Category Archives: Friends

COVID Paranoia: The Awfulness Of Thinking You Might Have It

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” –Epictetus 

“Your mind is working at its best when you’re being paranoid.  You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed with total clarity.” –Banksy, Banging Your Head Against A Brick Wall 

Hello friend,

“So, have you guys been feeling okay since you left here?”  That was the question my sister posed to me when I answered my phone last weekend.  My kids and I had visited her family for a few days earlier in the week and had left two days before.  “Uhhh…” I muttered as the alarm bells started blaring in my brain.  “Nobody’s gotten sick?  No fevers?” she continued.  By then, my heart was racing and I was up and bounding toward my children, urgently questioning them about how they felt as I reached for their foreheads to feel temperatures.  “Because your one-year-old niece has a fever…” 

While my mouth was saying, “No, everyone seems fine, though I did cough a couple of times yesterday randomly,” my mind was screaming, “WHAT HAVE I DONE???”  Instead of wondering if one of them passed the dreaded coronavirus to one of us, I immediately began to fret that I had given it to them.  No one else could have been the source, I was sure.  Only me.  I was instantly filled with guilt and regret.  How could I have been so reckless with the ones I loved?  Surely I would never forgive myself.

I sound crazy, right?  I know, I know.  And it is crazy.  It’s irrational, illogical, and way too dramatic.  But it wasn’t sudden.  I had already been building this story in my mind for a week before she called, and I have spent the days since in varying degrees of unfounded obsession on the topic.

Let me rewind the story.

Two weeks ago, I noticed the faintest little tickle in my windpipe.  It was below my throat but above my lungs.  And when I say faint, I mean that I had to do a mental “feel” through each part of my body just to notice it a few times a day.  I would say that, even in non-COVID times, I am hypersensitive to physical stuff and constantly monitoring my body for injuries, ailments, and things that either agree with it (like stretching and water) or disagree with it (like running and deep-fried anything), probably leftover habits from my days in sports.  And since the arrival of the coronavirus several months ago, that vigilance has only increased.  That is especially the case with respiratory symptoms.  I have scrutinized every single cough or sneeze for months.  Thankfully, they have been very few in number and explained away by such things as swallowing down the wrong pipe or inhaling some pepper while cooking.  But, needless to say, my radar and my guard are always up.  So it was that I noticed—if only barely– this tiny tension in my trachea and committed myself to tracking it like a hound.

Nothing changed that day, and I didn’t feel anything else suspicious.  I didn’t think about it when I got up the next day and went about my ordinary exercise and activities, but when I remembered it, my self-exam revealed that it was still there, still barely noticeable.  Even though it felt like next to nothing, the fact that it was still there was disquieting.  My kids and I were planning our visit to my sister’s family the next day, and I wanted to feel totally confident that we were all healthy.  They have been super-diligent about social distancing for months, and I was not about to bring something into their anti-viral home.  I continued to monitor my system all day and still felt good.  That evening as we packed our bags, we all took our temperatures and were just right.  I addressed my nagging concern about the faint strain in my windpipe by reminding myself to be logical.  I didn’t want to be a hypochondriac, which it seemed I was becoming.  I let it go and went to bed.

The next morning, I exercised, packed the car, and we hit the road feeling fine.  About three hours into our four-hour journey, I coughed.  Just once and very briefly, but still a cough.  As with every one of the very few coughs I have done in the last several months, it set off alarm bells.  First a trachea tickle, now a cough.  Oi!  Thankfully, it was one and done.  Again, I calmed myself down and moved on, feeling good mentally and physically.

The next day was the same: the tiny tickle and a few random, single coughs.  Given that I hadn’t had either symptom prior to the last few days, I was bothered.  The COVID era—with its varied symptoms and many asymptomatic cases–had spooked me to anything in the ballpark.  My symptoms were almost nothing—I would never have said I had a cold or mentioned any symptom if someone asked how I was doing–but that is still something.  Barely something, but still.

So it went all week long.  On our return from my sister’s house, I coughed three (single breath) times in the four hours.  I noted the increase with concern.  I noticed that my neck was a little stiff, too, and wasn’t sure if that could just be written off to my fitness routine, a poor sleeping position, or if an illness could do the same.  The next day was similar, but I was a little bit tired.  Was that the trip, with its disrupted sleep schedule and abundance of treats?  Or was that another symptom?  I still didn’t have a fever or any other noticeable symptom.  While I didn’t necessarily feel sick, I noted in my journal that I seemed “not right.”  And was that “not right” an actual, physical thing, or was it just the natural mental toll from a week of this self-analysis?  Because I’m telling you, the constant dance between “I think I have something!” and “I have lost my fool mind!” was exhausting.  It gave me a greater appreciation for the tax of mental illness.

And then it came, after a full week of hypervigilance: the call from my sister.  My niece, whom we had just left two days prior, had a fever.  Ugh!  With the call came the guilt.  The second-guesses.  Had I been wrong to talk myself off the ledge about a negligible symptom?  Should we have stayed home even though we all felt fine?  How would I have even gotten the virus?  If I gave it to her, who else?  Was the “not right” I felt this morning enough that I should be in quarantine, even if it was basically nothing?  I tortured myself with questions and doubt.  It was awful.  Thankfully, the worst of it only lasted a couple of hours, until my sister texted back that an Urgent Care visit revealed it to be “only” a double ear infection for my niece.  Sweet mercy!  What a relief!  I was off the hook.

And yet….

I was still paranoid for myself and, by extension, my household.  Was I tired because I took a long bike ride and then mowed the yard, or was it something more sinister?  Was that a sneeze my daughter just did in the other room?  How is everyone’s temperature?  Sense of taste and smell?

Perhaps by a strange twist of Fate, my wife had come across a notice from our local health department offering free drive-up COVID tests earlier in the week and suggested we do it just for the knowledge.  I thought it was a great idea, partially due to my paranoia and partially because it seems like something we should all be doing as often as possible.  I am the first one to share my disappointment and disgust with America’s abject failure with the coronavirus.  And while the complete lack of federal leadership certainly deserves much of the blame for that failure, the rest falls on us ordinary citizens.  Of course, most of that is our rush to return to “normal life” and the self-centered, foolish behavior that stemmed from that, as I have lamented in a previous letter to you.  But some of it, too, is the lack of a push to get tested (often) and then do our best version of personal contact tracing if positive.  I realize it would be much easier if there was a robust system for testing and tracing organized and funded by the government—that has proven successful all over the world, but for some reason has not occurred to our leadership—but in the absence of that, we need to take more personal responsibility.  So, I am all for random, frequent testing.  So, we made our appointment for last weekend, drove up, got swabbed, and then went home to wait.  And wait.  And wait.

As we waited, though, life went on.  I kept monitoring all of us for anything suspicious.  By Tuesday, my hint of “not right” feeling had left my body.  Even though I had a couple of small coughs per day, I felt free again somehow.  The paranoia and dread feeling eased significantly.  I was aware that a test result was still lingering out there in the future, which could throw a major wrench into my peace, but I was disengaging from the drama a bit.  I was finally able to look at my reaction—the anxiety, the guilt, the uncertainty—from a clearer perspective and note how crazy I had gotten over symptoms that were next to nothing.

That realization really got me thinking about this virus’s hold on us, though, and imagining how much worse the paranoia would be for me if I actually had full-scale symptoms, not some trace of tightness in my trachea.  Because seriously, what do people with allergies do?  When they are stuffed up, sneezing, snotting, and feeling horrible—you know, as they do at regular intervals every year—do they assume the worst and start a strict quarantine?  Is their life completely on hold until the pollen passes?  Are they begging their doctor for COVID tests to prove to themselves and everyone else that they don’t have it?   How about the rest of us when cold and flu season comes around?  It will be a nightmare!  My job said that we can’t go in to work if we are experiencing any symptom all year long.  Anything?  All of these daily checklists to get in the door anywhere—school, work, the doctor and dentist’s office, etc.—already have me on high alert.  I will be a wreck when I actually have a legitimate symptom!

I realize most people probably aren’t as nerdy about the subtleties of their body’s fluctuations as I am, and I can tell from America’s coronavirus failure that most people aren’t as concerned as I am about spreading the virus to others or as diligent about social distancing as I (and definitely my sister) am.  But I have to think that every one of us with a conscience has had and/or will have multiple bouts of the kind of COVID paranoia that I am just now coming out of.  Some may get it for obvious reasons—the onset of major fever and tightness in the chest, or learning that they were in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus—or the paranoia may be self-generated, the way mine mostly was.  Because how can we not think that, in a nation that is already approaching six million diagnosed cases and around 175,000 deaths, that we will be in danger?  Even if you accept the risk and go on your merry way without a mask or a conscience, you still have to wonder when you might have it.

In the end, I guess I am looking at these last couple of weeks as my trial run for the upcoming school year and cold/flu season, minus the real symptoms.  It is sad that I have to cross my fingers in hopes that there will be enough tests available at that time and with a quick enough turnaround time on the results that our lives don’t feel perpetually quarantined and waiting for test results (our results came back negative, to my great relief, after five long days).  That may be our reality as the cold months descend upon us and our sniffles become perpetual.  I don’t like the thought of widespread anxiety, guilt, and dread in our society, but I suppose I ought to get used to it.  If only there were something we could do about it….

Oh wait, there is!  Now seems like a good time to get our act together.  I am all for a healthy world and am willing to do my part to stem the tide of Death and the coming tsunami of COVID paranoia.  I will mask up, wash my hands, keep my distance, and get tested.  For my sake, for your sake, and for all of our sanity.

How about you?  How worried have you yet been that you have contracted COVID-19?  Open your journal and explore your levels of both concern and conscience.  How often over the last several months have you wondered if you might have contracted the coronavirus?  What has usually stirred your concern?  Have you been in close contact with someone who had the virus?  Did you know it at the time, or did you learn later that they had it when they were with you?  Have you felt anxious after going into a grocery store or other indoor space where you were –either intentionally or accidentally—within six feet of other people?  Have you been around people from outside of your household without masks on?  Were they social occasions, or things like shopping?  Does hanging around friends without masks on make you feel more comfortable than being with unmasked strangers?  How about unmasked friends vs. masked strangers?  How about your work situation?  At your job, are you forced to interact in close proximity with people whose activities and contacts you cannot verify?  Are your nearest co-workers in masks?  What level of COVID stress or paranoia do you feel about this on a day-to-day basis?  Has it made you think about quitting or taking a leave of absence?  Have you questioned if your paycheck was worth the risk?  Which of these areas of your life—work, social, or regular life stuff (e.g. grocery store)—tend to stir up the most COVID paranoia in you?  What about your own personal triggers?  During this era of the coronavirus, have you had days when you just haven’t felt well or have had specific COVID symptoms that made you believe you might really have the virus?  Even if you hadn’t knowingly been in contact with someone, have your symptoms alone caused you any panic or distress?  How strong were the symptoms?  Were they barely noticeable, like mine, or were they clear and measurable (e.g. a fever)?  Did you get tested for the virus?  Did you go into quarantine?  Were you worried enough that you warned the people in your life about possible exposure?  If you genuinely believed you had the virus, how guilty did you feel about the people you may have infected before you realized it and went into quarantine?  Did you have much regret about people you had socialized with or otherwise interacted with?  If you have tested positive and were surprised by the result, could you look back at a symptom or recent day’s gut feeling and thought, “That must have been it!”?  Have you been tested for the virus?  Why not?  If tests were free and easy to get any time you wanted one, how often would you take one?  Wouldn’t it give you more peace of mind if you knew with certainty if you had the virus?  How about if you knew that everyone around you was uninfected?  How do you think your anxiety level will change as you go through cold and flu season and the inevitable symptoms you will feel that match COVID-19?  Will you be willing to test?  Will you be quick to quarantine when the symptoms come on?  Will you be diligent about communicating with the people you have been in contact with?  Are you anticipating that your regular life will get entirely shut down by the onset of symptoms—whether COVID or not—at least once in the coming months?  Does that worry you, or will you just roll with it when it comes?  Are your worries more along the lines of the disruptions it will cause to your family’s routine, or do you worry more about the actual sickness, death, and the long-term health consequences from the disease?  Or do you worry more about spreading it?  Do you think you fret about this virus more or less than the average person?  On the whole, are you being a conscientious citizen and doing your part to minimize the spread of the virus so that fewer people will die and the country can get back to school and work, or are you mostly doing what you want and not being inconvenienced by the threat of being infected or infecting others in your community?  If we were all a little more paranoid about being infected and infecting others, might our country be doing better in terms of cases and deaths?  Could a little COVID paranoia actually be healthy?  Leave me a reply and let me know: How anxious are you about getting and spreading the virus? 

Be well and be considerate,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your communities.  We will only truly thrive again if we do it together!

P.P.S. If this way of self-interrogation 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.

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.

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.

So Much Left Undone: The Tragedy of Life Cut Short

“Death is so terribly final, while life is full of possibilities.” –George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

“You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you can change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made. Dreamed your dream. Written your name.” –Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book 

“You must decide if you are going to rob the world or bless it with the rich, valuable, potent, untapped resources locked away within you.” –Myles Munroe, Understanding Your Potential–Discovering the Hidden You

Hello friend,

I was at an arcade/sports bar for a kid’s birthday party when I heard the news of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash. I looked up at the bank of TV screens above the bar and there was his picture and the dates of his birth and death. I was stunned. I shook my head, recalling that I had just that morning read an article that mentioned him congratulating LeBron James on passing Kobe on the NBA’s all-time scoring list the night before. And now he was dead, just like that. It was a shock.

But the real pain for me came later in the day, when I learned that his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, or “Gigi,” was also on the flight and killed. My heartache only grew when, in the following days, I learned that among the seven others who died in the crash were two of Gigi’s basketball teammates, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester. Kids. Kids whose brilliance was snuffed out in an instant and whose future contributions to this world we will never get to experience and appreciate. As iconic and mythical as Kobe Bryant was to millions of people across the world, it is the deaths of those girls that I can’t seem to shake free of. Even two weeks later, they hang like a cloud over my heart.

My daughter, India, is 11 years old right now, just two years younger than Gigi and her teammates. She is probably both the kindest and the smartest person I know. Her compassion knows no bounds, and she is always looking for ways to help people and make the world a better place. She is clearly on the path to greatness in one form or another (and knowing her, probably many forms). Her existence on the planet, when all is said and done, will surely be a net-positive. I cannot imagine the loss to the world–never mind my personal loss–if she were to die at the age 13. Oh, the wonder and brilliance that we would all miss out on! A loss so big that only those who already knew her could fathom because she had not yet been fully unleashed by the gift of maturity to do her special thing for us all.

So much potential. So many possibilities. So much still on the table. So much left undone. It is devastating to consider.

That is what I think about with Gigi, Payton, and Alyssa. What magnificence were they going to offer us? How were they going to illuminate our world with their gifts? Was Gigi really going to be a basketball savant like her father, as video suggests, and become the next icon of the sport? Would they become teachers, artists, scientists, or senators? Would they raise wonderful children? Would they raise our awareness? Would they break down barriers? What did they leave on the table??? To depart from us at that age, leaving us grasping fruitlessly to “We’ll never know…” as an answer, is truly devastating. It is the essence of tragedy.

But as I think about that condition, I begin to wonder: At what age is it NOT tragic? Seriously. What is the point when we can be satisfied that someone has emptied their bucket and given the world a satisfactory portion of their potential?

I look no further than Kobe Bryant himself. While I was never a big fan of his as a sports hero–though I had great respect for his work ethic and competitive will, I was turned off by other parts of him and more drawn to other athletes–I had, in the few short years since his retirement, become fascinated with his curiosity and his intellect, as well as his ambition for projects beyond basketball. I had known already that he was fluent in multiple languages, a trait which I respect. But he had also become a true storyteller, creating a series of books and even winning an Oscar for a short film he wrote, produced, and narrated called Dear Basketball. He seemed to want to keep expanding and sharing his light in as many ways as possible, including coaching his daughter’s basketball team. So, even though he had a very long, full career as a pro athlete, inspired millions of people around the globe, made a fortune, and had four kids and multiple successful business ventures–more than most of us dare dream of–I would say he had an unfinished life. At 41, it appeared he had a lot more to give. That is tragic to me.

It’s different, of course, than the loss of the three children. He got to live out his dream, at least. But still, with all of his potential–a bright, curious mind with burning ambition and the money to fuel it–he clearly left a lot on the table. We’ll never know…

It saddens me to see potential go unfulfilled.

This heaviness I have been carrying around with the losses of these young people and all that they might have been has inevitably led to thoughts of my own life and death. Beyond those awful visions of losing my children at this age and the world being deprived of all their potential magic, I have pondered my own death and the relative importance of what I would leave undone if I should go now, at 47. How much more do I have in me, and how valuable is that to the world? Can I still be a net-positive? At bottom, I suppose the question is this: How much of a tragedy would my death right now be?

My mind goes immediately to my kids and the thing I believe I have done best in my life: parenting them. They are only 11 and 9 now, so no matter how solid the foundation has been laid to this point, I still have a job to do. So many lessons to teach, meals to prepare, and hugs to give. Is there any age before adulthood when kids DON’T need all of the material and emotional support that a parent provides? There is just so much more I am going to do with them and for them? With them, I feel like an unqualified Good. It is the one spot in the world where I feel essential.

While I am less confident of my necessity in my wife’s life–she would be and do Amazing under just about any circumstances–I hope that my partnership with her can help her to rise even higher, do even more great deeds, and leave an ever-increasing impact on the world. I like to think that the supporting role I play in our duo allows the light to keep reaching her so she can amplify it and spread it out into her many areas of influence.

I hope I have some good writing ahead of me that will enrich the lives of my readers and those around them. I want to think that these letters to you continue to provide you with fodder for self-reflection and journaling that will lead you, like it lead me, to a greater self-knowledge and, in turn, a deeper sense of gratitude and thus happiness. I believe in the value of my purpose and my message, and I believe I have more to share on that front. I hope that includes more books and many more letters.

I know that I have more works of service in me as well, and also just more positive interpersonal communications. I plan to be a better human: more kind, more generous, more forgiving, more compassionate. And hey, I plan to have even more fun and adventure, making myself even more grateful and happy, which I know seems selfish on the surface, but I truly believe that happier people are a benefit to the world.

All in all, though I may not reach the millions that Kobe Bryant reached, I think I can be a net-positive to this place if Fate allows me to stick around. But especially for my kids. They are going to do magic here, and I need to help facilitate that. That is what saddens me so much about Gigi Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli, and Payton Chester. They were going to do magic here, too. I hope that any extra years I am granted here can be filled with such works of Good that I can make up for some bit of what we lost with them. I hope my life can do honor to theirs. And in the end, when it is my turn to go, I hope that I have wrung so much out of the years I was granted that it seems no tragedy at all that I have gone.

How about you? When you arrive at the end of your life, how much will you leave on the table? Open your journal and consider both your realized and unrealized potential. How have you done so far in your lifetime? Have you used your talents wisely and generously? Have you been of service to others? Do you feel confident that your existence has been a net-positive, that the world is better because you were here? Whether or not that is true, what would be the loss to the world if you were to die today? What more do you have left to give? In what specific areas of your life do you plan to be the most valuable? Family? Career? Volunteering? Sharing your voice? General personal kindness? Which people in your sphere of influence would miss out the most if you were to die now? How aware are they of that? Based on the life you have lived so far, could we make a pretty good guess as to what you have left to contribute, or do you plan to surprise us? How steeply can you raise your trajectory? Does the possibility excite you? How will your legacy differ if you live 20 more years from the legacy you would leave today? At what point in your journey–past, present, or future–would your loss be deemed a tragedy for the world (I mean beyond just being very sad for your loved ones, which is a given)? Do you mourn people differently depending upon how old they are when they die? If you had to pick an age when it no longer feels so tragic when someone dies, what is that number? 60? 78 (average life expectancy)? 90? Do you mourn people differently based on their talents and what they might have left to give, regardless of age? In the case of the helicopter crash involving Kobe Bryant, which did you find yourself mourning more: the 41-year-old, multi-talented celebrity or the 13-year-old kids? What do you imagine each of them left undone? Do the deaths of strangers shake you and stay with you? Is it because of their potential and what they never got to do? How about thoughts of your own “early” death? Do they rattle you? Is it because of what you might never do? Does that motivate you do better now so as to have fewer regrets about your impact and achievements? If you died now, what would you most lament having not done? How devastating is that thought? Leave me a reply and let me know: How tragic would it be if you were to die today?

Carpe diem,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with your community. Let’s all live our best lives now!

P.P.S. If this way of reflecting on your life feels important to you, consider purchasing my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

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.

A Loving Reminder: Have You Kept Your Relationship Promises?

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love big,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it. Spread the LOVE!!!

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

Does Your Hometown Still Feel Like HOME To You?

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

So, what has changed? Or has anything changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise above it all,

William

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give your heart,

William

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

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

Do You Have A Busy Life Or A Full Life?

“It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” –Henry David Thoreau

“Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.” –Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

Hello friend,

I returned to my job on Monday after a wonderful, relaxing vacation. Everyone at work also had the previous week off for Spring Break, so it was a fresh start for all, back to the grind of our hectic work days and schedules full of activities, events, and errands. It was obvious from the beginning of the week that this transition from the ease of vacation–whether it was an actual “vacation” on a beach, water park, ski slope, etc. or just a bunch of days of “I don’t need to be anywhere” at home–to the hectic Normal was jarring to people of all ages. There were a lot of stunned looks in the hallways as people tried to find the groove of that very fast lane that we all seem to occupy in our usual routines.

I found it fascinating to listen to people summarize their respective weeks off, especially the ones who didn’t “go on vacation” but rather stayed home without working. There were so many comments to the effect of, “It was just SO NICE to not have to be anywhere!” or “We didn’t do much of anything, and that was just perfect!” Everyone seemed to be in agreement that having no big agenda, To-Do List, or time commitments–whether in town or out of town–was just what the doctor ordered.

I felt that way on my vacation, too. Even though I was out of town and staying at someone else’s house–in theory, not completely on my own terms–every day was very much a No Schedule/No Obligation operation. It was my desire to be at the beach for part of the day, but I wasn’t very particular about which part. I wanted to be at the pool or playing outside with my kids, too, but that could be worked out around the beach trips. I could write in my journal any time. The only things I set a clock for all week were my morning trips to the gym, which I did just to leave the rest of the day wide open for whimsy. Every day eventually became filled with fun, peace, and the people I love most.

Full. Not busy.

It made me wonder what I could do to bring a little (or a lot) more of that vacation sensation to my “real” life. I mean, I realize that I can’t just stop having commitments and obligations. I go on vacation–and get that liberated vibe–because there is no job to go to that week. There are also no piano lessons to drive to. Or basketball practices. Or band practices. Or volleyball. Or track. Or soccer. Or Girl Scouts. Or play dates. Or grocery stores. Or library. But that’s not real! I can’t just unschedule everything that we are committed to doing every week. Can I?

I have had the conversation with my kids more than once about priorities and trying to narrow down the extra-curricular activities to what is most important. But the truth is, everyone at my house struggles with this one. My kids don’t say no to any organized activity. For my part, I think of all the choices for sports and activities that they have now that I didn’t have when I was a kid, and I hate to deny them of any of these wonderful opportunities. Perhaps I am living a little bit vicariously though them, or maybe I just want to have no regrets later about how much I exposed them to and how strongly I encouraged them to engage their world. In any case, between their appetite for activities and my weakness for indulging them, they are scheduled up and thus, as their chauffeur, so am I.

And here arises the question I often find myself hashing out in my mind: Isn’t it okay to be busy if you enjoy all the things you are doing? I use this argument constructively when I start to feel sorry for myself about not being able to fit all of my priorities into my schedule. I lament that I have stopped meditating and haven’t picked up the guitar in months because all I do outside of work is play with my kids, take my kids to their activities, and write. Then I retort to my disappointed self: “But I love writing and being with my kids!” So, how bad can it be? Is my life really so tough if my biggest problem is that I have to decide which of my most favorite activities I have to leave out of my schedule?

This dovetails with my parenting challenge and how to help organize my children’s lives. Everyone says that kids these days are being ruined by being overscheduled–“They don’t know how to JUST BE KIDS anymore!”–and that we parents would be better doing our duty if we gave them less to do and more free time to figure out how to make their own fun (“But NOT with screens!” So many rules….). But what if my kids really want to do all the things they are signed up for? What if, despite enjoying a day of lounging around in front of the TV and reading and playing Legos and having friends over and such, they love even more to have basketball practice or piano lessons or a Girl Scouts troop meeting (or all three!)? They prefer the busy life.

My life is different, though. Whereas they want to be involved in things mostly because those things involve other kids and the making of friends, with the exception of playing with my wife and kids, the things I want to do tend to be solitary pursuits. I want to fill my hours writing, walking in Nature and taking photographs, learning the guitar and the piano, meditating, and reading in my hammock. Those are the things that make me feel full.

I guess I want to be busy feeling unhurried.

I want to end each day thinking, “Wow, I was going nonstop at my favorite pursuits all day long! It was fun, enriching, fulfilling, and exhausting. And my only lament is that I didn’t have time for more of these things. I can’t wait for tomorrow!”

That kind of busy has to be good! It may be tiring and may still appreciate a slow vacation, but it is undeniably good.

What I am beginning to see as I write this is the difference one’s approach and attitude regarding this busy-ness makes. “Busy” can show up as deeply engaged and present in meaningful tasks that continue one after another, but it can also show up as rushed, strung-out, and frazzled. Both people may have a full schedule, but one moves through it in Peace, and the other does not. The first person is gaining from her experience; the second person is losing.

A life cannot be full if it is being depleted. That’s simple logic.

While I definitely think being busy can make it more difficult to feel fulfilled by one’s life, it doesn’t have to. It depends upon what is keeping you busy and how much Peace you find within your many activities. That Peace is the difference between doing many things quickly and being in a rush.

I despise being in a rush.

In some of my years as the manager of a tennis program, I was in a mad rush. After teaching my 45 enjoyable hours per week on the court, I would rush into my office and do all of the other things necessary to run the club business and take care of my personal clientele. Twenty or more rushed and ragged hours per week later, I was feeling nothing but burnt out. I had neither the time nor the energy to engage any of my passions or interests in the scant moments that remained. My life was very hectic, and while I enjoyed most of my work, there was way too much of it to feel satisfied by the entirety, and not enough of everything else to feel fulfilled. I was out of alignment, lacking Peace. Busy, not full.

In most of the years since then, I have kept very busy, but at a different mix of activities. As soon as my children entered my world, I cut out the crazy hours and most stressful aspects of my work life. Those hours were filled to overflowing with all the love and chaos that babies and toddlers provide. I was blissfully ragged. Busy, but full.

When the kids got near the end of the toddling, Journal of You began and filled every spare moment. There was still no breathing room in the day and no full nights of sleep, but I did meaningful work, spent lots of high quality time with my kids, and pursued a dream that made my heart sing. Busy? Oh yes! But very, very full.

I am mostly rolling that way now. I write to you less often now than I used to, only because I work more and couldn’t keep going on so little sleep. I find that to be a bummer–I want to write much more–but it is a compromise I have agreed to (for now) in order to maintain that sense of balance and Peace. I am also very protective of my time and don’t say yes to things that don’t align with my priorities. The activities I have carefully chosen keep me very busy, but each one is done with a sense of Peace and intention. I am clear that I have chosen this life. I may be constantly tinkering with it in hopes of improving it because I am never satisfied, but I am also wildly grateful for it. I have never been bored. In fact, I wish there were 24 more hours in each day to add those Nature hikes, guitar lessons, and letters to you. And yes, I fully appreciate each one of those No Schedule/No Obligation days of vacation that I get. But there is no doubt that despite the busy-ness of my life–and perhaps to some degree because of it–I feel very, very full.

How about you? How busy is your life, and how does that busy-ness affect your happiness? Open up your journal and walk through your typical week. How crazy is your schedule? How long is your normal work day? Does it cause you to miss things that are important to you? Is your job stressful while you are there? How much do you love the work? Do you feel a sense of Peace and fulfillment while doing it? Do you have to bring the work home with you? Do you bring the stress or joy home with you? What occupies your time outside of work? How much of that time is devoted to children or other people that depend on you? What percentage of that time is personally enriching and a source of great joy? How much is stressful? How much do you begrudge these people depleting your stores of time and energy? How much of your time gets eaten up with the regular tasks of living (e.g. grocery shopping, preparing and eating meals, medical appointments, traffic)? Do you go to the gym? Do you have any classes that you attend or clubs that you belong to? Do you have self-imposed deadlines or practice times that you must stick to for things you are passionate about, like my writing? What other things fill up your time and have the potential to make you feel rushed? With all of the things you have mentioned so far, how full is that schedule? How much of that time fills you up? How much depletes you? How much time is left for leisure? What do you do with that “just for you” time? Does it make up for the more stressful and depleting parts of your schedule? However busy you are, is there enough Peace in your activities or downtime that, on the whole, you are able to feel balanced and full? Do you ever get bored? Why or why not? Is boredom a symptom of having not enough to do, not being interested in the things you do, not having enough passions or curiosity, or something else altogether? Whose schedule would you like to trade with? What is it about theirs that you envy? How can you put some of that into your schedule? Would it make your life more fulfilling? What would you include if tasked with drawing up a schedule for your ideal normal week? How has your degree of Busy changed across your journey? How has your degree of Full changed? Is there a correlation? What conclusions can you draw? Are those conclusions universal, or do they seem to apply only to your personal path? What is the right balance for you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Is your life busy, full, or some degree of both?

May Peace be with you,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it on your social media channels. Let’s all be full!

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