“When you look back at this time in your life, what will you say about your character?”
I have this slide, from a presentation given by Dr. Dana Crawford*, hanging on the wall next to my desk.
I love that this question focuses on our “being” not on our “doing.” How do we want to be?
It makes sense to me that how we are - our character, the way we show up in the world - makes a difference. I mean, I know for sure that I’ve spread some anger and grouchiness. To name one example: I woke up stressed out about something I needed to get done, with not enough time to do it. My kid came downstairs with a pep in her step, smiley and bright. Me: “Why’d you [fill in the blank]? Now blah, blah, blah, you basically ruined everything…” That pep in my kid’s step…pop…replaced by a scowl. There went my grouchiness, spreading outward like wisps of noxious smoke.
So, it stands to reason that the opposite could be possible, too - our patience, compassion (for self and others), joy and generosity - those things could also ripple outward, right?
The Book of Joy, with Douglas Abrams, captures a weeklong conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Citing a study by social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, Abrams writes:
“Compassion seems to be contagious. …[Christakis and Fowler’s research] suggests that this ripple effect can extend out to two and three degrees of separation. In other words, experiments with large numbers of people show that if you are kind and compassionate, your friends, your friends’ friends, and even your friends’ friends’ friends are more likely to become kind and compassionate.”
I think that is pretty cool. The way we are, our way of showing up in the world - can actually do a lot. Our being grounded, intentional, and kind can create positive change.
Marianne Williamson says something similar in this quote that I love: “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Full quote here.)
When we shine our light, that light spreads beyond us to better illuminate the world.
And, yet, we do - or, at least, I do - spend a lot of time focused on the doing. I have one to-do list on my desk, one on my phone and another in my head. I’m constantly trying to cross off one item or another. Other people may be better organized than me, but I think we're all pretty busy.
In her book Bravey, Alexi Pappas writes about the concept of “willpower” (which she learned from a book called Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney). Pappas writes:
“our ability to make constructive choices and accomplish things is governed by our willpower… Willpower is a measurable and depletable resource… We make thousands of choices every day, and each of those choices uses up some portion of our willpower… We need to be conscious of what decisions we’re allowing to use up our limited supply of willpower…”
This made me wonder about how I spend my own willpower. Where am I putting my energy? Does it align with my priorities? Or am I squandering my “willpower” on: What if I just find two more words on the NY Times Spelling Bee before I go for my run? Should I volunteer even though I really don’t want to? It would be a nice thing to do… How about I make 3 different kinds of muffins so my kids always have a breakfast they can grab and go?
The Buddhist philosophy around energy, or “effort,” says that there are three ways our energy gets drained: avoidance (aka procrastination), disheartenment (as in, "sure I'll do it, but I don't really want to and now I'm resentful"), and, the one with the best name, “speedy busyness.”
Adreanna Limbach writes this about speedy busyness, in her book Tea and Cake with Demons: “From the looks of things, we are hustling and making moves; we might even receive a lot of praise for how many irons we have in the fire. However, this type of busyness can make us feel very disjointed and directionless...”
Thinking about all the ways I lose my willpower and drain my energy – often from speedy busyness and my quest to be doing, achieving – I wonder if I’ve missed the point. Maybe it's not just about doing. It is also about being. How I show up in the world - whether it is grouchy or compassionate - does affect those around me. Maybe it even ripples out 2 or 3 degrees, as the research by Christakis and Fowler says.
So, maybe it is worth taking those 10, 20, however many minutes, to sit in meditation every day and be with ourselves. I used to take this wholly as an act of faith, but I am also seeing it seep into my experience, little by little: meditation lets us get to know ourselves and our true intentions better. When we know ourselves better, we are more conscious of spending our willpower and energy in ways that align with how we want to be. The better we know ourselves, the better we can show up as our true selves - not just our hustling selves, busily getting things done.
Listen, I’m definitely not saying that meditating every day will make you into a fully compassionate being. It might and that would be amazing. But even if it doesn’t, I am saying that it increases your odds of spending your energy (and also conserving it) in ways that feel good for you. And, I’m saying that when we spend our energy in ways that align with how we want to be, we are more likely to show up in the world kind, patient and compassionate - rather than stressed, frazzled and grouchy. (Not for nothing, feeling kind, patient and compassionate also feels a lot better than stressed, frazzled, and grouchy.)
Sometimes I do show up grouchy. It’s true. But, going back to Dr. Crawford’s original question, “When you look back at this time your life, what will you say about your character?” I’d like to be able to say that my character, more often than not, dropped ripples of kindness and patience into the world. And so that is my quest. To be in alignment with myself.
*Dr. Dana E. Crawford is a pediatric and clinical psychologist who developed the Crawford Bias Reduction Theory & Training (CBRT), a systematic approach to reducing bias, prejudice, and racism. Please visit her website, drdanacrawford.com for more information. I was lucky enough to hear her speak on anti-racism and bias reduction, topics I could benefit from hearing a thousand more times. If you have the opportunity to hear her, please take it!