Category Archives: Parenthood

Have You Made Any Lemonade From All Of These 2020 Lemons?

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive.  You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over.  But one thing is certain.  When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.  That’s what this storm’s all about.” –Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’  One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.  In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.” –John F. Kennedy

Hello friend,

I am SO HAPPY to connect with you again!  It feels like forever since I have written to you.  I love to write these letters.  I love the whole process: what I learn about myself in the exploration, the struggle to piece together the right combination of words to make my idea clear to you, the ecstatic blend of calm certainty and dancing butterflies I feel deep down in my chest and my soul from the knowledge that I am acting on my purpose, the joy and relief of hitting the “Publish” button and seeing my labor of love go out into the world to mingle with your beautiful mind, and the connection I feel with you as a result.  All of that is everything to me.  I love to write.  I am so grateful to be in your world, to share space with you today.  This is where I am supposed to be.

So, why haven’t I been here more often lately?  That is the logical question.  In Pandemic America, after all, the story goes that Time itself has slowed down, and with it, all of our lives.  We have the headspace and the minutes and hours (and days and weeks and months….) to collect ourselves, to nest, to make our spaces feel more like home, to set our priorities right, and to finally do all of the things we have been longing to do for ourselves.  As disruptive as the coronavirus has been to our normal—our economy, our relationships, our work, our fun, our faces—it supposedly gave us this gift of a “RESET,” the time to get ourselves right and clarify who and what we love.

This is why I have been racked with guilt and frustration that I haven’t been writing more over the past several months.  This would seem to have been the ideal time to churn out letters to you every week like I used to.  After all, Journal of You is about digging into our own existence and coming to understand where we have come from, where our passions lie today, and where we see ourselves going in the moments we have left on this Earth.  This should be our opportunity to nail that stuff down, right?  A chance at complete clarity, at least for a moment in our otherwise-busy lives.  Somehow, I have failed to capitalize on this most golden of opportunities.

I suppose it was some combination of laziness, busy-ness, and distractedness.  That natural slowing down during the earliest, “lockdown” phase of the pandemic seemed to slow everything down, including my ambition.  I was enjoying the relative quiet and solitude of my home and family, content to soak up their company and the extra moments without errands and commutes.  The urgency to write it all down just wasn’t there.  Then came the urgency to do the other things that are typically much more neglected than my writing.  Like so many other people, I took on all sorts of home improvement projects, becoming an apprentice painter, landscaper, and organization guru.  With my time going into those tasks, the hours allotted to writing diminished.  Then there was the issue of headspace.  For so much of the last half a year, my brain seemed to split its thoughts three ways: pandemic, racial injustice, and governmental/political nonsense.  All three are psychologically and emotionally draining in their own ways, leaving precious little energy for regular functioning, much less for creative expression.

I found myself at the breakfast table this week reading up on the wildfires currently devastating the American West.  The whole thing is absolutely heartbreaking to me on so many levels: the loss of life (human, animal, plant, and more), the loss of Beauty, the loss of habitat, the loss of personal property and the priceless feelings of “home” for so many, the loss of jobs and dreams, the recklessness of human-created climate change, the addition of even more greenhouse gases from the fires themselves, and all of the trauma caused, to name just a few.  The thought that rose up from inside me was, “My God, I hope we are learning something from this, at least.  There has to be some good that comes from it.  Something!”

It came out like a plea, I suppose, an imploring of the people of the world to find a way to do better as a result of this catastrophe, to create a silver lining from these darkest of clouds.  To make lemonade from this overabundance of lemons we seem to be tripping over wherever we step.

Just think about these last few months and the swirl of awfulness that has joined our already-tense and divided country. The gross mishandling of the coronavirus and subsequent spiraling death toll and economy.  The very public murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (to name but a few) and the subsequent protests across in cities big and small across the country.  Unemployment and food insecurity for so many.  The deaths of social justice giants John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The continued lies and indecency of the President.   The approach of a contentious election.  The fires.

These are all things that have the potential, individually, to knock you down and leave you feeling lost and unmoored from your moral and emotional home base.  They can also, individually, leave you deeply bitter and lacking faith in our country, its institutions, and its people.  They have the potential, individually, to make you want to shut down, to retreat, to go into self-preservation mode.  With powers of destruction that strong individually, when taken together, in a series of relentless, cascading blows one on top of another and often simultaneously, the cumulative effect of 2020 has proven devastating.  The countless memes it has generated are a reliable testament to that (e.g “Cue the murder hornets!” and “Apocalypse Bingo”).

In a year when so much seems so wrong, the natural reaction feels like it ought to be to simply weather the storm, try to not get sick or committed to the asylum.  Dodge the bullet.  Just try to wait it out and hope to begin dreaming, loving, and achieving again next year.  Save self-improvement for 2021.  That makes sense.  “To everything, there is a season,” right?  This year definitely feels biblical, so maybe this is just the season of our lives to hunker down and ride it out, having faith that next year must be better.

That idea soothes me.  It placates me, softening my usual urgency for personal and global improvement, lets me off the hook for my recent lack of achievement and production.  My guilt is assuaged.  I appreciate the pass for 2020.

But I can’t help being suspicious of it.  I tend to disbelieve any philosophy that tells me it is okay to stop learning, growing, and making my life and my world better.  Sure, I understand that our ambition ebbs and flows along our journey, and I try to listen to my intuition about how hard I need to push in a given season.  And I am a huge fan of self-care and filling up one’s tank when it is running low so you can face the challenges of the present and the future.  On top of that, I realize that some of these blows that 2020 continues to deliver require true grieving—they are just that painful–which takes its own time.  Still, my internal dashboard is always measuring for Progress.  I am naturally monitoring myself for signs of growth and surveying the world around me for ways I can both use my talents for good and be enriched.  I am also naturally optimistic, so I live with the assumption that all situations can lead to better ones, and Growth is ours to claim.

With those traits in my nature, I should not be surprised at my response to the wildfires in the West (which are sending their smoke across the country as though to remind us that we are all in this together and no one gets away clean).  Even in my deepest despair, I cling to the idea that we must learn and grow from our situations. 

But have I?  This year, I mean.  Have I hunkered down and simply tried to survive—which may be enough, honestly, depending on how close to home each crisis has struck—or have I found any ways for these calamities to improve my life or the world around me?

I would say I have done very little directly for the world (e.g. I protested for racial justice and wrote some pieces, but I definitely didn’t write often enough), but I have improved myself in subtle but certain ways.  Much of it has come in the form of solidifying my priorities and values.  The pandemic, with its extra time to think and the need to stay in one place with only the people in my household, has served to thrust those values and priorities into bold relief, forcing an examination and a culling of the excesses and the things that just don’t feel authentic and uplifting anymore.  And because all of these other tragedies and tensions have occurred inside of the pandemic, each has received a thorough vetting in the recesses of my mind and the pages of my journal.

It has become increasingly clear to me this year that my family is the most important thing.  It turns out that I chose the right wife, and my kids are the right ones for me.  With all of this working and schooling from home and acting as each other’s playmates, teachers, and co-workers, I can only imagine how many families are at each other’s throats during all of these overlapping crises.  For all of my pre-family-life worry and fear I had over whether I could exist—much less be happy—with the responsibilities of a husband and father, I am so glad that I ended up with these guys.  I feel much better about that now, and I believe that foundation will support me no matter what else I have to face.

In watching the way my country’s institutions and people have handled (or mishandled) the crises of 2020, I have become even more deeply committed to moral and political positions I have held in the past.  The coronavirus pandemic has made crystal clear what a failure of leadership looks like.  In the halls of Congress and the White House, and in examples from different governors and mayors from around the country, I have seen examples of the best and worst kinds of politicians.  It has affirmed for me that, even though I am not a fan of our two-party system and neither party acts exactly as I wish they would, the folks that at least lean my way are doing so much more basic Good for ordinary Americans—that is, almost all of us—than the ones leaning the other way.  The particular political issues that have come into relief through the crises—climate science with the wildfires, health care coverage with the coronavirus and its ensuing unemployment, voting rights and women’s rights with the deaths of John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, racial injustice with the murders of George Floyd and others, and the need to protect our democracy with the regular assaults on it by the President—have made me feel stronger in my positions than ever before.  My conviction has multiplied.  I have become even more of Me.

These things have also cast each of my relationships and potential relationships into the light, making me very protective of the kind of people I want to keep in my life now and let into it in the future.  Though my heart will be wide open with love, I have no doubt also that the gate will be well-guarded.  Boundaries are beautiful.

These overlapping crises and the time I have had to consider them has made these things very clear to me.  I am certain that this clarity will make me a happier person going forward, better able to see my way and also better able to use my gifts to serve the world and all of the beautiful souls finding their way through it.  Though I am eager for this year and its many calamities to be behind me, I can honestly say I am grateful for it.  I will come out the other side of 2020 as a better person.

How about you?  Have you managed to grow and improve your world amidst the stress and tragedy of this year?  Open up your journal and write out your own version of a progress report.  What changes have you gone through internally as the various crises of 2020 have piled on top of one another?  What is your balance of “just trying to ride it out” versus “I can thrive in this” mentality?  How different is that balance this year compared to a “normal” year?  Which aspects of the year’s drama—coronavirus, job loss, racial injustice and protests, social isolation, change of routine, economic stress, climate emergencies, death of heroes, murder hornets, political drama—tend to send you into self-preservation mode, where simple survival is the goal and personal growth seems out of the question?  In which areas have you made efforts to address the issue head-on and learn more about it to achieve better clarity in your position and/or take action in the world to help the cause?  How has that effort changed you?  If this year has had you “stuck” at home more often and unable to physically interact with others much, how have you dealt with that?  What have you learned about yourself through that aspect of the experience?  Did you reach any conclusions about yourself that caused you to make any major changes?  Do you feel like you have clarified who you really are this year?  What do you value most?  What are your top priorities?  Are there things that you have reduced or eliminated from your life in this process?  What about people?  How has seeing your “friends” react to this year on social media (e.g. their responses to George Floyd’s murder) changed the way you feel about them or their place in your life going forward?  If you have let some habits or people go, do you feel lighter and more authentic for it?  Have you started some new habits?  Are they healthy or unhealthy?  Can you point to anything specific in your world where you are making a more positive impact than you were before this crazy year happened?  Is it enough just to know that you are bringing a better self out into your regular life each day?  If you feel like you haven’t spun any of 2020’s calamities into growth experiences, how might you start today?  No matter what you have done to this point, which crisis area feels ripe for your next growth spurt?  I hope you will take on the challenge.  Leave me a reply and let me know: How have you turned 2020’s many lemons into lemonade?

Rise,

William

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

P.P.S. If you appreciate this sort of personal introspection, I encourage you to purchase my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.

So Much Left Undone: The Tragedy of Life Cut Short

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It saddens me to see potential go unfulfilled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carpe diem,

William

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

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

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

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

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.

A Loving Reminder: Have You Kept Your Relationship Promises?

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love big,

William

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

How Valuable Is Your TIME?

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” –Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life

“No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.” –Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life

Hello friend,

I think I have finally reached the point in life when I understand that the worst thing you can do to me is take away my time. I see now that it was always true but that I just didn’t realize it. I was running around in denial or confusion, I suppose, never minding too much if you dragged me along somewhere on your agenda or if my time with you did not inspire or engage me. I was not much offended by that. I went along. “What else do I have to do?” I passed the time. I wasted it. I spent it. But I didn’t really use the time. I didn’t make the most of it. And I didn’t realize what a tragedy that was, what an abomination. I realize it now.

I don’t know when it started for me. I know I was acting on my repulsion to time-wasting before I was aware of it. Somehow my soul knew. It sent the signal to my body. I would get antsy and irritable.

I once worked as a low-end manager for a large corporation. It was part of my boss’s duties–as assigned by his boss and the boss above him–to have a weekly one-on-one meeting with each of the managers who worked under him. I should probably mention that I have never known a mentally lazier, less invested or engaged person in my life; the one and only reason he held his job was because of who he knew above him in the chain of command. It was like a character out of a farfetched movie. Anyway, in addition to the weekly management team meeting, he and I had our one-on-one meeting in his office. I would enter and sit in the chair in front of his desk with a pen and a notebook open just in case anything important came up (spoiler: it never did). He would say hello from his desk and then swivel in his chair and sit with his large back to me and look at his computer for several minutes as if he were engrossed in some deep reading and I were not even in the room. Then he might come out of his reverie and say something like, “Uh, I guess your numbers are looking pretty good again this month…” and then drift back into remote silence. (As I said, it was like a movie scene.) He would do that a few times over the course of a half-hour, then finally swivel back around and say, “Okay, buddy, you got anything for me?” By that point, even if I did have an issue that I could use some executive assistance with, I was too exasperated with the time I had just spent doodling on my note pad and looking at his large back that I was ready with a quick “NOPE!” and a sprint to the door. Beyond just the disbelief that this type of person could exist and be well-paid for his time, I always left that room thinking, “With all that I have to accomplish in my jam-packed twelve-hour work day, that part did no one any good.” That was when I also grew accustomed to the thought, “Well, that’s 30 minutes I will never get back!” I came to hate that idea.

I think my experiences in the wasteland of unnecessary–and unnecessarily long–corporate meetings probably ushered me directly into the next phase of my working life, when I downgraded my responsibilities and time commitments so I could be efficient when I was there, have hardly any meetings, and get out of there to do the things with the people (my wife and kids) that made every moment feel sacred and priceless. I didn’t care that I had to give up money and prestige to do it. I just wanted my moments to count.

It is from this vein that sprung my efforts to be the best and most present father I could be. That vein is also the source of this entire Journal of You experience, including a book and more than five years worth of letters to you. I want to make the moments–even the “spare” ones–meaningful to me and impactful to everyone whose lives I touch.

I see this sensitivity to time all over my life now. I have become highly averse to traffic and other unnecessary time spent in the car. I avoid most errands like The Plague, unless I can string them together into one trip. I chose a job that was about four minutes from my house and feel like I hit the logistical jackpot with how it fits into my children’s schedules (and I have almost no meetings!). I had a follow-up appointment after a surgery that ended up being basically a “How are you?” kind of deal that I could have handled with a one-minute phone call, and I was at least as annoyed with them for wasting my time to go there as I was for the crazy money they charged me for it.

As I write this and perform this scan of my life both past and present, it becomes so much more clear as to why I have always hated small-talk. I always thought it had only to do with a lack of depth and true connection, just making noise to pass the time–like watching television–and keeping everyone (except me) comfortable/unchallenged by keeping it all superficial. Because that alone would be enough to make my skin crawl. But I see now that the previously undiscovered part of my frustration with the small-talk experience that characterizes most interactions in this society is the time-wasting aspect. I think of all the times I have finished a conversation and thought to myself, “Well, that was a complete waste of time! Neither of us know each other any better now than we did five minutes ago. What a missed opportunity!” It is like death by a million cuts, all of these conversations that eat up the days and years of our rapidly-dwindling lifetimes. I have donated enough blood to that cause. I don’t want to die that way anymore.

I feel like I need to set up some sort of fence or filter through which every request upon my time must pass to make it onto my docket. That filter is probably just a simple question or two, maybe something like Does this make my life feel bigger? or Does this resonate with the Me I am trying to become? I imagine that keeping only the engagements and the people who can pass that kind of test would leave me feeling much less buyer’s remorse for the way I have spent my time.

I just want everything I do to feel like it is worth it. The people I hangout with. The work I choose. The media that I consume. The curiosities and passions that I pursue. The meetings I take. The conversations that I join. The causes that I take up. I want every last bit of it to feel like it was worth the investment of the most precious resource I have: time. From here on out, I will guard it with my life.

How about you? How ferociously do you protect your limited time? Open up your journal and consider the ways you pass your days. What are the things in your life that feel most like a waste of your time? Do you have hobbies–e.g. watching TV, Facebook, YouTube, drug or alcohol use, video games, etc.–that eat up large portions of time but don’t make you feel any better? Why do you continue to give them your energy? How about the people who aren’t worth your time or energy but still receive your attention? What is it about these people? Is it logistically impossible to remove them from your life? If so, how could you make your interactions with them more valuable? Are you too afraid to have the uncomfortable conversation that could help them rise or remove them from your life? Is that conversation more uncomfortable than keeping them in your life and dragging you down? Are there certain places that always leave you wishing you had never gone there? Can you stop? Are you aware of the things that waste your time as you are doing them, or is it only in hindsight that the recognition comes to you? How much of your job/work life ends up feeling like a waste of your time, and how much feels very productive and worthwhile? How much do you drag things out at work just to fill in your required hours? If it were left entirely up to you, could you streamline your workplace and significantly shorten everyone’s work week while maintaining productivity? What are the very best ways that you regularly use your time? Is it in communion with certain people? What makes the time with those particular people so valuable? How can you get more time with them or people like them? How about your best activities? What about that activity time distinguishes it? Is it the mere doing of the activity–e.g. I love the feeling of hitting a tennis ball–or is it the things that come along with the activity (the exercise, the camaraderie, the connection with Nature, etc.)? How can you work more of that activity into your schedule? Is there a different activity that you have been wanting to try that you sense would also be worth your investment? Is there some place that always nourishes you and makes you glad you went there? Can you get there more often or find those same feelings elsewhere? Better yet, can you bring its qualities to you? What would your life look like if it were filled with only things that felt like a good use of your time? Starkly different than your current life, or only subtly so? How close could you reasonably get to that ideal version? What would you choose as a filter question(s) to help you make better decisions about who and what to allow into your life and your schedule? Would that be enough? Can you begin to use that filter immediately? What is holding you back? On a scale of 1 to 10, how selective/picky are you about what you allow onto your docket? Does all of this really boil down to a question of your own self-worth, i.e. is this about believing that you are worthy of only things that lift you up and speak to your soul? Are you worthy (Hint: YES!!!!!)? Leave me a reply and let me know: How valuable is your time?

You are so worth it,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with loved ones or your social media network. It is a profoundly important topic with an answer whose deadline is pressing.

P.P.S. If you enjoy the challenge of questioning yourself and examining your life, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give your heart,

William

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

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

Do You Have A Busy Life Or A Full Life?

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

Full. Not busy.

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

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

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

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

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

I guess I want to be busy feeling unhurried.

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

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

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

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

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

I despise being in a rush.

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

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

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

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

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

May Peace be with you,

William

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

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

Your Personal Utopia: Where Should You Live?

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortune favors the bold,

William

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love without condition,

William

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

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

How Little We Truly Know About Each Other

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

Wasn’t I great?

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict: I WAS SO WRONG!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t know. We simply don’t know.

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

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

Shallow lacks empathy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open your heart,

William

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

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