Do You Have an Internal “Ethics Compass”?

There’s no secret to increasing your chances of being emotionally healthy and feeling good. These states emerge from your perceptions and interpretations about events and people around you, and the actions you engage in because of those perceptions and interpretations. Emotional health evolves from a way of seeing the world, and a lifestyle that gives you a sense of coherence, purpose, and the confidence to meet the challenges of life.

In a very real sense, if effective coping is a work of art, you are the painter, the creator of your personal masterpiece. For some people, their “work of art” emerges from religious faith; for others from a general spirituality about existence – something greater than themselves; for still others, it evolves from service to others, from experiencing the richness of the human enterprise. And this is just a small sampling of perceptions and actions that bring people “good coping artwork.”

Whatever the source of effective coping, all of them provide an internal ethical and moral compass, a guidance system that directs actions that bring the actors – “painters,” if you will – great intrinsic satisfaction. This fulfillment is not dependent on material rewards or recognition from others; it exists in the good works carried out.

“Wow,” you say, “I like that! Tell me how to create my masterpiece of living.”

Sorry, no one can tell you how to go about finding your guidance system because – like happiness – it is not out there to be found. Intrinsic guidance develops from the expression of social values, ethics, civility, and respect for others. It develops from exercising a social conscience. It’s not something you can search for like circling a date on a calendar with the notation, “Beginning on this date I am going to be happy, productive, and fulfilled!” Don’t waste your time.

But if you stop looking for some expert to run your life, stop looking for the artificial chemical crutches, and stop being passive and dependent, you will most definitely cope more effectively with your challenges. You will make fulfilling discoveries along your life’s path.

The key is that moral compass; it is the secret to coping well. Many people who are suffering the adverse effects of stress – whether from a severe trauma or from an everyday irritant – do not realize that to cope with the stress, they must focus on their character: their ethics, their values, their integrity, their conscience, their honor. These traits are the seeds of humility and empathy, and without them, effective coping will always be incomplete.

Dr. Carlea Dries, a former student, told me a story I share often. Decades after his active-duty service during the Vietnam War, I asked a veteran how he continued to cope with the personal losses he suffered during the war and in the time since. He replied: ‘I celebrate their memories by fulfilling their bucket lists. I do what I can to continue their lives. I give hope for those who are lacking it. I don’t attend pity parties. I read to those who lost sight because even though I lost things, I still can see. I get groceries for those who lost limbs. I do what good I can because there was a reason I was spared.’”

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