Category Archives: Empathy

How Many Great Years Do You Need To Call It A Great Life?

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” –Mae West

“May you live every day of your life.” –Jonathan Swift

Hello friend,

I remember so clearly the high I felt upon publishing my first Journal of You letter to you more than six years ago.  The adrenaline rush, the ecstasy, the peace and satisfaction of doing what feels exactly right and true.  It was like falling in love.   I had always tried in different ways—teaching, coaching, managing–to help other people to be their best, but this time it was like I was finally tapping into my best stuff.  It was fulfilling in a way nothing else had ever been, making me believe I had truly and finally locked into my purpose.  It was heavenly.  I figured if I could just stay dialed into that energy for the rest of my life—just keep doing the meaningful work—when all was said and done, I could lay claim to a truly great life.  That’s all I wanted.  That all I have ever wanted.

For the first months after beginning my letters, I was going like a madman: working a lot, spending every possible minute with my young children, and then staying up into the wee hours to pour out my heart and soul into the keyboard to keep your inbox full of new thoughts from me.  I hardly slept at all, fueled almost entirely by my passion for the work and that inimitable high I mentioned above.

Before long, it became clear that I could not sustain the wild pace, and I settled on a deadline of one letter per week.  It would still be a stiff challenge for time and sleep, but it seemed to strike the right blend of reasonably demanding to my mind and deeply fulfilling to my soul.  Writing was in me, I knew that, and committing to producing constantly made it feel professional, like I wasn’t merely dabbling but instead was giving it the effort and attention that it deserved.  I was being a “real” writer, which felt like what I was called to do.

That hectic pace kept going right up until the time when I realized I could not edit and assemble my upcoming book if I was preoccupied every week with producing a new letter to you.  Even though the answer was obvious, it was still heart-wrenching for me to put the blog on hold until the book was ready for release.  It was a grinding process but richly rewarding to the soul in the end.  All of that blood, sweat, and tears had left some small mark upon the world; it would live beyond me.  I was proud of myself.  And I was sure it was just the beginning.

I have always had a very wide variety of interests and don’t like to limit my areas of study or work.  I could imagine being deeply fulfilled by years filled with writing in all sorts of formats—books, articles, blogs, personal correspondence—but I know that other things could fulfill me also.  Coaching, counseling, public speaking, working to make the world a more peaceful, sustainable, and equitable place to live—all of these things are meaningful to me.  So, although I think of myself as a writer and saw the publishing of my first book as a harbinger of things to come, I knew that writing wasn’t the only way I would measure “success” along my journey and certainly wouldn’t be the only consideration when I got to the end of it all and gave myself a final grade.

And not that work or career are the only ways I want to gauge my progress as a person and the quality of my existence.  As I go along, and definitely in my final measure, I will be looking hard at my relationships and the amount of love given and received in them.  My role as Dad will be especially under the microscope, followed by husband.  Son, brother, and friend, too.

I will also take into consideration how much fun I have had and the quality and quantity of my adventures.  I hope that, in the end, I will not be disappointed by the number cross-country roadtrips I have taken, how many new languages I have been lucky enough to try, and how many nights I have spent under the stars.  I will want to recall how many times I laughed myself into a bellyache, played my fingertips raw, and sung myself hoarse.  I will consider all the times I have played my muscles to exhaustion.  I will delight in replaying the moments when I have been moved to tears by live music, a poetry reading, an interpretive dance, or live theatre.  And of course, I will ache to recount the times (hopefully many) I have allowed myself to be moved to pure creation by The Muse.

I have no doubt that part of the equation will also be the quality of my actions and how they affected the greater world around me.  Did I show enough empathy for those who have not been as lucky as I have?  Did my writing do enough to raise awareness of the importance of living our best lives, including being better to the people around us?  Did I make visible the people too often ignored?  Did I raise my voice enough to help the voiceless?  Basically, is the world a better place because I was here?

The other thing I will really want to establish is if I was happy.  Really, truly happy.  I have read books and articles that suggested being happy is the meaning of Life.   I don’t know if that is true, but it certainly is important and a necessary consideration when assessing the quality of one’s full life.  After all, what good are adventures, ideals, and good deeds if they don’t make you happy?  Answer (I think): some good, no doubt, but not good enough.  So, I will measure my joy and satisfaction, my degree of fulfillment, and the delight at being me.

These subjective assessments should matter—just because they are difficult to measure does not mean they don’t have a significant impact—because they are the truth behind what we see in the mirror every day.  They cover over us and ooze out of us in our most quiet moments alone.  That’s why I will take them seriously in my final judgment.

But I know myself too well; I am sure that much of my grade will be based on “production.”  I will want a clear calculation of how many Journal of You letters I have published, and how many years I published them.  I will want to know how many books I have written (and it better be more than one!).  The same for podcasts, articles, TED talks, or anything else I put out into the world.  I will want specific examples of the people I have made a positive impact on: my students, clients, readers, listeners, and anyone else I somehow touched along the way with my endeavors.  I’ll need names!  There will be a list.   I’ll want proof of a great life.

That proof is exactly why my lifestyle since publishing my book has been gnawing at me lately.  You see, after I exhaled that giant sigh of relief two years ago when the book went out, I decided I needed some time to be without the strict deadlines I had kept for myself the previous five years.  I wanted a break from that pressure to produce writing all the time.  Instead of a weekly deadline for these letters to you, I gave myself an extra week in between.  So, instead of stressing every week, I let myself relax for a week, then stress the next week until I hit the “Publish” button.  It was a delightful ease that I had forgotten all about since I wrote that first Journal of You post years earlier.  I felt a little guilty—like I was cheating on my commitment to professionalism—but the ease was so nice.  I actually let myself do some other things, from home repairs to extra time reading, even an occasional movie.  I felt more well-rounded.  It seemed like self-care, which I have heard is a good thing.

But then, if something came up and I couldn’t quite squeeze in a post that second week, I gave myself a pass.  I wasn’t as hard on myself about meeting deadlines.  I let myself be okay with not having a new book idea to pursue.  I let myself stay in work that doesn’t deliver a high enough level of impact on others.  My standard for disappointment in myself loosened.  I justified more self-care.  Pass, pass, pass.  Slide, slide, slide.  And I have been happy.  I am enjoying myself and my time.  I notice the lack of tension and appreciate the absence of the weight on my shoulders, the need to constantly rise to my high standards.  I Iike doing the other things, too.  Life is good.

And yet, just below the surface, there is always the gnawing…

I can’t help thinking that I will wake up one of these days in a full-blown panic with the realization at how much time has passed since I was in fifth gear, churning out evidence of how I want to be in the world and the impact I want my life to leave.  I will remember vividly how, only two short years ago, I was on fire with productions of my purpose and my passions.  And I will be devastated by regret.

I am a lifelong student of Tennis, and I think often about the three guys that are at the absolute pinnacle of the sport: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic.  They only got there by doing everything right all along the way.  Nutrition, fitness, stroke production, mental strength, attitude, work ethic.  Everything.  All of that has to be done consistently to have the best career possible, to be Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic rather than Kyrgios or Safin.  If you are asking who those last two are, my answer is, “EXACTLY!”  You have proven my point.  (Answer: They are players who shared the era with the three giants and had at least as much talent but nowhere near the results, victims of their own inconsistent efforts.)

Is Life the same way?  Do we get to coast for any extended periods—mindlessly going through the motions without putting our noses to the grindstone of our dreams and ideals and pointedly attempting to do our best—without ultimately being unsatisfied with our run?  That is the question that gnaws at me.

I will turn 48 soon.  It’s not ancient, but believe me, that proximity to 50 has made me aware that my clock is ticking.  There is more sand in the bottom of the hourglass than the top.  I hate that!  I love this life and want it to go on and on.  I have thought that all along, but now there is that ticking in the ambience, supplying the years with an urgency that didn’t exist before.

I want my lifetime, when all the dust settles, to have been a great one.  Not just a good one.  Not just one with a smattering of good memories and sweet loves, or a handful of milestones that I was once proud to hit.  I want it to have been great.  Roger Federer great.  I want to know that I made good use of my gifts, that I lived up to my potential.  That’s really what it is, now that I write the word: potential. When I go, I want to have wrung out every last bit of goodness from my soul and left it here on the Earth.

When I think about that standard, the regret begins to pour over me.  It just seems like the people who have lived the very best of lives probably didn’t do a lot of sliding.  You know, like Mother Teresa, she probably didn’t knock off her work with the poor in India for a few years to recharge her battery, kicking back to read and do coffees with friends.  Martin Luther King probably didn’t do a lot of retreats or take sabbaticals from injustice (My goodness, the man did all he did and was killed before he even reached age 40; that is humbling to any aspiring change-maker.) .

And while I understand that Life requires balance, and while I accept that self-care, downtime, hobbies, and even perhaps some mindless television or social media are part of that balance that makes for a healthy existence, I also can see how easy it is to fall into the trap of overindulgence.  “Self-care” can be a drug, too, an opiate that allows me to piddle away my time on what genuinely appear to be pleasant activities and personal growth but are, after a while anyway, simply justifications for not doing better for the world around me.  That translates into a life that is enjoyed but not fulfilled.  I want both.  I demand both.

So, given that I know I haven’t done it all right to this point, my main question is: How much slide time do I have left, if any, before I no longer have a chance to make mine a truly great life?  Has my relative slide these past two years been too much to overcome?  How “productive” do I have to be every year going forward to negate this slow patch?  More generally, I just want to know what percentage of a person’s life gets to be unambitious in the direction of her ideals and goals compared to the percentage that she spends fully engaged in the good stuff.  Because, like I said, I do enjoy my sliding activities, but I think they would be all the more enjoyable if there wasn’t that perpetual gnawing that accompanies them.  It would be nice if present guilt and future regret didn’t accompany every period of ease and contentment.  I would champion and embody the whole Balance and Self-Care movement if I knew just what the acceptable balance was.  Acceptable for Greatness, that is.  I don’t want to be just generally satisfied at the end of this ride.  I want to be completely fulfilled.  I want to have made an impact.  I want to be able to call my life great.

How about you?  Are you using your time in a way that you will not have regrets later about squandering the potential you had to build a great life?  Open up your journal and explore your goals and ideals in juxtaposition with the way you have passed the years.  Are you on your way to living the life you have imagined for yourself, or are you mostly coasting through to wherever?  Perhaps it is best to begin by envisioning your best life.  What does that look like for you?  What kind of work would you be doing?  What positive impact on the world would you be making?  Whose lives would you be touching?  Which ideals would you be advancing?  How fulfilled would you be?  Does that vision feel like a great life?  Let’s keep that vision as your standard.  Now, how are you doing at living up to it?  Over the last decade, in how many of the years do you feel like you have made significant strides in the direction of these goals and ideals?  How many of the years have you coasted through?  What about this year?  Are you in a Progress Mode at the moment, or are you sliding by?  How much does it bother you when you realize you are in a coasting period?  Do you feel guilt about your slides?  How much do you think you will regret them later?  How do you feel in your most “productive” periods, when you are advancing your dreams and doing good work in the world?  Does the satisfaction give you fuel to do more, even as the work is taxing?  How long do your ideal stretches tend to last, these times when you are really in the flow and knowing you are making a difference?  How long do your more passive, coasting stretches tend to last?  Is your ebb and flow of ambition fairly consistent?  Do you need the down times to refuel your tank for more of the good stuff, or do you just get sidetracked?  How aware are you of the phase you are in at any given time?  Do you know when you are in Self-Care Mode versus Hard Driving Mode?  Do you plan it?  What do you think is the right balance for you?  What percentage of your adult years will have to have been good ones for you to proclaim, in the end, that you have had a truly great life?  Do you think your standard is pretty similar to most people’s?  Do you feel driven to have a great life, or is a good or okay one acceptable for you?  At the end of it all, how closely will you have come to reaching your potential?  Are you on track for that now, or do you have some catching up to do?  Do you believe it is still possible?  What will you regret coasting by?  What is one thing you can do today to advance your cause?  I hope that you will take advantage of the opportunity.  Leave me a reply and let me know: How much of your life needs to be great to have lived a truly great life?

Seize the day,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community.  We rise together!

P.P.S. If this method of self-inquiry and storytelling appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.

Missed Connections: Are Your Conversations Deep Dives Or Surface Skims?

“Good conversation is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after.” –Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From The Sea 

“Sometimes when it looks like I’m deep in thought I’m just trying not to have a conversation with people.” –Pete Wentz

Hello friend,

At a recent holiday gathering with my immediate family, we were chatting outside on the deck when up pulled a crew of more distant relatives, many of whom I hardly know.  I am naturally reserved—probably ‘unsocial’ is more accurate—in such situations, inclined to disappear until the crowd passes through.  There was one cousin with them, however, who holds a special place in my heart, even if we don’t keep in touch beyond the photos on Facebook.  I am interested in her life and have always imagined that we could be close if the logistics of our lives matched up better.

In spite of my well-practiced social distancing precautions, I was pleased when she moved through the family and over to where I was observing the scene.  I greeted her warmly, and we proceeded to spend the next several minutes getting caught up on her family news.  Before long, my brother drifted over and started chatting with her, and our window together closed.  A few minutes later, she was gone with the rest of the visitors, probably out of my sight for a few more years.

It was a nothing conversation, but the moment seems to keep returning to my mind in these receding days.  We had a few minutes, a window.  Although it is, of course, the norm to do the standard check-in and small-talk—How long are you in town?  How is your Mom?  Do you like living in Anytown?  Blah blah blah…–we didn’t have to.  Knowing that she is an avid reader, the very first question I asked her instead could have been about the best book she has read lately, or her top five authors, or her favorite memoir (my go-to genre).  Now that would have been a good conversation!  Instead of lamenting her departure because we hadn’t really connected, as happened this time, I could have lamented being unable to finish a gripping exchange of ideas that likely would have ended with a promise to message me a list of suggestions.  Those are two very different laments.

I can tell that the reason this seemingly forgettable interaction remains unforgettable to me is that it was a wasted opportunity to feel alive.  Isn’t that what a good conversation is?  That deep connection to another human being in a moment, however brief, is the spark of Life itself.

I love Life.  I crave it in its various forms, including the ripple of the stream, the song of the bird, the breeze on my skin, and the rising of the sun.  Humans are in there, too, sharing their Life with me through their art, their compassion, their aspiration, and their acts of true love.

And yes, their conversation.  Real conversation.  Impassioned, curious, well-listened, and deeply felt conversation.  When it is fully engaged in both the give and the take, a conversation—whether it is silly or sad, with a stranger or a friend—is a priceless gem.  And like that gem, it is, unfortunately, too rare.  We just don’t take that deep, beautiful dive often enough.  Like me with my cousin, the window closes, perhaps never to be opened again with that person.

It would be easy and cliché to say that in this age of social media and texting, our faces in our screens preclude us from making those meaningful connections and having those heart-to-hearts.  But I don’t know that I believe that.  I have hung around plenty of people from older, less-techie generations and found their chatter to be nearly all of the small and space-filling variety.  And maybe these screens—provided we are willing to put them down from time to time—are so saturated with juicy information on every topic imaginable that everyone can find something that they are passionate about learning and sharing with someone else who is willing to lock eyes and listen.  Maybe these screens are the gateway to deeper conversation, not more shallow.  I hope so.

I believe in our ability to converse and to light each other up in the process.  What I am less sure of is our courage.  Let’s face it, when you attempt to go below the surface with someone, you don’t know what kind of reception you will get.  For one, these attempts are so rare, especially in traditional small-talk zones—sidelines of sporting events, walking in your neighborhood, pubs, grocery stores—so people can be taken aback by your probing and your full attention (sadly, something we also rarely seem to give).

But if you can catch someone in that perfect moment when you are both willing to be open, present, and vulnerable, Magic can happen. 

I am the first one to admit I don’t like talking with most people.  My soul sensors are fine-tuned to detect people whose energies align with mine and those who don’t.  I passionately dislike anything in life that feels like a waste of my time—errands, lines, traffic, meetings, small-talk, the list goes on—and that includes spending time with people who don’t ignite something special in my heart or mind.  Knowing that about myself, it crystallizes my challenge: to take full advantage of every moment to converse with these captivating people, to not waste any words on small-talk, but rather to plunge directly into a meaningful exchange of ideas and energies.

I have to be more opportunistic with these rare moments and more efficient about getting into the meaty portion of people’s minds.  I have to launch into my best questions from the outset rather than participate in the standard opening, anesthetic nonsense about the weather, the outfits, and the appetizers on offer.

And rather than just waiting around hoping that I happen upon one of my favorite people and that they happen to have time for me at that moment, I also need to be better about seeking them out.  This directive struck me hard this week as I was strolling through the Twitterverse.  Amidst all of the politics and pop culture, I stumbled upon this humble gem by the octogenarian news man Dan Rather (who happens to be a fountain of simple wisdom): That person you keep thinking, “I should call them.”  You should.  Do it.  Pass it on.

That seemingly innocuous little note had the effect of simultaneously slapping me in the face and kicking me in the butt, giving me a wake-up call about all the people I so often think about talking to but never make the effort to reach them.  Dan is right.  I need to do it.  My life would be infinitely richer for it.

I want that richer life.  I want those richer conversations.  I guess it all circles back to that issue of Courage.  If you want something—in this case, a richer life full of deep, meaningful exchanges with fascinating people who stir my soul—and you know what it takes to get it, you have to be willing to stick your neck out.  I have to be willing to feel awkward in order to feel energized and enlightened.  I have to be brave enough to follow my “Hello” with a question I really want to know the answer to, one that can stimulate a lively exchange.  I must set aside my anxiety about picking up the phone and calling someone who hasn’t heard from me in a long time.  I must display the same courage that I implore you to summon.  That seems only fair.  I can do that.

Hello, World, I am ready to converse!

How about you?  How open and assertive are you in your pursuit of good conversation?  Open up your journal and wade through your interactions with the people in your life.  How deeply are you reaching below the surface in your usual conversations with the people you are interested in?  Not the people whom you cannot avoid in the regular course of your day—at your job or in your neighborhood or your hangouts—but the people whom you would choose to interact with; nobody wants to take a deep dive with someone they can barely tolerate.  So, for those intriguing characters in your world, how aggressively do you pursue their true nature and interests?  In your encounters with them, do you make it a point to raise topics that will lead to a lively exchange and perhaps some personal growth for each of you?  Do you try to draw out their life story?  Do you probe for their opinions on important matters, whether the politics of the day or a life situation you are struggling with?  Do you ask them to educate you on something you don’t understand?  If they are natural storytellers, do you try to coax them into a fascinating or funny tale?  Do you request specific favorites or lists, such as favorite books, movies, music, vacations, games, foods, etc. that you know will spark a spirited discussion?  Which of these types of inquiries seems to work best for you to get the kind of feedback and deep connection that satisfies you?  How aware are you of the quality of the conversation as you are having it?  How much time typically passes after you have had a wonderful give-and-take before you realize its rewards and think to yourself, “I want to do that again!”?  How often do you find yourself in one of these discussions?  Do you usually arrive there intentionally or accidentally?  How often does an interaction end leaving you with some regret—like me with my cousin—that you didn’t make the effort to go deeper?  Do you think it is because you lacked the courage in the moment to probe them, or were you just not mindful enough of how shallow the conversation was until after it was over, stuck in the habits of our usual superficiality?  Why are we so superficial in general?  Is it just a matter of practicality, us being unable to take a deep dive very often due to things like time constraints and other people overhearing what we would like kept private?  Or are we afraid of being vulnerable, of exposing things about ourselves that will be open to judgment from others?  Or are we shallow?  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being shallow and 10 being deep, how deep are your conversations with the people you want to connect with?  How do you think that number compare to the average person?  How does it compare to the people you admire the most?  Who are those people?  Who in your life—whether it’s been 10 minutes or 10 years since you have spoken to them–would you love to get a phone call or a visit from so you can share stories, ideas, and passions?  How often do you think about calling or visiting them?  How much would it enrich your life?  What keeps you from doing it?  Does that fear or justification feel more important than the joy, the growth, and the inspiration that the connection would bring to you (and to them)?  If you could pick just one person to reach out to today for whatever reason, who would it be?  What would you ask them?  What would you share?  I dare you!  How much deeper do you want your connections to be?  How much richer do you want your life to be?  Are the two answers the same?  What is your next step to go further below the surface?  Leave me a reply and let me know: Are your conversations satisfying to your soul?

Take the plunge,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it.  Let it be another way to deepen your relationships.

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

All The Things You Can Think In 8 Minutes & 46 Seconds

“When honor and the Law no longer stand on the same side of the line, how do we choose?” –Anne Bishop, Heir To The Shadows

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” –Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Hello friend,

I just finished watching the video of George Floyd’s murder again. Now that a couple of weeks have passed and the edge has come off of my initial burst of rage and sorrow, I wanted to see if the footage would somehow make any bit of sense to me this time, that maybe I would uncover some clue that would make it seem less like pure Evil and Corruption. It didn’t.

8:46

That is the number that has haunted me from the beginning of this nightmare. Eight minutes, 46 seconds: the length of time Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of a handcuffed and subdued George Floyd. How can that be explained???

Last weekend, I went with my wife and kids to a local, student-led protest of racial injustice and police brutality. It was peaceful in nature, with the many young speakers sharing authentic words of pain, anger, advice, and inspiration. It reminded me of the Good in the world and of the immense value of every human being, but especially of those whose lives and freedoms are in danger each day they attempt to simply live.

We had had the discussion in our home in the preceding days about the importance of protest and of using your voice to bring positive change to the world, so my children were eager to experience the event. The night before, I cut up some cardboard boxes and got out markers, crayons, and construction paper so we could all make our own signs. My 9-year-old son wrote “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on his. My 11-year-old daughter made a creative version of “kNOw JUSTICE, kNOw PEACE.” My wife wrote “JUSTICE FOR GEORGE.” As for me, after much deliberation, I finally wrote exactly what had been hanging like a dark cloud over me for days: “8:46.”

A little over halfway through the two-hour rally, one of the leaders asked that we all stand, raise our signs or a fist, and take a moment of silence in honor of George Floyd. But not just a typical 30ish-seconds “moment” of silence. The moment she called for was to be exactly 8 minutes and 46 seconds long.

I had been at work and missed Mr. Floyd’s funeral service on TV earlier in the week, but my wife had told me that Reverend Al Sharpton had led a similar moment during his eulogy and that she had been deeply moved. I believed her, but her story didn’t prepare me for what I was about to experience. Along with the couple hundred other people spaced widely in the crowd, I raised my arms and my “8:46” sign and fell silent. And I thought.

I thought SO MANY THINGS.

First, I thought about all the Black people I have had in my life, the ones I have loved or that have been special to my family. As I considered each one, I sent them the best energy I could muster, wishing them strength to live in a world that has never been as kind to them as it has to me. I started with my wife and kids, of course. Then I thought of my mother-in-law and (deceased) father-in-law, who grew up in the Deep South in times worse than these. I thought of my sister-in-law and two brothers-in-law, who all grew up Black in a town almost completely White. Next I thought of my nieces and nephew, our family’s future. I thought of all of my wife’s cousins and aunts and uncles around the country. I thought of the two young women, Nicole from Ghana and Peré from Kenya, whom we have hosted during their years at a nearby college. I thought of colleagues from the past. I thought of Joi, who presided over my wedding, and all the other dear friends my wife has brought into our home and family over the years, including Myra, Ramon, Maddie, Sedric, Demetrius, Suzanne, Harry, and Joan, to name a few. I thought of her sorority sisters. I thought of all the young people and families in the children’s group my kids belong to that is centered around their Blackness. I thought of my kids’ Black teammates and school friends and their families. I thought of all the Black kids I interact with in the school where I work and the light that they bring to my life.

I thought of all of those people. It was quite a process to conjure those faces and really feel their energy and give them mine. And at the end of that long exercise, I was painfully aware that I still had a ton of time left on that 8:46.

I thought about George Floyd and the countless other unarmed Black people who have been killed by White police officers, lynch mobs, slave patrols, and other vigilantes throughout America’s sordid history. And I thought about their families. I still had time.

I thought about how tired my arms were getting holding up that sign–that little, flimsy piece of cardboard–and peeked around to see other people clearly struggling to keep a fist or a sign raised. Then I thought of how minuscule our pain and struggle were compared to what George Floyd felt with those three officers pinning him to the dirty pavement and a knee driving hard into his neck. I did some crying.

Next, I thought about the world I want my kids to grow up in and the improvements I hoped we could make (no small list).

A few different times I also caught my mind drifting, and in my moment of reminding myself to stay present and focused on the topic at hand, I also thought, “Dang, this is a LONG TIME!” And it was. But I still had more time.

And as I was thinking of those hopes for a more just and equitable future, the speaker called an end to the time. The first thing I thought was, “Wow, my mind covered A LOT of territory in 8 minutes and 46 seconds! Emotions were fully felt and processed, tears were shed, and I got to think hard and clearly on some important topics.”

That’s when I began to think about Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao, the four police officers who took part in George Floyd’s murder. Long after he was in their custody, when he was already handcuffed and lying facedown in the street, with no other dangers and the situation totally under their control, the clock began to tick on their 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

They had all that time to think.

They had the opportunity to consider the worth of George Floyd’s existence and, even if they considered it and deemed it of no value, the opportunity to decide whether or not they could get away with killing him in broad daylight, with cameras on and other humans begging them to stop the killing. Because when you sit with the scene in your mind for a full 526 seconds, you realize that this was no heat-of-the-moment, knee-jerk reaction–no “He surprised me and before I knew it I had pulled the trigger” or “I feared for my life” situation–in which they had no time to consider their actions and what it all meant. They had 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

It is so much time! Time for clarity, time for certainty, time to ensure an absence of remorse or regret.

What was happening in that time, you ask, that might have stirred the conscience of these four men, three of whom were kneeling on him (one on his neck), the other standing idly by? Well, in one five-minute stretch of the 8:46, an agonizing George Floyd said he couldn’t breathe sixteen times. Sixteen. He called out for his dead mother: “MAMA!!!” Bystanders pleaded with the officers: “Get off of his neck!” “The man ain’t moved yet, bro.” “Check his pulse!” “Get off of him!” “What is wrong with y’all?” “Do you think that is okay?” Even after the officers had called in for medical assistance because George Floyd’s mouth was bleeding, they kept him pinned down for seven more minutes, some of those minutes after he was completely unresponsive. Even after the EMTs arrived and checked George’s pulse, Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George’s neck for another minute until the EMTs asked him to remove it.

The fact that they took the full 526 seconds so casually, so nonchalantly–Chauvin sliding a hand into his pocket like he was just hanging out on a holiday–and landed on the conclusions that 1) George Floyd’s life was expendable, and 2) we can get away with this, is just bone-chilling.

On the personal, psychological level, the conclusion that someone else’s life–someone you don’t know and whose alleged crime is passing a phony $20 bill–has no value, and that you are worthy of making that determination and also of ending the worthless life, is revealing of some seriously dark stuff inside. (Never mind that four out of the four officers working that stop came to the same conclusion seemingly without a word of debate passing between them. Is that not frightening?)

On the sociological and systemic level, the belief–again, apparently by 100% of the officers on the scene–that you can easily get by without consequences for killing an unarmed, subdued Black man on the street in front of witnesses and cameras in broad daylight is evidence of severe dysfunction in our police and “justice” system, as well as in society as a whole (because our history proves that they were justified in believing this).

But those were plainly the conclusions drawn by Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao in the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that they kneeled quietly on George Floyd and listened to him beg for his life as it left his limp body.

Dear God, that makes me sick.

How about you? What are your main takeaways from the murder of George Floyd and its aftermath? Open up your journal and your heart and explore the elements that have stayed with you in recent weeks. For me, it was obviously this issue of Time and the inexplicability of doing something so awful given all of the other options at their disposal and the extended opportunity the officers had to make a better choice. What is it for you? Have you been more hung up on the protests and violence? The other examples of police violence (e.g. tear-gassing and shooting rubber bullets at random and innocent bystanders, slashing tires, etc.)? The unprecedented momentum in the desire to make changes in society to diminish systemic racism and improve policing? The President’s combativeness throughout and his absence of any meaningful mention of race and racism in America or words of comfort to a demoralized country? What issue(s) do you keep coming back to in your mind? Why do you think that sticks with you? Do you need to dig a little deeper? Or is it just more personal to you? I invite you now to a moment of silence and reflection in honor of George Floyd. Choose your own way to do it: kneel or stand with a raised fist or sit or do something uncomfortable, but do it for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. You can choose to think about George Floyd, or you can just sit mindfully and watch all of the different thoughts your mind tumbles through and all that it has the chance to consider in that duration. Set your timer and begin…….. What did you think about? How much did you think about? A lot, right? Given your experience with it, how does it change your reflections about the thoughts those four officers might have been thinking and the conclusions they reached as they ended George Floyd’s life? Can you imagine it? How disturbing is it to even try? How easily could even one of them have changed that entire situation for the better? Isn’t that all the more heartbreaking? Do the moments that George Floyd will never have make yours all the more important and impactful? Leave me a reply and let me know: What will you choose to make of your moments of opportunity?

Always rise,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it with your community. Consciousness-raising is a group activity!

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

“But I’m Not A Racist!” And Other Things We White Folks Need To Do Better

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” –Benjamin Franklin

“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.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hello friend,

What a week to have skin in America! In the wake of the tragic and wholly unnecessary killing of George Floyd by a police officer to start the week, Minneapolis, a city with a long history of racial injustice and inequity, has been consumed by protests and destruction as its residents process their understandable grief and frustration. I live a safe distance away in a suburb of the city but have felt the waves of emotion reaching my doorstep in a way that is deeper and more personal than the other seemingly countless and regular newsworthy occurrences of racial injustice in America.

Just in the last few weeks, we have been dealing with new revelations in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man who, while out jogging, was tracked down in a truck by two white men who had decided that he was a burglar and shot him dead in the street. Also in the news has been the killing of EMT Breonna Taylor, a young black woman, by police who broke into her home–the wrong home, as it turned out–unannounced while she was sleeping and shot her multiple times while her boyfriend tried to defend her from what he believed to be a home invasion.

With the sadness and anger from those two tragedies hovering in the American air, joining the long list of unjustifiable killings of black people–Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Terrence Crutcher, to name just a few off the top of my head–we woke up Tuesday morning to viral video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling for several minutes on the neck of a handcuffed George Floyd as Floyd repeatedly says he cannot breathe. We already knew from the headline that, of course, George Floyd had been killed.

So began this week, a week that has continued like a dark cloud hovering over my home and, a little further up the freeway, my city. The mood in the house–which has white me, my black wife, and my two biracial children, ages 11 and 9, one who looks more black and one who could pass as white–has been at times outraged, depressed, furious, disappointed, appalled, apprehensive, curious, irritated, and thoroughly exhausted. Predicting it from hour to hour or nailing it down is impossible (though the exhaustion permeates). It’s like when I read the news articles about it on Facebook, and I have to choose the emoji to react with for the person posting. I tend to sway between angry and sad. I’m fully both.

Sadly, one thing I am not–and neither are my kids, which is truly horrifying–is surprised.

I have lived in this country long enough and done enough personal work to educate myself to both the historical facts and to the flesh-and-blood people and their stories that I feel like I somewhat know the score. It is plain to me that we live in a society based on white supremacy. We, especially we white folks, dare not to speak of it and deny it at every mention, which is how it has retained its power over centuries. But it is plain to an objective eye, if such a thing exists.

White lives are valued more highly than black lives. When doing the same job, white people get paid more. When convicted of the same crime, black people receive more severe punishments. A white person is believed in favor of a black person when their stories conflict. (And yes, I know there are other colors in this silly invention called race, but I trust that you understand the argument and the expediency of sticking with black and white for the moment. Thank you for your grace.) When fashion or language or housing or hair is compared between the groups, we work from the assumption that the white whatever is “just normal,” the standard, without distinguishing characteristics to judge it, whereas “black” things have ways that are different and can be judged (like when white kids do badly in school or break rules, they are considered individually–Timmy has anger issues or a lower IQ–or are “just being kids,” but when black kids behave badly it is taken as a reflection of their race, not of their individual difference). I could go on and on, but you get it.

Thus, it was not at all surprising to me to hear on Tuesday morning from a co-worker that an unarmed black man was killed by a police officer. She said that there was a bystander video that she couldn’t bring herself to watch. I knew it was about to be a challenging week.

So, when I arrived back at home later in the day, I immediately went to one of my news apps to learn more. While I was there gleaning information about the killing of George Floyd, a different article caught my eye. You have possibly seen the viral video recorded by bird enthusiast Christian Cooper, a black man, after he asked a white woman, Amy Cooper (not related), to leash her dog in an area of Central Park in New York City where leashes are required. This caused her to become very upset. A tense exchange ensued, during which he asked her not to come close to him and she then threatened, “I’m calling the cops. I’m gonna tell them that there’s an African-American man threatening my life!” She repeated that claim to the 911 operator multiple times in the video.

I could taste the bile coming up and could feel my blood boil. It wasn’t that I was any more surprised by this video that did not, fortunately, lead to more unnecessary violence, than I was by the video of George Floyd’s killing by Derek Chauvin. Rather, it was that this ordinary, everyday argument in New York City between Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper symbolized the entire culture of white supremacy–a culture that we are so deeply woven into that we don’t even recognize it or acknowledge it–that flows so seamlessly and inevitably to the death of George Floyd (or Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice or….).

The fact that people of color are seen as less than, worse than, not to be believed, of little consequence, and dangerous sets the stage for George Floyd’s tragic death and the deaths of untold millions of people of color throughout the sordid history of this country. Whiteness has a power that people of color can do nothing about. Amy Cooper knew that in the park that day, whether she had ever consciously formulated the thought. She laid bare America’s essence and gave away our secret in those few short words: “I’m gonna tell them that there’s an African-American man threatening my life!” Translation: “I can end your life right now. I’m the one everyone will believe. I own you.”

As I said, the video didn’t surprise me at all. After all, in the age of smartphones, we have become accustomed to seeing the kind of “threats” that white people call the police about regarding black people just trying to live (grilling in the park, having a lemonade stand, using the gym, etc.). Much like with the police killings of unarmed black people, we see them more often now not because they occur more often, but because there are cameras.

Outside of the video’s encapsulation of America’s signature theme and its perfect timing with the killing of George Floyd, I was, in fact, not so interested in it. What caught my attention more from the story was Amy Cooper’s apology. After all, her blatant racism had gone viral and her employer had suspended (and later fired) her in its wake. So, of course, she said she was sorry. No surprise there. The kicker, though, was her use of the now-standard line for anyone who is caught doing or saying something patently racist: “I’m not a racist.” It’s a classic.

Believe it or not, I don’t care whether Amy Cooper is a racist. My point today is not to make a case for what makes someone a certified racist and what makes someone else a good-hearted person who, in a moment of weakness, committed an obviously racist action (or how many of those racist actions it would take for that person to slide into the genuinely racist category). No, I mostly want to offer my fellow white people a suggestion or two about our racism (which is inevitable given the culture in which we live and our privileged position in it).

In your apology for your racist action, please don’t include, “But I’m not a racist.” And definitely don’t lead with it. It sounds so disingenuous after what you have just said or done to get yourself in hot water (I don’t want to list examples). Even if you believe that in your heart and even if you have a long list of examples to “prove” it, saying that is not the way to be heard. Maybe something more like, “That was a horribly racist thing I said. I didn’t even know I had something so vile in me, but clearly I do. I am sorry.” Or this: “Even though I was raised in a racist family, I thought I had moved beyond that. My racist action today showed me I still have work to do. I am so sorry.” If you still really, really want to say you aren’t a racist, the furthest leash you might stretch could be, “I truly don’t feel anything negative against black people, so I didn’t think I could do something like that. But I can see that it was a racist act, and I take responsibility. I am so sorry, and I promise to do better.” All of these apologies, of course, work better if you actually mean it and change your behavior. It is one small thing.

My other small suggestion today, my white friend, is to raise your voice and take a stand for people of color and against white supremacy. As I said before, people of color have no real say in whether the American culture of white supremacy (and therefore inequality, abuse of power, injustice, protest, riots, etc. in roughly that order) gets to continue. Black and brown people have been calling us on our abuses since we showed up on the land centuries ago, dragging some of them with us and slaying others in our wake. That has not changed us. It is unfair and phony of us to keep asking people of color to explain injustice and inequity to us, to tell us their experience so we can understand our own. They are tired of explaining (not to mention tired of the rest). The whole thing is exhausting for them, and it is simply not their job. People of color have borne the burden of white people’s culture of racism for centuries and been powerless to change it. Not because they are weak or stupid or unorganized, and certainly not because they are less than white people. They haven’t changed white supremacy because white supremacy is white people’s responsibility. It is our burden. It was created by us, and it must be undone by us.

So take a stand. Use your white voice, which is way more powerful than you understand it to be. This week I have been so moved to see a couple of my white friends on social media, whom I have never seen say anything about injustice or the need for anti-racism, actually speak up on their feed, with either a shared article or a heartfelt paragraph or two about how George Floyd’s death was wrong and how we must work to root out racism. I thought of these normally-silent white people’s respective spheres of influence–some small, others quite large–and the impact their voice might have to free up other silent-but-pained folks to speak their own truth about these matters. I thought, “What if everyone who was bothered by George Floyd’s death actually spoke up in a public forum?” That could be in conversation with others at a church or social event where they had never previously dared talk about such things, or it could be a social media site where they typically just watch silently or post only about “non-political” things. What if they raised their virtual hand and simply said, “This is wrong, and we need to change.”?

We are such a culture of people who need permission–from celebrities, trendsetters, the cool people in our social circle, our peers–to say what we really feel and what is hard. My goodness, we could change so much if a critical mass of white people would just speak up on behalf of people of color and the injustices brought to bear on them by our system of white supremacy. Equality would become cool. Anti-racism would be trending. Imagine that! Congress members would have to listen to their justice-minded constituents because there were just so many of them. The tide would turn.

It could happen. It really could. But it won’t happen just because black and brown people have had enough of our racism, just because they are sick and tired of being held back and held down and brutalized by the police and by unfair housing practices or racist bosses or neighbors. It won’t happen because they protest peacefully or because they riot or loot or burn buildings. We have already proven that none of those methods are effective. The only way our system is going to change is if we white folks take on the challenge ourselves, if we take responsibility for the job that should have been ours all along.

There are a million ways available to help the cause, and I hope you will take advantage of many of them. But even if you can just take one small step today, I hope it is by raising your voice in a way or in a space that you have not before. I guarantee you the world will be better for it. If you take my virtual hand, I promise to take that step with you. I’m here and ready.

How about you? What role have you been playing in the racial dynamic? Open up your journal and explore your relationships with the other humans on the planet and the systems and decisions that have placed you there. On a scale of 1 to 10, if one is an avid anti-racist and ally to people of color and 10 is an unabashed bigot, where do you land when it comes to your level of racism? If we asked the ten people closest to you about your level, do you think they would rate you higher or lower? How would you rate them? Do they exhibit more or fewer ignorant attitudes and behaviors than you? Are you aware of your specific weaknesses and failings, such as which groups you are particularly biased against and how those biases present themselves in the world? Are you ever shocked at how narrow-minded, even vile, a thought you have is? How about a comment or action? Have you ever apologized to someone regarding a racist comment or action? If you haven’t, should you have? Do you feel embarrassed now at some of the racist things you did or said in your past? In what ways have you changed? Can you point to incidents or reasons why you have changed? Are you now more open-minded and accepting (even celebratory) of other races, or have you views become more narrow and bigoted with age? How have the people in your friend group influenced your perspective on matters of race, equity, and justice? How have you influenced them? Are you able to speak freely with your friends on these matters? Do you? How about your family? What percentage of your loved ones would you consider to be a true ally to people of color? If you had to name percentages for the people in your circle, how many would you say are generally 1) racist, 2) not racist, or 3) anti-racist? In which category are you? How big of a stretch would it be for you to become anti-racist, to be an intentional ally to people of color and speak out against racist actions and systems? What would it cost you? Discomfort? Friends? What could it gain you? Greater self-respect? A richer life? Friends? What is your typical reaction when an injustice occurs, such as the murder of George Floyd? Do you ignore it? Do you shake your head and move on? Do you get a bit upset but not say anything? Do you talk about it with a loved one? Do you speak out on social media or in other large groups, such as church or social gatherings? Is it clear to the people around you what your position is regarding people of color and the injustices they deal with in our society? If not, why not? Are you trying to protect them–your people–or protect yourself by not raising an uncomfortable topic? Are you being brave or cowardly? Overall, how uncomfortable addressing this whole topic are you? Does the term “white supremacy” as a normal term for America’s culture make you cringe? Does it feel wrong to admit you are the beneficiary of white supremacy and a part of the group that keeps other groups down? How does it feel when someone says that doing nothing, staying silent, and staying “neutral” on these matters only aids the oppressor and does untold damage to people of color every day? Is there really no neutral? Do you think the discomfort around this topic is all the more evidence that we hide from it in our everyday discourse? Do you agree that keeping white supremacy out of conversation and out of our heads has only made it more difficult to root out? Why don’t you speak about it more often? If you have people of color in your life, do you think it comes across to them as a betrayal when you say nothing about these regular acts of gross injustice? Can you be a true friend to them and not say something? How much of an idea do you think you have about what it is to live in their skin every day? How can you do better for them? What will it take to get you to start on that? Is there something you can do today? I dare you. Leave me a reply and let me know: What will you do to bring more equity and justice into the world?

Be the light,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. This task will require all of us!

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

Spoiled, Selfish, & Stupid: Why We Are Not To Be Trusted

“Living as I do with human beings, the more that I observe them, the more I am forced to conclude that they are selfish.” –Natsume Söseki, I Am A Cat

“Pride and folly, they go together like two tightly grasping hands.” –Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear

Hello friend,

Open the floodgates! The Americans have left their homes and their senses!

We gave it a good run. We–well, most of us–did the decent thing for a solid month or so. We sacrificed. We listened to scientists who told us that the best way we could help was to stay home and keep our distance from one another. We actually considered how our behavior affects others. We showed a conscience. We were selfless, altruistic. It was like a weird, totally surreal, alternate universe. But we made it cool! Social distancing and masks became the darlings of social media, inspiring all sorts of clever memes, GIFs, and videos. It was this quaint little throwback thing we were doing together–like having a 1980s Day at school or pretending we were re-enacting “Little House On The Prairie”–all with a collective ‘wink-wink’ knowing we were way too cool to actually live like this. We were playing along until we got the first signal that we could call off the charade.

Apparently, the signal was not a vaccine to prevent anyone else from getting Covid-19. It was not a medicine to help alleviate the symptoms. It was not the steady decline of new cases over a 14-day period, as the experts had told us from the start would be best indicator. The signal wasn’t even any sort of decline. As it turned out, all it took for Americans to assume permission to return to regular social living was the mere mention by folks on TV of the possibility of a slow, measured re-opening of the economy.

And with that, social distancing (and sense) is a thing of the past.

Exhibit A: Last weekend, my wife, kids, and I took a bike ride around our neighborhood. The first park we passed had a full parking lot, people playing volleyball and other sports, grilling, playing on the playground, and hanging at the beach. I could feel my sensible wife fuming behind me as we passed from the road. She had already made clear before we left that we would not be entering that park, as the nice day would draw too many people. But this was another level. This was Summer-day-level crowding. I sped up my pedaling to get past it, and we soon arrived at the next park, where we would be circling the more remote path that surrounds the hub of the park. Of course, we immediately spotted in that center a large gathering of what appeared to be friends, some playing full 6-on-6 volleyball and many others gathered around the court lounging and socializing in very close proximity. Again, it looked like an ordinary-times Sunday afternoon at the park.

Keep in mind that at that point, where I live in Minnesota, there had been no new guidelines for removal or even decrease in social distancing or gathering size suggested by the governor or other top scientists in the state, just talk about some upcoming small measures to get a few more businesses operating.

My wife, who may be accused of being cautious and germaphobic–qualities I have finally come to appreciate with a killer virus in town–but also has a track record of wisdom and sense, was livid. She could not wrap her head around what these people were thinking–or, perhaps more accurately, not thinking–to be in each other’s space and touching the same things willingly. I admit, I was outraged at their behavior as well, but I was less shocked. I had felt it increasing the entire week leading up to that day. And immediately prior to our bike ride, I had witnessed Exhibit B.

I was in my kitchen and happened to look out my window to see some neighbor kids and their friends from a few blocks away right up on the front patio of a different neighbor, where that neighbor (a middle-aged man) was sitting with his girlfriend. (You may recall that I mentioned in my last letter my anger with my neighbors that have kept up frequent play dates and social gatherings throughout the pandemic. Well, these were the kids and friends.) I was immediately shocked and angered at their proximity to one another, of course, but its lack of appropriateness also captivated me. I kept watching. The kids proceeded to circle this guy’s house over and over again, stopping by the man and woman as they went. Then, when they seemed to tire, he gave them a drink from his cup, which they proceeded to pass around to everyone in the group.

As someone who has taken the scientists very seriously regarding the necessity of social distancing and mask-wearing during this global pandemic, my jaw was practically on the floor. Why worry about the spit droplets traveling randomly through the air and only maybe reaching someone else when you can just pass those little guys directly via a cup? Brilliant! These same folks were part of a several-family, no-distancing yard party just a couple days earlier that I also got to witness in horror from my window. All that is to say that by the time we got to that park last Sunday, my sense of disgust was still strong but my ability to be shocked by foolishness had been dulled dramatically. Mostly, my neck was getting tired from shaking my head so often.

Though I have no satisfactory justification for anyone willfully breaking the simple social distancing guidelines that have been in the public forum for several weeks now, I have thought a lot about the mindset behind it. As always, I spend a lot of time considering how we humans think and the impulses behind our actions. It starts with myself, of course, in my daily journal entries that have been helping me understand my shenanigans for decades. But I am equally fascinated by others, both individually and collectively. I am a fan of all studies sociological and psychological. And obviously, immersed as I am in American culture, I am particularly fascinated by attitudes and behaviors that seem uniquely American.

This recent abandonment of conscience and the corresponding moral free-for-all regarding social distancing and our obligation to care about the health of people we don’t know seems to fit the bill as something thoroughly American.

For the sake of today’s discussion, I am separating the people gathering at my neighbor’s house and in the park to celebrate and play socially from the maskless hordes storming state capitols and shouting in people’s exposed faces in protest. Although there is some relation between the two groups, I think the arguments get much more complex when you bring in the economic aspects of stay-at-home orders, which I like to think are motivating the protesters. People simply craving human contact and unfettered hanging out occupy a different spot on the spectrum. It is these people who are just over social distancing and are moving on despite the potential consequences that are the ones I am pondering today.

When I think of my wife’s shrill, panicked, “WHAT IS HAPPENING????” when she first witnessed up-close these blatant acts of disregard for established guidelines for protection against a deadly virus, the first thing that came to my mind to sum up my theory was “spoiled Americans.”

Sacrifice is not something we are accustomed to at this point in our history. For those of us in the middle class and higher, anyway, we haven’t spent much thought on how our lives affect others or ever had to “take one for the team” and make do with less so others could live. The term “first-world problems” has caught on in the common vernacular precisely because for many of us, we simply aren’t very inconvenienced by the world. But now this coronavirus has kept us away from the blowouts, hangouts, and make-outs that we have come to see as our birthright.

So sure, we played along at first (at least most of us). We stayed at home. We stayed apart. We wore our masks and acted like this virus was real. We posted on social media about the blessings and bummers of staying at home, the heroes on the frontline, and the plethora of new memes on this fresh topic. It was a quaint little game we were playing together. For fun, sort of. Something to tell the grandkids about one day, anyway.

But then it became dull. It was no longer enough that we all had computers, phones, FaceTime, ZOOM, Google Hangouts, Facebook, Twitter, InstaGram, TikTok, and a million other ways to connect with friends and family in real time. The world had denied us of one thing–proximity–and we aren’t people who suffer denial well. So, over the past couple of weeks, the bat signal somehow went out. Every time I took a walk or rode my bike around the neighborhood, I saw more and more gatherings with less and less space between the gatherers. Before I knew it, neighbors were passing cups around to share. Americans had revealed themselves. Spoiled, self-absorbed, foolish.

Now I know, of course, that it isn’t everyone. Obviously, I am writing this letter as someone who has not changed his behavior recently, and I have seen other shows of dismay and disgust in both conventional and social media (including a column in the Tampa Bay Times called, appropriately, “I Will Not Die of Stupid”). So plainly, I am not saying all Americans are selfish brats, but I definitely believe that streak runs through our culture. And, as so many people are showing us in the last couple of weeks, there is a critical mass of people in this country who are proving that this aspect of our collective personality cannot be held at bay no matter how dire the outcome. We are that petulant, arrogant toddler whose behavior embarrasses the parent when it comes out in public, so ashamed that they let the child get this obnoxious in its egotism.

Fortunately, I think (I hope) that we are also the parent, or even the onlookers who are appalled at the toddler spouting demands that his every whim be met immediately. I am confident that I am not alone in my astonishment and outrage at the foolishness of my neighbors. I know there are others who feel both hurt and confused by the collective lapse in morality by people who they have respected. I am aware of others speaking up, if only to people who share their dismay.

My question is, what is the score? How many people are on each side? Are there enough people with me to make a positive difference, or am I shouting into a vacuum? As I said, I have seen other people voice their anger and disgust over this flouting of science and disregard for the health of others, but every time I walk past the park or look out my window and see a big gathering of people ignoring the rules, all of those articles and social media posts seem like a whisper no longer heard over the shouting. I want to think that the bigger mass of people still has a conscience and integrity, but those volleyball players and cup-sharers make it hard for me to see things clearly.

We have a very long way to go with this virus, and at this rate, I know I am in for a lot of future outrage. However, I really, really want to think the best of people. I want to believe that they will look to their better angels and find the mental strength and the moral courage to do the right thing, no matter how dull and inconvenient it is. I just hope that when they are at their weakest moment, when they are lonely and cranky and bored, that they can look to the people around them and find positive role models, people who care about all of the people in their community and about getting through this pandemic as quickly and safely as possible. Together, but separately. I will be over here in my yard with just my wife and kids if anyone is looking.

How about you? Are you more likely to be hanging out with friends these days or watching the crowds in horror from a safe distance? Open up your journal and your conscience and lay bare your inclinations and your justifications? How annoyed and inconvenienced do you feel by all of the coronavirus-related restrictions? Were you annoyed and pent-up all along, or did you play along willingly at first but have gradually slid your standards of acceptability? If all of the restrictions and dangers magically went away today, what would you do to feel “normal” again? How closely have your actions approximated that lately? Do you do “meet-ups” with friends (e.g. for coffee), respecting social distance or not? If you have kids, do you allow them to play with other children who don’t live with you? Do you play sports with people from outside your household? Take walks with them? Have you had gatherings of extended family or friends? If you answered “YES” to any or all of those, how do you justify your behavior to yourself? Is it easy to do? Can you come up with sound, intelligent arguments to explain yourself? Can you reasonably claim the moral high ground? Does anyone call you on your questionable actions? Do you get defensive, or do you feel fully justified and unapologetic? On a scale of 1 to 10 and being as honest as possible, how much do you care how your behaviors affect other people? Do you feel like you deserve to do whatever you want? Does your conscience bother you at all when you skirt the guidelines of safety? How likely do you believe you are to become infected by the coronavirus? Does that percentage affect your behavior one way or the other? If you do get it, would you say it was worth it to act in whatever ways you are currently acting around distancing and mask-wearing? Would an impartial scientist say that the way you are behaving is on the risky side of the spectrum or the safe side of the spectrum? Would a wise person say you are being wise or foolish? Would I say you are acting like responsible, altruistic human of integrity or a spoiled fool who is in moral decay? Would you care what any of us had to say? Are there such things as character qualities that can be ascribed to nations or social groups? Do enough Americans act in spoiled, self-centered ways that we can declare those to be characteristically American? Thought experiment: if you were going into a theoretical battle and were choosing your teammates, would you want to get in the foxhole with “America”? Would you trust her? For individual teammates, would you more likely choose one of the people at the park playing basketball and having drinks with their friends these days or someone who is strictly conforming to social distancing guidelines? Would you choose you? Leave me a reply and let me know: What type of citizen are you behaving like these days?

Be big,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. Let’s raise our consciousness together!

P.P.S. If you are stirred by this kind of introspection, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

Silver Linings: In Search Of The Positives In A Pandemic

“Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic.” –Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke & Bone 

“In a time of destruction, create something.” –Maxine Hong Kingston

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” –Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Hello friend,

I have had moments of anger during this pandemic, such as when I see my neighbors having yet another play date with their children’s friends and parents, ignoring all science and government warnings and putting the rest of us in danger (and keeping us home even longer) because they lack either the will power to resist their social nature or the moral fiber to care about their potential damage.

I have had moments of deep sadness, too, such as when I read the social media post of the nurse who had flown to New York to help in a hospital, who had just had her patient die, and she reported that they had 17 deaths in their 17-bed unit that night. How does that NOT break you?

I have had moments of fear and anxiety as well, each week when I go to the grocery store and when I think about the possibility of my wife losing her job or a family member needing a hospital visit.

I have felt at least some degree of all the negative stuff that I am guessing you and your loved ones have felt during this unusual time. And though currents of them dash in and out of my atmosphere like phantom winds, I can say with some certainty that–with the notable exception of the first few days following the cancellation of my vacation, as I shared in my last letter–I have not let the negative overtake me. Some of that, I am sure, can be chalked up to the fact that I have been lucky. My family has money coming in, food in the refrigerator, health insurance, and none of my loved ones have contracted Covid-19. Relative to what other people are dealing with and will deal with, I have a dream gig going here right now.

The rest of it, though, seems to be attributed to my psychological make-up. I am a glass-half-full kind of guy by nature, and I tend to have my radar up and tracking the potential blessings in any situation. In the course of my day, I tend to find the fun, the kind, and the beautiful that is available to all but seemingly noticed by few. I have been blessed by an inclination toward those things and a willingness to train my eye to find more. It leaves me uncommonly grateful and, by extension, happy.

So, amidst the throes of the rampant sadness, frustration, anger, fear, and anxiety that seem so common and expected in this unprecedented age, I have found myself all the more determined to uncover the blessings and the good that might come of it. In this storm of storms, I am looking for silver linings.

It is easy to latch onto the most popular ones, which start with the frontline medical personnel. These people are just amazing to me. I look at me, not wanting to so much as leave my yard because I don’t want to closely interact with anyone and risk getting the virus and subsequently passing it to my family members. Then I look at the emergency room staff and first responders, going into work every day nearly certain that they are going to get it, if not today then tomorrow. There was the video that went viral a few weeks ago of the man in scrubs coming home and his tiny child running to greet him. It broke my heart to watch him have to suddenly keep her from excitedly running into his arms for a hug. Anyone who has ever been a parent knows that is probably the single greatest feeling in the world. To think that there are people like that all over the world, voluntarily eschewing the proximity and affection of their loved ones in order to continue serving the sickest among us, well, that is simultaneously both deeply saddening and incredibly inspiring.

All of the other frontline workers are so uplifting for me as well, even as I fret for their safety. I go out to the grocery store once a week and, as I am standing in the long, spread-out line for my turn to pay, I am absolutely spellbound watching the employees–these folks barely, if even, making a living wage for their services–ringing people up. It boggles my mind how they keep doing it day after day. I am so grateful for them.

Obviously there are very few people who signed up for this gig, whatever it is they are doing in this new age. Nearly everyone’s job, if they still have one, has changed. So many public-facing difference-makers–the teachers, the coaches, the therapists–can no longer do their jobs in a way that they can feel the daily difference they are making. There are a lot of teachers in my life, and I know that it pains them to have to “only” deliver educational modules to their students through a computer every day rather than their usual nurturing of the whole, complex person for the 25 or 30 growing souls in their classroom. They don’t get to directly help them through their challenges and witness that spark in the eye when the light bulb comes on or the hug of gratitude and love when it is most needed. I exchanged a message with one of my colleagues about this, and she lamented, “Distance learning is like planning, shopping, wrapping, and sending the perfect gift for someone you adore, but never getting to see them open it or know if they even like the present.” But teachers keep pouring their all into it because our children depend on them even in their absence. Those kind of people inspire me.

There are so many others, of course, whether they work on the front lines or are struggling because so much has changed behind the lines but they keep putting one foot in front of the other because the world needs them. I am even inspired by the people who, unlike me, are so wildly social at their core and need company like they need oxygen, but are choosing to be good humans and stay home. There are admirable sacrifices all around if your eyes are open to them.

One thing that tickles me these days is seeing so many people out walking, running, or bicycling in their neighborhoods. I have always loved visiting “active” towns–usually in places embedded in the mountains or by the ocean–where it seems like everyone is an outdoors enthusiast and people are moving their bodies wherever you look. My community is not typically one of those hubs of energy, but it sure has become one in the last month. I have never walked so much in my life, and I get the sense everyone else could say the same. I love seeing them all out and active. It energizes me. I hope we can keep that outdoor momentum going even when gyms and stores open up again. There is new life in the fresh air.

I also take great joy and inspiration in some of the new opportunities that people, especially artists, have created and made available online during this time. The actor John Krasinski’s YouTube broadcast from home, Some Good News, has been a delight, and I highly recommend it. I have also loved the “quarantine concerts” that so many musicians have put on their social media, whether it is a daily song (I have been digging Michael Franti on Facebook) or weekly concerts (I adore Matt Nathanson’s weekly events from his home office on YouTube, during which he sings songs and reads beautiful passages from books of poetry or wisdom that inspire him) or those big sing-along collaborations that artists have been putting together through ZOOM. There is nothing like music to lift the spirit, and these times ought to give us a greater sense of the necessity of the arts in our society. I have also appreciated those virtual tours of some of the world’s greatest museums and our national parks, both the sights themselves and the thoughtfulness of the people bringing them to us.

Though all of these inspirations have flashed regularly across my radar throughout the pandemic, the one ray of Hope that has grown exponentially in my mind as the weeks have passed falls under the theme “How We Might Grow From This Experience.” I am enchanted by the possibility of some sort of simultaneous mass realization of the errors of our former, “normal” ways and a subsequent move toward a more highly idealized society, perhaps even to the extent of an evolutionary leap in the behavior of our species. Might we take advantage of this collective pause in our society–one that is unlikely to ever happen again in our lifetimes–and use it to gain wisdom in the direction of a world that is more peaceful, equitable, and just? Might we come to value each other more? Might we come to value our time more? I desperately hope so.

What kinds of things might this translate to? Maybe it is as simple as choosing our commitments–whether to individual people or activities or groups–more discerningly. Now that we have been pulled out of our sports, clubs, churches, stores, meet-ups, coffee shops, restaurants, classes, and gyms, I hope that we are using the time away from them to better understand how much we (individually) need each one of our diversions. Even though most of us are going stir-crazy in our homes, we may also be realizing for the first time that perhaps it would be wise to begin prioritizing some downtime at home when “real life” resumes. As we have been removed from nearly all of the people in our usual routines, I hope that we are realizing which of those people are really not a positive influence on us and perhaps which are more deserving of our time and energy. Maybe we need more quality and less quantity, both in people and scheduled activities.

I also hope that this time–with its isolation, its anxiety, its uncertainty–leads us to put a greater premium on our mental health and self-care. I hope it becomes easier and “more normal” to talk about mental health and to understand that the issues that we have been hiding are so very common in our community.

I hope that it becomes more obvious–and more painful in the realization–that the poorest among us consistently bear the burdens of our crises to a far greater degree than the wealthiest. It is the poor who are both put on the front lines of exposure in times like this–cashiers, janitors, delivery drivers, etc.–and also more likely to lose their jobs, being in positions less likely to have a work-from-home option. I hope that in this time that we suddenly have to think more clearly and become more aware of the realities of our usual set-up, we find it in ourselves as a society to become more compassionate of those most in need and more aware of our own, typically-unearned privilege.

Along the same lines of this potential growing awareness, I have been increasingly hopeful that this health-crisis-turned-economic crisis might make it more clear to the average citizen how much more humane a single-payer, “Medicare for all” health care system would be. I think of the more than 22 million people who have lost their jobs in the first four weeks of this collapse, and how many millions of people that takes off of health coverage. I am up-front about the fact that I have long been in favor of a universal health care system in America, seeing health care as no less a natural right than a “free” public education or police and fire protection, as I have written to you about in the past. It has always seemed crazy to me that we don’t have this system in place and instead spend far more per capita on health care than other “civilized” countries for generally worse results, not to mention leaving tens of millions of our citizens uncovered and poorly covered to the point that they don’t take care of basic medical needs. It embarrasses me as an American. If we have to go past the idea that it is a basic human right–which we should not; that ought to be the start and end of the discussion as to the necessity of universal coverage–I have always found it sad and tragic that the reason so many people stay in jobs rather than quit or change or try to start their own business or pursue a dream is because of the loss of health insurance. The current system is, in so many different, insidious ways, breaking our spirit. And now we have tens of millions of newly unemployed, resulting in millions of families losing their health coverage. How many people lost their coverage due to the pandemic in the rest of the world? Zero. Because they have humane systems. I have been surprised and disappointed that we have not seen more spoken and written about this in the traditional and social media as the numbers of unemployed pile up. It is my hope that people will see that now is the perfect moment in our history to do right by each other. Health coverage for everyone would be a giant step in the right direction. I remain hopeful that hearts and eyes will open.

It is this and so many other structural, systemic issues that I am looking toward in this time, hoping we open our hearts and minds to find the compassion and the wisdom to see our “we’ve just always done it this way” as a compilation of attitudes and tactics that have simply not served us all as well as we may have hoped. But I see people doing right by others, helping and giving and supporting. And I see others who want to be a part of a better world, who want fewer people to suffer and more people to get along, who want the resources spread out more equitably. I see all of that good action and good intention, and they make me hopeful. They give me light in a time that could too easily turn dark.

There are so many good people out there. You know that. So many lights. So many silver linings to this storm. You can find them almost anywhere you look. It seems to me that with this many good people, we deserve to live in a world whose structures–be they social, political, economic, or otherwise–serve to provide or facilitate all of those positive intentions and gestures of good will. But the responsibility is upon each of us to both do better in our own little corner of the world and to raise our voices to demand better of our larger structures. We must use this collective, reflective moment to consider the ways that our religions, our education systems, our health care systems, our political institutions, our judicial systems, our use of science, our natural resource consumption, and our philosophy of diplomacy and warfare facilitate the kind of goodness that is in our hearts. If we deem that those systems are not representative of our goodness, we need to rise up and demand that changes be made. And we must do whatever is in our own power to see those changes through. We must be the bringers of our own light.

This pandemic era is difficult. It is angering, frustrating, depressing, and anxiety-inducing. But it is also so much more, and its potential for a positive outcome is massive. Even with the scars that we will no doubt carry from this era, we could actually come away with a more caring, compassionate, equitable, just, and peaceful planet, both the humans and the systems designed to help the humans live their best lives. I see the possibilities all around me. I see it in hearts and gestures. If you are having a hard time seeing that light in your world, I hope you will find it in yourself. It is there, my friend, just waiting to be discovered. I am happy to lend you some of mine in the meantime. I have hope for you, hope for us. With so many beautiful examples out there to use as a guide and this quiet moment to steel my resolve, I am inspired to find out just how high we right rise. Together.

How about you? Where do you look for hope and inspiration in this time of crisis? Open up your journal and your heart and uncover the source of the light shining in? Where are you finding your positivity these days? Do you see it in the people in your community and the actions–or inaction–that they are taking? Which profession seems to awe you the most at this time? Medical personnel? Grocery store clerks? Delivery drivers? Janitorial workers? Teachers? Are you inspired by people’s willingness to stay home to limit the spread of the virus? What acts of personal generosity have you witnessed or been a part of that remind you of people’s goodness? Which people–individuals or groups–have you come to see in a more positive light as a result of the their actions during this pandemic? Are your own actions worthy of someone else’s inspiration? What other sources of positivity have you used lately that are unique to our current situation? Are there live events that you “attend” online, whether workouts or concerts? Do you watch TED talks? Have you started reading any books that you might otherwise have neglected were we not in a pandemic? What sorts of hopes do you have in the “How We Might Grow From This Experience” category? What realizations would you like us to have about our ways of living? What personal “A-HA”s have you had about your own lifestyle and priorities? Which aspects of our society has this crisis exposed for you in a way that you never realized before? Do you believe in our ability to at least begin large-scale, structural changes to the way we do things based on the lessons we are taking from this period? If so, what part do you see yourself playing in the positive change? How much light do you have to share? What sources of inspiration will you use as your fuel? Leave me a reply and let me know: What positives do you see emerging from this pandemic?  

Bring the light,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. This is a team effort!

P.P.S. If this type of introspection stirs something in you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

First-World Grieving: Sadness & Loss In The Wake of COVID-19

“Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive.” –Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore 

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” –John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

Hello friend,

“It’s all over,” I thought to myself as I stood, shoulders slumped, by my bed in the dark. “The whole world is shutting down now.” Seconds before, my alarm had jolted me upright in the dark hours of morning. I had just climbed out from under the sheets and started for the bathroom so I could be at the gym when it was still quiet–my usual routine. The alarm had also stirred my wife, who, knowing where I was headed, rolled over and said, “The gym is closed. They sent out an announcement last night.”

It felt like all of the life went out of me. My window of escape was closing rapidly, and I knew it. I didn’t want to say it out loud, but I knew it. Just the day before, as the closures and cancellations were beginning to gather momentum, I was still willing our vacation into being, ignoring the signs and buying goggles and sandals for the beach and pool. The world just had to hang on for a couple more days so I could get to the ocean, then it could take away its concerts and large gatherings all it wanted. I would be in peace on the water with my little family. It just had to be so.

Thoughts of the beach and the pool were all that filled my quiet moments for the past three months, maybe more. We have been going to our special spot on Spring Break for the last few years, so the fantasies in my mind were crystal clear. It is just the right speed, just the right activities, and just the right vibe. For my liking, you cannot beat the combination of water, warmth, and sunshine. All the better that I get to see my parents and a best friend.   Every day and every place we go while there is perfect for me, for my wife, and for the kids. Everyone is giddy about getting there, blissful while there, and so sad to leave. For me, it is the trip I look forward to all the year long. It becomes an obsession the nearer I get to it. I needed this trip! So, needless to say, being only a couple of days away, I was downright manic in my excitement to get there when the news of COVID-19 started to become more ominous and the feeling of the window closing began to creep in.

Denial is a powerful force, though, and I was in no frame of mind to let my obsession go. My bag was already packed! I could practically taste the saltwater. I was not able to think clearly about anything. I was seeing friends on Facebook on their Spring Breaks. My niece was sending photos of her trip to the same place we were going. It was all right there. I was so close!

My wife, whose mantra over the preceding weeks was, “Just get me on that plane! You can quarantine me on the beach if it comes to that,” was constantly monitoring travel recommendations, and nothing was saying we couldn’t go. My belief began to crack, however, as the CDC recommendations for the size of gatherings hit 100 people. Even in my delusion and denial, it was not a stretch for me to start thinking, “There are more than 100 people outside the gate, and there are definitely more on the airplane.”

Still, my will to go was strong, and with no government directive to cease travel, I began this sort of desperate self-justification process, making a last gasp of trying to convince myself it was acceptable. “If we could only just get through the airplane stuff,” I pleaded, “we would spend the rest of the week on an open expanse of beach, far from other people and their germs. Isn’t that enough?”

When my alarm sounded that morning, though, and my wife told me about the gym closing, it was like my last breath came out of me. There was no fight left. The dangerous reality of the virus and its exponential spread were suddenly facts to me, and I could deny them no longer. Social responsibility, which had been the elephant in the room that I had been trying to ignore, grabbed me by the shoulders and made me look him in the eye. When I finally did, I knew: I would be a selfish, irresponsible jerk to get on that plane, and perhaps also a merchant of Death. The trip I had been dreaming of for months was simply not going to happen.

I was absolutely crushed. Devastated. That night when I called my kids into my room individually to break their hearts with the news, I wanted to cry right along with them. It was terrible. I wasn’t torn about the decision anymore by that point; I was certain that it was the right thing to do. But it still hurt like hell.

I moped around the house for the next few days like my dog had been shot. It was hard to find light. I was weak, slumped, and slow. It was in the air all of the day, thoughts of times in past years that I would be missing out on this time. The first face-full of saltwater as I raced the kids to be the first one into the waves. Frisbee in the sand. Ice cream at the splash pad with my parents. Swimming races against my kids in the pool. Walking the shoreline with my wife, the water chasing its way up to our feet and then receding. Watching the pelicans dive for fish and the dolphins rise to breathe. Just being there. All beautiful, happy thoughts that made me sad to think about.

There were moments that were particularly difficult, mostly the ones that confirmed the reality that I would not be living that much-anticipated journey, such as calling my parents and friend to speak the words out loud and going to the grocery store to stock the refrigerator that I had been working diligently to empty before we left. The most poignant one was unpacking the suitcase I had filled with swimsuits, t-shirts, and sandals. That felt like a burial.

I’ve come out of it, though, at least part of the way. I still have moments when I realize what I have been missing or think about what I would be doing if we were there. When my Google Photos or Facebook memories pop up on my phone from one or two or three years ago “On This Date,” and I get to see all the fun we had and the memories made: those are bittersweet parts of my day now. I am glad I have the memories, but they are kind of a punch in the gut when they arise this week. But that pain is easing, if ever so slowly.

I can feel other losses in the wake of COVID-19, too, though thankfully not as intense as the loss of the dream week. I miss starting my day at the gym. I am still exercising at home when I wake up, but it’s not the same. There is little variety in my basement, and no pool or basketball court. I am not social at the gym–shocker, right?–so I don’t miss that part, but I feel terrible for the many senior citizens who go there less for the workout and more for the coffee and fellowship in the community room and find a real home there. That is all gone now.

I empathize with my kids, for though they aren’t necessarily dying to be back in school just yet, they definitely miss playing with their friends and being on sports teams and running out to join the neighbor kids in the cul-de-sac for games. They were bummed when the earliest possible date to resume school got bumped out to May. Connecting them with their cousins and friends on FaceTime or ZOOM helps, but there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction: wrestling, hugs, baking, high-fives, Girl Scout meetings, basketball games, sleepovers. So much stuff. I am sad about them missing that. And though my own kids are generally happy and stimulated and fed and safe when they are at home with me and my wife, I have worries about so many kids at their schools (and every school) who I know are struggling without the structure, socialization, food, and caring adults that their school provides for them. I am sad thinking about those vulnerable kids.

I always feel a bit silly and self-absorbed when I am tempted to claim any exceptional quality, so I tend to balk at claiming to be something of an empath (because maybe everyone feels this way and we just don’t talk about it). But here we are telling our Truths, so I will just say that I most often feel my sorrows or have my tears when I witness other people having theirs. I am less inclined to cry over my own misfortune than I am of yours, especially if I can see how it weighs on you. My heart feels yours, and that is more depressing to me than any burden of my own. That is what I am feeling more of as these days go on. I feel other people’s anxieties, fears, and sorrows and desperately wish there were more I could do to alleviate their pain. I would rather take it on my own shoulders.

And hey, I know I have it easy compared to most. I have very little desire to get together with people for work or play; I can imagine that part being the most depressing for a large percentage of people. I don’t typically enjoy going out to restaurants, bars, or even stores. At least for now, I can still get to parks to walk around and be with the trees, the water, and the fresh air. That tends to satisfy my soul. I actually enjoy my wife most of the time, and extra time playing with my kids is a treat for me. I can hardly imagine how sad, frustrating, and scary this time is for people who are extroverted, who love going out at night to eat and drink, prefer to shop and run errands, enjoy the coffee shop and the gym, whose “family” is their co-workers, who live alone but long for company, or who can’t stand the people they live with. Then multiply that for people who have lost their jobs and dreams; I shudder to think about it.

It will be interesting to see how the losses and our grieving evolve as the pandemic goes on (and on and on and on…). I know that my psyche will be vulnerable as our income declines. That will change my concerns dramatically. And who knows how the people around me will change as the weeks drag into months. Solitude and distancing affects everyone differently, but so does living in close quarters with only the same few people every day. Will they grow irritable, or get cabin fever, or become depressed? Will I? And how will we deal with each other when that happens? Will we spiral together, or will the least affected help the others to rise again? What will happen when more people that we love get sick and possibly die? All of these things, and more, are on the table. Suffice it to say that there is likely more loss and grieving to come.

I don’t want this letter to come across as just a big list of complaints against the Universe and a search for “Poor Me” sympathy, as that is not my style. And maybe in the next letter, we will look at all the blessings that this crazy time has brought us; that deserves its own space. But I also think it is important for us, as people who are working to uncover our Truth and to live authentically, to acknowledge our losses and speak to our grief. We can own those things without qualification. My loss of a long-dreamt-of vacation, or your loss of going into work at a place that you love, or someone else’s loss of the convenience of their favorite gym class or coffee drink need not be apologized for just because we know others have it worse. It’s not a contest. (And let’s face it: even the worst of our hardships in this time are much better than what people in war-torn countries face in normal times.) If you are grieving for anything in this unprecedented time, it is your job to name it and process it and do your best to eventually come around to Gratitude for it, however long that may require. That is the job of Life, actually.

I wish I were swimming in that turquoise water right now, basking in the warmth and sunshine, and WooHooing at my kids as we ride the waves to shore. It breaks my heart that I am not. And that is my Truth.

How about you? What losses and sadness have you suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic? Open up your journal and your heart and share some of your low points from the beginning of a difficult time in our history. What is the biggest loss you have felt in this early phase? Have you canceled a vacation or important event that you had looked forward to? How disappointing was that? Enough to bring tears? Is it still bumming you out? How much does the current social distancing and isolation play upon your psyche? Do you miss your friends, relatives, and co-workers? Do you miss the people you serve in your life (customers, students, patients, clients, etc.)? If you still have your job, how has its meaning changed for you? Does it make you sad to work alone? How have your relationships changed with the (hopefully) few people you still have face-to-face contact with, especially those who live with you? Does the containment cause the relationships to deteriorate? How has your financial situation and outlook changed as a result of the pandemic? How much of a weight is that to carry around with you? What about the little things that have just broken your rhythm (e.g. the gym closing) or kept you from your usual treats (e.g. a favorite coffee shop)? Does that kind of thing get to you? How difficult is it for you to live with being aware of all the pain and suffering that people around the world are feeling right now? Are other people’s sorrows much of a burden to you? What do you grieve most about your changed life? How do you imagine your sorrows will evolve as the weeks and months go on? Do you need help? Are you getting it now, and are you in a position to get it when you need it? Does naming your pain help? Are you inclined to dwell on your sorrows or do you tend to move through them quickly? How is this experience different? Leave me a reply and let me know: What are the losses you are grieving as a result of COVID-19? 

May your burdens be lightened,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it with those you care about. Let us share each other’s loads.

P.P.S. If this way of self-examination appeals to you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Be well and Namaste.

Misguided Saints or Friendly Villains? Assessing Loved Ones In The Age Of Trump

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept.” –George Carlin

“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” –Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

“That’s what people do who love you. They put their arms around you and love you when you’re not so lovable.” –Deb Caletti

Hello friend,

If you and I meet up any time in the next year–or maybe forever–and I don’t seem to remember how to act, it’s because I don’t. Truly, I don’t. I’ve forgotten. I may be dying to interrogate you, rip into you, gloss over you, or lavish you with empathy and good will–or all of the above simultaneously. What you get? I don’t know! Never in my life have I felt so torn about how to interact with people in general, but especially the people I have always known and loved. Ninety percent of my interactions are a form of torture. And I blame it all on Donald Trump!

Just kidding. Not about the torture, but about the Trump. (I am not here to litigate the President, really. We all know where we stand on him already, and I don’t expect to change that. My question today, as always, is ultimately about YOU.) I know he is only a symptom of a deeper disease–and I generally don’t even mention his name–but he makes the arguments stand out in bold, cartoon-like form, making it easier to highlight our differences of morality. So let’s go with it for the moment.

I suppose I have been tortured by a version of this syndrome all my life–a liberal, “bleeding heart” kind of soul born into a family, community, and region of the country that oozes conservatism–though most of my years were spent in happy denial of it. At some level, I could always say that I felt “different,” as though I didn’t quite belong, but I didn’t ever really do the work to crystallize what it was. I was blissfully unaware of politics and the ramifications of political beliefs on the lives of the people around us and the people of the world. I casually accepted the idea that all of those politicians in Washington were pretty much the same: White men who agreed on the problems but just had slightly different views on the solutions. I suppose I figured the rest of us were pretty much the same: it wasn’t our politics that separated us or showed some to be “good” and others “bad,” but rather our day-to-day actions and our morals. Politics seemed to be a separate thing and far less important.

And then I opened my eyes and started paying attention. It all changed pretty fast from there. Me, I mean. I changed. Not me, as in, who I was. But me in how I understood the world and its workings. The curtain got pulled back for me, and I couldn’t un-see what I had seen, though it would have saved me a lot of torment in the ensuing years.

Politics is morals put into policy form.

The policies–and, by extension, the politicians that espouse them–that you support tell so much about your character and your moral compass. At bottom, your politics reveal exactly what (and whom) you value. Simultaneously, they tell about what you are willing to swallow in order to make your values win. It is a crystallization of your priorities.

So, why do so many of the people from my past–people I have liked or loved, people I played with or share blood with, people who raised me–support a brand of morals that makes my skin crawl? How could we come from the same home and seemingly be moral opposites? And should that make us, if not enemies, then at least cordially not-friends? Are we deluding ourselves by thinking that the bonds of old friendship or family should endure even though we realize we are thoroughly incompatible morally? Should I be cutting ties, or do I have to just shine it on at reunions for the rest of my life, keeping my conversations agonizingly superficial in the service of tolerating each other? Or is there something more, some level of wisdom or grace that I can reach that allows me to fully embrace them again, the way it was before I could see these things clearly?

I want to know how to interact! Maybe more so, I want to be able to think better of the people I have been feeling hurt by and angry with, people who have been a big disappointment to me since I opened my eyes to the stark differences in our beliefs. I want that, but at the moment, I admit that it’s hard to see a path to the bridge.

This may seem random, but I think we need to talk about Jesus. As I have shared with you before, I am not a Christian but am a huge fan of the man. His example and his teachings are wonderful. In this era, though, I feel as though I have to defend Jesus from his followers. It truly makes my blood boil to listen to certain high-profile religious leaders as they not only cover for the despicable acts and policies of our current President but celebrate him and lean on their congregations to do the same.

But, as I said, I do not want to make this seem like it’s about Donald Trump. As easy of a target as he is in any discussion of morals, I would rather pull it back to a party level, but still stick with my guy Jesus. My pet theory–perhaps incorrect, but still mine and sure to offend even more people, but hey, I’m already in the deep end on this one–is that the “Christian coalition” (or “Evangelicals” or once upon a time the “Moral Majority” or however you would like to name the right-wing Christian movement) was willing to hitch their wagon to whichever political party was going to side with them on the issue of abortion. The Republicans signed on and have happily won a ton of easy elections out of the deal (hence the “Bible Belt” also being called the “Solid South” to signify that it votes solidly Republican).

But what policies did the Christians–and just so we are clear, I am not suggesting this applies to every Christian but rather to the movement and leaders (e.g. Franklin Graham) that try to speak for the religion–wed themselves to for the sake of abortion? How do they look after this deal? And, more importantly, how do you imagine Jesus would see it?

I have studied this guy Jesus fairly seriously, both as a kid and as an adult, and these are some of the traits and principles that stand out to me about him: generous, nonviolent, empathetic, welcoming, charitable, open-hearted, peaceful, forgiving, an ally to the outcast, opposition to greed, caring for the poor and the sick. When I look at the issues of the modern world that our political parties disagree on, I always shudder to think how he would feel about the side taken by the leaders and followers of the religion that bares his name.

Tax breaks for the wealthiest, leading to greater income inequality and a greater number of people suffering and impoverished. LGBTQ discrimination. Separating immigrant families who are fleeing war or cruelty at home–hey, like Jesus!–and caging children at the border. Gun laws. Expansion of the prison-industrial complex and military-industrial complex. Civil rights and righting past wrongs to African-Americans and other minority communities. Guaranteeing health care for all. Protecting the environment. From what I can tell about Jesus, he would land on the exact opposite end of the political (i.e. moral) spectrum than the people who are supposedly carrying his banner.

Whenever one of these issues comes up and I ask myself that famous question, “What would Jesus do?” the answer inevitably turns out to be so different than the Republican/”Christian” response. That is deeply disturbing to me. I wish it were to them, but judging by the election results at all levels, it plainly is not.

Just look at the President. We will pull him into the discussion for a moment. I have no need to write the laundry list of his moral failings, but suffice it to say that in both his policies and his social (e.g. Twitter) messages to the world, he would seem to me to be a glaring embarrassment to not just his country, religion or political party, but to humanity. Horrifying things are said and done, and yet who in his party–whether a politician or an ordinary citizen–ever says, “Yikes! This time he crossed the line. That is unacceptable.”? As my wife is fond of exclaiming when at her wits’ end about these silent enablers, “How do they look themselves in the mirror? How can they live with themselves?” I would like to know.

Because I have Republican family members who practically spat in disgust when Donald Trump was a candidate for President. Until he became their nominee, that is. Ever since, I don’t hear a single negative thing about him from them, no matter how egregious the latest lie or slander or tantrum. All is well in their world. I would like an explanation for that.

But what I also want from them–and I know this sounds extreme and self-absorbed at first blush, but it is my truth–is an apology. I have been highly sensitive to racism my whole life, even growing up White in a thoroughly White community. And now I have a Black wife and two biracial children, as well as dear friends of color. Any neutral account of this President’s history before and in office show him to be plainly racist. You, as a supporter, can say all day long, “I am not a racist. I am not a racist. I am not a racist.” But if you pledge your support to a racist, what does that make you?

And I get it, there are more things about a politician than whether they are racist or not . So maybe you love your politician’s foreign relations philosophy or immigration policy or health care plan so much that you are willing to overlook their racist statements and actions, but does that mean you should not even acknowledge that aspect of it to someone who is hurt by your vote? Especially if you love them? Something along the lines of, “You know how I voted, and I know that must feel like a punch in the gut to your family because his racism is truly ugly and harmful. But the other issues are ones I couldn’t compromise on, so I felt compelled to vote for him despite serious misgivings about his character. I really do apologize for the damage his racism causes; I can only hope I am right about the rest and that our relationship survives it.” From my own experience, I will say that the votes of my family and friends for Trump have deeply hurt my feelings on this issue of racism. The possibility that they are blind to their hurtfulness doesn’t do much to salve the wound. It mostly makes me feel the moral divide between us is that much greater.

That divide tends to feel like a gulf, because, as I said, this is not just about Donald Trump, and I am sure it won’t disappear when he leaves office. This is about political issues that are shows of our moral character and thus our priorities. After all, conservative media spent decades portraying Hillary Clinton as, alternately, morally weak for sticking with a cheating husband, then frigid, calculating, ruthless, and finally, as corrupt and untruthful as Trump himself. But in the end, whether any of those cartoon-villain descriptions were accurate or not, she still stood for policies that revealed a morality far, far different than the policies of her opponent, never mind his well-chronicled character flaws.

So let’s be clear, I don’t think anyone in Washington is a saint. They play in an ugly game, and to rise to the top, they have probably done things that they don’t want to tell their mothers about. But you and I aren’t playing an ugly game. We are living this one life, and I, perhaps naïvely, presume that means we are trying to be good people and leave the world better than we found it. In this one life, we get to choose how we come down on every issue, and we get to step privately into that voting booth in every election and vote with our moral compass as guide.

But that’s the problem I am having and why old relationships have become so awkward and challenging. I get to see the election results and know the values and priorities of the people in my community. In the case of family members and some friends, I already know the way they vote, so there becomes no way for me to deny their moral positions. When I do the old, “What would Jesus do?” test and their votes come out on the opposite side of me and Jesus, it creates a crisis of conscience for me. Not because I doubt my political positions, but because I doubt my relationships.

I begin to wonder whether, in staying loyal to the person, I am betraying myself. Am I taking the high road with them but low-balling myself? Their presence in my life–at least on some level–feels like a violation of my principles.

But then they go and muck up my righteous indignation by doing what they have been doing all my life: being kind to me and my family or doing other good works for their neighbors or the world. They tell me funny jokes. They enjoy a walk on the beach or in the woods with me. We play sports together. Our kids are best friends. We take each other’s suggestions on great books and movies. We have an intellectually stimulating conversation or commiserate about our children, all of whom we love and want the best for. They act like friends and family are supposed to act. In effect, they make it complicated.

Humans are so darn messy! The so-called Good and the so-called Bad. It turns out neither is exactly what we call them. None of us are. We are all grey, all wearing one angel’s wing and one devil’s horn, showing them off alternately depending upon which angle someone is looking from. You are this to me, but you are also that. I can therefore not put you in a box. Knowing you requires nuance and perhaps a sacrifice, some boundaries, or even some cleverly placed blinders. That is frustrating because it is a lot more work. It’s so darn much work!

But what is the alternative? Solitude? That is tempting to me on many days, believe me, but I have mostly made peace with my decision to be a (somewhat) social animal. I know that I will have people in my life, and that means I must accept some degree of compromise of my many principles (I do like to have things my way!). It doesn’t mean I will accept just anyone into my life or that my current relationships have not changed from my end. As I said at the top, now that my eyes have been opened to the ramifications of political positions, everything has changed, but most especially my boundaries. But it is a murky task. I thought maybe in the course of this letter, I would come to a hard and fast conclusion on this. Like, “I can no longer commune with these people, even in our superficial way! The moral gulf between us is too wide.” But my heart does not seem ready for that extreme lockdown, even if it has narrowed the pathway in. I guess I have to learn to be okay with a little more messiness, a little more grey than I would like. I have to learn Grace. Grace is hard. But I suppose that is Life, isn’t it? It is not easy, and it isn’t clean. It resists boxes and absolutes.

The entrance of politics into my life has done so much more to muddy the waters. It is no wonder that new studies show that the more people pay attention to politics, the more stressed they are. But I cannot go back to denial. The cat is out of the bag. I have allowed the complexity into my life, and I want to be responsible with its ramifications. So, if you see me on the street and I seem a little wary, forgive me. In all of my balancing between assessment, acceptance, rejection, and practice of Grace, I no longer seem to know how to behave in public. It turns out I am a work in progress.

How about you? How well do you balance your natural feelings for the people in your life with the new information you gather about their character as time goes by? Open up your journal and take a deep dive on this enormous and so-very-pregnant topic. How open and honest are your communications with family and friends on sensitive topics such as politics and religion? Are you able to really say how you feel and challenge them on their beliefs and your differences, or do you remain silent on these topics and pretend your differences don’t exist in order to keep the peace? Whether or not you talk about them, are you aware of the political differences you have with your loved ones? Do you know where they stand on the various issues and how they vote in elections? How much do you think about that? In what ways does it shape your relationship with them? Do your differences, even if unspoken, cause you to keep them at more of a distance than you might otherwise? Do your political similarities bind you together more tightly? Perhaps the dictating factor in all of this discussion regards how much weight these issues–and politics in general–carry in your life? Are you like me and feel very passionately about things like health care, the environment, or gun control, or do you not think much about any of these issues and not care to allow them to shape your relationships one way or another? If you are in the latter camp of not caring, does this idea of politics making or breaking relationships seem silly? Do you believe that politics are really just our moral values put into policy form? If not, then how do you see politics? But if so, why aren’t more people more invested in them? Whatever your level of investment, how do you deal with people you care about who have very different politics/morals than you do? Do you try to change their mind? Does it affect the quality of your time together, or the amount of it? Have you cut anyone out of your life for their political/moral beliefs? If these moral issues are as important as I think they are, shouldn’t they cause more relationships to break up? Do you feel weak or somehow in betrayal of your principles when you allow people with starkly different beliefs into your life and/or the lives of your children, especially if you take their positions to be detestable and their influence a negative one? How do you deal with a racist in your family? What other moral/political characteristics are hot triggers for you and cause you much tension at family reunions or other gatherings? Does a lot of this depend on how long someone has been in your life and how late in the game you learned of their moral shortcomings? For example, if your father is severely racist or your sister nasty to the poor, but you didn’t fully grasp this and gain footing in your own convictions until more recently, do you feel as though it is impossible to change your relationship dynamic with them because they have been with you–and good to you–for so long? Are you able to merge the new information you have with the old and manage the good and the bad, or do you tend to keep focused on only the good or only the bad? How about with new people in your life, like a co-worker whom you have become “work friends” with but then, upon getting closer, learned you were politically opposite? Now put specific political parties or politicians to all of those questions. How do you react to someone when you learn how they voted in the last presidential election? What if you were planning to meet a friend or family member somewhere socially and they showed up wearing a red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat (or an Obama T-shirt)? Would your blood curdle? Would you say something? Would it instantly change your relationship? Think of the loved one who is farthest from you politically but that you still allow close to your heart. How do you pull that off? How much of it is denial? How much is it that you have witnessed them doing so many other good things interpersonally–being kind, generous, or compassionate–that you let the bad stuff slide? How much is that you are wise enough to see everyone as complicated and messy and that you have learned to just see through to the good and be more accepting of everyone? How do you think this whole issue varies between liberals and conservatives? I once wrote you a letter about my theory that conservatives tend to see liberals more as foolish and overly idealistic–but not morally lacking–whereas liberals tend to see conservatives as morally corrupt. What do you think? Are liberal-minded people more likely to keep the conservative at arms’ length and/or break off the relationship entirely because of perceived moral failings, or the other way around? Or equally likely? Is your tendency to see your politically opposite loved ones as good people who are just misguided, or do you tend toward seeing them as bad people who have done good things for you? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do your relationships change when politics are revealed?

Do your best,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with your community. Let us try to better understand ourselves and each other so we can beautify the world!

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

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is it true???

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

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

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

Stay curious,

William

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

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grow and grow,

William

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

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