Born to act
I set off travelling in search of something. I think perhaps even then I knew it was a search for how to make a difference. A search for problems that I could apply myself to. I remember following Claire Elsdon and her founding of Pikilily and being drawn to the idea of filling a need uncovered through travel. Viewed with hindsight, the inspiration I took from Claire, as well as my decision to travel, came from my need for meaningful action.
As time's gone on I've realised that action doesn't come as naturally to us as it should and I wonder why that is. A memory springs to mind of a meeting in India, a group of us cross-legged in the hot morning sun in which a person asks,
"Why is it that the eagle cannot do anything but act as an eagle and yet a human agonises over a thousand choices of how to behave and many of those choices are so difficult for us."
Why indeed? An eagle will only ever act according to its nature. But people seem a bit more complex. Surely we should be getting better at this with time, not worse? But with malcontent and mental health problems at staggering heights it seems not.
I'm not so sure though. Technological development has changed the world and we're no longer evolved well to fit the niche we've created for ourselves. Our brains evolved along similar lines to the eagles, with a clear path between effort, action and outcome. But then we went and changed the rules. We no longer need to act to feed ourselves, the link between effort and outcome is no longer clear cut. And our advanced consciousness gives rise to the need for meaning and fulfilment on a deeper level than mere survival.
Pointless Argument: A product of stagnation
Drawing on my own experiences, I think a good marker of this discord is Argument. As a scientist I know the value of Argument as a tool. But I fear it's too often applied as a tool of avoidance rather than a tool of progress.
Unfortunately, social media, and indeed many forms of intellectual argument, simply allow us to work ourselves up with very little effect. Our anger levels elevate and conspires with our impotence to mock us. With no productive outlet, the anger festers into a polarised and self-righteous abscess sowing discord and conflict both without and within. If you want to lance the abscess you need action.
Why would you spend so much time arguing an outcome when you can go out an make it happen? Your energy is finite, so why waste it arguing?
How things ought to be
We all talk a lot about how the world ought to be, we can all draw to mind a list of requirements for our Utopian ideal. We all have some idea of what the perfect world would look like. But what are we actually doing to progress the world closer to those ideals?
On a simpler, smaller level. Many people I meet gripe about their lives. Fewer are willing to do anything about it. Ask them what, exactly, is stopping them taking a step towards the life they want and you'll get a confused look or a long list of excuses.
I'm not trying to belittle the challenges and barriers that each person faces. But each and every person faces challenges so what is it that means some are content with their lot and some aren't? After being in both of those positions, I no longer think it has much to do with personality. It certainly has little to do with material possessions in my mind. I think it has to do with the action the person takes and how they direct it.
Identifying your 'why'
I recently went through a process of pinning down my values. As I was doing it I realised that this may be what is lacking for many of us. Every step I've taken in the last few years has been a step towards identifying my values and living my life according to them. It hasn't always been easy and it's required a lot of changes. But it's worked for me. On the surface my life hasn't changed all that much. But on a deeper level it has so much more meaning to me than it used to do.
Research in the teaching profession is starting to show that values play a vital role in resilience. Those who have a clear idea of what they're working towards and why are more likely to stick with it when the going gets tough.
About a year ago, we went to a farm in the Dales to rebuild some drystone walls, and I was introduced to its owner. Tom is a progressive-minded and generous soul invested in conservation and education who offered us use of his land for camping. Having returned several times with my volunteering group, Mickey and I decided this Bank Holiday weekend that it was high time we took him up on his offer and went up to visit.
Pitching atop the hill, sheltered by a small copse filled with wild garlic. I took in the sunset over our own private campground and felt a wave of luck and gratitude at Tom's willingness to share his land with us. As is its way, almost unconsciously, my mind traced back the path that had brought us here, and I realised that it wasn't quite blind luck.
We returned to the UK mindful of our values and put them centre-front in the method we would use to forge our path here. We identified what we hold dear and we deliberately took action to incorporate these things into our lives. I chose to volunteer to bring me closer to like-minded people and the landscape and nature. I've chosen to teach because it has impact for individuals which has the potential to amount to societal change. As life progresses I reassess the list of those priorities, checking for change, checking for a need to adjust the time spent commensurate with their priority. Importantly, my identity is not critically attached to any of the things I'm doing and so if they cease to serve me and my values or they become an inefficient way to do so I will walk away to apply myself to something that better does so.
I don't feel the need to argue anymore. I'm more interested in action. I find I'm uninterested in politics and the state of the education system or the NHS. Don't get me wrong, the problems in all of these things still affect me deeply if I let them. But I've decided that getting angry about it all without acting is pointless. And all of these things are problems bigger than any of us can fix.
Instead, I've narrowed my focus. I ask myself what can I do? And that's where I'll start from.