Tag Archives: Gratitude

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.

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 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!

What A Difference 10 Years Makes! Revisiting Life A Decade Ago

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” –Robert Frost

I have been fighting off a lot of yucky feelings and negative self-talk this week. You know those feelings. They are always lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce when your defenses go down. I usually have mine up. My defenses are 1) my attitude of gratitude, 2) my optimistic view of the future, and 3) my big dreams. When these things are intact, all is well in my world. I am sunshine and happiness. That is my normal mode.

This week, though, I have been dealt a few blows that have threatened my usual sunny outlook. Things just haven’t been going my way. My car needed a major repair. Then the furnace went down and needed to be replaced. The taxes brought their annual drama. Amidst all of this extra financial pressure, I have been beating my head against a wall trying to get my dreams going and figuring out the next source of income for my family. The weight on my shoulders feels like it has suddenly multiplied.

These simultaneous setbacks and struggles have created a storm inside my head. I have been all sorts of things I don’t want to be. Worried. Confused. Self-pitying. Stressed. Unsure. Pessimistic. Fearful. Doubtful. Disappointed. Defeated.

Yes, it seems I allowed my circumstances to ignite a pity party in my mind, and then I realized that the party had gotten a bit loud and out of control.   I needed an intervention.

One of the strategies that the self-help gurus often suggest for people facing some kind of drama or dilemma is to ask yourself, “Will this even matter in X number of years?” (you fill in the X: five years, ten years, twenty). Supposedly, that helps to put the problem in perspective, perhaps revealing that it is really no big deal at all.

So, I wondered: Would this little moment I am having now—this crisis of dreams, career, and finances—even matter ten years from now? Will I remember it? Or will it be just a minor blip on the radar?

Maybe Life is just a constant flow of these moments, some just less stormy than others, but all of them basically just blips, not so much blow-ups. Or maybe not.

I decided that I needed some perspective. Luckily for me, I have a few big storage tubs full of perspective in my storage closet. My journals. They are all there: keys to the past just waiting to be turned. I searched through the stacks to find the one that contained my daily entries from ten years ago at this time—Volume 36—to see what I was up to, how stressful and dramatic it was, and if it all even mattered in the end.

What did I find? Stress. Drama. Exhaustion. Happiness.

Ten years ago this week, I was in the middle of making a big decision about which of two job offers to accept at the company where I worked. I was also studying and taking some important exams for my career. There was also a lot of political drama going on at work that I was forced into the middle of. And in the background of all of that was a very real struggle to become a parent (which all by itself would have been stressful and dramatic enough). In between lots of visits to doctors’ offices in our quest to become pregnant, my wife and I were also interviewing to adopt a child.

Some excerpts from those days in late April of 2007:

Is my body supposed to be this sore so early in the week? My goodness!……I am wiped!….It is coming down to it on the job thing……There is so much to do every day. No wonder lifetimes just zip by and roll together. I will blink and be 50. It is crazy. I am happy, though, always happy. It is good to be me. La vita é bella.

 After all of this rollercoaster nonsense, I am actually pretty excited about it. I hope that it goes well and that I can report some good news in my next entry. I am optimistic. Come what may, I will be happy.

I accepted the job tonight. ….So, on we go. I hope it is tons of fun. I am excited about it. New challenges. It will be that. This week has tapped me. …It is a mad, mad world. The beat goes on. I am so very blessed. Life is beautiful.

Who ever thought there would be so much to do in this world? I really do not like being crazy busy, but it has certainly been that way in the last several years. …The extremes are there. I would love to get some balance. Some day. I am alright. I am Love. I am Joy. I am Peace. Life is beautiful.  

I am no fan of these political battles… I am optimistic. ….I am excited for the challenge. They never seem to be in short supply. …Let’s cross our fingers. Good things will come.

It is a busy time in the world. … What an adventure lies before me!. ….I am always optimistic. Good things are coming our way. Blessings abound. Life is beautiful. 

Whew! I really was running around like a crazy man in those days! Working long hours, and every day of the week. Stressing hard about my job. Basically, I was a workaholic. Thank goodness for a supportive and understanding wife! The only other saving grace was my attitude and worldview. Despite my circumstances—which I would not recommend to anyone—I remained so grateful and optimistic. So happy. I am pretty impressed by that (if I do say so myself!).

What can I learn from those days that will help me now? Is there really a gift of perspective?

On the one hand, I made it through that drama, which should give me hope that I will make it through my current crisis. On the other hand, that moment was not nothing. Those decisions and actions were important and had long-lasting effects.

Of course I survived, and I would have survived whatever came. But things could have gone in different directions had I acted differently, and especially if my attitude had been different. I could have let the pressure and the exhaustion get to me. I could have been less diplomatic at work and ruined my opportunities. I could have let the pregnancy/adoption stress drive a wedge between me and my wife. I could have given up on lots of things when it got so hard. I could have failed to enjoy it and be grateful for it all. I definitely could have made it worse.

So, is this current dramatic moment something? Or is it nothing? It certainly feels like something to me. It feels like there is a lot riding on the coming days. It feels like much could change in my story and the story of my family depending upon the way this all shakes out.

Does that give me any specific direction on my next action? No, not really. But what it does give me is a reminder of the importance of my attitude and outlook. I need to take a lesson from that guy I was ten years ago. No matter how uncertain or contentious things get, I need to be grateful for the wonderful blessings all around me. And I need to be optimistic and excited about what the future holds. I know that will help to guide my decisions to the outcomes that are best for me.

Ten years from now, I hope to look back at this moment with complete gratitude and wonder at what a magnificent life was brewing in the middle of this divine storm. I hope I will be proud of the way I rose to the challenge and acted with courage, kindness, and integrity. The lesson, after all, will be decades in the making.

How about you? What did your life look like ten years ago? Open up your journal and your memory. What was going on with you a decade ago? How old were you? Who were the most important people in your life? What kind of work were you doing? Were you heavily involved and connected with your job? Too much so? Where were you in relation to your dreams? How would you describe the state of your spirituality? How tired were you? What were the biggest issues you were facing? Did it feel like a lot of drama or crisis at that time, or were things flowing smoothly? How happy were you? Describe your attitude at that time. Were you grateful? How optimistic were you? Looking from today’s eyes, what can you learn from you and your life of a decade ago? What were the things you did then that have carried over and shaped your life today, for better or worse? Now answer all of the questions above as they relate to your life today. Do you prefer today’s version of you and your world, or would you take yourself back a decade if you could? Which parts would you do just the same again from that time? What would you change then to shape a better today? What is your biggest regret from that time? What was the best thing you did for yourself ten years ago? What can you do for yourself now that you will thank yourself for in ten more years? Leave me a reply and let me know: What can you learn from a look back at yourself in 2007?

Enjoy the ride,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please pass it on. We are here to teach each other.

From Gripes to Grapes: Finding Your Way to THANKFUL

IMG_1667“Be thankful for every mountain, because it is the mountain top that will give you the best view of the world.” –Gugu Mona

Hello friend,

Last Sunday at my spiritual gathering, the minister explained that the collection for the day would go entirely to the refugee family that our congregation is sponsoring and who will be arriving in a couple of weeks. We were also collecting household goods—beds, sheets, lamps, cleaning supplies, etc.—to get them started on their new life in America. Well, one person in my row was paying attention to the minister.   So, when the basket was passed around, I pulled out my wallet and grabbed more than I usually do. My wife looked over, her eyes got big, and she whispered, “Whoa! Big spender!” I whispered back my defense: “It’s for the refugees.” An “Ahh” and a look of recognition appeared, followed by a nod of approval and a thumbs-up.   In that moment, I suddenly felt so grateful for something that usually has me either worrying or complaining: my bank account.

You see, as I alluded to in my letter to you a few weeks ago (see “How Much Is ENOUGH?”), I tend to be gripped by dread and insecurity each time I open my wallet. I hate spending money, and wish I had more of it so I wouldn’t be so obsessed by it (at least that’s how I explain away my worries and stinginess). So why was I suddenly feeling grateful for the money in my wallet and so willing to part with it?

Because I realized that I have a lot more of it than the entire refugee family has, and I actually have a bank account to fill my wallet up again when it goes empty. And in that moment, I realized that that was called good fortune.

In this time called Thanksgiving, I think I am usually like most people: I take a moment to give thanks for my family and friends, my health, clean water, a roof over my head, and warm food in my belly. Those thoughts humble me, and they connect me back to my Creator and what is really important in this world. I love Thanksgiving for just that reason: the humble reminder.

But as I thought about my sudden burst of gratitude concerning my old nemesis, money, something struck me about my usual Thanksgiving moment of gratitude: I am letting myself off easy.

Think about it. How about much work does it take to be grateful—on a day that we get to take off of work for the specific purpose of giving thanks for our blessings—for the things that are so obviously good in your life?

That’s why the money incident got my attention. Money is just not something I am used to being overwhelmed with gratitude for, or believing I have in such abundance that I should always be feeling grateful for. I really should, though, because I realize now that I do, indeed, have enough.

But I don’t always feel grateful. Instead, I worry. I gripe. I clamor for more. I get a little bitter. Those aren’t good feelings. I don’t want more of them.

I truly enjoyed the experience of feeling grateful for the money I have and that I could give some away. Of course, I am a big fan of an unexpected joy and a boost of gratitude. So, I started thinking of the other things I am most hung-up about in my little corner of the world. You know, the things I tend to complain about, fear, or be depressed by. These last couple of days, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can change those downers into things I can be grateful for. I’ve come up with a few ideas.

I am not a Winter person. I never have been. I don’t like the cold. I don’t like shoveling snow. I don’t like the consuming darkness. And I despise the inconvenience of putting on so many clothes before leaving the house. It’s just not me. I’m a Summer guy. So, as these cold, dark days have been descending upon me following a lovely Autumn, my tendency is to get the grumbles. Misery loves company, and there are people everywhere I go who are willing to complain about Winter if I give them a little nudge. But today, I am flipping the script. Today I am focusing on the fact that the cold, dark days of Winter are usually the time when I get my most and best writing done. Of course, I love that. So, come on, Winter! I am already grateful for you!

One nice thing about this process is that I am realizing that I don’t have a lot that I consistently complain about, no anchor in my life that always brings me down. I am grateful for that all by itself.

I have to admit, though, that I have been carrying around a weight of sadness since the election, and even in the months leading up to it, as I watched my country be revealed as a place I had been blindly hoping it was not. I confess to a silent resentment toward my many family members who voted for this person whose success translates into other members of my family and my friends living in greater fear for their physical safety and the potential loss of their civil rights. I have had a terrible time reconciling that. I don’t want to feel that anger toward these people that I love. So, today I am trying (with all my might) to let that resentment go. I am deciding to focus on the fact that they are otherwise loving, decent people who have always treated us, on a one-to-one basis, very kindly. I am grateful for that, and I will keep working hard to focus on that kindness.

On a less personal and more broad scale, I have been fairly devastated by what has felt like the loss of the country I thought I had been living in. Though I had been dispirited by the entire year-and-a-half Presidential campaign and its recurring themes of racism, misogyny, and religious intolerance, I was somehow still hopeful that my fellow countrymen would, when they and their consciences stepped into the voting booths together, make a bold and decisive stand against that brand of ignorance.

Of course, my optimism was shown to be shockingly misguided. My psyche has been ravaged as I have watched the ensuing expressions of hate in our schools and streets, as well as the celebrations by white nationalist and white supremacist groups about the election results and the Cabinet appointments that have followed. I have listened to my loved ones who aren’t straight, white, Christian, American-born males express their fears and share the bad experiences they have had due to their identities. I’ve been feeling so stupid because I believed something about my country that turned out to be untrue, and then I have felt sick about the truth. I have to be honest: as a guy who tries to practice and preach Gratitude and always searches for the silver lining, I have had a hard time finding it on this topic these last couple of weeks.

But then I was standing in my kitchen on Thursday evening, looking out over the Thanksgiving meal being enjoyed at my dining table and family room sofas by a small gathering of friends and family members. There was lots of laughter, but there were also interesting discussions about a wide range of topics, including faith and social issues. After listening to some specifics in the few small groups, I pulled my view back a bit further and saw something different, something that changed me.

Here in this one room in my home was a microcosm of the America I had believed in just a few weeks ago. There were white people, Christian people, straight people, able-bodied people, American-born people, and male people, of course. But there were also black people, multiracial people, Muslim people, nonreligious people, gay people, disabled people, immigrant people, and female people. They were just enjoying each other and strengthening the bonds of community and humanity by learning more about one another. It was a little, one-room Utopia.

So, despite all of the legitimate fear and worry that these people feel with the recent election results, and despite how down I have been about living in a country that voted for this fear by voting in the intolerance and bigotry that causes it, my table reminds me that I can still do something about it. That we can still do something about it. It may become more difficult in the next few years, and we may be doing a lot more comforting in our gatherings than we would like. But if we are intentional, and if we keep Love at the forefront, we will not be broken by this setback. The arc of the Universe inevitably bends forward, toward progress. It is not always linear, but the long course of history shows it to be steady. I am thankful that the people who gather at my table just as they are—as equals—will be the keepers of the flame, the ones insisting on progress despite formidable obstacles in our path. I am so, so thankful for that.

And I needed the reminder.

How about you? What are the things in your life that you usually complain about or that drag you down that you are willing to try to turn into things you can be grateful for? Open up your journal and peruse your pattern of thoughts. What do you complain about? Is it big stuff or small stuff? Is it worthy of your effort it takes to complain? What is the stuff that annoys you but that you hold your tongue about? What kinds of things really depress you or otherwise drag you down? Do your issues tend to be constant or recurring things—like money or Winter—or unique issues that come up once, like an election? Pick an issue. What can you do today to change your mind about that issue to the point that you are grateful for its existence? Try that question with progressively bigger hang-ups, going as deep as you can with each to come up with something positive about them that you can be thankful for. How hard is this for you? I think it is easier sometimes to imagine how you will see these “problems” twenty years from now, because from that point-of-view you might be able to see how these issues were actually blessings helping you get to where you need to go. But maybe not. Do you have anything that you absolutely cannot spin in a grateful direction? Is that due to a lack of imagination or effort on your part, or is it just so dark and bad that there is no lens from which to look at it and find something to be grateful for? Does this quest for gratitude make you feel better and help you to see light where you didn’t before? Is this a natural habit for you or something you need much more work to develop? Leave me a reply and let me know: Can you find your way to THANKFUL? 

You are a gift,

William

P.S. If today’s letter helped you to move toward an attitude of gratitude, or if something else resonated with you, please share it. Gratitude is worth spreading!

Dear Future Me: a letter to myself 25 years from now

DSC_0550“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis

Hello friend,

Twenty-five years from now—if I am blessed to be here that long—I will be 68 years old. I can scarcely begin to imagine how much our world will have changed by then. What will our energy sources be? Will cars fly? Will polar bears be extinct? There are way too many questions to consider; I get dizzy just thinking about it. Twenty-five years ago, I had never even written in a journal; twenty-five years from now, I will probably have filled up 100 or more. In any case, I am guessing that the world I will be chronicling when I’m 68 will be vastly different than the one I write about these days.

But what about the chronicler? ME. How different will I be as I navigate that different world? Hmmm….that is a stumper. Theoretically, the bulk of the upheaval and “finding yourself” parts of life happen in your early adulthood: 20s, maybe some 30s. I’m 43 right now. Does that mean I am supposed to be in the settled, stagnant part, and that nothing very crazy happens after this? Just a bunch of “getting old”? I am not so sure about that theory, because it seems like I have a LOT left to do!

Whatever is ahead, and because I am basically a loner (and don’t really foresee that changing much), I thought that my 68-year-old self might appreciate a note from an old friend. ME, the 43-year-old version. So, here goes….

Dear Future Me,

I am glad you made it this far! As you well know, for much of your life, I was quite sure you would not. I had you pegged for the guy who dies young, leaving a lot of “What might have been…” thoughts behind. But here you are, alive and well. That is something to appreciate.

Look at your family! What truly extraordinary people you have been blessed to call your tribe. You completely lucked out with that wife of yours. She has done so much good in the world. I still don’t know how she puts up with you, but I am glad that she does. You better be, too! And your children have grown into such unique and authentic adults, giving their gifts to the world in ways that only they can. I know you believe that we all come to Earth with our personalities and our callings mostly determined, and that you take no credit for their successes and the class with which they handle them. However, I wish you would remind yourself once in a while that you played your part well, too, giving them the love, support, and guidance that allowed them to authentically take their leaps, knowing that you had already done what you could to soften the inevitable falls. If you have done one thing right on this journey, it is that. Knowing how hard on yourself you are about making enough of an impact during your short time on this planet, I hope you at least take some comfort in that contribution. You’ve been a good Dad. And yeah, they really are amazing.

Speaking of your impact and how you have tried to make it, I can sum it up this way: I am sorry, and I am proud of you. Like you, I really wish you would have been able to reach more people with your message and helped them to live their best and happiest lives. I am sorry for that, as I know how it pains you, and I know they would have benefited from hearing you. I hope you will continue your efforts for all the days that you live. The task is worthy of your time and effort. On the flipside of my sympathy, I truly am proud of your mission and how you have gone about living your purpose. You have, if nothing else, stayed on task these last 25 years. Just this morning, I was writing graduation cards to your niece and nephew, and my message to them was this: “If I have one piece of advice for you, it is to understand who you are and what makes your heart sing. Then just be unapologetically you, forever and always.” I am glad that, on the whole, you have stuck to your own advice. Of course, I know you have made some compromises to keep the bills paid and such, but in all these 25 years, you have never lost sight of your passion and your purpose. Remember that Life Purpose exercise you did way back when, when you decided that at your core, you were a catalyst for self-awareness and authenticity? If that is so, then you have done okay in living that purpose. I know that you wished for a bigger audience on a broader platform, but you haven’t stopped being yourself and delivering your message. And though I know your journey with this is not over and that you will keep fighting the good fight, even if you never sell another book or give another speech, I hope you will find some peace in having made the attempt. You have lived with the idea that “This is not a dress rehearsal,” and I hope you can see that as its own version of Success. So, as you hit the home stretch of the last 25 (or so) years of your journey with your message, I hope you can somehow balance the seemingly conflicting ideas of NEVER SETTLING for the amount of progress you have made and still APPRECIATING the difference you have made in people’s lives.

 I can safely say that the part of my vision of you at 68 that makes me feel the best—most relieved, frankly—is that you have remembered to be, above all else, grateful for the countless gifts that you have been blessed with. Your thoughts are centered around a theme of Gratitude, and that has undoubtedly been the thing that has kept you consistently happy for all of these years, no matter how the world has turned. In whatever years you have left, as perhaps some of your physical and mental gifts may leave you, it is my great hope you never lose that precious Gratitude.

 It surely has been a magnificent ride! Keep on marching your path to the beat of that drum that only your ears can hear. And remember to always reflect the Truth that you have known all along: Life is beautiful.  

Always,

43-Year-Old William

P.S. I almost forgot. It’s time to forgive yourself for getting old (and looking old). It’s part of the deal, so deal with it!

How about you? What would you like to say to Future You? Open up your journal and lay the groundwork for a very important letter. I think it would be easier to write a letter to Past You—maybe we will do that next week—because you know exactly what that life was. It seems the hardest part of this task is to come up with a reasonably clear feeling and visualization of what your life and worldview will be in 25 years. But I urge you: do that work! It is important. Making this visualization requires a blend of honesty and hopefulness about how you will navigate the next quarter-century: mentally, physically, spiritually. The habits of mind and body that you carry into that distant future day dictate the letter you are about to compose, so consider them fully. What is central in your life today—for example, your purpose, dreams, family—that you are certain will still have importance 25 years from now? How old will you be in 25 years? Where will you be in your career cycle then? How about your family cycle?   What will Future You want/need to hear from Present You? Encouragement? Consolation? Empathy? Congratulations? Instructions? Thanks? A kick in the butt? A reminder of what she has believed in and what her purpose was? A reminder of her value and who loves her? Permission to die? It could be any or all of the above, and so much more. I know I encourage you every time to write it down, but sometimes I mean it more than others. This exercise was very helpful for me. Emotional, too. It taught me some things I need to remember today and tomorrow, not just when I am 68. So, answer the questions above, of course, but then take that final, crucial step: WRITE THE LETTER! I won’t even ask you to leave me a reply this week (though I always appreciate it more than you can imagine). Instead, leave yourself one, and start it like this: “Dear Future Me…..”

Live your whole life,

William

P.S. If this letter and this exercise were good for you, I hope you will share them with your friends and family. It is about improving the quality of our lives, and to my mind, that should be a universal hope. Blessed be.

Thanksgiving & Responsibility: Refugees & the Home of the Brave, Part 2

DSC_0061 2“The price of greatness is responsibility.–Winston Churchill

Hello friend,

Thanksgiving Week is always–for me, and probably you, too–a time of reflection about all of life’s many wonderful blessings. Seeing everybody’s gratitude posts on Facebook and getting texts from family members, it always puts me in the mindset of counting my blessings. This year was no different. Although I think of myself as habitually grateful—reminding myself every day in my journal of how blessed I am—Thanksgiving Day found me thinking in specifics about the things that make this life so magnificent.

Halfway through that day’s journal entry, I wrote to myself: “I am truly grateful for this wonderful life of mine. There is Love all around me and in my heart. I cannot believe how lucky I am to share this little world with Karla, India, and Isaiah. We have the best time together, and it makes me shudder to even begin to imagine a world without them. They are the best. And of course, my big Rutten family is all I could ask for in that department. I am also so, so grateful that I woke up a couple of years ago to the fire inside me and the need to pursue my passion and share my voice with the world. I am every day driven by that, and happily so. It is an enormous challenge, but that challenge represents the blessing of knowing who I am and what I have to give. It’s a beautiful responsibility. I’ll take it! It is plain to me in this moment that I am blessed in every way. It is a Happy Thanksgiving, indeed! Life is beautiful.

It’s a pretty typical gratitude check for my journal, the kind of sentiment that has filled up many lines of many pages of many journals in the last twenty years of writing. The part that my heart keeps going back to this Thanksgiving week, though—the word that feels exceedingly relevant in light of recent world events—is “responsibility.” Yes, with all of the focus everyone is putting on being thankful, my mind cannot help but carry gratitude to its next logical step. For me, Gratitude’s child is Responsibility.

I have always been a big believer in the principle, “With great gifts come great responsibilities,a.k.a. “To whom much is given, much is expected. In my mind, if you are lucky enough to have hit the lottery in one form or another—your intelligence, your physical abilities, your wealth, your power—then you have an obligation to do the best you can with your special gift. Honor what is special about you by using it to its fullest, especially in raising up others who were not given your gift. And don’t act like you are so much better than everyone else just because you won the lottery. You got lucky. Be grateful for that, not arrogant. That’s how I see it.

Lately, my beloved America has been embroiled in the drama of the Syrian refugee crisis. Even though there is, theoretically, space enough and resources enough for a few more in this great land, we ardently demand that our borders be closed and our resources saved just for us. Mine, not yours! It is greedy and small of us. But mostly, it just feels like our response is a blatant display of ingratitude.

We have struck the geographic lottery by being born in America, where we have tons of freedoms, clean water, never wars on our soil, and relative economic prosperity. And very few of us have personally done anything to earn this stuff. We got lucky by being born here. We have so much, and we like to think of ourselves as the world’s leader (e.g. we have taken it upon ourselves to explore space on behalf of all humankind, and it is always a “U.S.-led coalition” that goes after the bad guys). And yet, when a situation like the current refugee crisis arises, we avert our eyes and sit on our hands, pretending this is not EXACTLY the time that the world needs a real leader. The world needs a beacon of light right now, and instead, we are playing small. I am embarrassed by that.

The other angle of this situation with American attitudes toward the refugees that increasingly bothers and embarrasses me is the religious hypocrisy slant. Despite liking the idea of being a melting pot, the majority of people seem to cling desperately to the idea that we are a “Christian nation.” Though I am not a Christian, I have been one, I’ve read the Bible from start to finish, and I think very highly of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. From what I know of him and his principles, my guess is that he would be first in line to welcome the refugees and help them to re-establish themselves and become prosperous and contributing members of our community.

Jesus was, if nothing else, a teacher of love, tolerance, and humility. And yet, here we are as a nation of his followers, and the dominant features of our attitudes in this situation are fear, intolerance, and hubris. I shake my head as I think how sadly appropriate the meme on my friend’s Facebook page was this week showing Kermit the Frog sipping tea, with the caption reading, “All of the Bible Belt states refusing refugees put on a Christmas play every year about a Middle-Eastern family seeking shelter, fleeing persecution…but that’s none of my business.

It is easy to have principles when everything is going your way. It is convenient to be righteous when nothing is being asked of you. Well, guess what? Something is being asked of us now. We are being asked to share. Share our compassion. Share our resources. Share our country.

For most of us, the reason we are Americans is that our ancestors came here seeking a better life, a life with greater opportunity and less persecution. Others of us are here because our ancestors were brought here against their will and sold into slavery. Whatever the case, we are all here now, and we are pretty darn lucky to be here. We are blessed in so many ways that others are not. We have good reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. Collectively, our cup is full.

The question we have to ask ourselves—individually and collectively—is this: How are we going to express that gratitude? Not just, “How are we going to be grateful?” but rather, “How are we going to act grateful?” What will we do? How can we make ‘gratitude’ a verb? Will we take up the responsibility that our many blessings call for? Will we take Jesus’ example seriously? Will we lead? Or will we play small? Will we hide behind fear and bigotry, seeking only to protect what we are sure is “ours” alone? We have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves a loaded question.

Basically, if we really are grateful for all we have and all that comes with being an American, then we have a responsibility to help. To open our grateful hearts and share. I want to think that we are big enough to rise to that. I want to. But are we? Our day of reckoning is here. Let us reveal ourselves. I am ready to stand with my arms open.

How about you? What kind of responsibility are you feeling this week? Open up your journal and explore your relationship with gratitude and responsibility. What are you most grateful for this year? How grateful are you to live in this country? What about being an American is so special and makes us so lucky? Is it mostly about the principles that the country was founded upon? Or is it the economic prosperity and opportunities? How about the relative safety and security? If you are reading this letter, you are probably one of the more prosperous people in the world. How much of that is your own doing? Do you agree with me that much of what we have is dumb luck, that we could just as well have been born in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Syria? If this is true, then how greedy are we justified in being with “our” space and “our” resources? Where would you be now if your ancestors were shut out of America the way so many of us are demanding that we shut out the refugees now? If we are as blessed as I believe we are, don’t we have a responsibility to help these people who are literally without a country? If not us, who do you think should help them? When you turn your back on someone in need–someone whom you have the resources to help–how does that make you feel? Powerful? Or small? It makes me feel small. Are you a Christian? What do you think Jesus’ stand on helping the refugees would be? Do you think it would matter to him what their religion is? What can you do to step up today, to honor your privileges? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do our many blessings come with greater responsibilities?

Happy Thanksgiving,

William

P.S. I thank you for reading my letter. If you are grateful for it, please share it with friends.

Taking a Moment to Say “Thanks!” Instead of “Please???”

IMG_2404“We should certainly count our blessings, but we should also make our blessings count.” –Neal A. Maxwell

Hello friend,

“DEAR GOD, I WANNA TAKE A MINUTE, NOT TO ASK FOR ANYTHING FROM YOU, BUT SIMPLY TO SAY THANK YOU FOR ALL I HAVE. –SHARE IF YOU ARE THANKFUL”

This was the first meme that popped up on my Facebook Home page this morning when I was laying in bed. For whatever reason, I instantly felt guilty. I suppose I am no different than most folks who have grown up with the concept—whether through our parents and grandparents, or, more likely, just too much television and movies—of God as wish-granter. We pray for our team to win, for our friends to travel safely, for our child to make the team, and for ourselves to get that new job. We ask our Higher Power for that stuff. We usually ask nicely, too, starting most requests with “Please God….” Even if we didn’t grow up in a very religious family, the God-as-wish-granter theme permeates our culture. If we really, really want something, we ask God. We call it prayer. 

I don’t pray a lot. Well, not in the traditional, down-on-my-knees-at-bedtime kind of praying. It is probably because my concept of God is a little different than the usual one (see my post “Who Is God?” from December 2015). I believe deeply in God as All There Is, including you and me. I believe that all of the Universe is Divine. This doesn’t mean that I am not allowed to pray; it just changes the context of the conversation a bit. You might even say it makes a prayer out of everything I think, say, or do. When I have my occasional direct words aimed at God as seemingly something outside of me—what most folks would recognize as my nearest thing to traditional prayer—it definitely is all about gratitude. I don’t make direct requests. I give direct thanks, usually for a simple but beautiful moment where the Divine just seems to permeate every bit of the moment. More often than not, it is when I am either observing Nature’s beauty or watching my kids be the miraculous little creatures that they are. Sometimes it simply overwhelms my heart, and I just whisper, “Thanks, God.” Those are my conversations with God.

Even though traditional prayer is a rarity for me, because of my worldview that holds everything as fully God, it may be reasonable to conclude from that that all of my thoughts, words, and deeds are a form of communication with God. When I hear of a religious extremist’s story of withholding medical treatment from their suffering child, preferring instead to “leave it in God’s hands,” I usually find myself shouting at the screen, “But YOU are God, and so is the DOCTOR and the MEDICINE! Please pray, of course, but DO SOMETHING! To not try to save your child is actually taking it out of God’s hands, not the other way around! Your hands are God’s hands!!!” I know that is not how everyone sees things, but my view shapes my perceptions.

With that said, and if my thoughts and actions are my form of communication with God, then I am totally guilty of making my prayers into Wish Lists rather than Thank You Notes. Almost always I am in STRIVING mode. I am thinking about or doing something that is about me striving for something else. Something more. Something better. I am trying to get out of this situation and into one that speaks more truly to who I am and what my dreams are. I can be pretty single-minded about it, too. The translation of this—given my concept of God—is essentially that I am not grateful for where I am and I want to get out of here. In regular prayer terms: “Please God, rescue me and bring me the type of success I desire!”

That is the source of the quick jolt of guilt I received when I read that Facebook post this morning. It hits me on a parallel to the way it hits other people, even though we pray differently. I am just as guilty as making my prayer a request rather than a “Thank You.” Seeing that more clearly now is a great reminder for me to become more about the NOW. It means that I can, even in the midst of my striving for better and more, become more fully present and aware of all the wonderful gifts in my life as I now know it. I think of the health of my family, which has been really, amazingly good throughout my life (knocking on my desk right now!). I think of my convenient work schedule and the corresponding opportunity to spend so much time with my kids. I think of my ability to share my words with you and others all over the world. I think of all the freedoms I have because I live in America, and all the comforts I enjoy—clean water, safety, a warm home of my own, to name a few—as a middle-class member of this society. These are all things well worthy of my deep and abiding gratitude, and not just once in a while. To fail to become more aware of these fabulous gifts—and thus more consistently grateful—would be a show of immense disrespect to my beautiful life and the magnificence of the God I believe in.

It doesn’t have to mean that I must stop striving to improve my life and the world around me, however. Even in my haste to improve myself and my station, I can still acknowledge and honor the wonder of the gifts I am presently living with. The concepts of Striving and Gratitude do not have to be mutually exclusive. They don’t have to compete with each other. So, I can take time to step out of my actions—the bulk of which are Striving things—to say “THANK YOU,” which is a Being thing. I can be both grateful and ambitious. I can say prayers of thanks and do acts of ambition. Oh yeah, and I should probably take a few moments to just sit and BE. To stop thinking and striving. To just ENJOY. That sounds like it would be okay, too. I am pretty sure God is in that silence, too. I will meet Her there.

How about you? How do you pray? Open up your journal and think about your relationship with your Higher Power. What is the tone of most of your communication? Are you usually there to ask or to thank? What do you ask for? Big, general things, like world peace or an end to hunger? Or smaller, specific things, like your blind date to go well or the weather to be nice? Do you feel guilty asking for things for yourself? If everything you do is actually a prayer about how you want your world to be, what is your lifestyle saying about what you desire the most? Are your actions more grounded in the present, or are you like me and often focused on building your someday? How often do you consciously thank your Higher Power, for either your life in general or a specific stroke of good fortune? Do you believe in a God that picks and chooses which prayers to answer, which wishes to grant? Do you think that showing more gratitude would make God more likely to answer your prayers? On a spectrum from All Requests to All Thanks, where do you land regarding your conversations with God? Leave me a reply and let me know: What are you grateful for today?  

Personify abundance in all you do,

William

The Facebook ‘Friends’ You Wish Were Your Real Friends

IMG_1091“If you hang out with chickens, you’re going to cluck, and if you hang out with eagles, you’re going to fly.” –Steve Maraboli

Hello friend,

I don’t do a very good job of making friends. I am introverted, so I don’t seek out social situations. I am also a bit shy, so I am not very chatty and outgoing when I do meet new people. I would say I am courteous but not engaging. Some—or all—of that may be due to the fact that I have an inherent disgust for small-talk. It tends to make my skin crawl. It is, by its very nature, superficial. I don’t do superficial well at all. I prefer to either dive right into a meaningful interaction or be ignored altogether.

With all that, it should come as no surprise that I didn’t do high school very well when it came to reputation. I had my group of close friends, no doubt, but most people thought I was “stuck-up,” our word for arrogant and just generally thinking you are better than everyone else. I don’t deny that there was some of that in the mix, but, at this distance of almost 25 years, it is clear to me that most of my reputation stemmed from my innate repulsion to all things petty and superficial, most notably small-talk. Unfortunately, that encompasses the bulk of the high school experience outside of your closest friend group. I just didn’t have it in me to pretend to be everyone’s best friend. A small but true handful was all my nature could handle. It still is.

Sadly, in addition to not being a good maker of friends, I am also a very poor keeper of friends. Well, at least in the usual sense. I am terrible at staying in touch: making the call, sending the birthday card, getting to the class reunion, or setting up the boys weekend. As a result, I have basically lost touch with almost all of my best friends. That doesn’t feel so good. On the other side of it, I still consider all of my best high school buddies to be my best friends, contact or not. I still value them like I did when we were together every day and would still do anything for them. They are my boys, and that is that. In my head! Maybe they are like the ghosts I wrote to you about last time, their relationship with me existing perfectly in my head only. Maybe they have either forgotten about me or allowed the passage of time to lessen their love for me in a way that my heart simply doesn’t operate.

My heart and my head seem to be like vaults. What was once placed there is secure forever. Perhaps that is something of a curse, though, lulling me into thinking I do not have to work to maintain those relationships just because I feel the same way about my loved ones that I always have. It is probably the case that while I am silently moving on with these timeless feelings, the other side is moving on to new relationships that more clearly and consistently reveal themselves. I hold onto ghosts of friendships past and don’t seek out new ones, figuring I am all set in the best friend department. Like I said, for better or worse, it is my nature to have only a few of the best kind and almost none of the superficial.

With all that said, it will probably come as no surprise to you that I was one of the last, stubborn holdouts of the Facebook era. I heard people sing its praises for years and years and still had no interest in trying it. For one, it just sounded so time-consuming. I pictured everyone sitting around writing little notes about themselves all day and couldn’t imagine myself having the time or interest to do that. Granted, I had never actually seen a Facebook page, but this is how I imagined it. And second—and most important to our discussion today—was my complete distaste for the idea that people were writing and sharing these notes with people they weren’t really friends with. Why in the world would you become “friends” with someone who was never your true friend, who you just knew in the superficial high school way? This concept was absolutely beyond my comprehension and seemingly totally contrary to my nature. Facebook and I, it seemed, would never become friends.

So it went for years and years, until I finally created “Journal of You” and needed a way to tell people about my posts every week. My sister suggested I join Facebook and connect with some old friends and relatives to at least share it with them. So, I reluctantly signed up for an account. BOOM! Blast after blast came flooding from the past! Suddenly I was seeing the faces of my high school—even elementary school–classmates who had completely disappeared from my life more than 20 years before. Some were friends then, some barely acquaintances.

Initially, I told myself that I would just connect with them for the purpose of the blog, as the entire exercise seemed extremely awkward to me. Much to my surprise, however, instead of being repulsed by the idea of becoming “friends” with these characters from my past, I became quite tickled by discovering all about their new lives. As a voracious learner, I delighted in studying their posts to meet their families and friends, and also to learn about their pastimes and passions. My wife had many occasions to roll her eyes as I sounded like a great-grandpa musing, “This Facebook thing is REALLY COOL!”

It wasn’t long before I developed a minor addiction, making it a habit to catch up on my Newsfeed each night. It was during this time that I confirmed my long-held concern that Facebook could take up a lot of time. To counter that, though, were the warm feelings that stemmed from making the kind of modern-day connections that come from “likes” and comments on posts. It was so cool to get a like on a blog post from someone in my Advanced Algebra class or a happy comment from one of my pals from fifth grade. In the midst of my otherwise-unsocial existence, where I hardly speak to anyone outside of my house, here I was being touched with a little sense of community. I was simultaneously surprised and thrilled by it. Hence, “This Facebook thing is REALLY COOL!” 

Other than the simple delight of these little moments of cyber-connection, my big “A-HA!” from my year or so on Facebook is that, in following all of these “friends,” I have come to wish that some of them actually would be my friends. Real friends. Human ones, not electronic ones. In following people’s posts in my daily check of the Newsfeed, I feel like I have gotten a real sense of how some people are (or at least how I imagine them to be). Some of it is the articles, videos, or memes that they share. Some of it is what they write about their experience of the world. Some of it is their family photos and captions. Those things are very intriguing to me. The rest comes from what they like or comment on from my posts, as I am very sensitive to that.

The end result is that I have this handful of people that I feel a real affinity to, who I would very much like to be put in the same room with for a few days to see if we would save the world somehow, or at least become true friends. I am not talking about people that were my best friends before but we somehow lost touch along the way. No, I am talking about people who I either hardly knew at all, knew only when we were young kids, or were only somewhat friendly with but hardly thought of making the effort to keep tabs on. Now, however, through the magic of Facebook, I wish these “friends” were my friends. They are:

  • Stephanie—I honestly have no recollection of any level of friendship with her in high school–no specific memories at all—but now I find her an inspiration and a delight. I love all of the stuff she posts about, and she says nice things about my kids’ pictures (the easy way to get on this list!). She is thoroughly positive, which is endlessly appealing to me.
  • John—I think I last heard from him in seventh grade and were on okay terms before that, but I love the specific comments he has made on my posts, and I like the energy of his.
  • Susan—We were decent friends in high school, but I haven’t seen her since. She posts a lot about parenting her brood of kids, one who has special needs. I love the honesty with which she shares, and no matter how funny or self-deprecating the story is, I can feel the gratitude oozing from my screen. I can just tell that she is an awesome parent and role model.
  • Jillian—She is actually not a school friend but a second cousin and much younger than I, who I mostly knew when she was a little kid. She fits in here because I now love following her posts as a mother of a little one. It is so clear how much she appreciates her life and the gift of parenthood.
  • Kassie—This one is not a childhood acquaintance but rather someone who I crossed paths with a few times through work many years ago. Now, I absolutely LOVE following her story, which includes overcoming the deepest grief, battling to be healthy, and finding love and peace wherever you are. She is an amazing inspiration to me from afar. Then, once in a while, she sneaks me a little comment that never fails to lift me up.

There are others, of course, that make me very grateful that I finally joined the modern world and Facebook. The common themes that hook me and make me wish we could all get together in one room seem to be gratitude and positivity. These people are a wonderful reminder of what I need to be better at delivering to the people in my own world, both on Facebook and to the flesh-and-blood humans I meet and know. I want it to be clear from everything I say, write, and do. In the end, I just want to be the kind of guy that someone would want to be friends with.

How about you? Are there people in your world—real or cyber—that you would like to be real friends with? Open up your journal and make a list of them. From what part of your life do they come? High school? Work acquaintances? Relatives? What is it about each of them that you are drawn to? Is there a common theme—like my gratitude and positivity—or does each appeal to you for different reasons? How good of a job have you done at staying in touch with your friends from the different stages of your life? Have the relationships that have faded over the years done so for good reason? Are you like me and maintain the same feelings and faithfulness to people no matter how much time passes, or do your relationships fade in your heart with the passage of time? What role has Facebook played in rekindling your old relationships? Do you use it mostly as a voyeur, or do you post and comment often as well to share your story? Have you discovered people whose posts and comments you are very much drawn to, who you would like to become true friends with even though you never were before? How odd does that seem to you? How great? I love to discover something new and wonderful, especially in a person. How about you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Who are the Facebook “friends” you would like to become real friends with, and why?

Be unabashedly YOU,

William

Lessons From A Slave

DSC_0906“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.” –Cynthia Ozick

Hello friend,

I am guilty. Sometimes I get self-indulgent and actually start to believe that the world is being tough on me. I think I am too busy and working too hard. I wonder, “Why is life so difficult? What did I do to deserve this?” It doesn’t take much to trigger these grumbling moments:

  • Not getting enough sleep due to kids and other commitments, such as staying up late to write this letter to you.
  • My back is stiff from standing too long, especially on a hard floor at my job.
  • My muscles are sore from working out at the gym.
  • I have to miss a night of putting my kids to bed because of a special event at work. I HATE missing even a single bedtime with them; it pains my heart terribly.
  • My wife is leaning on me too hard about what to do with my time or with our money.
  • My palate is bored because I have had Cheerios for breakfast four times this week, and I make the same half-dozen different meals for supper each week.
  • It feels like I am losing track of my siblings because I only spend a few long weekends per year with them, which feels woefully inadequate.
  • Other than visiting my hometown for Christmas and taking a couple of long weekends at the family lake cabin in the Summer, we haven’t been on a “real vacation” in several years.

And on and on and on. You get the picture. There are so many opportunities to grumble, so many temptations to cast the verdict that Life Is Difficult.

Thankfully, though, once in a while, a reality check comes along and smacks me upside the head, knocking some sense into me. This past week, I have been getting a daily dose of that smacking. At her request, I bought my wife a DVD copy of the film “12 Years A Slave” for Christmas, as we have never seen it. Knowing the weight of the topic, we have been waiting for just the right time to watch it. From all indications, it is the kind of movie that requires some processing afterwards. So, it has been looming out there for a couple of months now, a haunting-but-magnetic abyss, just waiting to be plunged into.

I think the Universe knows about this stuff, though, and it has a way of making you face the things you need to face if you want to remain at peace. So, when I finished my book last week and went to my library’s online shelves for a new one, what should jump right off the screen at me but 12 Years A Slave, by Solomon Northrup, the true story that inspired the award-winning movie. Call it what you like—fate, destiny, synchronicity, the Law of Attraction—but the Universe was knocking on my door that day. I answered.

I am only just past the halfway point in the story now, and it undoubtedly has many more lessons for me to learn, but its effect has certainly been felt already. Before I go further, though, perhaps a short synopsis would help. Solomon Northrup was an African-American, born free in New York in the early 1700s. He grew up there, married, and had children. With the promise of good pay for some temporary work, he was led away from his family to Washington, DC, where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He remained there for twelve years. I am not yet to the part of the book where he returns to freedom, but it was upon his return in the mid-1700s that he wrote his story. It is clear that he is both well-educated and humble, and the tale seems to be completely unembellished.

What the book does well, however, is detail the daily life of a slave on a cotton plantation, and, in this case, one with a particularly vicious master. It is devastating, truly, and so difficult to comprehend how these people kept themselves going from one day to the next, one sorrowful year after another, with nothing more to look forward to in their lives than returning to the dust from which they came. It has certainly made me do a double-take on the life that I am sometimes tempted to grumble about.

  • Not getting enough sleep? The slaves slept lightly due to hypervigilance, knowing that if they were not in the fields working when the sun came up, they would be whipped mercilessly. They worked past dark in the field, then had to return and do all of the regular chores before they were allowed to make their own supper and go to their brief sleep—on the ground or a piece of wood, no mattress or pillows. Every day of the year.
  • My back a little stiff from standing at my part-time job? The slaves worked at a breakneck pace to keep up and get their daily quota of pounds of cotton, being whipped if they dared pause for even a moment, and then being thoroughly brutalized with the whip at the end of the day if they didn’t hit their number. No matter how sick or injured, the drill was the same: work every moment and produce well, or face the wrath of the master.
  • Sore from the gym? I won’t even bother addressing this one.
  • Missing a night of putting my kids to bed? Slaves and their children were regularly sold away from each other without regard, leaving both sides devastated and the parents to live with only the hope that their child’s master would be one of the more humane ones. Nothing more. Not the chance to put them to bed, to watch them grow up, or to even know if they had become grandparents. Nothing.
  • Time and money pressures? The slaves never had a choice about what to do with their time. They couldn’t pursue their passions or take a personal day, couldn’t even decide in which order to do their own chores. There was no money to be concerned with at all. Their bodies were bought and sold by others instead.
  • Bored with a limited menu? The slaves of Louisiana were given a small amount of bacon and corn meal each week, enough for two small meals per day. Never anything different or more, even if the bacon spoiled or became infested with bugs that week.
  • Losing track of siblings? Just as with children, it was a rare case that a slave was on the same plantation as any other member of her family. The concept of family basically ceased to exist.
  • Haven’t had a “real vacation”? This may seem silly to even address, but it is a good review of the rest. As I mentioned, the slaves worked every single day, had no money to go anywhere with, and had neither family nor family home to visit. If they were caught trying to go to a good place, they would likely have paid with their lives, or at the very least 500 lashes with the whip, “well-laid on,” as was the lingo. Perhaps death would be preferable.

Slavery is, for me, simply an unimaginable existence. Even with a good master, it is still bondage. And, as Northrup says, that is NEVER better than even the worst days of freedom. I think that most days, I am extremely grateful for my existence and well aware of my blessings. But after this perfectly unpleasant reminder called 12 Years A Slave, it is clear to me that it would be nothing short of a disgrace to complain about my circumstances (or almost any circumstances above poverty or incarceration). So, when I become self-indulgent and feeling oppressed by lack of income or busy-ness or missing my kids’ bedtime, I think of the slaves. They had it a billion times worse than I do, and through no fault of their own and no great deed of mine.

My life is darn good by any measure, but when I think about those slaves and the complete absence of opportunity to live their dreams—or even to think that the concept of having dreams was pertinent to them—my heart just breaks, and I know how, on the wide spectrum of human experiences across history, mine is at the far, far end to the positive. I am a truly blessed being. I thank my lucky stars for that.

How about you? How aware of your blessings are you? Get out your journal and consider your existence. What are your biggest gripes? Who or what seems to be oppressing you? Is it certain people? Your financial situation? Your health? How bad is it? Go ahead and indulge yourself for a moment: name what is weighing you down, and just how much it weighs. Now consider a comparison. If slavery doesn’t do it for you—maybe you want something that feels more contemporary to you—imagine the people living today under oppressive regimes, without the freedom express themselves or live as they choose. Or pick someone from a Third World country, where economic conditions keep the people from moving beyond addressing their most basic survival needs. What do your woes look like in comparison? Does it make you feel embarrassed to complain? The goal here is not to make you wrong for having gripes, but rather to make you more aware of, perhaps, how well you have it in the grand scheme of things. So, on a scale of 0-100, with zero being completely stifled by your circumstances and 100 being completely blessed and unoppressed, where do you stand? Leave me a reply and let me know, What lessons do a slave’s life teach you? 

Gratitude is beautiful,

William