Tag Archives: Life

Maximizing the Summer of Life: Are Your Aspirations Happening?

“At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” –Salvador Dalí

Hello friend,

Today marks the beginning of the end of my favorite time of the year. I know I am not supposed to be sad on the day of my children’s birthday parties, but I can’t help it. This big, celebratory day for our family is invariably tinged with a sense of loss for me. With one child born in late July and the other in early August, party day just happens to mean that Summer–my glorious, holy, magnificent, all-things-good Summer–is starting to wind down. And that always sends me reeling between sorrow and panic as I fully realize for the first time what I will miss about my season (EVERYTHING) and what I haven’t checked off my To-Do List (SO MUCH).

This year, like all the others, I came into Summer with an ambitious list of all the things I wanted to do before school started up again and Autumn signaled its inevitable return. But this year was even bigger than all those other Summers, too. It was to be the first Summer since my kids were born that I was “off” with them, the happy consequence of working in the school system. So, as we rolled into June, I was aiming high, imagining the biggest kinds of fun and adventures (despite the smallest kind of budget). It would be grand, and we would come away with memories to last a lifetime. I was glowing in anticipation of my season. My Summer.

What was I going to do? Lots!!!

I was going to be the king of day trips! The kids and I–and occasionally my wife–would escape the house in the morning before the heat of the day was upon us and drive out to an area lake or waterfall or forest for a hike and possibly a swim. We would get to know all of these places that we have heard friends and neighbors talk about for years, gems within an hour or two of our house that we never seemed to have time for in years past. We would go at least a couple of times per week and knock one cool spot after another off the list. It was going to be fantastic!

We were also going to do a lot of extended trips to visit family at the lakes for long weekends on the water and around the campfire. The kids would bond with their cousins the way I did with mine as a child, making the kinds of memories that still leave me with the warmest feelings for those people I no longer see very often. Memories like fireworks, sleeping outside, Capture the Flag, tubing, building forts, and telling ghost stories. As I would be tickled by the children’s shared joy and bonding, I would also be fortifying my own connections with my siblings and parents. And of course, simply basking in life by the water. The best!

In addition to these short and medium trips, we were finally going to take a real family road trip. My long-awaited, much-anticipated return to the mountains of Montana was at last going to materialize. This time, instead of me hiking solo up the trails and tenting in the backcountry, I would be showing my kiddos around and introducing them to the magic of mountain lakes and endless sky, waterfalls and bighorn sheep. It would be everything I have been dreaming about in the nearly-two decades since I made the last of my many visits to my favorite land. A reconnection of my heart, mind, and soul. Everything.

Along with the many adventures big and small, this was also to be the Summer when I reconnected with my first love, Tennis. It was a given that I would teach my kids to play, as I do every Summer. But I also would make a habit of getting my own practice in, returning to that place of purity in the joy I feel when the ball strikes the strings and the exhilaration of chasing after the next ball, relishing the challenge of synchronizing my body perfectly to the rhythm of this violent-yet-fluid dance. I was going to be a player again!

These were the dreams of my Summer just two months ago. The mere thought made me happy. Taken together, they seemed ambitious but still realistic. I could do it!

But did I???

I am disappointed to report that, as with most of my ambitions, while I have occasionally hit the mark, on the whole I have not done very well.

On the Tennis front, I have mostly failed. The children, I am pleased to say, are becoming players. They have had lots of time on the court, and it tickles me to see them enjoying the process, challenging as it is. Score! On the other hand, their old man has been a major disappointment. I have sneaked out and found a wall to hit against a couple of times–reminding myself, happily, of the way I passed most of the Summers of my youth–but have not been ambitious enough to find people to play with regularly. I remain a rusty, has-been/wannabe tennis player. Bummer!

On the adventuring front, I wish I had tons of scintillating tales to share from locales across my state and all the way to the Rocky Mountains. Alas, I do not. We have been to the lake cabin to visit family a couple of times–one weekend and one week–which was wonderful (though admittedly not as often as I had envisioned). The local day tripping, however, has been a resounding FAIL. It seems like there is always one little errand or item on the schedule that has kept me from being ambitious enough to do the required research and commit to taking the trips to the waterfalls and forests. The truth is that it is simple laziness on my part, a laziness that I now plainly regret.

I have, in the place of those deeper adventures, found something to soothe my conscience a bit, or at least distract me from my guilt: library events. Yes, I said library events! At the start of Summer, I found a big, magazine-like brochure published by the county library, advertising all of the events hosted by the several branches in our system. I sat down and spent what felt like the entire day loading them into the calendar on my phone, feeling unusually like a responsible parent as I did so. Anyway, we have played with Legos, made bookmarks, seen magic and comedy shows, and created all sorts of other arts and crafts. And we always come home with even more library books, which assuages my guilt from not being outside adventuring, which is, of course, where I ought to be.

Speaking of adventuring, the biggest disappointment from my Summer ambitions has been my failure to execute the dream road trip to Montana. It pains me to even write about it now, knowing both that it hasn’t happened and, more importantly, that it won’t happen. Not this year, anyway. As painful as it is, though, for this disappointment I feel I have some excuse. We were in the midst of a lot of job uncertainty and transition this Summer, and the financial strain that comes along with that. So, despite my fantasies, the big Montana trip turned out to be not exactly realistic. Not this year. Next year, though…..

All of this both bums me out and freaks me out. I hate the feeling that I am not meeting my Summer aspirations with actions and that I am running out of time on my season. I am creased.

Worse, though, is that my fragile psyche then doubles down on the sorrow/panic carousel when, in my ponderings and journal entries of the week, I realize how this annual ritual is a microcosm of my feelings about my existence as a whole and my place in the great Cycle of Life. I see that this whole emotional swirl around “Oh, how I have loved this beautiful, blessed life of mine!” and “Oh crap, I am running out of time to pack more dreams of adventure and accomplishment, service and impact into my fleeting little life!” is just me with Summer, every year. Just substitute “Summer” in for “Life” and you have a pretty accurate picture of me today. It’s just a thumbnail representation of me at this point in my own journey.

Loving its gifts, already lamenting its passing, and panicked that I need to maximize the joy and opportunity in every remaining moment. That is me in Life. That is me at the end of July.

How about you? Where are you with respect to your ambitions, both for the Summer and for your life? Open up your journal and give an accounting of your inner and outer worlds. Start with the Summer itself. What aspirations did you hold for the season when it began? Was it more about revving up your life with some new adventures or toning it down with some serious relaxation and self-care? Were you hoping to travel? Were there books you wanted to read (or write)? Who were you hoping to spend more time with? What were you going to do with your fitness? Were you going to work less or more? Were you hoping to reduce your stress level? How would you be of service? Was there something–some hobby or passion or joy–that you had gotten away from in recent years that you were going to get reconnected with? In what area was your life going to improve the most? Were you hoping to be happier this Summer? At two-thirds of the way through, how are you doing? Are there plenty of items on your To-Do List checked off already, or are you like me and needing to cram a lot into the final month of Summer in order to feel satisfied? For which type of ambitions have you been most successful? Fitness? Travel? Self-care? Career? In what areas have you clearly fallen short to this point? Is there time left in the season to make up for those shortcomings and create a success story? What type of actions will that require? Are you still invested in making it happen? Now pull back and ask yourself all of these same questions about your life in general and where you are on your journey toward the end? Is your reality matching up to your aspirations? How far off are you? Are you willing to take the necessary actions to raise yourself up to your ambitions, or have you resigned yourself that it is too late to be who you once believed yourself to be? When you look at your current spot on what you believe to be your path through LIFE, what do you feel? Panic? Satisfaction? Sorrow? Peace? Resignation? Gratitude? Bitterness? Relief? Apathy? Excitement? Disappointment? Fulfillment? Regret? Acceptance? Does your feeling about your Summer to this point match your feeling about your life to this point? Leave me a reply and let me know: How well are you maximizing your season?

Seize it all,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your circle. Together, we can rise to our greatest ambitions!

P.P.S. If this type of thinking appeals to you, I encourage you to check out my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailer.

Resisting Reality: When You Can’t Accept The Facts of Life

“…and the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” –Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Hello friend,

Did you see the news of the 60 protesters killed in Gaza this week? How about the story of the new outbreak of the Ebola virus? It has been hard to miss the stories of potential nuclear war with North Korea and Iran. And what about those deadly storms? I also checked out an episode of David Letterman’s new interview series “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” featuring Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, in which she told of being shot in the head at age 17 for speaking out in support of allowing girls to be educated after her home region in Pakistan was taken over by the Taliban.

All of that was just Tuesday for me!

I know those types of stories come cascading down upon us every day of every week, threatening to drown us in shock, outrage, or despair (depending upon what the last thing was and the readiness of our defense systems). But some days, I just seem to have more nerves exposed and a weaker power of Denial, and all of this stuff storms my fortress and seeps in from all sides. It is then that I am forced face-to-face with the simple truth of human life that I work so hard to keep out: that it is uncertain and unfair, often violent and painful, and so much out of our control.

I hate that truth. I really do. All my life I have been fighting against it, resisting, denying.

I think most of us have one or more of those Realities or Truths About Life that we are–whether consciously or not–in denial of or don’t believe that they apply to us (and only us). Mine is definitely the one about the brutal and uncertain nature of our individual lives.

And I tell myself–occasionally, anyway–that it is childish and foolish to resist this truth so vehemently. After all, the evidence is everywhere. Bombs are exploding all over the world and destroying homes, businesses, sometimes entire families in an instant. Natural disasters are doing the same. Cars are crashing and taking limbs and lives. Viruses like Ebola are spreading to the unsuspecting of all ages. And kids are still getting cancer.

So, clearly, an individual human’s existence is precarious at best. More honestly, it is harsh and uncertain, often lonely and cut short. That is the practical reality.

Yet I resist that reality. I somehow refuse to accept it.

Every time I become aware of something harrowing happening in the world, I take it in and feel it. I try to meet it honestly. I don’t deny the event. I allow it to play its notes upon my heart and mind. There is sadness, sometimes disillusionment, often frustration–occasionally all three. As my system goes through all of those thoughts and feelings and the process runs its course, I deal with what is. That is a reality that I can face.

Simultaneously, however, there is a parallel reality that I cannot face (and even here in this lucid moment I will not fully accept). It is the idea that these frequent harrowing events and this uncertain and unsafe existence are a human’s natural and inevitable state of being. Something in me will not surrender to this idea, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary.

Upon reflection, I suppose that it is the idealist in me that continues to put up the fight. You see, I truly believe that we humans are capable of magnificence, both individually and collectively. I believe that our potential is so vast, almost to the point of being limitless. There is so much that is possible for us intellectually and emotionally. My vision of us acting at peak capacity is truly beautiful.

The smear on that beautiful vision, however, is our persistent and extreme failure to live up to our potential as a species. From my angle, humans are the epitome of wasted potential. Despite many wonderful examples of individual greatness, as a group, we fail at nearly opportunity to rise and make our existence safer, happier, and healthier. Almost every one of those violent uncertainties is something that we could improve or eliminate were we to use our resources wisely.

Think about the amount of money, time, brain power, muscle, and emotional resources that we devote toward attacking and defending ourselves from one another. What if all of those resources were instead devoted to making each other safer, happier, and healthier? You know, what if those trillions of dollars and all of those brilliant minds were spent on waging Peace, curing cancer, and making advances in renewable energy, education, sustainable communities, quality health care for all, clean water, healthy food, living wages, mental health, scientific research, and restorative justice? What if the humans of the planet got together and committed to doing right by each other and by the planet?

I absolutely believe that the evolution of our species would take a quantum leap forward. With that leap, I think we would eliminate nearly all of the things that make our individual lives so fraught with the terrors and pains that I have been speaking of. Cure diseases. Solve problems diplomatically. Understand the workings of our planet and how to spread our abundant resources equitably so that all can thrive and excel. Devise our buildings, transportation systems, and devices to be ultra-safe and eco-friendly.

We could do this stuff. I know we could.

But we don’t. Over and over and over we don’t. We consistently choose to operate out of Fear instead of Love and set up our perpetuating systems accordingly. Because of this Fear, we consistently act foolishly instead of wisely. Our systems further greed and corruption rather than empathy and kindness. The modus operandi that our ancestors chose and that we continue to choose works in the opposite direction of our potential.

Basically, our way is to underachieve our potential. We choose to fail ourselves. It’s a tragedy and a shame.

And in the end, what it means is that we continue to live these individual lives in perpetual danger. So many of the perils that make human life so scary–wars, diseases, food and water issues, crime, climate events, terrorism, isolation–are things that we have the resources and the ability to solve if only we were to choose our priorities wisely and act collectively out of Love. But instead, we choose to be less. That choice has us living in darkness.

Reading back over those last few paragraphs, you might not believe that I am a passionate optimist. It’s true, though. I deeply believe not only in my idealistic image of what we are capable of, but also that we will get there. I believe it is in written into the code of our species and our planet.

So sure, if you look at what we have been up to historically and what we are up to now, I agree that you could call me a fool for continuing to resist and deny the idea that human life is cruel and dangerous, uncertain and uncontrollable. And I am quite sure there will always be some element that we can strive to make more predictable and survivable–natural disaster preparation or cures for new diseases, for example. But I think I will hold onto my idealism about Who We Really Are and therefore Who We Will Become. And while one arm clings to that precious ideal, I will use the other arm to fend off any Reality or Truth About Life that says otherwise.

How about you? Is there an idea that most people accept as fact that you either deny or need to come to peace with? Open up your journal and explore your resistance to commonly accepted truths about Life. Which one do you fight against the most? What is it about that reality/truth that just doesn’t sit right with your heart or mind? Is it based on a personal experience that contradicts it, or is it more of a gut feeling or intuition that you trust? Do you think the rest of the world should awaken and adopt your stance on the subject, or is it fine as your personal belief? How would the world be different if everyone stopped accepting this idea as Reality? Okay, now to my specific resistance. Do you have any sympathy with my belief that it is not the natural and inevitable fate of humans to live amidst constant danger and uncertainty, or do you think this peril is a simple fact of Life? Are there any facets of this constant danger–disease, war, crime, natural disaster, climate events, pollution–that you believe we have the power to be free of or at least better protected from? What percentage of the usual danger and uncertainty that we face is it possible to be relieved of through measures we can take? Can you envision us taking those measures in your lifetime? How close are we as a species to achieving our potential? What actions can we take to evolve to that higher order? Am I fooling myself by expecting so much of us? Do you think it’s okay for me to carry on with this idealistic belief, or would I be better served to “face reality?” Leave me a reply and let me know: Are we right about all the things we accept as “Facts of Life,” or are there “truths” that are actually false?

Be your own standard,

William

P.S. If this topic resonated with you today, please share it on your social media channels. Perhaps we can make connections that will ultimately shift our reality for the better.

P.S.S. If this type of questioning and search for your own Truth is appealing to you, I recommend you checking out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online bookseller.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are AWESOME,

William

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

How wrong I was.

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

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

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

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

Drunk driver. Aneurysm. School shooting. Diagnosis.

All day long. Every day of the year.  

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

I had never felt so insignificant in all my life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spread sunlight,

William

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A BOLDER LIFE: Are You Existing or Adventuring?

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

You know, like an adventure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be brave,

William

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

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

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.

LIFE IS SHORT: What are you going to do about it?

“Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” –Steve Jobs

Hello friend,

Last weekend, my wife’s family had a reunion. From the pictures on Facebook, it looked like a fun and festive time for all. The next day at the hotel, check-out time came and went, but her cousin had not come out of his room. Finding no answer at the door, the hotel staff let themselves in. He was dead. Massive heart attack. He was only in his forties, a few years older than me.

Talk about a gut-punch. Even though I didn’t know him, all the photos I ever saw showed what looked like a healthy, vibrant man with a mega-watt smile that lit up the whole scene. He looked like a guy you wanted to get to know, wanted to be around. Good energy. And just like that, he is gone.

I know that death strikes a blow to each of us differently, obviously depending upon who the person was to us, but also playing a role are what age they were, how similar their circumstances were to our own, how they died, and the legacy they are leaving behind based on how they lived.

Clearly, when a person we know and love dies, there is an intensely personal process of grieving to work through, a process that pervades every aspect of our lives during that period and colors our lenses a different way.

Something quite distinct happens—at least to me—when someone I do not know well dies.   I go inside myself for a while. I feel hurt by it. Deeply hurt. Not necessarily because of that individual and the pain their loved ones are feeling—though I certainly sympathize, we are talking here about people I am not so personally involved with—but hurt from a different source.

I guess you could say that death causes me to feel hurt by the Universe. It’s a philosophical thing, I suppose. I am pained—tortured, even—by the unfairness of life on Earth and how, in the tiny moment a gun is shot or an artery closed, a beautiful life comes to an abrupt end. As deeply as I have probed the spiritual realm and as prepared as I have many times felt to be taken to the next realm, I somehow still come back to this place where the brevity of life–and the nonguaranteed nature of the next moment—just don’t sit right with me. It feels unfair. And anyone who knows me well knows that unfairness burns me to my core.

But that is life. Short, uncertain, and unfair.

Yes, it is amazing, precious, and littered with beauty everywhere you look, too. I know, and I see it that way, believe me. But in certain moments, like when a smiley young man dies of a massive heart attack in his hotel room, the short, uncertain, and unfair side sure delivers a blow to my psyche.

After I go through my process of feeling sad about that person’s loved ones and the life left behind, inevitably I drift into this patch of days where that death—and “Death” itself, the concept, with a capital D—begins to play on the strings of my soul. The reality of how quickly my own life is passing, not to mention the very real possibility that it could end at any moment for countless reasons beyond my control, gets into my core and really stirs things up.

The bigger questions of my existence here become front-and-center issues in my consciousness. How well am I using your time? What positive impact am I making on my world? Am I using my gifts? Am I allowing my soul to emerge, or is my ego keeping it at bay? Am I living the life I want to live, or the life my parents or society think I should live? Am I making the most of every day? Am I in this moment, or am I stuck in the past or future? Am I sucking the marrow out of life or just drifting by? Am I making a LIFE or just a living? Am I being brave enough? Loving enough? Optimistic enough? Empathetic enough? Forgiving enough? Kind enough? At the end of my days, when my life flashes before my eyes, will it be a show I enjoy and am proud of? Am I living my Truth?  

These questions sometimes elicit sobering answers from my mind. Because they are tough ones. Sure, they can be wonderful tools of motivation, serving to remind me of what is most important. But they are also tools of torture. The questions sometimes haunt as much they inspire.

Because, you see, somebody else didn’t get to ask themselves these questions again. Somebody didn’t get another reminder that it is time to make good, time to be bigger and more authentic. I hate that part of it.

When someone my own age or younger than me dies, it is particularly haunting. It makes me start to think it is all borrowed time from here on out. I have to live the kind of life that will allow me to answer those big questions affirmatively precisely because that person didn’t get a chance to. They weren’t allowed the golden opportunity of this day to do something greater, to love bigger, to chase their dreams longer and harder. I get this day that they don’t, and I feel like I owe it to them to do my absolute best, both in my heart and in the world.

I have to stop limiting myself. I have to claim my dreams and give myself fewer excuses for not getting them done. I have to rid my life of the things and people that waste my precious time and energy so that I can devote those resources to doing what I love with the people that I love in the service of this world that I love. Nothing less than that. No compromises. I simply have to be more brave and more disciplined with the life my soul calls upon me to live, for all of the nonguaranteed moments I have left. Death will come for me one day, unbidden, and I would like to be in the midst of something magnificent when it does.

How about you? How can you go about living so as to make your death, whenever it may come, more palatable to you? Open up your journal and make an honest assessment of what you need to do to make the most of your remaining days on this Earth. In what areas are you currently falling short of your standards for a life well-lived? Are you aware of ways that you can right the ship? How much work will it take: is it tweaks or monumental shifts? Are you committed to making the change? Are you like me and sometimes need something as shocking as a death to wake you up to the ways you have gone astray and the need to get back to your Truth before your time is up? What other moments have you had that were reminders of how short this life is? What can you do to keep your priorities front and center, to not waste a day? Is the prospect of death enough to embolden you to live your dreams? I encourage you to go back up a few paragraphs to the italics and ask yourself those questions of existence that are pressing upon me now. I hope your answers to those questions are motivation enough to point you in the direction of your True North. Leave me a reply and let me know: What must you do to make the most of your dash, however short or long it may be?

Be unapologetically you,

William

P.S. If this got you to consider your existence, and perhaps imagine some new possibilities, I encourage you to share it. We all need a little reminder sometimes. Be well!

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy all the moments,

William

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

Enjoy Life or Improve It: What should we do with ourselves?

DSC_0819“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” –E.B. White

Hello friend,

Last month, I received a note from a dear uncle that scraped an open sore in my psyche. His words: “I worry about you—not that there’s anything wrong, but that I know you’re a person who is continually trying to make sense of the world, how you fit into it, and seeking to improve it. By my reckoning, those are all admirable traits. I mostly hope that you will be happy and fully enjoying each day of your life.” It was part of a very sweet and complimentary letter, and I very much appreciated his kindness. He means a great deal to me, and I believe he understands me better than most.

This is why the subtext of those words has lingered and festered in my mind over the ensuing weeks. The subtle message: If you spend your life trying to improve the world, you miss out on all the fun. Just enjoy the ride.

Don’t think that the concept of “Just Enjoy Life” is not appealing to me. It is. We should seek to be happy, to enjoy both the simple pleasures of this life and also the more elaborate ones. Life is to be enjoyed. Spending your precious time on things much bigger than you—and perhaps beyond your sphere of influence—can be reasonably considered a waste. I get it.

But I don’t really get it. Not in my soul, in my spirit, in my daemon, in my calling, in my Fate, or whatever you want to call this thing deep inside me that seems to be driving the bus. It has its own set of demands, and they seem to trump anything that my logical mind sees as reasonable.

Once in a while, I talk myself into “killing time” with something mindless or gratuitous. Maybe it is watching television or surfing the Internet, something purely for leisure. I might go for a bit without any repercussions, but before long, the boss notices that something is amiss. I start to remember all of the other, “more important” things I could be doing to advance my dreams and make my world better, and then I get anxious, antsy. It is like cabin fever for my brain. I am dying for an outlet of “productivity.” And even though I know leisure is part of a healthy lifestyle, it has to be the right kind of leisure for me. It has to also fulfill a need, like physical health (from going to the gym) or self-awareness (from writing in my journal) or peace (from a walk in the woods or a ride in the kayak). When I stop and smell the roses, it has a purpose.

My inner control panel has very sophisticated instruments to detect activities (and people) that don’t serve my greater good, and it is quick to alert me of things that waste my time. I just don’t tolerate these things well at all. They make my skin crawl, truly.

So, I do my thing. I stick to my priorities. I deal with people who are meaningful to me and spend my free time only on things that speak to my deepest passions. And I trust the control panel to alert me to anyone or anything that will distract me from my highest priorities. I am extremely protective of my time and energy.

I admit that I have high aspirations, both for myself and for the world. High aspirations require a higher level of dedication, a deeper commitment. I understand that one of the trade-offs of that commitment is less time fooling around and “taking it easy.”

It is tiring, though. I admit that, too. Every day the tasks of aspiration bark their orders at me and don’t much allow me to let up. Moments are not to be wasted. I sometimes get a little burnt out.

That is when I have one of those aforementioned evenings of forced leisure. I try to restore the proper balance. But, as I said, I never last long in leisure mode. I hear the ticking of the clock like firecrackers going off in my brain. I feel the time wasting. I start to go stir crazy. My projects call out to me. I ache to get back to them. So, the cycle continues.

I suppose I just have to surrender to my internal wiring. I am almost certainly never going to be the guy who doesn’t have at least one thing he is aching to learn about or improve upon in any given moment. In spite of everything that is happening in our world today, I fully hope and expect to live a lot longer, and thus I expect to accomplish a lot before I leave this place. So, on the surface at least, I may never come across as the “just relax and enjoy” guy.

But that is not to say I don’t enjoy my life. I do. I love it, actually. I find myself often counting my blessings regarding my regular need to juggle so many high-priority tasks that I truly love. I love spending tons of time with my kids. I love writing in my journal. I love writing these letters to you. I love working on The Journal Project. The only thing I don’t love is the pressure of trying to squeeze all of these wonderful things into every day. It is a huge challenge, and even more so when I try to mix in some other, more “pure leisure” activities into the schedule. So, even though I am doing all of these things under the stress of deadlines and sleep deprivation, I am thoroughly happy and grateful that I get to be the guy who juggles them.

Sometimes I compare my kind of grinding happiness to the way a pro athlete goes through the wringer in a very tight and important competition. It is high drama. You see him tortured by his own errors or the luck of his opponent, totally dejected after the loss of a critical point and cursing himself in the process. It is like a Shakespearean tragedy. And yet, even after the worst of dramatic losses, when it hurts like his dog has been shot, if you asked him if he still likes to play and still wants to practice, he would look at you like you were insane. “Of course! I love it! Let’s go play it again right now!”

That’s how I see myself most days. Yes, trying to improve myself and the world every day is taxing and often frustrating. Sure, I have to pass on more leisurely activities that I know would be lots of fun. But do I regret the bargain I have made? Heck no! I get a great rush when I make a personal breakthrough or learn that I have made a positive impact on someone’s life. It feels like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.   And hey, I gotta be me!

How about you? How do you balance striving and leisure in your life? Open up your journal and give yourself an honest assessment. How driven are you? What is the thing that keeps you striving to be better? What is your level of obsession with that task? Is the growth you seek to gain from it purely personal, or does it also have an element of a greater good, of service to others? Do you allow yourself to take a vacation from it sometimes, to let yourself totally off the hook? Are you like me and get a little antsy when you are not doing something productive? Do you set aside time for fun and leisure? What do you do to “Just Enjoy Life”? Is it your primary goal? Is it more about an attitude, or is it about finding lots of activities that are enjoyable? Is it okay to be entirely about enjoyment, with no thought to self-improvement or the greater good? Isn’t being happy a type of gift to the world, too? Is there a proper mix for how to spread one’s time–such as 90% enjoyment, 10% service/improvement—or is the answer as individual as we are? Do you think someone like me, who is a little bit obsessed with the service/improvement part, is doing it wrong and likely to end up unhappy (and perhaps not even impactful anyway)? Does the world need a few people bent that way, anyway, so that the majority can be more pleasure-focused? Where do you fit? Leave me a reply and let me know: What drives you? 

Do your thing,

William

P.S. If this helped you to see yourself, share it. Encourage everyone with the light that you radiate!

Dear Past Me: a letter to my 18-year-old self

DSC_0140“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

Hello friend,

I have been swimming in a pool of graduation-induced nostalgia lately. For one, I have both a niece and nephew graduating from high school in the next couple of weeks, and I am sympathetic to both the kids and their parents. Second, I just finished a book of collected college commencement speeches, so I have been thinking a lot about what I might say to young people who are making a huge transition into the world. To put a cherry on top, this week, while working on The Journal Project, I came across my entries for the week that my little sister graduated from high school. I was seven years out of school at the time, but her graduation stirred up a lot of emotions in me. Here is a little portion of a journal entry I wrote on May 28, 1998, recalling my own graduation week seven years prior:

“I remember how sentimental I was in my last days there. I wanted so fiercely for it not to end. I knew what a special thing we had going and what an incredible group of guys that were saying “so long.”   I can look back now and see that I wasn’t a fool in that regard. I don’t want to go back to eighteen again, because I live with the wisdom that brings me an amazing level of joy and peace. But I can still see those guys and feel exactly the way I felt about them then. I dearly loved them then, and I dearly love them now. I know that most people’s best friends are the ones they met in college. Mine are the ones I have known since high school and grade school.”  

I still feel that way, actually. I had an incredibly lucky childhood in just about every way imaginable, and as I approached my high school graduation, I knew that just about everything that made my life so free and love-filled was about to change. I was chosen to be the speaker at my graduation. It was kind of ironic that the guy who didn’t want that charmed life to end was the one chosen to tell everyone it was over and to offer some words of wisdom heading into their next lives. I don’t remember the words I said, but it was a lot of schmaltzy quotes read from a page and very little from my heart. I said the types of things they told me I was supposed to say, so I didn’t really think about making an impact.

Looking back now, I wish I had said something profound that day. Heck, I wish I had heard something profound that day. I needed at least as much guidance as everyone else did. I was an 18-year-old kid. What did I know? Instead of me giving out hurrahs and platitudes to my classmates, I wish someone who really cared about me and who had been down the road I was about to go down could have sat me down and given me some real advice.   I am not sure I would have listened—I was 18, remember—but maybe something would have sunk in and helped me in all the 25 years that have followed.

So today, I decided to write my 18-year-old self a letter—sort of a high school commencement speech to myself—and tell him all the things I wish he could carry with him on the journey through the circus that is early and middle adulthood. So, armed with 25 more years of experience, here goes….

Dear 18-year-old William,

When I wrote in your future niece and nephew’s graduation cards last week, I told them that my one piece of advice was “to understand who you are and what makes your heart sing. Then just be unapologetically you, forever and always.” Twenty-five years after I was in the shoes you are in now, that message pretty much sums up what I have learned. I suppose that sounds kind of vague and unhelpful to you right now, but it truly is the essence of what I wish I would have heard when I was sitting in your seat.  

But how do you do it? Well, that’s the tricky part.   There may not be an exact answer—you could start by getting a journal, I suppose–but these are some of the habits that have most helped me to know myself and live my Truth along this beautiful path called Life.  

First, be completely curious. Be open to all new ideas, and learn as much as you can about as many different people as you can. Find out who they are and what makes them tick. Learn about different professions, different hobbies, different lifestyles. The more you know about the way others live, the easier it is to choose wisely for yourself. (Oh, and don’t EVER stop being curious!) 

Trust your intuition. There is a still, small voice inside you, and if you listen closely and courageously to it, it will keep you on your path forever. This one is much more difficult than it sounds, though, because there are other voices trying to shout down the true voice. They are voices of fear and insecurity, of society, of family, of shame. It takes a discerning ear to focus on only the voice of your Truth. And it takes courage to own that.  

Be the one and only you, unapologetically. To deny the world your complete and authentic self—with all of its idiosyncrasies—is to give in to fears that you are not enough as you are. And you ARE enough! You are amazing, mostly in your uniqueness. So give us the gift that only you can give! 

Understand your value. You are a miraculous being, fully part of the Divine, and your presence in this lifetime is a gift to the rest of us. As much as you treasure and respect the people in your life, remember to value yourself at least as much.

Have an opinion about yourself. I know this overlaps with the last one—all of these really are different angles of the same point—but I cannot stress it enough. It is not only important to know your worth, but also to know what serves you and what doesn’t. When you have an opinion about yourself—a strong, positive one, of course—you act like it with the choices you make. You don’t allow the negative people and the drama queens into your inner circle. You don’t take jobs that don’t speak to your values. You don’t let people take advantage of you. You stand up to injustice. You use your time instead of wasting it. You give up being a victim. Basically, you become an active participant in your own life and assume responsibility for what is in it.  

Follow Your Bliss. If you are in the process of being curious, open, and trusting of that inner voice, you will undoubtedly come upon the things that simply light you up inside. These are the jobs, the hobbies, and the people that make your heart sing, the ones that “just feel right” in your gut. They are your dreams, your calling, your Bliss. And that warm, fulfilling feeling that overtakes you when you pursue it, that is your intuition telling you that you are on the right path. Follow it! 

Act like this is a one-shot deal. In other words, “This is not a dress rehearsal!” Even if you think there is some kind of afterlife or reincarnation or something else spectacular waiting for you after this dance, act like this lifetime is your only chance. Love wholly and completely. Dream big and go for it. Give everything your best effort and focus. Forgive. Agree to disagree. Move on. Say what you have to say. Take chances. Follow your fear. Just be sure that in the end, you have lived, not merely existed.  

Never settle. Don’t be lulled to sleep by the life everyone else says is enough for you. Don’t take a job that doesn’t mean anything to you. Don’t keep poisonous relationships just because it is inconvenient to cut ties. Don’t stop learning just because you have a degree. If your dreams are bigger than your current life, do what you must to go get them. Playing small only sucks the passion out of life. Play the bigger game for the stakes that YOU have determined are enough to fulfill you completely. That is living.  

Just make sure that whatever you do, you do it for yourself. Do it because it fascinates YOU, tugs on YOUR heartstrings, and stirs YOUR soul, not because it is what your parents or friends or society expects you to do. It is your life, not theirs. Pleasing them may seem to be the path of least resistance, but it will kill your spirit in the process, and that is not a good trade. Keep your integrity by living the life you were born to live, the one only your soul knows the way through.  

Above all, enjoy the ride! Be grateful for it. Life is a miraculous journey, every single step of it. You have a choice whether to see it that way. I highly encourage you to do so. It makes for a lot more Love and Joy in the process. I wish you all the Love, Joy, and Bliss you can handle. Carpe diem!

 Always, 

43-year-old William

P.S. Don’t lose touch with your best friends. These are the best guys you will ever know.  

P.S.S. About those girls that you are going to have the crushes on but will feel too scared to say so: get over yourself! Fortune favors the bold. Ask them out! 

How about you? What would you say to your 18-year-old self? Open up your journal and organize some thoughts. The easy part—especially compared to last week, when we wrote to our future selves—is that you know exactly who you are writing to. You know how you were at 18 and what types of things Life has thrown at you since. If you could sum up your message in a short sentence or two—like on my graduation cards—what would it be? Is that the kind of message your 18-year-old self would have taken to heart, or would it have gone in one ear and out the other? Now expound on that summary. Do you think your letter would have more general rules, like mine, or more specifics, like my P.S.es? What did you really need someone to tell you at the end of high school? If they had, how do you think your life would be different now? Do you wish it were? Is there one specific decision or time in your life since 18 that you wish you would have been warned about back then? Who was the person in your life back then—friend, relative, teacher–who was most likely to give you the kind of advice you would give yourself in this letter? What role, if any, does that person play in your life now? Is there someone that you can play that role for? Would you write them the same letter you wrote to yourself—is your advice universal—or something very different? Is there something that every 18-year-old would benefit from hearing? Leave me a reply and let me know: What would you say to your 18-year-old self?

Carpe diem,

William

P.S. If today’s letter got you feeling nostalgic or reminded you about all the lessons that Life has taught you, please pass it on. Wisdom is meant for sharing. Cheers!