In sustainability, as in life, don’t forget to be accountable to YOU!

How does your Life Context Impact Sustainability?

Sustainability, simply defined, is meeting the needs of the present without hindering future generations from meeting their own needs. For the past forty years, much of the focus on sustainability has been directed toward environmental awareness and impact. Today, the economic and social dimensions of sustainability are equally as relevant. Sustainability is not simply the act of “being green.” The notion of “green” is but one aspect of a broader and more consequential concept for the generation alive here and now. Sustainability is about finding balance, amid the many trade-offs that exist, and by making a decision to take action on the most suitable options while considering the context of life one person (or an entire generation) if living within.

Sustainability is often misunderstood. And to “achieve sustainability” can feel overwhelming. Where does one begin? By buying a more fuel efficient car? By purchasing “greener” clothes detergents? By eating organic foods? Sure, these are all options for consumers to evaluate. Living a sustainable lifestyle is as much about what you consume as it is about what you don’t consume. It is equally about “green products” as it is about finding alternative products. Sustainability then is about YOU and the myriad of choices evaluated, and decisions made, on a daily basis. How you engage your mind, body, and spirit in those choices and decisions is up to you. But in those acts you determine your role and impact in creating a more balanced, civilized, and sustainable world. The values, beliefs, actions and inactions of individuals represent the common denominator by which a sustainable world will be realized or not.

Sustainability is tied to your “life context.” Your life context is comprised of the opportunities, demands, constraints or circumstances which drive your specific daily life and lifestyle. You have control over much of your “life context” including your beliefs, wants and desires, needs, and how you choose to spend your time and engage your energies. Yet, there are influences and impacts on your “life context” that you simply cannot control. But how you choose to accept your “life context” at any given phase of life has a direct impact on who you are today, and who you will be in the future. Sustainability then, is a process of self-enlightenment and fulfillment that begins with you. Achieving sustainability is about embracing life, finding your happiness, and empowering others to do the same.

Adapting to Subtle and Swift Changes in Our Life Context

My wife Aileen and I are the parents of two boys, 4 and 2. As many will appreciate, even when we are not at work, we are still “working” and continuously look to find a balance in our life. Within the past two years Aileen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As strange as it sounds, we are thankful that Aileen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was. The cancer diagnosis came when she delivered our 2nd boy by cesarean. Had the doctors not performed the cesarean, and had they not removed a cancerous tumor, perhaps they would not have caught the disease as early as they did. Aileen does not talk about the moment very much. But I remember the anxiety on her face, and sense of fear she had when doctors told her they removed a tumor and was having it tested. It was as if she had known what the diagnosis outcome would be. She was overjoyed at being a mom to a 2nd boy, and for the moment had repressed her concerns of cancer toward the joy of our new baby.

Aileen is a 6th grade teacher. Approximately three months after the birth of our 2nd boy Aileen reentered the workforce. In September 2010 she was in full swing, working full time, teaching children at school, and raising our own in our home. She had worked so hard on her Masters education to be a teacher. I remember a two year period when she was completing her Masters while working full-time as a teacher. There was even a brief period after the birth of our first son that she completed the last couple of graduate courses, in the evening, while working and being a first time mom. Aileen struggled with the decision to go back to work in 2010. There was no financial or marital pressure for her to return. It was her choice. But she felt she had invested so much time, energy, and passion into her profession, she did not want to see it “wasted.” At the same time her heart was with our two young boys and she felt, like many women, frustrated by having to choose between career and family, professional identity and personal ideology.

We reluctantly hired a nanny for the 2010-11 school year closed our eyes, and hoped for the best. The year went by, as they all do, in a flash. As summer 2011 emerged, we reassessed our “life balance” and working and parenting situation. At that time we determined that Aileen staying at work was generally working for us. We had a great nanny; we were enjoying daily life as a family; and Aileen enjoyed being back at work and having a “professional” aspect to balance her day.

By the following school year life would prove not as balanced. In September of 2011 Aileen went back to teaching another year of 6th grade. Our nanny from the year prior was no longer working with us (she had also earned her Masters and was looking for a full-time job), and so we had hired a new nanny for the boys. September went by in a flurry, and Aileen was feeling the stress of work and the anxieties of the new nanny. Exacerbating the discomfort of her work-life balance and the introduction of a new nanny was the fickle health of our oldest son who has severe food allergies, asthma, and ulcerative colitis. As parents we want the best for our children, and the complexity of our oldest son’s health issues can feel at times, overwhelming. The fall of 2011 was also election season, and Aileen was putting in additional time to support her father’s reelection bid for City Council. As November emerged, the amount of time Aileen put into work and family intensified and her stress followed in-suit.

And then, over the course of a couple days in mid-November 2011, after the busyness of the fall seemed to quiet down, and right before the ramp-up of the holiday season, Aileen’s right eye sight deteriorated rapidly over the course of a couple days. Thinking it was nothing serious, she waited through a weekend to go to the doctors. The delay to see a doctor proved detrimental. By the following Monday, everything went black in Aileen’s right eye. We went to an Optometrist, and spent what felt like hours in exam room after exam room, test after test. Everything that could be wrong seemed to be ruled out. The Optometrist spoke with me several times during the day, and in each instance his tone seemed to be getting more serious and consolatory. Aileen expressed a myriad of emotion throughout the process. And I did my best to comfort her during a situation that seemed to have no answers.

The Optometrist finally ruled that the issue with Aileen’s sight had nothing to do with the eye, but the optical nerves that attach to the back of the eye. He recommended a neurologist she should see right away, and we shifted gears to another doctor. Fast forward a series of steroid treatments, several neurologist visitations, more eye exams, blood tests, and a MRI and it was determined based upon the body of information, data, images, and results that Aileen had multiple sclerosis (MS). We were shocked, scared, and confused. We both went through a period of withdrawal, fear, and stress that quite frankly we had ever gone through before in our lives together or independently, and were not prepared to manage. But as doctors appointments were made, and as we learned more about the disease and Aileen’s specific condition, we slowly began to take back a sense of control that had been lost. This took time. I did my best to support Aileen in every way that I knew how.

When loved ones go through these kinds of events, they often look to their partner to be their “rock,” for unconditional support. I believe I did fine, but know I could have done better. When a loved one goes through so much shock, pain, and crisis it is challenging to pull out of the chaotic convergence of emotion, data, and uncertainty to fully address their needs. And with two young boys also in need of daily attention, the challenge was great.

Time may heal all things. For those with MS, time feels like a double edged sword. Living with MS brings with it a high degree of ambiguity, uncertainty and risks associated with Aileen’s long-term health and quality of life. The idea of how she will be impacted across time is as frightening as much as it is a reality that we must face. MS is an autoimmune disease 2-3 times more common in woman than in men. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society , approximately 400,000 people in the U.S. have MS, and 200 more people are diagnosed every week. It is also estimated that MS affects more than 2.1 million people worldwide. Epidemiologists, the scientists who study patterns of MS, believe that certain factors appear to be characteristic of who gets MS including: gender, genetics, age, geography, and ethnic background.

MS has been a widely researched disease, however, after more than 140 years of research, there remains no known cause or cure to MS. Scientists have developed treatments that, for some patients may slow the progression of MS and may manage certain symptoms. However, no one singular treatment is effective for all patients. MS can literally manifest within each individual patient differently, thereby also contributing to symptoms and quality of life impacts that vary for each person who lives with the disease. The illness is also highly unpredictable leaving those who have MS to always have a certain amount of anxiety over a health issue that they cannot, with the current state of science, fully cure or truly control.

Reframing Success: Discovering a New Balance and
Life Context for Happiness, Strength, and Sustainability

Since being diagnosed with cancer and MS, Aileen has refocused her energies on herself, her family, and how she wants to spend her time in the world. It is not that she wasn’t focused on these aspects of life before, she was. But now much of the minutia and details that consumed and clouded her thoughts have faded. She continues to feel a tug-of-war between professional and personal identity, but not as much as she once did. She has discovered that living life with a sense of purpose and strength comes from within, and that true happiness is an outcome of who she is inside. She is focused on her personal health, wellness, and spirituality. And in this inward and reflective process she is rediscovering her identity and how she will choose to reinsert herself into the world as a stronger, healthier, and happier person. In short, Aileen has chosen to be accountable first and foremost to her! And in the process all else in her life will align with her spirit and greatness.

I do not have a disease, but in conversations with Aileen and others I have learned that for many, having a disease was a catalyst for reevaluate their life, their role in the world, and how they make the most of each day. It is so easy to get caught up in the details and complexities of daily life that we often forget what is important, including who our true “self” is. Working parents and working mothers in particular focus so intently on being responsible and accountable to everyone in their universe: husbands, children, teachers, colleagues, co-workers, friends, family, parents, etc. Yet what often gets overlooked is the need to be accountable to one self.

Everyone has the capacity to endure life’s challenges. And, everyone has potential to feel fulfilled and happy. Yet so few of us quiet our ego’s desire for recognition and enable our true self to live free of external judgment or personal regret. Humans are inherently resilient. When faced with adversity we typically meander our way to finding resolution and meaning in our life. Sustainability is a human endeavor. Much like the way Aileen is reevaluating her role in the world and in living with MS and cancer, sustainability offers a platform for introspection, critical thinking, and accountability. In its simplest form sustainability is all about asking ourselves if what we are doing, right here and now, aligns with our values, beliefs, and true self. Sustainability is about asking if our “life context” makes sense. Are we brokering our children’s futures in the actions and decisions we make today? Are we doing our best to protect the earth from unsustainable practices or human induced behaviors and impacts? How can we be the stewards of our own health and quality of life and in turn, the stewards of a more sustainable world?

Sustainability is about making the decisions and taking action on your life in the face of those things that we never saw coming, like being diagnosed and living with an incurable disease. As you self evaluate your role in creating a more sustainable world, consider: What are your needs, and are you paying enough attention to those? How are you managing your “life context”? Do you feel that you live your life with balance, sense of purpose, resolve, and impact? Are you being accountable to who you are and your needs? How do you define the measures of success, health, happiness in your life?

Change is inevitable. How we react and respond to change is critical to whether we sink or swim, as individuals, as parents, as spouses, and as a generation that has the capacity, will, and know-how to find balance today, and for a stronger and healthier tomorrow.

mark(Mark Coleman is the author of the book The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Personal Accountability is Essential NOW!, see, Throughout his career Mark Coleman has developed a strong focus on the critical areas of energy, environment, and sustainability. His career has spanned strategic and leadership positions in government, applied research, technology development, and management consulting organizations. This rich and diverse experience has enabled Mr. Coleman to have access to, engage, and work with a broad range of regional, national, and international leaders on the subject of sustainability. Mr. Coleman resides in Auburn, NY with his wife Aileen and two sons Owen and Neal.)

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