Category Archives: Health & Fitness

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

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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

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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.

Hurricanes & Health Care, Russians & Racists: How do you deal with it all?

“Perhaps there could be no joy on this planet without an equal weight of pain to balance it out on some unknown scale.” –Stephenie Meyer, The Host

Hello friend,

I got a big jolt on Monday night right before I fell asleep. I was in bed doing a very quick perusal of the day’s news on my tablet before I was to begin my usual book reading that always knocks me out. I popped on the ESPN app and noticed a picture of the Dallas Cowboys kneeling in a national anthem-themed protest, the last of many that seemed to gobble up all of the oxygen over the weekend. Then I flipped over to Facebook, and one of the first things that came up on my Newsfeed was a post from Dan Rather, who was sharing his thoughts and a photo slideshow about the devastation in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. His thoughts are always poignant, and they led me to click on the link to the slideshow. What I saw was absolutely heartbreaking, an island decimated by the storm and so many of my fellow Americans without power, water, or help from a country that had just spent the last couple of weeks falling over itself to help the people and communities ravaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

It was quite a jolt, as I said. It was bedtime, though, so I forced myself to let it go and get to sleep. The jolt came right back to me the next morning, though, as I began my breakfast. My first, almost-panicked thought was, “Did I forget to share that slideshow??? People need to know!!” So I opened up Facebook on my phone, found it again, and shared it.

As the day went on, I was increasingly fascinated by my intense reaction to the images from Puerto Rico. Not my sadness or my empathy—that part was totally normal for me. The part that intrigued me was the terror I felt at missing this important news while it was happening. I realized that my panic at not absorbing the full extent of the devastation of Hurricane Maria on my fellow human beings was borne out of one thing: GUILT.

How could I have given those poor folks in Texas my emotional investment one week during Harvey, and those poor folks in Florida my emotional investment the next week during Irma, but then hardly notice when these poor folks in Puerto Rico were in even worse condition last week?  

I was very disturbed by this. My conscience was definitely eating at me. I felt like I had failed my moral obligation by not paying closer attention and lending my positive thoughts and my voice through my writing and social media posts, if not through direct monetary donations to the cause. I try to give voice when people are in need, to raise awareness and empathy, hopefully leading to both emotional and monetary resources being lent. But I had definitely let this one slip past me.

I started questioning my focus, looking for reasons why I had let my guard down and missed lending a voice to people who clearly needed all the help they could get. Maybe I was just looking for a good excuse. If I couldn’t get relief for my guilty conscience, I at least wanted an explanation to settle my mind.

I didn’t have to look far. It was right there in my journal entries and my social media posts and shares. I had spent the last several days deeply embedded in the controversy around the national anthem protests. This has actually been a pet project in my head for the last year, but it seemed to overtake the nation last week in the wake of the President’s incendiary comments and the reactions by football teams. It was a firestorm, at least in the view of the media that ultimately decides which topics will gain the most buzz and largest viewing audience.

I, of course, got into it. As I said, I latched onto this topic with Colin Kaepernick a year ago and have become increasingly invested, so I have read a lot about it, from both the historical and factual side of it as well as the many opinions swirling about. So, even though I think that much of the reaction from NFL teams was hypocritical and more of a response to the attack by the President rather than actual concern for injustice against people of color, I took advantage of the attention the topic was getting again and shared what I thought were some solid, helpful articles on social media. My attention and emotions were definitely on the topic, anyway. And since they were there, they were NOT in Puerto Rico. So, I missed it (or nearly so).

By way of excuse-making, though, it was totally obvious that nearly everyone missed it. The coverage on all of the networks and news outlets seemed as focused as I was on the national anthem and NFL’s response to the President. It was the media-driven firestorm that distracted us from the real storm in Puerto Rico and the desperate American citizens trying to survive in its wake.

I am definitely not trying to blame this on the media. They have taken more than their share of criticism this year, much of it unfair. Still, it is fascinating to me how completely dialed into the coverage of the previous hurricanes in Texas and Florida they were and then how clearly NOT dialed into this one they were.

I have no doubt that the NFL’s battle with the President over the national anthem is more sensational for the media to cover than the third consecutive week of hurricane coverage—is “hurricane fatigue” a real phenomenon?—but this situation in Puerto Rico is beyond tragic. I know that by the middle of this week it finally gathered some traction in the news, but we were all about a week late on this one. And when you are dealing with the health and welfare of fellow human beings—not to mention fellow Americans—that is a full week too long.

I know my guilty conscience was earned, but I think I am not the only one who should be feeling those pangs.

My point here is not to wallow in that guilt or to make you wallow in it—really, it’s not–but really to wonder about our responsibility toward the events of the world around us and how spread out our emotional energy amongst the wide array of issues.

Living in America in 2017 with the President that we have, it feels like one crisis or drama after another. We don’t need actual hurricanes to stir up our fears and our outrage or engender empathy toward people getting a bad deal; we have human-driven storms already (dozens of them) for that. We are living a storm! At least that is how it feels to me.

So, after I have used my journal or my wife or Facebook or whatever as a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on for things like anti-Muslim travel bans, threats of the loss of health care, Nazis and White supremacists marching in our streets, Russian corruption of our government, the killing of another unarmed Black person by police, or the White House denying climate change, it is hard work to then add forest fires (the thing that no one paid attention to before they weren’t paying attention to Puerto Rico) and three consecutive hurricanes to the emotional load I am carrying.

I know some of those are things to be outraged about and some of them are things to feel empathy about—and some are definitely both—but what if my outrage and my empathy get emptied from the same barrel? It feels like I only have so much emotional energy to give these dramas, and whether it is my heart breaking for the people in Puerto Rico or my outrage at the government’s slow response to it, I feel like it is all draining that barrel.

I just don’t know what to do about it. I want to be here for my world, an active participant in fighting injustice and helping those in need. But, just like last week, I feel like if I keep my eye on one ball, the others all fall out of the sky. I hate the helplessness and guilt I feel when that happens. I just don’t know how to spread it out the right way.

How about you? How do you spread your emotional energy around in these turbulent times? Open up your journal and write about the issues that move your needle and your process for balancing them in your head and heart. What types of things in the world get you stirred up? Presidential tweets and character issues? Racial injustice? Health care? Humanitarian crises? Forest fires? Religious persecution? Terrorism? National anthem protests? White House firings? Hurricane damage? Congressional ineptitude? Climate change denial? Taxes? Potential wars? White supremacists? Are your hot button topics more things that make you feel sad and empathetic, or things that make you feel outraged? Do you think that these things draw from the same well of energy? That is, does depleting your supply of one leave less of the other, at least at the temporarily? Do you ever feel bad that you emptied your barrel on “outrage issues” rather than “empathy issues” or vice versa? How big is your capacity to spread yourself amongst all of the issues that seem to run roughshod over our world today? Are you able to stay updated and also engage with them all emotionally? If not—and you are human, so I am guessing you cannot—how do you manage your attention and distribute your emotions according to your priorities? Are there certain issues (e.g. politics) that you just avoid altogether? Do you take “timeout” periods when you basically bury your head in the sand to replenish your heart and mind for the inevitable next round of drama? Do you “tagteam” the issues with friends or family members so that you can share the burden and use each other for emotional support? Do you feel guilty for “missing” an issue—like my lateness to Hurricane Maria—or do you see that as necessary for survival? Are most of these issues as big as we make them out to be, or are we overblowing them? Has the news media gotten us all hooked in their web by making so many things seem so urgent and necessary for us to attend to (then immediately moving on to something else)? I would love to hear how you spread yourself out, because obviously I am struggling with it? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you distribute your empathy and outrage in these emotional times?

Be Peace first,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, I hope you will share it with others. Let’s support one another!

Just the Essentials: What Do You Need to Be Content?

“The greatest wealth is to live content with little.” –Plato

Hello friend,

You know that feeling you get right before you leave for a trip? It’s a little rush of panic, with the urgent question, “Am I forgetting something?” Then, to calm yourself down, you run through a quick mental checklist of the most important items: keys, wallet, phone, etc.. And on and on checking off your list until the panic leaves you. Finally, you are free to head out the door and put your mind in vacation mode. Ahhh!!!

It is so obvious in those moments that if you forget one of these essentials, your trip won’t be anywhere near as enjoyable or as productive. And your memories won’t be the same.

This happened to me several years ago when I went to a family get-together at our lake cabin for the weekend and forgot my camera. I LOVED my camera! This was when my kids were really little—when “camera phones” were in their infancy and produced only blurs–and I was totally obsessed with photographing them with my fancy camera, especially capturing the once-in-a-lifetime moments with their little cousins and grandparents in a place that was very dear to me. After driving several hours to get there and unpacking the car, it was like a punch in the gut when I realized that my camera bag was still sitting in the hallway at home. I was devastated.

I kicked myself when I realized that I hadn’t had that panic moment before I left and thus never did the crucial checklist. So many times that weekend, I found myself wishing for my camera, hoping to capture a moment for posterity. I enjoyed myself, of course, but something was missing. There was an emptiness, a discontent. I was not operating with my vacation essentials taken care of, and I suffered the consequences with an anxious longing.

I was recently reminded of that unfulfilled weekend while talking to my niece, who is a professional photographer. I asked her about a recent family vacation to Africa—a photographer’s Paradise—and immediately sensed a sadness. She relayed that she had lugged her heavy photography bag all the way to Africa, only to find on arrival that the camera was not working and could not be fixed during her entire month on the continent. So, here was this photographic genius, whose eye naturally catches all of the amazing plays of light that yours and mine do not and then produces the images that blow us away, and she was left without this essential piece of what allows her to function happily in her world. For a month! That is rough.

With her story in mind, this week I have been pondering these “Essentials” in my ordinary life. I’m talking about the things I need to make me content on a daily basis.   “Things” in this case I am taking to mean things to do or to consume. Hobbies, foods, activities, places, habits. But NOT specific people! At least not for this list, as it makes it a little more complicated. Basically, I just want to nail down my daily physical requirements for contentment. And I want to do it without going too far into the weeds (because yes, I would go crazy without a toothbrush and deodorant, but I don’t think you want to know all of that). And in this case, let’s loosely define “contentment” as feeling comfortable in your skin, as though your needs are met and you are not arriving at the end of the day feeling the anxiety of leaving out something important.

So, what do I need to do in a day to not make myself crazy? I think it comes down to four things: journaling, exercise, ice cream, and fresh air. Let me explain.

I am not sure about including the ice cream, because I want to think that I can do without it (I am in an endless battle with my sugar demon). But I sure seem to find a way to include it into almost every one of my days. I also eat a banana and yogurt every morning without fail, but I don’t feel compelled by them. For most of my life, I also drank a large glass of chocolate milk at supper, but I have finally kicked that habit. It really is the cool, creamy goodness called ice cream that seems to be the one food that brings me back to myself when my body seems imbalanced after a meal. It soothes me. Every. Sweet. Day.

The fresh air is my thing, too, even though I neglect it too often in the colder months. When I am most in tune with my system, I can sense that I get irritable if it gets into the mid-afternoon and I have not been outside to breathe for a while. Like earlier this week, when it was wet and dark outside one morning, leaving me shut in to work in the basement. That was fine, but only for so long. Then I started looking for a reason to get out and imagining where I could find a dry spot to write. I get antsy. I long for the fresh air and the sounds of outside: the leaves rustling, the birds singing, the insects humming. I need to get out and take the deep breaths into my lungs, to close my eyes and feel quiet and whole and part of the scenery. To feel home.

Exercise is another given for me; I workout seven days a week. It is completely necessary for my mind. The body does the work, but it is the mind that reaps the benefits. Calm, satisfaction, relief, pride, exhilaration, confidence, engaged, cared for. I do it first thing in the morning because nothing in my system feels right until I have had a good sweat. And it’s not even that I am some super-fit guy who does intense workouts every day; no, I just do something. I would go mad if I was denied this ritual. Definitely essential.

And finally, I could not imagine living without my daily journal-writing. I have been at it for twenty straight years now, having only missed a small handful of days along the way. Without the journals, I would be so bottled-up, and yet so scattered. I would not know who I am nearly as well as I do, and I hate the thought of fumbling around blind in the world. Journaling gives me clarity, and that is something I am unwilling to do without. They are my solace and my most devoted companion.

When this topic of Essentials began to find shape in my mind, journaling was on the front of my brain before I could even formulate the question. The others became obvious when I pondered a bit, but the journaling took no consideration. It is my “that without which,” to be sure.

I suppose if there is a glue that holds my essentials together, though, it is Solitude. I like to sit quietly and enjoy my ice cream. I prefer to be alone for at least part of my time in the fresh air. When I workout, my headphones shut everyone else out of my mind. And of course, a little peace and quiet is the best way to find clarity in a journal entry.

I guess I am relieved that none of my Essential Four are electronic—Facebook, Netflix, or a video game—though my next selection would probably be my iPad, because that is how I do most of my reading. I might go off the rails without it, but I am not so sure.

Basically, you could make me a satisfied customer if you gave me a good outdoor workout followed by fat bowl of ice cream to savor as I write in my journal in my hammock. Day after day after day.

How about you? What core practices do you need to do to be content? Open up your journal and consider the rituals of your everyday life. Which things are essential to your contentment? What comes immediately to your mind? What category does it fit into: food, spiritual practice, toy, electronic, ritual, physical practice, location, social connection, or something else? How long has this essential thing been in your life? Has it always been essential, or did it grow on you over time? What exactly does the essential thing do for you? Is it time-consuming? Is it convenient to fit into your life, or does it require a lot of effort, sacrifice, and awkward explanations? How frequently are you forced to choose your thing over something else that is also appealing to you? For each item on your list, are they things that you actually fit into every single day, or are they things you would like to do daily but just don’t quite get to it? Do you feel the anxiety and discontentment when you leave them out of a day? How long can you go without them before there are lasting consequences to your overall happiness? Is there anything that you wish was not on your list—ice cream for me, but I can imagine other addictions and practices, too—or that you are embarrassed about how big of an effect it has on your state of mind? Is there something else you would like to add to your list, confident that a daily dose of it would be a great benefit and something that you would soon hate to do without (meditation is mine)? What is stopping you? Is your list long or short? Does the length say something about you? What do the items themselves say about you? Leave me a reply and let me know: What makes you a satisfied customer?

Be you,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. Knowing what makes you tick is a shortcut to happiness. Happiness is good.

Friendly Warning: Do Not Sleep Through Summer (Again)!

“Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its brevity.” –Jean de La Bruyére, Les Caractéres

Hello friend,

I remember last year at Labor Day. I was returning from the lake with my kids. I am always very contemplative when I am driving home from a trip. The kids sit in back and watch a movie, and I am left alone to take stock of my life and re-orient my mind to the real world. On that particular drive, I was feeling the sadness that every Labor Day brings, fully aware that Summer was officially over and that there would be no more weekends at the lake until the next Summer, which felt a million years away.

It wasn’t just my characteristic Labor Day sadness that sticks out from that drive, though. It was the regret. It was the disappointment.

I had not done enough with the Summer. I had not capitalized on all of the opportunities of my season. There were so many more Summery things that I wanted to do, that I had told myself I would do before the season had started.

More beach writings. More trail runs. More bike rides. More campfires. More s’mores. More photos. More nature walks. More kayaking.   More tennis. More driveway basketball. More stargazing. More playgrounds. More hammock time. More roadtrips. More boat rides.

That is the stuff of Summer for me. And in that car on the way home last Labor Day, I knew that I hadn’t done enough of it. I had gotten too busy and too lazy. I had let my little windows of alone time slip by. It was too easy to choose to write on the sofa versus loading my backpack and biking down to the beach to write. The gym was easier than gearing up for a kayak ride or trail run. Weekends away and staying up late by the fire seemed like too much hassle. The hammock and the nature walks didn’t feel productive enough.

I am the first to admit that I am generally (and unhealthily) obsessed with being productive and always having something to show for my time (e.g. so many words written, pages read, or tasks knocked off the To-Do List). But, really, is your ideal Summer supposed to be described as “productive”? To me, that sounds like a good word for the other seasons. You know, the ones that have cold in them.

Maybe all along I should have been aiming for different adjectives to describe how my favorite season would be. How about fun? Adventurous? Soul-stirring? Enriching? Invigorating? Inspiring? Liberating? Enchanting? Yes, these all sound wonderful. But just plain old fun is perfect. “How was your Summer?” you ask. “It was nonstop fun!” That is exactly how I wish my response had been last Labor Day.

So, of course, on that contemplative drive home—and on almost every day after until June rolled around—I vowed that I would redeem myself this Summer. I would engage all of these beautiful, inviting days and live them fully. I would absolutely suck the marrow out of Summer this time!

I even had a list going in my head, the things that I would definitely do to make me feel satisfied when the next Labor Day rolls around. These are just some of the items on my Satisfying Summer Checklist for this year:

  • Take my kayak out at least three times
  • Become a regular outdoor journal writer
  • Find several new spots to try out my portable hammock
  • Take my kids to our local beach regularly
  • Get my ancient mountain bike fixed and ride the area trails
  • Roadtrip to the family lake cabin at least three times
  • Roadtrip to visit my sister and her family
  • Play tennis several times with other adults
  • Teach my kids tennis at least once per week
  • Do several trail runs
  • Use the neighborhood fire pit and roast marshmallows with my kids
  • A few daytrips to regional parks for hiking with my wife and kids
  • Make a habit of taking my daughter to the local lakes on early weekend mornings for father-daughter bonding time
  • Play a lot of driveway basketball with my son
  • Take lots of photos of the whole wild ride

That was a start, anyway. My mind seems to add new To-Do items every day, and the Wish List grows. But that stuff marked the basics for my Satisfying Summer Checklist.

Well, I just looked at the calendar and realized we are almost halfway to Labor Day. Gosh, that sneaks up, doesn’t it?!? So, how am I doing with my list?

Well………

Okay, there are some positives. I am about to take the second roadtrip to the family lake cabin for what has become my and my children’s favorite week of the year (score!), so only one more to go on that one. I did get the mountain bike fixed, but I have only been out in the dirt with it once so far. I have been writing most of my journal entries outdoors, though usually it is just on my deck (but at least it is usually in a hammock!). I have done pretty well getting the kids to the tennis court, not as well getting my own practice in. I have taken my kayak out (once). I have done a couple of trail runs. The driveway basketball is happening. I have not made the roadtrip to my sister’s place, but my intentions are still there. The portable hammock has been used (but not enough). We have not done the fire and s’mores (well, we microwaved them once!). We have only done the local beach once. We have failed completely on the regional parks and hiking. The discovered gem in the lot has been the father-daughter bonding time early Sunday mornings at the local lakes—absolutely priceless. And there have been some good photos of the ride.

If I had to give myself a grade so far, I would say maybe a C-. I have definitely done some small portion of many of my items, which is good. But there is much more than half left to do in this final half of Summer in order to achieve Satisfying Summer status.

I better get busy being NOT BUSY. I must get more ambitious about my leisure, more serious about my fun. I need to buckle down, because now that the Fourth of July is over, you know what the next holiday is, right?

Labor Day.

It won’t be long before I am taking that long, contemplative drive back home from the lake on that final day of Summer. Though I am guaranteed to feel a bit sad that day at the passing of my favorite season, my hope is that I will have done enough in the second half so that I don’t have to mix regret and disappointment with my sadness.

I needed this check-in to get real with myself about my laziness and excuses. It’s half over, friend. We have now been warned! I am planning to heed it this year. Carpe Summer!!!

How about you? Are you making the most of this precious and fleeting gift called Summer? Open up your journal and go through your own checklist? Are you satisfied with how you have been using your time lately? Start with how you want to feel this Summer and how you want to describe your Summer when it ends. What words would you choose? Is “FUN” one of them? Regardless of your adjectives, what activities are on your Satisfying Summer Checklist? Are they things that are quite unique to the season or things that you carry along all year? In either case, how are you doing for the first half of the season? Have you gotten most items on your list started at least? How many items are finished? How many have you not even touched yet? What kind of grade would you give yourself so far? Now, knowing that you still have plenty of time to make necessary changes and do great things, how confident are you that you will improve your grade by the time Labor Day rolls around? Which items will you prioritize? Are there any items that you will get rid of? Any new ones to add? Does making a To-Do List and scoring your progress take some of the fun out of it and kind of defeat the purpose of making it fun and stress-free, or do you appreciate that it keeps your priorities straight? For me, I need the reminder from time to time. Keeping fresh air and fun in the forefront of my mind is crucial for me. How about you? Leave me a reply and let me know: What do you need to do to finish this Summer right?

Adventure is out there,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Make the most of your days!

Is Self-Care Selfish? How Do You Show Yourself Some Love?

“You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” –Eleanor Brownn

Hello friend,

This week, for the first time in years, I took a yoga class. It stirred something in me, reminding me of something important that I once let slip from my grasp.

The other day I was talking with my neighbor about the types of therapy he is doing for his ailing back. He mentioned physical therapy, electronic stimulation, lifting weights, and acupuncture. Then he said, “But what has helped the most is yoga. It is healing my back, but mostly I feel it healing my SOUL.” He glowed as he talked about how this nightly, 30-minute video routine makes him feel inside. I thought to myself, “This guy has learned a secret he must never forget!” I told him how I have always been a huge proponent of yoga. I realized as I was saying it, though, that my endorsement felt a little hollow.

I first tried a yoga class about 20 years ago and fell instantly in love. It felt so good to me on so many levels. My body felt healthier than ever. My mind was calm and clear. And there was something more, something spiritual. My soul felt good. Yoga made me feel like I was caring for myself, doing something that made my life better and allowed me to show up better for the world around me. I told myself I was in it for life. There was no way I would stop.

I stopped.

I can’t even explain why. I just got out of the habit. That sounds really lame to me now, knowing that I never stopped working out over all these years. I also never stopped telling people how wonderful and important yoga is. I was like the paid endorser who doesn’t really use the product.

I guess I just didn’t make it a priority. Not a high enough one, anyway. I never seemed to make the time to add it to my schedule or trade it for one of the other things I was doing. Oh, I brought it back a few different times over the years for short stints—and I loved it each time—but it never stuck. I suppose that, subconsciously anyway, I considered it an overindulgence, like I just couldn’t give myself that much of a treat. I was not worthy of the extra hour just for personal growth or soul therapy.

It is not as though yoga is alone in this neglect. I have long been aware of the wondrous effect that reading books has on my soul, and yet I almost never allow myself dedicated reading time (I let myself do it when I am falling asleep at night or on an exercise machine). Music is the same way. Meditation, too, I have always sworn by yet rarely followed my own advice, even for just ten minutes per day. I have no excuse.

I have always tried to be so conscious of my time and not wasting it, and yet somehow in my haste to be productive, I seem to have regularly forgotten to feed my soul its fill. I haven’t taken the best care of what matters most.

Oh sure, I have done quite well on some fronts. I have kept up a fitness routine, and that has been at least as good for my peace of mind as it has for my body. And of course, my daily journaling practice has stood strong for 20 years. That is a huge pillar of my self-care. It is clarity and sanity disguised as a blank book. I also make a point of spending a ton of time with my kids. They put wind in my sails.

And that’s about it for consistent self-care for me. In other areas that feel important to me, I either make an occasional attempt or fail completely.

One of the areas that I recognize now more than ever is getting outdoors and spending some time in Nature. This never fails to help me to reconnect to myself and to the Divine. Whether it is a walk through the forest or a quiet contemplation by a lake or stream, this is my nearest approximation of a church. It makes me feel whole again. And I just don’t do it enough. I am better about it in the Summer, even if it is something as simple as laying in my hammock and listening to the birds sing and the leaves rustle. I know I do best, though, when I get out away from the paved roads and buildings, and that is something I just don’t make the time for very often.

Something that I have improved on a bit in this last year is sleeping. Starting from the time my daughter was born almost nine years ago, I have really struggled in this department. I had an excuse for a few years when the kids were little, but I became too accustomed to being raggedy. As soon as they started sleeping better, I started using that extra time for personal growth things that I had put off, like taking classes and starting these letters to you. I was running myself into the ground trying to get it all done, going on the fumes of a mere four or five hours of sleep per night, every night. As I said, just in the last year I have made a more concerted effort to bring that number up closer to seven hours. I don’t always succeed, but I feel better when I do.

Nutrition is another one that I am just getting started with. After a lifetime of pretending I could eat mostly whatever I want and still feel good, I have lately started to pay closer attention to the ways different foods affect my energy and my comfort. I am beginning to cut things out of my diet. There is a long way to go, but it feels like the right direction for my long-term health and happiness.

The one thing that I haven’t tried but that consistently tugs at my thoughts is the inclusion of more art and creation in my life. Writing these letters to you is about as close as I get to that, and Writing Day is the most fulfilling day of my week. But I want more, and I want variety. Specifically, I feel music calling out to me. I mentioned earlier that even dedicated time for listening to music lifts me up, but what my soul is itching for is to learn how to play it. I own a guitar and a beginner book, but I have never given myself permission to take that time. The same goes with the piano. Even when I touch the keys briefly as I am cleaning the house, my spirit does a little dance. I know the signs are telling me to play.

These musical longings speak again to this issue I seem to have about indulgences. Somehow, somewhere along the way I seem to have confused self-care with selfishness. I allow myself time to write in my journal, and that feels like all I deserve. I give myself permission to exercise daily, but only if it is while the rest of my family is still sleeping. I offer all of my energies to my kids—which I love doing for me—because I can claim it as good for them. I can justify adjustments to my nutrition because it is not taking up any more time or directly affecting anyone else. If I let myself go to bed earlier, I have to write less.

That thing about wasting time and being inefficient—combined with these feelings of unworthiness and guilt about selfishness—is exactly why I don’t allow myself the other self-care activities that I know would do so much for me. Meditation. Nature walks. Learning the guitar and piano. Reading books. Listening to music. These are all things that require time that I seem to feel I don’t deserve. As though care for my soul is not reason enough. This realization saddens me. I want to think I am worth more than that to myself.

This is why I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself granting special permission to go to yoga class this week. You see, I think a big reason yoga left my schedule is that it usually doesn’t feel like as much of a pure workout as lifting weights or running or something like that does, so I had a hard time justifying yoga instead of one of those (my efficiency hang-up at its most glaring). So it was a big deal for me when I substituted a cardiovascular workout for the yoga class (even though I did have to get up even earlier to make it). I consciously prioritized the benefits to my mind and spirit.

Whoa! It seems really strange even to type that thought! I just don’t do that very often, apparently.

And though I felt guilty for missing the cardio workout, oh my, how good that yoga class felt! It was a genuine treat. I was working at it, but it still felt like a pampering for my soul. I can still feel the effects on my mood even days later. What a discovery! This is what self-care feels like! I think I could get used to this. Well, you know, after a few visits to the shrink, maybe!

How about you? What does self-care look like to you? Walk yourself through your weekly slate of activities. Which items on your itinerary are aimed at getting yourself feeling connected, engaged, and at your best? Which ones are, like my journaling, your most ingrained habits, things that are a normal part of your life? How long have you been practicing those things? Could you imagine letting go of those habits? Which of your self-care practices is most important to you? Why? What practices have you tried and liked at some point but never made a part of your routine? Do you envision yourself returning to them? What will it take? Which ones have you had high expectations for but turned out to be just not your thing? Do you have any, like my guitar learning, that you haven’t tried but that your soul seems to be calling out for you to try? Why have you ignored that call to this point? What will get you to begin? Are your self-care activities more often done alone (e.g. meditating or reading) or with others (e.g. coffee with a friend or a yoga class)? Do you allot a certain amount of time each day that you proclaim as “Me Time” and really own it, or are you generally unaware of when you are taking care of yourself? Are you worthy of that dedicated time just for you? Are you only good at justifying it in the flow of your everyday life (e.g. nutrition), or are you good at claiming bigger chunks of time (e.g. a spa day or girls’ weekend), too? Is self-care intertwined with self-worth, i.e. the more we value ourselves, the more we care for ourselves? If so, what does your level of self-care say about how much you value yourself? How can you move that needle more in the right direction? How does it feel to be renewed from within? What best helps you get there? Leave me a reply and let me know: What does self-care look like to you?

You are totally worth it,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. We are ALL worth it!

Health Care, Values, & Obligations: What Are Taxes Meant For?

dsc_0588“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Hello friend,

Have you ever been in the middle of one of your most mundane daily activities—exercising, depositing money at the bank, adding two numbers, driving to the grocery store, tying your shoes, stuff like that—doing your thing the way you have always done it, when someone comes along and points out a totally different way to do it? Or maybe they even ask you why you are doing it in the first place? Suddenly you are forced to defend something you have never even thought about before. You have always just done it. It’s how you learned, and you never considered another way. Never even realized there was an option. But then there it is, right in front of you. It seems so obvious that you cannot believe that you didn’t notice it all this time. And here you are, your mind freshly blown, with a workout that suddenly has you losing weight, doing “new math,” banking online, having your groceries delivered, or using the “Circle Technique” on your laces. It seems crazy! Has that ever happened to you?

I think that is happening to me with health care. I suppose it has been happening for many years, but it feels sudden. My mind is spinning with a new possibility that was there all along.

Let me just say up front what I want and why. I want “free” health care for all people, and I want it because ensuring people’s health and well-being is at the core of the kind of common human decency that I believe we owe to the people we share space with.  

I could go on and on for pages about the Why part, but let’s get right to the meat of things. I look at health care like any other thing that our parents and grandparents believed was the job of the government–using our tax dollars–to provide for our care and convenience. Without any of us even thinking about it, of course our tax dollars pay for a police force, the fire department, streets and highways, a sewer system, drinking water, a strong military, elementary and high school education, and environmental protection.

Seriously, have you questioned lately why we all pay taxes on those things? Have you ever questioned it? I haven’t. And when I do question them now, my answer is, “Of course I am willing to pay taxes to fund those services. They exist to provide my most basic needs and things that I value: protection from hostile forces, safe travel, order in my neighborhood, health, safe food and drink, education.” I can’t imagine ever opposing chipping in for those basics for all people. They are what I would deem essential, and no more for me than anyone else. I won’t say it is technically everyone’s “right” to have these basics, but it reflects our basic human decency that we see them as essential for all. Therefore, it is our obligation to provide them.

If you are with me so far, I think now is a good time to sneak in my basic question: How is health care NOT on that list of essentials? Honestly, I am trying to see how it differs and am struggling for answers. The only thing I can come up with is that, “It’s just how it’s always been in America.” (And, I must add, only in America.)

I suppose we all have the same blind spot I had until recently! I don’t think I am the only one who, if pressed for an answer, sees caring for the health of all as at least as important as providing fire protection for all or education for all. I don’t want to get into splitting hairs here since I have already deemed them all essential, but if forced, I don’t think it would be farfetched to suggest that, of those three just mentioned—health, fire protection, and education—health care just might be most important. In any case, I have yet to hear an argument that kicks it off the list.

But perhaps you want to quibble. Maybe you think the health and well-being of your neighbors should not be your concern, and anyway, you aren’t interested in paying more in taxes to help them out. They aren’t that valuable. So let’s look at some of the other stuff you regularly pay taxes for. As we do, try to build a sort of ranking system for how important—indeed, how essential–you believe these are relative to your own health and that of others you know. Here are just a few:

  • City parks
  • Space exploration
  • Street sweeping
  • Recreational programming
  • Subsidies for agriculture and big oil companies
  • The Arts
  • Lifetime salaries for Senators and Congressmen
  • National Parks
  • Science research
  • Zoos
  • Corporate Bailouts (e.g. the auto industry or Wall Street)
  • Libraries
  • Snow removal

We could go on and on, of course, as our taxes go to so many different and important things. How is your ranking system going so far? I won’t bore you with how I rank them. I will only say that I don’t value any of them—value them for me or for others (and believe me, I really love libraries!)—more than I do health care.

I really want to make clear here that, before all of the defenses go up and we have to start battling each other about how we could pay for it, I am just trying to establish an agreement on what we VALUE. It is a separate issue. My point is that if we all agreed with me (this happens in my dreams, and it’s fabulous!) in thinking health care was at least as important (even essential) as things like education, clean water, and the police, then, logically speaking, we would be forced to agree that we ought to be willing to ensure equal access to health care for everyone by taking care of it with our tax dollars. By extension—and this is the painful realization part—if we have agreed on what we value and yet still fail to act to make it right, we are failing a moral obligation.   The blood of the uncared for is—literally and figuratively—on our hands. I am not okay with that.

I know, I know, you probably wanted to skim through that last paragraph really fast and get to the part where you defend your side by saying it is too expensive and our system is broken and it’s not your fault and such. I feel you. I really do. That’s why I think it is important to first separate the argument so that we are not conflating what we value (morally speaking) and what we are eager to pay for (financially speaking).

And believe me, I make no claim that I am any kind of an expert on how much everything costs and how much more or less we would pay if we blew up our system entirely and went to a single-payer system (a.k.a. socialized medicine, universal health care, or government-run health care). As a total amateur on these topics, my sense is that we already pay a ton for insurance premiums, co-pays, and deductibles, and it also seems like pharmaceutical companies charge through the roof and own so many of our representatives in Washington, DC. My guess is that if the insurance industry was dismantled and the pharmaceutical prices were government-controlled, so much of that money that we now spend could go to getting everyone equal access to quality care. I am sure there is a down side of it, too, because at this point, who really trusts the government to run anything, right?

But we are Americans. We take pride in the idea that we are exceptional. It is supposed to be our thing to figure out the best way to do stuff, and then to keep leading the way with our exceptionalism. If we look at the examples of all the hundreds of other countries in the world who provide health care to their people, and if we see problems in their systems, I feel confident that we could figure out the solutions and move forward with a system that affirms in action what we claim to value (Because Love does, right? It doesn’t just say.). I feel like the “changing our system will be too hard” excuse is weak and lazy, especially if the result is immoral. I think we are better than that. I hope we are. I feel like it is time to put our money where our values are.

How about you? Is health care something you value enough to put your tax money down to guarantee it for everyone? Open up your journal and try to keep an open mind as you parse through this sticky issue. I think this is an especially tough one to tackle with an open heart and mind because, for many of us, it is just something we haven’t ever considered. Our system has been this way our whole lives, and a suggestion to change something long-held usually meets with defense as a first reaction (because of course we are right). So, take a breath, and start with logic. First, is your health valuable to you? How valuable? As important as your safety? Your education? Your water? Your public parks? The arts? Which of the things that you pay taxes for do you think are moral obligations of a society to provide for its people? Which are things that are great and you value, but they aren’t obligations or essential? Which things that you are taxed on do you feel are a rip-off? For the sake of argument, let’s say we had always been taxed for universal health coverage: where would it fit with your last three answers: Moral Obligation, Important-But-Not-Essential, or a Waste/Rip-off? Based on your answer, should single-payer/universal health coverage be a part of the American system going forward? Okay, if you were able to answer most of those logically, relax! Now, feel those natural defenses that probably came up when this issue arose. What makes you most squeamish about agreeing to include universal health care to your list of givens? Is it the money itself (that you think it is going to be much more expensive for you)? Is it that you don’t want to put anything else into the government’s hands? Is it that you don’t think some people deserve it or that too many people who aren’t taxed much because they are poor will take advantage of your hard-earned dollars by using the health care system as much as you do? Do you agree with my assertion that if we agree that health is of such importance to us that we deem medical care to be essential—like we agree on education and safety and the like—then we are morally obligated to provide it? If not, where is the flaw in my thinking? If my thinking is sound, then we are either failing morally on this topic or you disagree that health is of such importance. Which is it? Leave me a reply and let me know: Which things are worthy of your tax dollars, and how does health care fit into your priorities?  

See yourself in your neighbor,

William

P.S. If this made you really look at health care and taxes for the first time, or if it made you think of them in a new light that helped you clarify your position, I hope that you will share it with others. We owe it to ourselves to examine our values. May you be Peace.

SAVE THE DATE! What Do You Have To Look Forward To?

DSC_0680“It’s more fun to think of the future than dwell on the past.” Sara Shepard, Unbelievable

Hello friend,

“Can it be Thursday already?” “Can it be July 2nd?” “Can it be 72 days from now?” These are the usual questions of my daughter, always asked rhetorically and with a gleam in her eye, beginning a familiar dance.

I then dutifully play my role and say, “Why? What’s happening on Thursday (or July 2nd or 72 days from now—you get it)?”

That is her ticket to spill out her joy in anticipation of the future event she has been fantasizing about. “Thursday is our field trip for camp!” (“July 2nd is when we leave for Pelican Lake and get to see our cousins!” and “School is starting again in 72 days, and I CAN’T WAIT!!!”). She is bubbling over with excitement, unable to contain it in her little body.

And though I love to see her so excited, the Zen father in me views this as a teachable moment, an opportunity to impart some life wisdom. “How about we just focus on THIS moment? If we keep doing that, Thursday (or July 2nd, or 72 days from now) will show up soon enough, and you will be happier along the way. Just enjoy today.”  

But her will is stronger than mine: “But I want it to be Thursday NOW!” she says with her gleam even gleamier, knowing it is all just a game but loving to play it and get her old man going.

This is the norm for her. She always has something thrilling in her mind that she is looking forward to, some wonderful event at which she can hardly wait to arrive.

Even though I give her a gentle chiding for always looking ahead—one of my favorite personal mantras is “Present moment, Wonderful moment”—I admit that there is a part of me that is jealous of her future-oriented thinking. It seems fun! She is completely tickled by thoughts of these upcoming events. They give her something to mark her days by.

Thinking about that little twinge of jealousy, I have to ask myself, “Do I have anything that I am looking forward to??? Is there a date on my calendar that I cannot wait to arrive?” The answer to that is a tough pill to swallow.

It is true that I am, like my daughter, excited for July 2nd, when we will go to the lake for a week with my parents, siblings, and all of the kids. While it is not an exotic locale or a totally unique experience, it is a break from the normal routine and a chance to reconnect with my beloved family. That, to me, is worth looking forward to. But what else? There is not anything else I can think of in the next six months. No special challenge or date or event or getaway. Just Life. Ordinary Life.

I remember a few years ago talking with a buddy about a big trip he had just booked that was a few months away. He was a really hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy who never splurged on anything and never did anything interesting. I’ll never forget his combination of relief and excitement as he said to me, “It’s just so nice to have something to look forward to!” I get that now.

I see it with my wife, too, who signs herself up for long, difficult running and obstacle races so that she will have a reason to train. If there is nothing to train for, she doesn’t bother. But with something to look forward to, the motivation is automatic. Her Future seems to improve the quality of her Present.

I am not really sure if I am wired that way, though. Like my friend, I agree that it is fun to have something to look forward to, a light at the end of the tunnel when I am having a challenging week. But really, my life is not a terrible grind I am just trying to slog my way through. I am happy. On the whole, I am quite grateful for the way I get to spend my days. So maybe I don’t have as big of a need for that “Save the Date” event to look forward to. Maybe. And unlike my wife, I don’t need any extra motivation to try to stay fit. Perhaps signing up for a race would sharpen my focus, but I am pretty content to do my own thing and just make fitness a part of my simple lifestyle. It is not exciting, but I am okay with that. I enjoy my Present tense.

Maybe the thing that bothers me about my world compared to my daughter’s is that the ways in which we utilize the Future are completely opposite. The days she can’t stop thinking about are all positive: celebrations, trips, unique adventures, first times, and favorites. The days I obsess over are DEADLINES. Get this bill paid by this date OR ELSE! Get that blog post written by that date OR ELSE! Get these orders submitted by X date OR ELSE! In that sense, we are both future-oriented, but her future dates are all roses and mine are more like Doomsday scenarios.

My future dates on the calendar have become points of stress, ordeals to survive, not delights to look forward to. Instead of wishing Time would hurry up, I am begging for it to slow down so I can get it all in on-time.

No wonder I try to convince myself to stay in the moment!

What to do? I feel like this news is telling me to get more special dates on the calendar: parties or concerts or competitions or trips. From past experience, I know that having those types of things to look forward to is fun and makes the rough days a little smoother, knowing the light is out there. However, I also believe that we all have a different degree of need for those schedule highlights. For me, even though I don’t have many, I don’t mind.

I think it is because I truly enjoy my normal day. Included in every day of my week are things that I am passionate about and feel called to do (like writing these words to you). Even though I miss some old friends and could always use more family gatherings, I really like the people I spend my time with (my wife and kids). Basically, even though it doesn’t look very interesting or exciting to anyone else, I love my life. And even though I admit that I would enjoy adding a few splashy events to my year to add some spice to my daydreams, I seem to get along just fine without them. Because the thing is: I’m looking forward to today. That feels like enough for me.

How about you? What special days are you looking forward to? Open up your journal and write about the stuff of your daydreams. Which upcoming events do you fantasize about? Is your biggest one a trip? A party? A physical challenge, like a marathon? An “event,” like a concert or a sports competition? A family or school reunion? What is it about that day or event that really makes you look forward to it? Why is it so much better than an ordinary day like today? How good are your ordinary days? Do you think the degree to which you (or anyone) is a “look ahead” kind of person is mostly dictated by how much they enjoy their normal days, or is it more about how great the things are that they have to look forward to? Or is it, perhaps, more about your established mindset—like my work to be an in-the-moment Zen Daddy and my “Present moment, Wonderful moment” mantra—rather than anything about the quality of your regular life or the greatness of your calendar highlights? I don’t know that there is one answer that covers everybody, but what combination of those factors explains it for you? Is it a healthy thing to be so much looking forward to future days? Is there a point that it tips from being a healthy thing—with upcoming highlights providing some necessary excitement, optimism, and hope to a person’s life—to an unhealthy thing, where a person gets so lost in the future that she forgets to fully enjoy the present moment, to “smell the roses,” so to speak? Where are you on the spectrum? What percentage of your thoughts are about future? Do you use them to focus on good things—the trips and parties and such—or do you slip mostly into future stressors, such as deadlines or bills to pay? Would you say that it’s healthy to look forward, but only to the good stuff, the stuff that doesn’t cause you stress? What is the biggest, most exciting thing you have coming up that is deserving of your daydreams? Leave me a reply and let me know: What do you have to look forward to?

Enjoy all the moments,

William

P.S. If today’s letter got you wondering a different way, please pass it on. Encouraging each other to think more broadly about our thinking can only be good. Spread good!

Energy Shots: The Little Things That Make Your Life Better

DSC_0381“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Hello friend,

It seems to me that the recurring theme of my mind, and therefore my life, is “How can I make this better?” I am constantly digging into all of the different ways I spend my time—at home, at work, at play—wondering what I can do to improve the situation and make my life the best it can possibly be. I do it with my thought processes, too. It is nonstop. How can I be more efficient with this? Is this serving my greater purpose? Could I be helping more people? Does this reflect who I want to be? How can I make this more fun? What can I do to reduce the stressful parts of this? Have I seen all sides of the issue? What is it about this that doesn’t feel quite right to me? What is the lesson here? Does this make my heart sing?

As a part of this routine of self-improvement, I find myself spending much of my focus on eliminating energy drainers from my life. I try to clean up all the little things that weigh on me and distract me from the things that matter most. I am trying to clear the path so that it is easier to deliver on my potential, to be my very best. These energy drainers take many forms. At work, it can be my psychological discomfort from not being in command of a certain system, technology issues, stress from being late on a project, an unorganized filing system, or a co-worker’s attitude. At home it can be things like my messy office, a family member’s negative attitude, my children’s maddeningly slow pace in just about every activity (it is the slow eating drives me the most crazy, I have to admit), lack of sleep, difficulty finding time in the schedule for my priorities, and so many more. In every area, it is often about a way of thinking that is not working for me: fear, a negative attitude about something or someone, self-doubt, envy, looking too far ahead, or a simple lack of focus and presence.

Most are little gnats. A few are closer to miseries on some days. But always there seems to be something to tidy up in my physical or mental space. The bottom line: there is certainly no shortage of energy drainers to address. And because I am so determined to clear my path to greatness, I seem to devote the bulk of my time and energy to defeating these drainers.

And then I was sorting through some notes a few days ago, and I came upon a page with some lists on it. These were lists I had made for a personal inventory exercise some months ago but had completely forgotten about. The top half of the page dealt with energy drainers, most of which I have spelled out for you above. My answers were all too familiar, and I kind of rolled my eyes at how I have not solved most of my issues in all this time. Just as I was chastising myself for my ineptitude at cleansing my life of these drainers, my eyes drifted to the bottom half of the page. What I saw there stopped me in my tracks.

There were two columns filled with my handwriting. The first was “Energy Gainers at Work.” The second: “Energy Gainers at Home.” The instructions were as follows: Now list the things that impact your life in a positive way (include activities, people, physical aspects of your environment). Before I even started reading through my lists, the impact had already been made. It was a total “A-Ha!” moment for me: “Of course! Energy GAINERS! Why have I been so focused on the Drainers?” It was like both of my eyes were finally open. I could see the full picture so much more clearly.

Yes, of course it is important to identify the areas of my life that suck my energy unnecessarily so I can try to minimize or eliminate those factors. That is still very important. But it is only half of the picture. And the dreary half at that! It is high time I turned my eyes toward the sunny side of my world.

So, I peeked down those lists of energy gainers and got a real boost. I realized that everything on those lists still exist in my life, and more. So much about my little world is conspiring to lift me up, to give me joy, to free me to be who I want to be!

In my working world, I am blessed with the opportunity to help people on their path to a healthier lifestyle, and I get a real kick out of that. It absolutely puts wind in my sails to watch someone walk away happy and excited to become better. I also have some time to work totally alone, and, as someone who skews toward the introverted side, that time also charges my battery. My schedule is amazingly family-friendly, too, so even on the days when crazy things happen, I never resent the job for the things it robs me of. That is important to me. Finally, and something that I have become more and more invested in, I get to use my skills to help my friends pursue their passion. Doing something for a cause adds life to it, and I feel that. For all of the little drainers that show up there, it is nice to remind myself that the tide is mostly rising.

Of course, life is so much more than work, and my world outside of work is, when I really look at it, a beautiful landscape dotted with springs of joy and inspiration. I am allowed—thanks again to my work—an abundance of time with my kids. When they are not at school, I get to be with them, and this means the entire world to me. They are the essence of the term “energy gainer.” But I have other delights, too, that I revel in when the kids sleep. Creating these letters to you each week in hopes of helping you to be your best—and getting responses from you—absolutely invigorates me. Working on my other writing–whether it is my daily journal entries or my larger work, The Journal Project—is like a meditation for me, putting my mind in exactly the right place of peace. And even though it comes in the wee hours of morning when sleeping would still be fantastic, I am revitalized by my daily exercise as well. Even the physical space of my home, especially having my own dedicated work space with lots of books nearby, is an energy boost for me. A few minutes of meditation work, too.  When all else fails, just going outside and being in the fresh air is an automatic revitalizer. I love that!

I find myself grinning from ear to ear as I write about these energy gainers. They are giving me life just thinking about them! The great realization is that they are here every single day, permeating my little corner of the world. How cool is that!

So, it seems the Universe is not, after all, conspiring against my progress with all of those little gnats that I see as perpetually slowing me down and weighing me down. There are, as it turns out, weights on the positive side of the scale, too. Big ones, and lots of them. My life is full of LIFE!

My task, as I can see more clearly now, is to keep those energy boosters front and center. I must be better at giving them my attention, at extracting all of the joy and inspiration I can from them. I must shine that light more brightly on them than on the energy drainers. And finally, I must be more grateful for them and for the way they allow me to be the very best me that I can be.

How about you? What are your energy gainers? Open up your journal and your mind, and shine a light on the aspects of your life that make your load a little easier to carry. Who are the people in your life that give you a boost just by being in their presence or trading messages with them? Do you spend more of your time with those people or with the people who drag you down? What can you do to spend more time around the lights? Okay, now look at your work situation. Which aspects of your job are meaningful to you and make you feel better? Is it your co-workers, the services you provide, seeing the difference you make, your schedule, or something else? Is it just your paycheck? With all of these things considered, is your work as a whole an energy gainer for you? Now think outside of work, to your home and hobbies. Is your actual space a positive one for you? Do you have a particular room or outside space that energizes you? Which activities make you feel better? Does exercise work for you? Being in nature? Do you do anything artistic? Does socializing energize you or deplete you, or some of each? Is there a musical artist or genre that makes you smile? An author? Where do the people in your home fit into the equation? Are you good at recognizing when you need a little pick-me-up? If so, what is your go-to energizer? Are you good at focusing on the positive aspects of your life, or do you spend most of your time and energy dealing with the negatives? All things considered, is your life well-stocked with energy gainers? More positive than negative? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where do you get your energy shots?

Find the good everywhere,

William

P.S. If this helped you see your life in a different light or reminded you of something you had forgotten, pass it along. Let’s help each other find the bright spots!