Change is not always a constant.
Change can also be a choice.
In the midst of writing my dissertation, I wrote a piece called “self-sustainability is not selfish.” The piece was inspired by the pressure I felt to defend my choice to make my own life more sustainable and to focus the research and writing of my dissertation on my self as subject.
Both of these choices were against the grain of the society and culture in which I was raised. By culture, I meant social, professional, and academic. Even my own inner personal culture railed against my choice to change the course of my life to one that was healthier.
When first beginning to take the steps toward creating a shift in my life, I struggled against a range of negative emotions. It was like my inner self was on trial and there was a panel of voices on high looking down on me and listing off a litany of accusations to which I felt obliged to respond.
What these accusations boiled down to was an overwhelming feeling of guilt for choosing my self.
How could I choose my self when there was so much suffering in the word?
How could I be so selfish?
Most of what I had learned thus far in my personal, professional, and academic life was that one should bend over backward and do whatever it took to be successful.
So, if I wanted to be successful at my job (which meant moving up in the ranks from being a seasonal to a permanent employee at the agency where I worked), I had to work extra hours, talk to my supervisor on the phone when she called, and allow my job to completely take over my personal life.
In the realm of the environment, which seemed to blend all three realms of my life, I learned that I must be in service to something greater than my self, a movement to save the earth.
No pressure there.
I must sacrifice everything to fix repair the damages inflicted on this poor, forsaken planet. This meant feeling guilty every time I did something that ran counter to the path of martyrdom—buying something that wasn’t organic, buying something I didn’t need, feeling rested when I should be working myself into the ground because every second counted if I was going to change the world.
And no matter what I did in service to the earth, other people were doing more and they were doing it better than I was.
No matter how much extra time I put in at work, other people were chosen for permanent jobs instead of me.
I ignored my own self, silently and effectively saying that I didn’t matter. My own health and happiness did not matter.
I enrolled in a doctoral program to study sustainability education at the highest, academic level. In so doing, I continued on the path of self-sacrifice in service to.
As I studied sustainability through an academic lens, I began to notice little red flags appearing in connection with the elements of my life that were just not working, parts of my life where I was not walking the sustainability talk.
And slowly, ever so slowly, I began to take notice, to listen, and to respond.
Noticing and listening were difficult practices to cultivate because I was so accustomed to ignoring warning signs and to simply plowing forward. The work I was doing was important. If I didn’t plow forward, that work might not get done.
I received support in my academic community for this shift in awareness and practice, but I was alone in this work in the other realms of my life. It seemed that other people did not understand what I was trying to do. Some people even seemed threatened by my choice to stand up for my own sustainability, health, and well-being.
I am not typically the kind of person to run away from an unhealthy situation or to give up when the going gets tough.
However, this newfound awareness was tenuous at best. I was afraid that I might lose my momentum and not be able to further cultivate the practices I required to live more sustainably. As much as possible, I found myself choosing to leave unhealthy situations and avoid people whose behavior had a negative impact on me.
Making a drastic life change in the midst of a culture that does not understand or support this choice is no easy feat. Imagine deciding to become a vegan in the middle of cow country? Or becoming a pagan in Vatican City?
I started to think that maybe I was a bit crazy for so desperately wanting and needing to cultivate a healthier life because everyone around me seemed so hell-bent on swimming with the tide of mass consumption, the culture of working oneself into the ground, and immersing oneself in escape behaviors rather than coming to terms with the darker side so as to adjust to the darkness and find light there as well.
I know that change is possible without making drastic changes, moving thousands of miles, or even separating from a loved one.
For me, however, the unhealthy behaviors were so intensely engrained that I found the only way that I could begin to embody new ones was to completely separate my self from anything and anyone who might weaken my ability to succeed.
Is my life at this moment the embodiment of health and sustainability?
No. I still struggle to maintain a more sustainable life in the midst of a culture that tries to convince me otherwise each and every day.
I work too much. I worry too much. I buy things online when I get stressed out.
The difference between now and four years ago is my own awareness. I know the negative affect of unhealthy behaviors on my psychological and physical health. I know that there are some times in life when can expect to be overwhelmed. When this happens, in order to maintain a healthy balance, I will need to let something go because I just cannot do all the things I want or feel that I need to do and stay healthy.
I also know that I should not continue on this path if I want to maintain a sustainable existence. At some point (and I hope it is soon), I know I will have to make changes if I want to choose to follow a sustainable path.
I envision that people will probably think I am crazy when I make this change because it will run counter to what is accepted and expected in this culture. But there will be some who will understand and hopefully others who will be inspired to take similar action in their own lives.
And then maybe, just maybe, a rippling effect will begin. Small at first and then ever expanding outward until people begin to realize that it is ok to live a balanced, healthy life. It is ok to want to be happy and healthy. It is reasonable to create boundaries and to say no to the status quo.
It is ok to say yes to a sustainable life.
Will you join me?