Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What do you want to be remembered for?

What matters isn't being applauded when you arrive—for that is common—but being missed when you leave.—Baltasar Gracian
Newspaper columnist David Brooks wrote a book called The Road to Character. In it he talks about the difference between 'resume virtues' vs. 'eulogy virtues.' In other words, what are people going to say about you when you're gone?

People won't comment on your business prowess or your bank account. Nobody is going to say how good-looking or clever you were. But they will talk about the decency you had and the kindness you showed others. 

It's hard to think about eulogy virtues while we're here. Life is tough. It's a scramble to survive.

But this life is going to end.

Not to be morbid but yeah, it's going to end. Then when it does, what do you want to be remembered for?

Billy Casper, one of the greatest golfers of all time, winner of the U.S. Open and Masters, was interviewed shortly before his death in February 2015. Reading the article you got the feeling that the interviewer was so impressed with Casper's golfing career, and when he asked what Casper wanted to be remembered for, he suggested this golfing feat or that great golfing victory. But Casper surprised.

He said he didn't want to be remembered for any of that. He wanted to be remembered for being a lover of humanity.

So what do you want to be remembered for? If you can figure that out now, you can live in a way that brings that desire to pass.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Is endurance the secret to success?

I have only to endure. I am here to be worked upon.
          —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ever feel like a punching bag? That life is just one blow after another? Can it be that we're the victims of some sadistic higher power that is continually punishing us, torturing us?

I admit that sometimes that's the way it feels, but I think there's something far deeper occurring. I think, like Emerson said, something is working on us. Something is shifting, shaping, changing us into more than we were. And hence our job is just to endure. To ride out the changes to get to the other side of the trials.

But yes, you have to break through to get the benefits. Consider this from Chin-Ning Chu's Thick Face, Black Heart.
...the true nature of crisis is an opportunity in disguise....It is within the process of endurance that opportunity reveals itself. Opportunity always exists within a crisis situation, but when we lose heart in a devastating crisis, we are blinded by our own emotion. When we can calmly endure the unendurable, the opportunity for a better alternative surfaces and reveals itself.
Think of when a parent loses a child. The natural temptation would be to blank out, to deaden (perhaps through alcohol or depression) being conscious. The pain is just too great. But if a person in such a terrible situation can somehow stay conscious through all that pain they often come out as utterly remarkable people. As the saying goes: 'Pain can make us bitter or better.'

Look at the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a young politician many thought him smug and overbearing. A pain in the butt really. Then at thirty-nine he suffered polio and its accompanying paralysis. For years he tried to regain use of his legs.

Years later, when he was president, someone enquired how he managed to stay so patient facing the incredible pressure of the presidency and he said:

After trying for two years to wiggle one big toe, all else seems easy.

So, are times tough? Just hang in there. You don't have to conquer them to win through to the reward. You only have to endure.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Are you improving your soul?

I'm utterly convinced that our soul is totally different than the rest of us. In other words, the state of our soul is not in any way shape or form dependent on our looks, our social status, our worldly success or bank accounts.

I think it's important to work on improving the condition of my soul. The condition my soul is in is the best indicator of where I'm at in life.

And yet, improving the soul is so easy to overlook. Entertainment and its endless diversions are everywhere. Why do the hard grunt work improving the soul demands when you can veg out in front of the TV or computer (something I'm drawn to doing)?

And don't you just have a sense when a person's soul is right? Like, they may not have a lot of worldly success but they are at peace. They have integrity in their life. They value what matters most.

Working to develop the world's success is so much easier than working to improve the soul. But hey, the world's success is going to be stripped from you someday for sure, while the soul's success will accompany you throughout eternity.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Can shocks be a good thing?

I have sustained my share of worldly shocks. —Lord Byron

I have too. I'm sure you have as well. But can shocks be a good thing?

A friend of mine once said that she needed some "bee stings" to get moving out of the complacency her life had become. Isn't that the truth? If we are overly settled in our lives, entrenched in the ruts we've been living in for a long time, well, then, chances are reasoning (no matter how persuasive) or will power or love or whatever is not going to be able to get us moving. But bee stings will.

No one handles bee stings well. They're like, "Ho, I'm out of here!" and they're running off. There's not a lot of deliberation. You're not asking a lot of questions. ('Gee, maybe I should move away from this wasp stinging me?') You're just moving. Fast.

Nobody likes to get bee stings (actual or figurative), but I think we can all agree that they do get us moving.

Health is a good example. Sometimes it takes the shock of a bad report on a test to get us taking care of our health.

I think of shocks (figurative shocks, now) as breaking up the barrier in our mind or psyche that is keeping us stuck. And nothing else will do. Even in the physical world, think of a big slab of stone blocking something. Will chipping away at it  break it open? No. It may whittle away at the edges but it will not break it open. Only an out and out smash will do the job.

So, if you want quick change in your life don't hide from shocks.

Should we pursue shocks then?

Some people do. Lord Byron did. He lived a tumultuous life of wild risk taking (and accordingly received his share of worldly shocks).

I think, though, if you want to change badly enough you don't need to find the shocks—the shocks will find you. But you do have to be open to the shocks. And not curse whatever has brought them into your life. It might even be said that it would be best to welcome them.

And then hang on for dear life while the shocks do their job—and deliver the change you were looking for.

Yes, shocks can be a good thing. A very good thing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Do you have the courage to be a nobody?

From Jim Perskie in the Washington Post:

I figured out early on that I wasn't cut out to be a neurosurgeon or fighter pilot. So I kinda aimed low my whole life. It worked for me. Sure, the world needs some ambitious people. But it's worth noting that ambition has given us products like New Coke, men like Donald Trump, and war after war. Ambition certainly doesn't seem to make the ambitious particularly happy. By definition, they cannot be content with who they are and what they have. And the world seems to encourage them to inflict their desire for advancement on the rest of us. So to all you ambitious folks out there: Enough. I'll gladly concede that you all 'win.' Just leave the rest of us alone.

How you doing compared with your neighbor? The people you went to high school with? How much money do you make? What kind of car do you drive? Are you famous?

Those are a lot of questions I know I've asked myself through the years (and come up on the losing end with my answers), but now I'm reconsidering even asking those questions anymore.

Does it matter how I compare with anybody else? It can, in a negative sense. I know that much. Time and time again I've made myself miserable asking them. So why do I do it?

Good question.

Which leads to another question: Can a person live without comparing himself to others?

Yes. But from my experience it's very hard to do. But oh, the results are so worth it.

Because when I don't compare myself to anybody else I am fine! Yes, fine. Just the way I am. It's a remarkable thing. My job or my car or my significant other, whatever they may be, are just dandy. It's so freeing.

Give it a try. I promise you it will feel good.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

5 Good things about suffering

1) Suffering doesn't exist. Want proof? What one person considers disastrous, another person is not bothered by at all. So does the event cause suffering? No, our interpretation of the event. So, suffering is not out there. It doesn't exist. Where it does "exist" is within us.

2) Suffering is remedial. It's instructive. It teaches us something. It's impossible to say exactly what. It's different every time. But next time something bad happens, look to see what suffering is trying to tell you.

The problem is that most people never learn the lesson suffering presents to them and so suffer endlessly. (As life keeps trying to teach them the same lesson they haven't been learning.)

3) Suffering is always temporary. 'No way,' you say, 'some suffering is permanent.' Well, it may seem that way but it's not true. Consider this quote from the seventeenth century English preacher, Thomas Watson:

Our sufferings may be lasting, but not everlasting.  

That one requires a little thinking.

4) Suffering reveals what's inside you. You think you're a certain way. You're sure of it. But then you get put under the flame and oh, you are suddenly a very different person! Without that suffering though we live under the delusion that we are one way when we're really much more. Suffering helps us know ourselves.  

5) Suffering is a shadow. Today I turned on the light in my bathroom and saw that the carpet was wet by the toilet. "Oh no," I said softly, thinking of the hassle it implied, the cost of the plumber etc. But when I got down on my hands and knees to feel the carpet it was bone-dry. What gives?

The "wetness" was the shadow the toilet was making on the carpet. Why I never noticed it before I don't know. (Ever hear the acronym for Fear? False Evidence Appearing Real)

Suffering, all evil, is just like that—a shadow. Think of night. Dark, mysterious, dangerous. But really what is night? It's the shadow the earth makes as it revolves around the sun. The light is still there. The light is constant. It's always there.

The shadows we have in our lives are the lessons we've not learned that our suffering has been trying to teach us. Learn the lessons—and poof! the shadows (and suffering) are gone!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Can we trust God to do his job?

I mean, don't you ever wonder sometimes if God is up there, fully alert, handling things? Like we have our antennas out and crystal clear to receive but his transmitting station is just a little buggy today? Like, 'Hey, God, is your site down?'

Not to be irreverent but it does seem that way sometimes. Like our hearts are open to God's working, but there doesn't seem to be much working going on. We know it's not true, but when we don't see palpable results of his working we get a little mistrusting. And that is not good.

There's been a lot of suggested solutions to this problem for people of faith (of course, if you don't have faith, you're like, 'yeah, the transmitting station is not buggy, it doesn't exist!'). Some say that you can't trust your feelings. Some that God works in mysterious ways. (His ways are higher than ours.) I think there's a lot to those things, but what I think the most accurate solution is to see God working in everything.

Whatever we call good or bad or God not working or the doldrums. Whatever labels we slap on things are just that—labels. They are our interpretation of things. It's clear that's the case when you consider how to one person something might be good, while to another that exact same thing might be bad. So it's not what happens, it's how we interpret what happens.

So, when I think God's not moving in my life, that's my thing, my interpretation. The reality is that God's always working. His transmitting station is in A-1 condition, sending 24/7 without fail. God's doing his job. We can trust him.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What stops you?

"After the final no comes a yes."

—from Wallace Stevens poem "The Well Dressed Man With A Beard"

Things can stop you. There can be no doubt of that. A quarter of a million people were killed by the 2004 tsunami that raced across the Indian Ocean.

I work for a bankruptcy attorney. I see things that stop people all the time: illness, job loss, financial mismanagement, greed, mental illness.

So some things can stop you that you have no control over. And some that you do have control.

So what stops you?

Maybe you failed a couple of times and figure it's no use trying any more. Maybe you're a perfectionist that nothing is good enough for. Or you procrastinate. Yeah, there are million things that can stop you.

Sometimes it's not even a disgrace to be stopped. Half the work Leonardo da Vinci did was never completed. Then there is Franz Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" and Mozart's "Requiem." Westminster Cathedral in London was left undone. And all of these things are considered great even in their unfinished states.

But some things really are a disgrace if you let them stop you. Things like giving up. Or being afraid. Or being lazy. Or not trying.

That's where the Wallace Steven's quote comes in. There is a "yes" coming into your life. You may not get to it. You may. But whatever you do, don't let the wrong things stop you from finding out.

So let the Grim Reaper take you out. Maybe you'll get struck by lightning.

Or maybe you won't.

Inspirational writer Catherine Ponder, herself an early failure, writes: "By refusing to give up or give in to failure, failure is finally worn out by your persistence and gives up its power to success."

A Japanese proverb says: "Fall seven times, stand up eight."

Your "yes" is out there waiting for you.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

What's your gift?

Not just your talent, but what's your gift to the world? Do you have one? Should you?

Here's my take on the after-life. We all have one. (Of course, I don't know that.) I think heaven or hell is going to be our memories.

How did we live? What did we do? Did we die rich, fat and happy? Huge bank account? Reputation as a shrewd businessperson? Big winners at the game of life?

<shaking head> I don't know about you but I wouldn't want to be thinking about that for eternity. I'd want to be thinking about what I gave.

For me, part of my gift to the world is writing. I have a free novel, lots of free short stories on my website. I help other writers whenever I can. And it's not just that my writing is free. People might not like my writing. They might think it's lousy. No one might even read it. But none of that matters—it's the intention of the gift that counts. And I do intend my writing to be a gift. A gift to encourage and bless as well as entertain.

But it's not only about writing. Just the simple human kindnesses I've shown people are precious memories for me. Any of the times I've really helped someone in need.

It's funny. Maybe you've seen these magazine subscriptions that are very inexpensive. Most magazines don't need you to subscribe to make money. The ads they carry are already doing that. But if you subscribe, you will be one more in their circulation, which allows them to charge more for advertising, so they offer a year's subscription for ten bucks or so.

On a lark, I signed up for Forbes magazine. Forbes is all about business and specifically about getting rich in business. Seems every issue is about billionaires and how to be one yourself. Most of the billionaires featured don't do much for me, but there was a bio of one guy that  touched me so much I cut it out from the magazine. The guy was big into charity and he said that his ultimate goal was to "die with a net worth of zero."

That inspired me more than all the others—who just cared about racking up more and more cash—combined.

I'm a pretty selfish person. I'm no hero. It's hard for me to give. I feel like I don't have a lot so why should I be giving. But that said, the times I have given are the very best memories I have.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Is there such a thing as a mistake?

And what's the opposite of a mistake? How come we don't have a term for it?

Who decides if something is a mistake?

When is the decision made?

When is the decision final?

A mistake is the vaguest of concepts. And yet it can be crippling emotionally if taken to the extreme.

"I made a mistake." Even "I am a mistake."

The fact of the matter is people make the best decisions they can, they take the best actions they can. No one ever thinks, "This decision/action is a mistake."

No, it's only in hindsight that the mistake label is slapped on. And even then it's not terribly reflective of reality.

Back to "I made a mistake."

It simply is not that cut and dried.

You made a mistake forever? Couldn't your "mistake's" consequences change over time?

Aren't there multiple categories and viewpoints to be considered? You made a mistake when your business lost out on an investment. So okay, it's a mistake for your business' bottom line. But that investment loss allowed you to spend more time with your family, so it's clearly not a mistake in that sense.

Mistakes are bogeymans, nothing more. People do the best they can at the time and how things play out are multitudinous. "Mistake" is just too simple, too easy and very inaccurate.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Are "good" and "bad" meaningless concepts?

A friend of mine one day discovered a lump in his abdomen. Over time the lump grew. This was bad, my friend thought. Fearing cancer, he went to the doctor. After all the tests had been run, it was determined that the lump was a hernia. This was good (compared to cancer anyway). But also the tests revealed that my friend had the very beginnings of bladder cancer. This was bad. But the cancer was caught so early it was easily cured. This was good.

If my friend hadn't had the lump (bad), he would've never discovered he had bladder cancer and he would have died (bad). So maybe him having the lump was not so bad, after all. Maybe, dare we say, it was good?

That's the catch. Labeling things "good" and "bad" is pointless because we never know if what we're calling bad might ultimately be good for us and vice versa.

I was a heavy cigarette smoker. When I quit many years ago I knew that even though I'd quit, there was still a substantial risk that I'd get lung cancer. So I was reading the newspaper one day and there was an article about how consuming beta carotene (an organic compound found abundantly in carrots) greatly reduced the risk of getting lung cancer in former smokers.

So every day for one solid year I ate carrots, which I really don't like, but hey, it was good for me.

Then one day I was reading the newspaper and there was an article about how consuming beta carotene increased former smokers risk of getting lung cancer.


Well, now that was quite a surprise to this carrot gobbling guy. But there it is again. What I thought was good was acutally bad.

All this isn't to say that life is arbitrary and the choices we make make no difference. But it is to say that the judging we do (assigning things as good or bad) is exceptionally unreliable.

Personally, I think life is much better when we avoid judging things altogether. By all means be aware as best you can of what your options are, make your best decision. But leave off the good and bad designations. And leave them off events and things, as well. You don't know what might be good or bad for you. What you thought was the worst thing might in hindsight be the best. Life flows more peacefully without all the judgments. Something happened. Well, something happened. Just leave it at that. It will be a more accurate representation of reality, and it will save you the ups and downs of calling it good or bad.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Is spirituality real?

I'm listening to a series of lectures on cds. They're all about skepticism (in a scientific sense). It's all about debunking spiritual "myths," conspiracy theories, clairvoyance and prophetic dreams. That sort of thing. It's fascinating really. The speaker gets into the difference between gender beliefs, social class, intelligence and how they influence what we believe. In a short form he says a skeptic is from Missouri, aka the "show me" state. A skeptic, he says, will believe anything as long as he is shown rational proof of its existence.

It's all very appealing. As I continued to listen I thought, "Yeah, that's me. I don't fall for all the spiritual hype out there." And really who would?

But is that the truth? Is spirituality a hoax? Is it simply explained by statistical analysis? (The author gets into prophetic dreams. How there are so many dreams that we dream that simple statistical chance explains many of them being prophetic.)

Well, don't get me wrong—I am a rationalist. I think reason is a necessary (and excellent) tool for living. But I also believe in spirituality.


Because of my experience. I believe every once in a while (and maybe it's all the time and I'm just not able to perceive it on a regular basis) God anoints my life, directs it so it flows with a grace and effectiveness that tremendously exceeds my natural ability. It's amazing really and the times I'm aware of it I'm so very grateful for it.

A brief example. I am a lousy golfer. But I love this little 9-hole golf course by my apartment called Falling Squirrel. Well, alas, corporate development swallowed up Falling Squirrel and it just closed not even a week ago.

A good friend and I had made plans to play the last day it was open. But the weather was turbulent, the clouds coal-black and a mass of rain was on the radar screen heading right for Falling Squirrel. It was such a shame that we wouldn't be able to play the course one last time (and say goodbye).

Well, it rained for only about ten minutes and then the sun came out! (On the radar the mass of rain that was headed our way just kept disappearing as it got near!) We were able to play the course.

When we got there, the course superintendent warned that the mosquitoes were bad. My friend and I discussed getting a cart (we usually walk) and the course superintendent said, "Hey, it's the last day. The cart's on me."

So off we drove and we had so much fun playing the course. And I (remember I am a lousy golfer) was playing with nearly supernatural skill. (I birdied the second to last hole and parred the very last—and very difficult—hole.)

As we stood on the last hole finishing up (the black clouds were encroaching), the first rain drop hit the bill of my hat. We hustled to my car and a deluge ensued.

The timing. The friendship. The weather. The new-found skill. Everything came together to make for a remarkable good time and for a satisfying goodbye to the course we both loved so much.

Could such good fortune be explained by statistical odds? Maybe. A meteorological quirk, fronts colliding? Yeah, it could. Could the improvement in my golf game have come from the practicing I'd done? Yes.

But I'm telling you I knew in my bones that it was more than any of that. I could just feel it. Everything we did that day had the touch of the magical. Had the touch of God's grace. His anointing.

So, there you have it. Can I prove that spirituality is real? Absolutely not. I'm just grateful to have experienced it that day and look forward to experiencing it more and more.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Is life fair?

Dustin Johnson

A couple of days ago the U.S. Open golf championship was played in Washington state. I watched it with interest, especially since the Pacific Northwest is so beautiful. But really it was how the tournament wound down that left me pondering, pondering, Is life fair?

The guy undoubtedly playing the best was a lean, powerful twenty-something named Dustin Johnson. Dustin's had a troubled past: drugs, wild living, gang association, but he's worked hard at cleaning up his act. And this particular day he was hitting the golf ball so far and then hitting it so close to the flagstick on the greens. Only thing is—he couldn't make any putts. Even the short ones. And you need to make putts, especially the short ones, if you are going to win a major tournament like the U.S. Open.

On the very last hole of the tournament, Dustin was tied with Jordan Spieth, who is golf's new "golden boy." Only twenty-one, an easy smile and a graciousness not often found in twenty-one-year-olds, Jordan Spieth has endeared himself to the golfing world.

In many ways it was a white hat vs. black hat showdown. Spieth had already finished playing and now Dustin Johnson had a chance to win the tournament by making a relatively easy twelve-foot putt. The guy played the best. I don't particularly like him as a player but as I watched the TV broadcast I said aloud: "He deserves to win."

He lined up the putt meticulously. Crouching low. Squinting. Looking at the contour of the green from every possible angle to increase his chances of the ball dropping into the hole. The glory of being the United States Open Champion was his if he could make this one putt.

He missed.

And the ball ran by the hole three feet. Now he had to make this little three-foot putt just to tie Spieth. Again, he went through the process of endlessly lining it up, leaving no avenue or contingency unexplored. Finally he settled over the putt and made his stroke.

He missed again.

He lost the U.S. Open.

Was it fair?

Was God or the Universe or as golfers say "the golfing gods" favoring Jordan Spieth over Dustin Johnson? Was it a case of good prevailing over evil?

As in most questions like this, there is no answer.

Try to figure it out. You won't be able to. Life is a mystery. Life is life.

Some will make deep-thinking speculations that Dustin Johnson needed to learn something from the defeat. I don't buy it.

Some will say Jordan Spieth needed to learn from winning. I don't think so.

Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. You'll do plenty of both during your lifetime.

Keeping things that simple makes it easier to accept that that's just the way life is.

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.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Surrender to win

Battling your way through life? Yeah, life is a fight, and sometimes you can barely keep the fight going. You're strained, stretched. No matter how hard you try nothing seems to work. And you've tried everything and you get the same result—nothing. No, worse—you're going backwards.

Ever think maybe it's time to give up? In a positive way, that is.

It's counter-intuitive. Big time. And it's nuanced, as well. As the saying goes—it's like "not giving a crap with a positive attitude."

Giving up only makes sense, though, if you feel there's something that will take over to help you when you do.

From Sting's song "Invisible Sun":

There has to be an invisible sun. It gives its heat to everyone. There has to be an invisible sun. That gives us hope when the whole day's done.

I'm not into wasting my time believing something that's not true. But I am thoroughly convinced that something knows better than I do about the best way for me to live.

The few times I do manage to give up and go with that something I have been led. And into places far better than I was headed on my own.

It's a challenge. It's hard giving up control. But it's worth it—and it's such a relief.