Strength training is fine, but cardio-wise I am always a beginner. My blood pressure is too low. I have little energy to draw on, and so, perhaps predictably, I burnt out spectacularly in my last job. So I took to “The Power of Full Engagement” with trepidation, even though its tabloid-friendly cover makes me very self-conscious about reading it on the underground. Then again, one such book, David Burns’s “The Feeling Good Handbook,” absolutely changed my life. It’s like a magic shield against depression, it’s amazing, and its cover was even worse. Never judge a book… True, that.
I like “The Power of Full Engagement.” The authors’ approach is very down-to-earth, pragmatic and prescriptive. While I find it somewhat difficult to relate to case studies of Wall Street brokers, hedge fund managers and pharmaceutical executives, I see the merit of creating little rituals that can eventually pull one along instead of stubbornly calling upon one’s will power and feeling bad about not delivering. As Loehr and Schwartz stress, willpower is a limited resource, as is energy. The solution?
“Because we have overridden the natural rhythms that once defined our lives, the challenge is to consciously and deliberately create new boundaries. We must learn to establish stopping points in our days, inviolable times when we step off the track, cease processing information and shift our attention from achievement to restoration.” (39)
It’s all about remembering to be good to oneself, but not slacking off:
“To build capacity, we must systematically expose ourselves to more stress – followed by adequate recovery.” (43)
The two coaches took the idea of interval training from the world of muscle building and applied it to life’s demands – and I believe them when they assert that
“The willingness to challenge our comfort zones depends partly on our degree of underlying security. To whatever degree we are consumed by anxious concerns and attempts to fill deficits – for energy, or material security, or self-esteem – we are less willing to expose ourselves to any discomfort. When there isn’t much fuel in our tanks and our inner experience is that we feel threatened, we tend to hoard the energy we have and use our limited stores in the service of self-protection. We refer to this phenomenon as defense spending. Accurately assessing the level of threat in our lives is critical if we are to continue to grow rather than forever defending what we have.” (44-45)
There are many more morsels of perfectly applicable common-sense wisdom in there. Still, I smirk a little when I see life-change strategies announcing: TARGETED MUSCLE: INTIMACY. Or: EMPATHY. Or: CREATIVITY. Likewise, I am not entirely convinced that we exercise the “spirituality muscles” in PRECISELY the same way we exercise the muscle muscles. But who knows. Maybe coaches do have a point. In their definition, spirituality is
“the connection to a deeply held set of values and to a purpose beyond our self-interest.” (110)
Except, I keep thinking, what if those deepest-held values turn out to be fiercely nationalistic, or racist or, say, Scientologist? It can work for an individual but be destructive to a collective in the long run. Like these dudes on Wall Street who still gamble with humanity’s future but coach inner-city orphans on the side and thus find a sense of purpose in their lives. Ok ok, I shouldn’t be concerned with other people’s lives. I know.
Briefly, if I want to actually align my deepest-held values with my actual behaviour, and “target the muscle of integrity” – defined by Loehr and Schwartz as “doing what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it” (122), I am going to have to work on being more reliable and deliberate in my commitments, screw the Scientologists.
And I think it will work. I have changed so much already, my outlook is much more positive than it used to be, and the process keeps on giving.
I sometimes daydream about miracles, synchronicity, signs, angels, guides, magic carpets, gold fish, but still feel like I have to do it all by myself, drudging along and keeping my chin up. I’m not complaining, alright? Only dreaming.
Or maybe, once more, I’m trying too hard and I don’t actually have to target these muscles that much. Maybe they just need a little kneading.