Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Audacity to Improve

I'm a pretty self-centered person.

No, really.  I don't mean that in a self-effacing, I-wish-it-weren't-so kind of way.  I have come to realize that this is just a core part of my being.  I am an introvert, meaning I recharge by being alone.  I spend much of my time just thinking about my life, evaluating the way I do things and wondering about what would happen if I lived my life differently in some way.

I'm a happy person, but there are things I'd like to work toward.  I want to be stronger, and healthier, and have more energy.  I want to be more present, more connected, and more peaceful.  I want to be more organized, and learn more things.  I want to be more content (this might seem ironic, given my penchant for self-improvement missions, but I'm confident I could work out the reasoning).

Sometime during my no soap experiment, I was chatting with my husbutch about this idea of doing personal "experiments."  I had been inspired by Leo Baubata's Year of Living Without, where he outlines 12 things he plans to give up, one per month, for the next year.  It includes things like coffee, sugar, and technology.  I was intrigued, and I started thinking about what I could give up... or, more pointedly, what I think I could never give up (because, perhaps, those are exactly the things I should be giving up).  So, I made my own list, and I shared some of these things with my husbutch.

HB's response kind of startled me.  Why, what's the point? she wanted to know.  I explained that I want to experiment with giving up certain things, just to see what will happen.  In a way, it's an act of "finding out what I'm made of."  HB was not impressed.  She asserted that some things I would not be able to give up, like coffee.  "You're miserable without coffee," she told me, as though this were an immutable fact.  She went on to say that she found the whole endeavor to be "a little self-righteous." When asked for explanation, she said that she just feels like some people are constantly "improving themselves," and in the process feel like they're better than other people, and that makes them arrogant and preachy.

I felt annoyed and defensive about this, but it also made me think.  Was I actually being self-righteous by embarking on my little self-improvement experiments?  Does the process make me more judgmental than others?  I certainly knew what she meant... I've known people who have done this before, especially when it comes to trendy diet changes like going vegan or gluten-free.  Suddenly, all they can talk about is how disgusting industrial meat production is, and all the chemicals in processed food, and how everybody should really do what they're doing if they want to be healthy and eco-conscious, and suddenly you can't eat your cheeseburger without feeling judged.  I get it.

At the same time, I know that I approach things like this a bit differently.  I like to try new ways of being because I want to be the best self I can be. I strongly believe that one of the things that can make life seem like a monotonous blur is never doing anything different or uncomfortable. I want to do things that make me uncomfortable, to test my own limits.  I want to separate my needs from my manufactured desires, and figure out whether the things I do and consume actually add value to my life.  Like everybody else, I want to be happy.  Maybe not like everybody else, I feel like I am already happy -- but that I am a work in progress.  I am always getting better, and isn't that the point of life?

I'm also kind of a scientist at heart, and I think that everything I do is ultimately a kind of experiment. I make thousands of choices every day, and each of those choices has a tangible effect on the world.  I'm a parent too, and as I frequently tell my daughter, there's no one right way to be a parent, and really I'm just making it up as I go along. Sure, I've read plenty of parenting books and digested lots of advice from others, but my role as parent boils down to a series of choices, and each choice has some effect. Who knows how it will all turn out?  It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, with an infinite number of pages.

And in the end, what makes my version of self-improvement not obnoxiously self-righteous is that I don't tell people how to live their lives (as long as they are not hurting anybody). In fact, I don't really talk to others about my experiments that much.  I haven't even told anybody that I've started a blog, including HB (and at this point, I'm not certain anybody is reading it). Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to talk about myself, but more than that, I like to think and write about myself.  This is what makes me self-centered, and it's how I center myself.