Yes, we are living the Chinese curse of “interesting times” in real time.

From the pandemic and our continuing recovery including all of its collateral damage, to wars in Europe and the Middle East and not-so-veiled threats from China and North Korea, to extraordinary political dysfunction and social strife at home, there are many heavy stones to carry. And yet, upon each new dawn we rise up and stride forward, again.

For all this darkness let us please stop for a moment and, as this year draws to a close, take stock of our resilience and perseverance that, with each new stone, seems to increase rather than wane. Bowed though our backs may be, unbroken we stand.

In the midst of our challenges, I see our goodness rising rather than falling. I see our character being chiseled into new forms of lean fortitude. Our virtues that, like fenceposts, stubbornly steady the integrity of our character as the wind-driven snows of infamy attempt to topple the fence altogether. We are, slowly but surely, shedding our excess pounds of dishonor gathered during a period of narcissism, entitlement, and hubris—now more than two decades running—to regain our most fundamental American values: 1) Individualism, or the notion that Americans are possessed of free will and take responsibility for its expression thereof (which was displaced by narcissism); 2) Perfectibility, or the idea that Americans always strive to make things better than the way they were found (which was exchanged for an adolescent sense of entitlement) and finally; 3) Exceptionalism—the exemplar kind—where Americans attempt to set the example for others to follow (which was compromised by hubris).

Are we all the way back? Hell no, but I feel an awakening beginning to glimmer in the eyes of many among us of all ages and of every other American distinction—different races, religions, ethnicities, political loyalties, sexual preferences and gender identities.  Not yet among our leaders who remain deluded by a warped sense of grandeur; rather, among those of us who rise every day, hoist the bag of stones on our back, and attempt to make this day better than the last. Just folks.

The values I identify above—Individualism, Perfectibility, and Exceptionalism—are as old as our founding documents. Observers, like Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 19th century, were enthralled by this American character. Subsequently, countless adversaries have been both fooled and foiled by the strength these dispositional values can muster. The fundamental operating system that both activates and actualizes these values is our commitment to self-determination: to foster a world that meets our interests as we define them—on our own terms.

While it is true that many American politicians and even our own Supreme Court appear determined to restrict and even undermine our right of self-determination, that glimmer I see in people’s eyes suggest they will fail; that “We the People” will not cower, nor be put asunder. We know what freedom is and, as every despot in the history of the world also knows (often learning the hard way), once people taste freedom their appetite never diminishes. Indeed, as many prior American generations demonstrated, we believe it is worth dying for. The Samuel Alitos among us would be wise to take note.

We do, however, need to get smarter about the stones we carry.

Our current load of stones has frazzled our minds and inflamed and bruised our hearts. Anger and depression have reached epidemic levels among Americans today. As a result, our behaviors, both individually and collectively have, at times, been far less than exemplary. Like a kid on a hike in the mountains we have picked up too many stones to carry home. As adults, however, we know from the Pareto Principle that 80% of results come from 20% of causes—the vital few as they are called—suggest we should carry far fewer stones. Understanding these stones and learning which to carry is the most effective means to enhance our well-being and maintain that sturdy chiseled character.

There are three types of stones. Touchstones that guide and inspire, Duty Stones that represent those things we are responsible for, and Burden Stones that represent those things we cannot directly manage or affect. We need to curate our list of those that should be in our bag and discard the rest to achieve a new sense of balance—of equanimity.

Touchstones (TS) emanate from a constellation of knowledge and beliefs that comprise our cognetic profile (a methodology I developed in my doctoral research to predict the behavior of presidents and other world leaders). Each of us has our own unique cognetic profile—as unique as our highly-differentiated fingerprints or the strands of genes that form our DNA. Our TS come from our knowledge and beliefs. Knowledge is acquired rationally through two channels: empirical learnings and experience. Beliefs are acquired through faith via the channels of socialization and indoctrination. These TS collectively guide us and inspire us; they are critical elements of what make up our dispositional orientation, or personality.

Some people have cognetic profiles that favor one or the other, knowledge or beliefs. Understanding this balance and the most influential components of each are powerful predictors of our likely decisions and actions. As for wisdom, consider it the bed upon which these TS lie—the soul beneath your knowledge and beliefs (what the Greeks called sophia, or transcendental wisdom). These profiles are also not fixed. They shift and evolve over time as we encounter our world; they are dynamic. There are also lively discussions over what elements are acquired and which might be inherited, and how our souls (believed by many to be our reservoir of eternal wisdom) plays, but these issues are too deep of a dive for this post.

Duty Stones (DS) are just as you might expect. They include those stones we accept through our many obligations to ourselves, our families, our communities, country and world. As a general rule, we arrive in the world with zero DS then accept more and more as we age until a point around sixty years of age when—if we have done our job well—the list begins to decline. The problem for many, however, is that our self-image, protected by our powerful egos, often clings to these DS which, as I have discussed in prior posts, sets us on a path of decline and suffering rather than transcendence and sweet peace.

In effect, there is a fork in the road of life many miss and blindly continue without shedding their DS. The result is that at the time of our final liberation—our death—we are in an unsettled state of mind. In some, if not many cases, we have actually met the underlying obligation but cling to the DS to maintain a self-image from our earlier life. Like the parent who won’t acknowledge that their child is now an adult. This is when DS can become Burden Stones (BS). But that is not the only or largest source of BS.

I have to say I like that the abbreviation of Burden Stones (BS) is shared with bullshit. I think that is appropriate. BS are the stones we should never have in our bag, but which for many can comprise the majority of stones in their bag. By definition, BS are stones we have no direct ability to affect. They become the primary contributor to what I collectively call gut-fry: frustration, anxiety, anger, fear, and depression.

Some people accept BS out of a sense of shame or guilt, or often times out of a sense of overwrought duty. Sometimes even out of a sense of master-of-the-universe ego-maniacal self-perception as in, “What do you mean I can’t solve all the world’s problems?” (I am guilty of this one.) We cannot directly affect the plight of Israelis attacked on October 7th, Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank, Ukrainians, Rohingya in Myanmar, Uyghurs in China, or any other victims of distant atrocities. What we can do is vote, protest, contribute to the cause, etc., but we must not carry them as DS.

Another common form of BS is the heritage or legacy stone. These come from events of the past which, by their very nature as in the past cannot be affected. Placing any of these BS in your bag is unfair to you and to those who are the subjects of your DS, like your family and community. As a further note to late-life readers: do not fall into the trap of replacing DS with BS to bolster your self-image and sate your ego. (I have seen a lot of this.) Do not compromise your path to transcendence and sweet peace.

So, in your bag: TS and selective DS, but no BS.

I expect 2024 will be another year of “interesting times.” A year from now, we may come to appreciate how important it was to lighten our load of stones. As Jennifer Senior wrote recently in The Atlantic as she was contemplating the effects of a potential return of the Orange One to the Oval, regardless of the presidential election, in 2024 “we are once again facing a news cycle that will shove our attention—as well as our output, our nerves, our sanity—through a Cuisinart.” I encourage everyone to have a private conversation with themselves. The year’s turning is a convenient time of reckoning. Look in your bag and lighten your load.

If you do, 2024 may indeed be a Happy New Year.