Three years ago, a therapy-conference brochure arrived in the mail containing an arresting image of the tenuous act of human transformation. Under the title Shaping the Future, a man with butterfly wings--holding an artist's palette under one arm--climbed up the rainbow he was painting into the air just steps ahead of his dancing feet.
This is how we often feel. Suspended in midair, we don't know how to move from the life we live to the self we wish to be. Ask us to name what we value most, and we may talk about our families, our creativity, our relationships, or our health. Then look at how we really live: overworking, overeating, talking on the phone to someone we say we love while clicking through e-mail, or watching television while our children pester us over take-out cartons of KFC.
Once in a while--perhaps inspired by therapy or a retreat or a friend's heart attack--we may make concerted attempts to be kinder to our spouses, less impatient with coworkers, more loving with our children, or more attentive to our own self-care. But our chaotic 21st-century lives often lack the structure, discipline, and even the raw physical energy required to make the changes stick. After a few weeks of trying something as simple as swimming at lunchtime--never mind reforming our characters--we sag beneath the weight of too much distraction and too little sleep. We know everything except how to live.
In earlier centuries, before the train whistle and the factory…