Theodore Roosevelt was an early 20th Century U.S. President, a statesman, conservationist, naturalist, explorer, big game hunter, rancher, soldier, and a prolific author. He was severely afflicted with ill health as a young child, battling debilitating asthma. Yet he later became one of this country’s most vibrant personalities for decade-after-decade of his adult public life. He is both credited and blamed for increasing the power of the office of the Presidency, for expanding the economic and military power and influence of the U.S. globally, and for laying the framework for greater federal governmental regulation of industry, business, banking, and labor relations in our country. Theodore Roosevelt was many things in his utterly fascinating lifetime. He was both revered and demonized. But there’s one thing nearly everyone can agree on: He was never complacent. Ever. Roosevelt is oft quoted on any number of topics. But this is what he said about human complacency and those who resist it in life:
“The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly… who spends oneself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if failure comes, at least he or she fails while daring greatly. So that his or her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
More than a century after Roosevelt’s death, his words still ring true today. Perhaps, they’re even more compelling now than when he so eloquently spoke them many years ago. Our country and the world, more generally, face enormous, seemingly intractable challenges at this time. For example, scientists predict that climate change will create potentially catastrophic events for our planet before the end of this century unless we take transformational actions now. Evidence increasingly points to real future (and present) risks for the extinction of many our world’s living species, rising sea levels, higher temperatures, more damaging hurricanes, and weather extremes such as chronic flooding and droughts. The impacts of these changes will financially bankrupt many countries throughout the world; cause massive population dislocations; create violent regional conflicts over water rights; and threaten our food supplies worldwide. And, yet, for most of us, our ‘world’ goes on each day. The real, existential threat to the very lives of our children and grandchildren in the decades ahead seems distant and remote for too many. Or, alternatively, we’re collectively overwhelmed as a society by the magnitude of the problem, and we hope it will simply go away. Climate change is only one of many pressing issues before us. But it’s emblematic of a tendency for individual and societal complacency in the world today.
So, what is human complacency? It’s defined as a sense of passive, uncritical self-satisfaction, comfort, security, or feeling of impotence in the face of one’s perceived status relative to our respective, surrounding environments. It’s typically accompanied by a relative unawareness of (or indifference to) the potential risks of taking no corrective or modifying actions needed to ensure continued success, correct deficiencies, or manage potential dangers. In the face of these danger risks, our complacency often results in negative consequences to us. Being complacent can be a one-time event, followed by our learning the lessons required to address future risks. Complacency is more problematic, however, when it becomes an established routine for us. Worse, even yet, when that routine becomes an unconscious (and almost involuntary) part of who we actually are in life.
Many things contribute to our human tendencies toward complacency. Our own successes (or even our near misses for any negative consequences) can create an aura of invincibility in our minds. Conversely, our feelings of fear, sadness, failure, and past trauma can contribute. A reliable routine in our lives can foster complacency too. Like when we drive home from work in our cars, then arrive there not remembering anything about the drive, itself. For we were on complacent auto-pilot as we drove, while our minds and thoughts were thousands of miles away. Conversely, complacency can be ‘learned’, perhaps ingrained in us by our parents or siblings as we were growing up in our respective families of origin. Adopting an External Locus of Control can also create complacency—as we look to things external to us (rather than to that which is within us) to influence the direction of our lives. Finally, at times, we’re simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of a problem before us. It’s in the ‘way too hard pile’, and we default to our ‘whatever’ complacency mode. In turn, we hope that someone else will handle it for us and make it go away. But the problem rarely goes away by our doing nothing about it.
Now, to be fair, there is an upside to patience, thoughtfulness before acting, and prudent caution. On the other hand, there is little to commend complacent behavior. When facing challenges or problems, complacency never solves the underlying issues involved. Things usually deteriorate further through our neglect. But, what’s worse, complacency can be highly contagious when it’s modeled by people that we know or respect. It’s an inviting, alluring phenomena for many and can spread easily to others around us. At a spiritual level, it dulls our souls. We get numb and stagnated. We lower the bar of our ‘being’ as we settle into a lazier, stagnated emotional, social, and intellectual state. Furthermore, complacency breeds overconfidence in the continuation of good outcomes, while simultaneously setting ourselves up for later anger, jealousy, and deep disappointment when things stop working out well for us in the future. We begin to feel entitled to the good things in life with little effort on our parts. Then we get angry when the good times don’t keep rolling on. In the end, complacency breeds internal mediocrity, blurred situational awareness, lack of proactivity, and muddled ‘self-agency’ in life. ‘Going with the flow’ may be alluring and attractive on the surface. But it rarely ends well for us. For the end is likely to be a dis-empowered dead-end in terms of our human wellbeing. And that’s nothing to be complacent about.
So how do we combat our complacent tendencies in life? We start by getting more in-touch with ourselves. Because complacency is often grounded in self-criticism and self-judgment, we can quit judging ourselves so harshly every day. We can be kinder and gentler to ourselves in response to our inevitable setbacks and ‘misses’ along the way. And, in turn, we can encourage ourselves with a far more positive and affirming self-narrative in our heads. Ironically enough, deciding to go a bit easier on ourselves can help to mitigate pressures for perfection in everything. In turn, it can unleash a spirit of adventure, momentum, and measured risk. Of course, we can’t do it alone. We need to surround ourselves with loving mutual support from other caring, non-complacent people around us. Positive reinforcement and assistance with needed course-corrections are both critical to moving beyond complacency.
But we can do even more. We can actually start behaving differently. This begins with our ongoing effort to develop fresh, creative perspectives—while paying less attention to the external condemnation and cynicism that so often greets us every time we start to think and act differently. We can also become more purposefully and mindfully aware of our external surroundings each day. You know, get out of our own heads more often. Further, we can choose courage instead of fear in life. And in this very spirit, we can take small steps even in the face of some (appropriate) risks. Then we can reward ourselves as we reach milestones in our personal progression and development. In other words, we can incrementally build confidence and self-trust as we go. To be sure, we don’t need to ‘go big’ from the outset if we’re not ready. And we don’t have to do everything all at once. Finally, with the help of other supportive friends, family, and mentors around us, we can learn from our inevitable mistakes. Then we can choose to get back up and start anew. We can draw on our own strength and that of others to help along the way. But we can also draw on something far more powerful. As human ‘beings’, we’re actually made by God to live in harmony with all creation everywhere. Look around you. Everything is evolving, changing, and dynamic in nature. We are no exception as people. We were created by God to play an active part in all of this. We were meant to live in harmony with this continuous ‘movement’– not to merely ‘take up space’ in some form of complacent, stagnant resistance to things.
Let’s conclude where we started on this topic. With Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt knew little about complacency in his own life. He understood the exhilaration of success. And he suffered the severe pangs of defeat. He lived with a measure of risk all along the way. Sometimes he traveled ‘bridges to nowhere’. He was doubted and criticized at times. I’m sure he was lonely at others. Ironically, enough, he died at age 60 without even remotely understanding the full impact of his life and his work on this nation and the world. Most remember him as a U.S. President. But few know him as an explorer and naturalist. Following his defeat as the Bull Moose Party candidate for President in the 1912 election, Roosevelt and his son, Kermit, joined the first non-indigenous expedition ever to explore, record, and map a heretofore unknown tributary of the Amazon River in Brazil. Their party faced nearly impassible rapids and waterfalls in the most dangerous and intimidating conditions possible. Roosevelt was, himself, seriously injured in the process. Despite his pleas to leave him there to die (rather than risk the lives of others), the former President was assisted out by the expedition party. Roosevelt survived the ordeal, but he experienced residual health issues for the remainder of his life. In all likelihood, he considered the trip a failure in many respects. But the ‘River of Doubt’ that he helped to discover, document, and map was subsequently renamed the ‘Roosevelt River’ in his honor in Brazil. Roosevelt’s courage (and that of his entire expedition) helped to make known a geographic ‘treasure’ in one of Brazil’s remotest locations. Some would call Theodore Roosevelt reckless and foolhardy for ever having taken this on. Others would call him courageous and bold. However, none would call him complacent. Not in this or in any part of his remarkable life. For, even as a sickly young boy, Roosevelt had long since decided to Move Past Complacency. And he never stopped moving…