As the year draws to an official close, many of us naturally start thinking about the next turn of the wheel. We start to muse about what roads we might want to head down in 2018. What kind of updated vehicle we wish to be driving, perhaps. And what Shiny New Us we want to see in the driver’s seat.
It’s also the time for reflection and review, and right now I’m remembering that it was just about a year ago that we talked in this column about how smart it would be not to go on a diet in January.
Side note: Not dieting is always a good idea, every day of the year.
But this year I’m thinking Let’s go bigger! Not dieting is a great start, but maybe we could take 2018 to set aside self-improvement plans altogether. We often acknowledge in these pages that “time for ourselves” can be pretty restricted—but working with what we’ve got, I want to offer, for your consideration, the idea of spending the year on self-cultivation, rather than self-improvement.
Here’s how they’re different: self-improvement sounds nice (sort of). We’re making ourselves better! Who couldn’t use that? But the attitude at its base is one of solving problems. It’s about fixing flaws. There’s something wrong with us, we’re not good enough, time to whip ourselves into shape.
Operative word: whip.
So we set goals (Lose weight! Read the classics! No gossip!) and develop plans to meet them, and we feel very resolved, and three days later it all falls apart and our optimism is replaced by despair. I think a lot of the trouble is rooted in not picking good goals.
I had a lot of help in examining my life goals from Regena Thomashauer, head of the New York-based Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts. The school is dedicated to the education of women in the art of joie de vivre, a topic not much treated in my home growing up, as previously noted. Joy? Simple joy in living? Don’t you need a lot of money for that? Could a person reasonably expect to have any joy, really? I had questions.
Mama Gena had ready answers, and one of the first things I remember her saying (I’m paraphrasing here) was that achieving a goal doesn’t really bring happiness, because a goal is something you think you should have already achieved. The box is ticked, but there’s no feeling of being out ahead. You were already supposed to be there. You’re late.
So there it is again. Something wrong, not enough, as the Zen folks say. Self-improvement = fixing what society labels as deficits or flaws = not really a recipe for happiness. How could it be? It’s built on self-rejection.
Self-cultivation is the term I like for the opposite of self-improvement. It’s not about avoiding disapproval, or trying to become more acceptable. It’s not running from something you just want to have behind you.
It’s doing things and being ways that bring you toward something inherently pleasing. It’s about being someone you’d actually want to spend time with, a person of depth and experience and, yes, perhaps, joie de vivre! A person who’s got interesting stories to tell about the very things that you are deeply interested in. And I think the only way to find those things that cultivate our sense of worth and depth and fascinated pleasure in living, is to follow our own affinities, our own inherent interests. What Mama Gena calls a “desire.”
When we ask deeply, What do I desire? What is it I am drawn to do, learn and be right now?, some strange answers may surface. Perhaps you want to knit every swatch in Barbara Walker. Maybe you want to learn Amharic so you can go to Ethiopia and see their monumental underground churches. Maybe you just want to collect Hugh Laurie memorabilia.
Whatever these desires are, they come from deep within us, probably a place beyond the reach of culture. Goals that come from our deep selves might not earn us a lot of public approval, the way culture-sanctioned goals like “lose weight” and “earn six figures” and those various public “challenges” do. Deeply personal goals are probably going to be things that we do without fanfare or expectation of a public parade at the finish line. They’re going to be things we do for our own simple pleasure. And that’s the reason we have a much greater chance of achieving them.
In the comments section, I would be excited to hear about your self-cultivation plans for the coming year. What’s on for you in 2018? How are you going to cultivate your glorious, singular, irreplaceable life this year?