(Cross-posted from Satori Worldwide)
After years of working in overseas development and seeing many well-intentioned work-life balance policies fall flat, it’s not surprising that many of us became cynical about the prospect of living healthy, balanced lives in the field.
Top-down prescriptions can only go so far to help—it’s up to you to make sure you are getting what you need to stay well. Remember, self-care is not selfish; it not only makes you easier to live and work with, but allows you to better serve others… so think of it like a self-directed form of altruism!
Here’s the irony: though many of us have very expensively trained minds we know next to nothing about what keeps a person healthy, happy and whole over time…. and worse, many of us doubt whether such a thing is even possible while we are busy dodging mortars, witnessing beneficiaries suffer, or dealing with the frustration of grinding bureaucracies.
We are here to tell you it is!
How do we know this? Because ancient wisdom traditions, modern psychology and our experience tells us so. Sure, it will take a little focus, you will need to open your mind, and it’s never really a fait accompli, but if you can get in line with the following principles, you will thrive no matter what is going on around you.
Beware; this is not about denying reality, because that will literally make you sick. It’s about choosing the most empowering interpretation of any given situation. All the sages, from Buddha to Byron Katie, tell us that the “contents of our consciousness” is the key to bliss. See problems as challenges rather than obstacles, and life turns into an adventure rather than a slog, and every tangle becomes an opportunity to grow. That difficult boss? A chance to refine your communication skills! The pollution in your duty station? An excuse to get out of the city more often to get your dose of fresh air! So don’t, as my friend says “be a negatron”, alter your perspective and witness how the world shifts with you.
Believe it or not, there is a point to being you. And I don’t just mean being human, I mean being YOU, exactly as you are. In her counseling sessions, the physician/psychologist Rachel Naomi Remen says she asks her subjects to answer the following question: “what if YOU were exactly what the world needed? What uniqueness do you hold in store?” Passion of this sort and the associated drive to be self-actualized is what keeps most people motivated even when the chips are down, because connecting to a higher purpose (“your BIG story” as Satori adviser Jane Carleton says) clarifies your pain and keeps you from getting bogged down by the more uninspiring details of a challenging life. After all, you chose this path for a reason… it’s helpful to remember why you did from time to time.
When Socrates said “Know Thyself” he didn’t mean our political predilections or our taste in wine and music. Ask yourself honestly: why am I doing this? Why am I here? Investigating the inner recesses of ourselves is important for a myriad of reasons: It’s hard to find our purpose if we don’t know who we are; being curious about our (over) reactions to certain events helps us resolve all manner of difficulties more easily; recognizing our strengths helps us add value to our world more effectively; understanding (and forgiving) our weaknesses is what allows us to have greater compassion for others. There’s more, but you get the idea… it’s about integrity.
We don’t need to remind aid workers—many of whom have spent hours upon hours reporting in project logs—how important goals are in managing our course. But here is what we also know at a deeper level: there is a big difference between extrinsic goals (fame, fortune, and all other forms of external validation) and intrinsic goals (inner peace, integrity, and the state of your personal relationships) and experts say it’s the latter than trumps the former over time. This means that personal satisfaction is at least if not more important than career advancement, and what’s more, the two might actually be inextricably linked. Yet few of us take the time to identify and cultivate our personal goals alongside society’s expectations of us. Later, we are left to wonder why that pit in our stomach is still there even when we have reached our professional peak. So be curious, what do YOU want from this life? You might be surprised how your ‘outputs’ change as a result.
Though the more seasoned among us are often loathe to keep admitting it, most of us got into this gig because we hoped to make the world a better place. Years of grinding bureaucracy or complicated circumstances on the ground often make that goal seem elusive, and this can get us down… because what’s the point of having goals if you never feel like you realize them? Here’s where a little creativity goes a long way, because while you may be unable to get full funding for that project you’ve been working so hard at, you may still derive some satisfaction from making a difference to the people you encounter every day (your colleagues, your family, the staff in your office or household) by doing what you can—often very small things—to be of service. This is called remembering the fundamentals, and it’s what will give you the juice to cultivate the patience and persistence to achieve your more challenging work-related goals over time.
If you can’t get out of bed in the morning or walk through the office with a spring in your step, it’s hard to accomplish anything, right? That’s why nutrition, exercise and relaxation are paramount in your personal plan for optimizing life. Aid workers may have more (legitimate) excuses than most for avoiding this (most of us don’t live with gyms/yoga studios down the street or door-to-door- diet delivery services on hand) but the fact remains that if you don’t care for yourself in this way, you will suffer in the long run. If you need some ideas to get over your hump, keep your eye out for an upcoming post called Are You Fat and Ugly?
Wisdom is nothing more, but nothing less, than deep understanding. Though we all have it within us, it is increasingly more difficult to access the more cluttered out lives become. To begin with, it consists of one basic question: ‘what is really going on here?’ Given the time to consider the answer (perhaps during that nice walk every morning, or in meditation, or while reading one of those beloved books on your shelf), we often find the ability to respond rather than react to life’s circumstances is a way that maximizes benefit while minimizing exertion for everyone. For an extra measure of reassurance, there are also plenty of wise people to talk to if we find ourselves unable to look within for advice, if only we have the humility to ask for help when we need it.
You have not chosen the easiest line of work, and it’s good to remember that once in a while. The challenges can be both exhilarating and defeating. There is a difference between being reckless and being brave, though… a difference which demands that you keep a careful accounting of when and why you are experiencing fear so you can move through it with wise decisions. Learn to recognize what fear looks like (anger? addiction? depression?) what it feels like (in your body) and how it shows up in other people, and this will go a long way to guiding you. Warning: when you battle your fears, avoid expectations! The most courageous warriors don’t dictate the course of the fight but perform valiantly against their own greatest demons, which are always unpredictable and often unrecognizable at first. Do you know what yours are?
Love thy neighbor; all you need is love; love hurts. It’s risky to bring emotion into our work, especially since most of us have been trained to believe that it has no place in professional conduct. But remember here that we are in the business of humanity, so what better place for it? Love is a place name for a wide array of behaviors that make development work much better, including: deep listening, kindness, patience, acceptance and more. It looks less like a sit-in and more like those extra few minutes we take to talk to a beneficiary. It’s also a reminder of how imperative it is to connect regularly with those people to give it to us: our family and friends.
The “whatever you wanna call it”…
Aid workers can often be politically correct to a fault, so I have been struggling to find a word for this very fundamental concept that speaks to everyone… but alas, I have not found it yet. Call it Spirit, the Universal Mind, God, oneness or your higher self… just as long as you understand that we are talking about something much bigger than the small, ego-driven self. Rather, we refer to that which can’t be named that drives you when your ego, and all other worldly means of staying afloat (you bank account, your personal charm, your credentials) can’t. Do you know what that is for you? Whether it’s nature, music, art, relationships or religion that does it for us, making time to connect with this aspect of ourselves is more replenishing that most of the other points in this article put together.
Satori Worldwide offers 7 Day Sabbaticals for aid workers and others looking to cultivate balance and resilience, so they can bring the best of who they are to what they do.