When I was around six years old, my best friend was my cousin who lived down the street. We did everything together and we were both the oldest child in our respective families. One day, as we were playing, my cousin’s younger sister did something to annoy her, and she became upset. She said, “My sister makes me so angry!” To which I allegedly responded, “Jessica, no one can make you angry.”
Truer words were never spoken by a six year old. But before continuing on with the underlying principle in this anecdote, I want to talk about something I have never publicly shared, lest anyone think that I am merely preaching truths in a condescending manner. As this is a site devoted to helping others become self-governing individuals, I want to make sure that the readers understand who I am and where I’m coming from. I have skin in this game. And so, I want to share a large part of my personal journey to self governance which highlights Step 1.
A Hard Truth Learned
When I was 18 years old, I left home to serve a mission for my church for two years on the other side of the country without friends or family. As far as I knew, this was supposed to be the greatest, most uplifting and rewarding experience I would ever have. And it certainly started out that way. After several weeks, however, I found myself in a dark, mental hole.
I had dark and self-defeating thoughts that would just play over and over inside my head. I was convinced that no matter what I did, these thoughts would not stop and were a reflection of who I was to the core. To some, I realize that this may sound silly. Big deal, you had some negative thoughts about yourself, right? I wish I could adequately describe in words what these thoughts were like, but a dark depression of this kind is something you can only really understand once you’ve experienced it, which I’m sure many have. All I can describe are the effects.
There were days where I didn’t want to do anything. Interacting with people sounded horrible. I didn’t care about eating or my appearance. I just wanted it to be over and to go home and live my life in shame. Every day was a battle for control over my own mind. Some days I won. Other days I lost. It seemed as if someone else were writing the scripts in my head, and I was merely reading and accepting them with no control.
After several weeks of this mental anguish and speaking with a great counselor, I came to a profound, yet simple realization. No matter what was going on inside my head, the world kept moving forward. I was still going to exist tomorrow and the next day and the next day. I was going to grow old and do other things in my life. Was I really going to let this problem hold me back and hold me down? Or was I going to figure it out and live up to my potential?
I chose the latter.
It wasn’t easy, but each day I chose to move on with my life and focus on the things that I wanted to do, namely serving an honorable mission for my church and my God. Over time I began to write new scripts in my head, and I reached a point where I forgot that I previously had a problem. The counselor that worked with me was very kind and supportive, but he didn’t really do anything except listen and respond with suggestions. I was the one that took action and took control.
Does this mean that everyone with mental health struggles just needs to just “get over it”? Absolutely not. I would not have come to the realization I did without a great listening ear who also pushed me in the right direction. However, I do feel that at some point, each of us needs to take responsibility over our life regardless of how healthy our mind is or whatever external circumstances exert themselves upon us.
It’s somewhat ironic that what I once vociferously preached became a stumbling block for me later on in my life. But the fact of the matter is that most of us fall into the trap of letting external (or internal) circumstances dictate how we live our lives. As a kid, it seemed so logical to me that you shouldn’t do that. It wasn’t until I experienced it that I truly understood that we can control what happens in our lives. While we may not necessarily be able to control the actions of others, we can control our own actions.
Making The Choice
So how does one actually take control of his or her own actions, and act with intentionality?
Have you ever heard of Nike? Just do it.
As cliche as that might sound, it’s true. As Socrates once said: “The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be; and if we observe, we shall find that all human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by the practice and experience of them.”
So, in effect, if having self control and intentionality in our actions is a virtue, we can strengthen and cultivate this virtue within ourselves by actually practicing it.
In fact, in his famous book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey shared the following about what people say who are reactive and those who are proactive, or who take responsibility for their actions:
Reactive Person Proactive Person
That’s just the way I am I can choose a different approach
He makes me so mad I control my own feelings
I have to do that I will choose an appropriate response
I can’t I choose
I must I prefer
If only I will
If you’re wondering how you can actually start taking responsibility and choosing your own actions, the thoughts you think and the words you use are great places to start. Instead of using the words or thoughts in the left column, choose the attitudes on the right.
As a matter of practicality, consider this example.
Let’s say that I want to become a better husband, and I commit to stop getting upset at my wife after she does something that annoys me. The very next day, she does that thing. If I’m paying attention rather than reacting on impulse, I have a choice. I can give in to that desire to react and get upset, or I can choose to put it aside. Obviously, this is a very basic and small example. But the small victories precede the big ones. As we consistently take responsibility for our choices, big and small, we start to build that mentality into our very character until it becomes second nature.
It doesn’t matter what happened in the past. It doesn’t matter what someone else says or does. The only thing that matters is what we choose to do with our future.
I truly believe that each one of us was created in the image of a Creator, and as such, we are to be creators- creators of our own destinies, not creatures of circumstance. The challenges and obstacles we face in life can have tremendous power to knock us down, destroy our mental peace, and create chaos. But only if we let them.
As Victor Frankl famously wrote in Man’s Search For Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
That is the first step to Self Governance: to choose one’s own way.