124: Guilt Free (transcript)
Junior year in college I met a guy who ended up being one of my most longstanding friends. He still is. The year was 1991. I had just returned from a year in Paris taking a year off from school. He’d returned from serving as a marine in the first Gulf War. At Columbia, time off meant losing your guaranteed housing. So we lived relatively far from campus. But it meant we spent a lot of time meeting each other and our other suite mates. Actually, years later we started a company together serving educators. We had a pilot gone with 19 New York City public schools enabling teachers and educators to share materials. It was a sort of Wikipedia for educators. It looked promising but it was hard to get the technology working. So in the end he had an opportunity to apply the same technology in finance so he let the project go. It just wasn’t getting started. Actually, years after that he found out that database technology had to evolve a bit before it would’ve worked for us which happened but not on the timescale that we needed it.
Also, for those who know my famous no-packaging vegetable stews of which I’m so proud I think I inspired him because he came over with his wife and I made a vegetable stew for them and he took those stews in new directions. Last time I visited him in Brooklyn he made these African stews with [unintelligible] and other things that I never heard of. So he was teaching me back. He also talked about how he used possibly the most fuel-efficient transportation for getting on New York which was an electric skateboard. He didn’t grow up skateboarding so nearly 50 years old with two kids he learned to skateboard probably to pollute less. So his indoor environmental things are though not quite on the scale that I am.
Anyway, back in college he played varsity football. He nearly made the NFL. He was huge and as I remember he could bench 500 pounds. After college he switched to taekwondo. His physique changed then to more compact and nimble, and he nearly made the Olympics. In college I played Ultimate Frisbee. So we bonded on sports to some degree. At the time I thought I played at a comparable level to him. But looking back I think not as much. One time I was at the gym benching what would have been something under 150 pounds, that’s as much as I could bench. I was on the bench so I’m kind of lying down and looking downward toward my knees and I saw that he walked by and he made a kind of teasing gesture it looked like. I mean he could have benched me benching my maximum and that would’ve been a warm up set for him. So I felt intimidated when he went by that time. Sometime later I’m talking to him and I mentioned how he teased me that time, he stopped me and he said, â€œWhat are you talking about?â€ I said, â€œThat time you walked byâ€¦â€ and then I realized he’d only waved and said hi. I had felt intimidated and he was nearby so I concluded that he tried to intimidate me but he hadn’t. He was actually just being friendly. The intimidation feeling was purely internal in my part. But rather than me face my internal conflict that I wasn’t the person I wanted to be I preserved my identity by ascribing to him the cause of my insecurity.
A few years ago, I challenged myself to go for a week without any packaged food. I didn’t know if I could do it. For six months after I had the idea to try. I planned and analyzed not knowing if I could do it, I doubted myself. I felt guilty for choosing to pay for packaging I knew would choke oceans and rivers and litter the land for hundreds of years. I could blame many factors for making it saying that they should do it differently or whether there should be a law. But the moment that I paid for these things, I took responsibility so I felt guilty, I felt helpless. I didn’t like either of those feelings. I didn’t like the anxiety, all the analyzing, raising awareness and planning. I now look back and see that I was occupying my mind making busy work for it to distract myself from those feelings that way I could feel like I was doing something even when I wasn’t. I kept trying to ascribe the cause of the guilt and helplessness to others but it didn’t go away. It couldn’t because they were purely internal. My behavior was inconsistent with my values. No blaming others or waiting for awareness or planning or analysis would change this internal conflict. On the contrary, all this distraction kept me from addressing it.
In the end as regular listeners to this podcast know I saw that my attempts at raising awareness and raising my consciousness were preventing me from acting. I said, â€œMy week starts this moment. I’m not going to die if I eat only carrots and apples for a week.â€ So I started then. I made it two and a half weeks before buying my first food with packaging which happened to be a bag of onions. Actually, after I bought them I realized that I could have bought them loose and kind of for head slapping moment. I can’t solve everything myself but I can choose what I do. I can take responsibility for my actions. Only when I started acting more in line with my values did the feelings of guilt and helplessness become conscious that is I would feel that way and as soon as I started feeling guilty I would start planning and trying to occupy my mind so that those feelings would go away.
People talk a lot about guilt and blame around the environment. People don’t like feeling guilty. If one person talks about environmental problems that another person contributes to that person is often liable to feel guilty. Like that time with my friend at the gym many people ascribe the cause of the feeling of guilt or helplessness or anxiety or whatever feeling they don’t like to that other person but that person didn’t cause that feeling. He or she may raise it to conscious awareness but conflicted feelings, the feelings of conflict come from internal conflict. You behaving inconsistently with your values or contributing to a problem you don’t want to is independent of other people. Resolving that feeling doesn’t require solving all the world’s problems. It only requires resolving your internal conflict. One way to resolve the conflict between one’s behaviors and values is to change your values, maybe not care or maybe not feel responsible for stewarding our environment for others. That would make your values consistent with your actions. But in my experience, it’s hard to maintain not caring or not stewarding. For example, if you have kids or you don’t like mercury in your fish or wars over resource because you contribute to them when you pollute however much you don’t want to or however much you want to deny it. So it’s difficult to change one’s values in today’s world.
A more effective technique is to bring your behavior in line with your values. However hard looks from the outside, to resolve your internal conflict all you have to do is your best. At least that’s been my experience. The solution for feeling guilty, helpless, anxious or whatever is to act according to your values. If you buy a lot of packaged food to stop. If you’ve got a lot of ordering from Amazon and it has tons and tons of packaging, to stop getting it that way. If you buy a lot of fast fashion which is notorious for how much it pollutes, to stop buying so much fast fashion. If you cause a lot of greenhouse emissions to stop and to replace those things with things that you like more. Buy your clothes from thrift shops, choose a staycation, get a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables. The feeling of liberation from those feelings is beyond explanation particularly in today’s world where the problems we contribute to make front page headlines every week. Frankly, it feels horrible to feel helpless or guilty knowing that you contribute to these problems to front page news and having to do these mental gymnastics to blame others, politicians, manufacturers or whoever for your choices. They may do their things but if you choose things that contribute to these problems some things you can’t say others are responsible for.
When you act according to your values you feel liberated. In my case originally avoiding packaged food I found delicious. That’s my word for it because the food tasted so good though it took me time to learn to cook. I found power replaced helplessness, confidence replaced anxiety. As I developed more skills, I took on greater challenges like cooking for others which is scary when youâ€™re still learning to cook. I came to conclude from experience that if little change has improved my life a little that big changes would improve my life a lot. So determination and expectation of success came to augment the feelings of liberation, empowerment, joy, community and saving money. When the idea of not flying for a year came to me, when I heard that flying across the country round trip polluted on the scale of a year of driving it felt daunting but exciting and I succeeded at it. In two months, I’ll start my fourth year of not flying. For people who think of what they’ve missed by not flying yhey don’t understand the joy, growth ,discovery and all these other rewarding emotions that I get from it. That emotional reward replaces the ignorance. I’d used to have to force on myself which I could no longer do to imagine that planes didn’t pollute on a scale beyond what the Paris Agreement recommended for individuals. I just couldn’t do that anymore. I hear all these people criticizing our president for pulling out of a Paris Agreement that they themselves on an individual level pulled out of themselves. I could no longer stand this double standard between myself and others. I’d love to live in a fantasy world where planes didn’t pollute. I’d love to live in a world where carbon offsets actually removed greenhouse gases from the atmosphere but they don’t. I’d love to live in a world with the beauty it once had or even that its natural beauty was increasing. But we don’t. That’s not the world we live in. It’s decreasing. Plastic is choking the oceans. You know, you’ve read the headlines.
But I envision a future where we’ve all addressed whatever feelings prevent us from seeing that we do make a difference, that our behavior matters, that our actions affect others, that others not acting doesn’t mean that we can’t and that we find joy, discovery, determination, and expectation of success from taking responsibility in the future. Yes, as any parent knows responsibility means that you can’t do the things you used to enjoy and that you have to do things you didn’t like. But I don’t know any parent who wouldn’t have their child again. My maturity which I value in large part is a measure of how much responsibility and accountability I’ve taken on. When I was a kid, I didn’t want either. I didn’t want responsibility. I didn’t want accountability. Now I’d prefer both for things that I care about and I certainly care about the land, air and water that we share.
The things that I do to act on my environmental values like declining packaged food and declining flying seem simple compared to what parents have to do when they have a child. I’ve never changed a diaper, I’ve never gotten poop on my hands. Parents seem to love it. Eventually they see their child’s score a touchdown or Ace recital or graduate and all that work was worth it. We live in a world where the best nature that we can experience given the trajectory set by people in the past who didn’t know that humans could affect climate or that plastic could choke the ocean as it is. So how can we blame them? We live in a world in which the best nature that we can experience in the future will take work. It will take changing systems they created, these people in the past created which means choosing to avoid packaged food and flying among many other things. It means taking responsibility for how our actions affect others. It means getting votes to get the leadership for everyone to join.
It’s not about sacrifice though. That’s why I work on leadership in the environment, not chemistry, biology, physics or raw science. They don’t motivate, they don’t create action which will change the environmental trajectory that we’re on because ultimately this is about liberation, joy, growth, discovery. These are parts of leadership meaning value, importance and purpose, finding the best in ourselves to be as great stewards of nature as anyone wants to be parents for their children. Acting by our environmental values may look from the outside like swimming upstream but it’s the greatest emotional journey of emotional reward of our time.
Long before college and the incident with my friend I saw gyms as full of people stronger than me. I thought you had to be strong to go, just to walk in the door. I felt intimidated so I didn’t go. I stayed weak, not just physically weak but unaware of my potential. I thought the strong people there would make fun of me. The incident with my friend helped change my understanding of people who act to improve their lives. I found that people in gyms love to help beginners. Well, mostly they’re busy doing their things but when a beginner asks, they’re happy to show technique, how to avoid injury, how to get to the next step. They were beginners too. They were too scared to start too. They know the feeling of discovering your potential and reaching it. The same goes for every community of people trying to do their best. Not just gyms. It’s not just a physical thing. Still, the community of people who go to gyms or act on their environmental values is welcoming and supportive. Once you act, they reciprocate and help you find and reach your potential. I lost years of that potential out of my unjustified insecurity before this happened with my friend. I urge you not to make that mistake.
The more you do, the more you’ll want to do. You only have to start acting. You don’t have to know every step to get to Carnegie Hall stage to know to start by playing scales and to practice and practice and practice. No matter how simple the scales seem at the beginning they lead to the result you’re looking for. Each step will reveal the next. Community will form. Listen to the podcast. Hear others doing it. Let me know how it goes. But act.
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