Progress of a Different Kind
‘People, by and large,’ said eminent psychologist William James, ‘become what they think of themselves.’
“I am not sure it’s worth it.”
Zach, my 15-year-old son, and I were standing on the side porch that we had just completed. The project had originally started the previous fall, with the help of our neighbor, as we looked to add increased outdoor space for our home. Like most projects, this one had taken longer than expected, especially with a winter break in the middle. Midst an already frenetic schedule that included up to five sports seasons, fitting in porch construction and the finishing process had not been easy, and had certainly created its own level of stress.
Yet standing on the side porch with Zach, having finally taken care of the finishing touches, I had rationalized that despite all of the time, money and effort, the porch itself would ultimately be “worth it” in what it would provide. But Zach isn’t afraid to voice his honest opinions, and he questioned whether this was the case.
Although my first inclination was to quickly counteract his negative thinking, I found myself pondering over this statement in the hours and days that followed. The reality was that the porch was finished, and it certainly didn’t make sense to neglect the opportunities that it would provide us, for both leisurely and hosting purposes. But as I thought more about what he said, I started to consider more seriously the truth these words might hold.
We have a way of rationalizing away all sorts of negatives that come with progress. Take, for instance, the mobile/communication revolution that exists today. As has been widely documented, for all the advances that have occurred with the internet and smartphones, many negative effects have also surfaced over the last couple of decades, questioning how much real progress has been made. While it is understandable that humans will always naturally seek out advancements that bring about more resources, convenience and experiences, the challenge lies in just how we view the idea of “progress” itself. As with our extended porch area, progress is often seen in an external sort of way, as if saying that our lives will be improved by something that can be acquired or enhanced outside of ourselves (e.g., faster internet speed, larger homes, easier ways to communicate with people, etc.).
Yet in taking this view of progress, we are at risk for falling into two particular traps. One is the idea that progress as we perceive it will necessarily lead to happier, healthier and more harmonious lives, and thus is ultimately “worth” the unfortunate side effects that might ensue from pursuing it. The second is foregoing opportunities for internal progress — the kind that comes from a change in attitude or perspective that ultimately provides for a more contented, joyful outcome, no matter what changes (or not) happen around us.
William James was a well-known psychologist and philosopher born in the mid-1800s, who later became known as the “Father of American Psychology.” Toward the end of his career, he was asked to be the keynote speaker at the annual conference for the American Psychological Association, where upwards of 10,000 people were expected to be in attendance. He was asked to share the most important lesson learned from 50 years of psychology research. After all the introductions and accolades were announced, he finally walked on stage, introduced the topic, and then said the following:
“People by and large become what they think of themselves.”
Seconds later, he walked off the stage and left the conference.
As I have reflected more on this statement, and my conversation with Zach, I found myself particularly struck by the connections between the two. While it is certainly understandable that a family of 10 living in a smaller home (given modern standards) would seek to provide for more space, the broader question remains just what it means to be moving forward in this world. We certainly like to think of ourselves as people of progress, but if William James’ words are true, it should give us pause to consider just what kind of progress we think we are making.
All of us would like to think that as the world grows in connectivity, convenience and complexity, we are inevitably progressing as we should, or maybe just as we are programmed to do. Yet in taking this view, I worry that we are both failing to consider what true progress really looks like, and failing to consider the choices we still have in all of this. While it might be hard to turn our backs on a perceived advance or opportunity, and instead focus on changing our perspective toward a particular situation or ourselves, this might be the most important progress we can make. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do something, unless it ultimately brings about greater health, harmony, happiness and ultimately holiness as God intends.
That day on the porch, I wanted to believe that all the effort and money was worth it. And maybe it will be. But it also may be that we could have been just as happy without the new addition, and instead have allocated our time and resources in a more important way. While second-guessing this decision lacks any utility, it does pose a consideration in going forward. For all of us in this age of “advance,” it’s worth considering what we think about ourselves as it pertains to true progress, and thus who we are becoming.