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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And back and forth I go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shine bright,

William

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

What’s The Good News? Stories you wish the media covered

DSC_0015“The most valuable gift you can give to humanity is a good example.” –Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha

Hello friend,

I was at the gym early one morning this week, sweating and huffing on one of the cardio machines in the long rows in front of the televisions. I always bring an electronic book to read to survive the monotony, but I must admit that the televisions—even though they are silent and force me to read the closed captioning—conspire to distract me occasionally (and by that I mean often). At that awful hour of the morning—well before humans should be conscious, in my opinion—the programming is simple: news shows and more news shows. It is how I learned all about Fox News (and now I can understand the fascinating political views of my parents, who let the TVs in their house run all day–you think I am kidding, but I am not—on that channel). It is also how I learn about the stuff my local stations are covering.

Well, on this particular morning, I glanced up from my book as a story was just beginning on one of the local morning shows. There were high school students in a classroom, and a happy teacher was dancing. As I read the closed captioning along the bottom, it revealed a story about this teacher, who was winning an award for his outstanding work. He was a Spanish teacher, and he talked about using his class to bring cultures together and promoting greater understanding and cooperation. He seemed to truly love his work and his students. It all seemed very uplifting.

The story really struck me. Not because inspiring teachers are rare in the world—indeed, I believe stories like that could be found in any school—but because hearing about them in the news is rare. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “Yes! This is what I want my news stories to be about! Show me more!” Then, of course, the story ended, and they went back to the usual fodder of murders, drug busts, and political scandals. Slowly, that little fire that had ignited in me was snuffed out. Even a glance over to the headlines on the television showing Fox News couldn’t get me inspired again—big shock there, I know—and so my eyes drifted back to my book and my mind cocooned around itself again. That was enough news for me. I was sufficiently disheartened and disgusted by the stream of headlines and stories that flooded the screens.

Historically, I have a pretty rocky relationship with the news media, whether in print or on television. For many years now, I have mostly made it a habit of avoiding the evening news. If I do happen to be in the room when the television is on—such as when I am visiting my parents—I can get through the first few stories before my brain starts to withdraw and let me know it is time to move on. Almost invariably, it is something bloody—a murder, a war, a crash—or something scandalous and divisive. The old news adage “If it bleeds, it leads” has never gone out of style. So we get this onslaught of death, deception, and destruction right from the get-go. It is no wonder when we imagine reporters looking for stories, we picture them sitting around in front of a police scanner, listening for trouble.

At this point in my life, though, I just don’t want to listen to it. I have only so much time and so much attention span, and I don’t want either to be filled by negativity, violence, and discord. I have had people try to shame me into watching the news, like, “How will you ever know what is going on in the world?” They accuse me of burying my head in the sand, pretending the world and its people are much better than they really are. If only I would watch the news, they say, I would have a much more realistic view of life. Perhaps I would stop being so idealistic, so hopeful.

No, thanks. I’ll pass.

And anyway, it is not as though I don’t watch any news. I just pick and choose my sources and how much of my energy I want to devote to them. And I trust my intuition to know when I have had too much, even from the sources I respect. I know enough about what’s happening in the world. I just choose not to linger in the swampy part, the part that the news media seems to call “Home.”

But what if the inspiring story of the high school Spanish teacher was not so rare that its presence startled me? What if the big headlines were the positive ones? What if the in-depth, exposé-type features were not about mafia leaders or corporate scams, but rather about individuals in our communities who are shining examples of courage and kindness, or who go above and beyond in order to bring different groups together? These could be the front-page stories rather than the ones that barely make it into the back pages of a newspaper or only onto the super-early local morning show.

I am brainstorming now, so stick with me (and hopefully help me out with some responses). Let’s say I started a news outlet—we’ll say an online platform to begin with, using a website, maybe a YouTube channel, and social media—that covered all of the things I want to focus on in my community. I live in the suburbs of a pretty big city, so let’s say we are talking about the entire metropolitan area. That gives us a lot of territory to cover as reporters, but also lots of potential stories to tell and lives to touch. So, where should be start?

I am looking to profile the people who are the best examples of all the things that most of us feel are gravely lacking in our world today: kindness, empathy, courage, optimism, joy, open-mindedness, forgiveness, gratitude, and inclusion? I want to share how these people are not only wonderful examples for us to emulate in our own little corners of the world, but also how they might be joined by good people like us, who may have something to add to their efforts. I am also looking for community events that are designed to foster these same traits. I don’t want celebrities. I want regular humans like you and like me. We are the ones who are overwhelmed by the flood of negative news today, to the point of feeling helpless to make a difference. My news outlet is to show us that we can make a difference, that we have influence and we can use it to make our spheres of influence more open, cohesive, and joyous.

I imagine a story about that high school Spanish teacher. I imagine another story like the one this Summer in Wichita, Kansas, when what was originally planned as a protest against police violence toward communities of color became the First Steps Community Cookout, a barbecue where police and community members ate, talked, listened, and played basketball together. I imagine a story like the one I read recently about how the members of a Christian church and a neighboring Muslim mosque in Memphis have moved from a place of fear to one of community. I imagine profiles of volunteers at homeless shelters, food shelves, and senior centers. I see a calendar of events that bring people together across difference. I see a listing of opportunities to help others who could use your time and skills to better themselves and our community.

I like this vision! This is a news outlet I could actually watch every day. Sure, I know there will always be the other, more negative stuff going on in the world, and there will always be other reporters covering it. But maybe if you and I put our heads together, we could tell the stories that might turn the tide a little, maybe bring some light into our little corners of the world. I could go for that!

How about you? What kind of news do you want to hear about? Open up your journal and think about the stories that help you to feel the way you want to feel and know what you need to know. What are your primary news outlets right now: local television, cable news, newspapers, magazines, websites, Facebook shares and comments, Twitter, talk radio? Do you prefer to watch videos or to read stories? What type of stories do you end up gravitating toward most? Do you like the bloody stuff? Do scandals and scams satisfy you? How about celebrity gossip type of stories? Politics? What about the feel-good, uplifting type of stories that I am talking about? Does that stuff do anything for you? Does it deserve more air time, or is it not really newsworthy? Do you like the general way that televisions news seems to prioritize stories: leading and filling most of the time with the blood and the drama, and only occasionally having a special report on a person or event doing inspirational, difference-making work in the community? If you could join me in starting my news agency, what are the stories you would like told? Are there people that you are aware of in your community who deserve to be highlighted? Which of the positive characteristics I mentioned above– kindness, empathy, courage, optimism, joy, open-mindedness, forgiveness, gratitude, or inclusion—are they the best examples of? Which types of positive people or events in your community are the least publicized? Why is that? Tell me the truth: is there a place in our society—or at least in your community—for a type of positive news outlet like this? Would you be a regular reader or viewer if it existed? Is it the kind of organization you would like to work for? I am actually serious about this project, so I would appreciate your feedback. Leave me a reply and let me know: What stories do you want the media to cover more? 

Shine your light,

William

P.S. If this got you thinking more discerningly about your media habits and priorities, I would be grateful if you would pass it on. Let’s shine together!

Troll Power!!! When Did It Become So Normal To Be Negative?

DSC_0784“Bad stuff happens, people are mean, there are no steps you can take to ensure the world leaves you alone. All you can do is try not to be one of those people who contributes to the bad.” –Holly Bourne, Am I Normal Yet? 

Hello friend,

Amidst what we would expect to be a shower of glory and accolades from winning an Olympic gold medal last week, American gymnast Gabby Douglas instead found herself in a hurricane of negativity. The trolls of social media came out in full force to disparage everything from her appearance to her love of the country she has spent the last several years proudly representing. They told her she had bad hair. They told her she wasn’t cheering hard enough for her teammates. They absolutely ripped her patriotism when, during the playing of our national anthem after she and her teammates won the gold medal, she elected to stand at attention with her hand at her side rather than over her heart. She actually felt compelled between events to apologize if she offended anyone by standing that way (never mind that if you look around before a game at a big stadium, hands to the sides during the anthem is completely common). By the time she got to her final press conference of The Games, the vilified Douglas could barely get through it without tears. Apart from not performing as well as she had hoped, she talked of all of the social media haters and how “hurtful” it all was. She walked down the hallway alone and broke down.

That is a two-time Olympian and multiple gold medal winner. And that is what passes for normal on social media these days.

Last weekend, my wife was explaining a project she was working on at her job, creating a public service video designed to bring awareness to sexual violence prevention and how we should all empower ourselves to stop it. She pulled up a YouTube video for me as an example of what they wanted to do, this one done by celebrities. It was well done and well-intentioned, and of course, its message is extremely important. Just as the video was ending, though, she quickly warned me to NOT look at the comments below the video. “All it is down there is nastiness. Just mean-spirited stuff.” So, I didn’t look. For days, I didn’t look, disciplined in my philosophy that my mind shouldn’t go wandering in the mud unless necessary.

But then, my curiosity got the best of me. I mean, how could you possibly be nasty about a public service announcement against rape? Right? It didn’t make sense to me. So, literally just now, I looked.

Holy Hannah!!!

I don’t think of myself as a prude at all, and I like to think I am aware of what is out there in the world. But, oh my goodness, I am beyond disturbed by what I just read! Beyond!

I guess I am not shocked that some people think these awful, mean-spirited things. But this painful, dark sensation in my heart right now—honestly, I am a bit crushed and totally stunned by this experience—seems to be from the sheer volume of people spewing this hate and negativity. It is endless! I couldn’t believe the first few comments I saw, so, like a fool, I kept looking. It was an endless onslaught of vulgarity that ran the gamut of topics, all equally disturbing. In the end, I guess that is what I feel most right now, in the immediate aftermath: DISTURBED.

The questions come racing to the front of my mind. How could someone have that much hate in them? How could SO MANY people have that much hate in them? How could an innocent public service announcement stir all of that up? If there are this many people commenting with hate on something as innocuous as a PSA for sexual violence prevention, do I dare even imagine how many and how negative the comments are for more normal pop culture things, like celebrities or politics or athletes? Who ARE these hateful people? How did we get to this point where this level of negativity is so common that it feels normal, like just part of the deal? 

As these questions relate to the real purpose of Journal of You, they lead me to wonder not just about our society in general but about my personal inventory. That is where it all starts. The issue that keeps spilling out of my churning mind is, “When did it become so easy and acceptable to be so negative?”

I know that for myself, because of my interest in politics and my natural leanings to one of the far ends of the spectrum, it can be easy to dismiss or rail against people on the other end of that spectrum. I think that is especially true in the company of other people who think like I do. One of the things I have done lately to check that tendency, though, is to institute a personal “No Negatives” policy on social media posts. So, even if I come across a meme about Donald Trump that I find hilarious, I am not going to share it. If I find an article about something that I despise, I am not going to share it with my comments about “I hate it when…..” or “This lady is a piece of….. .” Even in response to other people’s posts, I am not going to go down the road of telling them how awful the idea or person they believe in is. I have watched how those interactions spiral, and it is just not productive.

I will, however, on my own page, post about issues that I believe are important or stances that I support. Basically, I want the pattern of my pages to say, “I feel positively about this, and I support that,” rather than “I feel negatively about this, and it is stupid to support that.” (It reminds me of my years of coaching sports, and the important lesson it took me a long time to learn: Better to show and explain to the student what you DO want them to do, rather than keep saying, “Stop doing this” and “Don’t do that.”) 

It will probably always be a mystery to me why someone would spend their time and energy to go on social media to disparage an Olympian’s hair or rail about her lack of patriotism (as she wins gold medals for my country while I sit here on my sofa eating ice cream). And I will certainly never understand why someone would search YouTube for public service announcements about preventing sexual violence so he can comment about how “rape is natural” and “they deserve it” and all sorts of other bigoted swill.

What I can understand, though, is the power of a voice. (After centuries where so few people had a voice that could reach an audience out of earshot, today anyone with a keyboard might reach millions immediately. Maybe that newfound power is what we are all fumbling with now, trying to figure out how to best harness it.) My promise to myself is to be aware of my voice, to understand that it is my choice which way I go with it, and to use it for good. I am going positive.

How about you? Which way do you go with your voice? Open up your journal and get clear on what your vibe is. How easily do you slip into negativity? How would you categorize your most frequent negativity? Are you inclined to rip on people, such as Gabby Douglas, for their appearance or perceived personality traits? Do you share snarky memes about people (e.g. politicians) that you disagree with? Do you find yourself writing or saying stuff like “I hate….” or “You know what really makes me mad? …..”? Would people who talked to you or followed you on social media tend to think you were more optimistic or pessimistic? Open-minded or narrow-minded? Friendly or mean-spirited? In which forum do you let your negativity out? Do you save it for only someone closest to you (e.g. spouses who rip on everyone else, but only to each other—a partner in mockery)? Do you save your more negative commentary for people in the room with you, i.e. in the form of conversations? How much do you put your feelings out on social media? Are you willing to comment on other people’s posts with negative reaction to what they are in support of? Are the things you post or share on your own Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat page more “This is what I believe in…” or more “This is what I can’t stand…”? Have you ever been the person in the Comments section of an online article, video, or chat room who uses the space to be mean to people (either the creators or the other commenters)? Does the anonymity and invisibility of the Internet allow you let your negativity to flow more freely? On the whole, are we more negative these days, or are there just more ways to spread our negativity than before? What is behind this willingness to go so negative? Is it the impersonal nature of the Internet and social media, where we can hide behind our screens and mine from the very worst of our character traits with impunity? Is it the general decline in respect for authority figures? Is it the increasing distance we keep from other people, which lessens our feelings of empathy? With zero being very negative and ten being very positive, how would you rate yourself in terms of the way you are using your voice? Are you willing to do better? I dare you! Leave me a reply and let me know: How can you speak more from the positive in you? 

It costs nothing,

William

P.S. If this letter made you check yourself a bit and consider a different way, please pass it on. Let’s build this thing together!