Category Archives: Privilege

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

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with your friends and followers.

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.

Child Cages, Moral Decay, and Appalling Silence

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What gives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will.

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

Make your heart feel big,

William

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

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

Earning vs. Taking: What Makes You WORTHY of a Vacation?

“When all else fails, take a vacation.” –Betty Williams

In just a few short days, I will be parking my pale body on the warm sand and letting my mind drift away to the sound of lapping waves. I’m going on vacation!!!

Specifically, I am escaping snowy Minnesota for a week in sunny Florida. Each day will find me splitting time between the beach and the pool, catching up with my parents and goofing off with my kids. I cannot get there soon enough! I am absolutely giddy at the thought of it. And as the countdown to takeoff has ticked down, vacation is nearly all I can think about.

Unfortunately, the trumpets of glee and excitement in my head over this much-anticipated getaway have too often been drowned out by the voices of judgment and insecurity. My usual refrain goes something like this: “How can I justify a vacation right now? I don’t feel worthy of one. I haven’t earned it.”

I wrote to you recently about my job search. Well, I still haven’t quite landed the gig with the right combination of fulfillment, schedule, and paycheck. It is that last part–the paycheck–that weighs heavily on me as we pack our bags for the land of millionaires. My current income and the balance in my bank account suggest that instead of a flight to paradise, I ought to settle for a walk around the neighborhood park.

It’s not even that the trip is costing us a lot of money. We have generous hosts and got tickets at a decent price. So I am not expecting any more wallet-related stress than I do on a typical week at home. In fact, as I think about that now, I realize that even though my guilt and torment surrounding my worthiness for this vacation are not exactly financial, they are definitely a product of that paycheck and job search.

I guess that, in my head at least, my worthiness of a break is tied to me having reached certain markers that I have set for myself. It is a standard reward structure, like a sales goal: if you hit a certain mark, you win the prize. It seems fair. The problem in this case is that when the tickets were booked, I was sure I would have hit the goal by now. I would have the job with the check and be feeling relatively satisfied.

Sure, I am never fully satisfied and am always striving for more and better in my life, but there are definitely phases when I am less restless and anxious about my situation. This is NOT one of those phases! I have plainly not hit the benchmarks lately, and my judgments about that are pronounced strongly in my head on a regular basis.

To put it mildly, I am not exactly feeling very deserving of a week at the beach.

Granted, I want to go. I am dying to feel the white sand between my toes and taste the saltwater on my lips as I dive below the surface of the human world. I can’t wait to lounge under the umbrella and watch the pelicans dive out of the sky for fish. And I so look forward to watching my kiddos wander off down the beach with my Mom looking for shells, or wander off the other direction with my Dad looking for ice cream. I want all of that. Desperately, even.

And yet, I cannot seem to fend off this feeling that I don’t deserve that stuff right now. That I don’t even deserve a rest, much less a full week’s vacation. I guess that, because I have been trying and failing to reach my top goal for the year–finding the right job–my self-esteem is at a low point. By definition, that means that I don’t believe I have much value or worth at the moment, a.k.a. not worthy.

As you might guess, this combination of giddy anticipation and unworthiness has made for a confusing and combustible lead-up to my trip. I go back and forth from one moment to the next, my head on a never-ending rollercoaster ride.

I just want to find a happy place, somewhere that I can enjoy my tropical daydreams without the baggage of judgment as to whether I deserve to dream at all. And I need to find that place QUICKLY, because I have no interest in wrestling with this stuff once my feet hit the sand. I need to float freely in those turquoise waters.

So, how do I let go of guilt, make peace, and give myself permission to enjoy what ought to be the highlight of the year? I have some beliefs to challenge.

I think it probably starts with getting past my idea that only people who have either done everything right or are lucky enough to be wealthy deserve vacations. Somehow, I have been clinging to this–unconsciously until now–for years. Because, really, how many people would ever get a break if that were the case? Clearly, it is an unhealthy belief.

What I am realizing now as I write this is that LIFE is hard enough–for everyone–that we are all worthy of a vacation. I look around the world and, obviously, most of us cannot afford a vacation right now, and many people will never take one in their entire lives. Does that mean that they don’t deserve one, that they should refuse if one is offered? Heck no!

I think I will need to re-read that last paragraph a few more times before I leave on my trip. It makes a lot of sense, right? Life is hard. With my standards, doing it all to my satisfaction is going to be a rare occurrence in my lifetime. I hope that chances for treats like vacations come more often than my satisfaction does, and I hope that I am willing to pounce on those golden opportunities. It would be a shame not to.

Maybe the trick for me is just to reframe the issue so I don’t feel like I have to earn my vacations, but instead I just have to take them. Much in Life comes upon us by chance. I think it is commonly taken as Truth–and usually mistakenly so–that we earn all of our good fortune and that hard work and persistence guarantee success and opportunity. Don’t get me wrong: hard work and persistence make good things more likely than laziness and weakness of will, but they guarantee nothing. Opportunity often arises unbidden. Whether you feel like you’ve earned it or not, you have to be ready to take it.

That all makes good sense to me. I just have to pick my chin up from my recent battles with Life so I can see the Truth more clearly. I am in the game, and that all by itself makes me worthy of an opportunity. For me right now, this vacation is my opportunity. I am taking it!

How about you? How worthy do you feel of life’s rewards? Open up your journal and consider your self-esteem and how that plays into your willingness to accept “the finer things in life” as they show up. How much do you buy into the idea–consciously or not–that, “If I haven’t hit all of my benchmarks and I haven’t earned a lot of money, then I don’t deserve a vacation (or whatever other pleasant opportunity you can think of)”? Can you think of examples from your past when you have let that idea keep you from taking advantage of a wonderful adventure or great escape? How conflicted were you at the time? How long did it take until you came to regret it (if ever)? Where are you right now with your relationship between “accomplishments” (goals hit, money in the bank, etc.) and self-esteem? Do you feel worthy of a vacation? If so, what makes you feel you deserve it? Is it a specific achievement or just a generally positive self-worth? If you don’t feel like you deserve a vacation at the moment, what would get you to that spot? What do you think of my newly-considered conclusion that Life is difficult enough that we are all worthy of a vacation (or other treat) just because we keep showing up every day? Are there people in your little corner of the world who never take vacations, whether through lack of resources or because they don’t believe they are worthy of one? How good would it feel to surprise them with an all-expenses-paid trip? How good would it feel if you received one of those right now? Where would you go if you could choose? On a scale of 1 to 10, how worthy do you feel of that trip? What would it take to get that score to a 10? Do you take advantage of the opportunities that Life presents you with? Could you be better with that openness if you felt yourself more deserving of good fortune? Leave me a reply and let me know: What makes you worthy of Life’s biggest treats?

You are AWESOME,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on to your social media family. Let’s share our process together!

P.S.S. Thanks to all of you who have purchased my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth. If you have read it, I would so appreciate you leaving a review on your preferred outlet. If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for???

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

How wrong I was.

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

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

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

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

Drunk driver. Aneurysm. School shooting. Diagnosis.

All day long. Every day of the year.  

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

I had never felt so insignificant in all my life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spread sunlight,

William

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Dear Mr. President: an open letter

“In America, anyone can become President. That’s the problem.” –George Carlin

Hello friend,

Don’t you ever wish you could get the undivided attention of the leaders of the world and give them a piece of your mind? You know, just sit down over a beverage and try to get them to understand the world from your perspective or try to change their mind on a few things. Or maybe you imagine yourself as the principal and them coming into your office to sit while you stand over them and read them the riot act (my elementary school principal was a frightening dude, so this visual works for me!). Maybe you want to praise them for their wisdom and their class in handling a recent crisis, or perhaps you would rather berate them for the way they have let your country lose its place in the world order. Whatever your agenda, I bet you have imagined one of these conversations (or monologues) with some leader somewhere along the way.

Well, I am not sure if you have noticed, but the guy who lives in the White House these days seems to evoke some pretty strong sentiments from the citizens of the country he is charged to lead. I am one of those citizens.

I have read the Tweets and watched the press conferences. I have studied his appointees, his agreement withdrawals, and his proposals. I followed the seemingly endless presidential campaign very closely, and I have continued to follow the presidency.

It would be an understatement to say that I have an opinion on the matter. I can’t imagine that anyone in America with a head above ground does not have an opinion on the matter! But you know how delicate, emotional, and often combative political discussions can get. It can be hard to be fully honest and feel safe. And sometimes, just for our sanity, we try to bury our heads about what is going on, right? Because with one dramatic turn of events after another, to fully process them all just might be unhealthy.

So I was thinking this week that with the news cycle a little more off politics and onto other disasters, this might be just the time to think a bit more clearly about how we might address this polarizing character at the head of our government. And what better way than our journal, of course! The safest depository for sensitive or inflammatory ideas. It’s perfect! And so, a letter to the President….

Dear Mr. President, 

I am writing to you today because I would like to get some things off my chest. These are just from me. Though my political bent is definitely to the liberal side of the spectrum, I don’t affiliate with any party and don’t wish to speak for anyone but myself today. One voter, one citizen.  

I’m actually a deeply concerned citizen. Frankly, I don’t appreciate your style of leadership or the direction you are steering our country from a policy perspective.  

As far as your personal leadership style and the way you come across as the figurehead of America, I am a deeply embarrassed citizen. I have followed several Presidents in my lifetime and have disagreed with many (sometimes most) of their big decisions or policies. I never deluded myself into thinking any of them were saints. I don’t need my President to be a perfect soul. However, your words and actions have failed just about every moral test I can imagine.  

I often think of this stuff in terms of my children and how they would see it or be affected by it. Up to this point in my life, I can imagine thinking it would be really cool if the President—from either party–were to come to their school to address them or to come by our house for dinner. Despite our political differences, I believed the President would act with class and grace and be a good example to my kids. Now, if given those opportunities, I would keep my children home from school that day and deny the dinner request. It wouldn’t be worth the risk of what you might say or do. That’s a shame.  

I find it disturbing and disheartening how often I hear or read or think of your actions being characterized as “beneath the office of the Presidency.” I don’t need to make the list—it seems that you follow your press clippings closer than I do—but again, it is enough to make me feel bad for the kids. “The Office” seems to be now permanently diminished for your successors. With so few things left in the world to feel some reverence for, it saddens me that you have singlehandedly robbed all the future kids of our nation of something special.  

And again, it is not as though I was expecting a beacon of morality when you entered the office. Whether through your history of housing discrimination, the Central Park Five, birtherism, the Mexican rapists, the anti-Muslim stuff, mocking the disabled, and the Access Hollywood tape, it was clear long before the election that you were—both publicly and privately—anything but a model for social justice and inclusion. Still, I held out a sliver of hope that even if the presidency didn’t chasten you a bit, as others predicted, that it might just tone down the frequency and blatant nature of crassness and bluster.  

I probably would have settled for you just stopping the Tweets. But no, you seem intent upon throwing gasoline on any sparks you may have ignited and making volatile situations exponentially worse, doubling down on your missteps rather than walking them back (never mind apologizing). For someone who bragged so often of his presidential temperament along the campaign trail, your absence of wisdom, grace, and simple personal control is frightening.  

Probably by now you have guessed that I am not much of a fan of your policy proposals, either.  

If you hadn’t already lost the respect and support of people around the world by the time you pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement—if you recall, the polls suggested you were already vastly unpopular globally—that was certainly the moment, for me, that it felt absolutely obvious that the United States was no longer to be considered the leader of the world, and maybe not even ONE OF the leaders. It seems that in trying to “put America first,” you ended up placing America last and all by itself. The feeling I came away with was, again, embarrassment.  

Your recent plan to revoke DACA, your anti-Muslim travel ban, your pardon of civil rights violator Joe Arpaio, your encouragement of police to be more rough with suspects, your ban on transgender people in the military, and your wink-wink “denouncement” of neo-Nazis and White supremacists following the nightmare in Charlottesville—not to mention the many things you said and did prior to becoming President—have all created an atmosphere in which so many more people in our country today feel unsafe and unsupported.  

I am not here to argue about whether or not you are a White supremacist, but what I do want to make perfectly clear is that your words and your actions have helped create an atmosphere in which White supremacists feel increasingly emboldened and comfortable as a part of our everyday, “normal” society. If you truly are not a White supremacist, I hope you are appalled by that. It seems that you are not.  

One of the things I have noticed since you became President—and for a long time I could not quite put my finger on it—is that the country seems to be suffering from a form of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. There is this extreme sense of apprehension in the air, like we are constantly worried about which calamity will show up in the next news cycle. Who will you have offended? How will you embarrass us next? Who is getting fired? Which of my loved ones am I going to have to comfort? Who will I have to march for? Are you going to be impeached? Are you getting us into a war? 

With your itchy Twitter finger and your raw nerve of an ego, we just don’t know what madness will await us when we wake up the next day. This state of heightened anxiety, multiplied by that that awful feeling of vulnerability for so many of our citizens based on your actions, is perhaps your most damning legacy.  

So yes, it’s true that a small part of this is just that I wish we had elected someone whose political leanings were more like mine. I am disappointed that the environment is under fire, that climate change is being denied, that your return to “law and order” is leading to increasing injustice, that solid contributors to our society are being sent away, that you cannot find a way to get more people access to health care at a lower price, and that you seem intent on widening the gap between the rich and poor. I am fairly sure I would feel much of that disappointment with anyone from your party in office. I am used to that sense of loss; I can deal with that.  

So you see, Mr. President, my takeaway feelings from your time in the White House are not direct results of you and I not sharing a political party. No, instead I get two overwhelming sensations when I think your effect on our country. The first is embarrassment. I feel such shame that during the campaign you showed us exactly who you are, and we still elected you. We have lost our place in the world as result, and for me, I have lost any sense I had that we are a country to brag about and that others might look to for an example, that “shining city on a hill” that one of your predecessors often described.  

The second overwhelming sensation that overtakes me when I think of your presidency is sadness. As I mentioned earlier, so much of how I view these things is as a parent and a teacher of future generations. Growing up, I always thought of the President as someone who, in public at least, spoke and acted with class and represented America in a dignified way. The kids today get a guy who mocks the disabled at campaign rallies, famously talks at work about sexually assaulting women, and frequently calls people “losers” in public. It doesn’t seem fair to the kids.  

It saddens me that you are the guy that this generation of kids has to see as the example of what the President acts like, and it embarrasses me that the world is watching us and that I have to explain to my own kids that their fellow citizens knew who you were and still elected you. That is a difficult conversation. The embarrassment is for me. The sadness is for the kids.  

So, Mr. President, I wish I had more words of praise for you, because I would much prefer to be doing that right now. Despite all of this, however, I am still hoping, as I was the day you were inaugurated, that you will find a way to temper yourself, to control your ego, and to act in a way more befitting of the leader of a great country. I am still hoping that you will open your heart and your mind to the greatness of the people of this country—ALL of the people: not just the White, male, straight, and Christian ones. I am still hoping you will choose words and policies that make all of us feel safe and respected and welcome. And finally, I am still hoping that you will close your Twitter account. I wish you and your family good health and happiness. 

Sincerely,

William

How about you? What would you like to say to the President? Open up your journal and unload your thoughts. Remember: it is a safe space; no one will ever have to read it but you. As is the case every week, I only shared mine as a jumping off point for you. My guess is that your letter will look a lot different than mine. But how? Is your letter more complimentary? What specific things would you like to praise him about? What about the other side: what specific issues do you want to berate him about? Charlottesville? The Wall? The travel ban? Dreamers? Health care? Climate change? Would you like to address his character and the example he is setting for children? How much of what you would say is driven by what you were expecting when we was elected (whether you voted for him or not)? Has he disappointed you relative to your expectations, or has he been better than advertised? What do you want him to do more of? Less of? Would you share some personal stories of how his presidency has affected you and your loved ones? How can your words help him? If you are mostly angry, how can you find words that are both a release for you but also helpful to him? Do you think there is anything you could say to bring about a positive change? I dare you to try! Ask yourself: What would you like to say to the President?

Speak Truth to Power,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. Let us help each other to use our voices for good!