Category Archives: Spirituality

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And back and forth I go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shine bright,

William

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

Enter Oola.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FITNESS

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

FINANCE

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

FAMILY

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

FIELD

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

FAITH

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

FRIENDS

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

FUN

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go get it,

William

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

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

Grading Your Year: A Personal Report Card for 2017

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

So, how did I do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make each moment count,

William

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

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

A Day in Hell: Exploring Humanity At Its Worst

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18:12 Saturday 19 September 1998 Ośwìecim, Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise,

William

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

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!

Do You Let Yourself Be Happy?

“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” –Abraham Lincoln

Hello friend,

This week, I was at the library with my daughter. After we had found her books, she wandered over to the Wii games, which are next to the movies. As a lifelong movie lover, I couldn’t help but stop and browse. It didn’t take long, of course, to find a few that got me excited and longing to watch. Then I caught myself in my daydream, had a good chuckle, and thought, “Yeah, right! When am I EVER going to find a couple of consecutive hours to watch a movie???”

That clarity about the reality of my life and schedule comes from years of experience being me. I definitely place strict boundaries around the few things that are my highest priorities and don’t allow anything to interfere with them. Because of that, the other things that are only somewhat or fairly important to me tend to get left off the schedule entirely. I don’t like that so many things that I enjoy have fallen by the wayside–and that other things that I am curious to learn have not been explored—but I have never been able to come up with a solution that sits right with me. I am just so protective of my big loves.

Because of my strict adherence to my highest priorities, I am definitely hanging out with my kids as much as possible every day. I am getting in a workout before they wake up every day. And I am sneaking in a little writing time every day. The love, challenge, wellness, and sense of fulfillment I get from this combination of priorities allows me to maintain the very high level of Happiness that has been a part of my identity for the last twenty years. But is it enough?

Are my strict boundaries and elimination of other categories of joys effectively limiting my happiness?

That thought freaks me out. The very last thing I want to do is limit my own happiness.

A few years ago, I read an article that got shared around social media about a palliative care nurse who listed what she came to believe to be the “Five Biggest Regrets of Dying People”. It was great fodder for journal entries, because of course I wanted to check in with myself to be sure I was not going to have those regrets. In one form or another, I have asked you about the regrets in these letters over the years, things like daring to be authentic, not working too much, staying in touch with loved ones, and having the courage to express your feelings. Those were all very clear to me.

But there was one regret on that short list that seemed to elude my grasp: I wish I had let myself be happy.

“Let myself.” There was something just vague enough about this idea when I was processing the others that I decided to leave it alone. I didn’t address it. But somehow, the idea has stuck with me all this time. I haven’t forgotten it. Or, maybe, it hasn’t let me forget it. In any case, it is time to face it.

How does one let oneself be happy? Or, perhaps it is better addressed from the other end: How does one KEEP oneself from being happy? 

I tend to think of Happiness as something you choose. You have to make the decision and keep making the decision. I am sure that sounds oversimplified and perhaps naïve, and maybe I will cop to that. I definitely think it is a choice—that concept is simple—but I think the choice itself is a complicated one.

Happiness has some layers to it. Everyone has a different idea of what goes into it. I once wrote to you that my version of “Happiness Stew” consists of Authenticity (living your Truth), Connectedness (to the Divine and/or loved ones), an atmosphere of Progress and Growth, a pervasive attitude of Gratitude, and lots of “Good For The Soul” activities. A few years later, that recipe still sounds about right to me.

So, given those ingredients, how do I imagine either letting myself be happy or keeping myself from being happy?

In some ways, I think each of these ingredients can play a part. Of course, living authentically—being unapologetic about who you are and what your soul calls you to do despite what others expect from you—can grant you the freedom to do more of the things you love and truly find your tribe in the world, both of which can play a huge role in your happiness. Living a life that does not honor your calling would make true Happiness a challenge. I have certainly tried hard on this one throughout my adult life, and I have reaped the benefits in my heart and soul in proportion to my authenticity. I have concluded that fake is ultimately unhappy.

Having that feeling of being connected to others and to something greater than yourself tends to give our existence a deeper meaning and value, which can lead to, at worst, greater satisfaction, and perhaps greater happiness. Isolating yourself would certainly seem to take away that “meaning” aspect–or at least change the meaning—and potentially diminish your happiness. On this front, I can admit to some successes and some failures, or at least doubts. I have definitely felt connected to the Divine, a feeling very much shaped by my spiritual and scientific worldview. With people, though, I have been more hit-and-miss. Much like my priorities mentioned at the top, I have kept almost all of my attention on a small number of people, mostly my family. Those relationships have been richly rewarding, but I cannot help but feel I have not cast my net wide enough and reached out to all of the people that I could have in an effort to truly find my tribe when it comes to like-minded adults, in or out of my career interests. That is a potential stone unturned when it comes to how certain I feel about letting myself be happy. For the moment, I will just say that my suspicion is that I could be happier if I could find that tribe.

Continually learning and stretching your limits—the atmosphere of Growth—provides that edge that keeps life interesting and engaging, which are, again, crucial.   On this Progress front, I feel like I have done pretty well most of the time. I have spent a great deal of energy on trying to expand my mind, expand my knowledge, and expand my empathy. There are still many more books to read, skills to learn, and places to visit, but I have been pretty consistent with my efforts and feel greatly rewarded every time I lean into my growing edge.

The “Good For The Soul” activities—the things that make you feel full of peace and joy and love–is another aspect of the Happiness Stew that I have been keen on trying to maximize. Running through the sprinkler, snuggling up with a good book, tickle fights with my kids, and writing this letter to you are just a few of the many ways I try to sprinkle my life with the good stuff, the stuff that just feels right. I do think Happiness is possible without a full schedule of these activities, but they certainly put the cherry on the sundae of Life. Prioritizing them in my schedule—and being fully engaged in them during their time—is truly a way of letting myself be happy.

Conversely, I can see how consciously choosing to deny yourself these treats and smiles would be regret-worthy later on. I have always fancied the idea of learning the guitar, as I would appreciate the challenge but then, even more so, I would have so many good-for-the-soul moments in playing songs and singing. I smile even as I type these words to you about playing those songs. I can see how I might be legitimately denying myself a greater Happiness by choosing to not begin this learning. That prospect makes me shudder.

Despite the importance of all of these Happiness components—Authenticity, Growth, Connectedness, and Joys–I can’t help but think that in the end, the single most important contributing factor in the degree to which you allow yourself to be happy is the presence and pervasiveness of Gratitude in your life.

After all these years, I find it to be no coincidence that the year I began writing in my journal every day was the year I began my life of uninterrupted happiness. Of course, I would love to make the direct leap from Journaling to Happiness—or even to advertise that all happy people journal—but I think that would be a bit of an oversell. No, the real link I claim is the one between Journaling and Gratitude. I have always said that the beautiful thing about the clarity I gained when I started journaling is that it made obvious the countless gifts in my life. Suddenly I was so much more thankful for it all—truly, the whole thing—and so much more aware of each individual gift that I had not recognized as such before. It was only after spending some quality time really soaking up all of that gratitude and the implications of it that I realized fully for the first time that the deep, enduring Happiness that had enveloped my entire existence was due to this newfound, profound gratitude that I had been feeling.

I also realized that I got to choose that gratitude. I had to keep cultivating it, consciously and intentionally. I recognized that the best way for me to cultivate it was through my daily journaling. I found that it had become my habit to write about my many blessings, and that writing always seemed to put me in a mindset to notice more and more blessings. It snowballed, and suddenly I was seeing gifts in places I had not noticed them before. As my recognition grew, so grew my gratitude. As my gratitude grew, so grew my happiness. Soon both were so entrenched that I could not imagine either ever leaving me.

And they haven’t. In twenty years.

So, have I let myself be happy? In so many ways, I would have to say it is more like I made myself be happy. I chose myself happy. Every day. Every journal entry. Every “Life is beautiful” tagline at the end of each entry as a reminder. For a while, I chose those words, chose to find the blessings, chose Gratitude. After that, though—I think as a reward for my choosing—it was all there was to choose anymore. That, for me, is Happiness.

How about you? Have you let yourself be happy? Open up your journal and write yourself through this rich and rewarding topic. Probably it is easiest to begin with your own recipe for Happiness. What are the core ingredients? Does my recipe ring true to you? If not, what will you add or subtract? Is Happiness a choice? Okay, now that you have defined the main ingredients of a happy life, try to determine if you are getting your fill of each. In what aspects are you doing very well? In what aspects are you falling short? On a scale of one to one hundred—with 100 being Supremely Happy—how happy are you? How does that compare to the other people in your life? Now look at the main issue of the day: How happy have you LET yourself be? Is your rating as it is because you have held yourself back? In what areas of your life have you sabotaged your Happiness potential? Have you let Fear hide your light or keep you from making connections? Have you stayed too much in your comfort zone? Have you followed the pack instead of the beat of your own drummer? Have you denied yourself your good-for-the-soul activities, thinking they were too childish or self-indulgent? In what other ways have you stymied your happiness? Are these things enough that you can envision “I didn’t let myself be happy” as one of your deathbed regrets? Are these things you can change before they get to that point? What step can you take today to allow yourself to be happier? Will you make that move? I hope so. Leave me a reply and let me know: How happy have you let yourself be?

Let go,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. Share Happiness!

The Belated Summer Reading List

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” –William Styron

Hello friend,

You know those Summer Reading Lists you see in the magazines and on websites around Memorial Day? I love those lists! You know the ones: they assume you have unlimited time in the Summer, so they tell you all the cool books to read by the beach or pool as you chill your way through the season. They give you some hot new authors and some literary giants, some fiction and some nonfiction. Everyone has one of these lists: Oprah, Amazon, Goodreads, The Washington Post, PBS, you name it. They always get me so excited about my favorite thing: books!

Well, I am sorry to say that you will not find one of those great Summer Book Lists on this page next May!

I have never been one to plan my reading. I go by intuition. When I finish one book, I just scour the shelves and the lists and choose the one that feels right to me. Before I look, I cannot tell you if I will be choosing a title in Teen Fiction, New Age, Classics, Self-Help, History, Humor, or Memoir. I find something to love in all of them as long as I trust my gut in the choosing.

So, my apologies for not providing you with yet another prescription for your Summer reading. Because guess what: September is here, and Autumn is knocking!

Thus, the best I can do for you is to tell you about all the great stuff I read over the Summer. Like the usual lists, I have a mix of genres for you and a mix of authors new and old. So, lets get started!

I came into the Summer reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I had seen the movie years ago when it came out, not knowing it had been a book. Thankfully, though, by the time I got around to the book, I had no recollection of the movie, except a few of the stunning visual images. I always enjoy a book that has something of the spiritual woven into the story, so this was a good start to my Summer reading. It also helped that much of it took place in hot climates and on the water, which put my mind in the right spot for the season.

Alongside my personal reading, I also read every night at bedtime with my daughter, who just turned nine during the course of the Summer. Our very first book of the season was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which was fun. We then moved into the complex web of people and places in Middle Earth with J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings. The book is enormous and not exactly in my genre wheelhouse, so I was relieved when we finished the second of the six “books” in the book—enough to get us through what would have been the first of the three movies—and my daughter decided we should move on to something different. Maybe some day we will return for the rest. It won’t bother me if we don’t.

The next book for me was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. I had recently watched the magnificent and moving documentary about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro”, and was eager to get into his writing. I knew he was famous for his nonfiction essays and his fiction, and though I figured the nonfiction would be just my speed—I was drawn to The Fire Next Time–I decided on this more famous novel. I should have gone with my gut. Though I certainly appreciated his writing and very much liked certain chapters, the subject matter just didn’t hold me very well. I was ready for something new.

It was not lost on me that perhaps I was striking out because I was trying out novels. Though I enjoy all genres, my go-to areas tend to be autobiographies and nonfiction (self-help, spiritual, or anything that expands my knowledge). I generally spread out my fiction attempts.   For whatever reason, though, I was in the mood for more fiction.

After these misses and with my determination to find a novel that I loved, I was beginning to wonder if my Summer reading was going to be a giant FAIL. How wrong I was!

It was just at that moment of doubt that I struck literary gold (er, purple). It was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I had seen the film version many years before—it is my wife’s favorite movie—but had forgotten most of it (which I always think is a godsend). It was brilliant on so many fronts and I was completely moved by the story and the complications of social injustice. It is a true masterpiece for any season.

I thank Alice Walker for starting my Summer hot streak, because I came into some wonderful words after that one. I always love when someone gives me a book, because I know it is, quite literally, meant for me. So it was with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, a book about keeping curiosity and artistic expression in your life forever. I don’t know if everyone would connect to this book, but I surely did. It helped me to put my writing habit/passion into perspective with my bigger life. Truly, it changed my thinking. Behold, the power of books!

As I read that one, I also started a novel recommended to me by my teenage nieces: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now. It may have taken me a couple of chapters to warm up to it, but then I was in. It is books like that one (probably aimed at early teens) and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars (both categorized as Teen Fiction) that prove to me that “great books for kids” are truly great books for adults. I will read Okay For Now with my daughter in a couple years, no doubt.

Speaking of my daughter, we moved from The Lord of the Rings to Island of the Blue Dolphins. It was interesting, not mind-blowing. Then we went to the Deep South with perhaps America’s signature novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I had last read it in high school and—surprise, surprise—had forgotten what the story was all about. Though we both liked it, in hindsight I would have also waited a couple more years to read this one with her. It forced some discussions that would be better suited for the light of day rather than in a dark room at bedtime. But still, a great book.

While that was going on, I was engrossed in an absolute gem of a book, Between the World and Me. Written in the form of a letter from the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his teenage son, this book is simultaneously enlightening and devastatingly sad. And the quality of the writing is unparalleled. It is an essential read for anyone trying to deepen their empathy, and particularly trying to understand what it feels like to be a Black man in America. It gripped me completely and remains with me weeks later.

So grateful for this beautiful stretch of reading, I moved into the final days of Summer with three of my pet topics: death, religion/spirituality, and the Holocaust.

My niece, also a student of religions, gave me a copy of Peter Rollins’s The Orthodox Heretic, a book of modern parables and commentary. It touches on a topic that often riles me up, which is the incongruity between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of his followers. I am plodding slowly through this one and am only halfway there, but I quite like all of the things it stirs in me. It is wonderful fodder for journal entries.

I happen to have a perhaps-unhealthy fascination (maybe obsession) with death, especially “premature” death and how to come to grips with it. With that, I selected Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which tracked the strange tricks her mind played on her in the year following her husband’s sudden death. I came away with more empathy for those who have lost loved ones and a greater understanding of the enormous power, longevity, and unpredictability of grief.

Staying with the Death theme, I moved to Tell My Sons, by Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber. I was drawn to it because it was written as a letter of advice and guidance from a father who was dying of cancer to his three sons. That is the kind of thing I imagine myself doing if such a dreadful diagnosis arrives at my doorstep. I am still in the middle of it, but it has already led to lots of morbid daydreaming.

The last book on my Summer list, which I will finish today, is Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I am reading it with my daughter, as the protagonist is a girl only a year older, whose family is helping their friends, a Jewish family, to escape the Nazis during World War II. It is well done, another “kid book” that is appropriate for adults.

That’s it! That was my Summer of Reading! Well, of course, I read hundreds of articles to keep me informed on the madness that is our world today, too, but I love the books so much more. I learned from each one and would recommend each (but to different people). If you made me choose the ones that impressed me the most, I would go with The Color Purple and Between the World and Me, for both their ideas and the quality of the writing.

I don’t know why I chose so many fiction titles—nine of the fourteen—compared to my usual pace. Perhaps it was the spirit of the season, the way those Summer Book List articles glamorize the “page-turner” novels as poolside reads. I don’t regret it, though. It was fun! I don’t have a clue as to what I will read and suggest to you for next Summer. Tell you what: I’ll let you know next Fall!

How about you? What have you been reading all Summer? Open up your journal and make a timeline and some book reports. What is on your list? Did you read mostly fiction or nonfiction? Is that normal for you? How did you decide what to read? Did you take any recommendations from the “Hot Books for Summer” lists from the magazines or websites? Did you use your social media community? I always love when I see a post where one of my friends asks for book recommendations, because I then scour the Comments section for ideas. Did any of your books open your eyes to the way other people live and see the world—The Color Purple and Between the World and Me did this for me—or change the way you look at the big things in your normal life, like Big Magic did for me? What else did your Summer books do for you? Give you an escape? Teach you a new skill or idea? Remind you of what is important? Make you treat yourself better? Make you treat others better? Frighten you? Inspire you?  Which will you recommend the most?  Which is your favorite?  Aren’t books just totally amazing??? I love them! Is there something different about Summer reading? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is on your Summer Reading List?

Live a thousand lives,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s get our lists together!

The Best Day Of Summer

“This is a wonderful day, I have never seen this one before.” –Maya Angelou

Hello friend,

This week’s Back-To-School photos on Facebook marked the first sign of the end of my favorite season. Though I am always tickled to see all of those smiling faces looking so much older than the same photos last year, mostly I hate the accompanying thought that my precious days of Summer Bliss are almost gone.

But, since my kids don’t start until after Labor Day, I try to remain in denial. There are still a handful of “Summer things” I hope to do with them, and in my mind, there is still time to make it happen. Honestly, though, I can feel the tick-ticking of the Summer clock winding down and, with it, a rise in my panic level.

It is tough to keep the anxious thoughts at bay: Were we at the lake enough? Did we do enough new stuff? Did we see enough family? Have we had enough adventures? Did we get enough exercise? Have we done enough quintessentially Summer things, like swaying in the hammock or roasting marshmallows? Have we connected enough with Mother Nature? Have we connected enough with each other?  

But the question that intrudes most into my consciousness as my season closes is this: Did I often enough feel that combination of true Bliss and Gratitude that comes in those magical moments that cause me to note, with a smile plastered across my face, “THIS is what it’s all about!”?  

Luckily, just as the panic of that question was about to set in, I happened to stumble upon a WHOLE DAY like that last weekend, just in time to improve my grades on Summer’s report card. It is amazing how one day can transform a world!

We had driven to my sister’s family cabin late Thursday, arriving amidst a cold, howling wind in the black of a backwoods night. Hoping for a hot Summer weekend at the lake, prospects were not looking good when Friday remained dark and windy. I used the day to get my bearings, catch up with my sister, and find the most comfortable spots to read and write. It was good company and a treat to be by the water, but I longed to engage with it they way I can only do in warmth and sunshine. I was wanting.

Ah, but then Saturday came around, and I wanted no more.

I opened the bedroom door in the morning and was greeted by the most wonderful light. My sister’s cabin has wall-to-wall windows on the lake side, and that light was an almost overwhelming beauty each morning. Like stepping into a healing bath of Divine Grace. I was instantly happy and full of a Peace that would linger all the day through.

After an amazing breakfast of homemade waffles with vanilla pudding and raspberries on top—trust me, this little family recipe of my brother-in-law’s is a delight—I convinced my wife to go out on the double kayak with me. Not much of an outdoor adventurer or risk-taker by nature, my wife’s acceptance of such an invitation was a treat all by itself. And when we got out on the calm lake with nothing but blue sky above us and the pine trees towering over the little cabins on all horizons, I was blissfully in my element. They only allow motorized wakes on their lake between eleven and three, so the quiet of the morning only amplified the beauty and serenity of the scene. As we paddled around the perimeter of the little lake, I noticed my grin and the sense of abundance and contentment welling up inside me. I was already oozing gratitude.

By the time we returned from our kayak ride, the sun was just warm enough to call for a swim, and my son was waiting for me on the shore so we could go together. He did flips and tricks off my shoulders, alternating turns with his cousins jumping off me into the refreshing water. Soon it was eleven o’clock, and the kids were ready to tube. I watched and took pictures from the boat as they giggled their way around the lake at top speed. I remembered the bonds I made at their age playing with my own cousins at a different lake, and how fondly I still remember those days and those special people. I was so pleased to be passing on that priceless gift to my kids.

After lunch on the balcony overlooking the lake, I got to get back in the water to help my daughter learn how to waterski, which again brought back so many memories of my youth. Some technical difficulties caused us to abandon the job, but since I was already wet, I joined the kids on their next tube ride around the lake. Though I am probably “too old” for that sort of thing, the exhilaration of the speed—and the crash–was an unadulterated joy for my still-young heart.

Following tubing and the noise of all of the ski boats, I was relieved at the quiet of mid-afternoon. I grabbed a floaty from the boathouse and floated lazily as I watched the kids play Whiffle-ball on the beach. Then I hopped on a single kayak and paddled out to watch a little sailboat race in the middle of the lake. On such a small lake, with all of the boats parked in the middle watching the sails gliding smoothly across the water, it felt like a regular small-town gathering. So intimate and quaint. I felt completely at ease. No threats, no worries. Just peace.

Riding the serenity of my solo kayak voyage, I came ashore to find the kids eager to get back in the water. With quiet hours in full swing on the lake, they opted for “slow tubing,” a delightful little cruise around the lake, with the pontoon dragging the tube and a knee board on separate ropes. The kids dove off the tube and board at their whim and hung onto the rope as we chugged along at a snail’s pace. They were having an absolute blast as we chatted on the boat, and soon I was feeling like they were getting the better of the deal. Off came my shirt and sunglasses, and I dove in to join in the kid fun as the boat trolled on. It was fantastic—exhilarating and soothing all at once.

As we pulled into the dock, my kids asked me if I would take them out on the double kayak. Nothing would please me more, I was thinking. Off we went, and soon their cousins joined us in the middle on two kid kayaks. It was that time of day when the sun is sinking and everything is colored in the most beautiful light. There was water, the beauty of Mother Nature, and the magic of children. That is my kind of paradise!

We returned to the cabin for a sunset dinner on the veranda before strolling down to the fire pit by the beach to roast marshmallows and make s’mores. Those marshmallows had been waiting too long on my Summer To-Do List, and they were heavenly!

That was all warm-up, though, for the grand finale: star-gazing! This may seem like nothing to you, but I can’t tell you how long it has been since I sat out under a clear sky at night away from the lights of a city. Years! I was absolutely mesmerized by the clarity and endlessness of it. Even better was seeing my kids get a big thrill at seeing the Big Dipper and North Star. We were thoroughly amazed by the magnificence of it all.

Though it was definitely bedtime for my body, my mind was on fire with wonder and gratitude. I hated to look away from the night sky. But as I said goodnight to the kids and lay my head down on my pillow, the visions left over in my mind from all I had basked in that day were enough to carry me smiling into dreamland.

From the moment I rose in the morning to the moment I drifted off to sleep, that day was one for the ages. There was no one thing that made it so. It definitely wasn’t some blockbuster event or moment. No, it was a million little things. It was all these perfect, can’t-stop-grinning moments in succession set in my kind of place with my kind of people. It was the small size of the lake, its restricted speed boat hours, and the resulting intimacy that made everything feel so quaint and low-key. It was the middle-of-nowhere sense of where we were, and the feeling of endless beautiful forest around us. Reinforcing that feeling was the fact that we had no cellular or Wifi service, so we were totally disconnected from the chaos and foolishness that defines America lately. It was certainly the water, which always woos me. It was the company: my wife and kids and my sister’s family, all who are very dear to me and don’t do much to push my many buttons. It was also clearly the atmosphere that my sister sets at her place, too: no set schedule or expectations for joining activities, easy meals, no obsession with neatness, just be kind and enjoy yourself. It was seeing the world of my wife and kids expand: new place, new activities, a new adventure. I always love being a part of that. It was nostalgia. And finally, it was that priceless and indescribable sense of enchantment I experience amidst certain settings or activities: the glassy water, the night sky, campfire, eating a roasted marshmallow right off the stick. These are things that fill me with the kind of tingles that I can only translate as a big thumbs-up from my soul, letting me know it is being taken care of.

Saturday felt like an entire day of those tingles. I think of it now, and this grin that cannot be wiped from my face tells me that it was surely my best day of the Summer.

How about you? What was your best day of the Summer? Open up your journal and your mind and walk yourself through those special moments. Which day was it? Does the exact date come immediately to mind? What was it about that day that makes it stand out from all the rest? Was it anchored by a big event (e.g. a concert, family reunion, vacation, or party) that defined the day, or was it quite unspectacular on the surface? Which people were involved in your best day? Are those people regulars in your list of favorite days from other seasons and years? Was it the people that made it the best day? Had you looked forward to that specific day for a long time, or did it sneak up on you like mine did? How early in the day did you know that you were a part of something special? How big of a role did the setting play? Was it a regular spot for you (e.g. your home) or somewhere new? Did food play a role? How about activity? Was it more about what you were doing or how you were feeling or being? How do you think the day rated for the other people who were involved in it? Was it fantastic for everyone, or maybe just an ordinary day for some? Did you talk about how contented or joyous you were at the time, or did you keep it to yourself? Could you create that same type of experience again, or was this a one-shot deal for which everything just fell into place perfectly? What is it about that day that you could put more of into your normal days? Does your best day make you smile just thinking about it? I hope so. Leave me a reply and let me know: What was your best day of the Summer?

Savor your moments,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. Let’s celebrate our lives!

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.