Category Archives: Health & Fitness

COVID Paranoia: The Awfulness Of Thinking You Might Have It

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

Let me rewind the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well and be considerate,

William

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

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

President-Shopping: What Do You Value In A Candidate?

“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” –Karl Marx

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” –Napoleon Bonaparte

Hello friend,

Here is a small sampling of the kinds of thoughts dominating my mind in recent weeks: Do we really see eye-to-eye? Does she share my passions? Do I want someone more experienced, or less? Is she in this for me or for herself? Will she go all the way? Sounds exciting, right? Sadly (or not), no, I am NOT back in the dating game or perusing Match.com for options. Instead, I am in a different kind of market, one that, at this critical juncture in American history, may be even more consequential than my love life. I am searching for a President.

I remember the primary season four years ago, watching the earliest Republican debates. Like the current crop of Democratic candidates, it felt like an enormous cast of characters to pare down. I figured that in our back-and-forth country, it was probably the Republicans’ turn to win the Presidency, so it was especially intriguing. Not that I was going to vote for one of them–I don’t belong to a party but am very liberal and thus typically end up choosing among the Democrats in our antiquated, two-party system–but my keen interest in politics and the future of America keeps me fascinated by the happenings and characters in both parties.

In that Republican debate, I remember taking notice of John Kasich for the first time, thinking he might make the best nominee in the end, one that would try to be a President for everyone in our fractured country, even as the leader of one party. He was personable enough and seemed somewhat open-minded, seemingly a decent guy in spite of his politics. I figured he may even try to work with both parties, something I fancied given both that I was expecting a Republican President and that things in Washington had become stubbornly divided and petty. I also remember noting Marco Rubio in that debate, figuring him to be someone to look out for in the future, maybe the next Vice-President and/or a future President. Jeb Bush seemed like the kind of guy that would be nominated. Others seemed out of their depth. Ted Cruz repulsed me in every way. Donald Trump seemed to be every bit the nightmare that he still seems to me now. Well, we know what the Republican voters decided.

The Democratic primary at the time, though technically open, seemed like a done deal with an eventual Hillary Clinton nomination. Though in a much smaller field, it was clear in the first debate that Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee were going nowhere. The then-new-to-me message of Bernie Sanders, though appealing to these ears, just seemed like it wasn’t going to get a fair or full hearing (and maybe I was too quick to pick a candidate because of that). Clinton had policies that I like, she was exceptionally smart and well-qualified, and electing the first female President appealed to me greatly. I thought she would do a good job despite an obviously hostile opposition stemming from the decades-long, Fox News-led assassination of her character. I voted for her in the primary and again in the general election. And again, we all know how that went.

So, here we are again, four years and several debates later, and, for the moment and for the Democrats, at least, there is still a wide variety of characters to choose from. The policy choices range from the center to the far left, and the range of personality styles and types of experience is even broader.

Looming over all of them, too, is the elusive quality called “electability.” Disgust of Trump is so strong that poll after poll shows that voters in the Democratic primaries prefer someone who will beat Trump over someone who shares their values. I have seen interviews with voters who actually preferred a woman or person of color (when there were some) but put that preference aside and chose a white man for fear that sexism and/or racism would cause their preferred candidate to lose in the general election. The problem I see is that I don’t think anyone really knows what electable is. Look at Trump. Like him or not right now, you would have to agree that four years ago, he did not seem electable. Establishment Republicans were in a state of shock and gripped by the fear that someone with such an arrogant and petty personality, prior support of Democrats, and history of racist and misogynistic actions not only wouldn’t win but that he would cause so many others down-ballot to lose as well. The experts agreed. And they were all wrong.

Right now the same hand-wringing is happening in the Democratic Party over the recent emergence of Bernie Sanders as the frontrunner for the nomination. They fear someone with such liberal (“democratic socialist”) views will alienate not only the party’s moderate voters but also the “swing voters,” independents and disaffected Republicans that the Democrats were planning to win over in this election. But who is to say if these fears are well-founded? Doesn’t winning the contests make you electable? In any case, because I don’t think people know what electable looks like until after the votes are tallied, I wish folks in these primary contests would vote for who they think would actually be the best President rather than looking at it like a horse race, trying to predict the winner rather than select one.

But how does each person select one? What factors weigh heaviest when deciding amongst a cast of characters who all belong on the same half of the political spectrum as you do? Because let’s be clear, this is a totally different challenge than just voting in the general election, when you are probably going to be voting for the nominee from your preferred party whether you like that person or not. [Let’s face it: Donald Trump may have a very high approval rate among Republicans now, but when many of those same folks filled in that little oval by his name in November of 2016, they were biting down hard and hoping for the best rather than gleefully squealing, “This is sure to go great!!!”] But when it is basically a choice amongst characters from your own tribe, you get to (have to?) drill down on the different qualities that each one brings to the table and parse out what really matters most to you.

And that can change from one election to the next and one group of candidates to the next. Some eras call for an emphasis on personal character. Other eras–in your mind, at least–call for revolutionary policy ideas. Another calls for a status quo candidate, like an outgoing Vice President, to keep riding the wave you are on. Some years I am looking more for someone who inspires me. Other times intelligence and steadiness seem more important. Maybe it means something more to you to be a part of electing a woman or someone from another historically underrepresented group, but maybe this time you prioritize whoever feels like the safest bet. Experience in government can be looked at either positively or negatively, depending upon how fed-up you are with the system. The entire question and answer is a most volatile and thorny puzzle.

So, what am I looking for in this moment from these candidates? What will sway me most when I step into that voting booth in a few days?

Before the contest began, I would surely have told you I wanted the most humble, pleasant, intelligent, unflappable, inclusive, positive-messaged, male, and white candidate in the field. Essentially, other than the “safety” of the whiteness and the maleness, I wanted everything that Donald Trump is not. I wanted that contrast to be so glaringly obvious to any open-minded voter. That seemed to be the wisest choice to ensure a Trump defeat.

But then, as is often the case in this complex journey called Life, the real, live humans entered into the equation and mucked up my whole plan. Suddenly my natural inclinations to be inspired and to make bigger change in the world took over my better judgment. I saw safe, and it just didn’t feel like enough for me. I moved past just winning the White House and focused on the more sweeping changes that could make life better and more just for more people in the long run. I slipped away from the cold, calculated path to victory and moved toward the candidates that appealed most to me.

I am big on candidates who are serious about the environment and eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels. That one is pretty common to all of the current Democratic candidates–though some seem more passionate than others–as are things like gun law reform, women’s rights, drug law reform, a reduction of the prison-industrial complex, and putting more federal money into our schools, among many other issues. It is why I could imagine voting for any one of them if they were to win the nomination.

But there are a couple of points of separation that help me to narrow my preferences.

I believe health care should be guaranteed to all people–I have written to you before about this–and that personal finances should not keep any American from getting the care they need. I also think our current health care system is predatory, immoral, and way too expensive for what we get out of the deal. Because of these–but mainly because of the first one–I am a huge proponent of a single-payer health care system, now referred to as “Medicare For All” on the campaign trail. This may be my biggest pet issue, and it narrows my candidate choices down to just a few. Thankfully, those candidates happen to also be genuine champions of the working class, minority communities, and others who have not fared as well as people born into advantage. These candidates have plans to raise the minimum wage, to build more affordable housing, to make it easier for black and brown people to get loans for homes and small businesses, to build infrastructure in these communities, and to ensure that the schools in these areas get the funding for teachers and mental health professionals that they need to achieve some measure of equity. This genuine care for people who need and deserve a boost is very important to me in a candidate. I feel that with a couple of them.

When I am left with two whose policies I can really get behind, it is then that I dig into the personality, intelligence, and “electability” aspects of the candidates. I have watched a couple of town halls with one candidate in particular who definitely impresses me with her depth, both of caring and intelligence. The tone just feels right to me; I get that she has listened, been moved, thought it all through, and come up with very specific plans to help. That stuff ticks the boxes for me. I could see her on a debate stage with Donald Trump and coming across as the only adult in the room. But not just as the only adult–that is easy to pull off when Trump is your comparison–but the only one who has done the work to understand the situations of the people in this country and the complexities of the world we live in, and then who actually cares enough to steward both the ship and all of its passengers toward better. And though her policies are bold and to some far-fetched, she both makes them seem more do-able and also seems willing to compromise to at least move in that direction. And I don’t see her as so easily falling prey to being cartooned by Trump and his Fox News propaganda machine, though no doubt that effort will be forcefully made.

This points up the contrast between her and the other candidate whose policies I like: I just think he will too easily fall prey to the cartooning by the other side, both with his ornery, shouting personality and with the bold positions that will no doubt have the other side screaming “COMMUNIST!!!” at every turn. It’s a problem of approachability, to say nothing of the likability factor once you get that close. There is an unbending quality to him as well, which may be great if he is your personal champion but is difficult if you are anyone else. I wish more people wanted to join his movement, but I understand that its popularity at the moment, as with his personal appeal, is limited. I hate the idea of equating him with Trump, but the one similarity I sense and worry about is having a very loyal but somewhat limited following, with little possibility for growth. I would prefer to not end up with two old, stubborn, shouting, white men on the final debate stage, even if one is shouting things I like to hear. It just feels tougher on the country, leaving less room for middle ground.

That is why I prefer my other candidate. She has the policy positions that are my minimum qualification, but she also has the other things–the intelligence, the empathy, the specifics, the experience–to fill in the rest of the picture and appear as a reasonable option to a broader range of people. And frankly, to be a better President, which, if I remember correctly, is what this whole process is all about. So, even though I abandoned my initial, cold, calculated plan to pick the “safest” bet, in the form of a white, male, middle-aged moderate, and instead went where my principles led me–to an older, more liberal female–I am pleased with where I have landed and what the journey taught me. I am ready to fill in the oval!

How about you? What qualities do you value most in choosing your President? Open up your journal and explore the appeal of the candidates that you have voted for in the past and others that you have passed on. Whether it was in the last primary if you lean toward Republicans or this primary if you tend to prefer the Democrats, which aspects of their candidacies tend to hold the most sway with you? In a setting like a large debate stage, do you tend to feel for personalities and energy first and then, after you have found some that you are drawn to, listen more closely for the policy specifics? Or, do you tend to ignore the personality part and go straight to policy positions? Somewhere in between? How much does gender factor into your equation? Race? Religion? Sexuality? How much does a candidate’s intelligence impress you? How much do you weigh a person’s political experience? Is it better if they have been in Washington for a long time? Is it more appealing to you if they have succeeded in other fields, like the current billionaire candidates? How much does the person’s past matter to you, whether it is a voting record in Congress or something they have said (Trump’s “Grab ‘em by the pussy” comes to mind) or written or been charged with? How do you weigh that against what they say they stand for now? Can you put all of these other personality, history, and demographic questions aside as long as the person shares your policy positions? What is the most important issue that you want your candidate to share your vision on? How much more important is that issue than the others? What are the rest of your pet topics, in order of importance? Have you ever been fully satisfied with a politician’s positions? How much do you tend to factor in “electability” when narrowing your candidates? Do you feel like you have a good sense of what electable is? How would you draw up the “safest” candidate in your party? Is there someone you have in mind as a model? Do you pay close attention to the candidates and issues central to the party that you don’t generally vote for? Considering that one of them might become your next President, what kinds of qualities do you look for in those opposition candidates that make you think, “Well, I suppose I could live with that one for four years,” or “That one does not make me totally sick to my stomach, anyway,” or the like? Is it all about whoever is the most moderate of the bunch, or is it more about which one has a decent personality? How do the qualities you look at for the opponents differ from the ones you prioritize for your own party? Have you ever watched a debate or town hall performance by someone from the opposition party and thought to yourself, “I would actually vote for this person?” On the whole, would you say the qualities you value in a candidate change from election to election depending upon the group and the circumstances, or do you prioritize the same thing every time? What is the best predictor of your vote? Leave me a reply and let me know: What qualities matter most to you in choosing a Presidential candidate?

Think big,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please pass it on. Let’s all engage this special process!

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

The Pitfalls of Vanity: Do Your Looks Shape Your Life?

“Vanity is becoming a nuisance, I can see why women give it up, eventually. But I’m not ready for that yet.” –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye 

“How beautiful would it be if we could just see souls instead of bodies? To see love and compassion instead of curves.” –Karen Quan, Write Like No One Is Reading 2

Hello friend,

“Is my hair good?”

This is the question that my son poses to me every morning before he leaves for school. The question follows several minutes of primping with his comb and product. “Are you sure?” he questions after I assure him that it looks great (and inwardly wonder what I have done wrong as a parent). Then, as I pull him in for a hug and kiss good-bye, he fends off any part of me that gets too close to his hair. He zips up his big coat but carefully avoids his hood or hat, willfully ignoring orders from my wife to cover his head against the frigid conditions outside. And off he goes into the world, not minding one bit his mismatched socks or ragged sweatpants but obsessed with the placement of every last hair on his pretty head. Did I mention he is nine? Dear God!

Meanwhile, when I leave for work a few minutes after him, the last thing to have touched my hair was my shower towel. No combs, no products, nothing. Not because I have lost all of my hair with age, but rather because I have made the conscious decision to look worse just to be sure I am not walking around like my son all day, constantly worrying how my hair looks.

As part of my job in this frost-bitten land, I go outside for extended periods a couple of times per day, then return inside and resume normal work and life events. In order to avoid hypothermia, that means attiring myself in snow hats and balaclavas and such, which, of course, are guaranteed to make an awful mess of the best of coiffures. As a person possessed of no small amount of natural vanity, I was initially vexed by this situation. Last Autumn, as I pondered the upcoming daily embarrassment of a messy mane, I figured I had two real options: 1) accept my vanity and bring some hair gel to spruce up each time I came inside, or 2) shave my hair down to a length that nothing can mess it up, essentially “conquering” my vanity by becoming willfully unattractive. I went with the second option. It is counterintuitive, I know, and dripping with irony, but it somehow made sense to me.

The day I first shaved my head, it took a lot of self-talk. “It’s just hair! It will grow back if you want it to. Other people have no choice about this. How bad could it be?” For a guy who has enjoyed compliments on my appearance for most of my life, it was a challenge. I will never forget when my wife first saw me post-cut: she looked startled at first, took a moment, then said, “Okay…,” and walked on (clearly a well-disciplined product of the old “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” admonition we all learned in kindergarten). Lovely. I couldn’t quite believe I had actually chosen to become less attractive. And all to avoid acting vain? But now would I become more aware of my appearance? I was spinning inside. In untangling my hair, I had somehow managed to tangle my psyche.

While I have, as the year has proven, become more conscious of my hair and its downgrade in appearance in certain circumstances–when I meet new people, when I have to be in a picture, when I appear in public next to my very attractive wife, etc.–I have definitely embraced the freedoms it has brought. I wear a cozy winter hat more than ever rather than sacrifice my comfort to keep my hair sculpted. My baseball caps come on and off during the day without a second thought, as do the hoods of my hoodies. I increasingly seek out opportunities to swim or play in the rain. It is a new brand of freedom, and I quite like it.

It has made me all the more aware, though, of what people–myself included–sacrifice in their lives to work around their appearance. I notice my wife’s hesitation every time swimming is mentioned, knowing how much time and effort it takes to get her and my daughter’s hair clean and styled. That feels like a tragedy to me, as I tend to think of my time in the water as a source of Joy and profound Peace. I see people avoiding activities that make them sweat because of the work required for their hair or make-up to be redone, or that they don’t look attractive enough when sweating (to say nothing of insecurities about how they look in workout clothes or swimsuits). They go out in the cold or the hot sun without a hat, like I used to do, and freeze or burn rather than get their hair messed up. They avoid biking because of the helmets. The list goes on.

Of course, it is difficult to disentangle our vanity with our desire to feel healthy and confident, making this a sensitive and confusing topic. I go to the gym every day, and I can’t say for sure how much of my effort is aimed purely at being healthy and how much is to avoid looking a way that seems less attractive to me. I am sure when I started lifting weights when I was a teenager, it was much more about vanity than it was about my health. Probably it has only swung the other way out of necessity in recent years, cognizant as I am of the aches and pains of my aging body and wanting to delay any major malfunctions. And though body image is way too big of a topic for today’s letter, suffice it to say that vanity is still heavily at play in my life even now, as I move to this age when I don’t imagine myself to be physically appealing to anyone.

Maybe it is this relatively recent shift in perspective that best explains my willingness to shave my hair for the sake of practicality. In a way, I suppose I have given up. Not in a “poor me” kind of way, but rather just in a way that is more accepting of aging and my place on both my life’s trajectory and on the pecking order for our society’s definitions of beauty and appeal. The reality is that I am past our standard mating age and that they don’t show pictures of guys my age in the fashion magazines. Instead of resisting those simple facts, I am beginning to acknowledge them and flowing accordingly. Acceptance. It is not as though I am giving up hygiene and social skills; I am just not pretending that I might be attractive anymore. I don’t think anyone will fight me on the idea.

But speaking of society and our social norms, this topic of vanity and the freedom to age “normally” has stirred up some thoughts that aren’t about me so much but about you and everyone else in my world. Like this one: Why has it come to be expected that women dye their hair? I understand that some people–men and women–of all ages do this for fun or “something different” at all ages. Whatever, I like creative expression. But think of how few women, especially, that you know who actually have grey hair. I don’t know very many. I just think of all the time and money people spend on this–not to mention the emotional energy–and can’t help feeling it is all such a waste. And yet I know society has trained me not to judge them–which I don’t seem to–because it is so thoroughly “normal” (though I must admit that, for reasons that I can neither explain nor justify morally, I feel myself being critical about men who color over their grey). Still, I can’t help noticing and feeling some extra bit of respect for those few women I do see who have embraced their grey. Unconsciously, I think I do the same when I see women who have adopted an “easy” hairstyle or wear little or no make-up even if it makes them appear “less attractive” according to our current standards of beauty. Maybe I am finally opening my eyes to the damaging effects of patriarchy and our collective shallowness, and it is leaving me disgusted enough to appreciate anyone who bucks the system.

I would love to think that this is just part of the process of my maturation and learning the wisdom that old people sometimes arrive at: that there is no inherent worth in physical appearance and thus no use in giving it so much power over our self-confidence and our time. But maybe it is a convenient bailout for me at a time when my appearance–other than my whiteness and maleness–is finally failing to give me any rewards. Because, while I have often chastised myself for “flaws” in my natural physical appearance, I am also quite willing to admit that I enjoyed the unearned privileges of being considered “attractive” when I was younger. I have no doubt that it helped me in the eyes of teachers, employers, peers, and prospective mates. I am grateful for that, as I know it shielded me from a lot of things that I have never even considered and colors my perspective on everything, including this very topic. It is highly likely that now, as just a regular, middle-aged, grey-haired dude who nobody looks twice at, I am finally getting on the bandwagon of “wisdom” and wanting to be more dismissive of appearance. Maybe rather than enlightenment, the best explanation for my evolution is that I don’t want to play society’s game anymore because I can no longer win at it (I’m taking my ball and going home!).

In any case, I am highly aware of the messages our society and the people around us send to everyone, but especially to kids and women, about our appearances. In the last couple of years, I have made a conscious effort to say nothing about a person’s appearance. No compliments, no critiques, nothing. I sometimes fail, but I am aware of it now when I do. As a parent of kids whose bodies are constantly changing and who are becoming full consumers of the barrage of messages out there in our society–my son is 9 and my daughter is 11–I am hyper-vigilant about what I say to them. Occasionally I will soften my stance and tell them how adorable I see them to be, but mostly I try to say nothing about their natural appearances. I try to choose other things to compliment them on, such as their kindness, empathy, or hard work.

Although I consider them blessed with physical beauty and likely to be deemed “attractive” by their peers as they mature, I don’t want them to get any more attached to their appearances than society will already mold them to be. I especially don’t want them to equate their appearance with who they are. I also don’t want it to be so much work, physically or emotionally. It’s why it disturbs me so much when my son obsesses over his hair before he leaves the house. He cares too much.

Is there any way to be a member of our culture and not be a little bit obsessed about your appearance? I was going to say it is to get so old that no one is looking at you for your attractiveness, but even most of the elderly people I know seem very focused on getting their hair just right and looking fresh. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t have a problem with wanting to look good. I guess I just don’t want myself or my kids to miss any opportunities for fun and adventure because it might mess up our hair or cause our make-up to run. And mostly, I want us to walk through the world knowing that our value is not in our appearance, no matter what our society tells us. I want to let go of my vanity as best as I can, not to justify looking bad but just to live more freely, with one less master to serve. I may not turn any more heads on my path, but at least I will be choosing my own way.

How about you? How much does your appearance shape the way you go through the world? Open up your journal and your mirror? What do you see staring back at you? First, just describe your appearance without judgments. Next, throw in some judgments, first of your own preferences and then of what society would say are your best and worst features. Who do you think is easier on that person in the mirror: you or society? What accounts for the difference? Regardless of your personal judgment of your appearance, how hung up on it are you? First, how much time do you spend on it? Do you spend your morning in front of a mirror trying to get it just right? Do you go to a salon for cuts and colors? How about manicures and pedicures? If you exercise, is it primarily for health or appearance? What other ways do you spend your time focused on how you look? At what age did you spend the most time on your appearance? Were you most or least satisfied at that age? How about financially? How much money do you spend on improving your appearance? Has that amount increased or decreased as you have aged? What other aspects of your life do you sacrifice financially to be able to afford your beauty upkeep? Do you feel like it is a good investment? Finally, how about the emotional investment? How much of your heart do you leave vulnerable to the way you look? Does it stress you out? Do you think of your appearance as who you are? How has that affected your self-confidence throughout your life? With all of that investment of time, money, and emotion attached to your to the way you look, how has it determined how you spend your time? What activities do you avoid because they would mess up your look? In what ways has your ambition to look good limited your enjoyment of life? Have you ever been so disgusted with your vanity and its hindrance to your life that you did something to make yourself look worse just so you would toughen up? Have you done anything to your appearance purely because it was easier to maintain or allowed you to live more freely–shave your head, let your grey go, given up cosmetics, etc.–even though it made you feel less physically attractive? How did that work for you in the long-term? Were you able to stay committed to it, or did you return to your higher maintenance look? Even if you can’t quite commit to looking less than your best for the sake of comfort and convenience, are you still willing to admit that our society has an unhealthy fixation on appearance and lots of unrealistic and damaging ideals that we are expected to conform to? Are you more likely to resist or conform? How has that changed as you have aged? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do your looks shape your life choices?

Be a beautiful soul,

William

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

How Fragile We Are: A Temporary Life in a Vulnerable Body

“Nature of life is fragile. Uncontrollable events happen all the time in life.” –Kilshore Bansal

Hello friend,

I had quite a health scare last week that left me physically weak and emotionally rattled. It never fails to amaze me by just how little we are hanging on.

My pain came on quite suddenly Monday afternoon. I had lay down on the sofa with a mug of cocoa to write in my journal. By the end of my entry, my stomach felt so overfull that I was disgusted with what a glutton I was. I figured that I would get up and move around, maybe use the bathroom, and things would settle down and be fine. They were not. The pain increased, but I was managing, and by the time I went to bed, I convinced myself that I would be fine in the morning and that my Tuesday would be as ordinary as ever.

How wrong I was.

I did all I could to get myself going in the morning and off to work. I felt horrible but told myself that I wouldn’t think about the doctor unless I still felt bad on Wednesday. After all, I didn’t have the fever and other symptoms of the nasty flu that has been such demolishing people all Winter, so I did not worry about infecting anyone else. It was just my own pain–constant, knee-buckling pain–in one localized area of my body. However, by late afternoon, I had begun to believe that I was not going to make it anywhere on Wednesday. I needed immediate help.

When the doctor at Urgent Care seemed confounded enough to send me home with some Maalox, I began to worry. I knew it was something serious, not just a bad tummy ache. As a last resort, she ordered a blood test, the results of which had her ordering me to go directly to the Emergency Room.

It was a quiet, solemn ten minutes in the car. “So this is how my story ends, eh?” That was the first thought in my head. I thought of all the people who have unwittingly embarked on their final day or final chapter of existence under the most ordinary circumstances. They got up and went to work that day as usual, and by the end of the day, they had been crushed by a car or had a stroke or received a diagnosis that would signal the their demise and final destiny. I thought I might be in that last category. I envisioned the ER doctors, after a series of scans, informing me that a malignant tumor had taken over the organs of my abdomen and that there was nothing more they could do but try to keep me comfortable until my certain death arrived, all of which I then had to explain to my wife when she arrived at the hospital. I wasn’t scared or panicked on that drive, but I definitely had a good cry. Maybe it was that awful vision, maybe it was the pain, and maybe it was that I was all alone. In any case, I wept for the final few minutes of the drive. Then, when I pulled into the parking lot, I got myself together to face my new reality, whatever that would be.

A couple of lonely and painful hours later–with a few more cries mixed in when the nurses would leave my room–after those envisioned scans were completed, I lay there contemplatively and awaited the results. I marveled at how, at any moment, some news would casually enter the room and either shatter my entire existence (as well as the lives of my wife and kids) or grant me a temporary reprieve. I pondered disbelievingly at how nonchalant that Fate can be, how lives get snuffed out and turned upside down in the most ordinary moments.  

Drunk driver. Aneurysm. School shooting. Diagnosis.

All day long. Every day of the year.  

Was the coming moment–the one that was so ordinary to everyone but me–about to be my moment? I wasn’t fretting, but I wasn’t forcing optimism, either. I think I was mostly in awe of the absolute powerlessness I felt. I was supremely aware of the blunt fact that Fate could do whatever she wanted with the fragile vessel that was my body, that it was completely out of my control and always would be. I served at her pleasure. There was the sense that the IVs and other tubes and machines I was hooked up to were there simply to administer helplessness. It was palpable.

I had never felt so insignificant in all my life.

So, what did I feel when the doctor came in with her sober face and her “I’m sorry to have to tell you this…” tone and told me that I had an appendicitis and would need to have surgery immediately? I felt relief. Relief that I got to go back home in a day or two to resume my normal life of pretending that I know how each day will go and that I have some control over the outcome. Relief that I got to go chase my kids around again and act as though we will certainly have all the time in the world together. Relief that my wife and I could resume our happy assumption that we will grow old together. Relief that I got to write another book and more of these letters to you. And ultimately, relief that I could feel like, “OF COURSE I will do all of that.” Of course.

I suppose it is an amazing privilege to live in a place and time that we can so easily delude ourselves that all will be well for the foreseeable future. I live in American suburbia in the 21st century. In spite of the nonsense in Washington and the regular mass shootings around the country, it is my privilege to drink clean water, have access to quality medical care, and feel physically safe where I live and reasonably certain of what comes next.

But let’s be honest: it’s still an illusion of safety and certainty. Those things aren’t real. We are at the whims of Fate. That aneurysm or drunk driver can hit at any moment.

That was the sobering reality that hit me on the way to the Emergency Room and remained on my shoulder as I waited for the doctor to deliver the news. I knew that she could just as easily speak the words “stomach cancer” as “appendicitis” when she walked through the door, and that Fate’s flip-of-the-coin might bring the other answer to the person waiting in the next room. We were both powerless to change her verdict.

Even after I received the “good news” and felt that big exhalation of relief, that peek behind the curtain of Reality left me rattled emotionally. For the next few days, I was a raw nerve.

When my kids came to see me the next day in the hospital, it was all I could do to keep from bursting out crying. They were the thing I stood to lose on that coin flip, after all, and I had shuddered even more at the thought of them losing me at their age. If they weren’t already wearing Fear on their faces at seeing me hooked up to all those tubes, I know I would have let out an involuntary sob. As it was, I fought it back and just told them I loved them and missed them terribly in the day that had passed. I was the same way when my Mom called. I could hardly breathe–much less speak–in my effort to keep the floodgates closed.

The thing that finally burst the dam was a movie. On the morning I was released from the hospital, I went home to nap in my bed. When I woke, I started a movie that I had long wanted to watch on Netflix, “Fruitvale Station.” It is based on a true story of a young man’s last day on Earth, ending in his murder. On a different day, I might have finished watching and been angry at the injustice of the murder and sad about the loss to the young man’s mother, child, and girlfriend, but I think I would have moved on without much drama. Not this day. No, I lay in bed and sobbed and sobbed at the random and senseless cruelty of the world and how we walk daily along that razor’s edge between a happy normalcy and a completely shattered existence. Shortly after I stopped crying, my wife came home, took one look at me, and asked what had happened. I couldn’t even get the words out; I just sobbed and sputtered some more.

That peek behind the curtain had broken me. It was Life and the unfairness and uncertainty of it. And it was the sheer recklessness of Fate. How it could take that young man with the beautiful daughter and his newfound resolution to be better. How it could casually erase the lives of children in the middle of a normal school day. How it could nonchalantly shake the Earth and crumble the homes in one town but not another, then turn around and scatter terminal diagnoses all over the planet. And it was the absolute clarity that, despite the fact that I got off easy this time, it could just as easily have gone the other way.

All of that reality caught up to me in that moment, and I let it all out through my eyes.

In the days that have followed, my body has grown stronger, and with it I have rebuilt my illusion. I no longer spend the day thinking about how completely fragile each of our existences is. I am getting past that jarring sensation I felt upon realizing how temporary and random are our lives and deaths. I am planning for the future again, even as I am reminding myself to be present and enjoy each moment I have here with these beautiful people that I call mine. I am telling myself that waking up early for the gym each morning will let me live a longer, happier, and healthier life. I am trying to be “normal” again.

I have to admit though, that there is a thin veil over my normal now. I got spooked last week on my way to the hospital. Spooked by Reality. You know that traumatized feeling you get when someone just about rams into you with their car as you are driving–that freaked out, breathless, sobering kind of spook? It was like that, but instead of dissipating after a few minutes, it stayed. So I am wondering: will this gun-shy feeling go away with time, or will every moment of joy and freedom and planning and dreaming be tinged with that peek behind the curtain, that look into Fate’s eyes, the same way that Death has a way of leaving that tinge on every moment thereafter? I will have to wait and see, I suppose.

Still, I can’t help but think that it will become harder and harder to shake the truth that our existence–my existence–is a temporary and uncertain one in a body that is vulnerable to the whims of Fate and random chance. I’m not sure that will ever quite sit well with me.

How about you? How do you make peace with the vulnerability of your body and the random and uncertain nature of Life in general? Open up your journal and go deep as you pull back the curtain on this topic that we typically keep ourselves in denial about. How often, if ever, do you allow yourself to fully absorb how vulnerable your body is to any number of potential destructions? Does it take a personal crisis, such as a car crash or medical emergency? Do you feel it when there is an “act of God” that makes the news, such as an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami that kills lots of people? How about things nearby, such as when someone in your community is stricken with cancer or killed by a drunk driver? Does it hit you at all when you hear of tragedies further away from home, such as a famine in Africa or a genocide in Syria? Do you brush those things quickly past your awareness, or do you allow them in? How does each of these types of peril affect you? What makes one type more staggering than the other? Does it have to happen directly to you to affect you deeply, or is your empathy enough to be shaken by these occurrences in others? When you feel it, how quickly are you able to get back to your illusion of safety and security? Is that a healthy and necessary denial? Is it also healthy to have these periodic reminders (read: scares) to help you to see that life is to be cherished and not wasted? Overall, how free are you of the shadow of this near-death existence that you live every day? How has that changed as you have aged? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you navigate life in your fragile and temporary body?  

Spread sunlight,

William

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Goals, Goals, Everywhere Goals: Aiming for a Bigger Life

“The moment you put a deadline on your dream, it becomes a goal.” –Harsha Bhogle, The Winning Way 

Hello friend,

I have never been much of a goal-setter. Don’t get me wrong; I have always been a dreamer and driven to do great things in my life. I have taken risks and made sacrifices in my attempt to leave my mark on the world. But I have done all that without setting many specific goals. I can’t say why exactly. It just didn’t feel like me. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to feel contained, and goals can sometimes feel like fences to me. I have typically preferred to trust my intuition on how much of something I need, where I need to push, and where to pull back.

But in the last few years, as I have continued to examine my life in my journal and in these letters to you, I have had this creeping sense of disappointment and regret as it has become increasingly clear that I have failed to live up to all of those dreams and ambitions. Eventually, I was bound to ask myself why, and I have been slowly allowing those questions in. I wondered if maybe it was because I haven’t pushed myself hard enough and consistently enough to make the big strides I imagine myself capable of. But why? After all, I had the dreams. I had the drive. I began to wonder if maybe I just didn’t have the right plan. Maybe I needed a new method.

Enter Oola.

A couple of months ago, my sister, who is into self-help/personal growth books and always has her eyes open for things that can help her and her business grow, treated me to a new book that she had been raving about. It was called Oola: Find Balance In An Unbalanced World. In it, the authors, Dave Braun and Troy Amdahl, write about the importance of living in a way that is balanced and growing in all the major areas of life, what they call “The Seven F’s of Oola”: Fitness, Finance, Family, Field (career), Faith, Friends, and Fun. In my old Life Coaching classes, this resembled what is commonly referred to as “The Wheel of Life”.

I am always on the lookout for tips on doing LIFE better, so I plowed through the meat of the book, taken in by the stories of these two guys and how the seven aspects played out in their lives. I knew they grew up in my neck of the woods and were of a similar age, so I also wanted to glean some insight into how they became successful and which tips I might borrow for my own life.

A couple of weeks ago, as I approached the very last section of the book, I was thinking I wasn’t getting much that was soul-stirring or deeply inspirational out of it. I was eager to be done with it, hoping to find something a bit more life-changing from my next read.

But in those last pages was a challenge that would change the entire experience for me. Well, at least I hope it will.

Whenever someone tells me they read my weekly letters or that they read my book, I always want to know if they do more than read it. Do they write their own journal entry about the questions raised? Do they engage someone in a conversation about it? Do they at least take some time to ponder the issue and how it intersects with their own life? I tend to think that the only way to get anything out of my writing is to truly engage with it: to ponder, to discuss, and hopefully to write about it. I definitely hope that my words will be more than just read. Speaking as the sensitive author, I don’t feel like my work can be fairly judged unless you have done the deep diving.

So there I was, beginning to judge the Oola book, when it turned the tables on me. It asked of me what I ask of my readers: to get out my pen and dive deep into the way these “Seven F’s” could change my life. The only catch: I had to set goals. And not just a few, but twenty-one: three for each of the seven areas on the Oola Wheel.

What a predicament! Of course, the idea of setting twenty-one goals–specific, measurable type of goals–was immediately off-putting to my personality, so I was inclined to reject the challenge outright. But. (Oh, the BUT!) But it seemed like my integrity was on the line. How could I defend my own writing’s quality from people who didn’t fully engage it if I wasn’t willing to fully engage this book? That wouldn’t be right. And the other, bigger BUT. But how can I keep rejecting goal-setting if my usual, comfortable method of just going with my gut hasn’t gotten me where I want to be in life?

The writing was on the wall. It was time to get out of my comfort zone. And so it came to pass that I took my pretty-but-somewhat-blurry dreams and gave them some definition, some real numbers, some deadlines.

I made goals. Twenty-one of them. Here they are:

FITNESS

  1. Get my weight to 203 by December 31, 2018. (That is somewhere from 5-7 stubborn pounds to lose.)
  2. Do a full yoga practice at least once per week.
  3. Add rowing to at least one cardio workout every week.

FINANCE

  1. Make more money than we spend each month.
  2. Get a higher paying job with benefits.
  3. Put $250 into a vacation fund every month.

FAMILY

  1. Have one Family Game Night/Family Movie Night per week.
  2. Have one devoted couple activity (game, TV show, whatever) per week.
  3. Take the epic Montana Road Trip by the end of 2020.

FIELD

  1. Get a “real job” involving writing as soon as possible.
  2. Spend time every week writing my next book.
  3. Join my wife full-time in her new business by January 1, 2020.

FAITH

  1. Meditate 15 minutes per day.
  2. Take a weekly nature walk practicing mindfulness and gratitude.
  3. Develop a nightly gratitude “prayer” or practice.

FRIENDS

  1. Connect with Johnny in person at least once every two months.
  2. Engage one new person in conversation each week.
  3. Re-connect with one different old friend by letter or phone call each month.

FUN

  1. Become a regular tennis player again–once a week–in the warmer seasons.
  2. Write my second book–spend devoted time every week.
  3. Practice the guitar at least three times per week for at least 15 minutes.

Of these twenty-one, the Oola guys recommend that while you can keep all of them and work toward them, it is helpful to pull out your top seven that would make the biggest impact on your life right now (it doesn’t have to be one from each area). I chose these seven:

  1. Make more money than we spend every month.
  2. Get a “real job” involving writing as soon as possible. (I also chose this as my “OolaOne”, the single thing that would make the biggest immediate impact.).
  3. Meditate 15 minutes per day.
  4. Write my second book, devoting time every week.
  5. Practice my guitar at least three times per week, at least 15 minutes each.
  6. Have one devoted couple activity each week.
  7. Re-connect with one different old friend by letter or phone each month.

There they are! It was a grind for me, I fully admit, but even my fluid mind is sitting here appreciating how concrete they all look in their tidy lists with all the details included. It definitely helped to use the popular goal-setting method called S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Realistic, Time-based), as that kept me from being vague and slippery. These definitely feel more like the opening quote: like dreams with deadlines. Goals.

Having just finished the exercise, I can tell that all of the specifics are very new to me and my usual processing. My inner world is trembling a bit, no doubt. My cheese has been moved. But I can also see how this will be really, really good for me. That is, it will be really good if I follow this up with the appropriate action steps, like daily To-Do Lists filled with items that work directly toward those goals. I am excited, both to start achieving these goals and just to see my world through a new set of lenses. I think I needed it. No, I’m sure I did. Now that I have some goals, I am charged up and ready for action. I’m off to get my Oola on!

How about you? How do you do with goal-setting in your life? Open up your journal and examine the role of goals in your world. Do you have specific goals in your life right now? What are they? Are they far away things–like an advanced degree or retirement–or something you will accomplish within the next year? How aware of your goals are you on a day-to-day basis? Do you use them to guide your behavior on a normal day, or are they just something you check in with once in a while to see if life is generally heading in the right direction? How specific and measurable do you get in your goal-setting? Do you have exact dates and numbers in mind so you can be certain as to when the goals are reached? Do you have someone in your life who holds you accountable for your goals, or do you count on your own discipline to get you there? Would an accountability partner help? How realistic are your goals? Do you have a strong chance of reaching them? Do you gain confidence when you reach a goal, no matter how small? Whether or not you currently have goals or are aware of how balanced and growing your life is, does the concept of setting multiple goals in each area of your life appeal to you? Have you ever done something like this? So, go ahead. What are three goals you can make for yourself in each of the seven areas: health & fitness, money, family, career, faith/spirituality, friends, and hobbies/fun? In which area are goals easiest for you to make? In which area are you most likely to achieve your stated goals? In which area are you most likely to fail? Is systematic goal-setting foreign to you? How does it feel now doing it? Does it make you more eager to make a plan to achieve them? If you had to choose one goal to pursue that would make the biggest impact on your life right now, which one would it be? Are you willing to commit to that? What small steps can you take today to move in that direction? Leave me a reply and let me know: Which goals can you set to move yourself in the direction of your best life?

Go get it,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it on social media. Let’s go after our dreams together!

P.S.S. My new book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth, is available in paperback and ebook formats from many retailers. To get yours on Amazon, go to http://www.amazon.com/author/williamrutten Thank you for your support!

Grading Your Year: A Personal Report Card for 2017

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Hello friend,

The year 2017, as told through the screens on my phone, tablet, computer, and television, was just about the most absurd, infuriating, and demoralizing year imaginable. I had the feeling so often this year that, if we were being studied from afar by alien scientists, they would report that we are clearly devolving as a species, degenerating into a lower state of intellectual and moral being. I suppose there are plenty of “Year in Review” types of shows airing this week, but I don’t even dare to watch. I don’t much care to relive anything that people were talking about this year. It was pretty darn awful out there. I fear that if I admit to just how awful or try to delve into it, I will make for a most depressing companion at the New Year’s festivities. No, I think I will pass on assessing the great big world this year.

But how about my personal year in my little corner of the world?

That doesn’t seem nearly as depressing or daunting a task. After all, as I sit here in these final moments of the year, I still have a smile on my face and a mind eager enough to learn and grow from the lessons this year has provided. It helps, I know, that I process it every day in my journal, so I have some sense of how my report card will come out–I guess I can sense it was not all rainbows and butterflies, but I know it was one I would not trade, either–but I am open to being surprised by my assessment of the various aspects of my existence and how they were shaped by the events of 2017.

Hindsight has a way of casting a new light on things, dusting off some of the emotions and baggage of the moment and revealing its true essence and its value in the grand scheme of our lives. I think I am due for some of that clarity after what has been a most unusual year in the History of Me.

So, how did I do?

Well, maybe it is healthy to admit to a failure right from the start. I know I deserve an “F” in the Finances/Career departments. I was horrible at that from start to finish, truly. Starting the year out having just lost my job last Christmas was certainly a harbinger of things to come. I struggled to find my way all year into something that both paid the bills and met my family’s other needs. Though I have tried to maintain my general positivity and my big picture perspective through it all, I admit to falling into moments of shame, frustration, and disillusionment regarding my aspirations and failings on this front as the year passed. I have chastised myself for both my failings as a breadwinner and my weakness in allowing those failings too much control over my emotions. So, definitely an “F” here.

Another thing I did not do very well with is my Friendships. It is true that as an unsocial and introverted cat, this has never been my strong suit. So, it isn’t as though I had a very high standard from which to judge myself. However, I found myself thinking more and more as the year went on that this is an area I want to do better with: both in making new friends and in staying well-connected with my old friends. Truth: I didn’t do very well with either. I am most disappointed in myself for doing a poor job of keeping up with my best friends, letting too long pass between visits and calls. Maybe a “D” here. Not good.

Okay, this report card is not looking so good at this point! I must have done something well….

How about Family? Yes, the family stuff was quite good this year on the whole. Though I again did poorly with calling my siblings and parents, I made a bigger effort to travel to spend time with them. That was immensely rewarding, both for me and for the children. Speaking of the children, the one thing I think I do consistently well is fatherhood. That was the case this year; we have had a great time, and my relationship with each kid is strong and loving. I wish I could say I did as well as a spouse, but I consistently fail to live up to my expectations there. Still, I have had fun with my wife and have tried to be supportive while enjoying watching her grow and blossom in her new endeavors. All in all, a good score here (let’s say “B+”).

As for my Health, I am grateful to say that I would give that a “B”. There are reminders everywhere of how dramatically one’s quality of life diminishes when health problems arise, so I feel quite blessed that my issues this year have been small. I have had little nagging injuries that have kept me from some activities, but no injury has shut me down entirely. As a guy who needs to be active to remain sane, I will take that as a blessing.

Looking back, I realize that I did not do quite as well as usual with my Spirituality, which also dictates my Psychology. I seemed to be less mindful during the day, less aware of the beauty and wonder of the Divine all around me. With that, I was somewhat less grateful than normal, having fewer of those bowled-over-and-humbled-by-the-absolute-magnificence-of-the-Universe moments than I am accustomed to. I have long believed that Gratitude is the mother of Happiness, so maybe I was a bit less happy this year than my usual state of Bliss. I can make lots of excuses for this distraction from my spiritual home base–joblessness, financial strain, self-induced pressure to finish my book, etc.–but the fact is that it is under my control, and I did not live up to my high standards this year. I would say “B-“.

As someone who spent all of his school years as a “Straight-A” kind of guy, these grades for 2017 are not looking very good to me. There is a ton of room for improvement! And though I am definitely disappointed in myself on multiple fronts, there is something that sneaked into the picture late in the year that softens the blow and even puts a smile on my face.

Is there a spot on the report card for “Fulfilled a Lifelong Dream”? If so, I want to give myself an “A” there. While I had worked on it for years, it was only in this year when I truly devoted my focus to not just working on the book but finishing it. It had been my biggest goal when 2017 started, and I felt the weight of that as Autumn came. The clock ticked loudly every day, and fears and doubts screamed at equal volume. But I reminded myself that, coming into the year, the way I said I wanted to feel all year was BRAVE. On I went. Then, finally, it was done.

Of course, there was relief for being finally finished, and there was excitement about seeing my creation out in the world. But the best part was the feeling it gave me way down deep inside, in a place that I would venture to call my soul. I guess I would describe it as feeling “solid” there, like a deep confidence at having done something substantial toward my life purpose. My foundation was cemented. That is quite a feeling. I hope that you will feel it one day if you have not yet. It will change your world.

I know that this effort and its incalculable reward came at the cost of some of those low grades in the other categories. And though I certainly wish they weren’t so low–I like to have my cake and eat it, too–I have to admit that, in the end, doing the work of my soul and cementing a foundation piece of my purpose made all the sacrifices worth it.

2017 was obviously not the year in which I sparkled across the board. It was, however, the year that I built a lighthouse, one that will keep on shining, providing me with a guide during the many storms that the coming years are sure to bring. I am at peace with the sacrifice and grateful for the light. Bring on 2018!

How about you? How would you grade your 2017? Open up your journal and ponder all of the various aspects of your life over the last year. Even before you dissect each one, how do you feel, generally speaking, as you sit here at the end of your year? Satisfied? Relieved? Stressed? Elated? Indifferent? If you had to describe your year in a word, what would it be? Okay, now look at the different areas of your life and build your report card. You can just go category by category, or you can start with all the good or all the bad. How was 2017 for your job and career path? Closely related to that, how was it for your finances? Better or worse than your expectations? Why? Did it have more to do with things under your control or out of your control? Did you remember that you are in charge of your attitude no matter what the circumstances were? How well did you choose that attitude? Okay, how about your friendships? Were you as good a friend as you want to be? Where can you do better? How about family? How happy were you with your relatives this year? Did you strike the right balance of time with them: enough to deepen your bonds, not so much to drive yourself crazy? How was your health and fitness this year? Did your body hold you back from doing things that you wanted to do? What grade would you give your spiritual life this year? How about your psychological state? Were you grateful? Did you feel connected? How much awe did you experience? Okay, big picture: how does your report card look? Do your scores in those main categories make it seem like a good year, or not so much? Now consider this: was there something else–some bigger event or accomplishment–that overshadowed the main categories and colored your view of the year, either for the good or the bad? Perhaps it was a major personal achievement that brightens the rest–like me with my book–or perhaps it is something like the death of a loved one, which darkens the rest. Now that you have considered the categories and graded your year in each, what grade would you give the year as a whole? Was it twelve months that you would gladly relive, or are you eager to move on? Leave me a reply and let me know: How does your report card for 2017 look?

Make each moment count,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s make LIFE together!

P.P.S. You can find my new book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at http://www.amazon.com/author/williamrutten and many of your other favorite booksellers, including barnesandnoble.com and iBooks.

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Peace first,

William

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

Just the Essentials: What Do You Need to Be Content?

“The greatest wealth is to live content with little.” –Plato

Hello friend,

You know that feeling you get right before you leave for a trip? It’s a little rush of panic, with the urgent question, “Am I forgetting something?” Then, to calm yourself down, you run through a quick mental checklist of the most important items: keys, wallet, phone, etc.. And on and on checking off your list until the panic leaves you. Finally, you are free to head out the door and put your mind in vacation mode. Ahhh!!!

It is so obvious in those moments that if you forget one of these essentials, your trip won’t be anywhere near as enjoyable or as productive. And your memories won’t be the same.

This happened to me several years ago when I went to a family get-together at our lake cabin for the weekend and forgot my camera. I LOVED my camera! This was when my kids were really little—when “camera phones” were in their infancy and produced only blurs–and I was totally obsessed with photographing them with my fancy camera, especially capturing the once-in-a-lifetime moments with their little cousins and grandparents in a place that was very dear to me. After driving several hours to get there and unpacking the car, it was like a punch in the gut when I realized that my camera bag was still sitting in the hallway at home. I was devastated.

I kicked myself when I realized that I hadn’t had that panic moment before I left and thus never did the crucial checklist. So many times that weekend, I found myself wishing for my camera, hoping to capture a moment for posterity. I enjoyed myself, of course, but something was missing. There was an emptiness, a discontent. I was not operating with my vacation essentials taken care of, and I suffered the consequences with an anxious longing.

I was recently reminded of that unfulfilled weekend while talking to my niece, who is a professional photographer. I asked her about a recent family vacation to Africa—a photographer’s Paradise—and immediately sensed a sadness. She relayed that she had lugged her heavy photography bag all the way to Africa, only to find on arrival that the camera was not working and could not be fixed during her entire month on the continent. So, here was this photographic genius, whose eye naturally catches all of the amazing plays of light that yours and mine do not and then produces the images that blow us away, and she was left without this essential piece of what allows her to function happily in her world. For a month! That is rough.

With her story in mind, this week I have been pondering these “Essentials” in my ordinary life. I’m talking about the things I need to make me content on a daily basis.   “Things” in this case I am taking to mean things to do or to consume. Hobbies, foods, activities, places, habits. But NOT specific people! At least not for this list, as it makes it a little more complicated. Basically, I just want to nail down my daily physical requirements for contentment. And I want to do it without going too far into the weeds (because yes, I would go crazy without a toothbrush and deodorant, but I don’t think you want to know all of that). And in this case, let’s loosely define “contentment” as feeling comfortable in your skin, as though your needs are met and you are not arriving at the end of the day feeling the anxiety of leaving out something important.

So, what do I need to do in a day to not make myself crazy? I think it comes down to four things: journaling, exercise, ice cream, and fresh air. Let me explain.

I am not sure about including the ice cream, because I want to think that I can do without it (I am in an endless battle with my sugar demon). But I sure seem to find a way to include it into almost every one of my days. I also eat a banana and yogurt every morning without fail, but I don’t feel compelled by them. For most of my life, I also drank a large glass of chocolate milk at supper, but I have finally kicked that habit. It really is the cool, creamy goodness called ice cream that seems to be the one food that brings me back to myself when my body seems imbalanced after a meal. It soothes me. Every. Sweet. Day.

The fresh air is my thing, too, even though I neglect it too often in the colder months. When I am most in tune with my system, I can sense that I get irritable if it gets into the mid-afternoon and I have not been outside to breathe for a while. Like earlier this week, when it was wet and dark outside one morning, leaving me shut in to work in the basement. That was fine, but only for so long. Then I started looking for a reason to get out and imagining where I could find a dry spot to write. I get antsy. I long for the fresh air and the sounds of outside: the leaves rustling, the birds singing, the insects humming. I need to get out and take the deep breaths into my lungs, to close my eyes and feel quiet and whole and part of the scenery. To feel home.

Exercise is another given for me; I workout seven days a week. It is completely necessary for my mind. The body does the work, but it is the mind that reaps the benefits. Calm, satisfaction, relief, pride, exhilaration, confidence, engaged, cared for. I do it first thing in the morning because nothing in my system feels right until I have had a good sweat. And it’s not even that I am some super-fit guy who does intense workouts every day; no, I just do something. I would go mad if I was denied this ritual. Definitely essential.

And finally, I could not imagine living without my daily journal-writing. I have been at it for twenty straight years now, having only missed a small handful of days along the way. Without the journals, I would be so bottled-up, and yet so scattered. I would not know who I am nearly as well as I do, and I hate the thought of fumbling around blind in the world. Journaling gives me clarity, and that is something I am unwilling to do without. They are my solace and my most devoted companion.

When this topic of Essentials began to find shape in my mind, journaling was on the front of my brain before I could even formulate the question. The others became obvious when I pondered a bit, but the journaling took no consideration. It is my “that without which,” to be sure.

I suppose if there is a glue that holds my essentials together, though, it is Solitude. I like to sit quietly and enjoy my ice cream. I prefer to be alone for at least part of my time in the fresh air. When I workout, my headphones shut everyone else out of my mind. And of course, a little peace and quiet is the best way to find clarity in a journal entry.

I guess I am relieved that none of my Essential Four are electronic—Facebook, Netflix, or a video game—though my next selection would probably be my iPad, because that is how I do most of my reading. I might go off the rails without it, but I am not so sure.

Basically, you could make me a satisfied customer if you gave me a good outdoor workout followed by fat bowl of ice cream to savor as I write in my journal in my hammock. Day after day after day.

How about you? What core practices do you need to do to be content? Open up your journal and consider the rituals of your everyday life. Which things are essential to your contentment? What comes immediately to your mind? What category does it fit into: food, spiritual practice, toy, electronic, ritual, physical practice, location, social connection, or something else? How long has this essential thing been in your life? Has it always been essential, or did it grow on you over time? What exactly does the essential thing do for you? Is it time-consuming? Is it convenient to fit into your life, or does it require a lot of effort, sacrifice, and awkward explanations? How frequently are you forced to choose your thing over something else that is also appealing to you? For each item on your list, are they things that you actually fit into every single day, or are they things you would like to do daily but just don’t quite get to it? Do you feel the anxiety and discontentment when you leave them out of a day? How long can you go without them before there are lasting consequences to your overall happiness? Is there anything that you wish was not on your list—ice cream for me, but I can imagine other addictions and practices, too—or that you are embarrassed about how big of an effect it has on your state of mind? Is there something else you would like to add to your list, confident that a daily dose of it would be a great benefit and something that you would soon hate to do without (meditation is mine)? What is stopping you? Is your list long or short? Does the length say something about you? What do the items themselves say about you? Leave me a reply and let me know: What makes you a satisfied customer?

Be you,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. Knowing what makes you tick is a shortcut to happiness. Happiness is good.

Friendly Warning: Do Not Sleep Through Summer (Again)!

“Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its brevity.” –Jean de La Bruyére, Les Caractéres

Hello friend,

I remember last year at Labor Day. I was returning from the lake with my kids. I am always very contemplative when I am driving home from a trip. The kids sit in back and watch a movie, and I am left alone to take stock of my life and re-orient my mind to the real world. On that particular drive, I was feeling the sadness that every Labor Day brings, fully aware that Summer was officially over and that there would be no more weekends at the lake until the next Summer, which felt a million years away.

It wasn’t just my characteristic Labor Day sadness that sticks out from that drive, though. It was the regret. It was the disappointment.

I had not done enough with the Summer. I had not capitalized on all of the opportunities of my season. There were so many more Summery things that I wanted to do, that I had told myself I would do before the season had started.

More beach writings. More trail runs. More bike rides. More campfires. More s’mores. More photos. More nature walks. More kayaking.   More tennis. More driveway basketball. More stargazing. More playgrounds. More hammock time. More roadtrips. More boat rides.

That is the stuff of Summer for me. And in that car on the way home last Labor Day, I knew that I hadn’t done enough of it. I had gotten too busy and too lazy. I had let my little windows of alone time slip by. It was too easy to choose to write on the sofa versus loading my backpack and biking down to the beach to write. The gym was easier than gearing up for a kayak ride or trail run. Weekends away and staying up late by the fire seemed like too much hassle. The hammock and the nature walks didn’t feel productive enough.

I am the first to admit that I am generally (and unhealthily) obsessed with being productive and always having something to show for my time (e.g. so many words written, pages read, or tasks knocked off the To-Do List). But, really, is your ideal Summer supposed to be described as “productive”? To me, that sounds like a good word for the other seasons. You know, the ones that have cold in them.

Maybe all along I should have been aiming for different adjectives to describe how my favorite season would be. How about fun? Adventurous? Soul-stirring? Enriching? Invigorating? Inspiring? Liberating? Enchanting? Yes, these all sound wonderful. But just plain old fun is perfect. “How was your Summer?” you ask. “It was nonstop fun!” That is exactly how I wish my response had been last Labor Day.

So, of course, on that contemplative drive home—and on almost every day after until June rolled around—I vowed that I would redeem myself this Summer. I would engage all of these beautiful, inviting days and live them fully. I would absolutely suck the marrow out of Summer this time!

I even had a list going in my head, the things that I would definitely do to make me feel satisfied when the next Labor Day rolls around. These are just some of the items on my Satisfying Summer Checklist for this year:

  • Take my kayak out at least three times
  • Become a regular outdoor journal writer
  • Find several new spots to try out my portable hammock
  • Take my kids to our local beach regularly
  • Get my ancient mountain bike fixed and ride the area trails
  • Roadtrip to the family lake cabin at least three times
  • Roadtrip to visit my sister and her family
  • Play tennis several times with other adults
  • Teach my kids tennis at least once per week
  • Do several trail runs
  • Use the neighborhood fire pit and roast marshmallows with my kids
  • A few daytrips to regional parks for hiking with my wife and kids
  • Make a habit of taking my daughter to the local lakes on early weekend mornings for father-daughter bonding time
  • Play a lot of driveway basketball with my son
  • Take lots of photos of the whole wild ride

That was a start, anyway. My mind seems to add new To-Do items every day, and the Wish List grows. But that stuff marked the basics for my Satisfying Summer Checklist.

Well, I just looked at the calendar and realized we are almost halfway to Labor Day. Gosh, that sneaks up, doesn’t it?!? So, how am I doing with my list?

Well………

Okay, there are some positives. I am about to take the second roadtrip to the family lake cabin for what has become my and my children’s favorite week of the year (score!), so only one more to go on that one. I did get the mountain bike fixed, but I have only been out in the dirt with it once so far. I have been writing most of my journal entries outdoors, though usually it is just on my deck (but at least it is usually in a hammock!). I have done pretty well getting the kids to the tennis court, not as well getting my own practice in. I have taken my kayak out (once). I have done a couple of trail runs. The driveway basketball is happening. I have not made the roadtrip to my sister’s place, but my intentions are still there. The portable hammock has been used (but not enough). We have not done the fire and s’mores (well, we microwaved them once!). We have only done the local beach once. We have failed completely on the regional parks and hiking. The discovered gem in the lot has been the father-daughter bonding time early Sunday mornings at the local lakes—absolutely priceless. And there have been some good photos of the ride.

If I had to give myself a grade so far, I would say maybe a C-. I have definitely done some small portion of many of my items, which is good. But there is much more than half left to do in this final half of Summer in order to achieve Satisfying Summer status.

I better get busy being NOT BUSY. I must get more ambitious about my leisure, more serious about my fun. I need to buckle down, because now that the Fourth of July is over, you know what the next holiday is, right?

Labor Day.

It won’t be long before I am taking that long, contemplative drive back home from the lake on that final day of Summer. Though I am guaranteed to feel a bit sad that day at the passing of my favorite season, my hope is that I will have done enough in the second half so that I don’t have to mix regret and disappointment with my sadness.

I needed this check-in to get real with myself about my laziness and excuses. It’s half over, friend. We have now been warned! I am planning to heed it this year. Carpe Summer!!!

How about you? Are you making the most of this precious and fleeting gift called Summer? Open up your journal and go through your own checklist? Are you satisfied with how you have been using your time lately? Start with how you want to feel this Summer and how you want to describe your Summer when it ends. What words would you choose? Is “FUN” one of them? Regardless of your adjectives, what activities are on your Satisfying Summer Checklist? Are they things that are quite unique to the season or things that you carry along all year? In either case, how are you doing for the first half of the season? Have you gotten most items on your list started at least? How many items are finished? How many have you not even touched yet? What kind of grade would you give yourself so far? Now, knowing that you still have plenty of time to make necessary changes and do great things, how confident are you that you will improve your grade by the time Labor Day rolls around? Which items will you prioritize? Are there any items that you will get rid of? Any new ones to add? Does making a To-Do List and scoring your progress take some of the fun out of it and kind of defeat the purpose of making it fun and stress-free, or do you appreciate that it keeps your priorities straight? For me, I need the reminder from time to time. Keeping fresh air and fun in the forefront of my mind is crucial for me. How about you? Leave me a reply and let me know: What do you need to do to finish this Summer right?

Adventure is out there,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Make the most of your days!

Is Self-Care Selfish? How Do You Show Yourself Some Love?

“You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” –Eleanor Brownn

Hello friend,

This week, for the first time in years, I took a yoga class. It stirred something in me, reminding me of something important that I once let slip from my grasp.

The other day I was talking with my neighbor about the types of therapy he is doing for his ailing back. He mentioned physical therapy, electronic stimulation, lifting weights, and acupuncture. Then he said, “But what has helped the most is yoga. It is healing my back, but mostly I feel it healing my SOUL.” He glowed as he talked about how this nightly, 30-minute video routine makes him feel inside. I thought to myself, “This guy has learned a secret he must never forget!” I told him how I have always been a huge proponent of yoga. I realized as I was saying it, though, that my endorsement felt a little hollow.

I first tried a yoga class about 20 years ago and fell instantly in love. It felt so good to me on so many levels. My body felt healthier than ever. My mind was calm and clear. And there was something more, something spiritual. My soul felt good. Yoga made me feel like I was caring for myself, doing something that made my life better and allowed me to show up better for the world around me. I told myself I was in it for life. There was no way I would stop.

I stopped.

I can’t even explain why. I just got out of the habit. That sounds really lame to me now, knowing that I never stopped working out over all these years. I also never stopped telling people how wonderful and important yoga is. I was like the paid endorser who doesn’t really use the product.

I guess I just didn’t make it a priority. Not a high enough one, anyway. I never seemed to make the time to add it to my schedule or trade it for one of the other things I was doing. Oh, I brought it back a few different times over the years for short stints—and I loved it each time—but it never stuck. I suppose that, subconsciously anyway, I considered it an overindulgence, like I just couldn’t give myself that much of a treat. I was not worthy of the extra hour just for personal growth or soul therapy.

It is not as though yoga is alone in this neglect. I have long been aware of the wondrous effect that reading books has on my soul, and yet I almost never allow myself dedicated reading time (I let myself do it when I am falling asleep at night or on an exercise machine). Music is the same way. Meditation, too, I have always sworn by yet rarely followed my own advice, even for just ten minutes per day. I have no excuse.

I have always tried to be so conscious of my time and not wasting it, and yet somehow in my haste to be productive, I seem to have regularly forgotten to feed my soul its fill. I haven’t taken the best care of what matters most.

Oh sure, I have done quite well on some fronts. I have kept up a fitness routine, and that has been at least as good for my peace of mind as it has for my body. And of course, my daily journaling practice has stood strong for 20 years. That is a huge pillar of my self-care. It is clarity and sanity disguised as a blank book. I also make a point of spending a ton of time with my kids. They put wind in my sails.

And that’s about it for consistent self-care for me. In other areas that feel important to me, I either make an occasional attempt or fail completely.

One of the areas that I recognize now more than ever is getting outdoors and spending some time in Nature. This never fails to help me to reconnect to myself and to the Divine. Whether it is a walk through the forest or a quiet contemplation by a lake or stream, this is my nearest approximation of a church. It makes me feel whole again. And I just don’t do it enough. I am better about it in the Summer, even if it is something as simple as laying in my hammock and listening to the birds sing and the leaves rustle. I know I do best, though, when I get out away from the paved roads and buildings, and that is something I just don’t make the time for very often.

Something that I have improved on a bit in this last year is sleeping. Starting from the time my daughter was born almost nine years ago, I have really struggled in this department. I had an excuse for a few years when the kids were little, but I became too accustomed to being raggedy. As soon as they started sleeping better, I started using that extra time for personal growth things that I had put off, like taking classes and starting these letters to you. I was running myself into the ground trying to get it all done, going on the fumes of a mere four or five hours of sleep per night, every night. As I said, just in the last year I have made a more concerted effort to bring that number up closer to seven hours. I don’t always succeed, but I feel better when I do.

Nutrition is another one that I am just getting started with. After a lifetime of pretending I could eat mostly whatever I want and still feel good, I have lately started to pay closer attention to the ways different foods affect my energy and my comfort. I am beginning to cut things out of my diet. There is a long way to go, but it feels like the right direction for my long-term health and happiness.

The one thing that I haven’t tried but that consistently tugs at my thoughts is the inclusion of more art and creation in my life. Writing these letters to you is about as close as I get to that, and Writing Day is the most fulfilling day of my week. But I want more, and I want variety. Specifically, I feel music calling out to me. I mentioned earlier that even dedicated time for listening to music lifts me up, but what my soul is itching for is to learn how to play it. I own a guitar and a beginner book, but I have never given myself permission to take that time. The same goes with the piano. Even when I touch the keys briefly as I am cleaning the house, my spirit does a little dance. I know the signs are telling me to play.

These musical longings speak again to this issue I seem to have about indulgences. Somehow, somewhere along the way I seem to have confused self-care with selfishness. I allow myself time to write in my journal, and that feels like all I deserve. I give myself permission to exercise daily, but only if it is while the rest of my family is still sleeping. I offer all of my energies to my kids—which I love doing for me—because I can claim it as good for them. I can justify adjustments to my nutrition because it is not taking up any more time or directly affecting anyone else. If I let myself go to bed earlier, I have to write less.

That thing about wasting time and being inefficient—combined with these feelings of unworthiness and guilt about selfishness—is exactly why I don’t allow myself the other self-care activities that I know would do so much for me. Meditation. Nature walks. Learning the guitar and piano. Reading books. Listening to music. These are all things that require time that I seem to feel I don’t deserve. As though care for my soul is not reason enough. This realization saddens me. I want to think I am worth more than that to myself.

This is why I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself granting special permission to go to yoga class this week. You see, I think a big reason yoga left my schedule is that it usually doesn’t feel like as much of a pure workout as lifting weights or running or something like that does, so I had a hard time justifying yoga instead of one of those (my efficiency hang-up at its most glaring). So it was a big deal for me when I substituted a cardiovascular workout for the yoga class (even though I did have to get up even earlier to make it). I consciously prioritized the benefits to my mind and spirit.

Whoa! It seems really strange even to type that thought! I just don’t do that very often, apparently.

And though I felt guilty for missing the cardio workout, oh my, how good that yoga class felt! It was a genuine treat. I was working at it, but it still felt like a pampering for my soul. I can still feel the effects on my mood even days later. What a discovery! This is what self-care feels like! I think I could get used to this. Well, you know, after a few visits to the shrink, maybe!

How about you? What does self-care look like to you? Walk yourself through your weekly slate of activities. Which items on your itinerary are aimed at getting yourself feeling connected, engaged, and at your best? Which ones are, like my journaling, your most ingrained habits, things that are a normal part of your life? How long have you been practicing those things? Could you imagine letting go of those habits? Which of your self-care practices is most important to you? Why? What practices have you tried and liked at some point but never made a part of your routine? Do you envision yourself returning to them? What will it take? Which ones have you had high expectations for but turned out to be just not your thing? Do you have any, like my guitar learning, that you haven’t tried but that your soul seems to be calling out for you to try? Why have you ignored that call to this point? What will get you to begin? Are your self-care activities more often done alone (e.g. meditating or reading) or with others (e.g. coffee with a friend or a yoga class)? Do you allot a certain amount of time each day that you proclaim as “Me Time” and really own it, or are you generally unaware of when you are taking care of yourself? Are you worthy of that dedicated time just for you? Are you only good at justifying it in the flow of your everyday life (e.g. nutrition), or are you good at claiming bigger chunks of time (e.g. a spa day or girls’ weekend), too? Is self-care intertwined with self-worth, i.e. the more we value ourselves, the more we care for ourselves? If so, what does your level of self-care say about how much you value yourself? How can you move that needle more in the right direction? How does it feel to be renewed from within? What best helps you get there? Leave me a reply and let me know: What does self-care look like to you?

You are totally worth it,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. We are ALL worth it!