As the tagline of this blog suggests, I have one primary goal and that is to make the world a better, more peaceful place. Much nonfiction reading (see the end of this post) over the last six months has led me to question how to maximize my personal well-being while also being the best person I can for those around me. Finding a balance between these two goals matters if we aim to improve the world for all of those who inhabit it. I propose that we should consider identity as what makes us human, rather than what makes us individuals. Thinking about it like this, I hope we can better act in ways that benefit others while also remaining honest with ourselves. This post attempts to explain how I’m attempting to find congruence personally and professionally in who I am, what I do, and who I want to be.
When I was a child, my parents posited difficult choices as having two possible options: What is right or what is easy. As an adult, I understand that it is not so simple. Choices are far more complex than right or easy. We make choices in terms of what is good for others or ourselves, what will make different stakeholders the most happy, what causes the least amount of harm, and what most aligns with how we see ourselves.
Most importantly, we make the choices that we hope will increase our overall well-being. Doing so should involve consideration of not only ourselves, but also of others so that we are aiming to improve the world as a whole, which will have a positive impact on our own lives.
This is congruence – alignment in how you describe yourself, see yourself, and the actions that you take.
The difficulties, then, are not between right and easy (sometimes the right choice is easy, but not our preference). I see two difficulties here:
- In situations where self and other interests clash, how to cultivate an identity that benefits others without compromising ourselves
- What to do when there is dissonance between how we see ourselves and the choices we make
Difficulty 1: Developing Identity
There are certainly situations where personal desires do not square with the needs or desires of those around us. Let’s consider the example of a materialist (identity) who steals in order to obtain more and more (action, generally considered “bad” because it harms others and therefore condemned by society). There is clearly congruence here, but do these actions ultimately lead to greater life satisfaction? Research says no, more possessions do not lead to greater happiness. If the materialist is aiming for increased well-being, there are avenues other than acquisition that will be more beneficial.
Identity should reflect not only who you are now, but what you want for the future. If you want to be happy, you are better off taking actions that are empirically proven to increase well-being overall. Congruence that is a result of careful consideration of goals and desires and how to meet them is more likely to increase satisfaction both for oneself and for those around us, particularly by avoiding actions that cause harm.
Difficulty 2: Dissonance Between Self-Image and Choices
Again, there are situations where we are forced to make choices with options that we don’t like. People have a tendency to blame the people who put us in those situations, which really only increases our personal sense of injustice, therefore causing more harm to ourselves than to anyone else.
The better option is to reflect on our chosen identity. If I see myself (or want to see myself) as a supportive friend, for example, I need to make choices that demonstrate my support. I need to attend the lunch at an inconvenient time, host the bridal shower, or make a difficult phone call. My actions need to demonstrate my support, regardless of how satisfied or happy that choice will make me. I may not want to host the bridal shower because it’s expensive and time-consuming, but a supportive friend would host the bridal shower. The satisfaction that I ultimately feel is a result of the congruence created by aligning identity and behavior.
When actions and identity do not match, dissonance arises. In some circumstances, being satisfied with dissonance is appropriate and acceptable. Many people pursue hobbies for sheer enjoyment, pleasure, or connection with others and have no desires or hopes to turn those hobbies into professions. Calling yourself a chef because you enjoy cooking for your family might be an example of dissonance, but they are also two aspects of a larger identity in which you care for those around you.
Dissonance becomes a problem, however, when it interferes with or contradicts the development of a desired identity because of actions taken around it. With the larger choices that I’ve made, I’ve chosen to address the dissonance that arises when I recognize that my actions and identity are misaligned.
For purposes of example, a timeline to my vegetarianism:
- 2008 – Stopped eating red meat (except when my mother made certain dishes for the holidays)
- 2009 – Stopped eating poultry at restaurants but still enjoyed it at home
- 2011 – Stopped eating red meat entirely
- 2012 – Stopped cooking poultry for myself but would eat it if someone else made it
- 2015 – Stopped eating poultry entirely
- 2016 – Stopped eating fish from fisheries or farms that are not certified and vetted as sustainable
First, I realized that I didn’t like meat or poultry very much and reduced consumption as a result. (This is also a good time to disclose that I grew up in and maintain a kosher household, which means food restrictions have always been part of my life.) When I realized that I didn’t miss red meat and hardly touched it during holidays, I eliminated it entirely.
Second, I started reading a lot about what food is, where it comes from, and how culinary practices have evolved over time. Kitchen Literacy and Eating Animals impacted my decisions around poultry and I began thinking a lot about what human omnivorism means for the environment, which humans are depleting, and for animals, which are sentient beings. I grew uncomfortable (this is where dissonance comes in!) as I nodded and agreed with everything Vileisis and Foer said and then cheerfully enjoyed a turkey burger. By the time I moved to Malaysia in 2014, I had recommended both books to other people and largely developed an identity as a most-of-the-time vegetarian whose food choices impacted social outings.
Yet, I slipped back to old habits when avoiding both red meat and poultry grew challenging, particularly when I traveled. If vegetarianism impacted my food choices at home and at the restaurants my friends and I visited, was it important enough to impact my travels? Is there an off-switch for caring about sentient beings and maintaining an environment that can sustain human and animal populations? I didn’t think so.
Ultimately, it was more reading (examples include The Age of Sustainable Development, Altruism, and The Art of Happiness) that made me realize that all of the many actions I’d always taken to practice environmentalism paled in comparison to my eating habits and my status as a very frequent flier, which actually had a much greater impact on the environment. It didn’t make sense (dissonance again!) that, as someone who carried around paper coffee sleeves and plastic water bottles until a recycling bin appeared, I happily participated in decimating the world’s fish population.
Again, there was dissonance in how I described myself (as a vegetarian), saw myself (as an individual conscious of sustainability), and what I did (bought and ate fish with no regard for what the food on my plate meant for the ocean and river ecosystems).
It’s a relatively simple example. Choosing vegetarianism has been such a gradual process for me that it’s not even life changing at this point. What is life changing, however, is that I finally feel that my food choices reflect the person I consider myself to be – someone who cares for our planet and all sentient life.
That being said, I have not chosen to reduce the flying that I do. I find so much value in the experiences that I have when I travel, and firmly believe that I am a better person for doing so. By committing to vegetarianism, I am approaching care for the planet and for sentient life with a “do what you can” mindset. I’m okay with that for right now.
I’ve also been thinking about my identity as an educator. I consider myself a good teacher not because I’m confident in my content and pedagogy (though I am), but because I am constantly learning, innovating, and reflecting. I see learning as a huge part of what makes a good teacher. Similarly, I see a willingness to try as a huge part of what makes a good student. While I do tell that to my students, it’s not always on display in my own life. Teachers (and I am guilty of this, too) sometimes hide behind the tried-and-true. We don’t always like to take chances for fear that a new project, topic, or type of technology will expose what we don’t know. (And yes, sometimes the tried-and-true really is the most effective way.) Yet we expect our students to warm to challenges on a daily basis. We want them to be excited about new ideas and ways of showing their knowledge. We want them to ask questions and seek out answers.
But we don’t always show them that we, the older and more experienced learners among them, do the same.
During the past school year, I made a variety of changes to my teaching that I felt better reflected how I view my role as an educator. It wasn’t enough to tell my students that I believed learning was a vital element of teaching; I had to show them. I had to demonstrate that I was learning with them and from them if I wanted to develop a true community of learners in my classroom.
This is part of my continuous search for congruence between my identity (educator) and the actions (learning) that were crucial to education. I recognized a case of “Do as I say, not as I do” for what it was – dissonance between identity and behavior.
I’ve found it helpful to share with students what I’m reading, whether it’s a book, article, blog, or Facebook post. I’ve told them about research I’ve done to prepare a lesson, and about where I struggled to answer my own questions. I’ve made my learning part of my teaching in a way that students can see it. In doing so, I’m trying to find congruence between identity and action, and it feels increasingly more comfortable.
I no longer think about choices as binaries – what is right vs. what is easy. Instead, choices are about questions: Who do I claim to be? Who do I want to be? What does option X say about who I am? Does option Y better align with my personal goals?
Keeping these questions in mind, particularly about who I want to be, is a helpful guide for how to act when I recognize that my self-proclaimed identity and actions are incongruent. Rather than being angry or frustrated with a challenging situation, it is far more productive to return to the question of identity.
Who do I want to be?
It might be easier for me to have the hamburger or decline to host the bridal shower, but not if I call myself a vegetarian or environmentalist or supportive friend. It’s not about the right choice (after all, eating the hamburger means supporting an industry that employs a lot of people). It’s about seeking congruence between identity and action and recognizing dissonance for what it is – that uncomfortable feeling of misalignment that is no one’s fault. Rather than being frustrated with the options and doing (spitefully and irritably) what is “right”, do what aligns with who you want to be to the extent that it will increase overall well-being.
As Albus Dumbledore rightly points out, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
My goal every day is to be better than I was the day before. Being better, for me, means being able to improve the world around me. Working towards this goal is what gives me the greatest congruence, thus increasing life-satisfaction and therefore overall well-being.
For the curious among you, below is a list of many of the books I’ve read in 2016 that have impacted my thinking, my goals, and my actions. It’s likely not exhaustive and some might actually be from late 2015, but I honestly can’t remember!
The Age of Sustainable Development – Jeffrey Sachs
Altruism – Matthieu Ricard
The Art of Happiness – Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler
Being Peace – Thich Nhat Hanh
Collapse – Jared Diamond
The Consolations of Philosophy – Alain De Botton
Creating Capabilities – Martha Nussbaum
Daring Greatly – Brené Brown
Doing Good Better – William MacAskill
Inside Coca-Cola – Neville Isdell and David Beasley
On Writing – Stephen King
Peace Education – Nel Noddings
Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury
11/22/63 – Stephen King
The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Course of Love – Alain De Botton
The Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac
John Dies at the End – David Wong
The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
People of the Book – Geraldine Brooks
Rabbit, Run – John Updike
Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn
This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald