Sunday, January 1, 2017

Crisis, Karma, and Your New Year’s Resolution

The people around me are starting 2017 more worried about the world than they have been in my lifetime. The global situation looks perilous enough to make people yearn nostalgically for the relative safety and stability of the Cold War. We want to be in a position, if possible, to avoid or mitigate the worst disasters the world will be throwing our way during what looks to be the year of the greatest change since 2012. There are important issues at stake that we couldn’t possibly ignore. And yet . . .

The sense of gravity about the larger problems we face collectively doesn’t help us make the changes we need to make. When it comes to new year’s resolutions and other contrivances for focusing on action leading to change, a self-centered point of view is more constructive. When you look at the national or global picture, you see hundreds of problems that you are not in a position to efficiently correct. By contrast, when you look at yourself, the clothes you wear, the food you eat, the building you live in, the people you talk to, the work you do, then you find pieces of the same problems — but importantly, you find the pieces that are subject to your own influence. If you do your part where you are and trust that others will do their part where they are, that is the only way these large problems can be solved.

I always suggest choosing just one new year’s resolution, and I always suggest that it should relate to a goal that you can understand at the personal level. I also advise that a new year’s resolution should not be something you attempted and failed at in a previous year. These points seem especially important to emphasize this year. It is a new year — don’t trot out an old resolution that may not properly respect the new situation you face this year. At the same time, don’t take on a direction that is likely to put you in a weaker position individually at the end of the year because you are taking on challenges larger than yourself. That kind of goal is hard to motivate yourself toward, and for good reason. The feeling of a challenge bigger than yourself or the notion that you must suffer for a cause is a sign that you are overlooking your most important actions, the ones that will strengthen you in a way that puts you in a better position to respond to the unexpected. That’s a distinction that might not matter much in a quiet year, but my sense of 2017 is that of momentous and unpredictable changes. You don’t maximize your own fortune or your impact by running away from every crisis that comes along. You do better by being prepared to engage with the world, and this happens as the result of the mundane things that people often promise themselves in new year’s resolutions: get in shape, practice a skill such as writing, get rid of clutter and obstacles, improve habits, get out of debt, correct a pattern of bad decisions. You can freely choose any such resolution for yourself and be assured that it will prepare you to make a difference in a larger problem in the world that bothers you. You make a bigger difference by focusing on yourself than by taking on a global problem directly.

The way this works has to do with the nature of karma. Life gives you hints of the problems ahead of you, the things you need to work on to make the biggest difference you can make, or what we call your karma. Just by paying attention to the events of your life, you can discover your karma. The biggest challenges in this are being emotionally ready to discover a personal failing, and paying attention. Everyone’s karma is different, so you are distracted from your own karma when you work to help others with the problems they say are important. That includes joining a movement or a cause or taking on a point of view dictated by popular culture. If the cause doesn’t ring true for you, then pursuing it is a distraction from something that would ring true for you. At the same time, that means you are doing something that won’t be very productive for you. You make yourself more powerful by following your own karma, and that means setting aside the popular consensus of the way things are, long enough to see what you yourself are seeing. The tradition of a new year’s resolution is one of the easiest ways to do this, but to make it work, you have to set aside the problems of the world and let yourself see the problems that have popped up specifically in your own life.

In 2017, that may mean setting aside the sense of global crisis to see where your personal opportunities lie. I obviously can’t tell you where your karma lies or what your new year’s resolution should be, but let me offer an example. I have personally met political climate activists who smoke cigarettes. A “selfish” resolution to stop smoking might serve them better than a “global” goal having to do with carbon policy. Besides the personal benefits of not smoking, there are also poitical and climate benefits. A cigarette, when burned, generates both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide that decays into carbon dioxide. The purchase of cigarettes helps to fuel the related political crisis — tobacco companies and growers are very much a part of the problem. The health consequences of cigarette smoke have similar climate and political effects. The hypocrisy of smoking cigarettes makes a political climate advocate’s message that much less effective. In the end, the self-centered goal makes a bigger difference than the global one. Whatever your individual and global goals are, if you examine them closely, you will find that an individual goal helps you achieve a global goal more so than the reverse. The world might seem to be in flames, but even so, you make a bigger difference in the end if you focus on the flames you see where you are.

Go ahead, make a new year’s resolution that is all about you. Make just one resolution. Don’t copy someone else’s resolution or your own resolution from a prior year. Write the resolution down. Then make it happen. In a year of big change, you can change too.