Category Archives: Happiness

Adventure, Relaxation, or Option C: What Do You Want From Vacation?

“Resurrection, rebirth, reincarnation, resprout, revive! All these words can be summarized only in one word: Vacation!” –Mehmet Murat Ildan

Hello friend,

This has been such a fun week to live in my imagination! I am oozing fantasies and positive vibes. My happiness hormones are in overdrive from so many visions of Mother Nature in all her glory, and me basking in it.

This flood of daydreams and smiles comes courtesy of the perfect storm of circumstances. First, I am just a few days away from my long-awaited, much-anticipated Spring Break trip to the white sand beaches and turquoise waters of Florida, so my mind can’t help but go there any chance it gets. And second, this week I also found my way to the Montana Tourism website to begin the storyboarding for what will be my best Summer adventure in nearly two decades: a family roadtrip to my favorite state and the mountains that sing to my soul. I feel like I have been given some wonderful hallucinogenic drugs that fill my mind with an endless stream of delightful images of me and my family frolicking in these dual Paradises. Flashes of majestic peaks and mountain goats feeding along clear streams alternate with vivid jolts of the shimmering ocean at sunset and silhouetted dolphins at play in the eternal surf. It is simultaneously the most soul-stirring and most serene interplay of imagery, and I am absolutely tickled to have a ticket to the show. I am flying high.

As I watch my mind with that third eye that sees from above the scene, I cannot help but be fascinated by the way these two very different vacations are both exciting me and soothing me. After all, one is a very passive, chill-on-the-beach-and-watch-the-water trip, while the other is a more active, hike-in-the-mountains-and-be-explorers adventure. Somehow, as the alternating images flood my mind and light up my soul, I get the same sense that each vacation will have me communing with my brand of God, served in very different ways but feeling the same in the end.

Maybe it is the places themselves and the sense of me being exactly in my element in the ocean and in the mountain forests. I realize that if you asked me, should I die today, where would I like you to toss my ashes, I would probably give you answers that described my two vacations for the year: Avalanche Lake in the mountains of Glacier National Park (Montana) or somewhere in the shimmering blue waters of the ocean. Those places make my soul feel at home.

But does that make them ideal vacation destinations? It certainly makes them nice places for me to visit when I get a chance, but if you forced me to answer which of those two types of vacations I would choose, which would I go for? Or would I, perhaps, go a different route altogether, choosing a trip that fulfills some other need that my regular lifestyle doesn’t provide?

Why do we go on vacation, anyway?

At first blush, I am tempted to lump people into two main categories: Relaxers and Doers. I have had many occasions to talk vacations through the years with people in relationships, and it seems to often be the case that one spouse doesn’t consider it a vacation unless their butt has been in the sand and several books have been read, while their mate goes crazy after a morning sitting around on the beach and would much rather be on a ski trip. Perhaps they compromise by alternating years between the beach and the mountain, or one spouse sits on the beach while the other goes on excursions from the resort every day: snorkeling or deep see fishing or parasailing or jet skiing. The Relaxers and the Doers are different breeds, indeed.

But are they the only breeds? Have I covered it all right there when it comes to vacationers? I think of the different trips I have taken over the years, alone or with others, and I realize that there are all sorts of different things, at least superficially, to get out of a vacation.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I spent a few months wandering around Europe. I wanted to learn about everything: the people, the history, the architecture, the vibe. It was definitely more of a Doer thing, as I was lugging a big backpack and walked hundreds of miles. But it wasn’t like a ski trip–not that kind of doing. Because, while it was physically taxing, it was certainly more of a mental and spiritual journey for me. I was a Learner, or perhaps an Explorer. Trips to the many museums and monuments in Washington, DC, I suppose, fall into that category. It is about growing your mind, expanding your view of the world. I would like more of these vacations at some point, especially to the other continents that I have yet to visit.

Some folks are Event people. They use their vacation days for trips to concerts or sporting events, maybe Broadway shows. Although I can’t see this as a regular thing for me, I have always wanted to go to the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York and Wimbledon in London. A variation on the Event crowd is the Theme Park set. Many parents I talk to try to make it sound it like it is my parental obligation to my children to take them to Disney World at least once in their young lives. I call Nonsense on that one. Not that I think it wouldn’t be fun–it would–but I also cannot imagine a more draining vacation than this. I would need a few days alone on an empty beach to recover.

One vacation that would be exhausting but rewarding is a Service trip. There are people in need in all parts of the world, and what a way to combine doing some good with expanding your empathy and worldview. That would suit me well.

What else do the Relaxers do besides the beach? Maybe a health spa (perhaps one at the ski resort where their spouse is being a Doer). Some people who camp go to their campground just to chill out and enjoy being outside. In Minnesota, where I live, tons of people “go to the lake,” some to do active things but others just to sit and relax. There is something undeniably soothing about the water. I don’t blame them, and I jump on my opportunities to be a lake Relaxer each Summer.

But as much water, sand, and lounge chair space as there is available in the world, it definitely feels like the Doers get the better deal when it comes to vacation options. The entire planet is here for them to explore and play in! I have a friend who exemplifies this. He meets up with buddies at beautiful destinations for golf vacations, tennis vacations, hunting trips, fishing trips, and photo safaris. Then, with his family, go goes on ski and snowboard vacations, roadtrips across the land to hiking/exploring spots, and active beach vacations. What is left: spelunking and scaling Mt. Everest?

Whatever can be dreamt of, can be done (or, in the case of Relaxers, not done) on a vacation. The variety is amazing!

On the surface, it appears that we must be going on these very different vacations for very different reasons, each of us with some unique itch to scratch. The adrenaline junkie zip-lining through the rain forest cannot possibly be after the same thing as the religious pilgrim. The needs of the museum goer are obviously different than those of the theme park goer. Surely the skier’s itch is altogether different from the beach lounger’s.

Or is it?

When I think about my two very distinct vacations this year–both of which have me giddy with anticipation–the feeling that comes over me is one of absolute connection with my soul, a state of deep peace that comes with restoring my sense of balance and harmony in my life, filling in the places that are too much neglected in my normal routine. In different ways, each vacation will lead me back to my truest self. Each will make me feel whole.

I am beginning to believe, just now as I write these words, that this restoration, this reharmonization (I am making that word up) of the soul, is what all well-chosen vacations are truly about. We go to tickle or massage all of those needs that go unmet in our regular routines. Our particular untended fields look different in the landscape of our souls–the itches are indeed unique and require quite specialized scratching–but in the end, we vacation to give those fields the love and care that they have been missing. Even when we return exhausted and in need of a few “vacation” days to recover from vacation and before resuming our personal versions of ordinary, everyone who has had a great vacation has some deeper peace about them, that feeling of relief and contentment that comes immediately upon scratching an itch. All is well in the world, even if only temporarily. It is why I think vacations are a good eye-opener about the error in our ways, reminders of the elements of our souls that we need to take better care of in our everyday lives.

So I will go to the ocean next week and to the mountains this Summer. I will go to “have fun” and “relax” and “sightsee” and all that other good stuff. But what I will really go to do is take care of my soul, to fill in the voids that I have gradually created by neglecting essential pieces of me. There are messages in the vast magnificence of the blue water, the high mountains, and the big sky–divine messages–that speak to me in a language that my soul knows as its native tongue. These messages aren’t in my day-to-day, and I feel that in ways that are subtle some days and not-so-subtle other days. And so I vacation. And in that vacation, I find my way back home.

How about you? What do you hope to get from your vacation? Open up your journal and write about the way you spend your time away from your “real life.” What type of vacations have you taken most recently? Can you place them into neat categories like Relaxation or City Touristing or Physical Adventure? Were these trips your preference or did you go along on someone else’s desires? What did you get out of them? Was that what you were looking for? Did you get the sense that it was “just what the doctor ordered,” or were you unfulfilled, perhaps anxious, afterward? If it was somehow soothing to your soul, can you name what exactly it was about it that made it that way? The place? The activity (or inactivity)? The company? What in your normal day-to-day are you missing that was filled by the vacation? Is there something that you can add to your usual routine to fill that need more habitually rather than only on vacation? If it was just you choosing your next vacation, where would you go and what would you do? Who would join you, if anyone? What needs and desires would this vacation fulfill? Is it a one-time-only kind of thing you want to do, or is it something you could imagine yourself making into an annual thing? How different is this fantasy than your usual vacations? What category do most of your vacations fall into? Which categories would you like to add to your menu? Which categories are of no interest to you at all? Which vacation that you have already been on has left you feeling most complete, connected, and at peace? How can you find that feeling again? Even though we all do different things on our vacations, am I right in believing that we are all actually searching for the same thing? Is there some feeling that is common to everyone who has had a great vacation? Is it just as simple as “satisfaction,” or is there something deeper to it, something that is difficult to define but worthy of our effort to do so? Do you know what I mean when I describe that soul fulfillment? When have you been there? Is it asking too much of a vacation to take you there? What else do you want? Leave me a reply and let me know: What do you want from your vacation?

Be Peace and Bliss,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with your community. Let’s find our happy places together!

P.P.S. If this way of reflecting on your heart, mind, and soul is appealing to you, I encourage you to pick up a copy of my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Your Personal Utopia: Where Should You Live?

“There are no conditions to which a person cannot grow accustomed, especially if he sees that everyone around him lives in the same way.” –Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Hello friend,

Yesterday I was shoveling out the end of the driveway where the snowplows had buried us for the 84th time this week, straining with each heave to toss my scoops over the 7-foot mountain ranges that now line my entire driveway as this awful season stretches on into Eternity. Since misery loves company, I struck up a conversation with the lady across the street, who was also out risking a heart attack or slipped disc as she plugged away at her own buried drive. As every interaction in Minnesota goes these days, we got right into grousing about the interminable Winter and the awfulness of shoveling, cursing our lot in life. In the end, it all seemed to boil down to: What the heck are we doing HERE???

Because seriously, of all the wonderful places to live, why, oh why, did I choose this place where, for almost half the year, we only go outside to shovel and complain about the cold? It just doesn’t make good sense!

I get this way every year by the end of the Winter. But honestly, I am usually there by Christmastime. That way I have a few solid months to loathe myself for my foolish life choices.

I mean, it is not like I didn’t know who I am and what I like when I moved here seventeen years ago. I like warmth, preferably of the year-round variety. I like mountains. I love the ocean.

Three words to describe my state: cold, flat, land-locked. Hmmm…..

How did I go so wrong? More importantly, can I make this right before someone finds my body at the end of one of these Winters looking like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining? Where is the ideal place for me?

My wife has gone through this process with increasing determination the last few years. The Minnesota Winters are really wearing on her, so she has begun to scout locations for an imminent move. She likes nothing more than to scour the Internet–the woman knows her product reviews–so this is no ordinary scouting. She knows about individual school districts, temperature and precipitation fluctuations, voting patterns, and all kinds of diversity measures. Last year’s destination was Aurora, Colorado. Whenever the temperature dropped or the snow fell in Minnesota, she was sure to give me an update on how lovely it was in Aurora that day. This year’s darling is Charlotte, North Carolina, which, of course, is even easier to contrast with Minnesota in the Winter (and the Autumn…and the Spring). So I am hearing about this one on the regular. Are either of those places just right for me, though?

The other day, I got so tired of the cold and snow that I actually attempted to systematize the question. I wrote down a list of factors that I would consider for my next hometown. Climate was an easy one. Then there were things like Topography, Region, Economy/Job Market/Cost of Living, Size, Diversity, Safety, School Quality, and Proximity to Loved Ones. Then, going across the top, I listed some cities or areas: my current home, my wife’s two most recent obsessions, then a few other spots that I have either lived (Los Angeles), vacationed (Southwest Florida), or considered (Portland, Oregon). Then I went down the list of factors and gave each place a “+” or a “-“ or, in some cases, both (+/-).

All of the places on the list got generally positive scores. In some categories, I was ambivalent and gave the town the +/- (e.g. Charlotte tends toward the liberal side of the political spectrum–a positive for me–but it lies in the very conservative Deep South, which feels totally off-limits all the way down in my bones). And while some had more plus marks than others, it quickly became clear that some factors weighed much more than others, but different for different cities. For example, where I currently live, there are lots of plus scores, but there is the one glaring minus (Climate) and also an overwhelming plus, Proximity to Loved Ones.

That last one, it seems, weighs far heavier than all the rest. Or at least it has until this point. Before we moved here–almost seventeen years ago now–and were beginning to search for options other than where we were in Ohio, my only request to my then-girlfriend/now-wife was that we move closer to our families, who were spread across the Northland between Wisconsin and Montana, with our parents both in North Dakota. As Fate would have it, she was offered a good job right where I was thinking about: St. Paul, Minnesota. And even though we don’t see our families all that often considering how close in proximity we live, it still just feels good to be nearby. And we get together just often enough that the grandparents and cousins are the favorite people in my children’s lives. The proximity got us here, and the closeness keeps us here. Well, that and the inertia that grows from being someplace for a long time, and particularly from my kids getting to the age where they really value their friends and their school and such, to the point that they realize it would stink to have to start all of that over.

There are other oddities about the checklist method, too. One thing that jumped out at me was that when I thought about California–not that I would move back to Los Angeles, but the San Diego area is appealing–it seemed to check more of my boxes than the others, and yet I couldn’t quite bring myself to seriously consider moving there right now. And it wasn’t just that it failed the Proximity to Loved Ones box, but something vaguely distasteful (perhaps some combination of high population, high cost of living, and my uncertainty about raising my kids there). I am not sure, but it was clear that it could not be explained by plusses and minuses.

It must be stated that the bulk of any decision is, “Will this work for my wife and kids?” If it were just me, my answers would be completely different.

So, what do we really want? For a temporary argument’s sake, let’s remove the Proximity to Loved Ones factor. We want to be in a fairly large metropolitan area (that is for my wife). We definitely want diversity (i.e. we need to see people of color in our schools and stores). We want it to be warm much of the year–all of the year would work for me–and have mild, relatively brief Winters. We want it to be progressive politically. We want it to be naturally beautiful and verdant, tending toward the majestic (the ocean or mountains); this one is for me. We want a decent cost of living and good job opportunities. We want it to feel like an active, healthy community. We want great public schools. We want it to be safe.

Here are some typical thoughts that come to me as I try to find the right place: I need to go somewhere warm. Arizona? No, I like lush vegetation; no deserts for me. Georgia? I am NOT going to the Deep South with my multi-racial family and dealing with the racism that has not gone away, not to mention the rest of the conservative politics. Okay, California? Very tempting, but there is that vague, unnamed worry that is specific to California. Florida? That turquoise water is quite enticing, but again with the politics. Alright, then I am going to have to change my climate tolerance to “mild” instead of the real warmth that I want. How about the mid-Atlantic area nearer Washington, DC? The climate is good, but I have never wanted to live on the East Coast (other than New York City, and that was only temporary and youth-driven). Kentucky and Tennessee still seem like the South to me. How about St. Louis? It seems like a decent compromise weather-wise, but everything I am told about the racial dynamics there scares me off. Texas is a non-starter (though I hear Austin is nice). There are no cities or enticing landscapes on the Great Plains. Anything below Colorado is too much desert. Montana’s Winters are not as bad as Minnesota–and I love being there–but it is homogenous, conservative, and too sparsely populated.

What does that leave? Well, there is still the Denver area. And the Pacific Northwest. Is that it? It strikes me just how much of the country gets excluded when racism and politics matter. And then throw in Winter, and seemingly another half of it gets crossed off. Very little is left.

I am starting to see how my Mom, when I talked to her a couple years ago, told me that she never really liked the town she lived in most of her adult life, but she could never think of a better place to go. I can also see how my neighbor lady and I, as we were commiserating the other day while buried in snow, couldn’t come up with the perfect place to move to if we decided to ditch our shovels. Would some suburb of Denver or Portland–or even San Diego–suit my family better than this suburb of Minneapolis? Probably. But more importantly, will my disdain for Winter be overpowered by proximity to family, general inertia, and my children’s friendships, keeping us experts in shoveling and complaining until we are retired, or at least until the kids leave? It pains me to say that it seems highly likely.

Needless to say, I spend a lot of time cursing my ancestors about this topic. If only they had, as they were crossing this great land, determined that North Dakota was inhospitable and headed South and West, at least to the mountains and perhaps all the way to the ocean, my family would be scattered around those scenic, balmy parts rather than this frozen flatland.

But here they reside in their own frigid towns on the North Plains, and thus here I reside in order to feel close to them. Blood is thick and runs deep. But will it be thick and deep enough to keep me here if another Winter is this long and awful, or will I cut the rope and set off in search of my perfect place? Time will tell…..

How about you? What place is best-suited to your needs and inclinations? Open up your journal and flesh out what matters most to you and what keeps you where you are. You can even make a grid like I did with factors, locations, plusses, and minuses, if that suits you. What are the factors that belong on your list, the ones you deem worthy of consideration when deciding a home base? Beyond the ones I listed above, what would you add? Are some of the things I mentioned not at all important to you? What are your big ones, those that really hold sway in your mind and heart? Is Proximity to Loved Ones big for you like it is for me? How about Climate? Do things like Politics and Racism play a role for you like they do for me? Okay, based on your factors and giving full weight to your biggies, which places in the country seem like they would be good matches for you? Are they all over the map or concentrated in one region of the country? Would you consider going out of the country? Have you seriously considered some of these spots before, or is this exercise causing new cities to pop up? Do you have a long conversation in your head, like mine above, that gradually excludes areas and narrows it for you? Now, write about where you currently live. How does it score for all of your factors, especially the big ones? Which factors brought you there in the first place? Do those factors still play a major role? Considering what you have now established as your priorities, how well does your current town fit into your ideal model? Are there other places that you came up with in your narrowing that are a better fit for you? A lot better? What keeps you from leaving your current home? Is it that one big factor that seems to trump all the others? Is it inertia? Fear? What is the likelihood that you will move to one of your ideal locations in the near future? What is the likelihood that you will ever leave your current home (or at least before retirement)? Is that answer okay with you? Can you be happy and content just about anywhere? Are you content where you are now? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where should you be living?

Fortune favors the bold,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. We all could benefit from some introspection.

P.P.S. If this type of deep questioning of your life and your values appeals to you, I encourage you to pick up a copy of my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Re-Defining Your Best Life: Is It Okay Just To Coast & Be Happy?

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” –Mark Twain

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor–such is my idea of happiness.” –Leo Tolstoy

Hello friend,

I have gotten myself into an emotional pickle since the start of the year. As last year came to an end, I began to think the usual New Year-type of thoughts: changes, goals, habits, resolutions, and the like. I started with my usual question: How do I want to FEEL this year? Even though I had figured out a couple of years ago that “BRAVE!” is always a fantastic answer, for me, to that question, I was feeling something else that had been growing inside me recently. I wanted to feel at Peace and connected to my soul, deeply rooted in contentment, like what I was doing was exactly right for me, playing all of the right chords of my heartstrings. I wanted to be in a state of active bliss, but not so driven by something down the road, some goal or milestone. I wanted to be happy and content in the present. At Peace.

But there was a catch to it, and that catch is what has me in this state of emotional flux: my personal pickle.

I am such a striver. I tend to exist in a near-constant state of assessment: Am I doing enough? Is my life making a difference? How could my gifts be of better use? Am I making the most of my time? What will my next letter to you be about? Is it time to write another book? Is this a good example for my kids? When I am not assessing, I am prodding and urging myself on, proclaiming and declaring my intentions and willing them into existence. There are lots of “I must…” and “I will…” statements in my journals. “I must be more efficient.” “I will have this letter ready by Sunday morning.” “I will get this book published by November.” My mind, left to its own devices, is a hard charger (sometimes a tyrant).

By now you are probably seeing the source of this year’s tension. In making feelings of Peace, ease, and soul connection my hope and my focus from the outset, I was basically disregarding all of my history and my habits.

As I mentioned, my New Year’s intention basically said that I wanted to shirk my ambition and shun the hard deadlines and goals in favor of walks in the sunshine, refreshing swims, music appreciation sessions, and lakeside meditations. I wanted to take my kids on more and longer adventures, into the forests and mountains that make me feel at home and whole. More than wanting that, I wanted to feel free to chase those things with abandon and bask in them without guilt. I wanted to be let off the hook that I seem to have been born upon.

That last part is probably the crux of the matter: to seek out avenues for Peace and Contentment without the strings of Guilt attached, without feeling like it was a decadent waste of time and that I had certainly shortchanged my dreams and my legacy in the process.

Because that’s the thing: I always have these dreams and goals, these aspirations and ambitions driving me. They don’t just stop. I want to do big things, make a difference in the world, be the best father ever, and leave a lasting impression with my writing. In order to fulfill those dreams, I have to produce. I have to be at the computer typing words and then getting them into the world by the self-appointed deadlines. That thought nags at me constantly, alternately inspiring me as I work and tormenting me when I take a break. I seem to be able to hide from it only rarely and in short spurts, and only then if I am doing other things that I deem to be enriching.

Given this almost crippling propensity to STRIVE, is this new resolution to consistently seek out Peace, present Joy, and soul connection even possible? Just laying it out in plain terms like this makes it seem quite illogical, but I feel the question keep scratching at my soul, gnawing at my heart, demanding a deeper hearing. It seems to want me to find a way, to make it make sense. It will scratch and gnaw until it gets what it wants. From 46 years of experience, I recognize that as my intuition talking, and I better engage.

So, could I make it my ambition to act as though I am without ambition? Or, perhaps all along the question needed to be about whether I could convince (con?) myself into believing the pursuit of Calm and Contentment is a worthwhile endeavor, perhaps even a meritorious use of my precious time. More pointedly, could I believe that, simply by living in Peace and Happiness, I could make a positive enough impact on the world to justify my actions (and my inaction toward more “normal,” measurable goals)? Could just BEING Peace emanate enough goodness from me to affect the lives of the people in my sphere of influence? Given my natural inclination to strive, answering affirmatively to that would seem quite a stretch.

I get a bit (sometimes a lot) jealous of people I see on social media who have decided that they are done with needing to run a marathon or work toward a promotion or improve their diet and exercise as part of a weight-loss goal in order to feel alive and happy. They have determined that those ambitions and challenges have come to feel more like weights to carry rather than inspirations, and that life is better without them. They are done striving. They are instead choosing to seek satisfaction in simple, “irresponsible” pleasures: good company, binge-watching their favorite TV shows, a glass of wine or delicious dessert, a walk with their dog. Things that make them feel good.

On first blush, that sounds absolutely wonderful to me. Freedom! A complete unburdening. A release of all that feels like a responsibility to produce, improve, and excel. It has all the allure of the Sirens’ song.

But like the sailors who were drawn to the Sirens’ island by the enchanting songs only to crash upon the rocks, I can tell by the poisonous feeling in my gut as I write about my pleasure-seeking Facebook friends that their lifestyle–specifically, the lack of “something bigger” to strive for–would almost certainly shipwreck my life. I just couldn’t go for long without my soul–my purpose–shouting that it needs work. It would need to grow and contribute and be challenged. It would need to feel like its gifts were being used for their intended purposes. It would need to feel not just massaged by the feel-good stuff I hope to add this year but also stretched and tested by new and difficult pursuits.

As I come to this realization about myself, I feel no criticism arise for those who are able to pull off the contented, unambitious life. I can see real value in “just being happy” and the benefits that that kind of energy puts out into the Universe. And I can tell that we don’t all have the same level of natural urge to create or learn or engage our environment. Not everyone is wired like me (probably a very good thing!). I am happy for people who find Happiness in any way that isn’t harmful to others. I just know that for me, I can’t pull off the unambitious way on anything but a very sporadic basis. To force it upon myself for any great length of time would, despite the enjoyment I would take from catching up on movies and music and such, feel a little too much like I was abandoning my soul’s call, letting go of the rope. In an effort to “just be happy,” I would inevitably become very frustrated and unhappy.

Maybe, in the end, the goal will be just to do the unambitious thing for longer periods, to make the ebbs larger between the waves of striving and “difference-making.” Maybe I will settle for being theoretically in favor of “just chill and be content” and cheer on the people who can pull it off, knowing full well that it works better for them than it does for me. Maybe I can somehow get my brain to re-define the terms in a way that I can ambitiously pursue less Ambition and more Contentment. Maybe I will learn to accept that for me, perhaps “engaged” and “content” are actually the same thing. Maybe one day I will even learn that I don’t always have to push the river, that it flows alright on its own. Maybe….

How about you? What is the right combination of striving vs. contentment for your personal happiness? Open up your journal and examine the ebbs and flows of your ambition. Right now, on the spectrum that runs from, on the one end, hard charging at goals, to the other end of just trying to chill and enjoy life, where are you? How long have you been in this mode? Has that been pretty consistent throughout your life, or have you gone through extreme periods on both ends of the spectrum? When your level of engagement wanes, what do you think causes it? How does your soul feel in those periods of calm and contentment? Do you get restless? How long do those periods last? How about in the periods when you are more ambitious and goal-oriented? How often are you fully engaged in that way? What causes those periods? Do you tend to return to the same types of goals over and over (you’re your health or career), or does your ambition bounce around? How often do your goals and dreams feel like yokes around your neck, the responsibility to fulfill them weighing you down and keeping you from ever being fully happy? Do you think you could ever decide to completely ditch your dreams and ambitions and “just be happy?” Does that even make sense? Is pursuing our soul’s calling–our deepest, truest ambition–the only thing that can lead us to real Happiness anyway? Can we be truly happy by disengaging completely from growth and improvement, or are those who are trying to merely fooling themselves? How much psychological tension does this question cause you along your ever-changing journey through Life? Back to our spectrum: where do the people with whom you most like to spend time fall on the scale? Where do you think your parents and siblings fall? Your significant other? How about your heroes? Who are you most like? Does that feel good to you? What would be your ideal balance? Leave me a reply and let me know: Is Happiness something you pursue with goals and effort, or is it something you ease into by letting go of ambitions?

Embrace your way,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s all find Happiness together!

P.P.S. If this way of challenging your thinking and investigating your soul feels important to you, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

A Life Sentence In Music: Choosing Your Only 5 Bands For Eternity

“To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.” –Aaron Copland

“People haven’t always been there for me but music always has.” –Taylor Swift

Hello friend,

I have had this question rolling around in my head for months. Months! Typically, if I get a question in my head, I do a little journaling and it works itself out. For some reason, though, I have not followed that path with this one, and it has most definitely NOT worked itself out. So, I write to you today not to share with you what I have worked out, but more to marvel at the process of working it out and how difficult (impossible?) some topics are to nail down and how likely they are to change at the very moment you think you have the answer.

It all started, as most troubles do, with a friend’s Facebook post. I love those people who post great questions that you cannot resist answering in the Comments or, even if you don’t have an answer on the top of your mind, you can’t resist looking at everyone else’s answers. He put one like that on there this week, too: something like, “What are your top five favorite movies, all genres included?” I took that question so seriously that I couldn’t put my answer down immediately because it required deep consideration, so I adjusted my settings so it showed me notifications any time someone commented on it (I love movies, and I love opinions even more!).

Anyway, the question he asked that night a few months ago that has been trailing me ever since is, “If you could only listen to five bands/musicians for the rest of your life, who would you choose?” I was stricken instantly by the difficulty of it. Even as I read my friend’s choices and the lists of the first few people who had already commented–evidence that it could obviously be done–I was overcome by the enormity of the challenge posed. It seemed a question as big as The Meaning of Life. An absolute stumper. As often as I have thought of it since then–almost daily–it remains just that to me.

You see, I am in love with music. It captivates my soul and moves me in a million beautiful ways. I am completely in agreement with the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who proclaimed, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” In the past decade of my life–ten years defined almost exclusively by heavily involved parenthood–I have often lamented that, for all of the magic and delight that my dotingly attentive Dadding has gifted me with, what it has kept me from is tons of hours under the cover of my big headphones, lost in the sway of this Divine language called Music. You don’t get that luxury when you are listening for babies crying or big kids squabbling. But oh, what a luxury! And there is so much of it filling so many different genres, each magnificent in its own way.

I find pleasure in a wide array of styles: Folk, R & B, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Classical, Blues, Reggae, Hip-Hop, Pop, Jazz, Broadway, Soul, Country (well, a few select old-timers, anyway), New Age, Gospel, Motown, and more.

I am not exactly sure what the proper name of the genre I listen to most is. To myself, I call it “Singer-Songwriter Music.” It is probably easier identified by the names of some of my favorites in that category: Matt Nathanson, Mat Kearney, Glen Hansard, Ryan Adams, Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, David Gray, Ben Rector, Ben Folds, Storyhill, Brenda Weiler, Ray Lamontagne, The Decemberists, Natalie Merchant, Joshua Radin, Marc Cohn, Amos Lee, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Jakob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Bruce Hornsby, Five For Fighting, John Mayer, Jack Johnson, and Joshua Kadison. Basically, it is music that is mostly (or easily) stripped down to guitars (often acoustic) or piano along with vocals. I listen to a lot of that, and when I first considered this thought experiment of narrowing my lifetime musical choices to just five, I was tempted to pull from this list only (well, maybe this list plus Counting Crows, a longtime favorite band who nearly fits this genre but is probably more considered Rock). That list would probably be (subject to daily changes of mind): Counting Crows, Indigo Girls, Marc Cohn, Matt Nathanson, and Mat Kearney. Wow, that’s hard to narrow!

But just when I think of how much I love those artists and how I would enjoy listening to their catalogues over and over, it strikes me how much Joy and inspiration I would be missing out on by sticking only to my favorite genre.

I love R & B! I am a sucker for the 80s and 90s slow jams from my favorites–Keith Sweat rules–but also love the stuff I can dance to. All of the family tree of New Edition–Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill, Bell Biv DeVoe–is amazing. But so many others, too: Luther Vandross, Johnny Gill, James Ingram, Keith Washington, Peabo Bryson, Hi-Five, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Ne-Yo, Guy, Babyface, Barry White, Janet Jackson, SWV, TLC, Boyz II Men, Deborah Cox, John Legend, and more. As much as it is paining me to think of leaving these artists out of the rest of my life, I cannot imagine leaving out the entire genre. I have to keep at least one for my five eternals. Right?

And that is just my second favorite genre! Could I ever do without Classical or Jazz Piano from the likes of Keith Jarrett? Could I survive without at least a little Hip-Hop flavor in my life? And Reggae? How could I narrow my lists down to just five artists and not have someone from these genres?

And then there are those few artists who aren’t necessarily in my categories but are amazing and possibly necessary for the list. Michael Jackson. Prince.

As I was thinking about this topic the other day, I walked into the house and found my wife jamming to a Beyoncé/Destiny’s Child mix in the kitchen. I couldn’t help but start dancing. It struck me: How could I live without this, something that I would never call my “favorite” because the songwriting doesn’t touch me but that is so catchy and fun that it makes me dance every time? Was Beyoncé a candidate for the list, too?

It might also be some kind of torture to be alive and not be able to listen to the singular songwriting of Bob Dylan, the golden voice of Patti LaBelle, the blues guitar of Buddy Guy, and other such unique talents. Mozart. Marvin Gaye. Al Green. Bruce Springsteen. Ray Charles. Willie Nelson. Wynton Marsalis. Shirley Caesar. John Prine. Bob Marley. U2. Jay-Z. Johnny Cash. Billie Holiday. The Beatles.

It is enough to make my mind explode! How could one possibly narrow all of this magic down to just five? And yet, that is the challenge. I am so drawn to these thought experiments because they are so darn difficult, could go any number of ways depending upon my mood, and are open to such thorough debate.

In this case, there is the internal debate about the grounds for choosing. Do you go with the five you seem to listen to most? That seems the most obvious and it’s what I did first. But it left me feeling starved for variety. But when I start thinking I should spread out my genres, I end up with too few of my absolute favorites. And with R & B, I deeply love the genre but don’t necessarily have one artist that demands inclusion. Then I try to compromise by combining, like, “Maybe Michael Jackson can satisfy my R & B fix with some of his songs, even though he is mostly Pop.” Then I try my last desperate ploy: “I will take New Edition if you let me include all of their solo careers that came after the band broke up, pretty please.” I’m going to pretend that plea/caveat was accepted! Then you have to consider if some of your possible choices have a big enough catalogue of music or if they are still young enough that they are going to keep putting out new music, which makes it more exciting.

So, what if I started by narrowing it? That might make it seem more manageable than trying to just pull five from the 76 artists (and counting) I have already mentioned. Okay, here we go, legitimate options……Matt Nathanson, Mat Kearney, Ryan Adams, Tracy Chapman, David Gray, Indigo Girls, Storyhill, The Decemberists, Joshua Radin, Marc Cohn, The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Joshua Kadison, Counting Crows, Keith Sweat, New Edition (and ensuing careers), Babyface, Keith Jarrett, George Winston, Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, The Beatles.

Okay, that’s 24. Not particularly helpful, but a start. It’s time to get tough. Next cut……Matt Nathanson, Mat Kearney, Tracy Chapman, David Gray, Indigo Girls, Joshua Radin, March Cohn, Bob Dylan, Counting Crows, New Edition, Keith Jarrett, Michael Jackson.

Alright, now we have definitely reached the painful point! Twelve would be much easier to keep than five! Okay, okay, I can do this (with teeth gritted)…..Mat Kearney, Indigo Girls, Marc Cohn, Counting Crows, New Edition.

Hooray! And sob. I love these selections; they represent so much of my history and memories, with still some music left to be made. That makes me happy. It’s sad, though, leaving out the great diversity of artists and genres that I love and that continue to shape me as I push every year to stretch my musical palate. It seems a great tragedy. To try to limit the infinite power of music is a crime. No wonder this exercise has been so difficult!

It is a good thing it is hypothetical. Still, I love this kind of challenge! Once I get going, I plunge in headfirst and take the process seriously to the end, fleshing out the finer points and multiple possibilities. After so many years of journaling, my brain seems to especially enjoy topics that are ambiguous and multi-faceted, full of intricacies and forks in the road. I am drawn to nuance, depth, and grey areas that beg to be understood more fully rather than just the black-and-white answers that we are so often fed by politicians and social media trolls. I think that is what so intrigued me about this topic of narrowing musical choices. I knew it would require a period of uncertainty, of not knowing exactly what I think, and that I would have to wade through those murky waters and linger in that discomfort until I could come up with, through my own process of analysis and ultimately trusting my own judgment, the answers that feel right to me.

So, in the end, this challenge was rewarding almost as much for the mental exercise as for the trip through my music collection and all of the brilliant artists that have blown my soul wide open through the years. Almost! Truth be told, I could just climb into my music collection and let my heart bubble over with Love. As my guy Matt Nathanson sings, “I feel invincible with my headphones on!”

How about you? How will you narrow your musical loves down to just five for the rest of your life? Open up your journal and your album collection and play your way through to clarity. Do you like these types of questions that, even though they aren’t “serious,” force you to dig deep to come up with the answers that best represent you and your loves? Do you tend to comment on them when someone poses a question like this on social media? If not, do you at least tend to make a list in your head? Do you scan the Comments for other people’s lists? It’s interesting, right? It gives us insights into people we may not get another way. How about this particular question? How keenly were you drawn to it when you first heard it? Did you instantly start thinking of your list? What were the first names that jumped to your mind? Were they artists that you have always listened to, or were they more recent additions to your collection? As you started to expand beyond your top couple and considered options for your final selections, how big did the list grow? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? What were the biggest factors you considered? The pure joy the artist’s music gives you? The memories tied to that artist’s music? The number of songs in their catalogue? How many albums they are likely to release in the future? How self-conscious did you get in the process? Did you feel yourself succumbing to considering how other people would react to certain selections, leaning toward artists who would give you more cachet with “music people” over less sophisticated artists who just make your heart sing more? Did you feel pressure to diversify your list when you saw what it might be? What was your Top 10? How did you get from there to five? How painful was it? Who were your five? When you read through it, how much Joy do you feel? Any regrets? How fun was it just to go through your collection? Isn’t music amazing? How could we ever limit it, even to our very favorites? Leave me a reply and let me know: How seriously can you take a hypothetical question about something you love?

Let your spirit sing,

William

P.S. If this got you thinking or made you smile, pass it on. The world needs more active minds and smiling faces!

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

EXPRESS YOURSELF!!! Do You Let Your Inner Artist Out?

“To be creative means to be in love with life. You can be creative only if you love life enough that you want to enhance its beauty, you want to bring a little more music to it, a little more poetry to it, a little more dance to it.” –Osho

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” –Maya Angelou

Hello friend,

I am an artist. I am an artist!

Gosh, that is really hard to say!!! It makes me feel as though I am boasting! And perhaps, if I am deep-down honest, it makes me feel insecure as to whether I am telling the truth, whether I am good enough to measure up to the term. Artist. Artiste! But I am working hard to say it with conviction. “I am an artist.” I am.

I have a much easier time saying–to myself and to you–that I am a writer. I have the ink stains to prove that claim. Clearly, I write to you on a regular basis. I wrote a book. I qualify as a writer. Before I started Journal of You, I was already writing in my journal every day for 17 years. During those years, however, I didn’t necessarily consider myself a “writer” because I wasn’t sharing my words with the world. I wrote every day because it made me feel good to write. It connected me to myself. And to my higher Self. Writing liberated me at the same time that it taught me who I was. It brought me out while bringing me in. It was both a form of expression and discovery.

Stop there. Back that up a few sentences.

Even as I was just typing that explanation of why my early writing was not “writing” or “art,” the words coming out of my fingers were telling me that that was exactly the kind of artistic outlet–call it Art or Creativity or Imagination or Soul Connection or Self-Expression or Divine Inspiration or whatever you want–that I needed then and that I think we all need throughout our lives, whether or not we ever intend to share our “art” with the world and call ourselves artists.

Sometimes I think it is the terms themselves that hold us back from exploring these outlets that allow us to feel alive and uplifted and whole. Call something an “Art class” or a “creativity exercise” or a chance for “self-expression” or “imagination,” and most of us shut down entirely. “I don’t have a creative bone in my body!” we say. Or, “I’ve never been artistic.”

So, we don’t take up our buddy on that offer to teach us the guitar. We don’t join our friends who are going to take a one-night painting class together. We don’t go out dancing. We don’t sing karaoke (or even in the shower). We don’t draw pictures, even though we used to love that when we were young. We even ignore those new “adult” coloring books. We don’t pick up the pen to write that poem or short story that seems to be rattling around in our brains looking for an outlet. Heck, we don’t even write that first journal entry, so certain are we that we “have nothing to say” (I hear that one all the time, believe me!).

Why do we squash that? I think a lot of it is FEAR and SHAME. We think that if we try something “artistic,” that we will inevitably be found out and then judged on our performance. Judged harshly. We think people are going to be whispering, “How dare she think she is good enough to perform in public? She’s not a REAL…..(insert whatever you like: dancer, singer, actress, painter, musician, writer).”

Beyond just the criticism of our (lack of) talent, I think there is also that self-consciousness and insecurity around being thought of as childish for doing something as whimsical, imaginative, and brave as art is, even if just done in private.

Somehow, as we leave childhood and enter that ultra-self-conscious stage called adolescence, we tend to cut out anything that is not “cool” or “grown-up,” and we certainly stop doing anything we are “bad” at. The potential judgment of our peers stifles so much that made life fun and engaging and meaningful and inspiring. We mute ourselves. Our clothing choices become less personalized. We stop singing out loud. We don’t draw or paint or color. We don’t make music. Performances stop. Even personal writing ends. That fear of sticking out or, worse yet, being “bad” at something, snuffs out so much of our beautiful light. It is tragic.

The real tragedy, though, is that by the time we are ready to slip the chains of adolescence and emerge as independent, mature adults, this muted existence that we have exiled our true, glorious Self to has become habit. It is your new normal. And not just yours, but everyone else around you, too. Whimsy, inspiration, and connection to our artistic souls seem lost on the adult crowd. It is why I see, at the local sledding hill, the kids howling gleefully as they fly down the slope, gulping fresh air and exhilaration and Life, while their parents stand at the top of the hill and make small-talk. Or why those same parents–and I am guilty of this one, too–spend their money and time on getting their kids to music lessons to learn the piano or violin or whatever (because it is vitally important to raise well-rounded kids), but wouldn’t dream of signing themselves up for lessons.

By adulthood, we have so internalized that fear of being criticized and that need to fit in and be “adults” instead of being “childish,” that it is simply–and unconsciously–expected that we don’t have creative outlets in our lives. So, rather than write or sing or dance just because it makes our soul feel good or lightens our load, we skip it altogether and continue carrying that baggage. We don’t even realize how much of what makes us vibrant and interesting and alive and free is simply hiding under there, lying dormant. Unimaginative and muted are the adult normal.

But dormant means it’s still alive in there, right? Hibernating. Waiting for the right conditions to emerge and flourish. Waiting for its moment to shine.

Well, why can’t NOW be that moment for you? Seriously.

I am asking myself that. Why not now? At this very moment, I am doing some of what makes me feel creative, connected, and inspired. Writing this letter to you definitely has my adrenaline going and is tapping into something my “normal” self doesn’t access. I so appreciate that sensation.

But what else can I do? Music. Last year, I started teaching myself to play the guitar. Fifteen minutes here and there and I was getting just a tiny bit of a feel for it. I loved it, though, as I always knew I would, all those years I spent dreaming about playing by a campfire. But I got busy on a writing project and let it slip. I miss it and realize now that I must get back to it without delay. My other two long-term musical goals are to learn the piano and the harmonica, probably in that order. I have them in my house, too, so it is just up to me to make the time. The mere idea of it excites me, though, even as I am certainly the first one to claim, “I don’t have a musical bone in my body.” I don’t care. I love it! And it gives me all of those amazing and surely Divine tingles that I have been talking about. Even just singing–as I do often with my horrible but passionate voice–makes my soul fly. And someday, when I am done paying for all of my kids’ lessons, I am going to pay someone to help me to learn all of these beautiful things. And I won’t feel guilty about it!

I can totally see myself as being the king of Adult Education classes when my kids leave the house. I would truly enjoy learning to paint, draw, take photographs, write poetry and fiction, and whatever else they are willing to teach me. I could see myself trying out for a community theatre performance someday, too. And I am certain that I will keep writing: journals, blog posts, books, whatever. I want to make art until my last breath.

For now, I just want to make sure I am scratching that creative itch as often as possible. The writing is a huge part of it, but I realize I need more. I am here and now committing to a return to the guitar practice. I think I will borrow some of my kids’ art supplies, too, and just see what comes out of me. Even adding a few minutes of meditation every day–which is not specifically artistic or creative–can help me touch that realm of connection and inspiration where art resides. I am happy there. I am committed to putting myself in a position to touch that magnificent realm more often.

How about you? Do you have creative and artistic outlets in your life? Open up your journal and consider the moments when your soul finds its way to that place that ordinary existence doesn’t make room for. Where in your life are you allowed to let your imagination and creativity free? Do you have creative hobbies? What are they? Is there some aspect of creativity in your job? What else? Do you sing in the car? Do you ever pick up a musical instrument? Do you draw or paint? How about those “adult” coloring books? Do you write poems or short stories? Are you just reading my letters, or will you write a journal entry, too? Do you have any apps on your phone or tablet that you use to create, such as Garage Band? Do you get creative with your camera? Do you have the audacity to call yourself an artist? Could anything get you to that point? If there is nothing like these outlets in your life, what do you do that lights up your soul? How long has it been since you truly felt the light of imagination and expression inside you? What do you sense that you are missing out on by going without, if anything? Are there substitutes for that deep connection and release that art provides; perhaps things like yoga, meditation, religious ceremonies, or walking in Nature? What works for you? Why do we stop doing whimsical, creative things? Is it out of fear that we are acting “childish” by trying something like an art? Is it out of fear of being judged harshly for our lack of talent or skill? Do we think art would seem too decadent or self-indulgent, even a waste of time? Are creative people more interesting to you? Do you think they are actually more courageous than the rest of us, or are they just genetically predisposed to trying difficult things and putting themselves out there? Does the answer to that question matter to you? Do you think trying to stretch your artistic or imaginative skills could help you to grow in self-confidence or courage? Do you think it could help you become more empathetic? More open-minded? More playful and free? How else could creative pursuits improve your life? Could they improve the lives of the people around you, too? In what ways? What is one creative endeavor that you would like to add to your life? How soon can you do that? Will you? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you feed the artist inside you?

Liberate yourself,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, I invite you to share it with your people. We could all use a little soul stirring.

P.P.S. If this type of questioning appeals to your sensibilities, I hope you will check out my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.

Receiving the Gift of Giving: Have You Felt the Joy of Service?

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” –Mahatma Gandhi

Hello friend,

Have you fed your soul lately? This week, I got mine all filled up!

About a month ago, my wife asked me if I wanted to spend part of our New Year’s Eve working at a charitable organization that makes meals for starving people around the world. I had heard of this place a few years ago when my daughter’s Girl Scout troop earned a patch for helping out there, so I had a few preconceived notions of what I might encounter if I said yes. I pictured a preachy, self-righteous, Christians-saving-the-Africans message, some food-packing, and some heavy guilt-tripping to donate all my money to their cause. Every part of that, minus the food-packing, makes my skin crawl. But the helping-hungry-people part overrode my repulsion to the rest, and I agreed to give it a shot. I had a date for New Year’s Eve!

All the way over to the place, I reminded myself to keep my mind open, that I was there to help people and could swallow anything else–proselytizing, guilt-tripping, White Savior Complex, anything–for a little while in order to do a real service to someone who needs it. I hoped it would, in the end, be more rewarding than annoying.

We stepped into the large gift shop/registration center/lecture hall and joined the crowd of people signing in to start the process with us. We grabbed our white hair nets from the basket and found an open bench as the young woman in the blue hair net began her introductory speech. She was energetic and welcoming as she gave us a little background on the organization and then instructions for how to perform the various jobs we were about to do for the next hour-and-a-half.

She acknowledged that they were a Christian organization but then quickly noted that volunteers need not share the religious beliefs of the staff. I appreciated that. I wanted to enter the action portion of the time–the part I came for–in good spirits, not annoyed at being bullied for my soul or my wallet. So, I was chomping at the bit as she assigned my family to a work station and sent us off to the work room by way of the hand-washing room.

Off we went to Station Number 7 (out of the ten in the giant room) and found our workmates–other volunteers–on the assembly line. They were not super talkative, so we never did learn if they were from one large family or a few different families. There were a few other adults and then children all the way down to about age 6 (which made my nervous 8-year-old in his hair net feel better about what he was getting into). Everyone had a job: food scooping from the large vats of rice, soy, dried vegetables, and mystery powder; bagging the scooped food; weighing the bag and adding or subtracting to reach the acceptable weight; heat-sealing the bag so it looks like it might belong on your grocery store shelf (in the Easy Dinners section probably); stacking it in numbered spots on the table; and boxing the bags when your group reached 36 bags, followed by leading a cheer at your table so the staff knows to come and cart the box away to the warehouse for shipping. The station was U-shaped, with two separate assembly lines going down the arms of the U and meeting up to be counted and boxed on the bottom of the U. There were about a dozen of us at our station (and nine other identical stations going all over the room), all eager to get to it. And when the stereo cranked up and the guy shouted GO, there was a palpable buzzing in the air. It was electric .

At first, I was like my son: nervous about figuring out my job on the assembly line. I was on the heat-sealer and wanted to be absolutely sure these meals reached the hungry families in pristine condition. I was focused. Even as I grew accustomed to the simplicity of it, something would not let me ease off my speed or precision. I suppose it was the weight of knowing that there were starving humans on the other end of this process and how much that simple package that I held in my hands for less than ten seconds would mean to them. Everything.

That sense of urgency never let up. Some of it had to do with the cheering every time a station filled a case of 36, as that led to a bit of an unspoken competition with the station next to ours, which had some friends who had registered to volunteer with us. But the competitive aspect was minor in comparison to the motivation to feed as many starving people as possible. Every few minutes, as I was pressing down the heat-seal and double-checking the bag for perfection, the realization would sweep over me that in just a few seconds of each of my teammates’ time, we were feeding somebody for an entire day (or sometimes I would think of it as feeding a family like mine a whole meal). That realization was so powerful for me. Emotional. And motivating.

I think everybody felt it, because we were all dialed in and working as fast as we possibly could: scooping, bagging, weighing, sealing, counting, and boxing at maximum speed. My kids, who were weighing and counting/boxing on either side of me, were totally engaged and working more quickly and efficiently than I have ever seen them work on a project at home. It was amazing!

And we were actually pretty fast, creating the 36 stuffed and sealed bags to fill a box seemingly every few minutes, moving to the beat of cross-generational pop anthems blaring through the speakers. When the guy came on and said we had only five minutes left, everyone seemed to take it as a challenge to fill two more boxes. It was a frenetic pace, and we nailed it before the buzzer sounded.

There was a collective sigh of relief across the room, everyone spent after a tense 90 minutes of maximum effort and focus. On our way back into the lecture hall, we were invited to try a small taste of a prepared version of what we had just packed dry. I couldn’t resist the chance to feel closer to the people I had just helped, wanting even the tiniest sense of walking a mile in their shoes. I was wishing I could deliver the packages to them myself and prepare the meals for them, anything to lighten their load.

Mixed with that deep longing to help them, though, was the satisfaction of having helped with what we had just done. I felt a real afterglow, a euphoric sense of achievement. This was amplified by the presentation we received as we found our spots back on the benches. The friendly young woman in the blue hair net was back in her spot at the podium in the front of the room, and she was pulling up our stats from the warehouse on her computer. In our little shift of volunteers at the ten workstations, in somewhere between 75 and 90 minutes, we filled 226 of those 36-package boxes, which were destined for Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Philippines . Each package has six servings in it, technically making that an astonishing 48,816 meals. Another way they put it is that we fed 134 kids for an entire year.

WOW! That’s a staggering number of souls.

It knocked me back a bit and sent me inside myself. As she continued to talk about donations and such, I sat there absorbing the magnitude of 48, 816 meals and 134 kids. I was pretty emotional about it. Of course, there was some of that satisfaction and exhilaration. In one way, I felt more expansive, more connected to the greater web of LIFE that holds us all together as a Divine One. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but notice the deep sense of humility that came over me. It’s strange: in the doing of something “great,” I felt smaller somehow, less significant.

Maybe that feeling of being humbled is just some kind of subconscious acknowledgment that I am not the center of the world. I think we all tend to go about the craziness of our normal lives as the star in our own drama series. Even as we have families to feed, bosses to please, and clients to serve, we see it all through the lens of our own life and how it all affects us. It is natural (and naturally selfish). But then we have these moments like I had this week when we suddenly realize that the story is so much bigger than us and that we are at our best (and doing our life’s work) when we can somehow lift up the other characters in the story, to make the entire web rise just a little. It is in that moment of our humility–our loss of ego–that we are most significant, most worthy of praise. I suppose that is what happens when you see a famous athlete or actor win an award, or a politician win an election, and one of the first things that comes out of their mouths is, “I feel so humbled by this.”

At any rate, I was quite moved by what we had just done and the effect it would have on the people receiving it. As I said, it really made me want to go to their homes and do even more for them. I felt connected to them and thus invested in their long-term well-being.

And I felt valuable. Truly valuable. Man, does that feel good!

I try to remind myself that the work I do for a paycheck is valuable. I hope we all realize that whatever it is we do for a living– whether we make people’s coffee so they can perform better the rest of the day, pick up people’s trash so they can live in sanitary conditions, file papers so that a company that solves people’s problems can do that more efficiently, or play basketball so well that people enjoy themselves just watching us–we give value to the world. I also hope we remind ourselves that we are valuable when we parent, when we are a good friend, and when we are kind and compassionate to others. I assume we know we are valuable when we donate to good causes. There are so many ways to give.

But there is something, I discovered, profoundly different about getting in on something explicitly charitable and directly engaged. The DOING of the unquestionably good work. It somehow makes the rest of the good stuff pale in comparison.

My takeaway, then, is that I have to find more opportunities to do the good work, to give the most meaningful kind of help. I know it’s out there; I just have to find the best ways I can apply my heart and my hands to it. That is the key. Luckily, I think I will have a partner in my quest. As we sat around our living room later in the afternoon of our food-packing experience–my wife reading and the kids playing on the floor as I wrote–my wife said, “So, what do you guys want to do in the new year: any goals or plans or resolutions?” My daughter responded, “I want to go back to that place more often and feed more people.” Aside from the pride I felt at having her 10-year-old priorities straight, my main reaction was, “I’ll go with you!”

How about you? How long has it been since you have felt the heart-warming gratitude that comes only from true giving? Open up your journal and write about your experiences with generosity and sacrifice for others. In what way do you usually do your giving? Do you tend to give financially to causes that are meaningful to you? What are those causes? How generous are you with your time and talents? Which causes do you actually labor for? Are those the most meaningful causes to you? Do they become even more meaningful by virtue of your labor? Do you do any service work that allows you to work directly with the people you are helping (e.g. a soup kitchen)? How much does that deepen the experience? How would you describe the feelings you get from being of service? Exhilaration? Satisfaction? Humility? Desire to do more? Something else? What is the thing you do in your life that makes you feel the most valuable? How much truth is there in the idea that the “giver” is the one who actually ends up getting more from the transaction (i.e. they are so enriched by the experience that they would happily trade their own “sacrifice” for the satisfaction and warmth of heart any time)? How often do you seek out and execute this type of giving or charitable work in your life? When was the last time? How rewarding was it? What keeps you from doing it more often (or at all)? Do you have an idea for something that you could give yourself to next? I dare you to move on it today! How much good would it do? How would it make you feel? Leave me a reply and let me know: Have you received the gift of giving?

Magnificence is in you,

William

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P.P.S. If you would like to question yourself to clarity on all aspects of your life, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

You’re Too Young!!! When Should We Let Kids Be Adults?

“You simply don’t get to be wise, mature, etc., unless you’ve been a raving cannibal for thirty years or so.” –Doris Lessing

Hello friend,

I used to have a level-headed niece who I trusted to make sound life decisions.

As a 19-year-old college student bursting with potential, she struck me as independent and driven to carve out a unique path that would often–especially in the next decade or so–find her traveling the world alone to explore and share her talents and passions. Though she had had some serious romantic relationships in her past, she swore that it was not in the cards for her to “settle down” with anyone until she had lived out some of her dreams and established who she was as a real adult. I nodded my whole-hearted approval.

Then she turned 20 and got engaged in the space of a month.

What do I have now? And what can I say???

What can we really say to people we love–or anybody, really–when their life choices seem foolish to us?

I suppose part of my personal strategy for this dilemma works its way out in letters to you. I take most every issue that the average person wrestles with–politics, spirituality, family, money, social issues, dreams, relationships, and on and on–and hash them out in my journal, then write out my experiences and conclusions in these letters for anyone to read.

Not that I expect the people in my life to stay up-to-date on Journal of You just so they know how I feel about their life choices. But the actual writing process–both in my own journals and in these letters to you–has helped me to clarify my positions and given me a level of comfort in expressing them. So, when a topic comes up in conversation in the course of the day, I generally feel quite confident sharing my take.

At any rate, the habit of putting my stances out into the public sphere makes any sort of “approval” or “disapproval” I have of anyone’s life choices feel more general, not so personal. Like with marriage, I would hope that if I ever have a conversation with my 20-year-old niece about it, she would not take my position as a personal attack on her. Because let me be perfectly clear: the idea of people–I was tempted to say “kids,” but I caught myself–getting married (to say nothing of having children) in their early twenties seems absolutely foolish to me.

I think of myself at 20–or even 23 or 25 or 28–and I was so far away from knowing who I was and what I valued most. I had morals. I had opinions. I had passions, hopes, and dreams. I might even have been described as level-headed. But evolved enough and prepared to wisely choose my mate for life? Heck no!

My wife tells of the time that she and her college love were on vacation in Las Vegas and momentarily considered getting married before deciding against it. She laughs now at her luck, convinced that she would be miserable (or, more likely, divorced) if they had gone through with it.

But be clear: I am not just basing this on my personal path. I get that just because I wasn’t ready to marry in my early twenties–or late twenties, for that matter–that doesn’t mean no one could be. One of the benefits that comes with living for a while is that you get to witness a much bigger sample size when it comes to testing out your theories. Like most people, I know lots of people who married young. Many are still married. That fact does not sway my opinion at all.

And it is not that I have just come around to this idea in my forties, seeing people two decades younger than me as kids (of course, because I can’t be old!). No, growing up, I could never understand how my parents got married at 20 and 24, or later, how my older brother got married just out of college. I think I felt it most when my buddies started getting married, because I knew just how immature they were (did their spouses?). As with marriages at all ages, some have lasted, others haven’t. Some are probably blissful; others probably miserable, most somewhere in between. And again, just because it has worked out that way, my take on whether it was the right thing to do to marry young does not change.

Why, though? Why shouldn’t the failures of the older, “more mature” crowd dictate my opinion, causing it to skew more favorably to the early twenties cohort? I suppose that, for me, it has more to do with what I see them as missing out on when they “settle down” so young. It is all that personal development/figuring out who you are/building independence/learning by mistakes (and silliness)/understanding what you are getting into kind of stuff.

I think of the twenties as a time for all of that fun, growth, and inner and outer trailblazing. And I know that almost everyone who embraces and passes through that magnificent gauntlet of a decade comes through it quite a different animal. Different interests. Different dreams. Different relationships. I tend to think that that evolution gets stunted in people who marry so young. They evolve, but in a muted way, leaving room for more longing and regret later. It is like how older people with kids tend to think of people without kids: no matter how free and fun the childless people’s lives seem, there is nothing that could convince the parents that their own lives would be richer and better without kids. They almost can’t help but feel a bit (or a lot) bad for the childless. I have that same “You are missing out on something you can’t duplicate with other stuff” sense when it comes to people who marry without getting to experience the bulk of their twenties unmarried and childless.

So what do I do with this strong opinion? Not much, really. As an uncle, I have been known to share my opinions with my nieces and nephews as they mature. I tell the kids to explore themselves and their options in their twenties, and to not marry young. Not that it has had any effect so far: my oldest niece and nephew are 23 and already married or engaged, and my aforementioned 20-year-old niece will wed within the year. (Has any generation ever listened to their elders???) So I settle for a nudge to my own kids–now 8 and 10–when we get the wedding announcements of their cousins. They say in shock, “Cousin X is getting MARRIED???” And I say, “I know–crazy, right? She is very young to make that kind of commitment. Remember that when you are that age.”

It is similar to the way I pass on to them my considered–and journaled-about–opinions about things like how many children people should have and how old they should be when they have them. When they ask why they don’t have more siblings, I say something like, “Americans–including us–use a TON of the world’s energy and natural resources per person. Much more than our fair share. The planet is running out of these things AND being damaged by our overuse. So, for me, it didn’t feel very responsible to have more than two kids. Does that make sense? You can think about that when you are old enough to have kids (probably when you are in your thirties).”

When they ask why their cousins or friends have bigger families, I just say, “Those were the choices their parents made. Everyone sees the world differently, and everyone gets to make their own choices. Your job is to learn as much as you can about the things you have to decide so that you can become wise. Then you have to think about who you are and the kind of person you want to be. Your answer will come to you. Then you let everyone else make their own decisions, and be kind and respectful to them even if they do it differently than you. We are all trying to do our best, even if it doesn’t look that way.”

Because I don’t actually care enough–despite my strong opinions–to “judge” my nieces and nephews, or anyone else. Of all people, given the life I have led, I have no business (or interest) in making people feel bad for their lifestyle choices. I want people to unapologetically make their own decisions and be exactly who their soul calls out for them to be. (I think that highlights a crucial difference between being opinionated and being judgmental. I see the former as good, the latter not so much.)

It is why I have never been an advice-giver. Both personally and professionally, it has always been my habit to try to help the person in front of me to see the situation broadly and clearly and to ask them the type of powerful questions that will lead them to draw their own conclusions and take ownership of their choices. I think that is the best way to engage life’s difficult choices, with children and adults alike. When people–especially the “impressionable” people that we tend to be at until at least our late twenties–feel pressured or judged into making a decision by the opinions of others (such as their parents or their church), they never take full responsibility for the decision. They feel it is out of their hands and thus surrender to that wave of pressure, never fully addressing the most important question: Does this feel right and true FOR ME? If that question is given a full treatment, there is no other opinion worth considering.

In the end, then, I suppose my way with the kids-who-are-nearly-or-new-adults is this: to offer my opinions in advance, to help them to see their situations more clearly in the moment, and to quietly support them once their decisions are made (though, of course, believing my way is the best way!). They’re just kids, right? They need that support. We all do. I will keep doing my thing the best way I know how and hoping they see the light of wisdom and use it to guide them on this fantastic adventure called LIFE.

How about you? How do you handle yourself when other people don’t follow your model of the world? Open up your journal and think about your opinions and judgments. At what age, generally speaking, do you think the average person is mentally, emotionally, and experientially “ready” (a.k.a. mature enough) to get married? What is it about that age that brings you to that conclusion? Do you come to this opinion by your own experience–good or bad–with relationships, by the examples of people you have known, or just your sense of people? What do you think when people who are significantly younger than that age announce their engagement? Do you keep your reaction–shock, dismay, condemnation, whatever–inside, or do you share your thoughts with others? Do you give your opinion directly to the individual offender? What determines your decision to share your opinion or not? Is it a desire to spare their feelings, an obligation to save them from their foolishness, or do you just not care enough about the issue to raise it? How strong is your compulsion to impose your opinion on others? Does it depend on your relationship with the offender? Does it depend on how egregious you deem their error to be? Are there any relationships worth breaking over the person’s willingness to comply with your opinions? Does it make you feel inauthentic to hide your positions? Does this whole thing really come down to a matter of tact? How much older than your ideal marriage age is your suggested age to start parenting? What is the difference in maturity level necessary to parent well? How different are your suggested marriage and parenting ages than the legal ages to drive, drink, vote, or enlist in the military? How does that disparity strike you? No matter your current age, describe how you imagine most people change between 18 and 30. In what ways do they remain the same? Any? How drastically do a person’s standards and preferences change in that time? Drastically enough to hold off on marriage? What aspects of marrying young–and having kids young–are more desirable to you than waiting? Are there any lifestyle choices that others make that truly upset you? What is it about those that somehow get under your skin and push your buttons? What choices cause you to “judge” (i.e. condemn) someone rather than simply have an opinion about their choice? Do you consider yourself opinionated? How about judgmental? What would your family and friends say? If you are more judgmental than you would like, can you change your attitude? Would that lighten your load to let go of all that responsibility of policing people’s lives? How difficult is it to be supportive of someone you believe is making a life mistake? It would be a nice skill, though, right? Leave me a reply and let me know: How well you do let others live the lives of their choosing?

Love without condition,

William

P.S. If this letter helped to draw out some clarity in your own mind about how you operate, please share it on social media. Let’s support each other and celebrate our differences!

P.P.S. If this type of deep dive and questioning appeals to you, check out my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.

How Well Is YOUR Country Doing?

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” –Alexis de Tocqueville

Hello friend,

I need to tell you about an old friend of mine. He has been so much on my mind lately, and I need to know what to make of him. You see, I have been watching this old friend–let’s call him Tom–not only the types of successes he has been enjoying financially and in his career, but also the decisions he has been making and the way he has been treating the people in his life. I have been taking it all in, and my gut is screaming out one way, but I would like your read on him. So, please indulge me and thank you in advance for your wisdom.

Tom lives in a big, beautiful house in an upscale neighborhood. He owns a very successful business–employs a lot of people and makes a lot of money–and also has made a killing in the stock market in the decade since the recession. Financially, he is sitting pretty. The rest of his life is less pretty. Tom has had some alcohol-related incidents lately, including a DUI and an assault and disorderly conduct charge stemming from an incident at a local bar. Also, after a back surgery last year, he became addicted to prescription pain medication and has not been able to kick the habit. It has had enormous ramifications in his relationships. He has become physically abusive with his wife, to the point where she has had to be treated at the hospital. After the latest episode–just last week–in which her collarbone was broken, she filed for divorce and moved out of the house with their two middle-grade children. He has not harmed either of the kids physically, but his emotional abuse has been quite traumatic for them both and they were deeply relieved when their mother moved them to the hotel. He has given up his long-held spiritual beliefs and alienated nearly all of his family and friends (though he claims his dealer is a “real, true friend”). He has been able to maintain his thriving business and financial well-being through it all–and he claims that that is the only proof anyone needs that he is “doing just fine, thank you”–but from my angle, it seems like that is just about all he has going for him right now. He seems adrift, bitter, and depressed. A lost soul. If I didn’t know anything about his finances, I would say he is at rock bottom.

What would you say? How is it going inside his world right now? Rate his life for me on a scale of 1 to 10.

I am going to pretend, until I hear otherwise, that you see life in a way that is somewhat similar to the way I see it, okay? So, I am saying that you gave him a low score. Somewhere between 1 and 3. Definitely not above 5. Right? That seems like the rational human answer. When your soul is lost, money isn’t enough to make it found.

I thought of this guy a lot last week as I followed the big news stories of the day on NPR, CNN, and Facebook. Two comments struck me the deepest and got me in my Pondering Mode (which usually leads to a letter to you). The first one came when I was watching CNN in the immediate aftermath of the first vote for the Supreme Court nomination, which happened to coincide with the day that America’s unemployment numbers were released, revealing our lowest rate in 49 years. One of the guests on the show was a Republican strategist–seemingly a clear-minded guy–and after opining on a few different issues, his summary, as it related to the President, was essentially this (I am paraphrasing): “Even if you are like me and find his personality and comments distasteful, based on delivering two conservative Supreme Court justices and the stock market and unemployment numbers, you would have to say that as a President, he has been a resounding success. The country is doing great.”

I am fairly sure that I drooled a large puddle onto my shirt as my jaw dropped onto my chest. He was being completely serious, and my eyes were bugging out of my head, in the same way they might if I had gone to my doctor for a check on a persistent cough and she told me that the diagnosis was simple: I had monkeys flying out of my butt.

I had to pause and collect my mind. After all, I had just written to you in my last letter about how little we know what is in each other’s minds. This pundit forced me to confront the possibility that his read on our President and the state of the union, though preposterous to me, could be a common one. I just hadn’t ever thought of it before, as everything I read and watch seems to be indicate that we are in a historically bad place in our country, led by a man that is historically unpopular.

Anyway, it was in that pondering state that I was looking at Facebook the next day and came across a post from my friend who is notorious for stirring the pot by putting out probing or controversial questions that draw dozens of comments and debates from her large and vociferous Facebook community. She asked something about the Supreme Court fiasco. Amidst all of these folks bashing the Republicans in the Comments section, there was this one woman who stood up for the conservative cause by saying, essentially, “Look how great the country is doing financially, so all is well. (And go Trump.)”  

Again I was staggered for a moment, but there it was, that same sentiment: If the money stuff is good, then we are definitely a healthy and successful country. We should just keep doing what we are doing. If you want to know if you live in a good country with good leaders, look no further than the stock market and unemployment numbers.

As I gave this idea a fresh spin around my brain to see the many ways it would strike me, a memory from my childhood came up. One of the very few things I can recall about politics or elections from that time was a candidate–it must have been Reagan–saying, essentially, “If you are in as good or better shape financially than you were four years ago, then the only logical vote is for me.” I understood where he was coming from and didn’t question his rationale, as I didn’t give politics a second thought at that age (my parents were big Reagan fans, and Republicans were winning, so I just figured they were cheering for the right guys).

But I give it a second thought now. And a third and fourth, too. I am quite interested, actually. (Sometimes I think I should even go into politics, but I wouldn’t survive, as I take the arguments too personally.) So, when I read that woman’s Facebook comment and listened to the pundit, both saying essentially that our strong economic indicators mean that the country is in great shape and our elected officials are doing a swell job, I was stunned initially. Honestly, after the initial shock of each, I was waiting for the, “Alright alright, just messing with you!” type of follow-up. When I realized that they were completely serious, I had to gather my wits about me, realizing that I have been out of touch with a perhaps-commonly held idea.

Of course, I know that the President has his roughly 33% of ardent supporters who are sure he is making us great again. But do people really think that the country is in good shape? Does a good DOW score and low unemployment mean we are a healthy country?

Don’t get me wrong: I like a strong economy. I like more people having jobs and people earning on their investments. But what about our collective soul? The soul of the nation? Does that not count for anything?

The historians that I read and listen to–old guys like Dan Rather and David Gergen, veterans of many administrations and wars and movements and eras–say the country hasn’t been so divided and faith in our representatives so low in their entire lifetimes. Our standing in the world, from the polls I have seen, has never been lower. Speaking just for myself, I have never felt less “at home” here. And, just by the feel of the energy in the air–not very scientific, I admit–it just seems like dark times in America.

I would argue that that stuff counts, too.

So, I guess what I am saying is I don’t buy the glossy, “Look no further than your bank account,” standard when I assess how well my country is doing. And I resent it when someone offers up the obvious moral decay and corruption in our elected representatives in Washington, the damage to the environment and human rights abuses brought on by the policies of the current administration, and the rise in the level of acrimony amongst ordinary citizens as proof of a country whose very soul is in trouble, the response is basically, “Shut up and cash your check.” That attitude and method of assessment is just too shallow.

It’s too shallow to judge a nation this way, the same way it is too shallow to judge a person this way.

It reminds me of talking to my Mom after she has been to some kind of family reunion or had lunch with old friends.

Mom: I had a nice talk with your Uncle So-And-So.

Me: How is he doing?

Mom: He looks good. And I sat with your Cousin Such-And-Such at dinner.

Me: What is happening in her life?

Mom: She looks great! Her hair is so cute. And her kids are adorable!

Me in my head: Who are my real parents???

When I think about my friend Tom–yes, he probably looks good, too–I see his big bank account and want to think he is doing okay, but I can’t get through ten seconds of the thought without my heart feeling overwhelmingly sad for him and the state his life is in. If I had a vote to live in Tom’s life or the life of someone with less money but more kindness and happiness, I would go with the latter every time.

Similarly, I would love to say that America is in great shape and our elected representatives are doing a swell job just because stocks are up and unemployment is down. But I live here and am neither blind nor stone-hearted. I see what is happening in Washington and in my Facebook feed. The level of acrimony is disturbingly high. So many of our recent policy changes strike me as morally repugnant. When I hear from people across the globe that we have become more of a laughingstock than a leader, I can find no fault in their arguments. I love my country dearly, but I am horribly embarrassed and disheartened about its condition right now, no matter what the NASDAQ says.

Like I said about Tom, when your soul is lost, money isn’t enough to make it found. I feel like the America I live in today is as far gone as my old friend, maybe more. And that makes me sad.

How about you? How do you rate your country’s condition right now, and what do you base that upon? Open up your journal and make an honest assessment of the land you call home? I think it is important to be clear about what factors you include in your assessment. Do you stick to hard numbers, like statistics a politician might tout as proof of success? Do you mostly use economic indicators, like the unemployment rate or the DOW? Do you factor in our current reputation in the global community? How much of your assessment of our nation’s condition is based on what you hear or read from friends or your social media community, especially in gathering your read on the level of acrimony between people with different views? How much is based on the overall vibe that you feel with your gut or sixth sense? How do you think your view of our situation is affected by whether you are a supporter of the political party currently in power? Specifically, if you are conservative, did you rate the country’s health as GOOD in 2008 when President Bush was in charge, despite the fact that we were embroiled in war and our economy was in a free-fall, then rated it as BAD during the Obama years, and now GOOD again with your party in charge of everything? Does a country have a soul, at least in a figurative sense? That is to say, is a country bigger than a sum of its statistics? Is it fair to assess a country in a way similar to a human: as more than just their job, age, marital status, and income? If it is, do you agree with my reading that America is in a bad spot right now–its soul is struggling–despite some promising economic indicators? How adrift are we? Way gone or just a slight shift in our course? Leave me a reply and let me know: How well is YOUR country doing?

Live open-hearted,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. Let’s raise our consciousness.

P.P.S. If this type of self-inquiry appeals to you, I encourage you to take a deeper dive with my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, available at your favorite online retailers.

How Little We Truly Know About Each Other

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” –Wendy Mass

Hello friend,

I used to know so much. I had a genius for reading people. Just give me a few moments to chat, and I had them all figured out. They were so transparent to my extraordinary powers of perception and discernment. Listen to these pronouncements I find in my journals from my twenties:

“I don’t wish to make myself to be above ‘the standard man,’ but I do feel I have always had an uncanny ability to know people to their depths in a very short time.” November 18, 1997

“I feel I have these gifts or abilities in my mind that make me feel unlike the rest of society or members of my species….somehow cut from a different cloth….I feel I can truly understand every man and his thoughts and feelings…” July 25, 1997

Wasn’t I great?

It wasn’t just that I believed I was unusually gifted at reading people. You hear in that second quote my sense that I was also, well, unusual. Of all these people I met–people that I was sure that I understood so well–I didn’t seem to be like any one of them. My quirks and gifts and troubles seemed to be all my own. There was a disconnect. For all of my ease in knowing them, they were unable to know me at all.

“I am destined to be a loner, for no one can understand the things that drive me.” July 7, 1994 

And it really annoyed me when anyone had the audacity to claim that they understood me or, even worse, could predict my success or failure.

“…because he doesn’t know me, and he doesn’t know what’s inside, and he doesn’t know what I’m capable of. I want no one to ever throw me in a group with others, judged like others, or compared to others. I set my own standards based entirely upon myself, and I needn’t try to compare myself to anyone…” January 31, 1995

I certainly was special, wasn’t I? So sure that I could read everyone as easily as cartoon caricatures–I didn’t need to hear their whole story to know who they were–and equally sure that no one could ever take the measure of me.

The Verdict: I WAS SO WRONG!

It is amazing the lessons that come with age and experience. Some things that you are so sure of in young adulthood get exposed like ancient fossils with the passage of time. It seems to often be the case that the greater the certainty and conviction, the greater is the folly to be later revealed. We take ourselves so seriously early on, and then we learn–well, some of us learn–that it’s all a little more messy than we thought and that maybe we don’t know quite so much. Bob Dylan comes to mind: “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” Wise man, that Bob.

Anyway, I was wrong. I may have a gift for understanding what makes different people tick differently–I assume that most coaches, teachers, and therapists have that type of gift–but the years have humbled me and made me realize that a personality type or a single conversation only reveals so much and that I would do well to be mindful of how much I don’t know about a person’s story and the types of burdens they are carrying around with them every day (and the burdens specific to this particular day).

There are so many layers to each unique person in our lives, so many different screens–laid on top of one another–to peer through in order to truly see someone.

There are histories. These include our traumatic events and happiest moments, our educations, our relationships, and our habits built over time. These histories shape the way we see the world and craft our unique reactions to shared life events.

There are genetic and soul inclinations. These contributions from our ancestors and our spirits can be both good and bad. Addictive tendencies, an easygoing nature, a mental disorder (diagnosed or otherwise). I can’t think of ways I have raised my two kids differently from one another, but they sure come at the world in very different ways. One is more dramatic, one is more contemplative, one is more confident but the other more boastful, one fears this and the other fears that. They go their own road, seemingly called that way by something I cannot explain. They arrived on Earth this way.

There are present circumstances. Someone next to you in line at the store just got fired, and someone else is up for a promotion. Someone in your gym class just got a cancer diagnosis, and the person next to her just found out she is pregnant. One couple on the sidelines at the soccer game has to go home and tell the kids they are divorcing, and another couple is going to tell the kids they are moving. One of your co-workers will go home today, like every day, to a parent who is rapidly declining with Alzheimer’s Disease, while another co-worker will propose to his boyfriend. One of your child’s friends at school cannot afford lunch today, and another was sexually abused last night. One of your neighbors thinks the country is becoming great again and feels more free to express his racism, while another feels betrayed by the government and genuinely fearful for her rights and her safety. Did you know all of that? These circumstances–and a million more like them–will surely affect the behaviors of the people in your little corner of the world today, with a fresh new batch arriving tomorrow.

These histories, these genetic and soul inclinations, and these present circumstances combine to form a combustible cocktail that changes from one moment to the next. Each one of us is like a beaker of this volatile stuff filled to the brim, and we go around this busy, crowded world bumping into each other and spilling over onto one another, creating increasingly complex mixtures as we go. And none of us knows exactly what is in the other beakers that we will collide with throughout the day.

If I meet you today and have a few minutes of open conversation, I may come away with a strong impression of you and a desire to either connect with you again or steer clear of you. I may even think I really know you and have a good grasp of your story. But how much can I really know?

I have recently been reading a fabulous book by David R. Dow called Things I’ve Learned From Dying. In one section, the author describes listening to his client, who is on death row, tell about how, at the age of six, he (the client) narrowly escaped being murdered with a butcher knife at the hands of his deranged mother after she tripped and loosened her grip, allowing him a split-second to run into the bathroom, lock the door, and call 911. It is obviously a shocking and memorable moment, but what resonated most with me was the author’s takeaway from this retelling: “Here’s something I’ve learned: When someone tells you something inconceivable, and you know for a fact he isn’t insane, you need to give serious consideration to the possibility that the occurrence’s very inconceivability is the bitter proof of how little you know.”

I suppose that is the lesson I am learning, too, as I age. I just don’t know very much. And even if I hold onto my idea that I am gifted with an extra dose of discernment and empathy, that only says to me that none of us knows very much about each other. None.

It makes me think of the TV news interviews after just about every senseless murder. The family and neighbors almost always give the same type of response: “He didn’t seem like that kind of person.” “I never would have guessed.” “Just seemed like a regular guy.”

We don’t know. We simply don’t know.

I think each of us is capable of both extremes: the worst kinds of Evil and the greatest kinds of Good. Our histories and genetic inclinations can load the gun for either, and our present circumstances pull the trigger. And since we scarcely know any of those three factors–much less all three–for the people we meet each day, we have no right to be confident in judging someone else.

Hopefully instead of judgment, this lack of confidence will lead us to a greater empathy. That is something interesting–and tragic–that I see now about my younger self and the certainty I felt about knowing everyone’s motives, triggers, and insecurities. While it probably struck me at the time as a wonderful achievement in Compassion to own such insight into my fellow humans, my certainty undoubtedly led me to be lazy in my interactions and incurious about going further to test the possibilities of deeper relationships. I assumed I knew everything, and that shielded me from the truth: that there was so much more beyond my view. My self-proclaimed depth only made me more shallow.

Shallow lacks empathy.

Empathy is just about all it takes to be good for this world.

We need to hear each other’s stories. That is how we come together. It is how we see how similar we are. So much more similar than different. But when we keep ourselves distant from the stories–either through disdain for the “other,” laziness, privilege, or assuming we already know enough (or know everything, in my case), we not only lose out on the richness of new relationships and a bigger, more beautiful life, we also fail to be of service to others. We fail to be good and do good. We fail in our charge as humans: to make this place better for each other.

So, what can we do to bridge this divide? How do we make peace with the dual reality that 1) we have almost no idea of the burdens that others carry, and that 2) our ignorance–often willful–of each other’s stories is no less than a catastrophic failure of our species in our role as chief stewards of Planet Earth? What are we as individuals to do about it in our little spheres of influence?

It is my hope and my personal challenge to become both more humble and more curious. I want to be crystal clear about how little I know about the person in front of me, and then I want to go after that missing knowledge with a dogged determination. Even if the entirety of the story forever eludes me, surely I will have learned–and thus grown–in the process and will have improved my behavior in the world around me. I will better empathize with my fellow journeyers and therefore act better toward them.

In the end, that is really what I want out of this maturation and this growing awareness of my ignorance: I want to be a better person. Yeah, that’s about it. I just want to be a better person.

How about you? How well do you think you know the people you cross paths with every day? Open up your journal and consider your world. Do you believe you have a clear picture of the lives of the people in it? What gives you this level of confidence? Is it a natural gift of yours to see and know people? Have you done a lot of work to get to know these people and what they are living with? Do you imagine that their lives are almost exactly like yours? How does your degree of confidence about how well you understand them dictate the way you respond to their behavior in ordinary, everyday settings? When someone acts in an unusual or unexpected way–e.g., has an argument in a public place, cries openly, dresses uniquely, has lots of tattoos or piercings, has a mohawk or a mullet, is loud, speaks in a different language, insults you–how do you react to them? Are you quick to judge? Do you lead with compassion? Do you make fun of them, either aloud or in your head? Do you attempt to learn more about the person or situation, curious about the uniqueness? Do you just notice it and let it slide by? Are you proud of the way you react to these kinds of situations? Would you teach your children to react the same way you do? How well do you know your family and extended family? Do their actions ever take you by surprise and cause you to second-guess how well you actually know them? How about your friends? Your neighbors? At what distance out in your circle are you fairly sure you don’t really know what the people are going through? Using that line as your border, do you make a greater attempt to practice empathy for the people inside that circle or outside? Is that answer acceptable to you? On the whole, how compassionate are you? Do you think you would do better if you knew the people in your world at a deeper level? How curious are you about others’ stories? How aggressively do you seek out those stories? How likely are you to engage a stranger in a public setting? How often do you have what you would consider to be a “deep” conversation, even with loved ones, to better learn someone’s story? How often do you share your own story in one of those conversations? Which way is more within your comfort zone? Do you think you ever surprise people in your life with your thoughts or actions? Do you tend to believe that you know them better, or that they know you better? Leave me a reply and let me know: How well do you really know the people in your sphere of influence?

Open your heart,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s get to know each other!

P.P.S. If this type of thinking appeals to you, I hope you will check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailer.

The Satisfaction of DOING: What Can You Check Off Your List?

“Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s a day when you’ve had everything to do and you’ve done it.” –Margaret Thatcher

Hello friend,

I remember this time last year. I was busy organizing my mind and plotting about how I would go about the monumental task of finishing my book and soldiering it to the publishing stage. I was still naïve and unaware of all the million little things it would require, but I knew about the big stuff and that sure seemed like an awful lot. There was much editing ahead. There was formatting. There was cover design, photography, font choice, distribution, the e-book. It was daunting, to say the least.

But I was past the point of letting my fear stop me on this one. My brain was crystal clear about what my heart was set on, so I was not going to be talked out of completing the goal, no matter how many extra, unexpected hurdles popped up to make it more difficult and time-consuming. I just started taking action on the items on my list, no matter how small and distant from the end result they seemed. I whittled down the chapter list. I wrote the Introduction. I experimented with new formatting and learned about Smashwords. I learned about PDFs and JPGs and many other initials that I had no real interest in other than how they could get my words out into the world. Every day I did things to advance the cause.

Every time I finished a task, I breathed a sigh of relief. And I sat up a little straighter. The very act of doing something productive and necessary–whether it was small and simple or huge and totally out of my comfort zone–made me feel so much better about the goal as a whole and about my competence as a goal-chaser. I learned that I could take on things that were challenging and make them work. I learned that I had reserves of energy and resolve if only I dug in and made the attempt. And, best of all, I learned–or at least was reminded–that I was worthy of achieving my goals and dreams. Those were wonderful things to learn about myself, things I won’t soon let go of.

But I also learned something very important about the process of goal-chasing and the very nature of To-Do Lists: they are self-propelling, fueled and energized by the actions on the lists themselves. They are momentum-based. That is, the very doing of a necessary task creates a feeling of achievement and satisfaction that makes me want to get more of that feeling.

Of course, I want to get closer to completing the ultimate objective–publishing the book, in this case–but I also want more of that satisfaction and pride in achievement from conquering individual items on my list. It’s like, sure, you ultimately want to win the war, but the feeling of winning the battles along the way is pretty sweet, too. And the more you win, the more you want to win. Pretty soon you are gobbling up task items like gold stars in elementary school, and all the while, the big goal is getting closer and more realistic all the time. It is a beautiful, satisfying flow, and that satisfaction is highly addictive. And healthy.

This week, I had two fantastic reminders of this beautiful satisfaction and addictive momentum.

The first came in the form of a Facebook post from a longtime member of the Journal of You community. She was announcing the publishing of her own first book for children. The announcement triggered the flood of emotions and memories that I experienced last year when my Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth was finally published. I was so thrilled for her and proud of her (if you can be proud of someone you don’t really know), knowing how much courage and determination it took to make it all happen. Although I am sure our paths to publishing have some things in common, my imagination went wild in considering the many hurdles–artistic, technical, emotional, and more–that she had to overcome and the countless tasks she had to complete to get to this point. That To-Do List had to be miles long! But she checked them off and has an achievement of a lifetime to show for it. That is satisfying!

The second reminder has been building all month long, growing stronger with each checkmark I make on my list. I wrote a letter to you at the end of July called “Maximizing the Summer of Your Life: Are Your Aspirations Happening?” about how, at the start of Summer, I had had such big goals for adventures with my kids and how I wasn’t doing a good job of following through with making concrete plans and taking actions. Well, I am so pleased to report that we are crushing August! I have been downright giddy–and exhausted, I admit–coming home from each new adventure, so satisfied with how the Summer has turned into one big bundle of happy memories.

Just this month so far, we have had a few different weekends at lake cabins with all kinds of water sports and campfires and family, been to the water park, hosted a sleepover, had our first camping adventure sleeping in our new tent at a state park (after a few nights of trying it out in the yard!), hiked through a local forest along a river and waterfall, biked, had lots of play dates, played lots of sports, been to birthday parties, gone to the movies, and been to both the county fair and state fair. It has required discipline from me to put things in the calendar and commit to doing them, whether or not they are in my comfort zone. And each time we do something, on the drive home I mentally check it off the list and notice that sense of satisfaction that is clearly rising as I go deeper and deeper down the list. From that first week of the month until now, I have felt that momentum snowballing. It is an amazing high and makes me even more excited for the final week of Summer and our last great adventures. I am addicted!

That seems to be the way it works for me and my bigger rocks. At times, the big goal– getting a book published or getting in shape or creating the best Summer ever for my kids–just seems too enormous and unmanageable, and I can’t even deal with it in my mind. The sheer scope of the project paralyzes me. It’s only when I can carve it up a bit and see it as a bunch of definable pieces–tasks that I can name, act on, and put a check mark next to–that I can really get my teeth into it and begin that kind of addictive, self-propelling satisfaction that seems to eventually carry the project to completion all on its own. That multiplying satisfaction becomes a force that cannot be stopped.

But it needs action to be started. I need to DO SOMETHING first.

Last year I read a book by Jen Sincero called You Are A Badass. I only recall one line from the book, but it is a keeper: “In order to kick ass, you must first lift your foot.” I love that! Sure, I should have the dream or the goal; it is necessary to do something big. Yes, I should have the excitement for the dream and the right motivation; they help when things get tough. But no matter how noble my dream, how pure-hearted my motivation, or how eager my spirit, nothing will happen until I TAKE ACTION.

But when I do, BOOM! That joy and satisfaction pop up, and the ball starts rolling.

I see now that that is why my life seems to move in spurts. My goals are always out there, but they are floating around as if in space. They often seem too big and distant to act on, so I just kind of slide by for a while in complacency. But then I get antsy and annoyed with myself for that skating, so I reach out and take hold of one of those big rocks and start chiseling. I get my tasks lined up, and I start to get the fever. The momentum builds and carries me happily until the goal is finished and I feel satisfied. Temporarily satisfied. Then it starts all over again: sliding, antsy, grasping, beautiful snowballing.

I guess I should figure out a system to always have at least one thing snowballing toward completion. That would likely keep me more consistently engaged and enthused about my life and my prospects. For now, though, I suppose it is enough to understand that, whatever my circumstances and however lofty my ambitions, the one thing I need to remember is to LIFT MY FOOT. Just lift my foot.

How about you? What does it take for you to tackle your big goals and dreams? Open up your journal and write about your experiences with achievement. What do you do with your big rocks? Do they mostly remain giant floating bodies in a distant space that you cannot quite sink your teeth into, or do you take hold of them and get right to achieving them, or somewhere in between? When you embark upon a large goal, do you formulate a specific plan or do you just flow with your intuition and change with the circumstances? Are you a list-maker? If so, are the lists written down, or do you just keep a rough list going in your head (I have done both)? Do you get that little jolt of adrenaline or feeling of satisfaction from knocking something off your list? Does one success seem to feed into others for you with your To-Do items, the momentum building the further down your list you go? Is there an addictive nature to it for you? Can you name an example of a goal you reached using this kind of momentum-building? How satisfying was it on the whole? How widely did your satisfaction level vary between the first step in the process and the last? Does successful completion of one goal motivate you to get started immediately on the next one, or do you tend to slide for a while after you achieve something? Is that a healthy balance and an opportunity to refuel your tank, or is that lull a waste of precious time? When you think of the way you might describe the way you ARE–e.g. adventurous, generous, open-minded, outdoorsy, outgoing, faithful, Christian, family-oriented, social justice-oriented, selfless, courageous, kind–how does that measure up with the things you actually DO? Are your actions in line with your intentions, or do you mostly think and/or talk a good game? How does this comparison make you feel? Do you have some work to do? What is the next big goal you would like to achieve? Do you have at least a rough list of things you will have to do to get there? What is something you can do today to create some momentum toward that goal? Are you willing to begin? Leave me a reply and let me know: What can you check off your list?

Take that step,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. We can all DO better!

P.S.S. If you are looking to better understand yourself and move toward a more authentic life, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailer.