New Year’s Resolutions. Many of us create them in the fresh-eyed optimism of a new year, only to relegate them, dusty and unfulfilled to the back of a cupboard somewhere, by February.
Procrastination is an all-too-human trait we have been fighting against and swimming with for as long as we have been human. There has always been a tomorrow we could lump today’s to-do’s onto.
Greek philosophers have a word for this; akrasia. Akrasia is, as explained by time-optimiser and blogger James Clear “the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else.” Akrasia is what stops you from doing what you said you were going to do.
Looking at the concept of ‘time inconsistency’ is the key to understanding why we sabotage our best laid plans so readily. “Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or learn a language — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits,” Clear explains in his blog.
Once you are in the moment where the decision to act must be made, you are no longer thinking for your future self. You are now directing the activity to your present self, and your present self likes instant gratification — not the delayed sort.
“This is one reason why you might go to bed feeling motivated to make a change in your life, but when you wake up you find yourself falling into old patterns. Your brain values long-term benefits when they are in the future, but it values immediate gratification when it comes to the present moment.” He says.
Clear explains in his article that the hardest part of any new task is the resistance we encounter at the start. Once we start, however, it gets progressively easier, so much so, that sometimes the best way to start a new way of thinking is by building the habit of getting started, rather than trying to change entirely from the beginning. But perhaps I could respectfully disagree. The hardest part for me is admitting that I actually have to change. Over the last month many people have written about racism in our country. Only a few of them have spoken about their own racism — most discuss the racism of others and how it doesn’t apply to their liberal and non-racial way of thinking. The thing is, a lot of racism and race bias occurs without intention and subconsciously by the best-intentioned people. There are thankfully not many of us who would stand up and proudly declare ourselves racist and yet racism is alive and thriving. How is this possible if we are all not racists?
Clay Routledge, social psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University explains in an article for Psychology Today that “the problem of racism does not simply boil down to whether or not people believe themselves to be racist. It is not enough to be opposed to racism. We need to act less defensively when race appears to be an influential variable and be willing to critically evaluate a situation based on evidence, not just on feelings or personal beliefs. And we need to embrace the idea that we do not need to have racism in our hearts to be racists. Good intentions are not enough. We need to thoughtfully and systematically combat the stereotypes, traditions, and policies that allow racism to continue to thrive…” He continues, saying that “there are a number of reasons people want to deny racism exists. We want to believe the world is fair and just and the existence of racism undermines these beliefs. We gain self-esteem and a sense of identity from our culture so we are motivated to see our culture as moral and good.” Since 1994 white South Africans have had a lot of easily bought esteem and reward. Nelson Mandela and the concept of the rainbow nation had us all forgiven before many of us had even really understood what had happened. I think now begins the hard work of reflection and sensitivity.
A simple test I have started for myself, is replacing the words in conversations and the media that refer to Black people to those that refer to Jews. If you swap out all the covert racist ‘Black words’ for covert antisemitic ‘Jew words’ and you are left feeling sick, violated and unsafe, you should hold onto that feeling and project your efforts into fighting that message. There was a time not so long ago when Jews were considered to be wholly undesirable. The idea of ‘No Dogs, No Blacks, No Jews’ was a fairly common one just a few decades ago. Have we forgotten that? In a fantastic Tedtalk, novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaks about the ‘single story’. If we only understand each other through a single story narrative that we ourselves choose for the other, how can we truly understand anything with sensitivity? She goes on to say that “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”
“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” I believe that if we want to get past our natural akrasia and subconcious racism and limiting single story narratives to a place where we can all live fairly in our country, the time to be single-minded and open-minded is right now. True equality is not about outreach work and learning to greet in another language. Would we consider that to be enough equality for us if the tables were turned? Time is ticking, and this is one New Year’s resolution none of us can afford to pack away.