Category Archives: Privilege

Election Stress: What Do You Have To Lose On November 3rd?

“You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality.  Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” –Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary 

“If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States.” –Henry Wallace

Hello friend,

Remember the old days, when it was common to say that the distinction between Republicans and Democrats was simply a matter of both wanting the same things for our country but just having slightly different ways of getting there?  Gosh, how swell we all were.  Remember when it was normal for members of Congress to “reach across the aisle,” to pass lots of “bipartisan legislation” on issues we could all agree on?  How quaint.  Remember when, even though you may have really cared who won the presidential election, your everyday life and the general tension and anxiety you felt in the ensuing four years didn’t change much depending upon who won?  Remember that?  I do.

Those days are gone.

Although I have voted in every election since I was 18, I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t the most politically aware and engaged citizen in my teens and twenties.  If there was a wild disparity between the candidates’ positions and how their time in office would shake out for us, I was blissfully ignorant of it.  And while I know that no one likes it when their party’s candidates lose the big races, I just never felt a lot of extreme animosity between the actual voters based on who they were voting for.  Like I said, maybe that was simply my ignorance and the naïveté of an optimistic youth, but maybe there is more to it.  Maybe we actually had more in common with each other back then, politically speaking, and the reach across the aisle didn’t require all that much flexibility.  Maybe we only needed to be sour about the lost elections for a few weeks or months—definitely not years–afterward because our lives didn’t actually change that much either way.

This moment feels nothing like that to me.

I remember Election Night in 2016.  As it became clear that Donald Trump was on his way to defeating Hillary Clinton, a feeling of awful dread came over me.  Here was a man who had, in both his presidential campaign and his many years of celebrity beforehand, exhibited blatant racism, sexism, xenophobia, boasts of sexual assault, and general moral indecency.  Combined with the fact that the policies he stood for and against were in direct opposition to my own, I was none too excited about the coming four years under his leadership.

Still, I held out some measure of hope that, as many pundits suggested, “the office would chasten him.”  Surely, as the representative of every American, he would tone down his callousness toward the majority of them.  Surely, as someone without experience in global politics and diplomacy, he would surround himself with wise and seasoned counsel and heed their advice in order to keep Americans safe and prosperous and keep America in its position as world leader.

None of that happened.  As the four years have dragged on, one Twitter rant and national embarrassment at a time, my hopes have long since faded.  As I listened to a news show this week, the host implored the President to use these last days before the election to turn things around on his brazen, anti-science messaging around the coronavirus pandemic in order to save American lives.  The guest, once a surrogate for the President, shook his head and said, “No chance.”

That is the essence of the effects of these last four years of American politics for me: a crushing of hope, a growing shame, perpetual disappointment, and a growing list of reasons to fear for my family’s health and safety.

So you better believe I am anxious about Election Day 2020.  Even with all that has been lost under this leadership, there is still so much more to lose if it is allowed to continue.  These are just a few of the things that keep me up at night when I think about four more years of this:

The environment matters to me, as does addressing the scientific reality of climate change.  When we began this Presidency by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, I knew it signaled an opening of the floodgates.  It sickens me each time I read of the administration’s gutting of our environmental regulations–more than 100 at this point, including the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act–and opens once-protected lands to new drilling, logging, mining, and fracking.  The sides in this election could not be more different when it comes to climate change and the environment, and indeed, even simply acknowledging the value of science and truth.

Health care matters to me.  Even though neither of the big party candidates endorses the universal health care/Medicare For All type of plan that I believe would best serve all Americans, it is clear which candidate’s plan–or, at least, the one candidate with a plan–will get more people covered with fewer of the crippling expenses.  I will not get to my preferred destination in this election, but I at least want the guy who is going in the same direction I am.

Our democratic norms matter to me.  I miss the days when the President actually followed the rules and norms associated with the office (even if I despised that President).  The President used to be unable to profit directly from the Presidency while he was President.  The President and his staff used to not endorse products.  The President used to not give top security clearance to people denied security clearance.  The President used to not publicly urge the Attorney General to bring charges against his political opponents.  The President used to not conspire with foreign governments (especially enemy governments) to get elected.  The President used to disclose his taxes and financial dealings so that the people knew to whom he might be beholden.  The President and his doctors used to tell us the truth (at least most of it) about the President’s health.  The President used to not encourage uprisings in the states or fail to condemn threats against governors.  The President used to not spread lies meant to cast doubt on the validity of an election.  The President used to not directly contradict the findings of his own Intelligence agencies and Health experts.

Decency matters to me.  Period.

I wish I didn’t have to mention this after all of these months, but here goes: a national plan to control the coronavirus pandemic and to get ordinary Americans and small businesses back on their feet financially matters to me.  The current administration has plainly had its chance and failed miserably with its anti-science, anti-responsibility, “non-plan” approach.  Nearly a quarter of a MILLION Americans have died as a result.  It is indefensible.  There is another way, as proven by most other countries around the world.

Finally–and this feels absurd that I should have to say this in America in 2020, but I do–my Black family’s safety matters to me.  I know there are lots of White Americans out there rolling their eyes at this idea.  If that is you, consider yourself privileged.  When the President calls the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people,” their websites celebrate a major victory and hail him as their leader.  When the President tells the violent, neo-fascist Proud Boys to “stand by,” the effect upon them is the same.  When he is silent around issues of police brutality and the killing of unarmed Black people, it is a clear message to those inclined to do that kind of harm.  His lead in the birther conspiracy regarding President Obama, his history of racist business practices, and his infamous role in the Central Park Five miscarriage of justice all further lay that racist foundation.  If those things seem disconnected from your life and just another knock on the man’s flawed morals, then, again, consider yourself lucky.  If you are Black or Brown, however, you know that these comments and this silence have a very real impact on your life.  I have loved ones who have anxiety about being out anymore, who fear being physically or verbally assaulted in a public place by White supremacists emboldened by the President.  Think about that.  Hate groups reveling in their glorious worst because their ideal President gives them an encouraging wink and a dogwhistle.  The momentum of it builds with each speech and act, and the number of hate groups has risen dramatically during this administration.  I have watched videos of these groups showing their eagerness to bring violence should the Democrats win this election.  Imagine how much worse it will be with another four years of hate-mongering.  It should not be the burden of any American to carry that fear with them every day.

I am well aware that there are many more reasons people are feeling anxious about the results of this election.  Supreme Court imbalances, women’s rights, immigration, LGBTQ rights, gun control, the stock market, minimum wage, college tuition pricing, corruption, decline in our standing in the world at large, and on and on and on.  And not just on my side of the spectrum.  All sides.  And not just reasonable concerns backed by facts and historical record.  The liars and conspiracy pushers make for fantastic anxiety boosters.  My own mother, for example, consumes Fox News like a drug all day long and happily swallows any flavor of nonsense they feed her and uses it to fuel her delusions about what the Democrats might do if elected.   Even if you are so fortunate as to be unconcerned with politics, I don’t see how you aren’t still aware of this moment’s effects on your family and friends.   The tension is palpable.

I suppose the only thing to do now is to vote and then see what those votes tell us.  Of course, if the Proud Boys videos are accurate, we may then have to endure a “war” in our own country.  Ah yes, another reason for anxiety, just what we need.  For me, those vote totals will either lead to four more years of stress (and anger and sadness and embarrassment and…..), or they will lead to what I hope will be a pivot point, the first step of many in the direction toward Calm and Decency.  As one of the candidates is fond of saying, it really does feel like a battle for “the soul of America.”  I hope my soul can relax soon, because, politically speaking, these have been the four worst, most tense years of my life, by a country mile.  I will be on the edge of my seat come the first week of November, aching to lay down this heavy load.  The stress has taken over me.

How about you?  What stresses you about the results of the upcoming election?  Open up your journal and sort out what the different leaders might bring to your life and your mental health.  Over the last four years, what things have been lost or gained in our country’s leadership?  How is this administration different than a “normal” one?  Which of those differences would you like to see continue?  Which aspects of the current President most concern you?  Which issues are mere annoyances–personality flaws or differences of opinion on policy issues–and which are downright alarming (e.g. genuine threats to democracy)?  Have you felt your personal health or safety unusually threatened under the current President, with things such as COVID-19 or unchecked hate groups?  How unsettling are the flouting of democratic norms and authoritarian tendencies (e.g. use of Justice Department to threaten personal enemies, use of Presidency for direct financial gain, antagonizing journalists) to you?  How has your general stress level changed in the last four years?  Do you miss Decency and Grace?  What are you most anxious about losing if the President wins re-election?  Let’s switch it around.  If you are voting for the President to win again, how anxious are you about what a Democratic leadership would bring?  What issues most worry you?  Of the things that you gained in the current Presidency, which of those things would it hurt you most to lose?  Do you recall all of the things you thought were so terrible about President Obama?  Do you fear a repeat of that if the Democrats win this time?  Do you fear worse this time?  In what ways?  Do you believe that someone who has been a moderate his entire life is suddenly going to become a “radical liberal?”  What does your worst-case scenario look like?  No matter which side you are voting for, on a scale of 1 to10, how stressed are you about this election?  Is that number higher or lower than most of the people in your life?  Is it higher or lower than in other election years?  What is it about this one?  Have you found any ways to reduce your election stress?  If you could look four years into the future, do you think the next big election will bring you any less stress?  Does this feel like the most important election of your lifetime?  Is that why it brings so much tension?  Leave me a reply and let me know: What do you have to lose on November 3rd?

Vote like your life depends on it,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonates with you, please share it with all the parties you know.  In the end, it is our connectedness that will save us.

P.P.S. If you like this way of introspection, please consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.

“But I’m Not A Racist!” And Other Things We White Folks Need To Do Better

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” –Benjamin Franklin

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hello friend,

What a week to have skin in America! In the wake of the tragic and wholly unnecessary killing of George Floyd by a police officer to start the week, Minneapolis, a city with a long history of racial injustice and inequity, has been consumed by protests and destruction as its residents process their understandable grief and frustration. I live a safe distance away in a suburb of the city but have felt the waves of emotion reaching my doorstep in a way that is deeper and more personal than the other seemingly countless and regular newsworthy occurrences of racial injustice in America.

Just in the last few weeks, we have been dealing with new revelations in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man who, while out jogging, was tracked down in a truck by two white men who had decided that he was a burglar and shot him dead in the street. Also in the news has been the killing of EMT Breonna Taylor, a young black woman, by police who broke into her home–the wrong home, as it turned out–unannounced while she was sleeping and shot her multiple times while her boyfriend tried to defend her from what he believed to be a home invasion.

With the sadness and anger from those two tragedies hovering in the American air, joining the long list of unjustifiable killings of black people–Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Terrence Crutcher, to name just a few off the top of my head–we woke up Tuesday morning to viral video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling for several minutes on the neck of a handcuffed George Floyd as Floyd repeatedly says he cannot breathe. We already knew from the headline that, of course, George Floyd had been killed.

So began this week, a week that has continued like a dark cloud hovering over my home and, a little further up the freeway, my city. The mood in the house–which has white me, my black wife, and my two biracial children, ages 11 and 9, one who looks more black and one who could pass as white–has been at times outraged, depressed, furious, disappointed, appalled, apprehensive, curious, irritated, and thoroughly exhausted. Predicting it from hour to hour or nailing it down is impossible (though the exhaustion permeates). It’s like when I read the news articles about it on Facebook, and I have to choose the emoji to react with for the person posting. I tend to sway between angry and sad. I’m fully both.

Sadly, one thing I am not–and neither are my kids, which is truly horrifying–is surprised.

I have lived in this country long enough and done enough personal work to educate myself to both the historical facts and to the flesh-and-blood people and their stories that I feel like I somewhat know the score. It is plain to me that we live in a society based on white supremacy. We, especially we white folks, dare not to speak of it and deny it at every mention, which is how it has retained its power over centuries. But it is plain to an objective eye, if such a thing exists.

White lives are valued more highly than black lives. When doing the same job, white people get paid more. When convicted of the same crime, black people receive more severe punishments. A white person is believed in favor of a black person when their stories conflict. (And yes, I know there are other colors in this silly invention called race, but I trust that you understand the argument and the expediency of sticking with black and white for the moment. Thank you for your grace.) When fashion or language or housing or hair is compared between the groups, we work from the assumption that the white whatever is “just normal,” the standard, without distinguishing characteristics to judge it, whereas “black” things have ways that are different and can be judged (like when white kids do badly in school or break rules, they are considered individually–Timmy has anger issues or a lower IQ–or are “just being kids,” but when black kids behave badly it is taken as a reflection of their race, not of their individual difference). I could go on and on, but you get it.

Thus, it was not at all surprising to me to hear on Tuesday morning from a co-worker that an unarmed black man was killed by a police officer. She said that there was a bystander video that she couldn’t bring herself to watch. I knew it was about to be a challenging week.

So, when I arrived back at home later in the day, I immediately went to one of my news apps to learn more. While I was there gleaning information about the killing of George Floyd, a different article caught my eye. You have possibly seen the viral video recorded by bird enthusiast Christian Cooper, a black man, after he asked a white woman, Amy Cooper (not related), to leash her dog in an area of Central Park in New York City where leashes are required. This caused her to become very upset. A tense exchange ensued, during which he asked her not to come close to him and she then threatened, “I’m calling the cops. I’m gonna tell them that there’s an African-American man threatening my life!” She repeated that claim to the 911 operator multiple times in the video.

I could taste the bile coming up and could feel my blood boil. It wasn’t that I was any more surprised by this video that did not, fortunately, lead to more unnecessary violence, than I was by the video of George Floyd’s killing by Derek Chauvin. Rather, it was that this ordinary, everyday argument in New York City between Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper symbolized the entire culture of white supremacy–a culture that we are so deeply woven into that we don’t even recognize it or acknowledge it–that flows so seamlessly and inevitably to the death of George Floyd (or Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice or….).

The fact that people of color are seen as less than, worse than, not to be believed, of little consequence, and dangerous sets the stage for George Floyd’s tragic death and the deaths of untold millions of people of color throughout the sordid history of this country. Whiteness has a power that people of color can do nothing about. Amy Cooper knew that in the park that day, whether she had ever consciously formulated the thought. She laid bare America’s essence and gave away our secret in those few short words: “I’m gonna tell them that there’s an African-American man threatening my life!” Translation: “I can end your life right now. I’m the one everyone will believe. I own you.”

As I said, the video didn’t surprise me at all. After all, in the age of smartphones, we have become accustomed to seeing the kind of “threats” that white people call the police about regarding black people just trying to live (grilling in the park, having a lemonade stand, using the gym, etc.). Much like with the police killings of unarmed black people, we see them more often now not because they occur more often, but because there are cameras.

Outside of the video’s encapsulation of America’s signature theme and its perfect timing with the killing of George Floyd, I was, in fact, not so interested in it. What caught my attention more from the story was Amy Cooper’s apology. After all, her blatant racism had gone viral and her employer had suspended (and later fired) her in its wake. So, of course, she said she was sorry. No surprise there. The kicker, though, was her use of the now-standard line for anyone who is caught doing or saying something patently racist: “I’m not a racist.” It’s a classic.

Believe it or not, I don’t care whether Amy Cooper is a racist. My point today is not to make a case for what makes someone a certified racist and what makes someone else a good-hearted person who, in a moment of weakness, committed an obviously racist action (or how many of those racist actions it would take for that person to slide into the genuinely racist category). No, I mostly want to offer my fellow white people a suggestion or two about our racism (which is inevitable given the culture in which we live and our privileged position in it).

In your apology for your racist action, please don’t include, “But I’m not a racist.” And definitely don’t lead with it. It sounds so disingenuous after what you have just said or done to get yourself in hot water (I don’t want to list examples). Even if you believe that in your heart and even if you have a long list of examples to “prove” it, saying that is not the way to be heard. Maybe something more like, “That was a horribly racist thing I said. I didn’t even know I had something so vile in me, but clearly I do. I am sorry.” Or this: “Even though I was raised in a racist family, I thought I had moved beyond that. My racist action today showed me I still have work to do. I am so sorry.” If you still really, really want to say you aren’t a racist, the furthest leash you might stretch could be, “I truly don’t feel anything negative against black people, so I didn’t think I could do something like that. But I can see that it was a racist act, and I take responsibility. I am so sorry, and I promise to do better.” All of these apologies, of course, work better if you actually mean it and change your behavior. It is one small thing.

My other small suggestion today, my white friend, is to raise your voice and take a stand for people of color and against white supremacy. As I said before, people of color have no real say in whether the American culture of white supremacy (and therefore inequality, abuse of power, injustice, protest, riots, etc. in roughly that order) gets to continue. Black and brown people have been calling us on our abuses since we showed up on the land centuries ago, dragging some of them with us and slaying others in our wake. That has not changed us. It is unfair and phony of us to keep asking people of color to explain injustice and inequity to us, to tell us their experience so we can understand our own. They are tired of explaining (not to mention tired of the rest). The whole thing is exhausting for them, and it is simply not their job. People of color have borne the burden of white people’s culture of racism for centuries and been powerless to change it. Not because they are weak or stupid or unorganized, and certainly not because they are less than white people. They haven’t changed white supremacy because white supremacy is white people’s responsibility. It is our burden. It was created by us, and it must be undone by us.

So take a stand. Use your white voice, which is way more powerful than you understand it to be. This week I have been so moved to see a couple of my white friends on social media, whom I have never seen say anything about injustice or the need for anti-racism, actually speak up on their feed, with either a shared article or a heartfelt paragraph or two about how George Floyd’s death was wrong and how we must work to root out racism. I thought of these normally-silent white people’s respective spheres of influence–some small, others quite large–and the impact their voice might have to free up other silent-but-pained folks to speak their own truth about these matters. I thought, “What if everyone who was bothered by George Floyd’s death actually spoke up in a public forum?” That could be in conversation with others at a church or social event where they had never previously dared talk about such things, or it could be a social media site where they typically just watch silently or post only about “non-political” things. What if they raised their virtual hand and simply said, “This is wrong, and we need to change.”?

We are such a culture of people who need permission–from celebrities, trendsetters, the cool people in our social circle, our peers–to say what we really feel and what is hard. My goodness, we could change so much if a critical mass of white people would just speak up on behalf of people of color and the injustices brought to bear on them by our system of white supremacy. Equality would become cool. Anti-racism would be trending. Imagine that! Congress members would have to listen to their justice-minded constituents because there were just so many of them. The tide would turn.

It could happen. It really could. But it won’t happen just because black and brown people have had enough of our racism, just because they are sick and tired of being held back and held down and brutalized by the police and by unfair housing practices or racist bosses or neighbors. It won’t happen because they protest peacefully or because they riot or loot or burn buildings. We have already proven that none of those methods are effective. The only way our system is going to change is if we white folks take on the challenge ourselves, if we take responsibility for the job that should have been ours all along.

There are a million ways available to help the cause, and I hope you will take advantage of many of them. But even if you can just take one small step today, I hope it is by raising your voice in a way or in a space that you have not before. I guarantee you the world will be better for it. If you take my virtual hand, I promise to take that step with you. I’m here and ready.

How about you? What role have you been playing in the racial dynamic? Open up your journal and explore your relationships with the other humans on the planet and the systems and decisions that have placed you there. On a scale of 1 to 10, if one is an avid anti-racist and ally to people of color and 10 is an unabashed bigot, where do you land when it comes to your level of racism? If we asked the ten people closest to you about your level, do you think they would rate you higher or lower? How would you rate them? Do they exhibit more or fewer ignorant attitudes and behaviors than you? Are you aware of your specific weaknesses and failings, such as which groups you are particularly biased against and how those biases present themselves in the world? Are you ever shocked at how narrow-minded, even vile, a thought you have is? How about a comment or action? Have you ever apologized to someone regarding a racist comment or action? If you haven’t, should you have? Do you feel embarrassed now at some of the racist things you did or said in your past? In what ways have you changed? Can you point to incidents or reasons why you have changed? Are you now more open-minded and accepting (even celebratory) of other races, or have you views become more narrow and bigoted with age? How have the people in your friend group influenced your perspective on matters of race, equity, and justice? How have you influenced them? Are you able to speak freely with your friends on these matters? Do you? How about your family? What percentage of your loved ones would you consider to be a true ally to people of color? If you had to name percentages for the people in your circle, how many would you say are generally 1) racist, 2) not racist, or 3) anti-racist? In which category are you? How big of a stretch would it be for you to become anti-racist, to be an intentional ally to people of color and speak out against racist actions and systems? What would it cost you? Discomfort? Friends? What could it gain you? Greater self-respect? A richer life? Friends? What is your typical reaction when an injustice occurs, such as the murder of George Floyd? Do you ignore it? Do you shake your head and move on? Do you get a bit upset but not say anything? Do you talk about it with a loved one? Do you speak out on social media or in other large groups, such as church or social gatherings? Is it clear to the people around you what your position is regarding people of color and the injustices they deal with in our society? If not, why not? Are you trying to protect them–your people–or protect yourself by not raising an uncomfortable topic? Are you being brave or cowardly? Overall, how uncomfortable addressing this whole topic are you? Does the term “white supremacy” as a normal term for America’s culture make you cringe? Does it feel wrong to admit you are the beneficiary of white supremacy and a part of the group that keeps other groups down? How does it feel when someone says that doing nothing, staying silent, and staying “neutral” on these matters only aids the oppressor and does untold damage to people of color every day? Is there really no neutral? Do you think the discomfort around this topic is all the more evidence that we hide from it in our everyday discourse? Do you agree that keeping white supremacy out of conversation and out of our heads has only made it more difficult to root out? Why don’t you speak about it more often? If you have people of color in your life, do you think it comes across to them as a betrayal when you say nothing about these regular acts of gross injustice? Can you be a true friend to them and not say something? How much of an idea do you think you have about what it is to live in their skin every day? How can you do better for them? What will it take to get you to start on that? Is there something you can do today? I dare you. Leave me a reply and let me know: What will you do to bring more equity and justice into the world?

Be the light,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. This task will require all of us!

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

Spoiled, Selfish, & Stupid: Why We Are Not To Be Trusted

“Living as I do with human beings, the more that I observe them, the more I am forced to conclude that they are selfish.” –Natsume Söseki, I Am A Cat

“Pride and folly, they go together like two tightly grasping hands.” –Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear

Hello friend,

Open the floodgates! The Americans have left their homes and their senses!

We gave it a good run. We–well, most of us–did the decent thing for a solid month or so. We sacrificed. We listened to scientists who told us that the best way we could help was to stay home and keep our distance from one another. We actually considered how our behavior affects others. We showed a conscience. We were selfless, altruistic. It was like a weird, totally surreal, alternate universe. But we made it cool! Social distancing and masks became the darlings of social media, inspiring all sorts of clever memes, GIFs, and videos. It was this quaint little throwback thing we were doing together–like having a 1980s Day at school or pretending we were re-enacting “Little House On The Prairie”–all with a collective ‘wink-wink’ knowing we were way too cool to actually live like this. We were playing along until we got the first signal that we could call off the charade.

Apparently, the signal was not a vaccine to prevent anyone else from getting Covid-19. It was not a medicine to help alleviate the symptoms. It was not the steady decline of new cases over a 14-day period, as the experts had told us from the start would be best indicator. The signal wasn’t even any sort of decline. As it turned out, all it took for Americans to assume permission to return to regular social living was the mere mention by folks on TV of the possibility of a slow, measured re-opening of the economy.

And with that, social distancing (and sense) is a thing of the past.

Exhibit A: Last weekend, my wife, kids, and I took a bike ride around our neighborhood. The first park we passed had a full parking lot, people playing volleyball and other sports, grilling, playing on the playground, and hanging at the beach. I could feel my sensible wife fuming behind me as we passed from the road. She had already made clear before we left that we would not be entering that park, as the nice day would draw too many people. But this was another level. This was Summer-day-level crowding. I sped up my pedaling to get past it, and we soon arrived at the next park, where we would be circling the more remote path that surrounds the hub of the park. Of course, we immediately spotted in that center a large gathering of what appeared to be friends, some playing full 6-on-6 volleyball and many others gathered around the court lounging and socializing in very close proximity. Again, it looked like an ordinary-times Sunday afternoon at the park.

Keep in mind that at that point, where I live in Minnesota, there had been no new guidelines for removal or even decrease in social distancing or gathering size suggested by the governor or other top scientists in the state, just talk about some upcoming small measures to get a few more businesses operating.

My wife, who may be accused of being cautious and germaphobic–qualities I have finally come to appreciate with a killer virus in town–but also has a track record of wisdom and sense, was livid. She could not wrap her head around what these people were thinking–or, perhaps more accurately, not thinking–to be in each other’s space and touching the same things willingly. I admit, I was outraged at their behavior as well, but I was less shocked. I had felt it increasing the entire week leading up to that day. And immediately prior to our bike ride, I had witnessed Exhibit B.

I was in my kitchen and happened to look out my window to see some neighbor kids and their friends from a few blocks away right up on the front patio of a different neighbor, where that neighbor (a middle-aged man) was sitting with his girlfriend. (You may recall that I mentioned in my last letter my anger with my neighbors that have kept up frequent play dates and social gatherings throughout the pandemic. Well, these were the kids and friends.) I was immediately shocked and angered at their proximity to one another, of course, but its lack of appropriateness also captivated me. I kept watching. The kids proceeded to circle this guy’s house over and over again, stopping by the man and woman as they went. Then, when they seemed to tire, he gave them a drink from his cup, which they proceeded to pass around to everyone in the group.

As someone who has taken the scientists very seriously regarding the necessity of social distancing and mask-wearing during this global pandemic, my jaw was practically on the floor. Why worry about the spit droplets traveling randomly through the air and only maybe reaching someone else when you can just pass those little guys directly via a cup? Brilliant! These same folks were part of a several-family, no-distancing yard party just a couple days earlier that I also got to witness in horror from my window. All that is to say that by the time we got to that park last Sunday, my sense of disgust was still strong but my ability to be shocked by foolishness had been dulled dramatically. Mostly, my neck was getting tired from shaking my head so often.

Though I have no satisfactory justification for anyone willfully breaking the simple social distancing guidelines that have been in the public forum for several weeks now, I have thought a lot about the mindset behind it. As always, I spend a lot of time considering how we humans think and the impulses behind our actions. It starts with myself, of course, in my daily journal entries that have been helping me understand my shenanigans for decades. But I am equally fascinated by others, both individually and collectively. I am a fan of all studies sociological and psychological. And obviously, immersed as I am in American culture, I am particularly fascinated by attitudes and behaviors that seem uniquely American.

This recent abandonment of conscience and the corresponding moral free-for-all regarding social distancing and our obligation to care about the health of people we don’t know seems to fit the bill as something thoroughly American.

For the sake of today’s discussion, I am separating the people gathering at my neighbor’s house and in the park to celebrate and play socially from the maskless hordes storming state capitols and shouting in people’s exposed faces in protest. Although there is some relation between the two groups, I think the arguments get much more complex when you bring in the economic aspects of stay-at-home orders, which I like to think are motivating the protesters. People simply craving human contact and unfettered hanging out occupy a different spot on the spectrum. It is these people who are just over social distancing and are moving on despite the potential consequences that are the ones I am pondering today.

When I think of my wife’s shrill, panicked, “WHAT IS HAPPENING????” when she first witnessed up-close these blatant acts of disregard for established guidelines for protection against a deadly virus, the first thing that came to my mind to sum up my theory was “spoiled Americans.”

Sacrifice is not something we are accustomed to at this point in our history. For those of us in the middle class and higher, anyway, we haven’t spent much thought on how our lives affect others or ever had to “take one for the team” and make do with less so others could live. The term “first-world problems” has caught on in the common vernacular precisely because for many of us, we simply aren’t very inconvenienced by the world. But now this coronavirus has kept us away from the blowouts, hangouts, and make-outs that we have come to see as our birthright.

So sure, we played along at first (at least most of us). We stayed at home. We stayed apart. We wore our masks and acted like this virus was real. We posted on social media about the blessings and bummers of staying at home, the heroes on the frontline, and the plethora of new memes on this fresh topic. It was a quaint little game we were playing together. For fun, sort of. Something to tell the grandkids about one day, anyway.

But then it became dull. It was no longer enough that we all had computers, phones, FaceTime, ZOOM, Google Hangouts, Facebook, Twitter, InstaGram, TikTok, and a million other ways to connect with friends and family in real time. The world had denied us of one thing–proximity–and we aren’t people who suffer denial well. So, over the past couple of weeks, the bat signal somehow went out. Every time I took a walk or rode my bike around the neighborhood, I saw more and more gatherings with less and less space between the gatherers. Before I knew it, neighbors were passing cups around to share. Americans had revealed themselves. Spoiled, self-absorbed, foolish.

Now I know, of course, that it isn’t everyone. Obviously, I am writing this letter as someone who has not changed his behavior recently, and I have seen other shows of dismay and disgust in both conventional and social media (including a column in the Tampa Bay Times called, appropriately, “I Will Not Die of Stupid”). So plainly, I am not saying all Americans are selfish brats, but I definitely believe that streak runs through our culture. And, as so many people are showing us in the last couple of weeks, there is a critical mass of people in this country who are proving that this aspect of our collective personality cannot be held at bay no matter how dire the outcome. We are that petulant, arrogant toddler whose behavior embarrasses the parent when it comes out in public, so ashamed that they let the child get this obnoxious in its egotism.

Fortunately, I think (I hope) that we are also the parent, or even the onlookers who are appalled at the toddler spouting demands that his every whim be met immediately. I am confident that I am not alone in my astonishment and outrage at the foolishness of my neighbors. I know there are others who feel both hurt and confused by the collective lapse in morality by people who they have respected. I am aware of others speaking up, if only to people who share their dismay.

My question is, what is the score? How many people are on each side? Are there enough people with me to make a positive difference, or am I shouting into a vacuum? As I said, I have seen other people voice their anger and disgust over this flouting of science and disregard for the health of others, but every time I walk past the park or look out my window and see a big gathering of people ignoring the rules, all of those articles and social media posts seem like a whisper no longer heard over the shouting. I want to think that the bigger mass of people still has a conscience and integrity, but those volleyball players and cup-sharers make it hard for me to see things clearly.

We have a very long way to go with this virus, and at this rate, I know I am in for a lot of future outrage. However, I really, really want to think the best of people. I want to believe that they will look to their better angels and find the mental strength and the moral courage to do the right thing, no matter how dull and inconvenient it is. I just hope that when they are at their weakest moment, when they are lonely and cranky and bored, that they can look to the people around them and find positive role models, people who care about all of the people in their community and about getting through this pandemic as quickly and safely as possible. Together, but separately. I will be over here in my yard with just my wife and kids if anyone is looking.

How about you? Are you more likely to be hanging out with friends these days or watching the crowds in horror from a safe distance? Open up your journal and your conscience and lay bare your inclinations and your justifications? How annoyed and inconvenienced do you feel by all of the coronavirus-related restrictions? Were you annoyed and pent-up all along, or did you play along willingly at first but have gradually slid your standards of acceptability? If all of the restrictions and dangers magically went away today, what would you do to feel “normal” again? How closely have your actions approximated that lately? Do you do “meet-ups” with friends (e.g. for coffee), respecting social distance or not? If you have kids, do you allow them to play with other children who don’t live with you? Do you play sports with people from outside your household? Take walks with them? Have you had gatherings of extended family or friends? If you answered “YES” to any or all of those, how do you justify your behavior to yourself? Is it easy to do? Can you come up with sound, intelligent arguments to explain yourself? Can you reasonably claim the moral high ground? Does anyone call you on your questionable actions? Do you get defensive, or do you feel fully justified and unapologetic? On a scale of 1 to 10 and being as honest as possible, how much do you care how your behaviors affect other people? Do you feel like you deserve to do whatever you want? Does your conscience bother you at all when you skirt the guidelines of safety? How likely do you believe you are to become infected by the coronavirus? Does that percentage affect your behavior one way or the other? If you do get it, would you say it was worth it to act in whatever ways you are currently acting around distancing and mask-wearing? Would an impartial scientist say that the way you are behaving is on the risky side of the spectrum or the safe side of the spectrum? Would a wise person say you are being wise or foolish? Would I say you are acting like responsible, altruistic human of integrity or a spoiled fool who is in moral decay? Would you care what any of us had to say? Are there such things as character qualities that can be ascribed to nations or social groups? Do enough Americans act in spoiled, self-centered ways that we can declare those to be characteristically American? Thought experiment: if you were going into a theoretical battle and were choosing your teammates, would you want to get in the foxhole with “America”? Would you trust her? For individual teammates, would you more likely choose one of the people at the park playing basketball and having drinks with their friends these days or someone who is strictly conforming to social distancing guidelines? Would you choose you? Leave me a reply and let me know: What type of citizen are you behaving like these days?

Be big,

William

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

P.P.S. If you are stirred by this kind of introspection, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

Silver Linings: In Search Of The Positives In A Pandemic

“Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic.” –Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke & Bone 

“In a time of destruction, create something.” –Maxine Hong Kingston

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” –Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Hello friend,

I have had moments of anger during this pandemic, such as when I see my neighbors having yet another play date with their children’s friends and parents, ignoring all science and government warnings and putting the rest of us in danger (and keeping us home even longer) because they lack either the will power to resist their social nature or the moral fiber to care about their potential damage.

I have had moments of deep sadness, too, such as when I read the social media post of the nurse who had flown to New York to help in a hospital, who had just had her patient die, and she reported that they had 17 deaths in their 17-bed unit that night. How does that NOT break you?

I have had moments of fear and anxiety as well, each week when I go to the grocery store and when I think about the possibility of my wife losing her job or a family member needing a hospital visit.

I have felt at least some degree of all the negative stuff that I am guessing you and your loved ones have felt during this unusual time. And though currents of them dash in and out of my atmosphere like phantom winds, I can say with some certainty that–with the notable exception of the first few days following the cancellation of my vacation, as I shared in my last letter–I have not let the negative overtake me. Some of that, I am sure, can be chalked up to the fact that I have been lucky. My family has money coming in, food in the refrigerator, health insurance, and none of my loved ones have contracted Covid-19. Relative to what other people are dealing with and will deal with, I have a dream gig going here right now.

The rest of it, though, seems to be attributed to my psychological make-up. I am a glass-half-full kind of guy by nature, and I tend to have my radar up and tracking the potential blessings in any situation. In the course of my day, I tend to find the fun, the kind, and the beautiful that is available to all but seemingly noticed by few. I have been blessed by an inclination toward those things and a willingness to train my eye to find more. It leaves me uncommonly grateful and, by extension, happy.

So, amidst the throes of the rampant sadness, frustration, anger, fear, and anxiety that seem so common and expected in this unprecedented age, I have found myself all the more determined to uncover the blessings and the good that might come of it. In this storm of storms, I am looking for silver linings.

It is easy to latch onto the most popular ones, which start with the frontline medical personnel. These people are just amazing to me. I look at me, not wanting to so much as leave my yard because I don’t want to closely interact with anyone and risk getting the virus and subsequently passing it to my family members. Then I look at the emergency room staff and first responders, going into work every day nearly certain that they are going to get it, if not today then tomorrow. There was the video that went viral a few weeks ago of the man in scrubs coming home and his tiny child running to greet him. It broke my heart to watch him have to suddenly keep her from excitedly running into his arms for a hug. Anyone who has ever been a parent knows that is probably the single greatest feeling in the world. To think that there are people like that all over the world, voluntarily eschewing the proximity and affection of their loved ones in order to continue serving the sickest among us, well, that is simultaneously both deeply saddening and incredibly inspiring.

All of the other frontline workers are so uplifting for me as well, even as I fret for their safety. I go out to the grocery store once a week and, as I am standing in the long, spread-out line for my turn to pay, I am absolutely spellbound watching the employees–these folks barely, if even, making a living wage for their services–ringing people up. It boggles my mind how they keep doing it day after day. I am so grateful for them.

Obviously there are very few people who signed up for this gig, whatever it is they are doing in this new age. Nearly everyone’s job, if they still have one, has changed. So many public-facing difference-makers–the teachers, the coaches, the therapists–can no longer do their jobs in a way that they can feel the daily difference they are making. There are a lot of teachers in my life, and I know that it pains them to have to “only” deliver educational modules to their students through a computer every day rather than their usual nurturing of the whole, complex person for the 25 or 30 growing souls in their classroom. They don’t get to directly help them through their challenges and witness that spark in the eye when the light bulb comes on or the hug of gratitude and love when it is most needed. I exchanged a message with one of my colleagues about this, and she lamented, “Distance learning is like planning, shopping, wrapping, and sending the perfect gift for someone you adore, but never getting to see them open it or know if they even like the present.” But teachers keep pouring their all into it because our children depend on them even in their absence. Those kind of people inspire me.

There are so many others, of course, whether they work on the front lines or are struggling because so much has changed behind the lines but they keep putting one foot in front of the other because the world needs them. I am even inspired by the people who, unlike me, are so wildly social at their core and need company like they need oxygen, but are choosing to be good humans and stay home. There are admirable sacrifices all around if your eyes are open to them.

One thing that tickles me these days is seeing so many people out walking, running, or bicycling in their neighborhoods. I have always loved visiting “active” towns–usually in places embedded in the mountains or by the ocean–where it seems like everyone is an outdoors enthusiast and people are moving their bodies wherever you look. My community is not typically one of those hubs of energy, but it sure has become one in the last month. I have never walked so much in my life, and I get the sense everyone else could say the same. I love seeing them all out and active. It energizes me. I hope we can keep that outdoor momentum going even when gyms and stores open up again. There is new life in the fresh air.

I also take great joy and inspiration in some of the new opportunities that people, especially artists, have created and made available online during this time. The actor John Krasinski’s YouTube broadcast from home, Some Good News, has been a delight, and I highly recommend it. I have also loved the “quarantine concerts” that so many musicians have put on their social media, whether it is a daily song (I have been digging Michael Franti on Facebook) or weekly concerts (I adore Matt Nathanson’s weekly events from his home office on YouTube, during which he sings songs and reads beautiful passages from books of poetry or wisdom that inspire him) or those big sing-along collaborations that artists have been putting together through ZOOM. There is nothing like music to lift the spirit, and these times ought to give us a greater sense of the necessity of the arts in our society. I have also appreciated those virtual tours of some of the world’s greatest museums and our national parks, both the sights themselves and the thoughtfulness of the people bringing them to us.

Though all of these inspirations have flashed regularly across my radar throughout the pandemic, the one ray of Hope that has grown exponentially in my mind as the weeks have passed falls under the theme “How We Might Grow From This Experience.” I am enchanted by the possibility of some sort of simultaneous mass realization of the errors of our former, “normal” ways and a subsequent move toward a more highly idealized society, perhaps even to the extent of an evolutionary leap in the behavior of our species. Might we take advantage of this collective pause in our society–one that is unlikely to ever happen again in our lifetimes–and use it to gain wisdom in the direction of a world that is more peaceful, equitable, and just? Might we come to value each other more? Might we come to value our time more? I desperately hope so.

What kinds of things might this translate to? Maybe it is as simple as choosing our commitments–whether to individual people or activities or groups–more discerningly. Now that we have been pulled out of our sports, clubs, churches, stores, meet-ups, coffee shops, restaurants, classes, and gyms, I hope that we are using the time away from them to better understand how much we (individually) need each one of our diversions. Even though most of us are going stir-crazy in our homes, we may also be realizing for the first time that perhaps it would be wise to begin prioritizing some downtime at home when “real life” resumes. As we have been removed from nearly all of the people in our usual routines, I hope that we are realizing which of those people are really not a positive influence on us and perhaps which are more deserving of our time and energy. Maybe we need more quality and less quantity, both in people and scheduled activities.

I also hope that this time–with its isolation, its anxiety, its uncertainty–leads us to put a greater premium on our mental health and self-care. I hope it becomes easier and “more normal” to talk about mental health and to understand that the issues that we have been hiding are so very common in our community.

I hope that it becomes more obvious–and more painful in the realization–that the poorest among us consistently bear the burdens of our crises to a far greater degree than the wealthiest. It is the poor who are both put on the front lines of exposure in times like this–cashiers, janitors, delivery drivers, etc.–and also more likely to lose their jobs, being in positions less likely to have a work-from-home option. I hope that in this time that we suddenly have to think more clearly and become more aware of the realities of our usual set-up, we find it in ourselves as a society to become more compassionate of those most in need and more aware of our own, typically-unearned privilege.

Along the same lines of this potential growing awareness, I have been increasingly hopeful that this health-crisis-turned-economic crisis might make it more clear to the average citizen how much more humane a single-payer, “Medicare for all” health care system would be. I think of the more than 22 million people who have lost their jobs in the first four weeks of this collapse, and how many millions of people that takes off of health coverage. I am up-front about the fact that I have long been in favor of a universal health care system in America, seeing health care as no less a natural right than a “free” public education or police and fire protection, as I have written to you about in the past. It has always seemed crazy to me that we don’t have this system in place and instead spend far more per capita on health care than other “civilized” countries for generally worse results, not to mention leaving tens of millions of our citizens uncovered and poorly covered to the point that they don’t take care of basic medical needs. It embarrasses me as an American. If we have to go past the idea that it is a basic human right–which we should not; that ought to be the start and end of the discussion as to the necessity of universal coverage–I have always found it sad and tragic that the reason so many people stay in jobs rather than quit or change or try to start their own business or pursue a dream is because of the loss of health insurance. The current system is, in so many different, insidious ways, breaking our spirit. And now we have tens of millions of newly unemployed, resulting in millions of families losing their health coverage. How many people lost their coverage due to the pandemic in the rest of the world? Zero. Because they have humane systems. I have been surprised and disappointed that we have not seen more spoken and written about this in the traditional and social media as the numbers of unemployed pile up. It is my hope that people will see that now is the perfect moment in our history to do right by each other. Health coverage for everyone would be a giant step in the right direction. I remain hopeful that hearts and eyes will open.

It is this and so many other structural, systemic issues that I am looking toward in this time, hoping we open our hearts and minds to find the compassion and the wisdom to see our “we’ve just always done it this way” as a compilation of attitudes and tactics that have simply not served us all as well as we may have hoped. But I see people doing right by others, helping and giving and supporting. And I see others who want to be a part of a better world, who want fewer people to suffer and more people to get along, who want the resources spread out more equitably. I see all of that good action and good intention, and they make me hopeful. They give me light in a time that could too easily turn dark.

There are so many good people out there. You know that. So many lights. So many silver linings to this storm. You can find them almost anywhere you look. It seems to me that with this many good people, we deserve to live in a world whose structures–be they social, political, economic, or otherwise–serve to provide or facilitate all of those positive intentions and gestures of good will. But the responsibility is upon each of us to both do better in our own little corner of the world and to raise our voices to demand better of our larger structures. We must use this collective, reflective moment to consider the ways that our religions, our education systems, our health care systems, our political institutions, our judicial systems, our use of science, our natural resource consumption, and our philosophy of diplomacy and warfare facilitate the kind of goodness that is in our hearts. If we deem that those systems are not representative of our goodness, we need to rise up and demand that changes be made. And we must do whatever is in our own power to see those changes through. We must be the bringers of our own light.

This pandemic era is difficult. It is angering, frustrating, depressing, and anxiety-inducing. But it is also so much more, and its potential for a positive outcome is massive. Even with the scars that we will no doubt carry from this era, we could actually come away with a more caring, compassionate, equitable, just, and peaceful planet, both the humans and the systems designed to help the humans live their best lives. I see the possibilities all around me. I see it in hearts and gestures. If you are having a hard time seeing that light in your world, I hope you will find it in yourself. It is there, my friend, just waiting to be discovered. I am happy to lend you some of mine in the meantime. I have hope for you, hope for us. With so many beautiful examples out there to use as a guide and this quiet moment to steel my resolve, I am inspired to find out just how high we right rise. Together.

How about you? Where do you look for hope and inspiration in this time of crisis? Open up your journal and your heart and uncover the source of the light shining in? Where are you finding your positivity these days? Do you see it in the people in your community and the actions–or inaction–that they are taking? Which profession seems to awe you the most at this time? Medical personnel? Grocery store clerks? Delivery drivers? Janitorial workers? Teachers? Are you inspired by people’s willingness to stay home to limit the spread of the virus? What acts of personal generosity have you witnessed or been a part of that remind you of people’s goodness? Which people–individuals or groups–have you come to see in a more positive light as a result of the their actions during this pandemic? Are your own actions worthy of someone else’s inspiration? What other sources of positivity have you used lately that are unique to our current situation? Are there live events that you “attend” online, whether workouts or concerts? Do you watch TED talks? Have you started reading any books that you might otherwise have neglected were we not in a pandemic? What sorts of hopes do you have in the “How We Might Grow From This Experience” category? What realizations would you like us to have about our ways of living? What personal “A-HA”s have you had about your own lifestyle and priorities? Which aspects of our society has this crisis exposed for you in a way that you never realized before? Do you believe in our ability to at least begin large-scale, structural changes to the way we do things based on the lessons we are taking from this period? If so, what part do you see yourself playing in the positive change? How much light do you have to share? What sources of inspiration will you use as your fuel? Leave me a reply and let me know: What positives do you see emerging from this pandemic?  

Bring the light,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. This is a team effort!

P.P.S. If this type of introspection stirs something in you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

First-World Grieving: Sadness & Loss In The Wake of COVID-19

“Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive.” –Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore 

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” –John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

Hello friend,

“It’s all over,” I thought to myself as I stood, shoulders slumped, by my bed in the dark. “The whole world is shutting down now.” Seconds before, my alarm had jolted me upright in the dark hours of morning. I had just climbed out from under the sheets and started for the bathroom so I could be at the gym when it was still quiet–my usual routine. The alarm had also stirred my wife, who, knowing where I was headed, rolled over and said, “The gym is closed. They sent out an announcement last night.”

It felt like all of the life went out of me. My window of escape was closing rapidly, and I knew it. I didn’t want to say it out loud, but I knew it. Just the day before, as the closures and cancellations were beginning to gather momentum, I was still willing our vacation into being, ignoring the signs and buying goggles and sandals for the beach and pool. The world just had to hang on for a couple more days so I could get to the ocean, then it could take away its concerts and large gatherings all it wanted. I would be in peace on the water with my little family. It just had to be so.

Thoughts of the beach and the pool were all that filled my quiet moments for the past three months, maybe more. We have been going to our special spot on Spring Break for the last few years, so the fantasies in my mind were crystal clear. It is just the right speed, just the right activities, and just the right vibe. For my liking, you cannot beat the combination of water, warmth, and sunshine. All the better that I get to see my parents and a best friend.   Every day and every place we go while there is perfect for me, for my wife, and for the kids. Everyone is giddy about getting there, blissful while there, and so sad to leave. For me, it is the trip I look forward to all the year long. It becomes an obsession the nearer I get to it. I needed this trip! So, needless to say, being only a couple of days away, I was downright manic in my excitement to get there when the news of COVID-19 started to become more ominous and the feeling of the window closing began to creep in.

Denial is a powerful force, though, and I was in no frame of mind to let my obsession go. My bag was already packed! I could practically taste the saltwater. I was not able to think clearly about anything. I was seeing friends on Facebook on their Spring Breaks. My niece was sending photos of her trip to the same place we were going. It was all right there. I was so close!

My wife, whose mantra over the preceding weeks was, “Just get me on that plane! You can quarantine me on the beach if it comes to that,” was constantly monitoring travel recommendations, and nothing was saying we couldn’t go. My belief began to crack, however, as the CDC recommendations for the size of gatherings hit 100 people. Even in my delusion and denial, it was not a stretch for me to start thinking, “There are more than 100 people outside the gate, and there are definitely more on the airplane.”

Still, my will to go was strong, and with no government directive to cease travel, I began this sort of desperate self-justification process, making a last gasp of trying to convince myself it was acceptable. “If we could only just get through the airplane stuff,” I pleaded, “we would spend the rest of the week on an open expanse of beach, far from other people and their germs. Isn’t that enough?”

When my alarm sounded that morning, though, and my wife told me about the gym closing, it was like my last breath came out of me. There was no fight left. The dangerous reality of the virus and its exponential spread were suddenly facts to me, and I could deny them no longer. Social responsibility, which had been the elephant in the room that I had been trying to ignore, grabbed me by the shoulders and made me look him in the eye. When I finally did, I knew: I would be a selfish, irresponsible jerk to get on that plane, and perhaps also a merchant of Death. The trip I had been dreaming of for months was simply not going to happen.

I was absolutely crushed. Devastated. That night when I called my kids into my room individually to break their hearts with the news, I wanted to cry right along with them. It was terrible. I wasn’t torn about the decision anymore by that point; I was certain that it was the right thing to do. But it still hurt like hell.

I moped around the house for the next few days like my dog had been shot. It was hard to find light. I was weak, slumped, and slow. It was in the air all of the day, thoughts of times in past years that I would be missing out on this time. The first face-full of saltwater as I raced the kids to be the first one into the waves. Frisbee in the sand. Ice cream at the splash pad with my parents. Swimming races against my kids in the pool. Walking the shoreline with my wife, the water chasing its way up to our feet and then receding. Watching the pelicans dive for fish and the dolphins rise to breathe. Just being there. All beautiful, happy thoughts that made me sad to think about.

There were moments that were particularly difficult, mostly the ones that confirmed the reality that I would not be living that much-anticipated journey, such as calling my parents and friend to speak the words out loud and going to the grocery store to stock the refrigerator that I had been working diligently to empty before we left. The most poignant one was unpacking the suitcase I had filled with swimsuits, t-shirts, and sandals. That felt like a burial.

I’ve come out of it, though, at least part of the way. I still have moments when I realize what I have been missing or think about what I would be doing if we were there. When my Google Photos or Facebook memories pop up on my phone from one or two or three years ago “On This Date,” and I get to see all the fun we had and the memories made: those are bittersweet parts of my day now. I am glad I have the memories, but they are kind of a punch in the gut when they arise this week. But that pain is easing, if ever so slowly.

I can feel other losses in the wake of COVID-19, too, though thankfully not as intense as the loss of the dream week. I miss starting my day at the gym. I am still exercising at home when I wake up, but it’s not the same. There is little variety in my basement, and no pool or basketball court. I am not social at the gym–shocker, right?–so I don’t miss that part, but I feel terrible for the many senior citizens who go there less for the workout and more for the coffee and fellowship in the community room and find a real home there. That is all gone now.

I empathize with my kids, for though they aren’t necessarily dying to be back in school just yet, they definitely miss playing with their friends and being on sports teams and running out to join the neighbor kids in the cul-de-sac for games. They were bummed when the earliest possible date to resume school got bumped out to May. Connecting them with their cousins and friends on FaceTime or ZOOM helps, but there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction: wrestling, hugs, baking, high-fives, Girl Scout meetings, basketball games, sleepovers. So much stuff. I am sad about them missing that. And though my own kids are generally happy and stimulated and fed and safe when they are at home with me and my wife, I have worries about so many kids at their schools (and every school) who I know are struggling without the structure, socialization, food, and caring adults that their school provides for them. I am sad thinking about those vulnerable kids.

I always feel a bit silly and self-absorbed when I am tempted to claim any exceptional quality, so I tend to balk at claiming to be something of an empath (because maybe everyone feels this way and we just don’t talk about it). But here we are telling our Truths, so I will just say that I most often feel my sorrows or have my tears when I witness other people having theirs. I am less inclined to cry over my own misfortune than I am of yours, especially if I can see how it weighs on you. My heart feels yours, and that is more depressing to me than any burden of my own. That is what I am feeling more of as these days go on. I feel other people’s anxieties, fears, and sorrows and desperately wish there were more I could do to alleviate their pain. I would rather take it on my own shoulders.

And hey, I know I have it easy compared to most. I have very little desire to get together with people for work or play; I can imagine that part being the most depressing for a large percentage of people. I don’t typically enjoy going out to restaurants, bars, or even stores. At least for now, I can still get to parks to walk around and be with the trees, the water, and the fresh air. That tends to satisfy my soul. I actually enjoy my wife most of the time, and extra time playing with my kids is a treat for me. I can hardly imagine how sad, frustrating, and scary this time is for people who are extroverted, who love going out at night to eat and drink, prefer to shop and run errands, enjoy the coffee shop and the gym, whose “family” is their co-workers, who live alone but long for company, or who can’t stand the people they live with. Then multiply that for people who have lost their jobs and dreams; I shudder to think about it.

It will be interesting to see how the losses and our grieving evolve as the pandemic goes on (and on and on and on…). I know that my psyche will be vulnerable as our income declines. That will change my concerns dramatically. And who knows how the people around me will change as the weeks drag into months. Solitude and distancing affects everyone differently, but so does living in close quarters with only the same few people every day. Will they grow irritable, or get cabin fever, or become depressed? Will I? And how will we deal with each other when that happens? Will we spiral together, or will the least affected help the others to rise again? What will happen when more people that we love get sick and possibly die? All of these things, and more, are on the table. Suffice it to say that there is likely more loss and grieving to come.

I don’t want this letter to come across as just a big list of complaints against the Universe and a search for “Poor Me” sympathy, as that is not my style. And maybe in the next letter, we will look at all the blessings that this crazy time has brought us; that deserves its own space. But I also think it is important for us, as people who are working to uncover our Truth and to live authentically, to acknowledge our losses and speak to our grief. We can own those things without qualification. My loss of a long-dreamt-of vacation, or your loss of going into work at a place that you love, or someone else’s loss of the convenience of their favorite gym class or coffee drink need not be apologized for just because we know others have it worse. It’s not a contest. (And let’s face it: even the worst of our hardships in this time are much better than what people in war-torn countries face in normal times.) If you are grieving for anything in this unprecedented time, it is your job to name it and process it and do your best to eventually come around to Gratitude for it, however long that may require. That is the job of Life, actually.

I wish I were swimming in that turquoise water right now, basking in the warmth and sunshine, and WooHooing at my kids as we ride the waves to shore. It breaks my heart that I am not. And that is my Truth.

How about you? What losses and sadness have you suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic? Open up your journal and your heart and share some of your low points from the beginning of a difficult time in our history. What is the biggest loss you have felt in this early phase? Have you canceled a vacation or important event that you had looked forward to? How disappointing was that? Enough to bring tears? Is it still bumming you out? How much does the current social distancing and isolation play upon your psyche? Do you miss your friends, relatives, and co-workers? Do you miss the people you serve in your life (customers, students, patients, clients, etc.)? If you still have your job, how has its meaning changed for you? Does it make you sad to work alone? How have your relationships changed with the (hopefully) few people you still have face-to-face contact with, especially those who live with you? Does the containment cause the relationships to deteriorate? How has your financial situation and outlook changed as a result of the pandemic? How much of a weight is that to carry around with you? What about the little things that have just broken your rhythm (e.g. the gym closing) or kept you from your usual treats (e.g. a favorite coffee shop)? Does that kind of thing get to you? How difficult is it for you to live with being aware of all the pain and suffering that people around the world are feeling right now? Are other people’s sorrows much of a burden to you? What do you grieve most about your changed life? How do you imagine your sorrows will evolve as the weeks and months go on? Do you need help? Are you getting it now, and are you in a position to get it when you need it? Does naming your pain help? Are you inclined to dwell on your sorrows or do you tend to move through them quickly? How is this experience different? Leave me a reply and let me know: What are the losses you are grieving as a result of COVID-19? 

May your burdens be lightened,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it with those you care about. Let us share each other’s loads.

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

“Is my hair good?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be a beautiful soul,

William

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

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give your heart,

William

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOW! That’s a staggering number of souls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnificence is in you,

William

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

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.