Category Archives: Politics

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think big,

William

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

Politics is morals put into policy form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do your best,

William

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

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

Can You Love Your Country But Not Your Countrymen? IT’S COMPLICATED!

“Asgard is not a place; it’s a people.” –from Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok 

“A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” –Edward Abbey

Hello friend,

Last month we passed the 18th anniversary of 9/11. When I woke up that ordinary day those weeks ago and started thinking about that extraordinarily awful day those years ago, I was transported instantly. I remembered it all so vividly: getting out of the shower to a phone call from my girlfriend, sitting transfixed in front of the little television in my office for hours, the emptiness inside me, the surreal feeling of actually going to a graduate school seminar that night and trying to have a discussion about something other than our completely changed world. The entire day was mind-bending and soul-wrenching. Nothing could ever be the same again.

Still, when last month’s anniversary came around, I struggled to fathom that 18 years had passed since that fateful day. So much water has flowed under the bridge in that time, and my country has revealed so much of its complicated nature.

I get nostalgic each September, first with those awful visions but then much more with thoughts of the beauty that followed. On this September the 11th, my attention was particularly drawn to the memes on social media about the way we, the people of America, came together in its immediate aftermath, with gestures big and small to show that we cared about each other and this country that we share. One example was a poster with imagery reminiscent of an American flag and these words: “I MISS 9/12. I would never ever want another 9/11, but I miss the America of 9/12. Stores ran out of flags to sell because they were being flown everywhere. People were Americans before they were upper or lower class, Jewish or Christian, Republican or Democrat. We hugged people without caring if they ate at Chick-Fil-A or wore Nikes. ON 9/12, WHAT MATTERED MORE WAS WHAT UNITED US, THAN WHAT DIVIDED US.”

It reminded me of a book I read recently, an autobiography called A Dream About Lightning Bugs by the musician Ben Folds, who is several years older than I am but basically of my generation. He had made the difficult choice to keep touring in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, feeling that people needed the music and the release it provided in that devastating time. Of those months, he wrote, “Anyone who was in the United Sates in the wake of 9/11 might recall that, rising from the ashes of the tragedy, something magical was also happening. People suddenly acknowledged one another in the streets, smiled, opened doors, and helped with groceries. Everywhere. I think this is often overlooked. As I toured the country, I saw a sense of community and humanity expressed that I hadn’t seen in my lifetime.”

How sad is it that I miss what only a tragedy could incite?

We are one year away from a major election, so divisiveness is about to get extreme. Well, let’s face it: division and antagonism have been extreme for several years now. But I have no doubt that with the stink-stirrers who are going to be the central players in the coming show, America’s internal hatred is going to reach an all-time high. There will be tons of glorifying “us” and vilifying “them” for reasons real and imagined, despite the fact that we all belong here.

I know in advance–because I know how I feel here most days–that I will really detest the lows that we will have sunk to and the new “normal” we will have established in all this pettiness. “We” are America. As we enter the 2020s, the we I see in our collective mirror isn’t what I used to imagine we were. I say “imagine,” because maybe we were always this shallow and antagonistic. Maybe the modern age of cameras everywhere and social media and other perversions of media (hello, Fox News!) have not so much produced our lesser angels but rather simply revealed who we have always been. It was easier to imagine our country–the people and movements who make up our country and its character–as better, brighter, higher. You know, like the America that showed up on September 12, 2001.

Wrap your mind around this: the children who were conceived in those unified, harmonious months in America post-9/11 will be able to vote in their first election next year.

They wouldn’t even recognize the America that they were conceived into. That is really sad. As they are now beginning to raise their awareness of politics and our country’s position in the world, knowing only what they witness in these times, how lacking they must be in both hope and the confidence in our leaders–and our people–to do what is right and just.

There are just too many examples on all levels of our country doing things that we ought to be ashamed of. Why can’t we get some of this stuff figured out? Decent health care for all of us. Assault rifles that are unavailable to those of us not conducting military campaigns. Not caging children. Treating our politicians like public servants with whom we can agree or disagree on a policy-by-policy, action-by-action basis rather than like celebrities or deities to whom we offer our blind devotion simply because they belong to a designated political party. Acknowledging our role in the escalation of climate change and then taking actual steps to reverse our impact and to help make Earth habitable for our great-grandchildren. Ensuring fair elections. Simple stuff.

And it’s too easy to blame the government or the President or whichever political party is not yours. We–the citizens–are bad at this stuff, too. We create the toxicity. We tolerate the empty promises and shady dealings. We tolerate people getting rolled over by the system. We numb ourselves to the school shootings and the scandals and the record temperatures. We spout our own ignorance or hate or empty “thoughts and prayers.” We deny, deny, deny. We simply aren’t very good to each other.

That realization really, really aches to absorb. We are a hollow country right now.

How long can we last on just the founding ideals when we don’t actually act on them? Can we still be the shining city on the hill if we have dug ourselves a pit–or a “swamp,” as the lingo du jour goes–and dimmed our brightest lights? How do we become admirable, whether or not you think we ever were before? Short of our government suddenly making a bunch of wise, beneficent moves that might draw positive attention from the press and the rest of the world, how do we–the people–get back to that kindness and decency of September 12th? How do we get back to seeing ourselves, collectively, as occupants under the same tent, each responsible for all of our well-being, and believing that the person in front of or behind you in line deserves the very best of you?

I don’t want to have to wish for a “9/11 Version 2.0” just to get a 9/12 America. I feel like that is the weak way out of this and would only lead to a quicker and steeper return to our current shallow meanness. I believe we are better than that and should prove it the hard way: act by act, day by day, person by person. I have faith that we could pull this off. After all, we have done this before. That feeling that many of us remember, that sentiment that inspires the memes, those acts of simple decency that Ben Folds witnessed as he toured the country: all of that is evidence that we are capable of making each other’s lives–and by turn America itself–a better, more just, and more inspiring place to live. We just need to rise.

We need to. Because I am tired. I am tired of despising people who wear red hats, tired of feeling embarrassed by the actions of my representatives, tired of feeling isolated from my neighbors or family members based on which signs they put in their yard during election season, tired of the distance that we have allowed our screens and our busy-ness to create between us, tired of justifying my absence from the public square, tired of being disappointed in others but not doing anything to be a better example to them, tired of missing opportunities to take the first step to bridge these gaps, and, most importantly, tired of the shame I feel at allowing all of this to take place in my precious America. I am tired of being low. It must surely be time for me to rise.

How about you? Are you ready to rise up and be the kind of citizen and country that we can be proud of? Open up your journal and consider the best and worst of your country and what role you play in each. How do you characterize your country at this point in its history? Is it riding a good wave and showing off its best colors, or has it sunk to a place where all of its warts are showing? From your vantage point, are you more likely to notice and dwell upon the shortcomings of your government or of the citizenry? Does one group seem to rise and fall as a result of the other one, or do the people seem to operate independently of their leadership apparatus? Are you proud of your country? When you give your answer to that one, what does it actually mean to you? Do you mean that you are proud (or not) of the actions your government takes toward its people or toward other countries around the world–e.g. providing health care or good education to its citizens, joining a coalition military campaign to fight an evil dictator, providing humanitarian aid to war-torn or famine-stricken countries, etc.–or, rather, that you are proud of the way the people in your country act toward each other and proud of the causes that they stand up for at the polls and with their pocket-books? Do you believe it is important to examine the distinction between the two angles and flesh out your thoughts on each? How different are your answers on your pride for your government and pride for your people? Do we need to also add the layer of being proud of what your country theoretically stands for–things like Liberty, Equality, Justice–versus what it shows that it stands for in practice? How would you rank what you are most proud of in order from least to most: the people of your country, the government and leaders of your country as it currently stands, and the theoretical values that your country stands for? How disparate are these three categories in your country? Is that okay? At what point in your country’s history do you think the three categories were most in step with one another? How do all of these answers form your concept of patriotism and what it means to be a patriot? How patriotic can you be if you don’t have faith in the people of your country? Might it be of some benefit to your country to have a crisis–like a 9/11–to shake it out of the error of its ways? Does it require a tragedy to bring out the best in people and reveal our common humanity? What are some ways that you could be a better citizen? Are any of those things that you could begin to apply today? If everyone took on that challenge, how much better could things get? How do you imagine your country at its very best? What would the government be doing differently, and what would the ordinary people be doing differently? How would all of that affect your lifestyle and your outlook on the future? How can you rise to meet that challenge of creating a better place to live? Do you tend to look at the big stuff–government level–or the stuff that you can do interpersonally to make that difference? If we do the small, will the big begin to take care of itself? Can you start with the person across the street whose sign is different than yours? If not there, then where? Leave me a reply and let me know: Can you love your country but not the people in it, and what good is the first without the second?

Reach out,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with the world. Reach out and rise up!

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

Does Your Hometown Still Feel Like HOME To You?

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

So, what has changed? Or has anything changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise above it all,

William

P.S. If today’s topic resonated with you, please share it. Strengthen the ties that bind us all together!

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

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.

Jesus & Me: Our Complicated Relationship

“Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” –Lenny Bruce

Hello friend,

Merry Christmas!  I don’t usually say that, but I mean it today. Merry Christmas to you.  I hope that in this holiday season, both you and I can pay particular heed to the teachings of this great man, Jesus of Nazareth, whether or not we give a darn about the religion that carries his name. Because I don’t.

Let me be clear: Jesus is one of my great heroes and role models, but I don’t believe he is any more divine than you or me, and I think many of the things done “in Jesus’s name” by his professed followers are abhorrent (and I believe Jesus would agree with me).  Basically, I am a Jesus-lover but not a Christian.

How did I get here???  That, I suppose, is the story of my life.

I grew up in a somewhat-faithful Catholic family in a very homogenous Christian area.  I knew of one Jewish family in my town.  I was not aware of any other non-Christian families. In fact, even though I remember a Baptist church by the baseball fields, everybody in my town, as far as I knew, was either Catholic or Lutheran.  VERY CHRISTIAN.

So, you could definitely say I “believed in” Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.  After all, that was the only option (literally the only game in town) I was aware of.  It was like believing that you have to graduate from high school; I never knew anyone who didn’t, so I never considered dropping out a possibility.  You are a Christian.  You graduate.  It’s how things are.  End of story. 

Still, I can clearly recall some cognitive dissonance in my teen years as I tried to swallow the Church’s doctrine in my Confirmation classes.  I remember the teacher’s exasperation as I gave her more questions and challenges than she wanted: Why should someone have to believe in Jesus to get to Heaven?  What about all the people who don’t?  You know there are BILLIONS of people in the world, right? Most of them are getting left out? Does that seem right to you?

Interestingly, my church remembrances from childhood–and even my early adulthood–don’t contain much about Jesus himself and the specifics of his teachings (except that he died for our sins so that we could get to Heaven).  I mostly remember the rituals–the sitting/kneeling/standing, the prayers, Communion–and being vaguely conscious that it was about Jesus, but I don’t recall that feeling of relationship or that sense of really getting him on a personal level.  And I don’t recall any major awe, like, “Whoa, that guy’s the Son of God!  I totally worship him!”  I guess that part never quite resonated with me. 

When I kept going to church even after I moved away from home, I really only seemed to connect to one part: the sermon.  I liked hearing an inspiring message about how we could do better.  What I hadn’t become fully conscious of–I hadn’t started journaling every day at that point–was that the sermons that I liked and connected with were not particularly Jesusy, if you know what I mean.  They were more social messages interwoven with personal stories from the priest. 

I kept attending Mass, but I grew increasingly disconnected from the foundation of the place.  I wasn’t into the “God’s only begotten son”/”He died for our sins” type of stuff. While I wasn’t consciously searching for an alternative, from the distance of all these years later, it seems obvious that it would not have required much to unleash me from the Christian flock of my upbringing. 

It turned out that–as with so many other awakenings and transitions that I have experienced in the decades that have followed–the key that fit the lock was found in the pages of books.  Not just one book or one author, but many.  I found so many that enlightened me in different ways.  They weren’t books that bashed Jesus or religions, but instead they served to open my mind and my heart to other people’s experiences of the Divine.  I learned wonderful things about Nature, Science, non-Christian religions, spiritual practices such as meditation and yoga, and people.  I read people’s stories and learned about their versions of Truth and how God lived in them (or didn’t). 

Throughout the process of this new learning–and not surprisingly, this coincided with the beginning of my regular journaling practice–I was becoming much more in tune with myself and much more trusting of my intuition.  I took the stories and the information in to a deeper level than I ever had before and I allowed them to play upon my soul.  And then I listened.  I listened for resonance.  I became much more aware of things like tingles in my heart or belly, goosebumps on my skin, the unintentional nodding of my head, or a grin I couldn’t wipe from my face.  I understood them for the first time as messages from my soul, of cues that the thing I was reading or experiencing was right for me or true for me.  They resonatedwith me. 

I had never fully understood that word–resonate–until then.  Some things just produce a deeper, more meaningful vibration inside us.  I learned to honor that.  And as I did, I slowly–without fully realizing it at first but finally being struck by its obviousness–let go of Jesus.  With no angst or acrimony.  It was with joy and gratitude, really.  An amicable break-up.  I still liked him; he just wasn’t the answer for me.  I couldn’t think of him in the same way. 

I tried to go to church with my family on a holiday not long after my realization.  It felt completely wrong for me to be there.  I was almost physically sick, as my body knew that I wasn’t acting in alignment with my Truth.  I had become accustomed to being authentic, and just being in that place seemed fraudulent to me.  I knew then that I would not be back. 

I admit that, for many years, despite theoretically having no problem with Jesus, I definitely kept him at arm’s length.  I didn’t care to hear much about him or participate in anything where Christian prayers might be said.  I cringed when, at some large holiday meal, someone would say, “Shall we say Grace?”  0r at a funeral, when the Jesus moments would inevitably come, I’d have the same reaction.  My mind would naturally escape.  It was one thing to not want to think much about that guy anymore, and quite another to have to pretend I was praying to him along with the Christians surrounding me. That’s too much awkwardness for me.

I’m a little disappointed when I think about how long that arm’s-length phase lasted.  Not that I regret feeling uncomfortable when Jesus is forced on me–I am sure that won’t ever go away–but I think I went too long in denying him entry into my thoughts.  In my fervor to remain authentic and faithful to my Truth–which included my non-Christianity–I worked a little too hard at excluding him as an influence worth considering. 

That denial has changed in recent years.  The older I have gotten, the more passionate I have become about social justice and the more focused I have become on practicing empathy.  I have also become increasingly aware of the degree to which I am being authentic and following my Truth.  With that evolution–along with the recognition that I had worked a little too hard to avoid anything Jesus-related–I have taken some time to look at Jesus with a new set ofeyes. 

With this distance, I am able to see him more clearly as a man of great principle, with a tremendous depth of compassion and kindness toward the most oppressed and least favored members of society.  He called on the people around him to rise above their pettiness and greed and become better.  His actions spoke even louder than his words.  He took care of the poor, the sick, and those cast aside or shamed by society.  He called out corruption.  In word and deed, he was faithful to his Truth (a.k.a. AUTHENTIC).  And he was an absolute warrior for social justice.

When I look at Jesus with these new eyes, I recognize him to be quite like a couple of other guys who have been my heroes for much longer: Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

I revere these men. They serve as an endless source of inspiration to me.  They remind me of my innate greatness and all the good that I can do to help the world. I am so grateful to them for that, and I sing their praises every chance I get……..  But I don’t worship them.  They are not gods to me.  I don’t go through them to get salvation.  I won’t be separated from God if I deny their greatness.  And that’s where I am with Jesus, too.

It is in this newfound reverence and deep respect for his principles, though, that I find one of the most interesting (and kind of amusing) aspects of my journey with Jesus. I find that I have become a great defender of Jesus against his followers. 

It is really odd.  You see, we are in this time when there is so much pain and injustice in the world and in this heavily Christian America.  There are examples everywhere you look.  White supremacists hold large public rallies. Gun violence is rampant.  Migrant families are separated at the border, with children held in cages and tents without their parents.  Members of the LGBTQ community fear for their loss of rights and the increase in hate crimes.  Refugees seeking asylum from war-ravaged countries are tear-gassed.  The environment and natural resources are ravaged. And our President and his party stamp their approval of all of it. 

Meanwhile, I hear of evangelical Christian leaders who speak of that President as Heaven-sent and the true representative of their congregation.  I see the voting numbers to know who supports the man and his party. I see countless other Christians amidst all manner of humanitarian crises whistling and looking the other way, like, “Nothing to see here.”  And I am disgusted.  Beyond disgusted, really.  I am absolutely repulsed.

I only get this way because of who these people profess to follow, who they claim to owe their salvation to.  I look at every one of these issues, and then I look at Jesus, the social justice warrior, and I know that he would stand in direct opposition to these people that claim to be acting in his name.  He would call them out every chance he could get.  And that is what takes me beyond just disappointment or even disgust with these people to the point of being repulsed by them.  It is the hypocrisy!  They are staining my hero’s name!  Misrepresenting him in the worst way.  I can’t tell you how many times, in yet another moment of humanitarian failure, my wife has had to listen to me rail against these hypocrites.  “How dare they call themselves Christian!!!  Do they really not know what Jesus stood for???  It’s completely inauthentic!  It’s fraudulent!!!”  It’s me, the staunch non-Christian, sticking up for Jesus against those who say they worship him, not wanting his name sullied. Go figure!

And that is my journey with this amazing guy: from believer, to questioner, to drifter, to denier, to admirer, to defender.  My guess is I will stick with those last two–admirer and defender–from here on out, but who knows?  I appreciate the journey we have been on, and I like where we are.  Jesus and I are good. 

How about you?  How is your relationship with Jesus?  Open up your journal and tell your story.  How did it begin?  Did you grow up in a house where prayer and talk of Jesus was common?  Were you under the impression that everyone believed in his divinity?  How much was church a part of your upbringing?  Did you assume that they were preaching the absolute truth?  Were you in awe of Jesus?  Did you have a “relationship” with him growing up?  If so, describe it.  In adolescence and young adulthood, as you developed your independence, did you go through periods where your sense of who Jesus was or your connection to him changed?  Did you drift closer or further away?  Have you ever changed your faith in him dramatically, either fully embraced him or severed ties?  What did that feel like?  How much of your stance on Jesus is a reflection of your family’s beliefs?  Is your connection to him stronger or weaker than your parents’ connection to him?  Stronger or weaker than your closest friends’?  Are you okay with going your own way on such a sensitive topic? If you are a “true believer,” have you ever deeply questioned the foundation of your belief?  What do you think of people like me who don’t take Jesus to be the one Son of God and the source of salvation?  Do you feel sorry for us?  Are you open to a friendly dialogue with us?  Do you feel the need to convert non-believers?  Are you fond of the question, “What would Jesus do?” when it comes to providing direction on moral issues?  Do you believe Christians ought to stand up for the issues and the people that Jesus stood up for?  Do you believe that the “evangelical Christians” that seem to be a staple voting block for the Republican Party are acting in a way Jesus would support? What about other atrocities committed by (or supported by) people claiming to be Christian?  If Jesus were alive today, what sorts of issues and practices do you believe he would support?  What would he march for?  If he were not the Son of God but just an activist who stood up for what he stood up for, do you think you would support him?  If not, do you have some soul-searching to do?  Has your relationship with Jesus been, like mine, a winding one?  Leave me a reply and let me know, What is your relationship with Jesus?

Shine a light inside,

William

P.S. If this topic resonated with you today, please share it on social media.  Let’s rise to the standards of our heroes!

P.P.S. If this type of introspection stirs you up, add my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, to your holiday Wish List.  It is available at your favorite online retailer.

How Could You NOT VOTE At This Point???

“Every election is determined by the people who show up.” –Larry J. Sabato, Pendulum Swing

Hello friend,

I turned 18 in the Autumn of 1990, exactly three weeks before the mid-term elections. I had no clue. Were mid-terms important back then? If they were, no one ever told me so. I would guess that my parents voted in them, but I don’t recall them ever saying so or encouraging me to get to the polls. It was little old North Dakota, so I don’t know how much of consequence we had on the ballot. We did have our one House of Representatives member, of course. At any rate, that November of my senior year of high school, voting was not on my mind. I don’t know when the first time a mid-term election was on my mind. “Voting,” to me, meant voting for President. And sure, you filled in the ovals for the other races on the ballot. But come on, you were there to vote for President.

Gosh, I hope today’s teens and 20somethings are more awake and civically engaged than I was!

I shake my head now at my blissful ignorance of politics in my young adulthood. As fired-up as I get today about almost every issue and candidate, you would never guess at how thoroughly clueless and unengaged I was back then. Thank Goodness for evolution!

As a straight, White, middle-class male in America, I could pretty much go politically blindfolded through life and be none-the-wiser. Even though the system is set up to primarily benefit the rich, it takes pretty good care of people that fit my description, too, no matter which party is in charge. That is called privilege. I could choose to not think about it and get away with it.

My sisters are that way–claim to not have time for it or not understand the different sides or just don’t care to step into the potential minefield by having an opinion or taking a stand–and of course they are not alone. It is obviously a dicey time in our country to try to have a meaningful political discussion, so I understand the inclination to maintain neutrality through ignorance.

But the more I think of this rationale and the privilege that makes it an option, the more disgusted I get. If you have so much privilege that you can afford to not even educate yourselves on the major issues of our time and the people who are competing to run our country, then I would argue that you are even more obligated to educate yourself and find a way to empathize with the people who are most vulnerable and affected by these policies and elected leaders (i.e., the ones who don’t share your privilege). With great gifts come great responsibility, right? If you don’t feel compelled to raise your awareness and take a stand on issues by casting a vote, you are shirking your responsibility. Shame on you for that.

But I am not writing today simply to appeal to the most apathetic among us, hoping to get their lazy butts out to vote in the upcoming election (or any election in the future; I hope what I am saying applies to the end of time). I am appealing to everyone!

Of course, I had a funny moment of weakness as I initially thought of this plea to make your voice heard at the ballot box. It went sort of like this in my head: “Why do you want to appeal to EVERYONE? What about just to everybody who might vote the same way you vote? Isn’t that the point: to get all the people who think like you to the polls and none of the opposition? You know, so you can actually WIN. Isn’t that really the result you want?”

Ahh, that does sound delicious, doesn’t it? Arouse my fellow liberals and pacify the conservatives, making sure only the invigorated side votes while the other side sleeps smugly through Election Day. I was tempted, I admit.

But as awful as I have felt these last two years under unrestrained conservatism–cringing with my LGBTQ friends and friends of color as rights get restricted and hate crimes rise, cringing for the loss of environmental protections, cringing for the poor and people with pre-existing conditions, cringing for the press corps under attack and the judicial branch losing its independence, cringing every time I hear the word “Tweet” on the news–the insatiably curious side of me has been so looking forward to this mid-term election (as well as the 2020 race for President) just to see how we would react and who we would decide ourselves to be next.

Now I am desperate for every single eligible voter to cast a ballot. I need to know exactly who we are.

The Republicans now control the White House, both houses of Congress, and the judiciary. The conservatives who may have felt squeamish about Donald Trump’s vulgarity and his struggles with the truth during the Republican primary season of 2016 voted for him to be President anyway. Some did so wholeheartedly, others (I want to believe) imagined that the office would temper him and that he would become much more “Presidential” once he became President. He has certainly delivered the conservatives their Supreme Court justices that will shape America for the next half-century, at least; I am sure that is appreciated on many fronts. But there is also a reason that he is the darling of White supremacist groups. To my eye, the man told us all exactly who he was before the last election. But even if you couldn’t believe that then and assumed we would know more later, well, I don’t believe you could have any doubt as to who this man is now

I know, I know, Trump isn’t even on the ballot in this election. It’s a mid-term! But let’s be clear: almost to a person, every Republican Congressperson has toed the Trump line for the last two years, and few have so much as raised an eyebrow (much less a voice) in the face of their leader’s most repulsive acts and words. Everything he has done has required approval–through silence and votes–of the party leaders and members. So, whether you were initially in denial of this or have embraced it all the way, make no mistake: the GOP is the Party of Trump. If you want to keep it that way, get out and vote Republican!

As for the Democrats and other more-liberal-minded folks, these people have had two full years of sheer outrage and dismay. Lots of “THIS IS NOT WHO WE ARE!!!” and #NotMyPresident type of stuff. Pick an issue, any issue–health care, the environment, gun control, LGBTQ rights, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and a seemingly daily barrage or racist and/or misogynistic dogwhistles–and the liberals have been kicked in the crotch with it for two straight years. Suffice it to say that if there was ever a time a Democrat or liberal-minded person should want to vote, that time is now!

I also very much want the “independent voters” and third-party voters to show up to the polls in droves. For the third-party folks, this feels like a wonderful time to show the system that there are sufficient numbers of you to make a difference (I actually think this is the perfect time in our nation’s history to dissolve the two-party system and create several, as I wrote to you a few years ago) and that your ideas are good ones. As for the independents, or “swing voters,” as they are often called on Election Night coverage when the pundits tell us that these voters are the ones who decide elections, I cannot imagine a time in recent history when the lines were more clearly drawn between the two major parties and you are not splitting hairs to decide between them. Sides must be taken, even if you are not pledging permanent allegiance. I hope your conscience calls you to the polls to make your vote count.

And finally, to those privileged folks I mentioned earlier who don’t like to get mixed up in politics and choose not to educate themselves about the issues of our time, if you are thinking your chosen ignorance and silence mean that you bear no responsibility for the outcomes (near and far), I offer you this quote by Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel: “Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” If you don’t want to speak up in the town square or on Facebook, the least you can do is slip behind a private curtain and cast a considered vote.

Because I really want to know.

I want to know who we are in my city. I want to know who we are in my state. I want to know who we are in my beloved country.

I have already filled out my ballot and sent it in. I know where I stand, and my position will be counted. But the only way I can know for sure where my world stands is if all those who are eligible actually vote.

And I really, really want to know.

How about you? Can you think of any possible reason why you–or anyone–might not want to vote in the upcoming election? Open up your journal and explore the country as it is and how you would like it to be if you could cast the deciding vote on everything? First and foremost, will you be voting in the upcoming election? Which races on your ballot are you most passionate about? Are you more engaged now than you normally would be for a mid-term election? Why? Is it because you see your values being threatened? Would you be more excited about voting if you believed more in the actual politicians? Are there any politicians out there–on your local, state, or national level–that make you think, “If only they all had this person’s character, intelligence, and wisdom, we would be in a much better place as a country?” Do you think that about anyone on your ballot for this election? How do you feel about people who say, “I don’t like either candidate (e.g. Trump or Clinton), so I am not voting at all!” or “Politics disgust me; I’m not voting!”?   Is that simple practicality, folly, cowardice, or something else? Is voting an act of patriotism?  Which issues are the most meaningful to you when it comes to getting you to the polls to vote for measures and for candidates who share your view on the topic? Has that priority list changed over the years? Are the people in your social circle more or less likely to vote than you are? Do you talk to each other about it–not necessarily about the issues but about getting out to vote? If you have not voted in the past, what were your reasons? Why do you think America has, historically speaking, had such a poor voter turnout? Should Election Day be a national holiday so that we all have a greater opportunity to get to the polls? How much truth is there in the “My single vote doesn’t really count anyway” argument? How much value do you place in voting your conscience even when your vote probably won’t sway an election to your side (e.g. in 2000, while living in North Dakota, I voted for the Green Party’s Ralph Nader for President, knowing full well that Republican George W. Bush would win the state’s electoral votes)? Is voting for third parties “wasting your vote?” What advice would you give to someone who supports a third party candidate in a race that is neck-and-neck between the Republican and Democrat in the race? Should they vote the third party, or vote for the one they like better out of the Republican or Democrat? Does it make your blood boil–as it does mine–when you hear stories of people (such as Native Americans in North Dakota or African-Americans in Georgia) being denied or made to jump through hoops just to exercise their right to vote? How does it strike you to hear that women have been allowed to vote in America for less than 100 years? Does it increase your desire to vote? What else would it take to get you to the point that you will absolutely vote every time? Is this crazy moment in American history enough? Leave me a reply and let me know: How could you NOT vote in this election?

Claim yourself,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it on your social media channels (and soon!). Let’s all rock the vote!

P.P.S. If this way of self-reflection captures your attention, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

How Well Is YOUR Country Doing?

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would argue that that stuff counts, too.

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

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

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

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

Me: How is he doing?

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

Me: What is happening in her life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live open-hearted,

William

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

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

Child Cages, Moral Decay, and Appalling Silence

“I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

Hello friend,

What has been happening at America’s southern border these last couple of months–the separation of immigrant children from their parents and the warehousing/caging of these children–is morally reprehensible. If you don’t think so, I am not sure what I can even say to you. So I am just going to assume that if you are reading this, you have a conscience and at least a shred of decency. Fair enough?

I know that, like every other topic that involves our current President or even anything remotely political, there is likely to be an immediate raising of your walls and a strong desire to withdraw completely from the discussion. I get that. We have developed a poisonous atmosphere when it comes to political dialogue in this country. People look forward to a political debate the way they look forward to a root canal.

With that said, I would like to submit to you that this particular discussion is NOT a political one but is instead a moral one (though I admit that I look at politics as an expression of one’s morals). I mean, we are talking about human rights violations. Do you really want to belong to the group that says, “Sure, we approve of caging babies!” No matter how conservative you are, I don’t believe that is who you are. So let’s take the Republican and the Democrat out of the topic. Let’s just make it about your moral compass, your sense of decency. Okay? So, engage! Just engage as a human. Please.

The thing about this topic of child separation that–like so many other topics–I find so fascinating is not so much its rightness or wrongness (that seems obvious) but rather how much people are willing to stand up against something that runs counter to their professed morals. That is, who says out loud and in public, “This is wrong! We can’t allow this!” and who sits by in silence and allows the wrong to continue?

Maybe I am so enthralled by this concept because I enjoy studying History and, in particular, the many atrocities people have committed against each other, things that seem unspeakable to us from the distance of a textbook and a different era. I like thought experiments such as, “What would I have done if I were a German citizen during the Holocaust?” or “How engaged would I have been if I lived during the Civil Rights Movement?”

I think we all like to imagine ourselves as stepping up and doing something noble in these types of circumstances, speaking in the town square or aiding an escape or marching for justice. But would we really? We can’t know for sure, of course, but something tells me that the best indicator of how we would have acted then is how we act now when our core morality is publicly assaulted. Do we rise to speak and act, or do we swallow our tongues and sit on our hands?

It has been argued that we are in the midst of one of these public assaults daily in this era in America–when lies and threats to civil liberties from the highest offices in our government have become the norm–and that it is our obligation to step up every single time and say, in some manner, “That is simply not true,” or, “No, that is unjust.” There is honor and integrity in that. Of course, that becomes exhausting, and most of us begin to become more selective in our battles (which is why a constant barrage of untruths and incivilities has turned out to be an effective tactic for those employing it). For the sake of our personal sanity, we tend to tackle only the most egregious.

In my eyes, at least, we had one of these egregious public assaults last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the large and violent rally of white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis. Many otherwise-silent people felt compelled to speak up and say something to the effect of, “This is disgusting. This is un-American. I oppose this.” Many, but not all. Maybe not even most.

In recent weeks, we have had our latest example of an egregious public assault on our morals with the current administration’s enforcement of the “zero tolerance” policy and ensuing separation of children of all ages from their families and caging them in warehouses and tent cities. Stories of the traumas of these children–and their parents–have been out there for weeks and have multiplied recently as public outrage has grown.

I was heartened to see, after a long silence on the matter, some prominent members on both sides of the political spectrum finally speak out on the matter, naming it out loud, as I did above, as a moral matter, not a political one. Laura Bush, Franklin Graham, and the Pope definitely stood out on my radar, voices I might have otherwise not expected to hear on an ordinary “political” issue. To me, that was essentially the signal to open the floodgates for all decent people to speak out against this cruelty. Some did. But so many still didn’t.

What gives?

I fully admit that I sometimes get angry when I read a post–whether written by someone in my social media community or just shared by them–that I deem to be callous and/or ignorant. But as awful as I might find someone else’s opinion to be, I actually appreciate that they are speaking up about something that matters to them.

I understand that everyone is not on social media and not everything we do shows up there (though most days it feels like it!). Some people have these important conversations with their friends and family. Some people call their representatives and ask them to vote one way or the other. I love this and encourage everyone to do the same.

But let’s be real. Most people share a lot of their ongoing life stories with their social media “family.” I see their meals, their outfits, their product reviews, their new haircuts, their pets, their kids and everything their kids do, their awards, their Go Fund Me appeals, their date nights, their injuries, their friends, their concerts, their businesses, their pleas for extra prayers, their favorite shows, their families, their religious celebrations, their break-ups, the deaths of their loved ones, and just about everything else I can imagine. They expose themselves to me. They reveal to me who they really are (or at least who they want me to believe they are). And I love that they do. It is nice to feel like I have gotten to know new people and reconnected with so many others that I had lost contact with before I joined the Facebook and Twitter world.

But it is exactly this vast volume of information running the gamut of the human experience that I get from so many people on social media that makes it all the more disturbing to me when we have a moral crisis such as Charlottesville or the caged children at the border and I don’t hear a peep from them.

Not a small personal note expressing some disgust or outrage. Not a share of an informative article. Nothing from their spiritual leader. Just nothing.

It’s very disheartening to me. It makes me question myself about whom I have allowed into my life. It forces me to wonder whether the silence is due to callousness, cluelessness, or fear. Or something else?

And I’ll take anything, really. I even willingly accept the “This is not who we are,” statement (even though, unfortunately, it is who we are. Selling slave children away from their mothers. Removing Native American children from their families and sending them to “boarding schools,” often never to see their families again. Japanese internment camps during World War II. Historically speaking, America is clearly not above caging children.), because I think people mean it aspirationally. That is, as, “This is not who I wish for us to be, now or in the future.” I’ll take it. It’s something.

I think part of why so many don’t speak up against injustice is that it opens up a conversation that they probably don’t want to have. Most of us are so uncomfortable bringing up issues of race, class, and religion (and politics, of course). I think that part of that is simply insecurity from being out of practice (because we just don’t talk about it in America), but I also think there is a part of it (possibly unconscious) that is about our guilt from either ourselves or our ancestors being complicit in the worst kinds of atrocities in our history, such as the ones I just mentioned. We avoid conversations about current unpleasantness to avoid conversations about past unpleasantness. We just don’t dare.

But I am here to say that it is time to speak up. You don’t have to get “political.” You don’t have to name names. You just have to, when something is happening in your world that is so morally repulsive that it makes you want to cry or scream or reach a hand out to help, say something.

Just say something. Account for yourself as a moral being. That’s all.

I will.

How about you? Are you willing to speak up when something in your country goes beyond the limits of your moral compass? Open up your journal and explore your responses in times of moral crisis, including our current catastrophe with children at the border. Historically–prior to this current issue–have you found yourself compelled to speak up and/or take action in the face of a policy or action that you found to be unconscionable? What compelled you? An unjust war? A policy regarding civil rights issues? A particular debate or Supreme Court decision, such as abortion or same-sex marriage? The cumulative effect of a particular politician’s character (e.g. racist and misogynistic) and policy positions (e.g. doesn’t believe in climate change)? Police brutality? The Women’s March? The Charlottesville white supremacists? Something else? If none of those things moved the needle far enough for you to rise up and speak, is there anything that you can imagine pushing you to that point? Okay, how about this recent issue of forcibly taking children from their parents and holding them in detention centers? How egregious is this according to your moral code? Enough to say something? Have you shared anything on social media about it? Have you communicated your outrage–if you have it–to friends and family members? To members of Congress? If not, why exactly not? If you belong to a religion or spiritual community, what do your leaders have to say about this matter? Have they spoken up and condemned the policy during services? Did they speak out against racism during Charlottesville? If they did not, what do you think it says about your spiritual community in terms of its role in your moral life? What do you think about people who don’t stand up in the face of what is plainly wrong? Would you trust them to stand up for you if you were being bullied? What does that say about the level of trust you ought to give them with your heart? Whether or not you are one to speak out against injustice, what do you think are the biggest reasons people–even “good people”–choose silence in times when silence only emboldens the oppressor and the bully? In the end, are any of those reasons good enough? At what point is silence simply spinelessness? Have you been there? How recently? Did you regret it later? When it comes to the human rights violations occurring with the traumatized children at the border, how do you suppose History will judge people who responded like you did to the situation? Are you content with that? Leave me a reply and let me know: What does it take to get you to speak up?

Make your heart feel big,

William

P.S. If you know anyone who might be well served to consider these questions, please share this letter with them. All rise!

P.P.S. If you enjoy the challenge of exploring your inner world, I think you would appreciate my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That is Your Truth. It’s available at most online retailers.

When 50 Years Is Forever But No Time At All

“Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” –Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait

Hello friend,

All week long I have been ruminating on the life of Martin Luther King. Well, I suppose it is more like 30 years that I have been ruminating on him. Ever since that day I walked into the library of my high school bent on satisfying the intense curiosity I felt about this man, a fascination that none of my teachers and textbooks had quenched. I read and read, and as I did, the feeling grew that I had found my soulmate across the ages. We were connected somehow, like cosmic brothers. Timelessly so.

My hero was murdered 50 years ago.

FIFTY YEARS!!! That feels like an eternity to me! But even for someone as resonant and consistently present in my life as Dr. King has been, “his time” still feels so long ago and so much before mine. In so many ways, I cannot believe it was only 50 years ago that he died!

I think of all those images in still photographs and grainy video. The fire hoses and dogs, the lunch counters and sidewalk beatings, the policemen’s billy-clubs, the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, the many sermons in churches across the South, and the Lincoln Memorial and National Mall for the “I Have A Dream” speech. I always see the Civil Rights Movement in black-and-white. Some time long before me, just like the Great Depression and World War II and Charlie Chaplin. Ancient history.

But the truth is that Dr. King was right before me, and his time bumped right up to my time. He was murdered in April of 1968. My sister was born the very next month. My goodness, I have never realized that! It shocks me now that I do. Even though I can see the dates in my head and I understand it to be true, somehow my mind just won’t absorb the concept.

I nearly shared an era with Martin Luther King.

I am so stricken by that realization just now. In my mind, it was such a stretch to connect us, at least from a practical standpoint; I felt him in my heart, of course, but he was always a character from such a completely different time, as much as my other major influences: Gandhi, Buddha, Henry Thoreau, and Jesus of Nazareth. Fifty years could have just as well have been 500! It always seemed so far before me.

Everything about the 1960s has felt that way for me: Woodstock, JFK, the moon landing, even Vietnam, which went into the 70s. I see now that everything before me feels like ancient history.

And just the concept of FIFTY YEARS seems like forever. It’s so big!

I guess that I fail to realize that I am 45 years old. That is nearly half a century itself. Maybe the fact that I cannot imagine myself as being 50 sheds some light on why I see Martin Luther King as nowhere near my time.

I think this type of view changes with age. At least it has for me. I know that I have made an effort in my adult years to expand my range on this, to make more real the idea that 100 years and 200 years and things like slavery, the extermination of the Native Americans, Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler, and the right of women to vote, that none of that was actually very long ago. I have done it intentionally so that I can keep my empathy and be on the alert for narrow-mindedness and entitlement. It is a process that I have mixed results with, occasionally grasping the close proximity of these events to me, but usually not. I take a lot for granted.

The fluctuating nature of my grasp on this concept of Time seems directly proportional to the level of wisdom that I operate with from day to day. When I am clear how near all of this stuff is to today–a blink of an eye, historically–then I am more aware of how important it is for me to use my voice and my life for good and to speak up immediately and passionately against ignorance and injustice, as those things can quickly gain a foothold and wreak havoc on a generation of unsuspecting souls.

I feel like I owe it to my children and future grandchildren to take the long view and realize just how brief a half-century is, how near we are to the previous one, and how quickly the next one will pass. It pushes me to take ownership of my era, to try to leave a better legacy than my generation seems to be allowing to transpire right under our noses.

I don’t want my future grandchildren to look back at this time–my time–and think, “What fools and cowards those people were in that age! How badly they behaved toward one another and toward the planet! They nearly destroyed everything, and barely anyone spoke up on the side of right. How short-sighted they were. Thanks goodness we know better!” I hope that we can see and confront the error of our ways in the present and leave a better legacy than we are on track to.

Fifty years goes by in a blink. That’s what my mother tells me. We can do a lot of good or a lot of bad in that amount of time. When I think about those black-and-white images from the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s death–and when I remind myself that that was only one blink ago–I understand the kind of seismic shift we can make in the next blink, one way or the other. Dr. King and every other brave person who spoke, marched, and bled for civil rights in the 1960s made all our lives immeasurably better. But our potential for greater things is limitless. There will not come an era when it will be acceptable to say, “Okay, we have done enough to improve the world for ourselves, for humankind, and for our planet.” The time will always, as Dr. King says, “be ripe to do right.”

If you are reading these words, you are in the midst of one of those 50-year blinks. Someone is going to look back in wonder 50 short years from now–it might be you, it might be your grandkids, it might be the History books–at the time in which we are living. They will see the images we daily create: school shootings, climate events, cowardly displays of greed and short-sightedness from our elected leaders, showdowns over nuclear weapons, killings of unarmed Black men by the police, and lots of people taking selfies as the rest of the list goes on in the background? Will they be impressed or aghast at us?   Will they find any heroes in their review of our time, anyone like Martin Luther King?

These questions haunt me now in this rare moment of clarity about how quickly time flies by. At least for this moment, before something distracts me and clouds my vision, I want to make a bigger commitment to make this historical blink–our blink–a more positive one. A time for growth and for progress. I want this blink to be characterized by an increase in EMPATHY and a corresponding natural boost in Social Justice and Peace. I want it to be characterized by an awakening in our hearts and minds about the disastrous effects of our actions (and those of our ancestors) on each other and on our planet, and with that awakening a newfound conviction to live bigger and better than we ever have before.

I sincerely hope that with that awakening and conviction come heroes. It would be a shame to be a party to an era that leaves behind no heroes for the next era. It reminds me of the John Mayer lyric from his song “Speak For Me”: You can tell that something isn’t right when all your heroes are in black-and-white. I hope that for the sake of the coming generations, we can leave behind a legacy of moral progress and broadminded vision, and some genuine heroes, too.

Dr. King died 50 years ago this week. Perhaps the more staggering fact is that he was alive for only 39 years. If History blinked, it would have missed him. That’s how fast it goes. But if you do it well, as Dr. King showed us, your blink can shine forever. I want my blink–our blink–to be better. The thought of my hero inspires me to rise up and do my part to make it so.

How about you? Do you realize how quickly your era is passing and the impressions it is leaving in the greater evolutionary journey of our species? Open up your journal and contemplate this infinite topic. What is your sense of the magnitude of 50 years? Does it seem like forever to you–taking you to some foreign territory like a black-and-white film that you can’t make real in your colorful mind–or does it feel like just a little while ago? Do you think this is entirely dependent upon your age–i.e. 50 years seems like nothing for people older than 50 but feels like forever to people younger than 50–or are some people just better at comprehending our tiny spot on the vastness of History’s timeline? As a 45-year old, I grew up with color TV shows but also some after-school re-runs in black-and-white (e.g “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Three Stooges”) that I always had trouble connecting with. Do you think the switch from black-and-white to color images in photos, TV, and movies will change what seems “contemporary” to this and future generations, or will our color images seem old and unrelatable to them, too? Are your heroes from your lifetime? Has the past 50 years–the time since Dr. King–produced a proportionate number of heroes to the other historical eras? If not, what is it about our era that is lacking such that we have not produced the kind of people who are worthy of our idolatry over the long haul? It seems reasonable that with social media and the Internet, this era’s potential paragons of virtue would be easily visible and widely accessible to a broad audience, making it seem likely that we would produce an exponentially greater number of heroic figures than previous eras. Are we? What will be the legacy of our era–this blink–when people look back at it 50 years from now? Will it be all of the negative stuff we see on the news everyday–the corruption and cowardice in Washington, the shootings, the climate change–or is there something greater at play that we are missing amidst all of this narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness? Or is that very pettiness and folly going to be our legacy, the thing that sticks out to the writers of the History books? Perhaps. Now switch gears: what would you like the legacy of this era to be? How different is that than where it appears to be heading now? What could we start doing differently to get it going in the direction you want it to go? Is it a reasonable ask, or are your hope and our reality a bridge too far to cross? What can you personally do to make our era more like the one you would like it to be remembered as? Is that something you can begin today? I hope so. Leave me a reply and let me know: What lasting impression will this historical blink of an eye leave upon History?

Be your biggest,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, I hope you will share it on your social media. We need to grow the conversations that make us better. Thank you!

P.S.S. If you haven’t read the Journal of YOU book yet, you can find it on Amazon or any of your other favorite online booksellers. Please leave a review if you have. Thanks!