Witnessing Magic: Which Historical Event Would You Experience?

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

“People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.” –Paulo Coelho, Veronika Decides To Die

Hello friend,

I have just had the most uplifting treat! I sat down to watch a documentary merely to learn some history and came away instead with a full heart and a smiling soul. And longing! Oh, how I longed to be swept away and taken back in time–a few years before I was born–to feel what those lucky people felt over the course of three long days on a farm in upstate New York. I longed to be with them at Woodstock.

That whole world of the middle-to-late 1960s is absolutely fascinating to me. I have done a lifelong, off-and-on study of this revolutionary era in American history, when norms and expectations were being questioned, challenged, and sometimes toppled, both by the groups who had so long been oppressed but also by the children of those who had created all of these norms and expectations in the first place.

There was a “counterculture” that did things like grow their hair out, oppose a war (relatively unheard of until then), resist racism and poverty, and yes, even take drugs. Music was a language they could share. Bob Dylan was one of many who sang for them:

Come mothers and fathers 
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

Indeed, they were. There was a generation of people that were disillusioned by the America they had been sold and were actively bucking the establishment. And whether they were individually more focused on fighting for the civil rights of African-Americans, women’s rights, ending the war in Vietnam, or merely the conservative dress code and social mores of their parents, they seem to have each been buoyed by the progress on the other fronts. They were doing it together. The rising tide was lifting all of the countercultural voices, emboldening them to believe that real change could be made.

Young people with Freedom, Love, and Peace on their minds will make magic happen.

Riding that wave of idealistic unity and rebellion, and fueled by the music of their new generation, a few guys decided to put together an outdoor festival on a dairy farm in bucolic upstate New York. Billed as “3 DAYS of PEACE & MUSIC,” with the silhouetted image of a dove perched on the neck of a guitar on its advertisements, Woodstock became–and remains–the most epic music festival in our history.

But it was so much more than a big concert. It was a cultural touchstone. It was the subject of the PBS documentary I recently watched on Netflix called “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation.”

Woodstock was something I was vaguely aware of as a kid–it happened in 1969, a few years before I showed up in the world–kind of like Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement. They were so near to my lifetime but, as a sheltered kid in a small town with parents who weren’t about any of that stuff, 1969 might as well have been in the Stone Age. I had no exposure and thus was left to rely only upon my natural curiosity, which kept vague notes regarding what I should remember to learn about one day in the future.

That note was still left unchecked in my mind when I opened up Netflix last week to see what was new. There on my screen was the key to one of my lifelong curiosities and what is now one of the events I most wish I had attended in all of human history.

Watching the images from the film–both the aerials spanning the sea of humanity in the natural amphitheater of the hilly field as well as the intimate shots of the peaceful, joyous faces–and listening to voiceovers from the festival attendees as they unpacked their memories from the magical weekend that changed their lives, I could not help but envy them and imagine how I would have fit into such a unique scene, not merely as a fly on the wall but as a full participant.

Indulge me, please, a few too many quotes from those lucky souls, expounding upon everything from the sheer size of the crowd to the palpable energy to the depth of the impact the entire experience had on them. To begin, the first impressions:

“As you walked in, it hit you. Suddenly it just all came into view at once: this whole, enormous bowl full of people. It was mind-boggling.” –Michael Lindsey, attendee

“Coming over the hill, the feeling, the energy of that crowd was something I’ll never forget. There was so much power in it.” –Joel Rosenman, producer

“It was indescribable, the feeling that came over me of warmth and ‘Oh my God, there are this many people in the world that think like I think. There are all these people; I never knew there were that many people in the world!” –Laureen Starobin, attendee

“We walked up that hill, and we saw, you know, all these people our age, looked like us, dressed like us. You know: Us. I mean, it was just, it was like meeting your brothers and sisters. It was really beautiful.” –Susan Reynolds, attendee

“We were 400,000 kids on a hillside who were all vehemently against the war and, you know, for me it was like, ‘These are our people! We found our people!’” –Susan Reynolds, attendee

When the producers realized that they could not erect the fence around the farm soon enough to keep out people without tickets, they made the extraordinary move of announcing that they would no longer be charging admission, effectively losing themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process and ensuring the festival would be a huge financial loss. The generosity of that gesture was absorbed by the swelling crowd and seemed to multiply from there. Everyone just seemed to take care of each other, passing around whatever food (and drink and drugs) they had with all of those around them. They sang and danced together, made campfires for all, and slept next to one another under the big night sky.

But it wasn’t just the concert-goers who seemed to find the best of themselves in the experience. The locals, who considered themselves hicks and conservative country folk and many of whom staunchly opposed the festival and the “hippies” from the outset, became swept up in the wave of Love and Good Will that washed over their rural county. When, upon hearing on the second day of the festival that the food had run out and that trucks could not get through because of traffic jams, they made sandwiches and emptied their home pantries, donating everything they could to be helicoptered to the site to feed all the hungry festival-goers. Similarly, when medical supplies ran out, doctors volunteered their time and flew in on Army helicopters full of supplies to treat the people in need. Something magical was happening.

“This was actually kind of a functioning city out in the middle of nowhere, and we realized it was functioning because of people pulling together. It just had this feeling that this was ours. This was the new city; this was the alternative city. And it worked.” —attendee

“I remember sitting in the mud listening to Crosby, Stills, & Nash, looking at the sheer beauty of the night sky and wrapped in a blanket of Music. It was the feeling of oneness with it All.” –Katherine Daye, attendee 

On the third day (Sunday), an older-looking gentleman walked onto the stage. It was Max Yasgur, the conservative owner of the dairy farm that had been taken over by this ocean of young people. He, too, had been moved by the experience and had donated tons of milk and yogurt so that everyone could eat. He humbly stepped to the microphone:

“I’m a farmer. I don’t know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world. Not only to the town of Bethel or Sullivan County or New York state; you’ve proven something to the world. The important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids–and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are–a half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music, and have NOTHING BUT fun and music. And I God bless you for it!”

By the next day, Jimi Hendrix had played his iconic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” and the sea of people had risen from the mud and returned to the world, forever changed by the experience.

“If 400,000 people could get together and have absolutely no violence, absolutely no conflict, I felt like if we could bring all that love back into society, we could change the world.” —attendee

“The festival became a symbol of intelligence and humanity and cooperation and love and affection. It was the start of a phenomenal change in a lot of people’s lives.” –attendee

“I felt like I had finally gotten to fully experience what I was hoping the counterculture meant. Woodstock was a very powerful confirmation that, yeah, this is what you are looking for and you are headed in the right direction.” —attendee

“Everyone looking after one another, everyone caring for one another. I mean, once I experienced that, I made it the basis for the whole rest of my life.” –attendee 

That is some powerful stuff. It captivates me, I think, because of the “wave of Love” that seems to have taken over the entire production. The vibe. The energy. The feeling that seemed to sweep over all involved. I think it was something transcendent, something bigger than the sum of each person’s contribution. It was bigger than anything.

When I think of other historical events I would like to have been a part of, I think that what draws me is this sort of wave that Woodstock had going for it, this momentum of Love and Good Will that swept up everything in its path. I imagine being a part of the Civil Rights Movement, riding the wave on buses and at lunch counters, at the March on Washington with Martin Luther King. I imagine riding the wave as one of Jesus’s followers in his last few months. I bet the people at the launch of Apollo 11 for America’s “moonshot” felt that unity and excitement. Similarly, I can imagine wanting to be swept up in the frenzy of a hometown’s ride to a Super Bowl or World Series victory, especially being in the stadium for the final win. I remember my Black wife flying our infant daughter across the country and going out in the wee hours of the morning in the bitter cold just to be in the same city as President Obama’s first inauguration, so momentous was that occasion in her life and the life of so many people of color. She had to be there. These feelings–and the memories they stamp on our heart hearts and minds–are irreplaceable.

This is how I picture Woodstock. That wave of love.

It is the only way I can explain to myself why I am so particularly drawn to it. Yes, I love music, and it had that. But music alone doesn’t explain it. Because, really, I: 1) dislike crowds and sharing germs with strangers, much less sleeping in the mud with them and using porta-potties, 2) have never been interested in drugs, and 3) don’t necessarily know well or care for many of the bands performing. It has to be the wave. That feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself. Something beautiful and pure. A unity of spirit.

Maybe this is the reason why the documentary hits me so hard right now. Maybe the profound Unity and Love that defined the festival leave me shuddering and longing to this degree precisely because these are the things so sorely absent from our country today, 50 years after those transformed young people wandered off Max Yasgur’s farm and back into America. I mean, can you imagine putting 400,000 strangers in a field together in our era and come away three days later with no stories of conflict, violence, or animosity? It is absolutely unthinkable. Our wave seems to be sweeping as forcefully but in the opposite direction that theirs was. Give me Woodstock over this nonsense anytime.

It was truly a singular event in human history. I wish I had been there.

How about you? Which event or era in human history would you like to be a part of? Open up your journal and allow your fantasies to run freely. What event comes first to your mind? Did it happen during your lifetime and you were just somewhere else, or is it from a different era altogether? Was it something brief (seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Kennedy’s inauguration, the March on Washington, the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Super Bowl, or even a family reunion during your ancestors’ time) or did it take place over a number of days or months (following Jesus or Dr. King or the Grateful Dead, a sports season, or living in Rome at the height of its glory)? What is it about that event or era that appeals to you? Is it the people involved? The place where it happened? Is it about what it led to? How historically significant is your event? How much of it is personal to you or your family? Was it a part of a wave of feeling or a movement that people were swept up in? Have you studied it in depth or, rather, do you not know much about it but just have a romantic vision of it in your mind? Is it easier for your mind to fantasize about it if you know more or fewer of the specifics? Speaking of your imagination, do you think that if you were actually able to time-travel to your special event, would it be as good as you imagine it, or would it disappoint? Do you think the people there knew it was special? How well do most people do at recognizing the significance of their biggest life moments while they are happening? In your own life, have you fully absorbed your biggest moments in real time and recognized them, or was it only later that it struck you how important and impactful those moments were? Does that even matter? Is there an entirely different era that you would prefer to live your whole life in? What can that era teach you about the kind of life you want to live now? What can you do in your little corner of the world to create more of the kinds of moments that you will want to relive in the years to come? How can you create that wave of Love or that sense of true Unity, that feeling of being part of something special and pure and bigger than yourself? How confident are you that there are magical moments like that in your future? Which past example do you hope it most resembles? Leave me a reply and let me know: Which historical event would you go back and experience?

Make your own wave,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with your community. Create a movement together!

P.S.S. If this way of self-examination illuminates you, consider purchasing my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Can You Love Your Country But Not Your Countrymen? IT’S COMPLICATED!

“Asgard is not a place; it’s a people.” –from Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok 

“A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” –Edward Abbey

Hello friend,

Last month we passed the 18th anniversary of 9/11. When I woke up that ordinary day those weeks ago and started thinking about that extraordinarily awful day those years ago, I was transported instantly. I remembered it all so vividly: getting out of the shower to a phone call from my girlfriend, sitting transfixed in front of the little television in my office for hours, the emptiness inside me, the surreal feeling of actually going to a graduate school seminar that night and trying to have a discussion about something other than our completely changed world. The entire day was mind-bending and soul-wrenching. Nothing could ever be the same again.

Still, when last month’s anniversary came around, I struggled to fathom that 18 years had passed since that fateful day. So much water has flowed under the bridge in that time, and my country has revealed so much of its complicated nature.

I get nostalgic each September, first with those awful visions but then much more with thoughts of the beauty that followed. On this September the 11th, my attention was particularly drawn to the memes on social media about the way we, the people of America, came together in its immediate aftermath, with gestures big and small to show that we cared about each other and this country that we share. One example was a poster with imagery reminiscent of an American flag and these words: “I MISS 9/12. I would never ever want another 9/11, but I miss the America of 9/12. Stores ran out of flags to sell because they were being flown everywhere. People were Americans before they were upper or lower class, Jewish or Christian, Republican or Democrat. We hugged people without caring if they ate at Chick-Fil-A or wore Nikes. ON 9/12, WHAT MATTERED MORE WAS WHAT UNITED US, THAN WHAT DIVIDED US.”

It reminded me of a book I read recently, an autobiography called A Dream About Lightning Bugs by the musician Ben Folds, who is several years older than I am but basically of my generation. He had made the difficult choice to keep touring in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, feeling that people needed the music and the release it provided in that devastating time. Of those months, he wrote, “Anyone who was in the United Sates in the wake of 9/11 might recall that, rising from the ashes of the tragedy, something magical was also happening. People suddenly acknowledged one another in the streets, smiled, opened doors, and helped with groceries. Everywhere. I think this is often overlooked. As I toured the country, I saw a sense of community and humanity expressed that I hadn’t seen in my lifetime.”

How sad is it that I miss what only a tragedy could incite?

We are one year away from a major election, so divisiveness is about to get extreme. Well, let’s face it: division and antagonism have been extreme for several years now. But I have no doubt that with the stink-stirrers who are going to be the central players in the coming show, America’s internal hatred is going to reach an all-time high. There will be tons of glorifying “us” and vilifying “them” for reasons real and imagined, despite the fact that we all belong here.

I know in advance–because I know how I feel here most days–that I will really detest the lows that we will have sunk to and the new “normal” we will have established in all this pettiness. “We” are America. As we enter the 2020s, the we I see in our collective mirror isn’t what I used to imagine we were. I say “imagine,” because maybe we were always this shallow and antagonistic. Maybe the modern age of cameras everywhere and social media and other perversions of media (hello, Fox News!) have not so much produced our lesser angels but rather simply revealed who we have always been. It was easier to imagine our country–the people and movements who make up our country and its character–as better, brighter, higher. You know, like the America that showed up on September 12, 2001.

Wrap your mind around this: the children who were conceived in those unified, harmonious months in America post-9/11 will be able to vote in their first election next year.

They wouldn’t even recognize the America that they were conceived into. That is really sad. As they are now beginning to raise their awareness of politics and our country’s position in the world, knowing only what they witness in these times, how lacking they must be in both hope and the confidence in our leaders–and our people–to do what is right and just.

There are just too many examples on all levels of our country doing things that we ought to be ashamed of. Why can’t we get some of this stuff figured out? Decent health care for all of us. Assault rifles that are unavailable to those of us not conducting military campaigns. Not caging children. Treating our politicians like public servants with whom we can agree or disagree on a policy-by-policy, action-by-action basis rather than like celebrities or deities to whom we offer our blind devotion simply because they belong to a designated political party. Acknowledging our role in the escalation of climate change and then taking actual steps to reverse our impact and to help make Earth habitable for our great-grandchildren. Ensuring fair elections. Simple stuff.

And it’s too easy to blame the government or the President or whichever political party is not yours. We–the citizens–are bad at this stuff, too. We create the toxicity. We tolerate the empty promises and shady dealings. We tolerate people getting rolled over by the system. We numb ourselves to the school shootings and the scandals and the record temperatures. We spout our own ignorance or hate or empty “thoughts and prayers.” We deny, deny, deny. We simply aren’t very good to each other.

That realization really, really aches to absorb. We are a hollow country right now.

How long can we last on just the founding ideals when we don’t actually act on them? Can we still be the shining city on the hill if we have dug ourselves a pit–or a “swamp,” as the lingo du jour goes–and dimmed our brightest lights? How do we become admirable, whether or not you think we ever were before? Short of our government suddenly making a bunch of wise, beneficent moves that might draw positive attention from the press and the rest of the world, how do we–the people–get back to that kindness and decency of September 12th? How do we get back to seeing ourselves, collectively, as occupants under the same tent, each responsible for all of our well-being, and believing that the person in front of or behind you in line deserves the very best of you?

I don’t want to have to wish for a “9/11 Version 2.0” just to get a 9/12 America. I feel like that is the weak way out of this and would only lead to a quicker and steeper return to our current shallow meanness. I believe we are better than that and should prove it the hard way: act by act, day by day, person by person. I have faith that we could pull this off. After all, we have done this before. That feeling that many of us remember, that sentiment that inspires the memes, those acts of simple decency that Ben Folds witnessed as he toured the country: all of that is evidence that we are capable of making each other’s lives–and by turn America itself–a better, more just, and more inspiring place to live. We just need to rise.

We need to. Because I am tired. I am tired of despising people who wear red hats, tired of feeling embarrassed by the actions of my representatives, tired of feeling isolated from my neighbors or family members based on which signs they put in their yard during election season, tired of the distance that we have allowed our screens and our busy-ness to create between us, tired of justifying my absence from the public square, tired of being disappointed in others but not doing anything to be a better example to them, tired of missing opportunities to take the first step to bridge these gaps, and, most importantly, tired of the shame I feel at allowing all of this to take place in my precious America. I am tired of being low. It must surely be time for me to rise.

How about you? Are you ready to rise up and be the kind of citizen and country that we can be proud of? Open up your journal and consider the best and worst of your country and what role you play in each. How do you characterize your country at this point in its history? Is it riding a good wave and showing off its best colors, or has it sunk to a place where all of its warts are showing? From your vantage point, are you more likely to notice and dwell upon the shortcomings of your government or of the citizenry? Does one group seem to rise and fall as a result of the other one, or do the people seem to operate independently of their leadership apparatus? Are you proud of your country? When you give your answer to that one, what does it actually mean to you? Do you mean that you are proud (or not) of the actions your government takes toward its people or toward other countries around the world–e.g. providing health care or good education to its citizens, joining a coalition military campaign to fight an evil dictator, providing humanitarian aid to war-torn or famine-stricken countries, etc.–or, rather, that you are proud of the way the people in your country act toward each other and proud of the causes that they stand up for at the polls and with their pocket-books? Do you believe it is important to examine the distinction between the two angles and flesh out your thoughts on each? How different are your answers on your pride for your government and pride for your people? Do we need to also add the layer of being proud of what your country theoretically stands for–things like Liberty, Equality, Justice–versus what it shows that it stands for in practice? How would you rank what you are most proud of in order from least to most: the people of your country, the government and leaders of your country as it currently stands, and the theoretical values that your country stands for? How disparate are these three categories in your country? Is that okay? At what point in your country’s history do you think the three categories were most in step with one another? How do all of these answers form your concept of patriotism and what it means to be a patriot? How patriotic can you be if you don’t have faith in the people of your country? Might it be of some benefit to your country to have a crisis–like a 9/11–to shake it out of the error of its ways? Does it require a tragedy to bring out the best in people and reveal our common humanity? What are some ways that you could be a better citizen? Are any of those things that you could begin to apply today? If everyone took on that challenge, how much better could things get? How do you imagine your country at its very best? What would the government be doing differently, and what would the ordinary people be doing differently? How would all of that affect your lifestyle and your outlook on the future? How can you rise to meet that challenge of creating a better place to live? Do you tend to look at the big stuff–government level–or the stuff that you can do interpersonally to make that difference? If we do the small, will the big begin to take care of itself? Can you start with the person across the street whose sign is different than yours? If not there, then where? Leave me a reply and let me know: Can you love your country but not the people in it, and what good is the first without the second?

Reach out,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with the world. Reach out and rise up!

P.P.S. If this way of questioning yourself appeals to you, consider purchasing my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

A Loving Reminder: Have You Kept Your Relationship Promises?

“Together again, It would feel so good to be in your arms, where all my journeys end.  If you can make a promise, if it’s one that you can keep, I vow to come for you if you wait for me.” –Tracy Chapman, The Promise 

“You’re looking for the wrong person. But not just any wrong person: it’s got to be the right wrong person–someone you lovingly gaze upon and think, ‘This is the problem I want to have.’” –Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe

Hello friend,

If you know me, you know I have just about zero desire to attend your wedding. Or your graduation or your funeral, for that matter. But definitely not your wedding. I don’t like ceremonies. The pomp and circumstance, the dressing up, all the make-up and hair products, the extravagant decorations, the cookie-cutter procedure, the religious decorum and forced reverence. None of that is for me. And that is just the ceremony. Don’t even get me started on the reception! Small-talk, over-served alcohol, and too much noise to have a good conversation. Even when I like the people there, I don’t want to be there. It is just not my scene.

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was when my wife informed me recently that we–just the two of us, no kids allowed–would be going to her friend’s wedding, set for this past weekend. I looked forward to it like a root canal.

But a funny thing happened in that glowing, well-appointed hall. Instead of the typical, stodgy affair full of artifice and repetition of the standards, it was highly personal and authentic to the bride and groom. The video looping on the big video screen as the guests made their way in was from one of those “one second a day” apps that showed highlights of their last year together, prompting lots of laughs, oohs, and ahhs, and just generally drawing everyone into the atmosphere of community and love. The officiant, a friend of theirs, was funny and sincere, and they were deeply grateful for everyone’s presence and full of tears at each other’s expressions of their true love.

I listened most closely to the vows that they had written together, the promises they were making to each other about the kind of people they wanted to be for each other and the kind of shared life they wanted to create in the years to come. At every turn, they seemed to hit the right notes in both the substance of what they were saying and the conviction of their delivery. I believed them.

Inevitably, as I sat there taking it all in–and yes, crying along with them–my thoughts swirled back to my own wedding and the heartfelt vows my wife and I made to each other. Through streaming tears, we promised each other our very best for all the days of our lives. It was deep. It was beautiful. And it was sincere. I meant every last, golden word.

That was sixteen years ago. Leave it to Father Time to add some dents and dull the shine of even the most heartfelt promises.

Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t failed entirely as a life partner. I sleep in my own bed every night. I cheer for my wife’s victories and lend an ear and a shoulder on her tougher days. I make her needs a priority. I co-parent with all my heart. Taken in broad strokes, I have kept my priorities in line.

But when I take a closer look–as I am prone to do in this journaling life–I cannot deny that I have also failed to live up to the idealistic vision I held of my vows on that magical lovefest of a day those sixteen years ago. I have too often failed to give my wife the benefit of the doubt and failed to assume positive intent when things haven’t gone as I had hoped. I have held onto slights–whether real or perceived–for too long after they happened. The same for arguments and other hurt feelings. I have often used my solitary nature to justify my silence and withdrawal when I needed to rise to a situation and communicate my Truth in order to clear the air and allow a storm to pass more quickly. I have been resentful when the parenting load has become excessive instead of recognizing that as part of the natural cycle and letting it go.

I haven’t been good at the little things that are really the big things, like being sure to say “I love you” every day, giving meaningful hellos and goodbyes, and just checking in to make sure everything is okay, with her and with us. I think I have simply too often made it about my wife and about me, individually, rather than about us. That feels like a pretty significant failure in the face of the vows I made and still believe in. I am not proud of that.

I was chatting with a woman at the wedding last weekend about the moving sincerity of the bride and groom’s love and the delivery of their vows. The woman, who has been married for several years and has a toddler, joked, “Yeah, I remember we made vows like that once. Ha!” Translation: “Good luck keeping them as Life pours it on year after year!” I laughed, of course, as I knew where she was coming from. I know the journey from heart-fluttering, tear-inducing professions of love and lofty promises to petty arguments and isolating silence. I have felt the slow, subtle erosion.

It is why the dreaded wedding was just what the doctor ordered. Seeing and feeling that young, mad love and listening to those sincere promises reminded me of so many things. It reminded me that commitments are beautiful and brave. It reminded me that a couple united and focused on the right things is all-powerful. It reminded me how amazing my wife is and how fabulous life with her can be. It reminded me of the unabashed joy of being in love. It reminded me that all that stuff is still in me.

Those reminders have lingered through the week. On our way home from the wedding, clearly caught up in these love lessons, my wife and I talked about how to create more quality time, both with each other and with our kids, in the midst of our busy lives, rather than only when we go on vacation. We have been better this week with greetings, hugs, and kisses. She even happened up the stairs last night as I was listening to a playlist and a song from our wedding came on. We embraced and had a tender slow dance. It felt like true love. It was beautiful.

It is a magnificent thing to learn a lesson from young people. Sometimes truths are just so much clearer to them than they are to us life veterans with all of our baggage and battle scars. They are better at identifying purity than we are. Ideals are livable to them. So we learn. I am learning.

But there was also a consolation lesson a few days after being humbled by the fresh love of the newly married couple. My wife had posted a photo on social media of the two of us out of the house for our rare date night at the wedding. The bride subsequently appeared in the Comments section down below: “….Your relationship is such an inspiration to us!” Whoa. Really? Hmmm. I was stopped in my tracks. I guess we all have something to teach, and we do that teaching whether we know it or not. I am deeply grateful to have so many sources of inspiration in my life, pleasant reminders of the kind of person I can be and the person I have promised to be.

How about you? Who is the person you have promised to be in your most important relationship? Open your journal and examine your commitments and how well you have stuck to them. Who is the person you have made your firmest commitment to? Was it a commitment made in public–like a wedding–or something just between the two of you? When you made your promises, what type of person did you imagine yourself being in the relationship? What ideals did you promise to hold to? Which actions did you see yourself taking? Have you had to be all that you promised that you would be? Have there been times and situations that don’t seem to have been covered by the promises you made? How did you navigate that? Which of your promises mean the most to you? What is it about that type of commitment that resonates with you? Are there commitments you have made that the other person doesn’t even know about, things that you silently hold yourself to? Which of your promises have you gotten most lazy about in the time since you made them? Has your slippage been slow and subtle–almost unnoticeable–or have you taken steeper falls? Have you completely broken any vows? How does that sit with you today? What are the biggest weaknesses in your relationship from your end? Has your relationship survived your worst? If so, what does it take to rise up from your lowest points? Are you inspired by other people’s relationships? Which people in your life have the strongest partnerships? What makes them so? Do you talk to them about it and seek guidance, or do you learn just by watching? What would you ask them if you could? Does young (or new) love inspire you? How about weddings? What can you learn from these people who are nearer the start of their journey together than the end? What do you have to teach them? Do you try? What one promise would you tell them is the most important one to keep? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you keeping the promises of your relationship?

Love big,

William

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Hanging Out With God: Have You Found Your One Sacred Place?

“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.” –Joseph Campbell

Hello friend,

Last week, I returned to a spot that has held a mythic place in my mind for the nearly-two decades since my last visit. I was a little nervous in anticipation, I admit. I had waited so many years to be back and wondered if its luster would have somehow worn off in the meantime, or if, perhaps, I had changed so much with age that it would be like one of those movies you thought were so great when you were growing up but come to realize that they were actually awful when you watch them later. Would my magic bubble be burst when I finally reached the mountaintop?

I actually was going up a mountain, too. Not exactly to the top, but up a few miles, to a place accessible only by foot trail. I would follow the trail through the forest and along a narrow gorge where crystal-clear water races down the mountainside out of my mythic lake. Once there, I would see what I have been fantasizing about since my last visit: a tree-lined, crystalline, glassy-smooth lake surrounded by steep mountains reaching to the sky, with long, narrow waterfalls plummeting from the high ridges down the sheer faces and emptying into the lake.

This time, though, it didn’t feel like I was on a visit exactly. No, I was certainly on what would more accurately be referred to as a pilgrimage. I was going to a place that felt holy to me, and I was walking with reverence.

I don’t go to church. It would be easiest to say that the only reasons I stay away are my disconnect with organized religion and all the rituals and rules that go along with that, as well as the hypocrisy of those I see claiming religious justification for their immoral actions. But that explanation doesn’t tell the whole story. Some of it is that I have always felt my deepest connection with God–call it the Universe, Divine Source, All That Is, whatever you like, but I will go with “God” today and trust that you can get what I’m saying–in places that were not a “house of God.” Concert halls. Dinner tables. Classrooms. Libraries. But most of all, out of doors. With Mother Nature.

I feel God’s presence when I walk in the tall trees or along the rushing creek. I feel God coursing through my veins when I dive under the surface of the ocean or the clear mountain lake. I hear God in the songs of the birds. I see God in the stars and in the shimmer of sunlight off the water. I feel God in the breeze upon my cheeks. In all of those instances, my soul is at Peace and yet more fully awake and alive than it is anywhere else in the world. It is deeply grateful. And it is reverent.

I remember those soul-stirrings being at their zenith on a day those decades ago when I climbed up alone to my lake. I fought through the brush on the trackless side of the lake, away from any possible human visitors, to get to the far end, nearest where the waterfall-fed streams joined and emptied themselves into the crystalline lake surrounded my those majestic rock faces. I set down my pack there on the shore, plopped myself down, and soaked in the magnificence of it all. I entered a blissful trance. I lost track of time, so enveloped was I in a state of reverie.

Each of the handful of times I have made that climb up to the lake, I have found myself similarly awed and entranced, even when other people were with me or strangers were there to potentially distract me. My soul just seems to tap into a field of energy it does not otherwise access as I make my way through the world. It is a sacred Bliss, a communion with the All. Quite simply, it feels like I am with God. Joined. Immersed in. Communing. I have noted it in my journal after each of my visits. There was even one time I had the book along, and, as we arrived at the lake, I drifted from my family members, climbed out onto a fallen log in the middle of the water where no one would approach, slipped into that Divine Peace, and opened my journal to expound:

Mecca. The pilgrimage has been made to this eternal holy shrine once again. And again, it is absolutely awe-inspiring. The great falls pour down the steep faces. The great pines rise like Heaven’s soldiers. The jagged peaks signal God’s final perfecting touches on the Earth. The basin itself is nothing but holy water. The term “God’s Country” is often thrown around haphazardly, but to use it in this place might be to finally do it justice. I truly feel like a divine being here, as though I have somehow entered rarified air. Like a special blessing has been made for me to slip into a dimension beyond. It is an energy here. I, from my perch on the dead trees in the middle of the water, look at all of the landlocked hikers and don’t see them picking up on the energy. For me, however, there has never been anything so palpable. It is as obvious as the dead tree I am sitting on or the water at my feet. It concentrates in this bowl created by these mountains, hovering constantly yet all the while in a state of graceful motion. Grace. Somehow the word sounds so right when I use it in the description. This place is pure Grace.

That was 21 years ago. It fascinates me to read that and see how thoroughly “God-y” it is. That is definitely unique amongst my many thousands of journal entries. But, truly, that is how that place was for me. It just touched a totally different place in me. A special place.

And it is why I was a bit nervous as I arrived at the trailhead last week. I still wanted to have a special place, a personal sanctuary in this world, with what certainly used to feel like a direct line to God. Would I still feel it, or was that feeling a function of the open-hearted, soulful approach to life I embodied in those obligation-free years of my twenties? So much of my favorite art–books, movies, etc.–comes from that time, so I wondered if I was just more in tune to divinity and inspiration in that period.

I am so pleased–and greatly relieved–to report that the sacred energy was still there for me. I felt it the moment I emerged from the shade of the forest trail and into the bowl of shimmering quietude that is my lake. And I kept feeling it as I explored the shore and studied the steep rock faces and the waterfalls plunging from them. I was transfixed. Simultaneously, I was transported to another realm, a field of higher energy. I was bathed in Love. My impulses alternated between wanting to howl my sheer delight to the heavens and weeping with humility. I was a raw nerve, swimming in a dizzying Bliss. It was profoundly moving.

And it was still mine! The long years in between visits and the jadedness that those years attached to me had done nothing to break the spell. It was still my sanctuary.

But it is just mine, I assume. Notice how I mentioned the other hikers in my journal entry and how I “don’t see them picking up on the energy;” I felt that way this time, too. That is presumptuous, of course, and I know that it has become an increasingly popular hike over the ensuing years, but I still like to think that that enchanting, Divine energy I tap into at my mountain lake is specific to me. Something aligns with my spirit in a profound way that I don’t quite feel anywhere else in the world–though many places touch and inspire me–and I can’t imagine other people as overtaken by it as I am. It is my sanctuary, not someone else’s.

My guess is that most of the other visitors to my lake feel a sense of awe and wonder at its stunning beauty and its dynamic stillness–probably the way I feel sitting by the ocean or walking in the forest–but I don’t believe they feel that same direct communion with God that I feel. Maybe that is just my ego’s desire to be unique and special; I admit that I want the place for myself. And I am territorial by nature; I like my own space wherever I am. Perhaps that also sways my view. So, when I tend to take the view of, “The world is full of natural beauty; the other visitors can have their own places,” I could just be being selfish. But in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe so. I believe that somehow my soul has found its direct line to its source in God. Perhaps its only line.

I am wildly grateful that I found this sacred place those many years ago and tapped into it. It has been a source of unending Peace and inspiration. I am all the more grateful that I was able to return to it after all this time and find its magical effect on me still in full force. I will remain open to the possibility of finding this unique, Divine connection in other places in the world, but I also will go knowing how rare a gift this special is. I am guessing that not everyone gets one of these. I will not take it for granted. And I will return, hopefully sooner than later. I told my children while we were up there that if they are inclined to make the effort when I die, I would like some of my ashes to go there, to my sacred place, to feel at home. I suppose it doesn’t matter, though, for I think my soul has always been there. There with God, just hanging out.

How about you? Have you discovered your sacred place on Earth? Open up your journal and take a journey in your mind. Think of all the places you have ever been. Have you found a spot where you feel in complete union with the Divine? If the answer is yes, how would you describe your feelings when in that place? When there, are you still able to keep your wits about you, or do you become overwhelmed with emotions and impulses? Describe the place itself. Is it a place in Nature, or is it manmade? Is it indoors or out? Does it have religious significance, i.e. is it a designated holy place, such as a church or shrine? Does it have extraordinary beauty, or is it unimpressive to most people? How public of a place is it? Is it visited by many people? Do they come for the same reasons that you do? Do you have a sense of how many people get that same Divine communion that you do while there? Do you share your extraordinary experience with others while you are there? If so, does that amplify the feeling or detract from it? Do moments this intense belong in the public forum, or are they more special when you feel somehow specially selected to feel them? Should you keep them to yourself? How many times have you been to your sacred place? Was it a special, one-time visit, or is it part of your usual routine? If it is more usual, has the effect worn off over time, or does it remain as profound and moving as the first time? Is there some value to keeping the visits infrequent to maintain the depth and intensity of feeling, or is it a “the more, the better” deal? Do you feel bad for the people who have never found a place that feels truly holy and personal? Okay, for those on the other side of the coin, who have never found that one magical place, how do you feel about that? Is it something you think about? Does it frustrate you? Are you actively searching for that place? How do you envision your special place? Do you trust that you will just know it by the feeling you have when you arrive? How confident are you that you will find it one day? How confident are you that it even exists? Is it enough to have many places that bring you Peace and lightness in your heart, even if there isn’t one that is dizzyingly Divine? Is this concept of one sacred place a short-sighted or unenlightened one altogether? Might every place feel that way to us if only our hearts and minds were in the right frequency? I imagine the most highly evolved among us feel that way wherever they go. Should that be the goal for each of us? What is your goal? Leave me a reply and let me know: Have you discovered your sacred place?

Wander blissfully,

William

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Wing It Or Plan It: How Do You Go Through Life?

“He who every morning plans the transactions of that day and follows that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life.” –Victor Hugo

“The problem with a plan is that you fill up the blank page of a new day with a ‘to-do’ list before you get there. And if you’re not careful there’s no room for anything else.” –John C. Parkin

Hello friend,

I am caught in an existential crisis at the moment. My head is trying to convince my heart that it would be better off if I would just go against my nature for the short-term. And even though I can see the logic in it, my spirit translates that logic as clipping my wings and putting me in a cage. Thus, the spirit is railing against “the rules” of the brain with all its might, fighting for its freedom as though its very life is being choked out. I cannot be contained!

I am leading my family on a big adventure to the mountains in a few weeks, complete with camping, sightseeing, special adrenaline-rushing excursions, and lots of restorative communion with Mother Earth and The Man In The Moon. I have been looking forward to this trip for what feels like forever, and I could not be more excited to get out there under the big sky and “sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world,” as Walt Whitman once wrote.

I say I am “leading” not just because I have been out to the mountains before and feel at home in the outdoors, but mostly because my wife has given me complete responsibility for the planning and execution of this giant trip. Argh!

Other than the implicit pressure that comes with that responsibility–basically, “Make sure we all love it!”–I was initially enjoying the job as trip coordinator. I got to pour over maps–a favorite pastime of mine– to plan a general route that would cover a mix of my favorite memories from past trips and also some fun new stuff–like zip lining in the canyons and whitewater rafting–that will make precious new memories for all of us. There was a general vision in my head, but plenty of fluidity to allow for whims and spontaneity. We have a tent, and I was busy accumulating the other camping accoutrement. And the last time I was out there–just a couple of wee decades ago–there seemed to be campsites everywhere I turned. I figured that was about all there was to the coordinator job. Planning complete! Now back to the daydreaming…

Oh, if only it were that simple.

I had to go and start talking to people about it! From my siblings and friends, I was looking for insider travel tips for the national parks, camping suggestions, hidden gems, cautionary tales, and, as always, great personal stories of how the land and the adventure have affected them.

I started with my siblings, one of whom lives out there and two who have traveled extensively in the area. We met up recently for a leisurely family vacation, and the topic of this adventure was infused into nearly all of our conversations from the beginning. Far from confirming my happy memories and fantasies of open campgrounds and quiet trails in the forests–communing with Nature in blissful solitude–all I got were horror stories of how crowded the parks have become, what a nightmare it is to find campsites anywhere that haven’t been reserved (requiring multiple back-up plans), and how exorbitant nearby hotel prices are.

Instantly, I could feel knots growing in the back of my shoulders and the pit of my stomach. Stress. Dread. Despondence. This was not at all what I was expecting from the conversations, and definitely not the feelings I wanted to associate with my beautiful fantasy of a trip. And I was on vacation when all this came up! I didn’t want the feelings then, either!

I tried to let them slide by me: “Oh, I suppose I have a bit of research ahead of me when I get back home next week. No big deal.” But inside, I could feel the awful churning and the knots. These were not going to allow themselves to be stifled. Because I know myself quite well after all of these years with my journal, and I was absolutely certain of two things that would ruin a day–or many–on my dream adventure: 1) chasing around in vain all day trying to find a place to spend the night instead of exploring the natural wonders (and even the prospect of chasing around the next day), and 2) getting stuck without a place and being forced to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a high-season tourist hotel in some town away from where I really want to be. I am not willing to accept either of those options on this trip; it means too much to me. Hence, the churning and the knots.

They kept building and building for a few days as I labored at denial. At last, they got the best of me. While my children, siblings, and extended family frolicked in the laziness of a day at the lake, I closed the door to my bedroom and bunkered down with my books, maps, phone, and tablet. I needed to make some reservations.

Yuck! Even that word makes me feel constrained: RESERVATIONS. Maybe it is a silly class thing: I don’t want to be associated with something fancy enough to require “reservations” for me to get in or to keep other people out. Maybe it triggers my dislike of crowds and feeling cramped: if you need “reservations,” there must be limited space (and I hate limited space). And maybe it is just my natural distaste for the tedium of research and planning: I just want to be there and flow with it.

I see as I write this that the last one is a loaded issue for me. I do not appreciate the grinding of details and numbers and other minutiae that remove me from the experience of the thing. I want to be in Montana; I don’t want to plan the budget and research and book the hotels and campgrounds and excursions and plot the exact movements of the days so I can be in Montana. I just want to be there! The details only serve to annoy me.

I chide myself for this petulance, as I know it reveals the spoiled child aspect of my personality. I want things to be easy for me. I get irritated when I have to be bogged down with the details rather than the big picture, or if I have to labor too much to get what I want. It is the same stuff that I lecture my children about. But I am a middle-aged man! My frustrations reveal the part of me that has yet to grow up. It’s a little embarrassing.

On the other hand, I am trying to become more accepting of myself and allowing space for my imperfections. I get that I am a little bit spoiled. I get that Life is a challenge and things like making ends meet and getting to do all the things you want to do is not the norm, but I still expect that for my world. I have always had people in my life that have been sympathetic to my cause and have filled in the gaps of my personality quirks, most especially my parents and my wife.

My wife–bless her heart–does all the stuff at home that my mind (well, let’s be honest: every fiber of my being) rejects. She fills out forms and deals with insurance companies. She does product reviews and full-scale research for every major (and most minor) purchase. She looks at bank statements and retirement documents. She books airline tickets and knows the password for Amazon. She even talks to the cable company! All things that make me want to shut down and hide in a cave. It is why this trip-planning experience has proven to be such an odyssey of travails for me. All of this is her element and her role in the relationship. I am completely out of my water! It is quite pathetic, actually, because of course I understand that regular people do this stuff every day. My stress and the fears that my soul will be crushed under the weight of the planning are silly, no doubt, but I still feel them. (Thank God I live with a grown-up!)

I once heard discipline defined as “freedom within the form.” That idea has always stuck with me. Freedom within the form. It seeps into my mind now as I try to make sense of my predicament. It strikes me that what I need for this trip is not so much complete freedom but rather this freedom within the form. I need discipline. The only way I can feel free to wander freely along the streams and sit by the campfire gazing peacefully at the enormous night sky is to have all these reservations in place ahead of time. The only real constraint is knowing I have to be in certain campsites or hotel rooms each night of the trip. These are the milestones. What I do in between those nights–which mountains I climb or rivers I cross or roads I travel–is left to the stirrings of my soul. When I look at it like that, it is so much more palatable. Sure, I still have to go through this torture of research and reservations and holding myself to a plan in order to gain that disciplined version of freedom, but I suppose that is the price of the ticket to this show. Sometimes you just have to pay it (or so I keep telling myself).

I am addicted to Freedom and will always desire that ability to run wild and to wander without limits. I won’t ever stop preferring to trust in the Universe to provide and simply winging it. I will always want a big, wide-open space that is safe to play in so I can just do my thing. I suppose that in grown-up life, what makes the safe playground is plenty of money, things like health coverage and a low crime rate, and some well-made plans. Unless I can get someone else to provide all of that for me–“Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?”–I better get used to earning my freedom by working to create a big enough and safe enough form to play in. I may never become a happy planner–it is probably just not in the DNA–but I hope I can find the wisdom to summon that little bit of discipline that will make me a much happier camper. Yeah, I think I’ll plan for that!

How about you? Do you prefer to plan things out or fly by the seat of your pants? Open up your journal and process your preparations for some of your bigger life events and adventures. When it comes to the big stuff–trips, weddings, work events–do you like being the planner or just showing up and going with the flow? Does planning too many details or every minute of the day excite you or take the fun out of it for you? Which gives you more self-confidence: going into a situation knowing you have a plan, or coming out of a situation just fine despite entering without a plan? Do you tend to worry if you don’t know what is coming next? On a scale of 1-10, how spontaneous are you? What is the biggest thing you have ever just winged? How well did it work out? What did that teach you about yourself? What do you think about that idea of discipline as “freedom within the form”? Is that something like a middle ground between being an obsessive planner and a freewheeling floater? Does it work for you to lay down milestones–like me figuring out where we are going to sleep each night–and then give yourself freedom to do what you want between those markers? Does it give you more stress to plan hard or to be without a plan? How much can you plan for your next adventure before it becomes too planned? Where is that line for you? Are you the same way in your regular life as you are with special events? Are you good with the grind and details of things like monthly bills, insurance, taxes, retirement planning, subscriptions, and the like, or does that stuff feel like a completely different planet to you (as it does for me)? Do you feel like you need a “real adult” around to keep your life in order so that you can be “free” and wing it? Are you that adult for someone else? If so, do you hold it against them or just accept that we all have different strengths? Do life partnerships work better when there is one planner and one winger? Do you keep a real schedule that you access regularly? Do you appreciate its convenience or resent it for running your life? Whichever way you feel, do you think the plan is necessary for some degree of peace of mind? How has your planner vs. winger dynamic evolved as you have moved through life? Which way do you tend to be evolving toward in the long-term? Does that feel right to you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do you plan your way through life or just show up and roll with it?

Gulp down every moment,

William

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How Valuable Is Your TIME?

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” –Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life

“No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.” –Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life

Hello friend,

I think I have finally reached the point in life when I understand that the worst thing you can do to me is take away my time. I see now that it was always true but that I just didn’t realize it. I was running around in denial or confusion, I suppose, never minding too much if you dragged me along somewhere on your agenda or if my time with you did not inspire or engage me. I was not much offended by that. I went along. “What else do I have to do?” I passed the time. I wasted it. I spent it. But I didn’t really use the time. I didn’t make the most of it. And I didn’t realize what a tragedy that was, what an abomination. I realize it now.

I don’t know when it started for me. I know I was acting on my repulsion to time-wasting before I was aware of it. Somehow my soul knew. It sent the signal to my body. I would get antsy and irritable.

I once worked as a low-end manager for a large corporation. It was part of my boss’s duties–as assigned by his boss and the boss above him–to have a weekly one-on-one meeting with each of the managers who worked under him. I should probably mention that I have never known a mentally lazier, less invested or engaged person in my life; the one and only reason he held his job was because of who he knew above him in the chain of command. It was like a character out of a farfetched movie. Anyway, in addition to the weekly management team meeting, he and I had our one-on-one meeting in his office. I would enter and sit in the chair in front of his desk with a pen and a notebook open just in case anything important came up (spoiler: it never did). He would say hello from his desk and then swivel in his chair and sit with his large back to me and look at his computer for several minutes as if he were engrossed in some deep reading and I were not even in the room. Then he might come out of his reverie and say something like, “Uh, I guess your numbers are looking pretty good again this month…” and then drift back into remote silence. (As I said, it was like a movie scene.) He would do that a few times over the course of a half-hour, then finally swivel back around and say, “Okay, buddy, you got anything for me?” By that point, even if I did have an issue that I could use some executive assistance with, I was too exasperated with the time I had just spent doodling on my note pad and looking at his large back that I was ready with a quick “NOPE!” and a sprint to the door. Beyond just the disbelief that this type of person could exist and be well-paid for his time, I always left that room thinking, “With all that I have to accomplish in my jam-packed twelve-hour work day, that part did no one any good.” That was when I also grew accustomed to the thought, “Well, that’s 30 minutes I will never get back!” I came to hate that idea.

I think my experiences in the wasteland of unnecessary–and unnecessarily long–corporate meetings probably ushered me directly into the next phase of my working life, when I downgraded my responsibilities and time commitments so I could be efficient when I was there, have hardly any meetings, and get out of there to do the things with the people (my wife and kids) that made every moment feel sacred and priceless. I didn’t care that I had to give up money and prestige to do it. I just wanted my moments to count.

It is from this vein that sprung my efforts to be the best and most present father I could be. That vein is also the source of this entire Journal of You experience, including a book and more than five years worth of letters to you. I want to make the moments–even the “spare” ones–meaningful to me and impactful to everyone whose lives I touch.

I see this sensitivity to time all over my life now. I have become highly averse to traffic and other unnecessary time spent in the car. I avoid most errands like The Plague, unless I can string them together into one trip. I chose a job that was about four minutes from my house and feel like I hit the logistical jackpot with how it fits into my children’s schedules (and I have almost no meetings!). I had a follow-up appointment after a surgery that ended up being basically a “How are you?” kind of deal that I could have handled with a one-minute phone call, and I was at least as annoyed with them for wasting my time to go there as I was for the crazy money they charged me for it.

As I write this and perform this scan of my life both past and present, it becomes so much more clear as to why I have always hated small-talk. I always thought it had only to do with a lack of depth and true connection, just making noise to pass the time–like watching television–and keeping everyone (except me) comfortable/unchallenged by keeping it all superficial. Because that alone would be enough to make my skin crawl. But I see now that the previously undiscovered part of my frustration with the small-talk experience that characterizes most interactions in this society is the time-wasting aspect. I think of all the times I have finished a conversation and thought to myself, “Well, that was a complete waste of time! Neither of us know each other any better now than we did five minutes ago. What a missed opportunity!” It is like death by a million cuts, all of these conversations that eat up the days and years of our rapidly-dwindling lifetimes. I have donated enough blood to that cause. I don’t want to die that way anymore.

I feel like I need to set up some sort of fence or filter through which every request upon my time must pass to make it onto my docket. That filter is probably just a simple question or two, maybe something like Does this make my life feel bigger? or Does this resonate with the Me I am trying to become? I imagine that keeping only the engagements and the people who can pass that kind of test would leave me feeling much less buyer’s remorse for the way I have spent my time.

I just want everything I do to feel like it is worth it. The people I hangout with. The work I choose. The media that I consume. The curiosities and passions that I pursue. The meetings I take. The conversations that I join. The causes that I take up. I want every last bit of it to feel like it was worth the investment of the most precious resource I have: time. From here on out, I will guard it with my life.

How about you? How ferociously do you protect your limited time? Open up your journal and consider the ways you pass your days. What are the things in your life that feel most like a waste of your time? Do you have hobbies–e.g. watching TV, Facebook, YouTube, drug or alcohol use, video games, etc.–that eat up large portions of time but don’t make you feel any better? Why do you continue to give them your energy? How about the people who aren’t worth your time or energy but still receive your attention? What is it about these people? Is it logistically impossible to remove them from your life? If so, how could you make your interactions with them more valuable? Are you too afraid to have the uncomfortable conversation that could help them rise or remove them from your life? Is that conversation more uncomfortable than keeping them in your life and dragging you down? Are there certain places that always leave you wishing you had never gone there? Can you stop? Are you aware of the things that waste your time as you are doing them, or is it only in hindsight that the recognition comes to you? How much of your job/work life ends up feeling like a waste of your time, and how much feels very productive and worthwhile? How much do you drag things out at work just to fill in your required hours? If it were left entirely up to you, could you streamline your workplace and significantly shorten everyone’s work week while maintaining productivity? What are the very best ways that you regularly use your time? Is it in communion with certain people? What makes the time with those particular people so valuable? How can you get more time with them or people like them? How about your best activities? What about that activity time distinguishes it? Is it the mere doing of the activity–e.g. I love the feeling of hitting a tennis ball–or is it the things that come along with the activity (the exercise, the camaraderie, the connection with Nature, etc.)? How can you work more of that activity into your schedule? Is there a different activity that you have been wanting to try that you sense would also be worth your investment? Is there some place that always nourishes you and makes you glad you went there? Can you get there more often or find those same feelings elsewhere? Better yet, can you bring its qualities to you? What would your life look like if it were filled with only things that felt like a good use of your time? Starkly different than your current life, or only subtly so? How close could you reasonably get to that ideal version? What would you choose as a filter question(s) to help you make better decisions about who and what to allow into your life and your schedule? Would that be enough? Can you begin to use that filter immediately? What is holding you back? On a scale of 1 to 10, how selective/picky are you about what you allow onto your docket? Does all of this really boil down to a question of your own self-worth, i.e. is this about believing that you are worthy of only things that lift you up and speak to your soul? Are you worthy (Hint: YES!!!!!)? Leave me a reply and let me know: How valuable is your time?

You are so worth it,

William

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P.P.S. If you enjoy the challenge of questioning yourself and examining your life, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Does Your Hometown Still Feel Like HOME To You?

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” –Pascal Mercier, Night Train To Lisbon

“At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and have never been before.” –Warsan Shire

Hello friend,

I noticed something this week as I was plotting my big Summer trip to the mountains, and it has left me wondering about my place in the world. And if I ever had one.

You see, in order for me to get to the national parks in Wyoming and Montana, I have to pass through the state where I grew up and have so many fond memories. It is a super-long drive, so we will need stopping points along the way, to stretch our legs and to spend the night and such. When I finished plotting a couple of preliminary routes for the adventure, including not just the trip highlights in the mountains but also the long paths to and from my current home in Minnesota, I sat back with some satisfaction of having covered everything I most wanted to see. I was giddy with the fantasies of all that we will experience. And then something struck me: We will be going right through my homeland–twice–and I never once considered stopping in my old hometown.

It was an unsettling realization. “What does that say about my life?” I wondered. “Have I so lost touch with the place that formed me and is the scene of so many memories?” That unsettled feeling has lingered. Why wouldn’t I be eager to go back?

To be fair, I still make it back at Christmas every year. We stay for at least a few days in the house where I grew up. I smile when I drive by my old schools and tell my kids stories of the crazy things we did and who lived in each one of the houses. I get a kick out of it. And I should get a kick out of it; I had a great childhood. My memories are nearly all positive ones from that place. My yard was the centerpiece of tons of neighborhood games. I enjoyed school and sports and had good friends. I even went back and stayed for a couple of years as an adult, and even though I was mostly engaged in internal pursuits at the time and didn’t get out on the town much, I still appreciated being “home”.

So, what has changed? Or has anything changed?

From this distance of years and miles, I wonder. Did I ever feel truly rooted there? Was I ever “at home” in my hometown? I can feel the doubts creep in even as I ask the question.

I have never done very well on belonging measures. Though I am a huge lover of playing just about any sport, my favorites are the more solitary ones (e.g. tennis). And though I have teams that I root for, you will not find me wearing their jerseys or otherwise identifying with the crowd. I have always felt myself to be the “black sheep” of both my nuclear family and my extended family, never quite feeling the same connection or acceptance that it seemed the others felt toward each other. And I suppose you could say the same when it came to the people of my hometown. Despite having friends that I loved and enjoying my time, I never seemed to fit in with the prevailing themes and attitudes. Relative to the town’s vibe, I was not one of the gang.

I don’t know how much of that can be chalked up to the old, “It’s not you; it’s me,” justification. Maybe I am just unable to fit in, to latch on and allow myself to feel welcomed and connected. After all, I have lived many different places on my journey, and I have kept in touch with very few people when I have left, and I have yet to find the one place that feels just right. So, there is a good chance it is not so much the issue of my hometown somehow forsaking me, but rather that I am just not the guy for it.

However, I can also now see some things from this distance that I could not see as kid, or even as a young adult, that undoubtedly played into this lifelong feeling of alienation in the place I call home. The town and I just have (and had then) completely different sensibilities, and even moralities. When I think of the things that I am drawn to or feel passionate about in my life, I think of things like social justice issues, diversity, the arts, free expression of our unique selves, the ocean and the mountains, healthy living, environmental protection, charity toward those who have less or have been otherwise cast out or discriminated against, and other “liberal” political issues. When I think about my hometown, I don’t associate any of those things with it. I would certainly be a fish out of water if I tried to live there now, and though I could never have articulated it when I was younger, I have little doubt that my unconscious or subconscious minds sensed the same disconnect.

In the last decade or two, I have been aware that when I go back to my hometown, I am really going back to my house and, to a lesser extent, my neighborhood. I love the house where my parents live, the one that I grew up in, partly because my parents are there and partly for all of the wonderful memories still waiting for me there, waiting to enchant me and make me laugh and smile and feel a little bit of everything else, too. I am a sucker for nostalgia, and that place has it in Spades.

It is why I walk through the parkland and the few streets surrounding my house every time I go back, too. I like to wander off alone and let my mind drift to those halcyon days of innocence and freedom. I loved those days and feel so grateful for my long-gone time both in my home and in those safe streets, streets that didn’t even have lines painted on them, much less curbs or streetlights. I didn’t need them; I knew the road home.

So I go back into those city limits at this age merely to get to my little cul-de-sac and that house that holds my parents and my memories. The last few years, I have been talking myself into letting that place go, too, increasingly aware that they could sell it any time or, worse, that they won’t be alive to keep it “home” for me anymore. I know that when they leave it, I won’t ever return to that town again. I won’t have a reason to. I will instead hold it happily in my heart and mind, thinking of it often and kindly, just as I do now. But I will know, deep down, that it is no longer mine, if it ever was. The connection will be lost. Only gratitude will remain.

How about you? How closely connected are you to your hometown? Open up your journal and uncover the ties that bind you. How would you describe the place where you grew up? What kinds of things did you do? Who were the people you hung out with? What were your favorite parts of your town or neighborhood? What did you do there? Did you feel safe? What were you involved in? Church? Sports? School stuff? Clubs? Did you feel intimately connected to your town? Were you proud to be from there? If you were in sports or other activities in which you represented your town, were you glad to do so? Would you say you were happy growing up? How much do you think that affected your level of connection to the place? Is your feeling about your particular house or neighborhood different than your feeling toward your town? Why and in what ways? How did your degree of connection and feeling of “being at home” in your town change as you aged through elementary school to high school and young adulthood? Did you feel that typical teenage sensation of wanting to escape the binds of your town–the rules, the people, the prospects, etc.–and move away somewhere where the grass was greener? In your young adulthood, did you feel any inclination to move back to your hometown if you had left it? What has kept you from going back if you are not there now, or what has kept you there if you are? How closely aligned are your sensibilities (interests, morality, politics, etc.) with those of your hometown in general? Given your answer to that question, as a practical matter, are you and your hometown a good fit? How much does that matter to you in terms of making you want to be there (even to visit) or not? Do you still have people there that keep you connected to the place? Are you able to visit the home(s) where you grew up? How closely connected are you to that place? Does the feeling of home–whether the town or the building–evaporate when the people you shared it with go away? Do you feel like you have yet found the place that feels like your true home? If not, do you expect that you will find it someday (asking for a friend)? How much does it matter, especially if you are with the people you love? Do you think that your hometown will always sort of feel like home, no matter how much you liked it when you were young or how good a fit it is for you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Does your hometown still feel like HOME to you?

Rise above it all,

William

P.S. If today’s topic resonated with you, please share it. Strengthen the ties that bind us all together!

P.P.S. If this way of introspection works with your sensibilities, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailer.

Why Are We Here??? Searching For A Reason For It All

“The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning.” –Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future In Space

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.” –Richard P. Feynman

Hello friend,

For the last month, the same thorny subject has been dogging my psyche almost every single day. It comes to me in my most quiet moments–writing in my journal, sitting by the water, out walking in the fresh air–and it returns when I read the news of the day. It pins me down and makes me think hard, sometimes making me sad and other times inspired by the possibilities.

It came along innocently enough. I was skimming through Facebook and happened upon a simple meme that a friend posted. In words only, it said, “No offense, but what is like…..the point? Are we just supposed to work and buy coffee and listen to podcasts until we die? I’m bored.” Whether he intended it to be serious or snarky, the sentiment reached deep down inside of me and gave me a cold jolt. Then it settled over me like a fog and hasn’t let up, burdening me under the immense weight of its question and the absence of an easy answer.

That assaulting difficulty has led me, for the vast bulk of my life, to hold the question at bay. Despite priding myself on conducting a constant, unflinching examination of my life, the impact I am making on the world around me, and the specific purpose and passions that my soul seems called upon to pursue, I have mostly managed to avoid this ultimate question: Why are WE here? All of us. What is the purpose of our existence? It is a much bigger question than that of my personal purpose, with many fewer clues from which to draw for a clean and clear answer. So I have focused on the personal.

It has been, I suppose, just a safe way to remain in denial of a question with such magnificent ramifications. I think I am like just about everyone else in that way. We don’t face it. At least not really face it, like, “I’m going to hammer away at this until I get some answers!” No, we keep it at arms’ length, because I am guessing most of us realize–possibly unconsciously–that we aren’t going to get a straight answer, and it is highly frustrating and/or demoralizing not only to not know but also to not be able to know.

Or can we? Is it possible that there is a reason for our existence AND that we can know the reason?

For the personal aspect of our purpose–i.e. each of our individual purposes–that feels more possible. We receive messages via intuition–tingles, shots of adrenaline, gut feelings and flutters of the heart–and they seem more trustworthy than facts and figures. When I wrote to you in my last letter, I mentioned that I would not be able to sustain my recent trend of complacency with few “accomplishments,” as I would soon need to contribute. “I will need to help others rise,” I wrote. That is what feels to me to be my purpose here on Earth. When I am writing to you or coaching someone to achieve their goals, I am alive inside in way that other activities cannot approach. And even though I cannot claim to know for sure, there is something in those tingles that feels like hard evidence to me.

But all of that seems different than identifying our purpose as a species (or even as a planet). That species-wide purpose doesn’t reveal itself with the same kind of evidence trail. You feel something different than the next person during the same events in history. A racist, misogynist, mendacious fear-monger wins an election, and many religious leaders hail him as God’s gift to us and so their flocks celebrate him and follow his directions unquestioningly. Meanwhile, the rest of us are repulsed by the same circumstances and rise up in protest because, in our hearts, we know that this simply cannot be the way forward for our country or our species. Which side’s feeling should be taken as evidence in the same way our gut feelings about our own individual purposes are?

I do wonder if each of us doing our very best to live what feels to us to be our own individual purpose isn’t really as close as we can possibly come to living our purpose as a species. That seems at least as good as the other answers that are floating around out there.

Those answers generally seem to boil down to one of these: love God, be good, or be happy.

In pondering this topic, I sought out my Bible-thumping, devoutly Christian sister-in-law and asked her what, according to each of 1) the Bible, 2) her church, and 3) her own reckoning, is the purpose of our existence. She told me that it was really quite simple, and that the answer was the same from all three sources: our purpose is primarily to love God, and secondarily, to love each other. Why? Because we are commanded to do so. That’s it. End of discussion.

But why would our presence be required in the Universe? I wondered. Would not an all-powerful God be self-sufficient enough that she would not require the creation of a big species whose specific purpose was to love her? It feels gratuitous. I mean, I can see “Love God” and “Love Others” as good commandments, things that are good to do while we are here. But loving God as our whole purpose for being here?   Perhaps it is my heathen spirit, but that strikes me as odd.

It reminded me, though, of my years of reading Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God series. I loved those books, and most of his (God’s) answers resonated with me. The one answer that I recall definitely not resonating with me, though, was when he said that we are here so that God can experience himself experientially. As though he, as the Supreme Being, surely understands all of the emotions and sensations and such, but he created us just so he could actually experience the full range of, well, experiences. Much like the commandment thing, I was left wondering why an all-powerful being would require that, or even desire it. It just feels unnecessary.

I recall reading books that said the purpose of our existence is to be happy. I don’t know about that. I see happiness as a goal, something that we should strive for and to live (and think) in such a way that happiness is a blessed byproduct. But our purpose? That seems insufficient.

Then there is Emerson, as quoted at the top. He represents what I would guess to be a pretty popular answer, at least to the non-God-referencing crowd, to a question with no apparent answer. His argument amounts to this: Be Good. Make a positive impact on the world with your character and your actions.

As you might guess, considering my personal purpose and the way I try to design my life, this Emersonian view holds some appeal to me when it comes to the question of our greater purpose. It may not be the answer, but it may at least be a clue as to the answer, if one exists.

If you look at it in the relatively short-term–how your life affects the present as well as the next generation–Emerson’s edict to “be a good person” (in other words, to maximize your potential) seems to have more of a practical application. If you act well, you tend to attract good people and positive circumstances to you–which makes for a happier life–and you set a good example for your children to also have a positive impact on the world. Those things make you feel good, so they may seem self-serving on the surface (as most service work tends to enrich the servers at least as much as the served).

But perhaps if we take the long view, there is more to maximizing your potential as a human being than just how it affects you and your inner circle. Play along with me for a moment. What if it is our purpose as a species to maximize our potential? I am thinking of the way Buddhism would say that we reincarnate many, many times as we work toward full enlightenment, finally (we hope) achieving Nirvana and freeing ourselves from the binds of human form.

Imagine if human evolution were like that, with all of us working together over thousands of years toward enlightenment/excellence/kindness/Peace. If we were being drawn forward by this evolutionary force–perhaps set in motion by a God or perhaps by random chance as one of the possible outcomes in a nearly boundless Universe full of billions of planets–then it would indeed be each of our individual purposes to maximize our potential. It would be our jobs to be as kind, compassionate, industrious, and helpful–to just generally make the greatest positive impact–as possible in our short time here. Things like bigotry, greed, violence, and oppression would be seen to be not simply mean or immoral, but anti-evolutionary, a step backward for our species.

If this were indeed the case, then one can see why we as individuals, when we strike upon our true calling, feel it so plainly in our heart and in our gut, and when we are in the midst of acting on that calling–such as me writing to you now–we feel those magical tingles and that addictive rush of adrenaline. That would be the forward pull of evolution working its wonders at the microscopic level so that the macroscopic level–us as a species–can creep toward our magnificent potential. That is an exciting thought!

But is it true???

Ah, there’s the rub! I can’t know for sure. And because I can’t know for sure, I would never claim it to be so. This is why I am deeply skeptical of anyone claiming to know the answer. BUT! But it feels better to me than the other answers. When I say it, it feels more true to my gut. That ping is the essence of what we mean when we say something resonates with us. That’s where the very first quote at the top comes into play. Carl Sagan says, “We are the custodians of life’s meaning.” Basically, we get to decide what this whole Humanity thing is all about. We get to say why we are here, because whoever dropped us off here forgot to leave us the instruction manual. Or, at least, the manual in the way we would like to see it (maybe these intuitions and tingles are more than we give them credit for…).

I generally find it to be very annoying to not know the answer to this most important question. So, while I am not going to bury my head in the sand and deny the issue, and I am not going to ignore the reality that I really cannot say that my inclination is the capital T Truth, I will go so far as saying that I am going to go with my hunch and live as if it is true that it is best both for me and for all of humanity if I strive to live my absolute best life as long as there is air in my lungs. That will have to be good enough. At least for me.

How about you? What do you think is the purpose of our existence? Open up your journal and explore your assumptions and beliefs about why we are here. Have you ever fully considered this question, or are you generally in denial of it–despite its importance–due to either its magnitude or its frustrating lack of a clear answer? What keeps you from thinking of it more often? Is it because your answer is totally clear in your head already, or because you know you don’t have an answer? So, what are you inclined to believe about our collective purpose? What do you make of the claim that we are here simply to love God? How much of your response to that is based on your belief in the existence of a God? How much of your response is based on the Bible or another holy book? What does your spiritual community–if you have one–have to say about this? Is it logically consistent to believe that there is a God but that our purpose as a species is not just to love that God? How about Walsch’s idea that God created us to that she could know herself experientially? Would an all-powerful God have a need to be loved or a need to experience human feelings and sensations? What else might a God have created us for? Okay, what about the claim that it is our purpose to be happy? Could it be that simple? How about the Emersonian idea that our purpose is to be Good, to make a positive impact on the world? Could the thing that is the most practical and useful way to live a happy life also be the thing that is our purpose as a species? Do you believe that we are evolving into something more advanced, even if it may take many more thousands (millions?) of years? If so, could that evolution be part of some purpose, whether divine or otherwise? Is human evolution somehow special as compared to plants or other animals, or is it all moving along as naturally and consistently as any other species on our planet? Is there a special purpose for them, too? How about for our planet as a whole? Would it be depressing to learn conclusively that this whole existence came out of a random mingling of elements and that there is no real purpose for any of us, much less our entire species? Is it better to not know for sure so that we can essentially create our own reality? Whether or not you believe any of the theories mentioned here–or any others that you have heard along the way–as to why we are here, which one seems the most comforting to you, if you could believe it? Is that also the most plausible one? Wouldn’t it be nice if the most comforting explanation was also the most plausible? How suspicious are you of anyone who claims to know the answer to this question? Even if we understand intellectually that we simply cannot know the answer, is it a better way to live to act as though we do know the answer? Must we either pretend to know the answer or live in denial of the question in order to keep our spirits up? Is this truly the most important question there is? If so, isn’t it all the more maddening that the answer is so elusive? What is your strategy for handling that reality? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is the purpose of human existence?

Stay curious,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it with someone you love or your social media channels. It is a wonderful topic for discussion.

P.P.S. If this type of deep diving appeals to you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Soul Sucker or Soul Stirrer? The Role of Screen Time in Your Life

“If you are losing your leisure, look out! It may be you are losing your soul.” –Virginia Woolf 

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” –Neil deGrasse Tyson

Hello friend,

It is no secret that I am seriously prone to guilt? Well, let me clarify that. I am not much for guilt from other people; in fact, if you try to guilt me into doing something, I will almost certainly withdraw from that situation (and you) entirely. Self-inflicted guilt, however, is an unfortunate staple of my personality. I can make myself feel bad about the least transgression, like skipping a day at the gym or not writing letters to you as often as I once did. If it involves me not taking advantage of every opportunity to live my best life, I am vulnerable to an internalized flogging. And anxiety. I get antsy when I am not obviously growing.

So it is that the other day, while taking stock of my current life and my degree of contentment and longing, I noticed a most interesting and unusual phenomenon: despite the absence of any “big rock” that I am progressing daily in the direction of my dreams, or any major soul-stirring new dream that I am forming in my mind, I am feeling uncharacteristically serene and accepting of my status. At least for the moment, my relative lack of “progress” is not freaking me out. And I am starting to wonder if that alone should freak me out.

Am I getting complacent in my middle age, losing my passion and idealism? Am I allowing my dreams to slip from my once-stubborn grasp? Is my spirit dying, its light snuffed out by laziness and busy-ness?

Possibly because none of those things are true, or, just as possible, because I am unwilling to allow those thoughts into my head, I have decided to take a look at my habits from a totally different perspective. I need these new lenses in order to make more clear to myself just why my mind and soul are feeling pretty engaged without one of those big, obvious dreams or achievements that I am usually striving toward and that put wind in my sails. What are these more subtle forces at work that have been invisible to my eyes until now?

Interestingly, it was–quite literally–right there in front of my eyes all the time. Media. Screens. All of the information and art that I absorb on a daily basis.

When I have finished working and then spending the bulk of my “free time” face-to-face with my greatest inspirations–my children, my writing (either to you or in my journal), and Mother Nature–there are these last few fleeting moments of the day. They are usually found on a cardio machine at the gym early in the morning or in my bed as my eyelids get heavy at the day’s end, but I am always on the lookout for moments to steal.

It is in these precious moments that you can find me with my tablet–I hardly ever use my phone–which holds my books and, for the special occasion, my Netflix account. In recent months, I have found myself in turns fascinated, inspired, devastated, and mesmerized by what I have learned through that screen. And that is exactly what it has been: an education.

Allow me to share of the marvelous gifts my favorite device has bestowed upon me in recent months, just in case you are in need of some ideas for your own enrichment and growth.

Believe me, I wish I could share tons of movie suggestions, but my schedule and priorities don’t allow for two-to-three-hour blocks of time to sit and focus (if it did, you would get many more letters from me, or perhaps news of my next book). I did, however, catch the film Bohemian Rhapsody on a plane ride, and I recommend it. It jelled nicely with the main focuses of my education lately: the 1960s and 1970s (though the film is actually more of the 80s), and the culture around the music of that era. I have been drawn to this era for an unusual reason: because, in theory, these are the decades that would shape my parents’ late adolescence and young adulthood, yet neither my mother or my father has ever seemed at all engaged with the politics and music of that dynamic time–the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement, rock ‘n’ roll, the Motown sound, drugs, etc.–a phenomenon that befuddles me. It is also the era that flowed into my childhood, so I am trying to better understand my upbringing and the world I came into (better late than never!).

In the absence of Hollywood movies, I have used my random and stunted Netflix time (usually once per week at the gym) on documentaries, often about musicians. I have been fascinated by The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke, Bowie: The Man Who Changed Everything, Keith Richards: Under The Influence, 20 Feet From Stardom, and Studio 54: The Documentary. The one that I am completely engrossed in now, that I can see will take me some months to finish its multiple parts, is Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War. It is eye-opening, blood-curdling, heart-wrenching, and infuriating. But so detailed and informative. It is a lesson I have needed, one that perhaps we all need. I hope you will give it a look.

Prior to this one, the “special” (not exactly a documentary) that truly captivated me was Springsteen On Broadway. The things that most interest me in the world are people’s stories, especially if told by the people themselves. Springsteen’s performance in this, from a storytelling perspective, is brilliant. The occasional musical numbers are just gravy. I highly recommend it.

Watching these documentaries has only increased my thirst for more of them. The ones on my wish list after I finish The Vietnam War are Planet Earth II, Brené Brown: The Call To Courage, The Seventies, Our Planet, Bobby Kennedy For President, The Story of God, How The Beatles Changed The World, Mountain, One Strange Rock, and Ken Burns’ The Civil War and The West. I think Netflix mostly exists just to tease me about my lack of time to watch its countless delights!

But there are even more books to read. I read with my 8-year-old son, I read with my 10-year-old daughter, and I read alone. And even though the children get the final say on the titles we read together, most of the books are enjoyable and enriching for me, too. My son and I have been reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, which, mostly because it has inspired him to become a Greek Mythology expert, has taught me so much about a subject that I have long wanted to study. And it is entertaining. Another clever children’s series that an adult can appreciate is Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories. Last week, I also finished (alone) a sweet book by Alex Gino called George, about the experiences with cruelty and courage of a fourth-grader who is transgender. I then passed it on to my son, who read and enjoyed it this week. My daughter and I are currently quite engrossed in Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting By 7s, about a young genius dealing with the sudden death of her family.

I have in recent years come to appreciate books for middle grade kids and have no trouble recommending them to adults. I had earlier caught onto that feeling about adolescent/”coming of age” tales such as Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, both of which I strongly recommend. I find that a great children’s book is, without trying to be, also a great adult book.

But I still love to read my own grown-up books, which are usually something in the Biography/Memoir section but spread out into other areas of nonfiction and fiction as my intuition guides me. One recent, highly-detailed, biographical portrait that supplemented my study of the 1960s and 1970s–and the music thereof– was Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine. It is fascinating (if a bit tabloidish). I have also recently had a very personal look at both mountain climbing and rape culture through the eyes of one of my favorite authors, Jon Krakauer, in Eiger Dreams and Missoula, respectively. At the moment, I am in the middle of Azar Nafisi’s thoughtful account of the myriad devastating effects of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Reading Lolita In Tehran. It is opening my eyes in a whole new way, taking my heart and mind to places I had never imagined.

But that is just what good media does, right? That is the potential of these screens we are always staring at: to stimulate our brains, to open our hearts, and to inspire our souls. In short: to lift us up, to expand our lives. Growth.

This, I can see now, is the answer to the puzzle of why, in the absence of any huge dream that is currently propelling me forward by the power of its hold on my enchanted soul, I am still feeling the tingles in that soul and the stretching of my heart and mind as they open with new knowledge and inspiration. It points to something that I clearly needed a reminder of: not only am I, at my core, a dreamer and a follower of my dreams, but I am also a student. It is in my soul’s code. I simply love to take in what is new and different to me. I get excited to try what I haven’t tried, whether that is a foreign language or a physical skill or another person’s story. I want to see, feel, and do it all so I can know better how the world works and how everyone else experiences it. When I feel those things stagnating in me, I become anxious and irritable. Unhappy. This is why I am in constant search of enrichment opportunities. My radar is always up. Basically, I am addicted to Growth.

With that realization, I can see why I have continued to be buoyed without my usual life-saving device: the big rock.

I have no doubt that before long, the pendulum will swing back the other way, and I will need to do something that satisfies my other soul compulsion: to contribute. I will need to help others rise in a more obvious way than I am now.

But for now, it is nice to know that when I my tank is running low, I don’t have to feel so guilty about turning to my screen for inspiration. There is some magical stuff in there! I plan to mine it well and allow myself to be lifted.

How about you? How do you use your screens and your media? Open up your journal and assess your relationship to your devices and your leisure time. How big of a role do your screens play in your life? What percentage of your leisure time is spent in front of a screen or page? What do you do with them? Movies? TV series? Sports? Video games? Books? Articles? Social media? Word games? Other apps? How much of that screen time would you describe as relatively mindless? Do you feel guilty, as I do, if you reach your threshold of “just passing time?” How much of your mindless time is necessary (i.e. you need it to decompress from daily stresses)? How much of it is really just wasting time? Which screen-based things that you do are inspirational? Which are entertaining? Which are educational? Which grow your life in other ways? What are those ways? Do you gain more of your leisure time enrichment via screens and pages, or via other hobbies? By what margin? What are the best movies you have watched lately? Which one(s) stand out as being particularly enriching? Which have moved you the most? Do you have any documentaries that have changed your perspective on the world? Which TV series do you find yourself recommending to others? A few weeks ago I was moved to tears by the comeback of Tiger Woods, and I always love the human stories covered during the Olympics. Do you watch sports? How engaged does the “human drama” element of sports get you? How would you rate your level of enrichment and personal growth via social media? Does the negative ever outweigh the positive? Do you waste time there? What other apps would you recommend to someone looking to be inspired and/or educated? What have you been reading lately? Do you prefer books or articles? Which blogs do you read? What have you read in the last year that has really stuck with you? Has anything changed your life dramatically? What has reminded you of Who You Really Are? Are you satisfied with the role of screens in your life? What would you like to change about them (e.g. more or less time on them, more books, less social media)? How about your leisure on the whole? Is it not just relaxing, but enriching? Do your hobbies inspire you and make you a better person? Are they enough to round out your work life and make the whole package seem fulfilling, even if temporarily? Do you cycle back and forth from being passive and content with your free time to needing to do something truly “meaningful” and life-changing? What is the proper balance? Leave me a reply and let me know, What is the role of leisure and screen time in your happiness?

Grow and grow,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it with someone who might be enriched by it. Grow your world!

P.P.S. If this way of introspection appeals to your sensibilities, check out by book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Beyond the Limits of Empathy: A Pain Too Great To Comprehend

“I did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him… The land of tears is so mysterious.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Hello friend,

I have had a double whammy of friends in anguish lately. There are moments that their pains weigh so heavily on my heart that it seems I can hardly stand it.

The first came last week when I was sitting outside in the cold watching my son’s track practice with his good buddy’s mom, a dynamic, beautiful-hearted woman who has become my friend this year. As we sat shivering in our respective blankets, she shared with me that she was quite sure that her cancer–that I knew had been a recurring nightmare in her life over the course of several years–had just made a comeback. She had recently felt the physical changes that were its telltale signs and was waiting for her upcoming appointments and the scans that would make it official and thereby commence the fight for her life (again).

The news flattened me. The more it sank in, the more deflated I became. I tried to imagine the heartbreaking scenarios that must have been thrashing around nonstop in her mind as she waited: the empty helplessness of leaving her two young boys without a Mom, the guilt of leaving her husband alone to do the work they dreamed of doing only together, the milestones, and the million ordinary, extraordinary moments that come with loving your people wholeheartedly. I couldn’t bear these thoughts even in my imagination, so it baffled me how she could even be functioning with those cards in her hand.

After being enveloped the rest of the week in the cloud of her situation and prospects, ruminating every day in my journal on how she could handle it, I was hit with a second blast via a Facebook post. One of my oldest friends had lost his vivacious younger brother suddenly. At the age of 42, he was simply ripped from his joyous life and from his close-knit family.

My heart burst for them, especially my old friend. I just wanted to wrap my arms around him and absorb some of his anguish, to lighten his new life sentence in Grief. I felt like I had been kicked in the gut, imagining the wrenching pain and unanswered questions left by such a loss, amplified by its suddenness and his relative youth. How does one go on in the face of something that feels so wrong, so unfair? How blah does food taste? How pointless the television? In the ensuing days, I have often become aware of myself shaking my head, realizing that I was thinking about it again and going through that agonizing cycle of hurt and questioning. I think of my own brothers–who are not even as close to me as my friend was to his–and I shudder at the thought of losing either of them, ever, much less at an age so young. It is devastating.

Then I surface from my despair and realize that, as bad as it seems in my heart, these are not even technically my problems. I can even escape them with some denial or distraction. My friends are the ones who are truly carrying the burden. They are the ones with no fresh air when they wake up at night or sit alone in their car. No matter how heavy my weight of sadness is, no matter how much I feel for them, I see now that I can’t feel like them. I can’t reach that level. It is just not the same, no matter how empathetic I am.

My reaction to that realization, as my heart translates now, feels a lot like guilt. I feel bad–weak, like a poor friend–that I can’t fully feel their pain with them, like I am letting them down somehow by not being as deep in the trenches of struggle as they are. I guess it is because my idealistic self wants to believe if I could put myself exactly in their emotional shoes, that I could somehow take their pain away, at least some of it, by sharing the load. But I can’t.

I think that is one of my “middle age realizations,” something I didn’t register when I was younger: we don’t really know anyone else’s struggle. We can’t fully know their pain because we aren’t in their skin. And even if we have experienced “the same thing” (e.g. each having endured the death of a sibling), we had different relationships and different pasts and different natural abilities to cope with Life’s inevitable tragedies and hardships.

I used to be sure that I was a true empath, that my ability to feel other people’s pain and understand them completely was almost supernatural. I don’t believe that anymore. I know I feel horribly for so many people who have been wronged by Life in any number of ways and want badly to ease their burdens, but at this age I am finally coming to grips with the fact that that doesn’t count for having walked a mile–much less a lifetime–in their shoes. It isn’t much at all, actually.

It illuminates another of my later realizations: compassion doesn’t count for much unless you are willing to act on it. It is all well and good to feel horribly for a friend with cancer or a sibling going through divorce or a family in your community who just lost their home or a whole race of people who were enslaved or robbed of their land, but if you aren’t willing to reach out and do something for them–a kind word, an apology, a meal, reparations, a hug, your time, your attention, your labor, your teaching of others–then your compassion is just wasted potential. You have to do something.

Maybe I am just getting old and this is what “wisdom of the elders” looks like, but it sure hurts my heart to know that as badly as I feel for my loved ones, I can’t even scratch the surface when it comes to their pools of personal pain. That is a hard lesson. Sometimes learning is no fun. But what is the alternative?

How about you? How much do you feel the pain of others, and how does that play out in your life? Open up your journal and explore your experiences with hardships and tragedies? Start with your own. What are the most difficult, most painful experiences that you have gone through in your life? Whose deaths have you had to face? Which relationships have ended or been severely damaged? Have you faced a health crisis? Have you been abused? Have you lost jobs painfully or wrongfully? Have you had to move away from loved ones or had them move away from you? Have you been the victim of a damaging crime, such as a sexual assault? Have you experienced war? Natural disasters? Have you lost your home or been in financial ruin? What else has left you traumatized? How alone did you feel when facing these crises? Did it seem that there was much that your loved ones could do for you emotionally, no matter how much they cared? Did it feel as though the burden was yours alone to carry, or could the compassion of others lighten your load? How would you rate the empathy of the people in your life at the time of your hardships? Could they understand your pain? Did you try to help them to understand? Was it worth the effort? Now turn it around. What are the biggest tragedies and crises that your nearest and dearest have had to face? Go back through the list of the questions above? Which ones have they gone through? Which are happening now, or at least most recently? How have you reacted to their situations? How badly do you feel when bad things happen to other people, whether you know them or not? Do you consider yourself highly empathetic, moderately, or not very? Does that vary widely depending upon your relationships and similarities with the afflicted (e.g. I have people in my life who are deeply caring and compassionate within their families but cannot seem to summon the slightest bit of empathy when it comes to different ethnic groups or religions or social classes; it is very disturbing.)? Have you been good about expressing your compassion (i.e. is it clear to others that you feel them?)? Have you found that your empathy has helped people in their times of tragedy? Does it make them feel better that you feel bad for them? How do you show it? Words? Simple presence? Hugs? Meals? Donations? Errands or other conveniences? Prayers or positive vibes? Do you sense that there is a line in each case that, despite your best intentions and best efforts, you simply cannot get a full sense of the pain someone is feeling, that there is a level of darkness that your light can never reach? How does that make you feel? Helpless? Frustrated? Relieved? When do you feel most alone? In that moment, is there anything that anyone can do? At the end, does each of us have our own final say in our recovery from tragedy and hardship, a point when others have done all they can and we have to shoulder the load of our survival and our happiness? Even if you believe that to be the case, is there ever an excuse to bail out and become less compassionate to the struggles and burdens of others? Leave me a reply and let me know: How deeply do you feel the pain of other people?

Give your heart,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it as you see fit. Let’s awaken our hearts to the pains of other people and then do the work to ease those pains.

P.P.S. If this type of self-examination appeals to you or someone you care about, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.