Category Archives: American Culture

A Day in Hell: Exploring Humanity At Its Worst

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18:12 Saturday 19 September 1998 Ośwìecim, Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise,

William

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

Can We Talk? Opening Your Mind To Broaden Your Horizons

“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” –Frank Zappa

Hello friend,

How many times, in the wake of an event that has spurred divisiveness and dragged out the worst sides of politics and social media trolls, have you actually struck up a thoughtful, deep-diving, and respectful discourse with someone from the other side of the fence?

Never, right?

In those moments when everyone’s nerves are raw and the sense is that people who disagree with you are evil at worst and foolish at best, it is usually best to avoid the interaction altogether. You know that if you get into it, you are probably going to let your anger get the best of you and say something you will regret (or should regret), leading to a spiral of hurt feelings and walls up, with no one hearing—much less considering—anything the other side is saying (or shouting).

It is even worse on social media, where, if you share your thoughts—or someone else’s video or blog or article that makes your points better than you can—the trolls come to pounce with every snarky meme, crude oversimplification, and attack on your character that you can imagine. That typically leads to a series of angry retorts from both sides and a growing divide between. More walls.

It begins to feel useless—even unhealthy–to ever say anything about any topic of importance to anyone at all.

I mean, sure, it is nice to talk about issues that matter to you with people who agree with you. They tell you that you are right, maybe even give your main points a little more clarity and nuance. You come away from the discussion with even greater conviction. But how much difference are you really making? Are you enlightening any of those who are ignorant on the other side? Are you changing any new minds, making progress toward that critical mass of people who will make the greater societal change you are hoping for?

While the choir definitely needs to hear the sermon, too, at some point the message needs to travel beyond the thick chapel walls.

It was with this frustrating but ordinary reality that I went to sleep on Sunday night. When I awoke in the early hours of Monday morning, there was a message on my phone from my sister, who had just arrived in Las Vegas with her family the day before, letting me and the rest of our family know that she was safe. I quickly got up to speed on the mass shooting, the numbers for which were updating as I read.

So began the typical week in America when something like this happens, as it so often does. First it is the “thoughts and prayers” moment, immediately followed by—or joined with—people jockeying for position in the gun control debate.

Of course, it never goes anywhere. I already reminded you how public debate happens. Anyway, after a few days of anger, insults, and trolling, our attention wanders to the next hot topic. But in those few days, things are definitely tense and combative. The number of articles written and posts shared spikes, as does the animosity between the two sides and their propensity to dig their heels in and refuse to listen or engage in anything resembling productive dialogue.

America. 2017.

It was right in the thick of this national drama—and my personal frustration about it—that I happened to get a private message from an old school friend whom I had, until a recent, brief contact, hardly heard from in twenty years.

I had, on Monday afternoon, shared two articles on Facebook that I thought were important and helpful thoughts about this moment in our country, good fodder to journal about or discuss with those who are willing to engage this thorny topic in this difficult time. The first one shared grief about the Las Vegas massacre and also bridged into why it is important to again begin to raise the issue of tighter gun laws. The second article was purely informational, a series of charts and graphs explaining America’s unique relationship with guns and gun violence.

I am, as I have made clear many times in these letters and on social media, quite liberal on most of the thorny issues we face—or fail to face, as the case may be—in this country. So I am sure that those two pieces I shared on Facebook on Monday afternoon came as no surprise to my old friend from school.

No, the surprise belonged to me. It was Monday evening when the private message showed up on my tablet. He explained that he had read the articles that I had shared that day and wanted to better understand where a guy like me was coming from so he could have a broader perspective. He gave a little personal history on living in areas with different levels of gun violence and a brief explanation of his gun control perspective, which, you may have guessed, did not match mine. He reiterated that he was merely looking to gain perspective.

I was blown over. Honestly, I had to read his short note over a few times to be sure of what I had just read. I know it sounds dramatic, but I was truly shocked. Delighted, but shocked.

I suppose it is a sad commentary on us all that the occurrence of someone from one political/philosophical bent approaching someone from another (“opposing”) side and asking simply if the “opponent” would better inform the questioner about the opponent’s view so that the questioner could see the issue more clearly would seem such a rarity as to cause shock. But, as I said, “America. 2017.” Here we are.

I, of course, jumped on the opportunity. I knew the potential dialogue was fraught with landmines and that we both might end up cursing the other for being so foolish as to not accept our arguments and blindly convert our positions on gun control, but I was too giddy at the possibility of this rare gem in the form of a genuine exchange of different ideas and opinions.

I stayed up past my bedtime that night, all riled up by both the topic and the chance to open a mind. I wrote out my basic arguments on the issue, then passed on a letter I wrote to you about the topic a few years ago. The next morning I happened upon a video that I thought clarified my perspective a bit and passed that on. Later in the morning, he sent along a couple of notes in response to my points and tried to lay out his position for me in greater detail. The next day, when I finally had time to write down my thoughts—as you know, I have a lot to say—I sent a long retort, explaining how his argument did not seem logically consistent and putting in a few more angles to plug my own position. Finally, he attempted to clarify his position again.

The entire exchange took place over 48 hours, from Monday to Wednesday evening. And believe me, lots of energy was expended, both emotionally and in terms of time and effort. Because I must admit, I was totally into it the entire time. I was invested in learning more about his perspective, so I eagerly awaited his responses each time. And I spent a lot of thought on how to best express my own perspective in a way that was thorough and respectful. I was clearly engaged, that made it all the more rich and meaningful.

And amazingly, I did not get angry during the exchange. I definitely scratched my head a few times trying to make his view seem logically consistent. Maybe I thought he was in denial about some things and short-sighted on others. But I understood where he was coming from. On the receiving end, I admit that I didn’t especially like it when he referred to people who share my views as “infantile, childlike, and naïve,” but I let that slide off me—which is very unlike me—because it was also very informative about his position, which he was being honest about. It didn’t feel like he was trying to deliver me a personal cheap shot. The whole vibe of the exchange was very genuine: passionate but not offensive, honest but not cutting.

And even if I did get worked up in the process, it was a small price to pay for the broadening of my horizons and a greater sense of compassion for others who don’t share my worldview. I was–and still am–deeply grateful for the trade.

I have wondered, in the few days since the dialogue concluded, if we could have had such an open, authentic exchange on such a sensitive topic—especially given the proximity to the tragedy—in a face-to-face setting and still been both respectful and heard. Would we have, in our quest to get our points across in as rapid an exchange as conversation usually is, been talking over each other and been triggered to anger, personal attacks, or caricatures of the other’s view? I am not so confident.

I usually think of the Internet—especially the Comments section of posts—as the place where people are at their most cowardly, hiding behind their keyboards to deliver cheap shots, knowing they do not have to see the face of the person whom they are trying to hurt. But in this case, I think the distance between us helped in that it gave us time to form our thoughts more clearly before we sent them, or at least allowed us to send along a clarification (or supporting articles, videos, etc.) later. It felt more thorough than a regular face-to-face or phone conversation this way. And obviously, I think the fact that we are old friends and have good will toward each other helped to keep it from devolving into the kind of shallow, crass exchanges you see online.

When I think of the exchange as a whole, the word that comes to mind is refreshing. Maybe I had lost too much faith in my fellow humans, but I simply didn’t imagine myself having that kind of dialogue this week (or any week, honestly). As I mentioned, the initial request itself floored me. Even had the discussion gone nowhere of great interest, just that simple request for better understanding—“Help me gain perspective” is my new favorite phrase—would have been enough to restore my faith in humanity for a little while. The fact that the dialogue that followed this beautiful plea was fruitful is all the more refreshing. I wish such a mind-opening gift upon everyone. I know I am up for another!

How about you? Are you open-minded enough to have a meaningful exchange about a sensitive issue with someone who comes at it from a totally different perspective? Open up your journal and consider the degree to which you are willing to both share your own thoughts respectfully with an “opponent” and also give serious respect and consideration to their views, building a true dialogue together rather than a fight. Which of the big issues are you most passionate about and get your blood boiling the most when you listen to the other side’s claims? Gun control? Racism? Health care? Immigration? Climate change? Abortion? Income inequality? The list goes on. Which ones rattle your cage the most? How well-versed are you in your side’s arguments? Well enough to put up a good fight in a debate if necessary? Are you eager to put your views out there and engage debate, or do you shy away from giving your opinions, even if they are strongly held? What is your typical reaction when you hear someone from the other side of your hot-button issue give their opinions? Do you get fired up immediately? Do you get so agitated that it would be difficult to engage in a meaningful, respectful dialogue on the topic? Have you ever been approached by someone who thoroughly disagrees with you on a thorny issue and would like to challenge your beliefs? If so, how did you respond and where did it lead? Has it ever ended well? It is my thoroughly biased belief that people who keep a journal have stronger foundations for their beliefs because, through their journal writing, they have considered the topics more thoroughly than people who don’t journal. I am not saying that we journal writers are more passionate about our opinions or even always correct, just that we are more likely to have logically consistent positions that can be expressed clearly. Do you agree? (Here’s a hint: you have to write one to find out the answer!) Have you ever had your view of humanity refreshed by a single exchange? Have you ever had a situation like mine and been engaged by someone who knowingly disagrees with you but who simply wants to broaden her view of the world? Would you prefer to do it face-to-face and all-at-once or through writing over time? How about the flip-side: have you ever approached an “opponent” with the humble request, “Help me gain perspective.”? On which issue would you most like to submit that request? From my experience this week, I would highly recommend it. Do you dare? Leave me a reply and let me know, Can you open your heart and mind enough to engage an opposing perspective with respect?  

Blossom and grow,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. Dialogue is good!

Hurricanes & Health Care, Russians & Racists: How do you deal with it all?

“Perhaps there could be no joy on this planet without an equal weight of pain to balance it out on some unknown scale.” –Stephenie Meyer, The Host

Hello friend,

I got a big jolt on Monday night right before I fell asleep. I was in bed doing a very quick perusal of the day’s news on my tablet before I was to begin my usual book reading that always knocks me out. I popped on the ESPN app and noticed a picture of the Dallas Cowboys kneeling in a national anthem-themed protest, the last of many that seemed to gobble up all of the oxygen over the weekend. Then I flipped over to Facebook, and one of the first things that came up on my Newsfeed was a post from Dan Rather, who was sharing his thoughts and a photo slideshow about the devastation in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. His thoughts are always poignant, and they led me to click on the link to the slideshow. What I saw was absolutely heartbreaking, an island decimated by the storm and so many of my fellow Americans without power, water, or help from a country that had just spent the last couple of weeks falling over itself to help the people and communities ravaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

It was quite a jolt, as I said. It was bedtime, though, so I forced myself to let it go and get to sleep. The jolt came right back to me the next morning, though, as I began my breakfast. My first, almost-panicked thought was, “Did I forget to share that slideshow??? People need to know!!” So I opened up Facebook on my phone, found it again, and shared it.

As the day went on, I was increasingly fascinated by my intense reaction to the images from Puerto Rico. Not my sadness or my empathy—that part was totally normal for me. The part that intrigued me was the terror I felt at missing this important news while it was happening. I realized that my panic at not absorbing the full extent of the devastation of Hurricane Maria on my fellow human beings was borne out of one thing: GUILT.

How could I have given those poor folks in Texas my emotional investment one week during Harvey, and those poor folks in Florida my emotional investment the next week during Irma, but then hardly notice when these poor folks in Puerto Rico were in even worse condition last week?  

I was very disturbed by this. My conscience was definitely eating at me. I felt like I had failed my moral obligation by not paying closer attention and lending my positive thoughts and my voice through my writing and social media posts, if not through direct monetary donations to the cause. I try to give voice when people are in need, to raise awareness and empathy, hopefully leading to both emotional and monetary resources being lent. But I had definitely let this one slip past me.

I started questioning my focus, looking for reasons why I had let my guard down and missed lending a voice to people who clearly needed all the help they could get. Maybe I was just looking for a good excuse. If I couldn’t get relief for my guilty conscience, I at least wanted an explanation to settle my mind.

I didn’t have to look far. It was right there in my journal entries and my social media posts and shares. I had spent the last several days deeply embedded in the controversy around the national anthem protests. This has actually been a pet project in my head for the last year, but it seemed to overtake the nation last week in the wake of the President’s incendiary comments and the reactions by football teams. It was a firestorm, at least in the view of the media that ultimately decides which topics will gain the most buzz and largest viewing audience.

I, of course, got into it. As I said, I latched onto this topic with Colin Kaepernick a year ago and have become increasingly invested, so I have read a lot about it, from both the historical and factual side of it as well as the many opinions swirling about. So, even though I think that much of the reaction from NFL teams was hypocritical and more of a response to the attack by the President rather than actual concern for injustice against people of color, I took advantage of the attention the topic was getting again and shared what I thought were some solid, helpful articles on social media. My attention and emotions were definitely on the topic, anyway. And since they were there, they were NOT in Puerto Rico. So, I missed it (or nearly so).

By way of excuse-making, though, it was totally obvious that nearly everyone missed it. The coverage on all of the networks and news outlets seemed as focused as I was on the national anthem and NFL’s response to the President. It was the media-driven firestorm that distracted us from the real storm in Puerto Rico and the desperate American citizens trying to survive in its wake.

I am definitely not trying to blame this on the media. They have taken more than their share of criticism this year, much of it unfair. Still, it is fascinating to me how completely dialed into the coverage of the previous hurricanes in Texas and Florida they were and then how clearly NOT dialed into this one they were.

I have no doubt that the NFL’s battle with the President over the national anthem is more sensational for the media to cover than the third consecutive week of hurricane coverage—is “hurricane fatigue” a real phenomenon?—but this situation in Puerto Rico is beyond tragic. I know that by the middle of this week it finally gathered some traction in the news, but we were all about a week late on this one. And when you are dealing with the health and welfare of fellow human beings—not to mention fellow Americans—that is a full week too long.

I know my guilty conscience was earned, but I think I am not the only one who should be feeling those pangs.

My point here is not to wallow in that guilt or to make you wallow in it—really, it’s not–but really to wonder about our responsibility toward the events of the world around us and how spread out our emotional energy amongst the wide array of issues.

Living in America in 2017 with the President that we have, it feels like one crisis or drama after another. We don’t need actual hurricanes to stir up our fears and our outrage or engender empathy toward people getting a bad deal; we have human-driven storms already (dozens of them) for that. We are living a storm! At least that is how it feels to me.

So, after I have used my journal or my wife or Facebook or whatever as a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on for things like anti-Muslim travel bans, threats of the loss of health care, Nazis and White supremacists marching in our streets, Russian corruption of our government, the killing of another unarmed Black person by police, or the White House denying climate change, it is hard work to then add forest fires (the thing that no one paid attention to before they weren’t paying attention to Puerto Rico) and three consecutive hurricanes to the emotional load I am carrying.

I know some of those are things to be outraged about and some of them are things to feel empathy about—and some are definitely both—but what if my outrage and my empathy get emptied from the same barrel? It feels like I only have so much emotional energy to give these dramas, and whether it is my heart breaking for the people in Puerto Rico or my outrage at the government’s slow response to it, I feel like it is all draining that barrel.

I just don’t know what to do about it. I want to be here for my world, an active participant in fighting injustice and helping those in need. But, just like last week, I feel like if I keep my eye on one ball, the others all fall out of the sky. I hate the helplessness and guilt I feel when that happens. I just don’t know how to spread it out the right way.

How about you? How do you spread your emotional energy around in these turbulent times? Open up your journal and write about the issues that move your needle and your process for balancing them in your head and heart. What types of things in the world get you stirred up? Presidential tweets and character issues? Racial injustice? Health care? Humanitarian crises? Forest fires? Religious persecution? Terrorism? National anthem protests? White House firings? Hurricane damage? Congressional ineptitude? Climate change denial? Taxes? Potential wars? White supremacists? Are your hot button topics more things that make you feel sad and empathetic, or things that make you feel outraged? Do you think that these things draw from the same well of energy? That is, does depleting your supply of one leave less of the other, at least at the temporarily? Do you ever feel bad that you emptied your barrel on “outrage issues” rather than “empathy issues” or vice versa? How big is your capacity to spread yourself amongst all of the issues that seem to run roughshod over our world today? Are you able to stay updated and also engage with them all emotionally? If not—and you are human, so I am guessing you cannot—how do you manage your attention and distribute your emotions according to your priorities? Are there certain issues (e.g. politics) that you just avoid altogether? Do you take “timeout” periods when you basically bury your head in the sand to replenish your heart and mind for the inevitable next round of drama? Do you “tagteam” the issues with friends or family members so that you can share the burden and use each other for emotional support? Do you feel guilty for “missing” an issue—like my lateness to Hurricane Maria—or do you see that as necessary for survival? Are most of these issues as big as we make them out to be, or are we overblowing them? Has the news media gotten us all hooked in their web by making so many things seem so urgent and necessary for us to attend to (then immediately moving on to something else)? I would love to hear how you spread yourself out, because obviously I am struggling with it? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you distribute your empathy and outrage in these emotional times?

Be Peace first,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, I hope you will share it with others. Let’s support one another!

Do You Let Yourself Be Happy?

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they haven’t. In twenty years.

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

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

Let go,

William

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

Dear Mr. President: an open letter

“In America, anyone can become President. That’s the problem.” –George Carlin

Hello friend,

Don’t you ever wish you could get the undivided attention of the leaders of the world and give them a piece of your mind? You know, just sit down over a beverage and try to get them to understand the world from your perspective or try to change their mind on a few things. Or maybe you imagine yourself as the principal and them coming into your office to sit while you stand over them and read them the riot act (my elementary school principal was a frightening dude, so this visual works for me!). Maybe you want to praise them for their wisdom and their class in handling a recent crisis, or perhaps you would rather berate them for the way they have let your country lose its place in the world order. Whatever your agenda, I bet you have imagined one of these conversations (or monologues) with some leader somewhere along the way.

Well, I am not sure if you have noticed, but the guy who lives in the White House these days seems to evoke some pretty strong sentiments from the citizens of the country he is charged to lead. I am one of those citizens.

I have read the Tweets and watched the press conferences. I have studied his appointees, his agreement withdrawals, and his proposals. I followed the seemingly endless presidential campaign very closely, and I have continued to follow the presidency.

It would be an understatement to say that I have an opinion on the matter. I can’t imagine that anyone in America with a head above ground does not have an opinion on the matter! But you know how delicate, emotional, and often combative political discussions can get. It can be hard to be fully honest and feel safe. And sometimes, just for our sanity, we try to bury our heads about what is going on, right? Because with one dramatic turn of events after another, to fully process them all just might be unhealthy.

So I was thinking this week that with the news cycle a little more off politics and onto other disasters, this might be just the time to think a bit more clearly about how we might address this polarizing character at the head of our government. And what better way than our journal, of course! The safest depository for sensitive or inflammatory ideas. It’s perfect! And so, a letter to the President….

Dear Mr. President, 

I am writing to you today because I would like to get some things off my chest. These are just from me. Though my political bent is definitely to the liberal side of the spectrum, I don’t affiliate with any party and don’t wish to speak for anyone but myself today. One voter, one citizen.  

I’m actually a deeply concerned citizen. Frankly, I don’t appreciate your style of leadership or the direction you are steering our country from a policy perspective.  

As far as your personal leadership style and the way you come across as the figurehead of America, I am a deeply embarrassed citizen. I have followed several Presidents in my lifetime and have disagreed with many (sometimes most) of their big decisions or policies. I never deluded myself into thinking any of them were saints. I don’t need my President to be a perfect soul. However, your words and actions have failed just about every moral test I can imagine.  

I often think of this stuff in terms of my children and how they would see it or be affected by it. Up to this point in my life, I can imagine thinking it would be really cool if the President—from either party–were to come to their school to address them or to come by our house for dinner. Despite our political differences, I believed the President would act with class and grace and be a good example to my kids. Now, if given those opportunities, I would keep my children home from school that day and deny the dinner request. It wouldn’t be worth the risk of what you might say or do. That’s a shame.  

I find it disturbing and disheartening how often I hear or read or think of your actions being characterized as “beneath the office of the Presidency.” I don’t need to make the list—it seems that you follow your press clippings closer than I do—but again, it is enough to make me feel bad for the kids. “The Office” seems to be now permanently diminished for your successors. With so few things left in the world to feel some reverence for, it saddens me that you have singlehandedly robbed all the future kids of our nation of something special.  

And again, it is not as though I was expecting a beacon of morality when you entered the office. Whether through your history of housing discrimination, the Central Park Five, birtherism, the Mexican rapists, the anti-Muslim stuff, mocking the disabled, and the Access Hollywood tape, it was clear long before the election that you were—both publicly and privately—anything but a model for social justice and inclusion. Still, I held out a sliver of hope that even if the presidency didn’t chasten you a bit, as others predicted, that it might just tone down the frequency and blatant nature of crassness and bluster.  

I probably would have settled for you just stopping the Tweets. But no, you seem intent upon throwing gasoline on any sparks you may have ignited and making volatile situations exponentially worse, doubling down on your missteps rather than walking them back (never mind apologizing). For someone who bragged so often of his presidential temperament along the campaign trail, your absence of wisdom, grace, and simple personal control is frightening.  

Probably by now you have guessed that I am not much of a fan of your policy proposals, either.  

If you hadn’t already lost the respect and support of people around the world by the time you pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement—if you recall, the polls suggested you were already vastly unpopular globally—that was certainly the moment, for me, that it felt absolutely obvious that the United States was no longer to be considered the leader of the world, and maybe not even ONE OF the leaders. It seems that in trying to “put America first,” you ended up placing America last and all by itself. The feeling I came away with was, again, embarrassment.  

Your recent plan to revoke DACA, your anti-Muslim travel ban, your pardon of civil rights violator Joe Arpaio, your encouragement of police to be more rough with suspects, your ban on transgender people in the military, and your wink-wink “denouncement” of neo-Nazis and White supremacists following the nightmare in Charlottesville—not to mention the many things you said and did prior to becoming President—have all created an atmosphere in which so many more people in our country today feel unsafe and unsupported.  

I am not here to argue about whether or not you are a White supremacist, but what I do want to make perfectly clear is that your words and your actions have helped create an atmosphere in which White supremacists feel increasingly emboldened and comfortable as a part of our everyday, “normal” society. If you truly are not a White supremacist, I hope you are appalled by that. It seems that you are not.  

One of the things I have noticed since you became President—and for a long time I could not quite put my finger on it—is that the country seems to be suffering from a form of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. There is this extreme sense of apprehension in the air, like we are constantly worried about which calamity will show up in the next news cycle. Who will you have offended? How will you embarrass us next? Who is getting fired? Which of my loved ones am I going to have to comfort? Who will I have to march for? Are you going to be impeached? Are you getting us into a war? 

With your itchy Twitter finger and your raw nerve of an ego, we just don’t know what madness will await us when we wake up the next day. This state of heightened anxiety, multiplied by that that awful feeling of vulnerability for so many of our citizens based on your actions, is perhaps your most damning legacy.  

So yes, it’s true that a small part of this is just that I wish we had elected someone whose political leanings were more like mine. I am disappointed that the environment is under fire, that climate change is being denied, that your return to “law and order” is leading to increasing injustice, that solid contributors to our society are being sent away, that you cannot find a way to get more people access to health care at a lower price, and that you seem intent on widening the gap between the rich and poor. I am fairly sure I would feel much of that disappointment with anyone from your party in office. I am used to that sense of loss; I can deal with that.  

So you see, Mr. President, my takeaway feelings from your time in the White House are not direct results of you and I not sharing a political party. No, instead I get two overwhelming sensations when I think your effect on our country. The first is embarrassment. I feel such shame that during the campaign you showed us exactly who you are, and we still elected you. We have lost our place in the world as result, and for me, I have lost any sense I had that we are a country to brag about and that others might look to for an example, that “shining city on a hill” that one of your predecessors often described.  

The second overwhelming sensation that overtakes me when I think of your presidency is sadness. As I mentioned earlier, so much of how I view these things is as a parent and a teacher of future generations. Growing up, I always thought of the President as someone who, in public at least, spoke and acted with class and represented America in a dignified way. The kids today get a guy who mocks the disabled at campaign rallies, famously talks at work about sexually assaulting women, and frequently calls people “losers” in public. It doesn’t seem fair to the kids.  

It saddens me that you are the guy that this generation of kids has to see as the example of what the President acts like, and it embarrasses me that the world is watching us and that I have to explain to my own kids that their fellow citizens knew who you were and still elected you. That is a difficult conversation. The embarrassment is for me. The sadness is for the kids.  

So, Mr. President, I wish I had more words of praise for you, because I would much prefer to be doing that right now. Despite all of this, however, I am still hoping, as I was the day you were inaugurated, that you will find a way to temper yourself, to control your ego, and to act in a way more befitting of the leader of a great country. I am still hoping that you will open your heart and your mind to the greatness of the people of this country—ALL of the people: not just the White, male, straight, and Christian ones. I am still hoping you will choose words and policies that make all of us feel safe and respected and welcome. And finally, I am still hoping that you will close your Twitter account. I wish you and your family good health and happiness. 

Sincerely,

William

How about you? What would you like to say to the President? Open up your journal and unload your thoughts. Remember: it is a safe space; no one will ever have to read it but you. As is the case every week, I only shared mine as a jumping off point for you. My guess is that your letter will look a lot different than mine. But how? Is your letter more complimentary? What specific things would you like to praise him about? What about the other side: what specific issues do you want to berate him about? Charlottesville? The Wall? The travel ban? Dreamers? Health care? Climate change? Would you like to address his character and the example he is setting for children? How much of what you would say is driven by what you were expecting when we was elected (whether you voted for him or not)? Has he disappointed you relative to your expectations, or has he been better than advertised? What do you want him to do more of? Less of? Would you share some personal stories of how his presidency has affected you and your loved ones? How can your words help him? If you are mostly angry, how can you find words that are both a release for you but also helpful to him? Do you think there is anything you could say to bring about a positive change? I dare you to try! Ask yourself: What would you like to say to the President?

Speak Truth to Power,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. Let us help each other to use our voices for good!

The Belated Summer Reading List

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live a thousand lives,

William

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

The Treason of Silence

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

Hello friend,

I ask you today to open your mind to a thought that ought to be very uncomfortable for you.

But first, I want you to conjure up a specific image in your mind—you can choose from the many that have made their way through the various media in the last week—of one or two of the torch-bearing, Confederate-flag-and-swastika-waving bigots who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend.

Mine is the face of Peter Cvjetanovic, clad in his white polo and styled hair, holding his Tiki Torch and screaming next to the other young, white, male torch-bearers (you know, the one who, when outed this week, said, essentially, “I’m not the racist everyone is making me out to be.” Poor guy.)

But you choose your own. There are many photos and videos to choose from, and the cast of characters is huge. But the images seem to reveal some commonalities. They are violent. They are angry. They are organized. And they are ready to break your country into pieces.

Now here is the thought I want you to entertain: Maybe you are a bigger problem for us than they are.

I know, I know, it sounds farfetched. And trust me, I am as hypersensitive as they come and cannot stand to be accused of anything. So I feel you. But bear with me.

You might be worse for your country right now—and for human rights, social progress, Justice, etc.—than those neo-Nazis and white supremacists who stormed Charlottesville last weekend.  

How could that even be possible?

When you are actually in a moment of history, you rarely understand its significance. In the first few years of The Civil Rights Movement, there was nothing called “The Civil Rights Movement.” It was just people like Rosa Parks acting for justice. Only later did we recognize the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a seminal moment in The Civil Rights Movement.

It seems to me that we are in quite a moment right now. I can’t say for sure how this will all look fifty or a hundred years from now and what the history books will say, but I have a suspicion that this era will be in there and that we will be judged for our roles in it.

What urges me to ask this difficult question of you is none other than Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Dr. King is on my short list of greatest heroes. He wrote and spoke so many words that have touched me in my deepest places. But the ones that seem to come back over and over to haunt and inspire me are his passages about silence and the role of “good people” in the culture of injustice that has defined America since its inception.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” 

“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’” 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

“To ignore evil is to become accomplice to it.” 

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” 

When silence is betrayal. The common definition of treason is “betrayal of one’s country.” But what about a betrayal of humankind in general? A betrayal of Goodness? Of Justice?

You see, when you are crusading for Justice, your biggest enemy is not the unjust but the indifferent.

Let me unpack that. If I am a leader tasked with combatting racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, anti-Muslim sentiment, you name it, the ones who do the most damage to my cause are not those guys in Charlottesville marching with their flags and beating people up. Those guys are the low-hanging fruit; they are easy to address and easy to rally against. They are deplorable and I wish they were gone, yes, but their kind of damage can be measured and contained. They are a broken bone—badly broken–not a cancer. No, the group that has the potential to quietly, casually allow disease to spread through my people are the silent, “good people” who say nothing when the bone-crusher rises up at our doorstep.

These “good people” can’t ever be singled out for using the “N-word” or openly discriminating against the Muslim family down the street. They may or may not have voted for the candidates who support tolerance and inclusivity, but they didn’t rally against them. They are always outwardly kind and respectful. So, what makes them the great “tragedy,” as Dr. King referred to them?

Their “appalling silence” when it comes to defining moments and matters of importance.

By the end of last weekend, you might have known that the events in Charlottesville were a big deal by the amount of media coverage they were getting, but I surely couldn’t tell by the number of my social media community who were speaking out against these people and their disgusting causes. Nearly everyone seemed to be just viewing it from a distance, as though it were a new television series and not a moral crisis point for our entire nation. By the end of the weekend, I was more disturbed by that “appalling silence” of the “good people” that are my social community than by the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

I suddenly became very active on Facebook. I am typically the guy who looks at Facebook a lot but doesn’t post things on my personal page very often. Well, I started sharing and posting about Charlottesville and implored my community to speak up to their communities about it, stressing that silence communicates support for the white supremacists. I made a point of praising anyone who used their voice in any way—a personal post, a share, etc.—to address the issue. But the more I scoured my Timeline for people’s reflections, the more the silence became deafening to me. (I recognize that several days after the event, it started to become more fashionable to change profile pictures to “I stand against racism” and such, and I don’t wish to diminish those small steps. But my point remains.)

This is not a controversial topic. This is not something that a Democrat friend should think one way on and therefore a Republican friend should think the opposite way. Right? I mean, I know that since the election, almost everyone in my feed has become gun-shy about saying anything “political” in their posts for fear of stirring up another hateful argument and grating on all the raw nerves that the very long campaign process exposed. But, despite what some leaders might say about “many sides,” I think we can all agree that there is one side of this deal that is despicable. Saying so should not risk sparking a debate.

So, why the silence?

Honestly, is it not a big enough topic to raise your blood pressure? Does it just not move the needle for you? WHAT COULD BE BIGGER??? Are Liberty, Equality, and Justice not quite enough to get you to clear your throat and throw out a few words? Just a few.

If not now, when?

Seriously, if you haven’t gotten up in your social media community, family and friend community, spiritual community, or any other community this week and said that you disagree with the Charlottesville marchers and that you stand with the people they are trying to oppress, then I honestly don’t know what to do with you?

It scares me to have to wonder what is in your heart on this matter, especially when speaking out against hate would appear to come with no risk involved.

Your silence portrays, at best, indifference, and that indifference enables this type of nonsense to be normalized.   Are you really in favor of normalizing Hate?

The topic demands that you stand up and take a position. Neutrality is not an option on something so big and so potentially damaging.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I wasn’t even going to write this week because I have been preparing for and on vacation. The thing that drove me to carve out the time was the very title itself: The Treason of Silence. I just know in my bones that this moment in time is our moment of reckoning—individually and collectively as a country—and that History will judge us accordingly. As much as “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people” truly does appall me, I know that my own silence on this matter might be my biggest regret. I choose to speak.

How about you? How have you chosen to react to the dramatic events in Charlottesville in recent days? Open up your journal and justify your level of action or inaction, your reasons for speaking up or being silent. Perhaps it is best to begin with how the events—the marches, the swastikas, the violence, the death—made you feel on the inside. What was your visceral reaction? Stunned? Appalled? Overjoyed? Disturbed? Relieved? Angered? Saddened? Indifferent? How would you describe both the feeling and the depth of it? How much did the images move your needle? If you said you were clearly affected by them—and especially if you felt that what was happening was terribly wrong–what did you do about it? Did you talk to anyone? Share on social media about it? Anything? If you did share, how long did it take you? What made you wait? Is this kind of open bigotry and hate becoming normalized? Is it now so normal that you didn’t—or almost didn’t—think to even say anything? Did you have anything to lose by speaking up—any social backlash, such as loss of friends or potentially angry debates with family members? If you had nothing to lose and still didn’t speak up, what do you think that says about your values and your character? Is the answer to that question a bitter pill to swallow? So, how about Dr. King’s sentiments? When evil is done and you are silent about it, are you an accomplice in that evil? Who is the bigger problem for our society today and the bigger barrier to eliminating the scourge of bigotry and hate: the thousands of people carrying the Confederate flags, shouting racial slurs, and beating people, or the millions of people who enable those thousands with their silence and indifference? Are you one of the thousands, one of the millions, or one of the ones who spoke up? Are you satisfied with your response? Did it match the level of the offense? If not, what will it take to get you to deliver a response worthy of the situation in the future? If this isn’t a disturbing enough event for you, what would be? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you one of the “good people” who have remained appallingly silent?

Rise to the occasion,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. We all need to do some soul-searching on this one.

Where is Your Outrage? Getting Angry in an Apathetic World

“If you aren’t outraged, then you just aren’t paying attention.” –Lisa Borden, The Alphabet of Avoidance

Hello friend,

This week I watched the newly-released police videos of the murder of Philando Castile and its immediate aftermath. I watched as Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, sat handcuffed and distraught in the backseat of a police cruiser with her four-year-old daughter. The little girl pleaded with her to stop screaming because she didn’t want her mother to “get shooted” too. At the end of the heartbreaking video, she cries to her mother, “I wish this town was safer. I don’t want it to be like this anymore.” I swallowed hard and wiped the tear from my eye. Then I got angry. Really angry. I wanted to scream, but felt like I couldn’t produce one loud enough to represent the extremes of my outrage.

After last Friday’s not guilty verdict for the officer who fired seven bullets into Castile as he sat seat-belted in his car next to his girlfriend and her daughter, I was devastated. Just after my wife told me the news, I had to pick up my kids from camp and explain to them why Mommy would be crying when we got home. We had to have another difficult discussion about race and injustice in America, including our own city, where the murder took place. It is depressing to be forced to have these conversations over and over with a six-year-old and an eight-year-old.

I had been thinking since the verdict about this sad fact of racial injustice in American life and how it pains me that my kids need to know this stuff so young. But seeing this new video of that poor little four-year-old child not only witnessing a murder of a loved one by a police officer but also being cognizant of how little it would take for them to kill her black mother, too, well, that just takes it to a whole other level. As I said, it broke me into tears watching it.

But my heartbreak morphed quickly into its natural successor: outrage.  

I was really, really mad. Mad that Castile’s murderer got off. Mad that this woman had to sit in handcuffs when she had just witnessed her boyfriend murdered and she wasn’t charged with or suspected of any crimes. Mad that this innocent little child had to witness both Castile’s murder and her mother’s humiliation. And so damn mad that we live in a world where that kind of scene—from the phony, racially-profiled traffic stop all the way to the Not Guilty verdict—is commonplace for people of color, just a regular part of what it means to be black in America. It is such a damn shame on us.

But what makes me more outraged as I simmer down from all that other stuff is that this whole thing—which was actually quite famous due to Reynolds’ Facebook Live video capturing Castile bleeding out while his murderer’s gun was still pointed at him—doesn’t seem to even cause an eyebrow to be raised for most people outside of the black community. Nothing!

We cry about it at my house and have long talks with my children, and then I write and share about it on Facebook to both educate and grieve communally. As I scroll through my Newsfeed, though, there is barely a mention of it.

Some of my black friends and a couple of my white friends—literally a couple—that live in the city of the killing share their sadness and disgust. Otherwise, crickets. Silence.

That silence, of course, chaps my hide even more. When I shared on Facebook the video of the handcuffed Diamond Reynolds and her weeping daughter in the back of the police car, along with a call to action, I got a grand total of five acknowledgements in the next 24 hours. Not comments—none of those—but Likes or Sad Face or Angry Face. Five! I bet I could get on social media right now and type “I love chocolate ice cream!” and get twice that number of responses in an hour. Apathy.

I am outraged by the lack of outrage!!!

No wonder most black people in America feel like they can’t trust white people: we do nothing but let them down over and over again. And not just by killing them and getting away with it, but mostly by our absolute apathy about such injustice. It’s not the killers that are so hurtful; it’s the vast silent mass of passive condoners of the killing who act as a rubber stamp of its approval. Our collective silence does more damage than that officer’s bullets.

I just don’t get why everyone is not more upset by this.

Why do you have to be black or have black loved ones to feel outraged by injustice toward black people? Or disabled people. Or poor people. Or LGBTQ people. Or whatever! What makes us so unfeeling, so uncaring about stuff that doesn’t happen in our own house?

And I am not saying that we all have to share exactly the same sensibilities and all have to be upset by the same things. I am outraged by what is happening in Washington, DC almost every single day, too, but I know people who are perfectly content with it. Fine.

But there is so much obvious injustice in our world and so many things that would seem to bind us together in our collective outrage. Alas, I just don’t sense it out there. Not from the crowd I am listening to. My family. My friends. My social media contacts. My world. It breaks my heart how silent and unmoved you are by things that matter so much to me (and that I want to believe would matter to you).

It is this deep sadness, this disappointment, that always remains when the fire of outrage quiets. I am more often sad than mad about stuff. I think that is part of my disposition. But I am feeling—deeply, passionately, painfully—and if nothing else, that reminds me that I care. I just don’t know about anybody else.

I am looking for it, desperately wanting to feel that flame from others the way a captain lost in the storm wants to see the lighthouse. I long for some sign, some indication that it’s not just me, that I am not alone in my pain and indignation at injustice. I want to know that the collective response to everything isn’t just a shrug, a “Whatever”. I want to know that there exists some degree of indecency, immorality, illegality, or injustice that will cause a critical mass of us to not simply raise our eyebrows but also our hearts and voices.

I feel myself both inside the world and outside, knocking on the door and wondering if we are still in here, if we will answer it or if we will turn down the lights and hide in the basement until the knocking goes away. I need to feel some reassurance that we are going to answer, because right now, I am getting nothing. That silence makes me want to scream.

How about you? Is there any rage coming out of you from the way our world is working? Open up your journal and consider what, if anything, raises you to the level where something has to be said or done about it. Is there anything? When was the last time you felt truly outraged about something? What was it? How did you vent your frustration and anger? A group protest? A Facebook rant? A vent session with a loved one who empathizes with you? Or did you just stuff it all down inside you to keep stewing? What type of thing usually draws your ire? Social justice issues? The ineptitude and acrimonious dealings of our elected officials in Washington? Environmental issues? Concerns of unfairness in your workplace? Income inequality and the dominance of the wealthy few over the many? Mistreatment in individual relationships? Why does expressing our outrage over blatant societal injustice have to be polarizing and scare us into not expressing ourselves? Is it actually controversial to say that Philando Castile was dealt an injustice or that his family was dealt another one with the verdict? I think it takes a fairly high degree of denial to survive and remain sane in this society, because there are so many causes for outrage around us. Do you find that to be the case, and how do you filter the many triggers? Do you ever worry that you have taken that filtering and denial too far, to the point that nothing outrages you anymore? I feel like most people have gotten that way about the mess in Washington. Do you think some outrage is healthy, though, as a sort of proof that you are alive and engaged with the world? I like the H.L. Mencken quote, “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” How often should you allow this outrage to surface in order to remain happy and balanced? How can you apply your outrage to activism for positive change? On a scale of one to ten, with one being always silent, passive, and even-keeled, and ten being outraged, vocal, and actively engaged in protest, where do you generally fall on the spectrum of outrage regarding societal injustice? Does that feel like a healthy spot for you, or is it time to make some changes? What aspect of your world needs your outrage and your voice? Are you ready to give it? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where is your outrage?

Speak and act your Truth,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. I would also love to hear from you, either in the comments or on Facebook, especially about which of the many injustices in the world rile you most. Thank you for energy.

The Movie Lines That Narrate My Life

“Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places, they open doors and minds. Movies are memories of our lifetime, we need to keep them alive.” –Martin Scorsese

Hello friend,

“BUONGIORNO, PRINCIPESSA!!!!”

If those words—and the image of Roberto Benigni’s effervescent spirit—bring an instant smile to your face, you just might be a member of my tribe. They come from the film Life Is Beautiful, one of my all-time favorites. And even though the movie’s dialogue is all in Italian, somehow that line has become part of the story of my life, something I quote regularly and smile about often. That is how a great movie is, and especially a well-written one.

I love writers and their words. Whether they come from a song, a newspaper, a novel, a blog, or a screenplay, I am captivated by the language that these talented people use to tell the story of our lives and times. While I definitely appreciate journalists and non-fiction writers—I include myself in this category—I am particularly envious and in awe of the writers who pull these amazing tales and beautiful words right out of their souls. It is an astonishing gift.

What makes movies such a transcendent art-form to me is that they combine the writer’s beautiful gift with the talents of so many other artists: actors, directors, cinematographers, lighting designers, costume designers, musicians, and on and on. All of these great artists come together for one thing: to bring to life the words of the writer.

And they live! Oh, how they live.

I don’t know about you, but one of the ways I assess people is how well they incorporate movie lines into their everyday lives. Someone who can effortlessly insert a great quote into their conversation that fits the situation perfectly absolutely scores some points in my book.

It has been a while since I was fluent on the popular movies of the day—one of the many failings that I blame on having children—but I still cling to memories of my old favorites (and I have even added my kids’ animated selections to my repertoire). And since I spend much of my time alone or with children, much of my dialogue is contained among the many characters swimming around in my head. They seem to have fun, though, so I don’t judge. Let them talk!

These are some of the lines that regularly make their way into the screenplay of my life (I will try to give you the clean version, though truthfully, I have quite a knack for internal commentary that is a bit more, shall we say, colorful). Enjoy! 

“No pain! No Pain!” –Duke, Rocky IV. Perfect for pretending I am really working out hard. Otherwise, I just sing “Eye of the Tiger”. 

“Ah man, first The Fat Boys break up, and now this!” –Boney T, Boomerang. When something good ends, it is comforting to have Chris Rock’s voice in my head. 

“Ah, hon, ya got Arby’s all over me.” –Marge, Fargo. I have little ones, so I am muttering this one all day long. 

“My father stormed the beach at Normandy!” –Teddy, Stand By Me. I have this at the ready any time someone starts telling a potentially embarrassing story—as inevitably they all are—about a family member of mine. 

“South America. It’s like America, but South.” –Ellie, Up. I insert this into any conversation about geography. What? 

“What the hell is Goofy?” –Vern, Stand By Me. If your children spend any time watching Disney and Mickey Mouse, you need this line to keep you sane. Trust me. 

“I’m not a smart man….but I know what love is.” –Forrest, Forrest Gump. Because I have a lot of opportunities to remind myself that I am not a smart man. 

“You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.” –Buzz, Toy Story. Though this will come into your head often in this world, I recommend keeping the words inside most of the time. 

“It’s all happening.” –Polexia, Almost Famous. In one of those rare moments when everything seems to be coming together for me, this says it all. 

“I don’t sweat you.” –Paulie, Rocky II. I use this one as trash-talk when I am playing driveway basketball with my six-year-old. He has no idea what I am talking about. Whatever. 

“Supermodels are beautiful girls, Will. A beautiful girl can make you dizzy, like you’ve been drinking Jack and Coke all morning. She can make you feel high, full of the single greatest commodity known to man: promise. Promise of a better day. Promise of a greater hope. Promise of a new tomorrow. This particular aura can be found in the gait of a beautiful girl. In her smile, in her soul, the way she makes every rotten little thing about life seem like it’s going to be okay. The supermodels, Willy, that’s all they are: bottled promise. Scenes from a brand new day. Hope dancing in stiletto heels.” –Paul, Beautiful Girls. Sometimes just quoting any line from this movie in any situation makes me giggle. But Paul is pure in his romantic buffoonery. So I love this monologue. If I don’t have it all in me, I go with his shorter version: “A beautiful girl is all-powerful, and that is as good as love. That’s as good as love.” Hee hee! 

“Chopper, sic balls!” –Milo, Stand By Me. This one works for any yippy dog in my neighborhood or in the car next to me at a stoplight. 

“I can smell you.” –Dug, Up. I have a sensitive sniffer, so I have to amuse myself when it gets offended . It’s either this or the Top Gun gem “Slider, you stink.” 

“Until you do right by me, everything you even think about gonna fail!” –Celie, The Color Purple. My wife loves to break this one out on me. She’s usually joking. 

“Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!” –Christian, Moulin Rouge. Love is a deep topic; you might as well make a melodious montage out of it! 

“You’re the gourmet around here, Eddie.” –Clark, Vacation. Great for when someone wants to share cooking stories with me and I have nothing to add.

“Willie C!!! Stay cool, man. Stay cool forever.” –Kev, Beautiful Girls. This is enough of a goodbye for me. Sincerity makes the words become magic. 

“You want to get out of here…..GET RID OF THAT MONKEY!!!” Chatter Telephone, Toy Story 3. When my kids are asking over and over when we can leave, I throw this back at them. Or just anytime (some things are just fun to say). 

“You got to coordinate.” –Mr. Jackson, Boomerang. This just makes getting dressed so much more enjoyable. 

“Honey, I’m not an ordained minister.” –Clark, Vacation. I like to pull this one out whenever I am doing something out of my league (assembling something with tools, mathematics, etc.). 

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” –John Keating, Dead Poets Society. Because sometimes it is not a joke. Sometimes I need a reminder about what this thing called Life is all about. 

“Do you like apples? Do you like apples? Well, I got her number! How do you like them apples?” –Will, Good Will Hunting. When I need to rub something in someone’s face, I break out my thickest Boston accent for this one.

“This house is ours.” –Grace, The Others. When my wife is freaking out after hearing a strange noise in the house, I call upon the ghosts. It momentarily quells the fear. Or intensifies it.

“I will fight on!!!!” –William Wallace, Braveheart. When I am watching Roger Federer play tennis—totally stressing out—and he wins a huge point, I shout this, in my best Scottish accent, at the top of my lungs. My wife shakes her head upstairs. 

“Real tomato ketchup, Eddie?” –Clark, Vacation. My version of a compliment to the chef. 

“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.” –Ricky Fitts, American Beauty. You should be so lucky to have a few of these moments in life, quote or no quote.

“Double Burger. Double Burger. Chuck-I-had-a-Double-Burger.” –Morgan, Good Will Hunting. Always appropriate when waiting impatiently for someone. 

“The list is life.” –Stern, Schindler’s List. What did we need at the grocery store? 

“I wish I knew how to quit you, Ennis!” –Jack, Brokeback Mountain. Though this comes from a serious moment in the film, I like to pull it out when my wife is teasing me about something. It makes me laugh. 

“I’m sorry I had a fight in the middle of your Black Panther party.” –Forrest, Forrest Gump. Because sometimes just trying to imitate Forrest is enough to keep me going. “That’s my boat,” “Hey Bubba,” and many others work, too. 

“Now, a question of etiquette: as I pass, do I give you the ass or the crotch?” –Tyler Durden, Fight Club. Though this was an airplane scene in the movie, I smirk as I think this line while scooching down any row anywhere in the world. School programs and church are particularly amusing.

Oh, I could go on and on! And I do, most of the day through. How else does a guy survive? I am not as funny as these screenwriters, so I must steal their lines. It keeps me smiling, anyway. And though we could banter all day, I will leave off with a final thought from my friend, Forrest Gump: “That’s all I have to say about that.”

How about you? What movie lines do you use to narrate your daily life? Open up your journal, and maybe your entertainment cabinet for a reminder. What quotes seem to flow out of you on a regular basis? Are there a couple that have become your staples? Do they come from your most favorite movies, or are they just great lines? Do your normal quotes come from movies you have seen a million times? Are they from your childhood or adulthood? Do you say them mostly in your head or out loud? In conversation, do you use them with people for whom the line is a shared inside joke, or with anyone at any time? How often do the people understand where the line comes from? Does that matter to you? Is it more fun when they get it or when they don’t? Why do you use the quotes? Do they say things better than you can? Do they just make conversation—internal and external—more interesting? Do they make ordinary events more tolerable, even exciting? Do they help you through the worst of times? Do they help you connect with others? Do they simply make you laugh? For me, all of those apply. I guess they just help me tell my story my way, simply through the lines that I choose, which vary by the day. How about you? Which quotes do you choose most often? Leave me a reply and let me know: Which movie lines narrate your life?

Smile at your world,

William

P.S. If this letter made you smile or think, I hope you will pass it on.

What Has The World Done To Us?

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” –Oscar Wilde

“Just read a great quote and thought of you.” There is no better way to grab my attention than to start off a message with that line. Of course, I love a good quotation. And I always appreciate when someone not only thinks of me but also makes the effort to let me know. So it warmed my heart earlier this week when that text arrived from my brother, whom I hardly ever hear from. In those milliseconds between sentences, I was already on pins and needles to read the words that brought me to his mind. Here they were:

“The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.”

Those words are the opening line of a book called “The Beast God Forgot to Invent” by Jim Harrison, the guy who wrote the more famous “Legends of the Fall” in the days when Brad Pitt was big.

Let his words sink in.

“The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.”  

When I read those words, something in a deep-down place went, “DING!” Maybe it is because I exaggerate the importance of my brother’s thoughts. Maybe it is the particular place where I am in my life’s journey right now. Or maybe it is because I have always been suspicious of this bargain that our ancestors began and that we have all willingly (and probably unconsciously) joined in. Whether it was one of these reasons or some combination, that quote really resonated with me.

It is a huge, can-of-worms kind of thought, I know, and I am sure you and I could write dozens of letters back and forth to try to unpack the multitude of directions in which it could explode. Difficult ideas like this are the easiest ones to give up on. But, as much as I have tried to ignore this thought over the past few days, it won’t give up. It gnaws at me.

I suppose it is best to flesh out what aspect of “civilization” seems to be weighing on me and why I feel like my existence is threatened with oblivion if I keep buying what the world is selling. The answer is, of course, murky and complex, but if I could pull out a couple of aspects, I would say they are 1) Increasing Busy-ness, and 2) Decreasing Depth of Connections. Both of these point to a shallow form of existence, perpetually chasing the next shiny object. Or, as Harrison says, pissing away our lives on nonsense.

As for the Busy-ness, this seems to permeate all that we do and only seems to be increasing as we get more “civilized”.   When we adults get together, we have boasting contests about how many hours we worked in the last week, as though being consumed by a job and kept away from family and other pursuits were a badge of honor. I see the kids in my neighborhood—including my own—too busy running from one scheduled activity to the next that they cannot find time to just hangout and play.

And what are we so busy chasing? What is so darn important at our jobs and in our cars and at our events?

I am not suggesting that earning money to feed our families is not extremely valuable and necessary, but what I wonder about are the methods we choose and how much more time and energy we give them than they are worthy of.

And I am not suggesting that it is unhealthy to expose our children to lots of different new skills and sports in the hopes that they will stay healthy and find something they are passionate about, but what I wonder is, How much is too much? And also, How much of it is just doing it because everyone else seems to be doing it?

Our current version of civilization is shoving us along at a breakneck pace and seeing to it that we check all the boxes—make money, mind your status, have your kids signed up for every activity, dress right, do it all—for a life that can be deemed acceptable. But just because civilization gives its stamp of approval does not automatically make one’s life fulfilling. Does working all those hours to get rich actually make your life rich? I wonder…..

Don’t get me wrong. I know that working a ton at something that lights you up inside can be totally fulfilling (and sometimes it can even make you a lot of money). I am just wondering if that is the case for most people who are trying to do what the world tells them to do.

For me, I have been in Job Search Mode lately, and I really want to get it right this time and not hate my work. I am having an awful time finding a job description that excites me, even if civilization might have my resumé flying out left and right and taking anything that pays enough to check all of those boxes. I know I am picky, and I know I want it all—no compromises—but this is testing me.

I am beginning to think I don’t fit very well in this civilization. Oh wait, I have always thought that. Carry on!

As for the Decreasing Depth of Connections, I probably don’t need to regurgitate here all of the arguments about how this age of social media has created a world of people who “share” a lot but still don’t know how to actually talk with one another or make a genuine, thick-or-thin commitment. While our screens seem to allow us to reach more people, which I love—it lets me write to you—I also sense that these screens do more to insulate us from each other than they do to connect us with each other.

I also see that in the way we “civilized” people tend to gather in cities. Larger metropolitan areas have so much to offer—a variety of ways to find that career passion I mentioned above, greater diversity, tons of new experiences—making it seem obvious why we have become increasingly centralized throughout history. And yet, I can’t help but notice in my own journey—as a smallish-town kid who has lived in our nation’s biggest cities and is now a suburbanite—that the larger the population center, the more anonymous and disconnected the inhabitants seem to be.

I hope I am just projecting from my own experiences, but it feels like we are getting poorer and poorer at deep, meaningful connection and relationships of quality and substance. Between our electronic insulation and our population-density anonymity, civilization seems to be pointing us that way. Add that to the busy-ness of a life spent chasing through the traffic—vehicular and electronic—in our rush to get to our next event or next “must-see” post or Netflix series or gym class or job opportunity. Before we know it, we will have frenzied ourselves all the way to the end of our lives.

And what will it all look like from that angle? Will all of these shiny objects, these must-see, must-have experiences still look so valuable, so necessary? Or rather, will they look simply like a lot of unfulfilling filler, a lot of “nonsense”?

Maybe all of this doubt and suspicion is just part of my existential crisis stemming from my search for my Next Big Thing. But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s a question I only dare allow into my consciousness every several years because I cannot bear to face the inevitable answer.

I just want what Henry David Thoreau wanted when he built his cabin in the woods near Walden Pond: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life.”

Most days, I feel like to do that is to buck all that civilization is requesting of me.

How about you? Is this thing called Civilization helping or hurting your efforts at making a meaningful, fulfilling life? Open up your journal and see where this gigantic topic leads you. If you are like me, you probably won’t be able to tie a neat bow on this one but will turn over all sorts of new stones in your mind while trying. Let your mind and your pen wander. You can write for days on this one. Go back to the Jim Harrison quote: “The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.” What is your immediate, gut-level response to that thought? Is it at all accurate for the population in general? What about for the people in your circle? How about for yourself? To what degree are you “pissing away your life on nonsense”? Does your busy-ness match your fulfillment? How many deep, meaningful relationships do you have that truly make your life worthwhile? What types of things qualify as “nonsense” in your mind? How much of your assessment of this whole idea comes down to something like, “Well, people should just personally choose to live better—pick more noble pursuits, build deeper bonds with others. Civilization has nothing to do with it.”? Which way does civilization lead us? Is our world, our civilization, just a load of empty promises, perpetually selling the glitter of greater busy-ness and broader brushstrokes but really just delivering a shallow existence, devoid of both quality time and meaningful connections? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are we wasting Humanity on nonsense?

Give yourself the gift of Truth,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. We owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to examine this thing we have going on here.