Author Archives: William Rutten

Earning vs. Taking: What Makes You WORTHY of a Vacation?

“When all else fails, take a vacation.” –Betty Williams

In just a few short days, I will be parking my pale body on the warm sand and letting my mind drift away to the sound of lapping waves. I’m going on vacation!!!

Specifically, I am escaping snowy Minnesota for a week in sunny Florida. Each day will find me splitting time between the beach and the pool, catching up with my parents and goofing off with my kids. I cannot get there soon enough! I am absolutely giddy at the thought of it. And as the countdown to takeoff has ticked down, vacation is nearly all I can think about.

Unfortunately, the trumpets of glee and excitement in my head over this much-anticipated getaway have too often been drowned out by the voices of judgment and insecurity. My usual refrain goes something like this: “How can I justify a vacation right now? I don’t feel worthy of one. I haven’t earned it.”

I wrote to you recently about my job search. Well, I still haven’t quite landed the gig with the right combination of fulfillment, schedule, and paycheck. It is that last part–the paycheck–that weighs heavily on me as we pack our bags for the land of millionaires. My current income and the balance in my bank account suggest that instead of a flight to paradise, I ought to settle for a walk around the neighborhood park.

It’s not even that the trip is costing us a lot of money. We have generous hosts and got tickets at a decent price. So I am not expecting any more wallet-related stress than I do on a typical week at home. In fact, as I think about that now, I realize that even though my guilt and torment surrounding my worthiness for this vacation are not exactly financial, they are definitely a product of that paycheck and job search.

I guess that, in my head at least, my worthiness of a break is tied to me having reached certain markers that I have set for myself. It is a standard reward structure, like a sales goal: if you hit a certain mark, you win the prize. It seems fair. The problem in this case is that when the tickets were booked, I was sure I would have hit the goal by now. I would have the job with the check and be feeling relatively satisfied.

Sure, I am never fully satisfied and am always striving for more and better in my life, but there are definitely phases when I am less restless and anxious about my situation. This is NOT one of those phases! I have plainly not hit the benchmarks lately, and my judgments about that are pronounced strongly in my head on a regular basis.

To put it mildly, I am not exactly feeling very deserving of a week at the beach.

Granted, I want to go. I am dying to feel the white sand between my toes and taste the saltwater on my lips as I dive below the surface of the human world. I can’t wait to lounge under the umbrella and watch the pelicans dive out of the sky for fish. And I so look forward to watching my kiddos wander off down the beach with my Mom looking for shells, or wander off the other direction with my Dad looking for ice cream. I want all of that. Desperately, even.

And yet, I cannot seem to fend off this feeling that I don’t deserve that stuff right now. That I don’t even deserve a rest, much less a full week’s vacation. I guess that, because I have been trying and failing to reach my top goal for the year–finding the right job–my self-esteem is at a low point. By definition, that means that I don’t believe I have much value or worth at the moment, a.k.a. not worthy.

As you might guess, this combination of giddy anticipation and unworthiness has made for a confusing and combustible lead-up to my trip. I go back and forth from one moment to the next, my head on a never-ending rollercoaster ride.

I just want to find a happy place, somewhere that I can enjoy my tropical daydreams without the baggage of judgment as to whether I deserve to dream at all. And I need to find that place QUICKLY, because I have no interest in wrestling with this stuff once my feet hit the sand. I need to float freely in those turquoise waters.

So, how do I let go of guilt, make peace, and give myself permission to enjoy what ought to be the highlight of the year? I have some beliefs to challenge.

I think it probably starts with getting past my idea that only people who have either done everything right or are lucky enough to be wealthy deserve vacations. Somehow, I have been clinging to this–unconsciously until now–for years. Because, really, how many people would ever get a break if that were the case? Clearly, it is an unhealthy belief.

What I am realizing now as I write this is that LIFE is hard enough–for everyone–that we are all worthy of a vacation. I look around the world and, obviously, most of us cannot afford a vacation right now, and many people will never take one in their entire lives. Does that mean that they don’t deserve one, that they should refuse if one is offered? Heck no!

I think I will need to re-read that last paragraph a few more times before I leave on my trip. It makes a lot of sense, right? Life is hard. With my standards, doing it all to my satisfaction is going to be a rare occurrence in my lifetime. I hope that chances for treats like vacations come more often than my satisfaction does, and I hope that I am willing to pounce on those golden opportunities. It would be a shame not to.

Maybe the trick for me is just to reframe the issue so I don’t feel like I have to earn my vacations, but instead I just have to take them. Much in Life comes upon us by chance. I think it is commonly taken as Truth–and usually mistakenly so–that we earn all of our good fortune and that hard work and persistence guarantee success and opportunity. Don’t get me wrong: hard work and persistence make good things more likely than laziness and weakness of will, but they guarantee nothing. Opportunity often arises unbidden. Whether you feel like you’ve earned it or not, you have to be ready to take it.

That all makes good sense to me. I just have to pick my chin up from my recent battles with Life so I can see the Truth more clearly. I am in the game, and that all by itself makes me worthy of an opportunity. For me right now, this vacation is my opportunity. I am taking it!

How about you? How worthy do you feel of life’s rewards? Open up your journal and consider your self-esteem and how that plays into your willingness to accept “the finer things in life” as they show up. How much do you buy into the idea–consciously or not–that, “If I haven’t hit all of my benchmarks and I haven’t earned a lot of money, then I don’t deserve a vacation (or whatever other pleasant opportunity you can think of)”? Can you think of examples from your past when you have let that idea keep you from taking advantage of a wonderful adventure or great escape? How conflicted were you at the time? How long did it take until you came to regret it (if ever)? Where are you right now with your relationship between “accomplishments” (goals hit, money in the bank, etc.) and self-esteem? Do you feel worthy of a vacation? If so, what makes you feel you deserve it? Is it a specific achievement or just a generally positive self-worth? If you don’t feel like you deserve a vacation at the moment, what would get you to that spot? What do you think of my newly-considered conclusion that Life is difficult enough that we are all worthy of a vacation (or other treat) just because we keep showing up every day? Are there people in your little corner of the world who never take vacations, whether through lack of resources or because they don’t believe they are worthy of one? How good would it feel to surprise them with an all-expenses-paid trip? How good would it feel if you received one of those right now? Where would you go if you could choose? On a scale of 1 to 10, how worthy do you feel of that trip? What would it take to get that score to a 10? Do you take advantage of the opportunities that Life presents you with? Could you be better with that openness if you felt yourself more deserving of good fortune? Leave me a reply and let me know: What makes you worthy of Life’s biggest treats?

You are AWESOME,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on to your social media family. Let’s share our process together!

P.S.S. Thanks to all of you who have purchased my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth. If you have read it, I would so appreciate you leaving a review on your preferred outlet. If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for???

How Fragile We Are: A Temporary Life in a Vulnerable Body

“Nature of life is fragile. Uncontrollable events happen all the time in life.” –Kilshore Bansal

Hello friend,

I had quite a health scare last week that left me physically weak and emotionally rattled. It never fails to amaze me by just how little we are hanging on.

My pain came on quite suddenly Monday afternoon. I had lay down on the sofa with a mug of cocoa to write in my journal. By the end of my entry, my stomach felt so overfull that I was disgusted with what a glutton I was. I figured that I would get up and move around, maybe use the bathroom, and things would settle down and be fine. They were not. The pain increased, but I was managing, and by the time I went to bed, I convinced myself that I would be fine in the morning and that my Tuesday would be as ordinary as ever.

How wrong I was.

I did all I could to get myself going in the morning and off to work. I felt horrible but told myself that I wouldn’t think about the doctor unless I still felt bad on Wednesday. After all, I didn’t have the fever and other symptoms of the nasty flu that has been such demolishing people all Winter, so I did not worry about infecting anyone else. It was just my own pain–constant, knee-buckling pain–in one localized area of my body. However, by late afternoon, I had begun to believe that I was not going to make it anywhere on Wednesday. I needed immediate help.

When the doctor at Urgent Care seemed confounded enough to send me home with some Maalox, I began to worry. I knew it was something serious, not just a bad tummy ache. As a last resort, she ordered a blood test, the results of which had her ordering me to go directly to the Emergency Room.

It was a quiet, solemn ten minutes in the car. “So this is how my story ends, eh?” That was the first thought in my head. I thought of all the people who have unwittingly embarked on their final day or final chapter of existence under the most ordinary circumstances. They got up and went to work that day as usual, and by the end of the day, they had been crushed by a car or had a stroke or received a diagnosis that would signal the their demise and final destiny. I thought I might be in that last category. I envisioned the ER doctors, after a series of scans, informing me that a malignant tumor had taken over the organs of my abdomen and that there was nothing more they could do but try to keep me comfortable until my certain death arrived, all of which I then had to explain to my wife when she arrived at the hospital. I wasn’t scared or panicked on that drive, but I definitely had a good cry. Maybe it was that awful vision, maybe it was the pain, and maybe it was that I was all alone. In any case, I wept for the final few minutes of the drive. Then, when I pulled into the parking lot, I got myself together to face my new reality, whatever that would be.

A couple of lonely and painful hours later–with a few more cries mixed in when the nurses would leave my room–after those envisioned scans were completed, I lay there contemplatively and awaited the results. I marveled at how, at any moment, some news would casually enter the room and either shatter my entire existence (as well as the lives of my wife and kids) or grant me a temporary reprieve. I pondered disbelievingly at how nonchalant that Fate can be, how lives get snuffed out and turned upside down in the most ordinary moments.  

Drunk driver. Aneurysm. School shooting. Diagnosis.

All day long. Every day of the year.  

Was the coming moment–the one that was so ordinary to everyone but me–about to be my moment? I wasn’t fretting, but I wasn’t forcing optimism, either. I think I was mostly in awe of the absolute powerlessness I felt. I was supremely aware of the blunt fact that Fate could do whatever she wanted with the fragile vessel that was my body, that it was completely out of my control and always would be. I served at her pleasure. There was the sense that the IVs and other tubes and machines I was hooked up to were there simply to administer helplessness. It was palpable.

I had never felt so insignificant in all my life.

So, what did I feel when the doctor came in with her sober face and her “I’m sorry to have to tell you this…” tone and told me that I had an appendicitis and would need to have surgery immediately? I felt relief. Relief that I got to go back home in a day or two to resume my normal life of pretending that I know how each day will go and that I have some control over the outcome. Relief that I got to go chase my kids around again and act as though we will certainly have all the time in the world together. Relief that my wife and I could resume our happy assumption that we will grow old together. Relief that I got to write another book and more of these letters to you. And ultimately, relief that I could feel like, “OF COURSE I will do all of that.” Of course.

I suppose it is an amazing privilege to live in a place and time that we can so easily delude ourselves that all will be well for the foreseeable future. I live in American suburbia in the 21st century. In spite of the nonsense in Washington and the regular mass shootings around the country, it is my privilege to drink clean water, have access to quality medical care, and feel physically safe where I live and reasonably certain of what comes next.

But let’s be honest: it’s still an illusion of safety and certainty. Those things aren’t real. We are at the whims of Fate. That aneurysm or drunk driver can hit at any moment.

That was the sobering reality that hit me on the way to the Emergency Room and remained on my shoulder as I waited for the doctor to deliver the news. I knew that she could just as easily speak the words “stomach cancer” as “appendicitis” when she walked through the door, and that Fate’s flip-of-the-coin might bring the other answer to the person waiting in the next room. We were both powerless to change her verdict.

Even after I received the “good news” and felt that big exhalation of relief, that peek behind the curtain of Reality left me rattled emotionally. For the next few days, I was a raw nerve.

When my kids came to see me the next day in the hospital, it was all I could do to keep from bursting out crying. They were the thing I stood to lose on that coin flip, after all, and I had shuddered even more at the thought of them losing me at their age. If they weren’t already wearing Fear on their faces at seeing me hooked up to all those tubes, I know I would have let out an involuntary sob. As it was, I fought it back and just told them I loved them and missed them terribly in the day that had passed. I was the same way when my Mom called. I could hardly breathe–much less speak–in my effort to keep the floodgates closed.

The thing that finally burst the dam was a movie. On the morning I was released from the hospital, I went home to nap in my bed. When I woke, I started a movie that I had long wanted to watch on Netflix, “Fruitvale Station.” It is based on a true story of a young man’s last day on Earth, ending in his murder. On a different day, I might have finished watching and been angry at the injustice of the murder and sad about the loss to the young man’s mother, child, and girlfriend, but I think I would have moved on without much drama. Not this day. No, I lay in bed and sobbed and sobbed at the random and senseless cruelty of the world and how we walk daily along that razor’s edge between a happy normalcy and a completely shattered existence. Shortly after I stopped crying, my wife came home, took one look at me, and asked what had happened. I couldn’t even get the words out; I just sobbed and sputtered some more.

That peek behind the curtain had broken me. It was Life and the unfairness and uncertainty of it. And it was the sheer recklessness of Fate. How it could take that young man with the beautiful daughter and his newfound resolution to be better. How it could casually erase the lives of children in the middle of a normal school day. How it could nonchalantly shake the Earth and crumble the homes in one town but not another, then turn around and scatter terminal diagnoses all over the planet. And it was the absolute clarity that, despite the fact that I got off easy this time, it could just as easily have gone the other way.

All of that reality caught up to me in that moment, and I let it all out through my eyes.

In the days that have followed, my body has grown stronger, and with it I have rebuilt my illusion. I no longer spend the day thinking about how completely fragile each of our existences is. I am getting past that jarring sensation I felt upon realizing how temporary and random are our lives and deaths. I am planning for the future again, even as I am reminding myself to be present and enjoy each moment I have here with these beautiful people that I call mine. I am telling myself that waking up early for the gym each morning will let me live a longer, happier, and healthier life. I am trying to be “normal” again.

I have to admit though, that there is a thin veil over my normal now. I got spooked last week on my way to the hospital. Spooked by Reality. You know that traumatized feeling you get when someone just about rams into you with their car as you are driving–that freaked out, breathless, sobering kind of spook? It was like that, but instead of dissipating after a few minutes, it stayed. So I am wondering: will this gun-shy feeling go away with time, or will every moment of joy and freedom and planning and dreaming be tinged with that peek behind the curtain, that look into Fate’s eyes, the same way that Death has a way of leaving that tinge on every moment thereafter? I will have to wait and see, I suppose.

Still, I can’t help but think that it will become harder and harder to shake the truth that our existence–my existence–is a temporary and uncertain one in a body that is vulnerable to the whims of Fate and random chance. I’m not sure that will ever quite sit well with me.

How about you? How do you make peace with the vulnerability of your body and the random and uncertain nature of Life in general? Open up your journal and go deep as you pull back the curtain on this topic that we typically keep ourselves in denial about. How often, if ever, do you allow yourself to fully absorb how vulnerable your body is to any number of potential destructions? Does it take a personal crisis, such as a car crash or medical emergency? Do you feel it when there is an “act of God” that makes the news, such as an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami that kills lots of people? How about things nearby, such as when someone in your community is stricken with cancer or killed by a drunk driver? Does it hit you at all when you hear of tragedies further away from home, such as a famine in Africa or a genocide in Syria? Do you brush those things quickly past your awareness, or do you allow them in? How does each of these types of peril affect you? What makes one type more staggering than the other? Does it have to happen directly to you to affect you deeply, or is your empathy enough to be shaken by these occurrences in others? When you feel it, how quickly are you able to get back to your illusion of safety and security? Is that a healthy and necessary denial? Is it also healthy to have these periodic reminders (read: scares) to help you to see that life is to be cherished and not wasted? Overall, how free are you of the shadow of this near-death existence that you live every day? How has that changed as you have aged? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you navigate life in your fragile and temporary body?  

Spread sunlight,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it on your social media channels. Let us grow and thrive in community!

Job Search: Go For Your Dreams or Whatever Works For Now?

“That’s when I first learned that it wasn’t enough to just do your job, you had to have an interest in it, even a passion for it.” –Charles Bukowski

Hello friend,

I distinctly remember a conversation I had a few years ago with my cousin about his job. We were catching up after years apart, and I asked him to tell me about his work. He described it in very neutral terms, not at all glowing about it but not hating it either. It wasn’t anything he had gone to school for or aspired to, and it didn’t light him up inside. It was just a job. A solid one, though, that paid well enough and had benefits and flexibility and all of that good stuff for a guy with a young family. To sum it up he said, “It’s nothing I’m passionate about, but I don’t think anybody really gets to do their dream job.” I nodded and let the conversation drift to other topics, but as it did, I was quietly dejected and indignant at the same time.

I was sad both because I hated to see this guy I like and admire settle for something that he didn’t love, and because I hated to even entertain the idea that he might be right. I was indignant both because I was sure that he had to be wrong and because I was determined to never fall into a mindset that would let me settle for “whatever keeps the bills paid.”

For all of the emotions that short conversation stirred in my heart–and that I stayed quiet about–I have never been able to forget it. If you have read my book or have been reading these letters for a while, you probably know that I am very much about helping people to find their passion and their purpose and then to pursue those things relentlessly for all of the days of their lives. I think it is of the utmost importance that we immerse ourselves in the activities and the people that fill and expand our hearts and minds. That includes our jobs, where we spend such a large portion of our lives.

That is why that conversation got stuck in my heart. I hated that this deep, talented man was settling for less, but I hated even more that he might be right in asserting that hardly anyone is working in jobs that they love and feel called to do. I was determined that I would not only continue to nudge people to uncover and live their purpose but also that my own career path would align more and more closely with my own purpose as the years passed.

As I look at my present situation, I wonder, “How in the world could I have missed the mark this badly???”

I am in the midst of a job search. Actually, I have been in the midst of a search for a long time now. It started off more casually, as my wife still had a nice job with health insurance and such. But after she left all of that security behind in order to start her own business–and since her company hasn’t quite reached Fortune 500 status in its first several months–there is a sense of urgency about the search that increases by the week.

The thing that I have noticed lately, though–and that I am becoming increasingly alarmed about the more I allow it into my consciousness–is that as the urgency is growing, my standards seem to be shrinking proportionally.

When I started my search, I was idealistic and had at least a shred of confidence. I knew that my resumé was not the most attractive for the kind of job I wanted–basically I wanted to do things that were unlike my previous work experience–but I also believed in my abilities and figured I had enough crossover skills and adaptability that I could learn to do almost anything (e.g. a type of computer software) quickly. I could definitely land a job that, even if it wasn’t my dream job, at least let me use some of the skills that I enjoy using and make me feel like my talents are not being wasted. I just needed an interview and I would convince them I was their man!

Fast forward to the present to find me wallowing in the self-doubt that comes from being ignored by just about every company who seems to have an opening for a position that appeals to me. When I send the resumés out and hear nothing back, that silence eats at my confidence and makes me question my abilities and my career outlook. More and more lately, as I have been scouring the job sites, I have been horrified to notice my eyes wandering to positions I would not ever have considered before. I hear my brain justifying how “It wouldn’t be SO bad,” or “Maybe my back could get used to standing for that long,” and other such dispiriting arguments.

Clearly I am not the same person as the one who was offended by the thought of doing work that didn’t stir my soul but merely paid the bills and was convenient for my family!

But which guy was right: the Idealistic Me who believed I had to be passionate about my job, or the World-beaten Me who is ready to settle for anything that keeps things flowing at home, no matter how uninspiring? Or are they both right somehow, depending on life circumstances? Does my job have to be a perfect indicator of whether I am living authentically and following my passion, or can it just be a job?

When I coached tennis for many years, I loved that I got to share my love of the game with people, that I got to motivate and share life lessons, and that I got to share in the best part of my clients’ days. It was a good job for me. However, I came to realize that, while I loved it, it felt like a shadow career to me (see “Are You In A Shadow Career?”). That is, it looked like what I really wanted to do in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t it. I wanted to write books and give speeches and be a Life Coach. That was my ideal.

When I left coaching and took a job managing a store, I knew it had even fewer elements of my dream job. I, of course, found the parts that made it meaningful to me, but I knew it was not my passion. I did it because it worked well for my family’s needs at the time and allowed me to still give energy to my other passions. It was a compromise I entered into with a clear head, and I knew it was not permanent.

When I started my current job several months ago, it was basically the same deal. It was not related to my passion, but I hoped it would work out for my uncertain family situation (and again, that was a compromise I was willing to make).

Well, as I explained above, the family needs something different now. And now I see myself defining what “the right job for now” is and how vastly different that looks compared to “the right job for me” in my idealistic mind. It is amazing how necessity can twist a person’s standards! Because when I notice how I am thinking about this now, and then I compare that to how I would be thinking about it if my wife had the same salary and benefits as she did last year, the difference is shocking.

I find it interesting to follow the history of my mind on this topic. Regarding which jobs to go after, my level of idealism has taken a steep decline over the years, and I also have a much more complicated view of what “settling” means. As is almost always the case, the deeper I look into it and the more life experience I gain, the more I recognize the answers to be in the many shades of grey rather than so black-and-white. I now think life circumstances have a huge impact on this “Ideal vs. Right For Right Now” continuum. (And yes, I am also open to the idea that I may be conning myself by justifying my failure to live up to my career dreams by claiming that I just did what worked best for my family.)

Another thing that has shifted my perspective was a book by Elizabeth Gilbert (of “Eat Pray Love” fame) called “Big Magic.” I read it last Summer. It’s about continuing to do soul-stirring things throughout your life. In it, she talks about how she had three novels published by major publishers and was still having to work her day job full-time. After years of feeling like I somehow deserved to be making a living with my writing as long as I was working hard at it, Gilbert knocked me back into my place. She made it clear that creative types are not owed work in their art and shouldn’t feel entitled to a consistent income, but rather they should assume that they are just going to continue to have to make the time for their passion projects outside of their “regular job” hours. That was a tough pill for me to swallow, let me tell you. But, especially since it came when I was looking frustratingly hard for work and feeling a little bitter about the whole concept, I did swallow it. I have been more accepting of the idea of getting a “regular job” ever since (even if I still hate it).

In the end, I guess I don’t know what role my next job will play in my life. At the moment, it looks as though it will be this big thing that I will basically just tolerate for years and years. Ugh!! I hate that I even thought that sentence, much less wrote it down as truth. I can’t stand the idea of settling, especially when it is something that takes up so much of my limited time on this Earth. But maybe, as I have discovered over the last few years, settling for a job is not as bad in practice as it is in theory. Maybe, especially if I compartmentalize it well in my mind, it will make the rest of my life easier.

This would be an easier sell if I were not so naturally dreamy and idealistic. (Oh, and there’s also that thing about me never actually wanting a job. I suppose that plays a role in all of this.) I can tell that I will be vacillating on this subject for a long time to come. Welcome to Life: it’s kind of messy here! I will keep working through it, journaling and pondering and journaling some more. That may be the only job I am truly cut out to do!

How about you? Do you have 1) your ideal job, 2) the right job for right now, or 3) something entirely different? Open up your journal and flesh out the role your job plays in your life and how well that sits with you. Describe the things you do for a paycheck. Now think about the things in Life that move your soul, that lift you up, that excite your mind, that get you out of bed in the morning. Do any of the things on that “Bliss List” match up with the things on your Job List? On a scale of 1 to 10, how closely do the lists match up? Has it always been this way, or has your job history moved you at different times closer to and further from your purpose? Has your level of job satisfaction shifted accordingly? How about your level of overall Life Satisfaction? To what extent do you associate your job with your identity (i.e., you answer the “What are you?” inquiry with your occupation)? Are you happier when you do work that is meaningful to you? How important is a fulfilling job, anyway? Is “whatever pays the bills” sometimes the ideal job, even if it doesn’t at all resemble the job you dream about getting one day? Do you have to take a job that looks like your dream job–or at least feels like it will lead to your dream job–in order to be authentically living your purpose and passion? Do you have a clear idea of what “settling” looks like to you? Where are you now in relation to that? How does that answer sit with you? In five years from now–and ten, twenty, and at retirement–do you believe that you will be doing something closer to your dream job than you are today? For the creative and entrepreneurial among us, should we be content with doing a “regular job” to keep the bills paid and then squeezing in our art or our side hustle at night and on lunch breaks, or should that thought torture us until we are so determined to “succeed” in our passion that that we somehow make it into gainful employment? Is there anything wrong with working purely for the money if it lets the rest of your life (family, hobbies, stress levels, vacations) run smoothly? Overall, how tolerant are you of work that does not move you in any way that is not financial? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is the role of your job in your life?

Light your world,

William

 P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with your social media community. Let us live our authentic Truths together!

The Center of the Universe or a Tiny Speck of Dust?

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” –Mohandas Gandhi

Hello friend,

How often does the drama in your life make you feel like the whole world hangs in the balance, ready to rise or come crashing down depending on how you come through the situation? Pretty much every day, right?

A few months ago, I had a ton of theatrics storming around my head and weighing on my heart. I was feeling the pressure of a self-imposed deadline on finishing my book, way behind but not wanting to give up writing these letters to you every week in order to get it done. It was a sacrifice I just didn’t want to make. Meanwhile, I was entangled in a web of uncertainty surrounding my job status and my future in any sort of career field. This was tied to the weight of my family’s then-recent financial instability, as my wife had quit her job to start her own business from scratch. We were in a pickle, definitely in the short-term and quite possibly the long-term, too. It did not feel good for this guy who prefers to remain oblivious to such things as personal finance and health insurance. And of course, coloring all of this and everything else was the now-typical political ignorance and outrageousness that is just America in this day and age.

In any case, it felt like this crucial life moment, like my fate and the fate of those around me hung in the balance, our lives to be forever altered by the outcome of these intermingling dramas.

In the midst of that existential three-ring circus in my head, I received an email that seemed innocuous on the surface but actually gave me quite a shake. It was my birthday, and amidst a few other calls and messages from my parents and siblings, there in my inbox was a message from my favorite aunt and uncle. “We hope this little tune helps keep things in perspective.” It was a link to a Youtube video called “Galaxy Song.”  It had the feel of something that might be on “Sesame Street” or “The Electric Company,” a playful song to educate while it entertains. Here are a few choice lines:

The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see are moving at a million miles a day in an outer spiral orb at 40,000 miles an hour of the galaxy we call the Milky Way. Our galaxy itself contains 100 billion stars; it’s 100,000 light years side to side….And our galaxy is only one of millions and billions in this amazing and expanding Universe…..So remember when you are feeling very small and insecure how amazingly unlikely is your birth.

These lyrics completely arrested me. I know I had heard the stats before about the astounding size of the Universe, but I guess I had let their ramifications escape my awareness, because this was like learning them anew. It was a real smack in the face.

I guess that in the past, I probably used the facts about the enormity of the Universe as an argument against the half of my brain that doubts the existence of some type of Creator/God. After all, my argument went, in all of this vast “emptiness” in which we cannot find evidence of other “intelligent life” (though I definitely think we flatter ourselves with that label), surely we must have been specially created by a Divine hand, right? (I use the same type of logic when I try to convince myself that the astonishing degree of intricacy of the human body and every other organism and system on Earth is surely a sign of an intelligent Designer.)

But in this case, when I try to wrap my mind around the vastness of it all and just how infinitesimally small our planet is in the grand scheme (not to mention each of us people individually), it makes me think that not only might I not be specially made, but also that, either way, I am completely insignificant. My issues and dramas, my dreams and gifts–they don’t matter at all. They have no bearing on anything. How depressing!

But then I think, “No! I am here on this magnificent planet for a reason, and I have this overwhelming sense of significance that echoes from deep inside me. I matter! I know I do!”

But then there are the facts again, and it seems obvious that I am not even the tiniest blip on the screen of the Universe, not just historically but even on the picture of today. After all, there are billions more stars just like our sun and therefore billions more solar systems. Not “billions” as in a figure of speech or writer’s embellishment, but actual billions. My life–heck, even my planet’s life–is nothing.

And back and forth I go.

Maybe this debate–or at least the admission that there should be a debate–pains me so much because I have always felt it was my destiny to be a world-changer, an agent of progress and hope for the masses of people that I plan to reach with my words and deeds. I would like to say that I have always known that I was significant, that I was born to make a difference, to leave a mark. I have spent my life believing that.

That makes the glaring facts of the Universe’s unfathomable size so daunting and humbling. Going just by the numbers, it is impossible to claim any shred of importance. It’s almost enough to make me give up. Because let’s face it: on paper, I don’t even have a chance in this debate. I have nothing! Logically speaking, if my galaxy is insignificant, then my solar system is even more insignificant, in which case my planet is even more insignificant, and that means my own life–and especially each of my daily dramas about my job and my mortgage and my president–is surely of no consequence.

That is why I think that DENIAL must be an exceptionally strong evolutionary adaptation of ours. Think about it: given that we can know empirically that we are the equivalent of a tiny speck of dust in this vast Universe, how else can you explain how each of us feels so central to the whole show?

Honestly, doesn’t it feel like your life matters? Doesn’t it seem like the outcome of at least some of your major life decisions has an impact on the world, and that that impact is actually important in the grand scheme of things? I know it feels that way to me.

I can’t help but think that this feeling of significance and the element of denial have a lot to do with FAITH and our religious practices. Consider all of the many different religions and expressions of faith that we have come up with throughout history. At their core, they are a way to not only help us make sense of our world, but also to instill in us the idea that each of us matters, that what we do matters. Perhaps we cling so hard to these religions–despite their generally flimsy logic–because by focusing intently on them, we are able to avoid thoughts of the magnitude of the Universe and our statistical insignificance. Maybe FAITH and DENIAL are equal partners in an elaborate hoax we are playing on ourselves.

Or maybe our propensity toward both faith and denial of the facts should be viewed as more evidence that we are so significant that we have been gifted with these traits to ensure that we press on to fulfill our special destiny. Maybe we are evolutionarily wired for significance. Maybe those dreams, ambitions, and feelings of purpose and calling are the Universe’s reminder that there is more to us than any statistics can prove or disprove. Perhaps our mere existence is to be seen as enough of a defiance of logic that we ought to know better than to look at numbers to tell us our worth. Maybe we just need to trust ourselves on that, to listen to that still, small voice inside to remind us Who We Really Are.

Honestly, I don’t know the answer. Maybe I am no more important than any other speck of celestial dust and all of us are just interesting-but-meaningless carbon anomalies being carried along on this third floating rock from the sun. If that is the case, then I wouldn’t stress so much about the job and the house and the conmen in Washington. But the truth is that as much as my brain loves logic, the Truth of who I am rests in my intuition. Somehow, that still, small voice is the one I trust the most. And I don’t care if it is unknowingly saturated with denial. My gut tells me I have a purpose and that I am here to make a difference, a difference that matters in the grand scheme of things. If it is right about that, fantastic. If it is wrong and I am really just that speck of dust, well, then at least I will have lived out my days in the service of making life better for all those other specks around me. I am going to have to live with that. Because I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know a better way.

How about you? Do you actually matter, or is your significance as infinitesimally small as your actual size relative to the Universe? Open up your journal and allow your mind to swim in a different depth, even if just for a while. What is your initial, gut-level reaction to this question? Is there actually something significant about each of us riding here on this little planet that is floating around one star amongst the billions and billions of stars in our galaxy, which is only one of billions more galaxies? Why do you think so many people think we are special despite the evidence to the contrary? Is it arrogant of us who think this way? Do you think we would feel more or less significant if we learned that there was intelligent life on planets spread all across the Universe? How often do you find yourself conscious of how small you are in relation to the Universe, not just how you are only one of 7 billion inhabitants of Earth? Is it mostly out of your consciousness? Do you consider that a form of denial? Is that denial healthy? How much of humanity’s significance–and your personal significance–do you attach to your faith? When you look at your faith and then at the statistics about the size of the galaxy and Universe, does it make you question the basic stories behind religions more than you might normally be willing to do? How much do you trust your intuition on this matter? Does your gut tell you that you matter? How much say do your brain and logic have in the matter? Even if you knew that it is very likely that you are fooling yourself, would you still continue to believe that your life and your choices matter? What would life be like believing that none of this makes any difference at all? Are there people in your life who believe that? What do you think makes them keep going? Can we be both insignificant and the center of the Universe simultaneously? Have your thoughts on this topic changed throughout your life? Have they changed as you have processed this today? Which way are you trending? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you everything or nothing at all?

Shine bright,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you in any way today, please share it. We are all sharing this third rock from the sun, so let’s make it the best ride we can!

A BOLDER LIFE: Are You Existing or Adventuring?

“I refuse to walk carefully through life only to arrive safely at death.” –Paulo Coelho

Hello friend,

About 25 years ago, I was about the most stable, on-the-right-path guy in the world. I knew exactly what I would be doing in two years, twenty years, and any other year before or after. How did I know? I had been planning it ever since I was little. Everyone I knew was sure of my plan and its success. They, too, had been in on the idea from the beginning. None of us doubted it.

I was pegged as a smart, achieving kind of kid at a young age, and in the small town I came from, the richest, most envied people were the doctors. So, I was going to be a doctor. No question about it. My Dad told me so at an early age, and I never forgot or considered otherwise. Elementary school and high school sailed by with complete clarity about my future, and Pre-Med was in full swing, the Road of Life paved smooth in front of me. Set in stone. I was about to tell the most boring, predictable life story ever.

But then, I changed it. I decided that my life should be a tale of adventure instead.

Well, I didn’t exactly think of it in those terms. I mean, I didn’t say, “My life is now an adventure!!!” It was more like, “I am scared to admit that I have a different dream because then I would have to take a big risk by jumping off the safe path, but I am more scared of living that nice life everyone has always had planned for me but that doesn’t light me up inside.” 

I suppose it sounds weird that the safer, more predictable path was the one that eventually frightened me the most. But it’s true. I guess the lure of my dreams just became too enchanting once I finally admitted to having them. I became addicted to that feeling of giddiness–and yes, even anxiety–that bubbled up when imagining how my life could be. It was more risky, sure, but so much more exciting.

You know, like an adventure.

So I did it. And for the next several years, it really felt like a big adventure.

I bounced around the country, living in iconic cities and meeting fascinating people. I acted in the theatre. I learned to surf and practice yoga. I traveled the world. I discovered my journal. I found my spiritual foundation. I read. I wrote. I fell in love.

It was fantastic! Scary sometimes, and almost always uncertain, but every minute engaging and enlightening and invigorating. I was most certainly alive. And I never once regretted jumping off the safe, predictable path (though that doctor money sure would have been nice!).

It is amazing how you can start to clamor for stability and certainty–and doctor money–when suddenly you have other lives depending upon you for cereal and new basketball shoes.

My wife was always the one in our relationship who sought the most stability and provided the most stability. She always had the steadiest job with the insurance and the retirement package. She seemed to like it that way, even as I gave up my career arc and slashed my working hours (and dollars) when our kids were born to maximize my time with them in these irreplaceable years. She was our rock and put up with the silly adventures of her three kids (me and the two little ones), sacrificing some of the fun stuff in order to do meaningful work and keep us in cereal and basketball shoes.

I thought that she would be content on that stable path until she retired. She was so good on it, and I figured that maybe she was just genetically inclined to like that stuff better than I could. I admired her for it and was grateful that she could bear a burden I didn’t seem wired for.

Then, several months ago, she jumped off the stable path, too. Overnight she became an entrepreneur. She had been on a regular salary in a low-risk career her entire adult life–and as a guy who has lived with her for 18 years, that shoe seemed to fit–and BOOM, she decided to take on a new career and no guarantees. Talk about an adventure!

I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I was by this move. As the guy who thought he owned the rights to “trust your gut, dream bigger, take a chance on yourself” in the relationship, I was absolutely tickled to see that side of her emerge. I was so happy for her, and proud. Very, very proud.

I’m a little scared, too, I admit. After all, if you are on the whimsical, perhaps-artistic, not-so-inclined-to-grind side of the spectrum, it is reassuring to be partnered up with someone who is better at enduring the dirty work than you are. But this is what makes her all the more worthy of my admiration: because she was brave enough to follow her heart off the safe and secure path even without a safety net. She is braver than me!

And now, my friend, we are on a real adventure! Who can say how it will turn out or what new ways our family will adapt and grow: new skillsets, new attitudes, new sources of income, new opportunities for play and family togetherness.

That family thing is crucial for us. And even as we try to navigate this new era of uncertainty in our little corner of the world, we use that home base of family as our rock. Now matter how adventurous you are, it is nice to have a few bases of certainty. These people in this house–and indeed, the house itself–are definitely that for me, for us.

So there I was last week, wading these uncertain waters of our new life, when my wife says to me out of nowhere, “Seriously, name a state you are willing to move to.” Like many of us in northern states at this time of year, the bitter conditions outside had pushed her just far enough that day to question her sanity for living here and consider leaving for good. She wanted an answer.

I giggled and decided to play along, sure that nothing would come of it. “Oregon,” I said. Rejected! “Okay, how about Colorado?” “Hmm….” So, right then and there, she hops on the computer and starts researching. And not just for a few minutes, but for over an hour! She gives me stats on diversity, school rankings, all kinds of stuff that matters to us. I actually started getting a little freaked out. In my head, I was like, “Who is this new, ready-for-change person? And are we seriously talking about moving???”

I am relieved to report that nothing has come of it in the ensuing days. I have put it out of my mind. Well, not true: I have sort of put it out. Suddenly, I am not so sure of just how adventurous this lady I live with has become. Might she want to roll the dice and make an even bigger change in our life? And while that is a bit unnerving, I have to admit that it is exciting, too. Invigorating. The overall air of uncertainty about the specifics of our future has sparked something enchanting about our life together. There is intrigue. There is fantasy and dream-building. There is a sense of the potential that we have only just begun to tap.

There is a true sense of WONDER that is nothing short of intoxicating.

I have this sense that, even though I haven’t a clue as to what our future holds, somehow it will be truly magnificent and saturated with blessings. So, let’s throw off the bowlines and let this ship sail in the big waters of LIFE. I am feeling ready for an adventure!

How about you? At this point in your life, are you more drawn to the stable and secure path, or the uncertain and adventurous one? Open up your journal and trace the path your life has taken to this point. Has it always been fairly clear where you are headed, or have you taken some bold leaps off the path and brought a sense of adventure to your world? When you were in elementary school and high school, how did you imagine your adult life? How about when you were in college: was your career path clear in your mind? How accurate have your visions turned out to be for yourself? Do you work in the field that you went to school for? Have you ever switched career fields entirely and started fresh? If so, how difficult was it to arrive at that decision and take action? Are you currently on a career path that is satisfying to you? If not, how likely are you to do something bold to change paths? How soon will you take action? How brave will you need to be? How about the place that you live? Are you satisfied? Have you considered moving to a different area of the country or a different country altogether? Have you done it before? What are the chances? How would you describe your relationship with Uncertainty? Have you made friends with it? Do you fear it like The Plague? On a scale of one to ten–with one being “Bore Me With Stability” and ten being “Bring On the Change and Adventure”–where has the path of your life revealed you to be naturally drawn to? How has that changed as you have aged? Generally speaking, why do you live the life you live now? Is it because you don’t dare to try another one? At the end of your days, is that answer going to satisfy you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Is your life a daring adventure or a safe walk? 

Be brave,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it. A world full of authentic people would be a grand thing!

P.S.S. My new book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth, is available in paperback and ebook formats from many retailers. To get yours on Amazon, go to http://www.amazon.com/author/williamrutten Thank you for your support!

Goals, Goals, Everywhere Goals: Aiming for a Bigger Life

“The moment you put a deadline on your dream, it becomes a goal.” –Harsha Bhogle, The Winning Way 

Hello friend,

I have never been much of a goal-setter. Don’t get me wrong; I have always been a dreamer and driven to do great things in my life. I have taken risks and made sacrifices in my attempt to leave my mark on the world. But I have done all that without setting many specific goals. I can’t say why exactly. It just didn’t feel like me. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to feel contained, and goals can sometimes feel like fences to me. I have typically preferred to trust my intuition on how much of something I need, where I need to push, and where to pull back.

But in the last few years, as I have continued to examine my life in my journal and in these letters to you, I have had this creeping sense of disappointment and regret as it has become increasingly clear that I have failed to live up to all of those dreams and ambitions. Eventually, I was bound to ask myself why, and I have been slowly allowing those questions in. I wondered if maybe it was because I haven’t pushed myself hard enough and consistently enough to make the big strides I imagine myself capable of. But why? After all, I had the dreams. I had the drive. I began to wonder if maybe I just didn’t have the right plan. Maybe I needed a new method.

Enter Oola.

A couple of months ago, my sister, who is into self-help/personal growth books and always has her eyes open for things that can help her and her business grow, treated me to a new book that she had been raving about. It was called Oola: Find Balance In An Unbalanced World. In it, the authors, Dave Braun and Troy Amdahl, write about the importance of living in a way that is balanced and growing in all the major areas of life, what they call “The Seven F’s of Oola”: Fitness, Finance, Family, Field (career), Faith, Friends, and Fun. In my old Life Coaching classes, this resembled what is commonly referred to as “The Wheel of Life”.

I am always on the lookout for tips on doing LIFE better, so I plowed through the meat of the book, taken in by the stories of these two guys and how the seven aspects played out in their lives. I knew they grew up in my neck of the woods and were of a similar age, so I also wanted to glean some insight into how they became successful and which tips I might borrow for my own life.

A couple of weeks ago, as I approached the very last section of the book, I was thinking I wasn’t getting much that was soul-stirring or deeply inspirational out of it. I was eager to be done with it, hoping to find something a bit more life-changing from my next read.

But in those last pages was a challenge that would change the entire experience for me. Well, at least I hope it will.

Whenever someone tells me they read my weekly letters or that they read my book, I always want to know if they do more than read it. Do they write their own journal entry about the questions raised? Do they engage someone in a conversation about it? Do they at least take some time to ponder the issue and how it intersects with their own life? I tend to think that the only way to get anything out of my writing is to truly engage with it: to ponder, to discuss, and hopefully to write about it. I definitely hope that my words will be more than just read. Speaking as the sensitive author, I don’t feel like my work can be fairly judged unless you have done the deep diving.

So there I was, beginning to judge the Oola book, when it turned the tables on me. It asked of me what I ask of my readers: to get out my pen and dive deep into the way these “Seven F’s” could change my life. The only catch: I had to set goals. And not just a few, but twenty-one: three for each of the seven areas on the Oola Wheel.

What a predicament! Of course, the idea of setting twenty-one goals–specific, measurable type of goals–was immediately off-putting to my personality, so I was inclined to reject the challenge outright. But. (Oh, the BUT!) But it seemed like my integrity was on the line. How could I defend my own writing’s quality from people who didn’t fully engage it if I wasn’t willing to fully engage this book? That wouldn’t be right. And the other, bigger BUT. But how can I keep rejecting goal-setting if my usual, comfortable method of just going with my gut hasn’t gotten me where I want to be in life?

The writing was on the wall. It was time to get out of my comfort zone. And so it came to pass that I took my pretty-but-somewhat-blurry dreams and gave them some definition, some real numbers, some deadlines.

I made goals. Twenty-one of them. Here they are:

FITNESS

  1. Get my weight to 203 by December 31, 2018. (That is somewhere from 5-7 stubborn pounds to lose.)
  2. Do a full yoga practice at least once per week.
  3. Add rowing to at least one cardio workout every week.

FINANCE

  1. Make more money than we spend each month.
  2. Get a higher paying job with benefits.
  3. Put $250 into a vacation fund every month.

FAMILY

  1. Have one Family Game Night/Family Movie Night per week.
  2. Have one devoted couple activity (game, TV show, whatever) per week.
  3. Take the epic Montana Road Trip by the end of 2020.

FIELD

  1. Get a “real job” involving writing as soon as possible.
  2. Spend time every week writing my next book.
  3. Join my wife full-time in her new business by January 1, 2020.

FAITH

  1. Meditate 15 minutes per day.
  2. Take a weekly nature walk practicing mindfulness and gratitude.
  3. Develop a nightly gratitude “prayer” or practice.

FRIENDS

  1. Connect with Johnny in person at least once every two months.
  2. Engage one new person in conversation each week.
  3. Re-connect with one different old friend by letter or phone call each month.

FUN

  1. Become a regular tennis player again–once a week–in the warmer seasons.
  2. Write my second book–spend devoted time every week.
  3. Practice the guitar at least three times per week for at least 15 minutes.

Of these twenty-one, the Oola guys recommend that while you can keep all of them and work toward them, it is helpful to pull out your top seven that would make the biggest impact on your life right now (it doesn’t have to be one from each area). I chose these seven:

  1. Make more money than we spend every month.
  2. Get a “real job” involving writing as soon as possible. (I also chose this as my “OolaOne”, the single thing that would make the biggest immediate impact.).
  3. Meditate 15 minutes per day.
  4. Write my second book, devoting time every week.
  5. Practice my guitar at least three times per week, at least 15 minutes each.
  6. Have one devoted couple activity each week.
  7. Re-connect with one different old friend by letter or phone each month.

There they are! It was a grind for me, I fully admit, but even my fluid mind is sitting here appreciating how concrete they all look in their tidy lists with all the details included. It definitely helped to use the popular goal-setting method called S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Realistic, Time-based), as that kept me from being vague and slippery. These definitely feel more like the opening quote: like dreams with deadlines. Goals.

Having just finished the exercise, I can tell that all of the specifics are very new to me and my usual processing. My inner world is trembling a bit, no doubt. My cheese has been moved. But I can also see how this will be really, really good for me. That is, it will be really good if I follow this up with the appropriate action steps, like daily To-Do Lists filled with items that work directly toward those goals. I am excited, both to start achieving these goals and just to see my world through a new set of lenses. I think I needed it. No, I’m sure I did. Now that I have some goals, I am charged up and ready for action. I’m off to get my Oola on!

How about you? How do you do with goal-setting in your life? Open up your journal and examine the role of goals in your world. Do you have specific goals in your life right now? What are they? Are they far away things–like an advanced degree or retirement–or something you will accomplish within the next year? How aware of your goals are you on a day-to-day basis? Do you use them to guide your behavior on a normal day, or are they just something you check in with once in a while to see if life is generally heading in the right direction? How specific and measurable do you get in your goal-setting? Do you have exact dates and numbers in mind so you can be certain as to when the goals are reached? Do you have someone in your life who holds you accountable for your goals, or do you count on your own discipline to get you there? Would an accountability partner help? How realistic are your goals? Do you have a strong chance of reaching them? Do you gain confidence when you reach a goal, no matter how small? Whether or not you currently have goals or are aware of how balanced and growing your life is, does the concept of setting multiple goals in each area of your life appeal to you? Have you ever done something like this? So, go ahead. What are three goals you can make for yourself in each of the seven areas: health & fitness, money, family, career, faith/spirituality, friends, and hobbies/fun? In which area are goals easiest for you to make? In which area are you most likely to achieve your stated goals? In which area are you most likely to fail? Is systematic goal-setting foreign to you? How does it feel now doing it? Does it make you more eager to make a plan to achieve them? If you had to choose one goal to pursue that would make the biggest impact on your life right now, which one would it be? Are you willing to commit to that? What small steps can you take today to move in that direction? Leave me a reply and let me know: Which goals can you set to move yourself in the direction of your best life?

Go get it,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it on social media. Let’s go after our dreams together!

P.S.S. My new book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth, is available in paperback and ebook formats from many retailers. To get yours on Amazon, go to http://www.amazon.com/author/williamrutten Thank you for your support!

Grading Your Year: A Personal Report Card for 2017

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Hello friend,

The year 2017, as told through the screens on my phone, tablet, computer, and television, was just about the most absurd, infuriating, and demoralizing year imaginable. I had the feeling so often this year that, if we were being studied from afar by alien scientists, they would report that we are clearly devolving as a species, degenerating into a lower state of intellectual and moral being. I suppose there are plenty of “Year in Review” types of shows airing this week, but I don’t even dare to watch. I don’t much care to relive anything that people were talking about this year. It was pretty darn awful out there. I fear that if I admit to just how awful or try to delve into it, I will make for a most depressing companion at the New Year’s festivities. No, I think I will pass on assessing the great big world this year.

But how about my personal year in my little corner of the world?

That doesn’t seem nearly as depressing or daunting a task. After all, as I sit here in these final moments of the year, I still have a smile on my face and a mind eager enough to learn and grow from the lessons this year has provided. It helps, I know, that I process it every day in my journal, so I have some sense of how my report card will come out–I guess I can sense it was not all rainbows and butterflies, but I know it was one I would not trade, either–but I am open to being surprised by my assessment of the various aspects of my existence and how they were shaped by the events of 2017.

Hindsight has a way of casting a new light on things, dusting off some of the emotions and baggage of the moment and revealing its true essence and its value in the grand scheme of our lives. I think I am due for some of that clarity after what has been a most unusual year in the History of Me.

So, how did I do?

Well, maybe it is healthy to admit to a failure right from the start. I know I deserve an “F” in the Finances/Career departments. I was horrible at that from start to finish, truly. Starting the year out having just lost my job last Christmas was certainly a harbinger of things to come. I struggled to find my way all year into something that both paid the bills and met my family’s other needs. Though I have tried to maintain my general positivity and my big picture perspective through it all, I admit to falling into moments of shame, frustration, and disillusionment regarding my aspirations and failings on this front as the year passed. I have chastised myself for both my failings as a breadwinner and my weakness in allowing those failings too much control over my emotions. So, definitely an “F” here.

Another thing I did not do very well with is my Friendships. It is true that as an unsocial and introverted cat, this has never been my strong suit. So, it isn’t as though I had a very high standard from which to judge myself. However, I found myself thinking more and more as the year went on that this is an area I want to do better with: both in making new friends and in staying well-connected with my old friends. Truth: I didn’t do very well with either. I am most disappointed in myself for doing a poor job of keeping up with my best friends, letting too long pass between visits and calls. Maybe a “D” here. Not good.

Okay, this report card is not looking so good at this point! I must have done something well….

How about Family? Yes, the family stuff was quite good this year on the whole. Though I again did poorly with calling my siblings and parents, I made a bigger effort to travel to spend time with them. That was immensely rewarding, both for me and for the children. Speaking of the children, the one thing I think I do consistently well is fatherhood. That was the case this year; we have had a great time, and my relationship with each kid is strong and loving. I wish I could say I did as well as a spouse, but I consistently fail to live up to my expectations there. Still, I have had fun with my wife and have tried to be supportive while enjoying watching her grow and blossom in her new endeavors. All in all, a good score here (let’s say “B+”).

As for my Health, I am grateful to say that I would give that a “B”. There are reminders everywhere of how dramatically one’s quality of life diminishes when health problems arise, so I feel quite blessed that my issues this year have been small. I have had little nagging injuries that have kept me from some activities, but no injury has shut me down entirely. As a guy who needs to be active to remain sane, I will take that as a blessing.

Looking back, I realize that I did not do quite as well as usual with my Spirituality, which also dictates my Psychology. I seemed to be less mindful during the day, less aware of the beauty and wonder of the Divine all around me. With that, I was somewhat less grateful than normal, having fewer of those bowled-over-and-humbled-by-the-absolute-magnificence-of-the-Universe moments than I am accustomed to. I have long believed that Gratitude is the mother of Happiness, so maybe I was a bit less happy this year than my usual state of Bliss. I can make lots of excuses for this distraction from my spiritual home base–joblessness, financial strain, self-induced pressure to finish my book, etc.–but the fact is that it is under my control, and I did not live up to my high standards this year. I would say “B-“.

As someone who spent all of his school years as a “Straight-A” kind of guy, these grades for 2017 are not looking very good to me. There is a ton of room for improvement! And though I am definitely disappointed in myself on multiple fronts, there is something that sneaked into the picture late in the year that softens the blow and even puts a smile on my face.

Is there a spot on the report card for “Fulfilled a Lifelong Dream”? If so, I want to give myself an “A” there. While I had worked on it for years, it was only in this year when I truly devoted my focus to not just working on the book but finishing it. It had been my biggest goal when 2017 started, and I felt the weight of that as Autumn came. The clock ticked loudly every day, and fears and doubts screamed at equal volume. But I reminded myself that, coming into the year, the way I said I wanted to feel all year was BRAVE. On I went. Then, finally, it was done.

Of course, there was relief for being finally finished, and there was excitement about seeing my creation out in the world. But the best part was the feeling it gave me way down deep inside, in a place that I would venture to call my soul. I guess I would describe it as feeling “solid” there, like a deep confidence at having done something substantial toward my life purpose. My foundation was cemented. That is quite a feeling. I hope that you will feel it one day if you have not yet. It will change your world.

I know that this effort and its incalculable reward came at the cost of some of those low grades in the other categories. And though I certainly wish they weren’t so low–I like to have my cake and eat it, too–I have to admit that, in the end, doing the work of my soul and cementing a foundation piece of my purpose made all the sacrifices worth it.

2017 was obviously not the year in which I sparkled across the board. It was, however, the year that I built a lighthouse, one that will keep on shining, providing me with a guide during the many storms that the coming years are sure to bring. I am at peace with the sacrifice and grateful for the light. Bring on 2018!

How about you? How would you grade your 2017? Open up your journal and ponder all of the various aspects of your life over the last year. Even before you dissect each one, how do you feel, generally speaking, as you sit here at the end of your year? Satisfied? Relieved? Stressed? Elated? Indifferent? If you had to describe your year in a word, what would it be? Okay, now look at the different areas of your life and build your report card. You can just go category by category, or you can start with all the good or all the bad. How was 2017 for your job and career path? Closely related to that, how was it for your finances? Better or worse than your expectations? Why? Did it have more to do with things under your control or out of your control? Did you remember that you are in charge of your attitude no matter what the circumstances were? How well did you choose that attitude? Okay, how about your friendships? Were you as good a friend as you want to be? Where can you do better? How about family? How happy were you with your relatives this year? Did you strike the right balance of time with them: enough to deepen your bonds, not so much to drive yourself crazy? How was your health and fitness this year? Did your body hold you back from doing things that you wanted to do? What grade would you give your spiritual life this year? How about your psychological state? Were you grateful? Did you feel connected? How much awe did you experience? Okay, big picture: how does your report card look? Do your scores in those main categories make it seem like a good year, or not so much? Now consider this: was there something else–some bigger event or accomplishment–that overshadowed the main categories and colored your view of the year, either for the good or the bad? Perhaps it was a major personal achievement that brightens the rest–like me with my book–or perhaps it is something like the death of a loved one, which darkens the rest. Now that you have considered the categories and graded your year in each, what grade would you give the year as a whole? Was it twelve months that you would gladly relive, or are you eager to move on? Leave me a reply and let me know: How does your report card for 2017 look?

Make each moment count,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s make LIFE together!

P.P.S. You can find my new book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at http://www.amazon.com/author/williamrutten and many of your other favorite booksellers, including barnesandnoble.com and iBooks.

Between Milestones: Where are you on The Map of LIFE?

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Hello friend,

“So, now you can start learning the guitar?”

That was the first thing out of my nine-year-old daughter’s smiling mouth about a month ago when I showed her the proof copy of my book that had just arrived in the mail for final edits. That was how she viewed the culmination of my years of dreaming and hard work: a chance to learn the guitar.

Perspective.

I had told her a while back that I have always wanted to learn to play the guitar and that I even got one–complete with an instruction manual–for Christmas several years ago, that it was right down in the basement in the unopened case waiting for me. She couldn’t believe I hadn’t played it yet. I explained to her that I really wanted to, but I hadn’t made the time yet because my writing was such a huge priority for me. As the reality of the eventual book approached, I told her that as soon as I got it published, I would finally unzip the case to that guitar and begin my education.

And though I wasn’t quite ready when she asked me a month ago–there were final edits to do and some tedious reformatting for e-book conversions–I am ready now.

So, a few nights ago, when I was absolutely sure I had finished by book stuff, I looked at the clock and was astonished to realize that I had an hour to myself without any pressing task that involved my life purpose.

Free time? FREE TIME!!!

It had been years–seriously, years–since I wasn’t pressed (and a little stressed) to get something done in any available moment. It was the strangest feeling! Like cabin fever in my brain. I truly did not know what to do. I had the realization, “So, this is when normal people watch all of these television shows I have read the names of!”

But then I realized: This is my moment! This is what I have waited for! I reached behind the bookshelf and pulled out the dusty case. My heart pounded in my chest as I reached for the zipper. And just like that, there it was. My bucket list item.

So, for the next hour, I put dents in my fingers as I fumbled through the first awkward notes. It was a frustrating and humbling hour, but it was also glorious. I was learning the guitar! After fantasizing about it all of my adult life, I was doing it. I was treating myself, too. Both of those things felt fantastic.

I have done it a couple of times since that night–not for an hour but a more realistic ten or fifteen minutes–and each time I get this weird sensation when I go to pick it up. It is excitement, but it is also guilt. I can’t seem to believe that it’s okay to take this little spot of time just for me. Granted, my daily writing time and my early mornings at the gym are also just for me–I understand that intellectually–but this guitar thing just seems different. Like goofing off. Cheating. Hence, the guilt.

I cannot even begin to count up the number of hours I put into making my book. It was an enormous investment of my mental and emotional energy, too, but tons of time. It was a labor of love, though. A beautiful grind. Whatever energy and time I had left after prioritizing my family first, I gave to the process of the book.

But now the book is done. What the heck do I do now???

Sure, the guitar training was a nice carrot to put out there as reward for finishing–and it is also a bucket list item just like writing a book was–but it is not as though I am going to devote my life to it the way I have with my writing. It’s a few minutes per day, a few times per week.

Maybe I should try to slow down and ease up on the pressure to get so much done, perhaps even try to get a full night of sleep regularly. After all, I have been mostly burning the candle at both ends since I had kids, at first because they were babies and then because I rediscovered my passion for improving people’s lives through my writing. After all of the late nights and bleary eyes, maybe I ought to take this chance to return to sanity and balance for the first time in a decade?

NAH!

I know myself well enough now that if I tried to become a “relax and watch TV” kind of guy, I would go stir crazy. There is just too much I want to accomplish in the rest of my numbered days on this planet. Heck, even after a few days of being free of the book tasks, I am already chomping at the bit.

This is why I am writing this letter to you today. I took some time off from writing the letters in order to make the last big push on the book edits, but in that time I have often felt the tug in my heart that tells me I miss the actual writing and connecting with you. It is why Journal of You began in the first place: I couldn’t wait to get my voice out into the world and to try to make a positive impact on your life. So, this feels good to me right now, like I am finally reconnected again.

But I don’t think this is going to be enough.

That book project was a major deal in my little world. After pushing that big rock up the hill for so long–in addition to my weekly letters to you–I think that once this exhalation feeling wears off (as it seems to be now), I might feel a bit hollow without a new big rock and a new path up the hill. Because, I have to own the fact that, in my vision for my finite life, there wasn’t just one book listed on my Amazon Author Page. There were many, and they tapped into different subjects and different writing styles.

So, while I am purposely trying to give myself a moment to take a breath, to relax, and to appreciate the fact that I just checked my biggest bucket list item off the list, I also get the sense that I need to act on this antsy feeling and just dive into another big project. Because even though I see value in honoring a personal milestone and enjoying the moment for what it means to my life’s journey, I also want to be clear in my mind that this is just one step on that journey and that there are many more to go. I want to act like, “OF COURSE I did this huge-but-no-big-deal thing. There was never a doubt in my mind. So, let’s get on with the next huge-but-no-big-deal thing.”

I guess I want it to be normal in my life to achieve big goals and take on big challenges, to be constantly growing and knocking items off the list. Those milestones should be dropping like flies. Looking at my life so far, I plainly haven’t earned that brand of normalcy yet. It has been a lot of dreaming and experimenting and fantasizing and chipping away, not so much on the milestone-busting. I have been smaller than my expectations.

Does that mean I should accept this slow pace as the Real Me and bask in this one milestone as perhaps the only one I will ever reach? It is tempting (and probably others might say “realistic”). But giving in to that temptation and slipping into laziness and complacency is not me. I know that. I have decided it, and I know that I will keep deciding it as I continue to shape my life and legacy.

I may not have done as much as I had hoped up to this point, but I refuse to settle for one milestone, one check on the bucket list. I have not reached my peak at age 45. There are so many more mountains left to climb.  I better get going now. Onward and upward!

How about you? Where are you in relation to your life goals, and how do you react to hitting a milestone? Open up your journal plot out the map of your life. Have you hit any major milestones or bucket list goals? If so, what was it? A graduation? Promotion? Award? Creation? Opening your own business? Relationship? How did it feel? Were you more thrilled or relieved? Did you take a break afterward, give yourself some time to enjoy the accomplishment and recharge for the next? Or did you, rather, press on full speed ahead, propelled by the momentum of your achievement? Did you feel a letdown after your milestone, feeling that “What now?” of being without the goal to drive you anymore? Did you have a little reward ready for yourself when you hit it, like my guitar? Whether or not you have hit a major life goal yet, are you in hot pursuit of one now? What is it? How close are you to achieving it? Are you moving quickly toward it, or is it a slow grind? Do you get tempted to quit? What keeps you going? How devastated would you be if you didn’t get there? Regarding your big-picture vision for your life, how are you doing relative to your ideal? Are you on pace to get it all done? How realistic are your expectations for yourself? Are you living up to your potential? How does that sit with you? How important is it to have goals or milestones out there to reach for? Do they provide meaning for the struggles of life? Are these big achievements what motivates you, or is it other things, like relationships or simple pleasures or daily contentment? Leave me a reply and let me know: What role do big goals play in your life? 

Shoot for the stars,

William 

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it. Let’s grow together!

P.P.S. If you haven’t had a chance to check out my new book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth, find it on Amazon at www.amazon.com/author/williamrutten I would so appreciate you reading and leaving a review. Cheers!

The Happy Place: Where are your fondest memories?

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.” –John Banville, The Sea

Hello friend,

Have you ever had that day when your whole system is simply flooded with memories? You know the day: when every turn of your head reveals yet another precious ghost from a golden time in your life. Have you had that day? I had it just last week.   I think I am still floating there.

My Dad’s birthday was coming, and it just happened to coincide with my kids having a couple of days off of school. So, my siblings and I decided to make the most and venture back to our hometown and the house where we all grew up to celebrate my old man and bask in that rare and precious gift that is time together.

After school on Wednesday, my kids and I loaded up the car and headed across the endless prairie, finally turning into the old cul-de-sac in the midnight hour. We awoke in the morning to the sun shining and the sound of my nieces and nephew playing. It was going to be that kind of a day.

Amidst the morning hum of excitement of all the little ones being together, my sister was the one who instigated the nostalgia-filled day by plopping down on the floor in the middle of the great room with several boxes of old pictures from our own childhood days, when we were the age that our kids are now. Of course, I was sucked in immediately.

The first thing that jumped out at me from the photos was all of the physical things—the changes to my house, my neighborhood, and the people in the photos.

I marveled at the vegetation! When we built the house when I was three, the neighborhood was new and bordered farmland. We had a big yard with a wide parkland behind it between us and the next “addition” of our neighborhood, with a series of ponds connected by a stream splitting the grassy expanse. We had so much space to play! One year we turned the parkland into a multi-hole golf course. The photos showed me why: it was so bare and treeless when I was a kid, both my yard and the park. The pond directly behind my backyard was wide open for us to swim or skate, depending upon the season. Now it is socked in with cattails and lined with trees on one side. Our long, flat yard was the home of most neighborhood games, and the football endzones were between two trees on one end (a bird bath and a tree at the other). Now those trees span the entire width, leaving no room to throw the ball through. Those photos brought it all back, though: the golf, the swimming, the skating, the daily games of football or Capture the Flag or Kick the Can, and the view across the park to my buddy Red’s house, just a quick run across the old red bridge that no longer exists. So many vivid images, so many smiles.

I had a good laugh at how my house—I still call it my house—has changed through the years of photos, too. The linoleum floor made to look like bricks in the kitchen. The spectacular red carpets and wallpaper (so much wallpaper!). The gold sofa that lived for generations in different rooms. The original microwave (which we saved and actually had to use on this trip when the modern one broke!).

Of course, all of the changes in the people and the blasts from the past kept a grin plastered across my face the entire time. There was “the ugly phase” that we all took a turn at, usually in early adolescence. There were the mullets, the wonky glasses, the splendidly awful fashion choices. We did it all!   And there were all of the old friends and cousins, most of whom I have not seen in decades but all whose photos made me smile and laugh. You know, like the shots of my birthday parties, where we would always have the challenge to eat all of our cake—angel food with raspberry sauce–and ice cream without hands.

I messaged a couple of the photos to a few of the old friends, but mostly I lamented that I have lost touch with almost everyone. Still, I was reminded of what a glorious childhood I had, filled with amazing friends and so much family. There in the house that I grew up in—the center of the Universe, it seemed as a kid—those photos had nostalgia coursing through my veins by mid-morning.

I got up from the photos to venture out to the yard to enjoy the children. They had already hooked up with the kids next door—nieces to the very kids I grew up with—and were playing kickball in the yard where I played so many neighborhood baseball games when I was their age. I grabbed my daughter and walked her over to show her the dry stream bed that I crossed every Summer day to get to the tennis courts that were always my happy place. I was a little emotional sharing the memory with her. How do you adequately convey to someone that they are walking right in the footprints of your happiness?

After lunch, we all walked on the road over to those tennis courts. On the way, my sister and I marveled at “the big hill” of our neighborhood, the one that was so big and daunting that we dreaded the thought of climbing it and usually ended up pushing our bikes up. It reminded me of the time when a neighbor kid and I sat sideways on our skateboards with our feet on the other guy’s board and rode down that hill in what I was sure would be the most dangerous feat of my lifetime. My sister and I laughed at how tame that little rise looks now. Perspective.

We arrived at the tennis courts, the site of so many memories and countless hours. Each Summer day, my brothers, neighbor boys, and I would cross the stream and play for hours and hours. I remember nights playing until it was so dark that we couldn’t see the ball until it almost hit us in the face. I thought of all the battles we had. I thought of old Mrs. Wade, who lived across from the courts, hanging out in her garden just in case anyone swore. I laughed at the thought of the Ovind boys, a couple of older, hockey-playing brothers from the other side of the neighborhood who would show up once in a while with their racquets and shout swear words and insults at each other all the way through their grudge match, drawing the ire of old Mrs. Wade. Ha!

I remember meeting another little kid from the other side of the neighborhood there one day. He had called me to arrange a match, and when he showed up, he had the fanciest racquets I had ever seen. I was in awe, as I had just graduated from my wooden racquet to my Mom’s metal one, and his were “boron” (the equivalent of gold, as far as I knew). He talked like he was a pro, too, since he played in real tournaments already. I was completely intimidated by his wealth and experience. Still, I kicked his butt, and he acted like a spoiled brat the whole time, throwing his racquets and screaming enough to get Mrs. Wade outside for a warning glare. I would never have believed that that same punk, about a dozen years later, would become my best friend for life. Life is so weird! Beautiful, but so very weird.

That tennis court is grown over with weeds now, and the neighborhood has built a playground on half of it. Still, the fences are there, and as I sat there on the bench looking out across the old court (and on to Mrs. Wade’s house—she is still there!), I was nearly overwhelmed by all that was flooding my heart and mind. How does a kid from frigid, windswept North Dakota find his home on a tennis court? Sitting there last week, I was so wildly grateful that I did. I was on the verge of tears, but for some reason I laughed instead. Happy tears.

Though it was late in Autumn, the day was unusually warm, giving me the rare gift of a flood of Summertime memories. I don’t get back to my hometown in the Summer anymore—usually just Christmas—so perhaps the avalanche of memories was due to a backlog of Summer images just waiting to be released. Whatever the case, I loved it.

We picked some apples at an old family friend’s house by the tennis courts, then walked home and played basketball in the cul-de-sac where I learned to ride a bike (and later broke my arm falling off a bike while trying a foolish trick).

It was still a balmy, glorious late afternoon when I escaped the crowd and set up my portable hammock in the corner of the backyard, hitched to the tree that marked a corner of the old endzone, the spot of my very first career dreams: the future John Stallworth or Lynn Swann for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As I lay there and tried to write in my journal, I kept being distracted by my surroundings. Literally everywhere I turned, a new wellspring of memories flooded my system. I could name who once lived in every house across the park, all the games I had played in the backyard, all the times I had thud-thudded across that old red bridge with my sleeping bag under my arm on the way to Red’s house for a sleepover.

Everything. I remembered it all.

“I have so many emotions swimming around inside of me,” I wrote that afternoon. “It feels that way, too, like my stomach is being used as a pool and the memories and emotions are literally swimming around in there. It is all a lot to process. It knocks me off-center a bit.”

I suppose it is good to be shaken in that way from time to time. As often as I dispense advice about being present and living in the moment, I realize that some of best present moments involve looking back at past moments and having a good belly laugh or a contented grin. Maybe even a good cry.

So I let myself swim. I admit: I am hopelessly nostalgic when the moment sneaks up on me. Often, the memories come to me unbidden, usually when something in a journal entry sparks a happy thought. What I learned last week, though, was that to get the full effect, to be truly flooded with the memory, I need to go to the source. I am just grateful I still have a room there!

How about you? Which places in your world spark the fondest memories? Open up your journal and wander through the settings of your life story. Which spots hold the most memories for you? Your childhood home? A grandparent’s house? Your school? A Summer camp or lake cabin? A park or sports field or theatre where you spent lots of time? A workplace? A vacation spot? A whole town? What about those places draws out so many memories? Is it just that you spent a lot of time there, or was it something special that you did there or the special people attached to the memories? Do your best memories come from the place you spent the most time? Who are the people in your favorite memories? Are they still in your life or just in your memory? How about the place itself? Is the place of your favorite memories a place that you can still return to? When was the last time you were there? When you are there, do the memories come flooding back to you in an overwhelming way? Do you try to take it all in and let it affect you? How nostalgic are you? How much effort do you make to visit places that hold good memories for you? Is there one place in particular that you have never been back to that you would most like to visit again simply for the rekindling of memories? Are you good at going places in your mind and feeling the full effect, or do you need to really be there to relive your best memories well? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where is the place of your favorite memories?

Light up the place where you are,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. And share your memories. Tell your story. It is the best way I know to build bridges across difference.

A Day in Hell: Exploring Humanity At Its Worst

“We all have a Monster within; the difference is in degree, not in kind.” –Douglas Preston, The Monster of Florence 

Hello friend,

For a guy who thinks of himself as a bearer of all things GOOD in this world–Love, Peace, Kindness, Compassion, and Inclusion–I am regularly shocked and disturbed by my deep fascination with our history of absolute awfulness toward one another.

Truly, I cannot quite understand how the study of large-scale human evils captivates me, but it does. As a lifelong film buff, one genre that has consistently drawn me in is War movies. Watching them—some of my favorites are The Thin Red Line, Schindler’s List, Platoon, Casualties of War, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Black Hawk Down–I am usually sick to my stomach from start to finish, aching from the anguish felt by all of the families who lost their loved ones in the fighting, aching for the wasted potential of these beautiful lives, and aching from the ignorance, greed, and senselessness that led to it all.

I have almost no tolerance for either violence or senselessness in my life, and it seems like war is both of those things in their purest forms. It is the absolute antithesis of me. And yet, there I sit, glued to the screen when one of these films is on, unable to deny the entrance of this purified evil into my heart and mind. I allow it in. I must. That is how it feels, anyway.

I have never been one to turn away from reality intentionally. I may have been in unconscious denial a time or two, but I want to know the Truth of the Life around me. That includes the Darkness that runs counter to the Light I try to shine. Though I look for the good in the world everyday and in the people I meet, I am aware of the bad. Because of my curious nature, I feel compelled to dig deeply into each as it comes.

So it is that, when I watched Platoon when I was about 13, I was absolutely mesmerized by the very awfulness of humans. We were worse than I had ever imagined! We were inhumane. I had to understand this somehow.

I watched more movies, of course, but the thing that held my focus far better was the Holocaust. I was aware that there had been many, many attempts at genocide over the course of history, but there was something about the Nazis and the Holocaust that overwhelmed me and drew me in simultaneously. Maybe it was the sheer numbers—six million people murdered. Maybe it was the machine-like, efficient nature of it. Maybe it was America’s complicated involvement in it, first in looking the other way and later in helping to ending it. Maybe all of those things, but definitely because everything about it—the systematic and unfounded demonization of a people of a people that became “subhuman”, the absolute unfairness of their treatment even before their removal from their homes, the silence of the “good people” near and far, the horrors of their treatment in concentration camps, and of course, the gas chambers themselves—reflected this mesmerizing inhumanity that I have never been fully able to wrap my mind around.

I can’t stop learning about it, because I have a compulsive need to understand things. Because I still can’t quite comprehend how we could have done this, I keep trying to see it from a new angle, something that will deliver me from this agonizing bewilderment.

I have read many books on the topic. I have written reports on the sociological factors that were at play in the rise of Nazism and the subsequent persecution of the Jewish people across Europe. I have been to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC a few different times, choosing to carry that awful heaviness around with me all day instead of visiting dinosaur bones, art galleries, or monuments. I have been to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and tried to put myself in her shoes. All of that was painful but definitely helped me to understand.

But by far the single most impactful experience of my obsession with inhumanity—and truly one of the very few most memorable and painful days of my life—was the day I spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the concentration camp in Poland where 1,500,000 people were murdered. That is 1.5 MILLION! The sheer volume is hard to fathom, I know, but it is essential to grasping the depths to which human depravity can sink.

I had planned for that day for some time and tried to steel myself for what I was to witness. As was the case for everything in this strange fascination of mine, my mind was divided between eagerness to learn about it up close and repulsion by the very thought of standing in the heart of darkness, literally following in the footsteps of humanity at its absolute worst. As it turned out, nothing could prepare me for the experience.

After a full day of touring the camp alone, I made it to the train station and melted into the cold metal bench outside. As I waited for the train to come to take me back to Krakow, I opened up my journal and let it all drain out of me. Here is what I wrote:

18:12 Saturday 19 September 1998 Ośwìecim, Poland

I don’t know how to begin. Truly I do not. As I stepped onto the grounds of the place, I felt something. It was small, but it was there, deep within my core. It surely began there, but there it did not end. What it was that I speak of, that thing that began there, was a cancer. And with each photograph and each display and each fact on each wall in each building, that cancer spread. I could feel so distinctly each new cell it overran. There is that place in the chest and gut that hurts so much and feels so hollow when someone loses the one he loves. That space can only be the soul. It was in that space, definitely, that the cancer began. I knew that place. At first it felt as though a surgeon with a dull, jagged scalpel was cutting it out of me slowly until he had every last bit. But then I realized that it was not being excised from my innards. Rather, there was no surgeon but instead the horrible, painful cancer. God, did it hurt! Like I was being slowly shredded from the inside out. When I knew it had every last cell in my soul, it passed slowly through the rest of me. With each new image in my face, a new cell it engulfed. It was the agony of a slow death. There were just so many images, so many visions of horror. It would not ease up on me. And there was nothing I could do to save myself. I was on the train. It flowed into my lungs and made breathing a constant struggle. I often had to stop to force out a breath and suck another one into my constricted chest. The python had me wrapped up. I was dying. It seeped into my stomach and intestines, cramping me and doubling me over with nausea. My hips and shoulders were next. They tightened and fought for every move. I was being decimated by this awful virus. I was feeling so helpless. It overtook my neck. Movement was painful and breathing nearly impossible. Still the images continued to flash. Images like the room about 100 feet long by twenty feet deep full of hair that piled over my head, hair from exterminated millions of human beings, cut to make cloth for the living. And images like the young girl’s three identification photos taken on entering the camp. Her hair was awfully shaven and she was desperately fighting to hold back the tears and be strong. Images of the standing cells no larger than my shower at home that were enclosed in brick darkness and made to hold four suffering men at a time, standing the night through after twelve hours of labor and no food or water. It was images like these that kept the cancer spreading. It went into my thighs and upper arms. I couldn’t move them much anymore, but the cancer seemed to force me along as it overran me. It took over the rights to my extremities near the end. I could just sense that I held a bit of my mind for myself yet. But it was still creeping. When I wandered through the old barracks, dreaming in the endless stacks of wooden bunks three high and uneven, I could see the emaciated, sick, and filthy men, women, and children wallowing there in the cold at night, climbing over one another and onto the muddy floors to shit or piss, if they had the strength to. I could feel them being tortured, beaten, and brutalized. And I could sense their knowing that their sickly vessels would be undressing to be gassed and burnt any day. That this was the end of some awful, awful sickness. Soon would come Deliverance. But still they were there. Still sick and hungry. Still scared. Still horrified. I could see all of this. And when I walked through that sick, sick gate at the end of the railroad track where the vast unchosen majority went immediately and all went eventually—down the stairs into the undressing room and into the showers of Zyclon-B and to the crematorium—when I walked through that gate, the cancer took all of me. I was a puddle of horrified cancer. I looked into that murky pool of water where the ashes were dumped. It was thick and ugly and mushy and awful. I thought, this is what I have become today. This is what this whole experiment, this unspeakable atrocity, amounts to. It is a murky puddle of ashes. A pool of death. Every one of us is there in that ugly mess, all of us wet and sick and dead. All of us ashes. And this is Auschwitz-Birkenau.  

It is hard to read that even now, 19 years later. The images still haunt me. The thought of all of those unique, special individuals—1,500,000 of them in that one place and 4,500,000 more in other camps like it—dying because someone chose them to be demonized and so few of the “good people”–including their neighbors and including people in America–stood up to the injustice of it. It still has the power to make my stomach turn.

I have made the effort to understand the darkness in each of us and the greater Darkness that we have all contributed to in events like the Holocaust or human slavery. I know the Psychology and the Sociology, even the Philosophy. But sometimes, like on that grey Autumn day in Poland 19 years ago, all of the knowledge in the world cannot shelter my heart and soul from being torn to shreds by the utter depravity of which we humans have proven ourselves capable of time and again.

I suppose we need the reminder though, at least occasionally. Because when I hear the rhetoric of certain politicians who seek to demonize certain groups based on religion or skin color, and when I watch their supporters march down the streets with flags and torches and swastikas, when I see these things and hear people trying to ignore them or normalize them, I feel like I owe it to those six million Jewish people who died in the concentration camps to remember how it all started and how the silence and denial of the “good people” allowed it to continue.

If I am to face up to the Truth of the Life around me in its entirety—not just the good stuff—I also need to draw the necessary parallels to our past and do my best to see that we do not go so deep into the Darkness together again. That is the best way I know to see to it that those six million did not die in vain. I will face the Darkness for them.

How about you? How deeply are you willing to explore the very worst aspects of our inhumanity in order to understand us more completely? Open up your journal and consider what you allow into your consciousness. Do you let yourself be open to the heartless and vile ways that groups of humans often treat each other? When you look at things like slavery, genocide, and war, what do you think their pervasiveness across history says about humans in general? Are we as evolved as a species as we like to believe we are? How much different are we than the other beasts? Are humans more special than other species? If you like to think of us as highly evolved and advanced, how do you explain the baseness and depravity that seem so common across cultures and time? Do you allow the things like genocide, human trafficking, and war to get under your skin and really pain you? Is there a big enough majority of good in the world to overshadow all of the bad that we do and keep you somewhat in denial of it? Are we better individually or collectively? Does humankind’s propensity for evil fascinate you like it does me? What massive failings of humankind do you take the time to truly study? Wars? Slavery? The Holocaust? Apartheid? Genocide? Environmental abuses? Racial injustice? Sexism? Abuses of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples? Does your greater understanding of an issue make you more or less upset about it? Which topic are you most likely to take a deep dive into next? Even understanding all of the horrific ways in which we have treated one another, do you still have hope for the future of humans? What is the worst thing we have done? How do you explain that to yourself? Leave me a reply and let me know: What have our moral failures taught you? 

Rise,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s be real and grow together!