At this time of year, many people reflect on the past, assess their present situations and look forward to shaping brighter futures. What often hampers this vision is a culture distorted by fear and a willingness to believe that we are powerless.
Accordingly, here are a few personal thoughts on how to take action to create a more positive future.
1. Stop looking for someone to blame
Bad things happen. In the past we might have put this down to simple misfortune. But over recent years a tendency to look for someone or something to blame has emerged. Of course, often we may uncover a culpable agency or party, but we should recognize that doing so does not necessarily help us, or them, in the long run. It readily becomes a trap and an excuse. Wherever you are in life, your future begins now. What are you doing today to shape tomorrow?
2. Stop believing you can’t change things
There is a view that our lives are beyond our control. Our experiences as children are held to have damaged us beyond repair, or the circumstances we find ourselves in are assumed to preclude choice, or it is presumed that we are kept in check by our genes or neurons. Each of these determinisms — psychological, economic and biological — effectively allows us to avoid responsibility for our actions. We can surmount such challenges.
3. Stop having such a low view of others
The most effective way to shape the world is with others. So we ought to have a more positive view of our fellow humans than often prevails. An all-too-lazy view of human beings as being bad for the planet and for each other has been allowed to flourish. But promoting dystopian projections of the future encourages a dismal view of humanity and undermines human agency. We must never allow ourselves to become dispirited as to our potential to do good.
4. Celebrate the human potential
Look around you. What do you see? Much of it is human-created. After all, you are reading this, aren’t you? And even when you seek tranquillity away from others in a wilderness, how you get there and survive is via human-built transport and trails, with human-supplied clothing and food. Even the fact that you can be there without worrying about tomorrow is a human achievement. It is time to celebrate these achievements and to respect those who helped to produce them — us.
5. Celebrate real tolerance
Not everyone shares the same opinion. Sadly, today few seem to hold by Voltaire’s apocryphal saying: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” All around us we see the creeping intrusion of speech codes policing campuses, the Internet and other arenas. Far from liberating us, these intrusions — and the fear of causing offence — can drive resentment and unwittingly expand the numbers of the readily offended. Not judging is a symptom of disengagement, not harmony. We should strive to engage passionately — yet peacefully.
6. Celebrate our shared humanity
The absence of collective forms of organization we care about and that give our lives greater meaning has led many to find solace in their individual identities. But we are only as strong as our broader networks. Identity can easily become a trap rather than a liberator, as we are encouraged to act and behave along caricatured lines with little leeway for experimentation and development. No matter what we perceive our unique essence to be or how we view historic slights against us, our destinies remain inextricably intertwined.
In closing — and in view of the season — one of the saddest phenomena I have noticed in recent years has been the growth of anti-religious fervour. But, for all their sins, at least believers still hold to the possibility of transcendence, redemption and the need to assume moral responsibility. Even to an atheist such as me, it seems like a valuable lesson for us all.
May your New Year be one of transformation!
Prof. Bill Durodié is head of the conflict analysis and management program in the School of Humanitarian Studies at Royal Roads University. He recently contributed to a U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and Department of Defense White Paper on counterterrorism policies.