Friday, May 22, 2015

When life knocks you flat

My porch is great for watching storms. It's a simple porch but it's sturdy, practically wrap-around windows. You couldn’t ask for more. So one scorchingly hot July day I was out there watching a thunderstorm roll in. The first winds starting up, the dark clouds encroaching, a grumble of thunder and then BAM the storm hits full-force, vicious screaming winds, rain squalls, blistering lightning, deafening thunderclaps. It was so intense. I half worried about tornadoes and being hit by lightning but I stayed the course. Then I saw something that really transfixed me.

I need to back up just a touch. The company next door to the apartment building where I live had just put in new landscaping a couple of weeks before. Top shelf stuff. Sod. Mulch. Everything first-class, including fully-grown trees. Well, it was kind of odd to suddenly see the trees especially. It's like there's nothing but a worn-out lawn, brown patches everywhere one day and then you wake up and it's like the Garden of Eden. (Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration.)

Back to the storm. The windows were bowing. Plastered by angry rain. Butterflies racing through my stomach but I kept watching. Then a wind shear cut across the earth and—snap!—one of the fully formed trees broke right off at the root. That was it. Where there once was a beautiful tree there was nothing.

And the storm left leaving no apologies.

A couple of years went by with nothing but a lawn where the beautiful tree had been. But then...but then one spring there was a tiny little shoot that rose from the earth. Not much bigger than a dandelion. In fact, at first I thought it might be a weed. But that summer the little shoot grew to maybe two feet high. And then it survived a brutal winter, buried under mountains of ice and snow. The following spring it came back and now there were two shoots and they were thicker and stronger.

And year after year the process continued until where there once had been nothing now stands the tree you see in the photo in this post.

Oh, maybe it's not the lean beautiful tree it once was. But it is. It survived. Maybe when it went down people wrote if off. "Too bad," they might have said. "That used to be a nice tree." But they didn't know that little tree wasn't done, that it wasn't giving up, that it wasn't influenced by what people said or didn't say. It was going to live.

The tree looks different now. More like a bush than a tree. But it's stronger now too. All the shoots protect each other. Year after year it's weathered every storm with ease, and it's going to keep growing and growing and getting stronger and stronger.

And all that from something that got knocked flat.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

My friend the mouse.

I was startled the other day when I walked out of our office and saw a mouse. He was right next to the building. I expected him to dart away, but he didn't. He just sat there, plain as day.

We've had some mice in the basement but I'd never seen one outside. I kept waiting for him to take off but he didn't. He just sat there and sat there and sat there. And I just kept watching him.

Watching his little pelt flex with every breath. Watching his little ears wrinkle. His eyes blink. And he seemed like an old mouse.

Well, I had to get back to work so I figured I'd make a noise and see where he ran to (and see if maybe he had found a way to get into the building). So I clapped my hands.

The mouse definitely reacted but in a way I didn't expect. He just kind of turned and ran into the wall. Then he stopped and stayed there panting.

That really piqued my curiosity—and my compassion.

I started to wonder if the mouse was perhaps blind, and then if he was perhaps dying. (And I felt like a jerk for having clapped my hands.)

This little thing was so vulnerable, and yet was he really that different than me? A mammal. Warm blood in his veins. A heart beating. The same sense organs. And he was struggling and just trying to stay alive. And perhaps dying.

I felt an immense compassion for this little creature and for all the animal world really. It's tough out there for everybody: humans and all creatures. We're all just trying to live, to be safe, to have a home. And some of us are blind or sick or scared or dying.

I had to go back into work. The next time I came out the mouse was gone. But I really hoped he had found a peaceful, safe place to spend the rest of his days. He probably saw me as a giant terror, but I saw him as a fellow vulnerable traveller on this planet spinning through the universe. I wished him well.

Perhaps that's the true gift of being human. We are beyond instinct. No longer slaves to 'fight or flight.' We can stop, think, relate, empathize, change, care. And not just for ourselves or other people, but for all the creatures on this planet who are sharing the same scary, vulnerable, glorious ride along with us.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why I decided to be myself

I decided to be myself because I got burned out trying to be somebody else. Despite my most intense striving not only was I getting nowhere in my life, I was going backwards. It was no great philosophical insight that led me to this conclusion. No, I had to get physically sick, near dying, to make the change.

What had happened was I was trying to do all the "right" things. Working hard to be a great employee. A great family member. A great friend. A great Christian. A great writer. And a lot of the things I was doing in pursuit of that greatness were completely distasteful to me. It was strange—I was working as hard as I could and yet the more I did in pursuit of "my" goals, the more miserable I became. And it was hard to recognize that I was making myself sick. When you're working hard, trying to do what you think is right, what are you supposed to do as an alternative?

Be yourself. That's what I discovered. But weren't a lot of people unhappy that I changed my ways? You bet. Did I feel bad about their disappointment? You know, for the first time in my life I didn't, and I didn't because I said to myself, 'I shouldn't have to die to live.'

In a spiritual sense I thought, 'I may not know what God wants me to do, but I'm pretty sure He doesn't want me to die.'

So yeah, I started being myself. It was a huge relief. And I started recovering—physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Oh, it wasn't like I had that one experience and my life turned around forever. No, I can still drift back into that old rut, but never as deeply as before. Now I can say, 'Nope. That doesn't work for me. What do I need to do? Be myself.'

And that's it. I'm myself. It's good enough. I'm living (and plan on continuing to live). Sure, I hope you like me. I hope you like the way I'm living. But if you don't, well, I'm not going to change.

Because I found out being myself is a good thing. And everybody has the same right—to be themselves. It comes with being a human being. It's built in.

So if you need to—claim that right for yourself. It's yours for the taking.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Learn from the pigeons

Something tells me it's all happening at the zoo.—Paul Simon

Think about it. What are animals doing all the time? Look at squirrels or sparrows. They're hustling around trying to find something to eat, or trying not to be eaten, or building their nests. Hustle hustle hustle. And hey, it's not really their fault. If you had coyotes or cats to watch out for you'd be pretty skittish too. Like the Bee Gee's song "Stayin' Alive." And then there's instinct, driving them to procreate, migrate and probably a few other things that end in -ate. So yeah, everything in the animal kingdom is doing all it can to stay alive. 24/7. Everything except well, pigeons.

Pigeons hang out. While every other animal is scrambling around in a survival frenzy the pigeons are lined up on a wire or light pole somewhere hanging out. Sometimes I imagine what they're saying to each other.

Hey, we've done enough work for one day, what's going on with this hot weather of ours?

Look at all those poor people scrambling around in their cars, honking, rushing, stressing. Glad we're not them!

Ah, life is good!

Pigeons have broken the instinctual stranglehold other animals suffer under. They're mellow. And they're social. You never see pigeons alone. 

So why not us too? Can't we live the same way? Say the same things?

'Hey, we've done enough for one day.' 'Our house is nice enough as it is—we don't need a bigger one.' 'Let's all meet down at the coffee shop for a nice chat.' 

They say dolphins and whales are smart, and they may be, but the real animal geniuses are pigeons. If only we could be more like them.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Be a different person each and every day

Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.—Oliver Wendell Holmes

As human beings we are made to surpass ourselves and are truly ourselves only when transcending ourselves.—Huston Smith

If you're completely satisfied with who you are, I suppose this post won't appeal to you—you don't need it. But if you're anything like me, this sort of thing gives a great deal of hope.

Stretching. That's what it boils down to. I have a screensaver on my computer that says: If it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you.

Again, if you're perfectly satisfied with who you are, you don't need it. But the rest of us do.

Not that we necessarily want to be challenged all the time. But being challenged is what's good for us. It's where life is.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.

That's it, shooting the gulf is where power is, is where life is. So maybe the challenge we could live without. But we can't live without the life. So no challenge, no life. Or perhaps, no challenge, only half a life.

And taking on challenges can be like a drug. Once you start taking them on you need more and more of a challenge the next time to be satisfied. Oh, it may take a while to get to that point. In fact, it may take a long while—for the longest time every challenge may only seem like a way to make us suffer. But you can get to the point where challenges are exciting. Like the old saying goes, There is a fine line between anxiety and excitement.

Challenge yourself enough and you'll cross that line.

If you want to live, you'll challenge yourself. And if you keep challenging yourself, pretty soon you'll come to love challenges, and your life will be a thrill a minute, and you'll be a stretched person, a different person each and every day.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

More is different

"More is different." It's a line by the Danish science writer Tor Norretranders. It's simple enough to be profound, and yet it goes against the grain of what many think today with their notion of 'the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results.'

Mr. Norretranders shows that notion to be a fallacy. More is different. He explains in his wonderful book The User Illusion how life evolved from the simple to the complex. And it evolved thusly from repetition. Specifically from the repetition of the same thing over and over and over again.

In a different context, consider the idea of splitting a slab of marble. The marble could conceivably take ninety-nine blows from a hammer and not split in the least. And yet that hundredth blow might split the slab from top to bottom. More is different.

The notion of banging your head against the wall. Conventional wisdom would say to stop. Find a way around the wall. 'More is different' would say, 'Keep banging. One more knock might knock the damn thing down.'

From my personal experience I can report that there is definitely something to seemingly irrational persistence. I used to be lousy at a lot of stuff and just pigheadedly stayed after it until I became pretty darn good at it. Oh, I haven't pursued everything that way—I gave up on playing the guitar in a hurry ('put your fingers here on the neck and then shift them onto an entirely different position' What!!). But most stuff I've stuck with.

My favorite saying in life is: ruthless striving overcomes everything.

I remember the story by Kate Chopin called "The Awakening" and the line: "I have overcome everything!"

Overcoming is how my life has worked. It's like that pounding on the marble, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. There really haven't been any sensational breakthroughs, no clearly demarcated lines of achievement crossed. But there have been many soul-satisfying moments of, Hey, I can do this thing now. This thing that has baffled, demoralized, intimidated, exhausted me for so long has been overcome.

No great intelligence, no superior genes or talent. Just simple ruthless repetitive striving.

And overcoming.

More is different.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Other worlds are just a blink away

We're living on the verge of different worlds. Sure, it doesn't seem like it. It's the same old world, day after day. But think about it. A car accident. A winning lottery ticket. A bad diagnosis at your annual check-up. One moment, flash, and your life is forever altered. It's like entering a different world.

It doesn't have to be big things, either. A smile can save a life. There's a documentary called "The Bridge." A 24/7 camera was set up and it recorded all the suicides and suicide attempts of those who jumped from the Golden Gate bridge. One of the jumpers said (on the long walk that led to the bridge): "If one person would've smiled at me, I wouldn't have jumped."

You're down. You're suicidal. Someone smiles at you and you want to live. You're thrust into a different world.

Homeostasis, Freud called it. The tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements. That's what we as human beings instinctively shoot for, the great Viennese psychiatrist postulated. And yet, how one tick of the clock can upset that process.

Even for a nation. Think of the impact of 911.

Stability is over-rated. Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called Black Swan (not the movie of the same name). A black swan is an event that comes as a surprise, has a powerful impact in our lives. It's something we "didn't see coming."

We think we know so much. We think we can predict so well. We can't.

Better to be uncertain, to live in a healthy doubt. I like the saying, "There is only hope for you to the degree that you are unsettled."

Life thusly accurately prepares you for those other worlds that are lurking just a blink away from the one you're living in.