The greatest threat: External or internal?

Silhouette of woman against red sky

Abraham Lincoln famously said that the greatest threat to the US wasn’t from invasion, but from within:

“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! — All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Abraham Lincoln,  Lyceum Address, January 27, 1838

That’s a bold statement: No other country will be able to successfully invade and conquer the nation. And equally bold caution: If destruction is to come, it will come from within. 

When Lincoln spoke these words, the War of 1812, where British forces did invade parts of the young United States, was still in recent memory. That invasion even included the burning of the White House and other government buildings in Washington, DC. But in the end, the invading forces were repealed and the nation’s borders prevailed.

Seeds of destruction built in

As for the possibility of internal self-destruction, that wasn’t merely hypothetical speculation. While the original 13 colonies did come together to declare independence and prevailed in the Revolutionary War to become the United States of America, there were tensions from the start. Around slavery. Around the role of the central government. Major compromises were made for the young nation to even be born. 

As is often the case, the common bond that promoted compromise was the external threat. Remove that and the commonality is gone. It’s back to everyone jockeying for their own best position. Which is why it’s maybe no real surprise that Abraham Lincoln as President had to deal with a Civil War. 

The above scenario is true on a national and international level. But also applies on a personal level. Which is what we’ll explore here.

Division on a personal level

There are indeed external threats to our lives. But for the most part, the internal threats are much greater.

It’s far less likely that some foreign terrorist (or even a domestic one) is going to come blow up my house or business than that I will do something myself to derail and mess it up.

All too often we are our own worst enemy. The real threat comes from within.

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Pogo, as penned by Walt Kelly

Ideas and decisions

In our modern world we’re constantly bombarded with messages telling us what to think, do, feel. Swaying us to accept this idea or that idea as true, or (not so subtly) telling us that there is no objective truth. That we’re surrounded by fake everything. And so it might not matter at all what or how we choose.

In the 1970s, the “thing” was to “find yourself”. Much earlier, Socrates made an eloquent defense, claiming that the “unexamined life is not worth living”. Meaning that only by us actively working to know and understand ourselves do our lives have meaning and value.

We can of course meander through our days, going with the flow and taking everything as it comes. At each point making decisions based on what seems good at the moment. 

Which likely will eventually lead to a lot of regrets. Those regrets then often explained in terms of “if this or that had just happened differently”, or this person or that person would have acted differently, then my life would have turned out entirely different. (Presumably lots better.)

Except it likely wouldn’t, because I made decisions along the way. Over and over again. And if those decisions were not really in my best interest, as they often aren’t, then how could I expect for things to turn out any better than they did?

Beliefs and consequences

Because all beliefs have consequences

We all have the life we believe we must have. Or put another way: We have the life we tolerate.

Because it’s far more likely that we’re held back and hemmed in by limiting beliefs than by actual things that can’t be overcome or changed. 

The age-old question we ask ourselves: Why do we do what we do?

Consider this statement: All human behavior is belief-driven.

Problem is that beliefs are hard too pin down. We’re often now even aware of what we truly believe about something. 

Actions on the other hand are very visible. To us and others. So much focus is put on actions and maybe behavior modification to stop undesirable actions or encourage actions perceived as good.

Because that’s “easy”, as in, we can set dos and don’ts.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”

Jesus (Matthew 5:21-22a, NIV)

Jesus addressed that tension between external actions (that society can and does police) and our internal thinking. His point was exactly that first we think and then we act out of that thinking. First we believe something and then we shape our actions from those beliefs.

A chain of events

Let’s summarize: Beliefs shape our Thoughts and Emotions. Thoughts and Emotions lead to Actions, which produce Results.

I once had a workmate, Andy, who was perennially in trouble: Short on money, long on month. Relatives that mooched off him or got him into “super deals” that cost him dearly in money and time. In short, he was miserable much of the time. Our workmate Jeff and I decided that maybe we could help Andy change his circumstances. Because we saw that he just needed to change some of the ways he acted and some decisions he made. We had a long talk with him. Several actually. Andy listened. At first he was really gung-ho. Then he got skeptical. Finally, he had an outburst: “You guys are just messing up my life. I’m fine the way I am. Just leave me alone.”

Jeff and I were left wondering where that gumption and energy was when Andy was being taken advantage of. Except, Andy’s narrative was that life is pretty miserable and he was bound to get taken advantage of. Plus blood is thicker than water and all that stuff. So it happened. His actions carried out those deeper beliefs.

On a very significant level, what you or I believe determines what you or I will achieve. 

At the start are beliefs

For purposes of this discussion, a belief is a thought that you or I feel is certain to be true

It may not actually be true or based in reality, but we feel certain that it is. That’s key. 

Many of our beliefs were formed a long time ago. In the most random ways. Maybe something heard in passing when a teenager. Or repeatedly being told something about ourselves by others when we were kids. Expectations placed on us by others. Beliefs can have their origins almost anywhere. And as noted, not necessarily in actual reality. We just feel pretty certain that it’s true. 

The problem is that we’re not even aware of most of our beliefs. Limiting or otherwise. Not like we ever sat down to list them all out. And if we do, we quickly tend to limit things. To thinking small. Not big. Because we’ve seen in the past that the sky really wasn’t the limit. It rained on our parade. And so we limit the future.

We should be asking things like: Where do I want to end up in life? What do I really want my life to be about? To get there, what current belief(s) will I have to give up? What excuses do I fall back on to keep from moving forward? Which of my behaviors are actually hurting myself long-term?

Breaking up is hard to do

Once we are honest with ourselves and find beliefs that have been limiting us, it’s time to break up. To change what we believe. The narrative we tell ourselves. It can be a very small change. Or it can be very big.  Either way, once we actually do change a belief we have held, we won’t be able to live life the same way again.

Of course just saying, “I don’t believe X any more”, isn’t enough. We need to replace that old, limiting belief with a new, empowering belief.

For a many years, my weight stayed about the same. No matter what I did. At home or at work, I was always in a mixture of activity and sitting down. 

Then my work changed. I sat in an office all day. And I gained weight. To a point that I experienced health problems from it. So I wanted change. But when I attempted to change, it didn’t stick. I’d exercise for a bit, randomly. Even lost some weight, but gained it back. Because deep down, I didn’t believe I could do it. Didn’t think I had the time. Or could fit it into my life.

Finding a pivot point

The changing point came when due to a work assignment, I was on my feet much more for a couple months. Then I travelled where I walked a lot. A whole lot. Plus my phone was now able to track the distance for me. So I could see results! 

I discovered a new belief/truth about myself: I can totally walk several miles in a day and feel just fine. I actually enjoy it. 

Once back home from the trip, strengthened by that new belief, I decided to try an experiment: Walk 1 mile every workday. Surely I could squeeze that in. A few beliefs changed and I walked. Pretty soon, 1 mile didn’t feel like that much. How about 2? Or even 3? 

Now many days, I walk 4 or even 5 miles. I leave the car home and walk while doing errands. A lot of beliefs had to change for the corresponding actions to take place and results to show. But, it wasn’t that hard when I stared small. And now it’s something I look forward to.

If it were easy, everyone would already have done it

Key is we don’t just stop doing or believing. We have to replace it with something empowering. Because we will really only change our beliefs (and thus thoughts, emotions and ultimately actions) when it’s harder to hang on to the old belief than to embrace the new belief.

That sounds easy enough. If it really was, then we’d all do it. And not struggle with limiting beliefs and being stuck in destructive cycles. 

There are many reasons that changing our beliefs for ones that actually help is hard and will take some consistent work:

  • We don’t even know what we believe
  • We’ve held a particular belief for so long, we don’t see how we can ever give it up
  • We’re convinced it’s true (and thus unchangeable)
  • Those around us keep reinforcing the belief
  • We’ve tried to change that belief in the past

So we stay right where we are. Because that’s the least amount of effort right now.

Trading limiting belief for empowering belief

Changing beliefs (and thoughts, feelings, actions and ultimately results) may require help from others. A counselor or therapist, a really good friend who is willing to speak truth and stick with us, a spouse who also is invested in me becoming all that I am capable of. What we don’t need are people who constantly criticize or sycophants.

Divine light is in each one of us. God made us all. We’re created with potential for great things. When it’s untapped, it’s all too often because we limit ourselves. We are limited and held back, not so much by external forces, but by our own selves. Being willing to examine our beliefs and making changes where needed.

Our greatest threat, personally and as a community, is truly from within. I have within me the seeds of my own destruction. I don’t need to have someone else come along and destroy all that I am or can be. I can do that all by myself. In the best 2-year-old fashion. One tantrum, one belief, at a time.

Or I can choose to engage with others, build up and be built up. I can choose empowering beliefs that generate positive thoughts and actions. Seek help when needed. Connect with others.