Can we agree on something?
We all want things in our lives to get better.
We want our salaries and savings to go up, and our credit card and student loan debts to go down. We want our families and all friends to be healthy, well, and happy. We want to feel more space, more peace, more ease, and more joy; less stress, pressure, burden, and anxiety. We want more moments to celebrate and less to dread, mourn, or regret.
We all want to feel more free.
Whatever we might individually desire, we can agree that we all generally want life to get better.
We all agree that we do not want life to get worse.
So why is it that it feels so hard to make things better?
Why can it feel like such an impossible task to save $5 a month into our savings account? Or to cut the nightly sugar fix from our diet? Or to open that new book to Page 1 and to just start reading it, like you said you would all summer long? Or to go to the gym or yoga class — not 3 or 5 or 7 times, but just once — this week?
Why is it that we are not always willing or able to even just do incrementally more than nothing to make things better?
I believe the reason why is because we are afraid that we risk making things worse by even trying.
Trying to make things better, in other words, involves some risk. It involves risking things feeling uncomfortable, vulnerable, or a little icky. When we start to save $5 against a $30,000 sum of debt, it can feel far daunting and shitty and like an impossible task. It’s through even small, positive, construction actions like this that our minds tell us trying to make a proactive change is making things worse — not because the situation is worse, but because of the uncomfortable emotional response we feel.
Ignorance is bliss and avoidance is a deep and difficult trap to escape because while we all want things to get better, at first, making small efforts to allow things to improve (like we want) can feel emotionally worse, at first.
When I stopped teaching yoga around this time last year to take a year-long sabbatical, my priority was getting back to the gym to strength train with weights. I dreaded the first day. I knew that, despite my wanting my body to be stronger and function better, that Day 1 — and Week 1, and Month 1 — would probably make me feel worse at first than better.
Well, I knew that the first weight I picked up in months would make me feel worse about myself — worse about not having done this sooner, worse about letting my muscle mass drop as it did, worse about not being disciplined or mentally tough enough to have done more in the past.
This short-term discomfort and emotional vulnerability — oftentimes, it’s internally-directed fear or guilt or shame that we berate ourselves with — is the greatest roadblock to life getting better in the ways that we desire.
It’s the illusion of things getting worse, because of the sensation of things feeling worse.
Even though the feelings are temporary.
And, even though the illusion of things “getting worse” is what hard-earned progress feels like.
Making things better — at the risk of them “feeling” or “getting” worse — involves a depth of strength and character that we don’t always believe we possess. When we take action, we take responsibility for our desires, dreams, and circumstances. So when we act in the direction of things “getting better,” we first have to take it upon ourselves that the outcome depends entirely on us.
To make things better with money and savings, or health and wellness, or your relationships with others around you, the first step is always taking responsibility for ourselves. And that, unsurprisingly, can feel very daunting.
We may desperately want other people around us to do it for us. We may wish that the quick-fix infomercial product, or fad diet, or new lottery jackpot could just whoosh in and do the hard work for us.
But that hopeful thinking is actually a form of hiding.
It’s a form of self-neglect.
Because “hoping” that someone or something else outside of ourselves will make the hard changes for us — the changes that we want, all to make things better in our lives — dishonors the power of choice that we all possess. When we don’t take responsibility, we neglect our autonomy, our ability to think freely, and feel freely, and choose freely.
We surrender our choice to hardship or suffering or indifference and call it “fate”.
Hoping beyond hope for anyone, or anything, outside of ourselves to “fix” what we think is wrong, or to improve what we think could be better, disrespects and neglects the gifts of freedom and choice and autonomy that we possess as humans.
For some of the first decades in human history, we possess guarded rights to live more autonomous lives than people ever have, too — which means that, in theory, we are freer than ever by law from punishment from the state to do everything in our power to make things better and better in our lives.
Why, still — despite Constitutional rights and access to information on the Internet, and tools that allow us to communicate instantaneously with anyone in the world — does it feel so hard to make things better?
Because for things to get better, you need to risk things feeling worse. At first.
Those feelings of temporary discomfort and momentary vulnerability are enough to stop the desire that we all share for “things to get better” from becoming our actual realities.
Take, for instance, the problems facing the United States on a political level. We all acknowledge, on both sides of the political aisle, that we want things to get better. In advancing key policies like the cost of living and healthcare and housing, Is the issue at hand — the real issue at hand the fact that Republicans and Democrats are completely opposed to their counterparts?
Or is it more likely that no one is willing to risk things feeling worse — like prompting a vulnerable conversation, or admitting to an uncomfortable compromise, or otherwise “appearing weak” — that is stopping policy from getting done to even marginally, incrementally make things better for anyone?
Political parties have never been more entrenched in their ideologies, despite each political party’s existence revolving around making things better, not worse.
But if there is no agreement — no equal willingness for opposing points of view — to risk feeling temporarily worse before things can get better, then how can we expect them to ever get better?
By winning the “politician lottery”?
By buying the right “quick-fix” infomercial product, or taking up the latest dietary fad?
Is it any wonder why strongmen politicians and nationalist demagogues are being elected into power?
These are egotistical ideologues who are telling people, “Nothing will get done unless by force, so I’ll be the heavy hand that forces through the policies that you want. Sure, things will get worse for them, but if it means things getting better for you, isn’t that worth it?”
When people are not willing to risk things feeling worse — vulnerable, uncomfortable, doubtful, or full of worthwhile questions — nothing gets better for anyone.
At best, things stay the same.
At worse, things get worse for us all.
How to Make Things Better
In my opinion, the simplest method to help things get better — on a scale of an entire country of over 350 million people, or a family of 4 or 5 — is a conversation.
Simple conversation is the most effective tool for human beings to relate to one another, develop an understanding with one another, and come to recognize the fact that everyone’s presence at the table reveals they all want things to get better.
The table does not make things better by default, it is the place that proves that those sitting around it are willing to try.
Conversation involves equal parts sharing and listening. In fact, the listening is the most important part of conversation. Because conversation is not a matter of airing grievances, or figuring out “what you think and feel” out loud, verbally, using others’ presences as tools for your self-awareness.
Conversation is connection, and connection is an exercise in feeling into the experience of another.
Conversation is a verbal and emotional exchange of empathy, through which people in different bodies and different minds and different literal viewpoints of the world can meet in an invisible center.
From the invisible center, people with different points of views and opinions and experiences realize that they are more alike than they are different.
When we recognize ourselves in the others at the table, our differences feel far less deep and gaping and pronounced.
It’s from the invisible center that we realize that we are all the same; that we all want things to get better, and not worse, for us all.
It’s from that invisible center than things can change.
But not everyone is willing to risk things feeling “worse,” even temporarily, even if the “worseness” is emotional discomfort, uncertainty, vulnerability, or 15 seconds of unease. Because uncomfortable conversations are hard to have and easy to avoid, they require someone — a leader — to feel brave enough to volunteer their own vulnerability enough to begin the conversation.
If not everybody at the table is invested in the conversation from the beginning, then someone has to initiate it.
And initiating a vulnerable conversation means leading by way of one’s own discomfort. To start a vulnerable conversation — to risk things feeling worse before they get better — someone has to check their ego, surrender their agenda, and say,
“What stands to get better is far more important to me than the short-term vulnerability of things feeling worse.”
Uncomfortable conversations yield long-term gains. They create empathy, compassion, and understanding. Patience is bred at the table of vulnerability.
And yet, when we’re too bound to our egos — too attached to our defenses, or our ideologies, or our agendas — we may sooner pounce on the person or party who says, “I want to make myself vulnerable if it means maybe making this better.” We may berate them, instigate them, or resort to inflammatory talking point based on their political party affiliation or point of view.
My question for you is, who, at that table, are you?
Are you the one who makes herself vulnerable to make things better?
Are you willing to risk things feeling “worse” — if uncomfortable, if uncertain, if just a little icky — if it means meeting the ones you care about the invisible center where things can really change?
What would you sacrifice of yourself — what temporary feelings, what short-term discomfort, what one or two ounces of difficulty — if it meant things getting better?
The way we all want things to be.