"Sometimes, Working To Improve Yourself Is the Best Thing You Can Do For the World"
Though I cannot find the attribution, I remember an old saying from coaches and teachers alike from high school that went something like this: “The best thing you can do for the world is to work on and improve yourself.” The basic premise lies at the root of many world religions, self-help books, and the like, and it is an immensely valuable piece of knowledge, albeit limited. Although I stopped perceiving the world through a purely individualist perspective some years back, I never expected to have this very quote swing back around to me and hit me straight in the face. Indeed, it was more eye opening than I could have imagined.
It was mid-April of 2020 and we had been in quarantine for a month. Life as we knew it had come to a halting screech and I was teaching adolescents through a screen in a small room full of books in my house. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and businesses across the world shuttered their doors to halt the spread of the disease and, at that point, the world was actually doing both terribly and well, with most of the world finally coming on-board with the project but while New York City ravaged with thousands dead daily. Early the pandemic, groups of thinkers innovated learning and business almost overnight. Famously, companies and individuals cranked out millions of masks in a week, ensuring every American could have one.
In the middle of these ongoing self-organizing entities, my friend Keith discovered one that branded itself as a “digital campfire where we cohere and dialogue at the knife’s edge of this moment.” The Stoa hosts the leading thinkers from across the world on near-daily episodes focusing on a variety of topics. Much like its cousin Rebel Wisdom, it seeks to help the world navigate this crisis, a meta-crisis as its followers would say. So after Keith had attended a few webinar sessions, he invited me to one, which I joined with some excitement. It was then that the famous adage came swinging into my face.
With flailing arms and boisterous vocals, Rhys Lindmark, author and blogger, was enthusiastically leading his viewers through an analysis of a possible post-capitalist world, one that didn’t decimate capitalism at the forefront but road the undulating waves of the slowly dying ideology on the way out.
Networkism. Bentoism. Coherent Pluralism. Lindmark's post-capitalism contends to take what we currently have at our disposal and serves us best and use that to launch us into the future. The most potent is a graph that he shared. Referred to as the Four Bentos, it depicts four quadrants that all align with self interest on the Y axis and time on the X axis. The bottom left, he said, is our normal, almost current state, which is a state focused on “Now Me” or selfish desires in the immediate. Directly above that is the Now Us category, followed by a Future Me on the bottom right and a Future Us on the upper right. The last category is the one to which a Post-Capitalism should be striving, Lindmark argues.
However, since the striking on the pandemic, Lindmark noted something that I had never conceived, at least not in years: could there be a world in which actions from the bottom left--the “Now Me” category--really did improve the world? I scoffed at first, almost laughing off the libertarian fantasy, until I thought about it for a moment. Rhys quickly elaborated: in this moment, he declared, doing just that will actually save the world, at least in the short-near term. Indeed, if you think about it he is exactly right. If I selfishly chose to go to the movies, I could spread COVID, but by selfishly choosing to stay home, I could save lives. Indeed, by doing nothing more than sitting on my couch and not interfering or participating in the “economy” I could save lives. In a weird juxtaposition that must certainly summarize 2020, the old saying came back to life.
After Rhys’ great webinar, I took the calling to heart, wondering just how I could focus on self-improvement in the pandemic. Although this is always something I am working on one way or another--through physical activity or through reading challenges, for example--I hadn’t constructed it quite that directly in my mind. To prevail in this time, I thought, I need more learning. After scouring the internet and convincing my partner to let me spend a little bit of money, I’d found it: college courses.
Two years ago I finished my master’s degree, but I have always felt mildly cheated out of a bachelor's degree with any rigor outside of my narrow field of study (which was rigorous and practical but narrow). Because of this, I have sought to continue learning, ideally within the emergent field of the environmental humanities. Luckily, Fort Hays State University, a public institution in Kansas, offers graduate courses for cheap. Beyond that, they were offering two environmentally themed graduate courses: Global Environmental History and Politics of the Environment. I had to sign on.
After a few email exchanges, I applied, and I was shocked to see that I was admitted two days later as a non-degree graduate student. I immediately enrolled in the two courses. A week or so later, I was frothing at the mouth for more, especially since I had wanted to sign up for another course. My plans for Colorado had been amended as well, so I knew I’d have more free time to study, so I took it upon myself to enroll in another course, though this time at the undergraduate level: History of Modern Philosophy. Since I still had California residency, I could apply and enroll in any California Community College course in the state, at 46 dollars per credit hour to boot. The opportunity was too good to pass up, so I was enrolled in 9 credit hours over the summer at two different institutions, even though 6 credit hours of graduate study is considered full-time and you’re “supposed to” enroll in two institutions and 9 credits simultaneously.
Well, I did it anyway, and I am immensely grateful. With all of my free time, the courses never really overwhelmed me, though I was kept quite busy and had to plan my time, especially in Colorado. However, I proved that I could overcome the obstacles and that I had sufficient reason and motivation for self improvement. Indeed, it turns out, as Rhys proclaimed: self-improvement was the best thing I could do for the world at this time. And as the pandemic rages on, I am wondering now how I can best help us get out of this mess, as it appears that the selfishness could only last so long. Well, I shall be returning to school in a few weeks, so that is one opportunity, though that is fairly limited.
About the Author
Ethan C Smith is an educator, adventurer, and thinker who is passionate about education, ecology, and social class. He happens to also spend a great deal of time reading and thinking about history, literature, philosophy, music, the future, and coffee.