My friend Michael Bischoff gave a talk recently in which he publicly declared his participation in the “cult of personal development.” Like so many of us, Michael strives to be a better person, a better leader, and to help make the world a better place. What could be wrong with that?
Of course, a lot of good springs from the effort to be good. But Michael illuminated some of its shadows: When we’re working hard to improve our selves or world, we don’t appreciate what is. As Michael’s daughter said, “Dad, you always try to change other people’s personalities.” Ouch, Michael responded. His daughter is perfect, and he knows it. Striving also traps us; there’s no end-point at which we’re finally good enough. When we try to address social ills through the lens of personal development, we address on our personal relationship to the problem rather than the problem itself. When we seek out spiritual communities through the lens of personal development, we ask what the community can do for us rather than what we can do for the community, or whether being community is valuable in and of itself.
I believe it’s possible to live at the center of this paradox—to rest, knowing ourselves good within a good world, at the same time that we work like hell to change things. The Serenity Prayer helps us enter this paradox, asking God for the grace to accept “the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.” But we can go further, practicing humility and acceptance and gratitude in the midst of our efforts to bring about change. Michael can thoroughly, peaceably appreciate his daughter and also challenge her to grow.
We can open ourselves to a powerful source of love that makes living in this paradox possible. This, in fact, is the particular skill people of faith bring to the movement against climate change. “My yoke is easy,” Jesus comforts us from the middle of this paradox, “and my burden is light.”
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew