Category Archives: Psychology

Are You Giving LIFE Your Best Shot?

“At the age of six I wanted to be a cook.  At seven I wanted to be Napoleon.  And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” –Salvador Dali

“I go dreaming into the future, where I see nothing, nothing.  I have no plans, no idea, no project, and, what is worse, no ambition.  Something—the eternal ‘what’s the use?’—sets its bronze barrier across every avenue that I open up in the realm of hypothesis.” –Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility On Tour

Hello friend,

Last weekend I finished up my first (and probably last) season as a middle school volleyball coach.  It was my daughter’s team.   They were desperate for a coach so they could start the season, so I swallowed my insecurities about never having played organized volleyball in my life and jumped in to lead them.  I had spent years as a professional tennis coach and worked with middle schoolers many times, so I wasn’t worried about dealing with the kids.  But it’s a totally different sport, so I definitely went in feeling like a fish out of water.  I discovered immediately, though, that I liked it.  The old coach in me jumped right back into that zone, and I found myself quite invigorated by each practice and game.  I was teaching and learning at the same time, a perfect recipe for me.

The one thing that struck me from the very first practice was the reminder of how painfully shy and awkward most kids—both girls and boys—are in middle school.  It is like you can cut the insecurity in the room with a knife.  I have always believed that if there is one thing I would like to be able to bottle and give to every child (and adult, really), it is self-belief.  We miss out on so, so much simply because we lack the confidence to put ourselves out there and try something new or hard or both.  We play small and stay in our shell, living life with our MUTE button pressed upon our souls.  The missed opportunities pile on top of one another: deep conversations, social clubs or sports, new friendships, leadership roles, job applications or promotions, love interests, or just the last slice of pizza.  Lack of self-belief leads to lack of luck and lack of the best, juiciest things in Life.  It cascades.  All the fun that goes un-had and all the magic that goes unclaimed.  I find it deeply tragic.

In that first volleyball practice, I met a girl we will call Tamara, who seemed particularly afflicted with this crippling self-doubt.  When it came time to work on serving, I went through all of the technical points of the overhand serve and then set the kids loose to try it for themselves.  She cautiously approached me and, eyes cast down, asked if she could just serve underhand.  I explained to her that one of the goals at this age is to serve overhand instead of the underhanded variety that kids learn in elementary school, so we were all going to give it a shot.  It was built into the rules of our league that kids should try the overhand serve on their first attempt, and if they couldn’t get it, a “mulligan”/second serve would be given, during which they could settle for the weaker underhand serve if absolutely necessary.  Tamara was a big, strong girl, though, so I told her I believed she had what it took to serve overhand.  She was clearly dubious about that and very disappointed, but I poured on the encouragement.  By the third practice, she was looking like our best server.  When our first game rolled around, she asked to serve first.  It was amazing!  I was tickled and felt that old gratification that a coach feels when a player overcomes their doubts and fears to achieve something they hadn’t thought possible.  It’s that magic that keeps old coaches coaching.

Tamara was marching along beautifully for a few games, claiming the serve to start every game.  I was feeding her belief with everything I had.  She was winning us free points with her power and depth.  She was rolling.  Then, she had a game where she missed a few.  It really got into her head, immediately.  On a timeout, she came to me with the sunken eyes again: “Can I serve underhand from now on?”  It totally floored me.  As a guy who has a lot of self-confidence (and who hasn’t coached in a while), I was caught off-guard by how quickly her belief had melted away.  I told her that technically she was allowed to, but that I hoped she would stick with it.  I pointed out that despite the misses, she was scoring more points for us with her best shot than she was costing us with it.  Crushed and dubious, she stuck with it for the rest of that game and found her rhythm again.  After the match, I teased her, “Don’t ever ask me that again!”

We made our way through the final weeks of the season with Tamara serving well and got to the last tournament, when she again hit a rough patch and again asked if she could serve underhand.  I told her no, she could not, and that she was better for the team when she went for her best shot.  It was hard to watch her struggle so much with her self-confidence; it was obvious how fragile her belief in herself was and how quickly it abandoned her.

The tournament ended, and with it the realization that I will probably never see Tamara again.  We had developed a nice rapport through this adventure with her serving and my belief in her, and probably because of that, her agonizing self-doubt really left an impression on me.  I stewed on it for a few days, feeling like I wanted to leave her with one last parting shot that, just maybe, she could take with her for the rest of her life.  I found her email address and wrote her a short note to thank her for playing.  I ended it with this:

Life is like your volleyball serve. There will be setbacks along the way and moments when you lose confidence in yourself, but if you can somehow look at the bigger picture and realize how much better you are when you trust yourself and go for your best version, you and those around you come out so much better for it. Believe in yourself. Life deserves your overhand serve, and so do you.  All the best to you in your bright future, Coach William

Writing that note to Tamara got me thinking about my own life, wondering how well I have done and how well I am currently doing at giving it my own version of the overhand serve.  It is a tough question, because I think you have to look beyond obvious risks and accomplishments to find the truth (well, I hope you do).  It is convenient for me to look back at certain times in my adulthood and say, “See, I took my shot!”  I went to Hollywood in my early twenties to take a shot at acting.  I climbed the ladder to a position of power in my first “real” career field.  I took a chance on a cross-country love that turned out to be the love of my life.  I achieved a long-time dream of writing a book.  I take a regular shot when I write these letters to you.  I can point to all of these things when I am put before the judge to plead my case that I am living like I mean it.  But is that stuff enough?  Is my case really all that convincing?

Some days at work, if I am in the midst of a mind-numbing task, I wonder to myself, “Is this the best I can do?”  If I get late in the week and I haven’t come up with a topic I deem worthy of a letter to you and so decide to let the week pass and settle for trying next week, I think, “This feels like playing small.”  When weeks and months go by and I don’t feel myself making an impact on other people’s lives, I feel my tension rise with the thought, “The clock is ticking down on my time here, and I am not doing enough.”

I am not sure what taking a bigger swing would look like for me right now.  Is it a career change?  Writing a new book?  Running for political office?  The pressure seems to be more embedded in the question, “Am I doing enough?”  Of course, that question comes through in different versions: Can I justify my existence?  Is this set of choices fulfilling?  Am I living my purpose?  Am I okay with this as my legacy?  Am I happy?

I find myself in a lull when it comes to notable achievements.  I have not blasted any life goals, passed any major milestones, or won any prizes lately.  Even more, I don’t feel myself striving for a particular prize with any great urgency.  I am kind of gliding along.  Given my propensity to seek out the next mountain to climb, this current gliding makes me suspicious.  I must be doing something wrong to be so unambitious.  Shouldn’t I be more antsy?  Why am I not climbing the walls and plotting to take over the world?  Surely this is not my best shot.  Right?

And yet, I am unmistakably happy.  I enjoy my days.  I love giving as much time as I do to my family, even as I am aware of it coming at a cost of my time for other, more aspirational accomplishments.  I like my hobbies and want to devote even more time to them, even though I won’t win any of the popular prizes for them.  So many of the things that I am looking forward to and orienting my time around are just fun.  They are peace-inducing.  Lots of good-for-the-soul kind of stuff.  I am kept busy doing things that I enjoy.  I’ve heard that’s a version of living the good life.

So, why do I still feel that nagging thought about doing more and bigger?  Why did my note to Tamara about not settling for the Life version of the underhand serve make me wonder if it wasn’t addressed as much to me as to her?  Why does this stretch of time without a significant achievement make me feel guilty and a little ashamed?

I realize that Life requires a balance of contentment and ambition.  I also have come to realize that there are seasons in our lives that will lean more heavily, even completely, into one or the other.  For me, at least, I cannot keep my nose constantly to the grindstone; I have learned to listen to my system’s signals that it needs a recharge.  That has helped keep my creative juices flowing more consistently and fueled my passions for work and other interests.  But I am also learning lately that it is possible for me to get too indulgent and lose my edge.  For instance, if I go too long between letters to you, as I have done more in the last year, I get a little antsy.  I need that regular challenge to keep my sword sharpened, to feel fully engaged in Life itself, and my purpose in it.  It is a good thing to understand this about myself; it keeps me from getting lost.

So, am I giving Life my overhand serve right now?  In a way, no.  I am not ambitiously attacking a long-held dream or newfound passion project.  But in another way, I think I am hitting it just solidly and aggressively enough for what the moment calls for.  I am understanding where I am right now in my cycle and responding in a way that makes me feel happy.  It won’t last forever, I know.  I will have to adjust as my ambitions flare.  But I trust that if I keep at my daily journaling and my quest for self-awareness and present mindfulness—and continue to believe that I have what it takes to rise to the occasion–I will keep adjusting the volume on my serve to meet the needs of my sensitive-yet-demanding soul.  If I can stay on that razor’s edge, I think I can find a way to always keep it overhand.

How about you?  Are you giving Life your best shot, or are you playing small?  Open your journal and unpack your Truth.  Does your self-belief have you striving for your best life?  Perhaps it is easier to go back in your life story and follow your journey step-by-step as it relates to self-belief and the actions you have taken to decide your fate.  How bold were you while growing up?  Did you have the confidence to try things that you thought might interest you?  Were you okay with struggle and failure if the endeavor was interesting or fun for you?  Can you think of times when fear and insecurity kept you from trying something new (e.g. auditioning for a play or asking someone on a date)?  If you had those moments and played small, how long (if ever) did it take for you to realize it?  Were you able to learn from your meekest moments and then rise to similar moments later on?  As you moved into adulthood, what was your level of self-belief?  How did that affect the choices you made regarding Life stuff like career aspirations and relationships?  Did you go for the things you dreamed about?  Did you try new things?  How open were you to meeting new people and joining new groups?  Did you believe yourself worthy of a wonderful romantic partner?  Can you point to specific moments in young adulthood when you bet on yourself or took a real chance to get what you wanted?  How did that work out?  Conversely, do you recall certain moments when you played small and hid your light, perhaps not believing you were worthy or ready for the best things?  How much regret do you carry from those small moments?  How have they shaped your life in the years since?  Where do you find yourself lately when it comes to self-belief and the level of ambition behind your life choices?  Are you still taking shots at your dreams and striving for your vision of a “best life,” or are you mostly floating along without much ambition?  If you lack ambition, do you think that reflects more that you are basically satisfied with your life or that you don’t feel yourself worthy of more?  As you look back through the years and the changes along your journey, do you see an ebb and flow in your level of ambition and boldness?  Do you have seasons of contentment and ease, followed by seasons where you really strive for something big (e.g. getting an advanced degree or writing a book or gunning for a promotion)?  Do you tend more toward the ease or more toward the striving?  How has that changed over time?  Do you feel more or less urgency as you age?  What was the last big shot you took?  What will be your next one?  If you don’t have anything on your horizon, do you think that means it is time to find something?  Or does that mean you are simply living right?  On the whole, would you say your life is an underhand serve or an overhand serve?  Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you giving Life your best shot?

Embody self-belief,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community.  We rise by lifting others.

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

The Absolute Worst Time To Make A Big Life Decision…Or Not?

“Losing your head in a crisis is a good way to become the crisis.” –C.J. Redwine, Defiance

“Some beautiful paths can’t be discovered without getting lost.” –Erol Ozan

Hello friend,

I was talking with a friend last week—she’s about my age–and out of nowhere, she dropped this bomb on me: “I’ve come into a little bit of money, and I am thinking I might retire.”  She said she would like to relax, travel, volunteer–all of that stuff that we all say we are going to do when we retire.  You know: unstructured and unobligated living.  The dream.  Well, my dream anyway.  To me, it sounds like everything I have always wanted: casual, fluid, free.  The only problem: none of that sounds like her!

In other conversations, she has shared with me how difficult the first months of the pandemic were on her, as that was the time when she was not able to go into her work and have that structure, schedule, and task list that her tightly-wound personality requires.  It was a mental health struggle to be without her job (not the income part).  After reiterating that fundamental aspect of her personality to me numerous times in recent months, you can imagine my surprise the other day she when totally flipped the script with the announcement of a possible retirement.  WHAT?!?!?  I was flabbergasted.   A reasonable guess would have been that she was clinging for dear life to the normalcy and regularity of her career in these wildly uncertain times.  Nope!  Just the opposite.  After explaining herself, she at least showed her self-awareness by asserting that with all of the stressors that our whole society has been flooded with this year—coronavirus, George Floyd, Donald Trump, etc.—she probably has no business making any major Life decisions at this point.

That counterpoint flashed me back to last Autumn, a conversation I had with my niece.  She is a freshman in college, and she was by that point a few months into it and feeling very unsure as to whether her chosen school was really the right place for her.  Not sure about the people, the vibe of the campus, all of that stuff that is crucial at that transformative age that so many of us recall as a life-defining year on our journey of self-discovery.  I remember saying to her, “This is going to come as no comfort to you, but I think you may not get to have an answer to that question this year.  You may go through the whole school year isolated in your dorm room and at socially distanced meals, not going to the parties and club meetings and lecture halls that all of the other college freshmen in the history of college campuses have used to find their crowd and their niche.  You may have to wait a whole year until you can start a “normal year,” using your second year of college to learn what everyone else in history has learned in their first year.  But if it’s any consolation, all of the other freshmen in the world are stuck in this same Purgatory. How can you know if a place is right for you if you are not able to experience it as it usually is?”  I’m sorry to say it, but you may just not get to decide anything big this year.”

I mentioned that conversation to my friend the other day when she was questioning the sanity of her sudden desire to retire.  We both agreed that the crazy extremes of circumstances and emotions this year have left us feeling like our minds are on shaky ground and thus we ought to be suspicious of any major, Life-altering inclinations that flash through them.  It has become difficult to trust our impulses, knowing that everything this year has been “unprecedented”—a word used more often this year than any other—and therefore “not normal.”

We have good reason to think that when we return to that normal—please tell me it is soon—that our inclinations and tastes will probably be more like they were before.  Our current desires to overhaul our lives and the world around us will go from a boil to a simmer, maybe even to a cool.  We will almost certainly go back to the same old, same old.  Our minds and passions will go back on autopilot and cruise control.  We will quickly shush those inner voices that suggest we shake it all up, whether that shake-up is a new job, a retirement, a new health care system, or a new way of policing our cities.  Big ideas will be replaced by small ones again.  Progress, if any, will be by baby steps again.  You remember, the usual.  These impulses—whether personal or societal–that have been allowed oxygen during these “unprecedented times” will crawl back under the rock they emerged from.  If you just ignore them for a little while longer, you will get to that spot where you won’t have to be so suspicious of your inclinations.  You will be safe and boring and uninspired again.  We all will.

But should we ignore them?

What if the lockdowns resulting from the coronavirus pandemic made it crystal clear to you how little time you had actually been spending with your family and how important that time is, making you want to dramatically shift your schedule and perhaps your career path?  What if the economic crisis made you aware of how thoroughly unfulfilling your luxury car or jewelry or fancy whatever is, making you want to sell off some things and simplify, giving more of your wealth to causes that you now see truly need it.  What if the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor stories sparked a sudden realization of your privilege in this inequitable world, stirring up an activist streak in you that you had no idea existed?  What if the Capitol insurrection of January 6th and the exposure of the lies about the election fraud made you wake up to the reality of the damage your political beliefs have been doing in the real world for years, causing you to re-think not only your use of social media and usual news sources but also your political party?  What if all of these cascading crises have actually made things not more fuzzy for you, but more clear?  What if it took all of this to reveal your true values and priorities?

Maybe we haven’t had our foundation shaken but rather just had the artifice scraped off.  Maybe it took all of this drama and uncertainty to make clear who we really are inside and what we want our lives to be truly about.  Maybe all of these “out of nowhere” impulses to change ourselves and our world aren’t really so out of nowhere.  Maybe they have been at our core, our foundation, the entire time, just covered up or blurred by all of the other superficial stuff that we thought we should be doing or the speed at which we’ve been going to try to keep up with all of our commitments.  Isn’t there some quote–or at least a meme–about how life is not about finding yourself so much as it is about uncovering who you always were?  Well, that is what I am getting at.  It’s just so easy to get swept along by “normal life,” with all its busy-ness, and become numb to the signs from our soul about what is truly important to us and what resonates deep in our being.  The panic of a global health scare, the guilt and grief of knowing a loved one is dying alone in a hospital, or the graphic video of one man calmly kneeling on another man’s neck as the life force slowly goes out of him—these things have the power to shake us to a different level and perhaps expose our Truths in a way that we can no longer deny.  Trauma breeds uncertainty, no doubt, but maybe it also breeds clarity.

So, how do we tell which is which?  How do we know if that newfound impulse to switch careers or run for City Council or lead a protest march or have a baby or get a divorce or buy a bookmobile or join the Peace Corps or get a dog–how do we know if these are the insecurity of a totally shaken core talking, and how do we know if they are a finally revealed core talking?  Is there a different sound they make—a resonance—we can listen for to know if this is the thing to reject due to the extremity of the year rather than attend to because it is the revelation of our essence?  How does one feel compared to the other?

Honestly, I don’t know.  That is why I journal every day: to try to flesh it out.  I fill up my pages with the rolling of ideas around in my head, taking them from different angles, ascertaining whether and how the impulse evolves over time, questioning my motivations and scouring my psyche for insecurities or unsatisfied longings.  I attempt to look at myself in the mirror as clear-eyed as I possibly can, hoping to decipher which of these new impulses is an imposter out for a persuasive but fleeting flight of fancy, and which is my Truth revealing itself in a way that my eyes can finally see.

I think my friend is right to be suspicious of her motives for her recent, dramatic shift in outlook on her career.  Not even necessarily the motives themselves—they should be mined for lessons for their own sake—but the sustainability of her motives.  Will they keep when her job goes back to the normal that she loved for so many years?  Maybe not.  I am guessing most of our impulses and temptations from this year will not.  Most, but not all.  Truths have been revealed to us; I am sure of that.  Whether or not we will do a good job of combing through the lot to dismiss the pretenders and find that priceless gem—or whether we even allow ourselves the courage to entertain the new ideas and inspirations at all—is a different matter.  I happen believe in the power of those impulses; I think they are messages from our deeper levels.  There is Magic in there.  Sure, it must be sorted through, but true Magic is worth the labor.  That is where the marrow of Life is.  It is why, when my friend was verbally dismissing her retirement idea with, “Of course, now is the absolute worst time to be making any sort of meaningful Life decision,” I replied with, “Or maybe it’s the perfect time… .”  Maybe.  I am here to find out.

How about you?  Do you trust yourself to make an important Life change at a time of multiple societal crises and a swirl of heavy emotions inside you?  Open up your journal and try to get a sense of how steady your current grounding is to your True North?  Generally speaking, how has your mental health been in recent months compared to other points in your life when things were more “normal”?  How much more grief, anxiety, and sadness have you been dealing with this year?  Have you found your mind feeling more foggy, your senses dulled, or your motivation lacking?  Have you enjoyed things as much as you usually do, or are you one of the many experiencing anhedonia, the loss of the ability to feel pleasure?  Do you like your job as well this year as you have in other years?  Are you as engaged in your work and as fulfilled by your tasks?  With all of that considered, how confident are you in your ability to make the wisest decisions on major Life issues this year (e.g. career or location change, family changes like having a child or getting a divorce)?  How much more or less confident is that than you are in “normal” times—i.e., any time before 2020?  Have you had to make some big decisions anyway, whether you wanted to or not?  If so, how has it worked out so far?  What fresh impulses or ideas have you had in the last year around bigger changes to your lifestyle?  In what area have they popped up most frequently or strongly?  Career path?  Family life?  Health of your lifestyle?  Politics?  Spirituality?  Relationships?  How have these inclinations and impulses been different than what you have felt in other, more stable times in your life?  How do you interpret their meaning?  Do you tend to take these new tastes or ideas seriously and follow through on them, or are you more skeptical of any big idea you have during these unprecedented times?  Which new changes have you made?  Which ideas did you disregard?  Which ones will you keep on your radar until Life settles down a bit and returns to normalcy?  What is the biggest, game-changing decision you have made in the last year?  How has it worked out?  Would you have made the same decision in normal times?  Has all of this crisis, change, and chaos served to make your values and priorities more clear to you?  How will this period change your Life in the long run?  Will you be better for it, or will you carry the mental and emotional scars and be weighed down by them?  If someone came to you now who has struggled emotionally through this period and announces a major Life-changing decision, would you caution them against making such a big move given the circumstances—essentially telling them to wait it out until it is easier to be clear-headed–or are you inclined to think that these times are good for clarifying priorities and are thus a great time to make a big change?  Is your opinion on this different for yourself than it is for the general public?  Leave me a reply and let me know: Is this age of cascading crises the absolute worst time to make a big Life decision, or is it the best?

Take care of yourself,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it.  Together we can get through anything!

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

How Can You Make Your Home Reflect Your Soul?

“I live in my own little world.  But it’s ok, they know me here.” —Lauren Myracle

“Home isn’t where you’re from, it’s where you find light when all grows dark.” –Pierce Brown, Golden Son

Hello friend,

Every year, I pledge to spend more time outdoors.  In my quest to fine-tune everything about my life as I have aged, I have come to realize that being outside just hits all the right buttons for me.  It calms me.  It energizes me.  It inspires me.  Quite simply, it fills up my soul with all kinds of beautiful light.  As I have become more aware of this magic, I have increasingly made these pledges to put myself out there more often, to find the fresh air and let it do its thing upon my spirit.  I don’t have to do much—though I do love the action—but rather just be in it.  Just be in “the room where it happens,” so to speak, though that magical room is no room at all.  In fact, it is everything that a room is not: unbound, uncontained, limitless.  For me, there is nothing better than to feel limitless. 

So, I make myself promises and plans to get out more, to allow fewer excuses for staying inside.  I do it in every season, even in the terribly long, dark, and cold Winters of Minnesota.  Those are tough every year (though I did better this time around).  I do it in our brief Autumn and Springtime, too, trying to squeeze every last little bit of warmth out of the season before Winter and then trying to make up for lost time by immediately pouncing on any early Spring day that offers a glimmer of Hope in the way of sunshine (or even just relatively little wind).  I mine it for all it is worth.

But my season is Summer.  I love the warm air filling up my lungs, the light breeze caressing my cheeks.  I love the heat, and I love the shade.  Summer does it all for me.  So, of course, that is when I really crank up the demands regarding the fresh air.  I want to be outside all day long!  I feel pent-up if I am not.  That fresh air is like a drug that I want more and more of.

Alas, living in this Land of 10,000 Bodies of Stagnant Water, my Summer outdoor hours have always been limited by my least favorites creatures in all of Creation: mosquitoes.  I loathe mosquitoes.  Earnestly, passionately loathe them.  Aside from the buzzing, pestering nuisance in the moment, the disgusting smell of repellant, and the bites that make me itch nonstop for several days afterwards (and make my children swell up like fleshy melons on their skin)—each awful in its own right—it is their very direct role in keeping me indoors during my season that incites my greatest hatred.  But it is more than hatred.  It is resentment.  I resent that they are keeping me from what my heart and mind know to be rightfully mine.  I belong in that enchanting night air.  It is my element.  Each breath is like food to my soul.  To be denied that has always felt disturbingly wrong to me at a cellular level.  It is the one aspect of Summer that leaves me feeling contained, and my finicky soul cannot abide by that.  I am not to be bound.  My happiness depends upon it.

All these years, I have been vaguely aware of this but have felt helpless to do anything about it.  I have placated myself by spending as much daylight time as possible outside.  I have even gone from being a natural night owl to an early riser so I can be up and out in the early part of the day in order to capture more of it, thereby tiring myself out by the time darkness arrives so I can tell myself I am not missing much indoors.  I guess that deep down, though, I have known all along.  I still feel that longing for the cooling air of night, the sounds of the insects, the shine of the moon, and the faint glimmer of starlight high above suburbia.  It has become clear that I will not feel completely at Peace and at home unless I can bridge that gap to carefree fresh air at any hour.

But how?

At my childhood home, we used to have a back deck on the second level with a shabby concrete patio underneath.  In later years, my parents put some walls up and screened the large window spaces, making a three-season porch with a big hammock inside.  I spent every Summer night reading and writing in that hammock, basking in the intoxicating nighttime air.  It was glorious.  I have longed for its equivalent ever since.

Well, a few decades later and ten years after living in my current house, I am finally about to get my wish.  My wonderful, tenacious researcher of a wife, after begrudgingly submitting to the idea that she is stuck living in the cold of Minnesota until her kids are grown, has become determined to do Life in this house right.  So, rather than hide inside from the mosquitoes with me and miss her beautiful Summer evenings, she found the one contractor who could screen in our entire deck–sides and roof–creating an outdoor living room.  Fresh air, views of the night sky, all the sounds of nature, but without those evil mosquitoes hunting our blood when the sun begins to set.  I had spotted a house with one of these screen rooms a few years ago and have been fantasizing about it ever since.  I even asked the guy who owned it, but he had no information, and I didn’t think we would ever make the investment anyway, even if we could find someone to design and build it.  But here we are, deep in discussion.  The designs are done, and if all goes well with the weather gods and contractors and such, it will be built before the swarms of mosquitoes arrive for the season.  Did I mention my wife is wonderful?

I daydream about it all the time now.  I picture myself typing away on my laptop while lying on my hammock under the stars, listening to the crickets.  I envision game nights by the fire table with family and friends.  I see my wife and I sharing a quiet evening with our books and the fresh air.  I imagine outdoor sleepovers with the kids under the full moon.  Did I mention that there are no mosquitoes in any of these visions?  Only Peace, Joy, and Freedom.  Limitless.

This screen room fits me like a glove.  I haven’t even been in it yet, but whenever I think about it, I feel the biggest grin spread all the way across my face.  It is a contented grin, a satisfied one, like, “Yes, this hits the spot.”  I laugh, as it reminds me of the sappy old line from Jerry Maguire: “You complete me.”  Maybe it’s sad to say that about some aluminum posts and a bunch of screen, but hey, I feel it.  It’s a game-changer in the way I feel about my home.

I am always looking for little things that I can insert into my daily existence that rub my soul the right way.  I want not only the things that I do in Life to resonate with my heart and mind; I want the things I touch, the things I see, the spaces I occupy to hit me there, too.  I know it when I feel it.  I am talking about resonance: that which “rings true” to my very essence when its chord is struck.  So I test things out, and when something feels like me—like me at Peace—I adopt it.  I make it part of my home, part of my world.  Part of me.

Obviously, it would be great to have an unlimited bank account so I could buy anything I want any time I felt that pull.  After all, in my experience, luxury items tend to feel pretty darn good. Intoxicating, even.  But that is not my financial reality.  I have to operate within my realm, and I am pretty cheap by nature, anyway.  So the screen room is a huge deal for me, budget-wise and Peace-wise.  It is a game-changer—and I want to believe it is going to be worth it in the long run—but it is not the kind of soul booster I can treat myself to very often.

With that in mind, I seek out the little items and little ways make my space feel more homey to my whole being.  I have hundreds of family photos on my walls; I enlarge the ones I especially love.  I hang other Nature photos I have taken; they remind me of my favorite places and my joy in creating.  I drink my tea and hot chocolate out of only a couple of mugs of a certain style that feels right in my hand and right to my eye; the same with my water cup.  I only like to hold certain types of pens and pencils.  I keep just the right configuration of pillows around my body in my bed.  I like my towel to be a certain color and texture.  When I get a say in paint color for rooms I will spend time in, I use that resonation test.  I own multiple hammocks and an anti-gravity chair (and someday a plush recliner), so much do I prefer to recline rather than sitting upright.  I have a certain spoon I use to eat my ice cream, nothing like the spoons I use the rest of the day.  All of these selections are things that just feel right to me.  In a way, I suppose they are my method of treating myself in almost every moment of the day.  Not in a fancy way, but in a catered-to-my-soul’s-care way.

They are my idiosyncratic ways of making my space mine, and I am guessing that you couldn’t find another person with strong feelings about all of the same things that move the needle for me (an ice cream spoon?).  Everyone has different things that their soul latches onto, different ways that bring Peace in through their senses.  I can imagine people for whom it might be a spice organizer.  A desk.  Drapes of a certain color or fabric texture.  A fitness room (or corner of a room).  A meditation spot or religious shrine.  Throw pillows.  Floor-to-ceiling book shelves.  Framed quotes.  A compost bin.  Great sheets.  A fruit tree.  Surround sound.  Special light fixtures or cabinet pulls.  Hardwood floors.  Exposed brick.  A double oven.  A change of stain color on the trim.  Glassware.  A wet bar.  A ping pong table.  A certain blanket.  House plants.  A dressing table.  A solid, sharp kitchen knife.  Family heirlooms.  The perfect chair.  A reading nook.  A workshop.  On even the smallest of budgets, the options are truly endless.

I hope your space is filled top-to-bottom with things that make you feel the way my visions of the screen room are making me feel.  Even though I said it will complete me, I have no doubt that I will keep searching for more, keep fine-tuning all of the spaces my life touches to make them simultaneously invigorate and calm me.  Maybe by the time I have it all right, it will be time for me to retire to the beach (the right beach, of course, with the right lounge chair and the right towel, the right sunglasses)!  Something tells me I will continue this soul quest until the day I die.

How about you?  How can you make your living spaces resonate more with your soul?  Open up your journal and take a walk through your home.  Which parts of it feel the most homey to your senses?  Do the staple items in your sleeping space—sheets, pillows, blankets, lighting, wall color, and art—make you want to snuggle right in every time you enter the room?  Is your pillow special to you?  Does your configuration of blankets and pillows feel like it is custom-tailored to your sleeping style, or is it pretty generic?  What could you change to make it more welcoming and restful, more personal?  How about in your bathroom?  Does your toothbrush make you want to brush your teeth (mine does)?  Do you have certain towels that make you feel specially cared for?  Does your shower space—and the products in it—bring you Peace?  Does the light feel right to you?  Would a dimmer switch provide a level of control and variety that better suits your particular tastes and moods?  Is there a certain level of cleanliness beyond which you become agitated?  How well do you do at keeping it in the comfortable zone?  Does your kitchen suit you?  Are there specific dishes or utensils that are your favorites?  Is there a specific small appliance that is a special treat for you (e.g. a blender, an espresso machine, a waffle iron)?  Do you enjoy hanging out in your kitchen, whether for cooking or socializing?  Are your cabinets and walls the right color for you?  How about your family room or living room, wherever you are most likely to lounge and read or watch television?  Do you have a special spot?  What makes it yours?  Do you nap there also?  How does the texture of the furniture affect you?  Is there another space in the house that you feel especially at home in (e.g. an office, a guest room, a workout or meditation space)?  What makes that place soothing to your soul, beyond just what you do in there?  Is it the seating?  The color?  The light?  The décor?  How about your outer spaces?  Do you have a patio or deck?  Are they happy places for you like they are for me?  Do you have special lounge chairs or a hammock that are your jam?  How about a fire pit or table?  What could you add to make it more meaningful to you?  Do you have a yard?  If so, are you happy there?  What is your favorite thing about your outside space?  A certain tree or garden?  The grass?  The view?  What connects it to your essence?  In all of your home space, what is the biggest splurge item you have purchased just because it feels good to you each time you interact with it?  What is the simplest thing that deeply resonates with you but that other people might not even notice or care about?  Which colors give you the best feelings?  How does light affect your experiences?  Are textures important to you (e.g. sheets, towels, furniture, flooring, utensils, etc.)?  Is there something specific that really stirs your soul (like my fresh air)?  Does your home and the way your currently use give you enough of that special ingredient?  How can you infuse more of your home life with it?  If someone you care about visited your home for the first time, do you think they could feel your energy in its different spaces?  Can you?  Leave me a reply and let me know: How can you make your home touch more of your soul?

Live in Peace,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it.  Let’s care for ourselves by being true to ourselves!

P.P.S. If this way of digging deep into your life to find out what makes you tick feels right to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.

A Lost Year: Reflections On My Coronavirus Anniversary

“Reality continues to ruin my life.” –Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.  “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Hello friend,

Last weekend, my daughter had her State Basketball Tournament.  On our way home on Sunday afternoon, we got off the highway and were heading down the frontage road when she chimed in from the back seat: “Hey Dad, there’s the last restaurant we went to!”  It took me a second to jar my memory, but finally it clicked in.  She was right: there beside the road was the T.G.I.Fridays we had gone to with her teammates and their families on the day her State Tournament ended last year.  The realization was a sobering one.

Last year.

With my daughter’s words, my mind was transported back to the first few weeks of March 2020.  The quickly escalating tension and concern.  The constant monitoring of the news for case updates and closures.  The immediate fear of contracting the virus and losing loved ones.  And what seemed like the worst at the time: the overwhelming sense of dread and inevitability as I watched the two biggest things occupying my mind head straight for each other like two runaway trains on the same track: my long-dreamt-about family beach vacation and the exponential spread of the coronavirus toward the point of national lockdown.

I remember how desperate I felt to get to that sunshine and warmth so I could immerse myself in the saltwater that always seems to make me whole again.  I remember how irrational my thoughts became as the numbers rose to the point where it should have been obvious that the vacation was simply not going to happen.  Things were beginning to shut down, and the dominoes kept falling.  My son’s State Tournament, scheduled for the weekend after my daughter’s and just a couple days before our trip, was canceled.  I begged the Universe for some loophole to appear that would allow us to go.  I was willing things to be different, so obsessed was I with that vacation.

When I finally faced reality, I remember sitting on my bed, breaking the news to my kids.  It was a heavy night in our house.  They were so disappointed.  We all were.  It was terrible.

And that was only the beginning…

As we got deeper into March, a bizarre new way of life emerged at my house.  School was shut down, only to be later restarted in a less-than-ideal way at home through devices.  I scrounged for toilet paper, but otherwise we avoided stores, restaurants, and even our own jobs (which we were grateful to keep as others were losing theirs).  It was a surreal new world to occupy, but the sacrifices made sense in order to quickly move out of the danger zone and back to our version of Normal.

From this view now, it seems odd that we imagined that the return to Normal would be quick.  But we did.

One memory of those very early days that stands out in my mind is of watching a news show and hearing projections about the damage the novel coronavirus could cause if we—as regular citizens and our elected leaders–didn’t take the right steps early on in its days in America.  I specifically remember them saying that it could potentially kill 70,000 people here.  I thought, “NO WAY!!! That will NEVER happen!  (But maybe the outlandish number will scare some people into behaving well for others in their communities.)”  Seventy thousand.  What a fantasy that sounds like now, as we recently blew by the half-a-million milestone and are still allowing 2,000 Americans to die every day from the virus, even as we continue to loosen our restrictions on gatherings and mask-wearing in many states.  Oh, America…

After that crazy start, April arrived and seemed to stay for about 87 days.  As an introvert, I felt like I had spent my whole life preparing for the forced isolation and quiet.  It was just fine with me.  At first, the “family time” and “break from organized activities” were relatively easy to sell to my kids.  It grew less easy over time.  They understood the seriousness of the virus and how each person’s behavior affected the entire community, so they accepted how disciplined my wife and I demanded us all to be.  Still, seeing the unmasked neighbor kids wrestling in their yards with friends and other too-large neighborhood gatherings of adults made them wonder (justifiably) why other people got to cheat the rules.  We can see now where all that cheating got us.

May was much like April—long and solitary—except that the warmer weather made getting out of the house for family walks and bike rides easier.  We all appreciated the diversion.  And outside, we could actually see other humans walking and riding as well, evidence that we were not alone on the planet, even if we couldn’t interact with them.

Summer is totally my season, and I had long been planning lots of adventures for my family for the 2020 Summer.  We were going to take camping trips and many trips to the lake.  To top it all off was to be a huge, cross-country roadtrip that included tons of sightseeing as well as visits with family and friends.  The kids were the perfect age for it.  It was to be one of those trips we would always talk about when we got together over the course of our lifetimes, forever family memories.  NOPE!  Canceled, canceled, canceled.  Thanks to some family members committed to keeping safe, we were at least able to get to the lake to be with people we love.  As I look back on the year, that time at the lake was the closest thing I have felt to Normal in the last twelve months.  It was fantastic, and maybe something I will never take for granted again.

For my kids, other than their four-guest, outdoor birthday parties, if they wanted to spend time with friends, they had to stay on their bikes and talk while riding around the neighborhood.  A far cry from the “just go out and play” days of the past.  Childhood, interrupted.

Despite the rolling disappointment of the muted previous seasons, Autumn came around too soon, as it always does for me.  Things like school and organized activities kind of halfway started, at least for some kids, including mine.  It was like coming into the kitchen as a full batch of cookies is coming out of the oven but only being offered a single bite.  Unsatisfying.  But it was something.  For the beggars we had all become over the previous several months, we clung to it desperately.

But then, of course, it ended.  Schools and activities shut down again as cases and deaths skyrocketed.  We were back to a fully muted life again, this time just more accustomed to it.  Holidays that we have always celebrated heartily, like Halloween and Thanksgiving, came and went with just the four of us hanging out at home.  The kids got lazy and addicted to screens in the absence of school and sports.  We were determined to still get outdoors whenever we could, searching for energy and inspiration in a time when those were in short supply.

Winter continued the theme, as our lives seemed a bit frozen in time for a while as the virus kept us under its thumb.  Slowly and tentatively, activities resumed.  Eventually, games began to be played—fully masked and short of breath–and talk of a return to in-person schooling in some form.  When school did resume recently, it was still the partial version.  Half-schedules and no lockers for older kids, eating at your desk for the younger.  There is no doubt the kids were glad to be back, but of course, it is not the same.  Not as free.  Not as fun.  Just like everything else.

And now, here we are again in March.  A full year into this COVID lifestyle and about to miss yet another Spring Break family beach vacation.  I cannot think about this past year without shaking my head.  It is involuntary.  I cannot even begin to explain how deeply disappointed and frustrated I am with everything about this situation.  The fact that we are a year out from the first deaths in this country and are still erasing 2,000 more people every day just makes me sick to my stomach.  The fact that I have essentially lost a full year in my fleeting life feels thoroughly wasteful.  I feel like I have been robbed.  I’m sad about it.  But I am also angry.  I am sick and tired of shaking my head.  At spineless or inept politicians failing their moral duties.  At yet another milestone marker in cases or deaths.  At people in the grocery store with their masks down below their noses. Or people going on vacation.  Or going to bars and restaurants.  Or refusing to get vaccinated.  Or leaving the house when they are sick.  Or complaining about how tough the guidelines and restrictions are when they aren’t even following them anyway.  My neck is sore from all of the shaking, I swear.

Let me be clear: I am well aware that my family and I have been extremely blessed during the entire pandemic and over the course of this awful year.  We have been healthy and connected: never got the virus and didn’t kill each other.  We have had paychecks and food on the table.  We are lucky, and I am deeply grateful for that.  I have made the best of a best of a bad situation.  And I can honestly say that I have been happy all year.

But not fulfilled.  Not enjoying my work the way I normally would.  Not getting all of my itches scratched for adventure, travel, laughter, and human connection.  Not free.  Basically, just not living my best life.  Pandemic living is just so awfully dimmed and muted.  I resent the dullness of it, how little there is to look forward to.  It is so unlike glorious, regular Life.

That stinks.  Because like I said, I am not getting any younger, and my years are flying by.  I don’t have any extras to just throw away anymore.  There is too much I want to do and feel, and too much I want to share with my kids while they are still kids.

So, I feel like I’ve been cheated this past year.  Every day going forward from today in which it still feels unwise to travel and play and hug and look deeply into a friend’s eyes while we share our deepest thoughts, I will feel even more cheated.  And not simply because there was a global pandemic.  Bad things happen; I get that.  Things don’t always go my way.  So yeah, the coronavirus has been a bite in the butt.  But I feel more cheated by my fellow countrymen.  My neighbors and co-workers, my family and friends.  And yes, my elected leaders.  Collectively, we Americans have behaved horribly regarding COVID, completely failing the exam.  Our federal policy was nonexistent (though I must say we did well in developing a vaccine quickly).  Our state policies were not strong enough.  But mostly, it was just the regular folks in our communities—our friends and neighbors–who were unwilling to sacrifice for one another.  As my co-worker likes to say, ”They never should have told Americans that wearing a mask (and wearing it correctly) was to protect others.  They should have led with, ‘The mask is only to save yourself.’”  Other countries were amazing.  There were plenty of examples to look to.  The keys to beating the virus back were not secret.  We just didn’t do it.  And we are still, a year later, not doing it.  That really makes me mad.  Sad, too, because I hate to think so poorly of my country and my countrymen.  But I do.  Because we could have beaten this thing by now.  We should have beaten this thing by now.  It disgusts me that we haven’t.   And that I am still counting.  I am thoroughly disappointed.  I have been that way all year long.

How about you?  What are your strongest memories and takeaways from your year dealing with the coronavirus pandemic?  Open up your journal and your heart, and wander back through the last twelve months in your mind.  Go ahead, begin at the beginning.  What was happening in your life in March of 2020 as things started to get real with the virus?  What were the first things in your world to get disrupted?  Which plans did you have to cancel?  What was your level of fear and tension around the virus itself?  How upset were you with the sudden changes in your lifestyle?  Do you have a personality that flows well with change and chaos?  Which aspects of “lockdown” living did you appreciate at the time?  Did you miss your routine?  Your loved ones?  Stimulation?  How was your job affected?  In those early weeks of the lockdown, how long did you expect your life to be significantly disrupted by the virus?  How many people would you have guessed would die in your country?  Did those expectations of length and severity color the way you have viewed the pandemic the rest of the way?  At what point in the year did you feel optimism about the possibility of the virus getting under control soon?  Mid-Summer?  Early Autumn?  Ever?  How disappointed are you in the way things have gone?  What would you say is your distribution of disappointment, anger, frustration, umbrage, fear, and sadness?  How wildly does that distribution vary from day to day?  At whom do you direct the bulk of your ire regarding the duration and depth of this fiasco?  Elected officials?  God/the Universe?  Regular folks not following the basic safety rules?  Does your answer vary from day to day on that one as well?  When I look back now over this letter to you and how I have described life in the last year, I see words like muted, disappointed, desperate, bizarre, dimmed, wasteful, sick-and-tired, frozen in time, tentative, slow, quiet, solitary, halfway, sad, and surreal.  What adjectives come to your mind when you think about your lifestyle of the past year?  Ten or twenty years from now, how do you think you will look back on this time?  Will this have been the worst year of your life?  Where are you with it right now?  Does the presence of the vaccine, even if you haven’t received it yet, make you more impatient about getting back to the life you once had?  What are the things you will try to keep from this COVID lifestyle?  If you could give some advice to the person you were one year ago about how to make the best of the year that would come, what would you say?  If you are like me and mostly feel like you have been robbed of a year on Earth, what will you do differently when we finally emerge from the pandemic to either make up for lost time or just make the best use of the time you have left?  What is the most important lesson you have learned?  Leave me a reply and let me know: What will you take away from your year with the coronavirus?

Onward and upward,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with your community.  We must learn in order to grow!

P.P.S. If you like to examine your life both broadly and deeply, consider purchasing my book, Journal Of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.  Namaste.

Shackles Or The Meaning Of Life: How Do You View Your Responsibilities?

“Nothing shapes your life more than the commitments you choose to make.” –Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life

“Commitment…something which is loved and hated in equal measure.” –Kiran Joshi

Hello friend,

I have been the bad guy at my house lately.  Fun-killer.  Mean Dad.  Wet blanket.  All of that stuff.  Me.

You see, my wife really wants a dog.  She spends her free time researching the countless different designer breeds and pulls up pictures of each one to share with my kids so they can all “OOH” and “AHH” together.  Because of course the kids want a dog, too.  What kid doesn’t?  My wife knows this and plays the situation like a maestro.  It gets mentioned in any interaction with family or friends.  More inquiries are made.  More photos.  “OOH!”  “AHH!”

I, meanwhile, have not budged from my position.  I do not want a dog.  Don’t get me wrong: I like dogs.  I really do.  I love their energy, their loyalty, their playfulness, their goodness.  I grew up with dogs and loved all of them.  I see how much other people love their dogs, too, how much they are truly a part of the family.  I understand their value.  And honestly, I know I would be best pals with a dog if I had one.

But, I don’t want one.  I never have, in all of my adult life.  It boils down to one thing: RESPONSIBILITY.

Perhaps a brief, adulthood-only autobiography would make this stance easier to understand about me.  In my twenties, I didn’t spend a single day wanting to be married, wanting to have kids, or wanting a pet.  I was deep into my personal development and cultivating ideas to make the world a better place to live.  I had no interest in being “tied down,” even though I was in love the last few years of that decade.  When I hit 30, I finally surrendered to the idea of being a husband and father.  The decision didn’t come easily, as I was so deeply happy and at peace without the long-term commitments and responsibilities that I questioned the wisdom of trading that for the more conventional life that everyone else seemed to go in for.  I wondered if I was just not wired for it—full disclosure: I still have that wonder way down underneath it all–and would at some point crack in the face of all that obligation and selflessness.  Still, I made the choice to dive in, knowing that it was not just marriage that I was signing up for but marriage with children.  Two, not more.  I had accepted a cat into the deal before the kids came along.  When he died when they were young, I decided he was easy enough to care for that getting a replacement was okay.  But that’s it.  No more.  No more kids, no more animals, no more spouses.  With all of them plus a home to take care of, that was my absolute limit.  I needed some room for myself, too.

Now, with the cat 13 and the kids 12 and 10, I am still walking that tightrope.  I am all-in on the husband and fatherhood deal, but I have also carved out enough space to still feel like a unique human being instead of being swallowed whole by my responsibilities.  However, I am also well-aware of the daily sacrifices of the personal, soul-feeding stuff I would otherwise like to do and had done before this chapter in my life began.  Even with that awareness, I can say concretely that I have made a good bargain in adding these guys to my world, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.  I love my life and appreciate the choices I have made, the responsibilities I have taken on.  I am the family man.

Enter the dog proposition.

I understand that it probably seems like the logical next step.  I have the house and the yard.  My wife can help.  The kids are theoretically at an age where they can feed it, walk it, and scoop the poop.  And dogs are cool.  It sounds like a slam dunk.

And yet, everything in my independent soul is screaming, “NO WAY!”  It stresses me just to think about it.  I picture that cute little guy and think, “Sorry buddy, it’s not you.  It’s me.”  Because it is.  It’s totally me.

I simply don’t want any more responsibilities.  Well, at least not of the large and long-term variety.  I want to be a wonderful, totally devoted father who spends as much time with his kids as they allow, all the way until they grow up and move away.  I want to be good to my cat (who, of course I know, is much less demanding than a dog).  I want to be a devoted husband.  I want to keep my home maintained, the bills paid, and my family doted upon.  I want to be great in all those roles.  But then I don’t want any other roles.  I don’t want to be the guy anybody else counts on for any daily—or even weekly—needs.  Quite simply, I would rather give that time and energy to myself.

That sounds really selfish as I write it, giving me a twinge of guilt and making me wonder if I have somehow taken a wrong turn from my basic humanity.  But the pause is brief, the guilt fleeting.  Through journal entries and endless hours of pondering over the course of a lifetime, I know who I am and what works for my energy supply.  I am clear about my needs, and all of my senses are fine-tuned to detect when things become even slightly off-balance.

I have a serious thing with BOUNDARIES.  If I meet someone whose energies do not match up with mine—I don’t even have to know exactly why; I go with the feeling—I do not allow them any room in my world.  Similarly, I fiercely protect my time.  If I am told going into a job that I am required to be there exactly these days at these times, I am a loyal and committed soldier.  But the moment they start saying, “No, we actually need you to come in more often and at different times than we agreed to,” my loyalty and enthusiasm go right out the window.  Don’t mess with my time.  Every single minute of it is precious to me.

I can see that this fierce guardianship of my time and energy is behind my unwillingness to add more deep, long-term responsibilities in the form of offspring or pets or spouses [I know it is not exactly the same line of thinking—because believe me, my wife does not need me to take care of her–but I would lump a spouse in with kids and pets here.  If my wife finds some trick to be rid of me along the way, I cannot imagine myself wanting to get married or otherwise legally bound to someone again.  I will happily take this commitment to the end, but then I’m good.].  I know that there are still things I want to do in my life.  There are places I want to travel, things I want to write, and solitude I want to bask in.  These are daydreams that don’t involve responsibilities and obligations to others.  I don’t want to have to worry about finding places where my dog can stay in the room or campsite with me, or all of the logistical adjustments I have to make in order to travel with kids.  And I don’t want to feel the guilt about leaving the dog or the kids with other people and both missing out on what they are doing and hating that they are missing out on the memories I am making without them.  I don’t want any of that baggage.  I want some freedom.  Freedom while I am still young enough to enjoy it and make something out of it.

I think about all of the childless-by-choice adults and the way people tend to think about them.  We like to think they are selfish or, at the least, just not wise enough to understand what they are missing out on.   They don’t get it.  Unlike those of us who have chosen to be parents, these self-centered hedonists can’t wrap their minds around the magical equation that, despite all of the diapers, tantrums, sleep-deprivation, financial drain, time drain, headaches, heartaches, and stress that children bring (in a single day even, but also all through life), despite all of that, kids still somehow come out on the plus side of Life’s ledger and make every day with them worthwhile.  If only these egotists could understand that, they would do the right thing and procreate, like us.  After judging them, we come to feel bad for them, sentenced as they are to a life of relative emptiness.  I think dog owners carry some of that sentiment for those of too short-sighted to get a dog or too uncommitted and therefore settle upon a love-withholding feline.  I understand where they are coming from; there is no love and loyalty quite like a dog’s for its owner.  We should want that for others, right?

This is why I have to fight off the internal nudge to feel bad about myself for not wanting a dog (or, at one point, more kids).   Not because I don’t know how much more rich and rewarding life can be through our relationships with those we take responsibility for, but because I do.

I think it speaks to the strength of my boundaries and the strength of my conviction about what is truly essential for my unique journey through Life.  I know not only some of the things I want to do, but perhaps more importantly, I know how I want to feel.

I want to feel free.  Unburdened.  Unencumbered.  Unfettered.  Unchecked.  Unbound.  Free.

Not now.  Now I want this deep dive into my kids’ world and all of the magic and fulfillment that complete investment in others’ lives brings.  But later on, when that passes, then I want the unburdening, the liberation from responsibility, and a re-investment in my own life and the part of my path that meanders away from the others.

After the blessings of this golden age of parenthood move on, I will be eager to get back to my old priorities from my twenties—self-improvement work in the physical, emotional, and spiritual realms—as well as the many new ventures and adventures I have been dreaming of in these last many years of responsibility.  I want to travel more, and more spontaneously.  I want to read and write more.  I want my “free time” to actually be free.  It is not that I want to abandon people (and pets) altogether—though I have my moments—but rather just the responsibility for them.

I like the idea of having a few distinct stages of my life’s journey, with different governing philosophies for each.  I understand that it is all one flow, but I appreciate that the map of my journey shows clear forks in the road, with my chosen path obvious from the historical record, but with the paths untaken also clear from what I consciously gave up to follow the ones taken.  I hope it continues that way.  All lives can look that way if examined closely enough, but this one is mine, and because I have journaled all the way through it, I have been keenly aware of its contours as I have co-created them with the Universe.  I love to read, listen to, or watch a good life story.  There is nothing more fascinating or entertaining to me.  I hope that if I keep my priorities and my boundaries tight and clear, that my story will someday be one that I enjoy watching in the rearview mirror.  I hope that I will have loved and cared for others long enough and deep enough in my “responsibility years” that I will have no regrets about staking such a firm claim upon my “freedom years.”  From this position midway through, I would say it all looks pretty darn beautiful.

How about you?  How do you see the responsibilities and commitments you have taken on in life?  Open up your journal and be honest with yourself.  What feelings arise when you think about the characters (both human and animal) that you claimed responsibility for in this world?  Whether you are in the midst of your biggest commitments (e.g. to young children, to employees, to dogs) or are looking back on them, what is your range of feelings?  How much love do they fill you with?  How much pride?  Do they inspire you to be better and uplift you in your darker moments?  How much humor do they provide you with?  Have you found a certain freedom within those responsibilities (I think of the Indigo Girls line from Power of Two: “The closer I’m bound in love to you, the closer I am to free.”)?  Do your responsibilities provide the foundation for your life, an emotional home base?  In the end, are the people you are or have been responsible for the true meaning of life?  What would your life be like without those you are responsible for?  On the other end of the emotional spectrum, how heavy is the weight of your responsibility?  How much stress do your obligations bring you?  To what degree do they dictate your happiness and overall well-being?  Does that seem healthy to you?  How often do you feel hints (or torrents) of bitterness or resentment toward those you are responsible for because of the weight of that responsibility?  Is the resentment fleeting or lasting?  Do you ever wish you had not made these enormous commitments?  What do you do with that feeling?  How much different is a spouse/life partner relationship than that of children and pets when it comes to providing meaning to a life?  What does having one another’s back mean compared to being truly responsible for another’s well-being?  Is it the difference of being responsible to and responsible for?  Which type of responsibility suits your personality better?  Are you able to see your life in specific chapters or seasons, defined in large part by your responsibilities at the time?  Do they tend to be good and bad in different ways but hard to evaluate overall in terms of what you liked better or what you would prefer to happen in your upcoming chapters, or is it very clear to you that your next chapter(s) should be defined one way or the other?  Will you steer your next chapter toward or away from responsibility and commitments to others?  If you want to spend more time and energy on yourself, do you feel any guilt about that?  Are you satisfied with how much you have done for others in your lifetime?  Would you choose the same commitments again if you had a chance to live it all over again?  Would you go with more or fewer?  What is the best thing you can do for yourself going forward?  How do you wish to feel in your next chapter?  How is that different than the other eras of your adulthood?  What will you carry with you from your current obligations?  Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you view your responsibilities?

Make it All beautiful,

William

P.S. If this one resonated with you, please share it with your community.  We are One!

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

Thanks, 2020! Personal Firsts, Bests, & Discoveries From A Year Like No Other

“Life is about accepting the challenges along the way, choosing to keep moving forward, and savoring the journey.” –Roy T. Bennett, A Light In The Heart

“The only way that we can live, is if we grow.  The only way that we can grow is if we change.  The only way that we can change is if we learn.  The only way we can learn is if we are exposed.  And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open.  Do it.  Throw yourself.” –C. JoyBell C. 

Hello friend,

I felt like a 90-year-old who couldn’t figure out how to get the remote control to play the movie.  I was on the phone with the Apple guy, stressed out and flummoxed, trying to learn how I could get my CDs to play in the new laptop I was considering buying.  “Why in the world wouldn’t it come with a disc drive?  How will I load all of my CDs into iTunes?  How will I burn the next album I rent from the library?  Surely I’m not alone here, am I, young genius person?  How else will I listen to my precious music????”  “Umm, well sir, you could just stream it.”  “Pay for music?  No way!  No….well, how would that work?”

Suspicious but intrigued by this sorcery he was explaining, I hung up the phone and called a couple of my friends who actually live in the modern world.  When one told me that he subscribes to Spotify Premium, I asked him how he plays all of his CDs that were the soundtrack of our many cross-country roadtrips a few decades ago (you know, when CDs were the newest, coolest technology).  “I sold them all on eBay,” he said, crushing my soul in one sentence.  How could you just dispose of those priceless archives of your life???  So, I called my other modern-yet-more-nostalgic friend.  She guided me through my fears, starting with a cost analysis: the cost of Apple Music for a month is the same as the cost of one CD.  But how do I get new albums when they are released?  I still need to buy them, right?  “They’re free.  They just show up on the release date.”  I didn’t believe her.  “Okay, name me a new album you would want?”  Indigo Girls: Look Long.  She looked it up: “Yep, it’s there.  I can listen to it right now if I want.  And anything else I want.  Anything.”

I was like a living, breathing version of the “Mind Blown” emoji.  I was stupefied by this new reality.  No CDs?  My whole world felt like it was coming apart.  But that stupor only lasted for a few minutes, the part when I was intellectualizing it all, thinking through plan options and credit card numbers.  After that, when I actually activated the free trial, well, then my whole world felt like it was opening up.  Wide!  All of this blessed inspiration was suddenly right at my fingertips.  I couldn’t get it in my ears fast enough.  Before the day was over, I had created several new playlists and downloaded hundreds of albums.  I was the proverbial kid in a candy store.  Honestly, as someone who is absolutely nutty about music, it felt like the discovery of a lifetime.  I was in Heaven!  Just so cool.

That day, lying on that hammock with my headphones on and my devices all aglow, with that music filling up my entire soul, was a total game-changer.  It was mid-2020—the height of the coronavirus pandemic, social unrest over racial injustice, and a crumbling economy—but all of those things that have become the year’s headlines suddenly had to share space in my heart and mind with something new and beautiful and, well, cool.  I don’t think a day has passed in the ensuing months that I haven’t been on Apple Music, granting myself that little space to both escape from this world and to be inspired to build a better one.  It is one of the things I will always remember 2020 for, and probably the one for which I will always be most grateful.

But it’s definitely not the only cool thing I learned or tried this year.  It’s not even the only eye-opener for me in the world of technology and media.  No, I got even further out of my old man mode when we finally cut the cable cord at my house.  My wife had been cursing the cable company for years.  I always watched the least amount of anything in my family, so I had no opinions.  However, when we got Netflix and Prime Video a couple years ago, I was intrigued by this streaming thing but just never found much time to watch anything.  When doing my cardio workouts in the gym, I always read books on my tablet.  However, when the gyms closed in March and my workouts moved home, watching Netflix as I rode the treadmill became my new thing.  I loved it.  Later, when we finally cut ties with the cable company and took on Hulu, Sling, Disney+, ESPN+, and Apple TV+, I was in the mode of wanting more material for my workout hours.  It was a revelation!  Bravo, streaming services!

There is really some wonderful stuff out there.  The artists are clearly in full bloom with all of these new outlets.  I have found that I love documentaries.  I have watched several good ones on different topics—from Bill Gates to Greta Thunberg–but find that I keep coming back to films that cover music and musicians, particularly those who were involved in the revolution of the 1960s.  I just finished two fascinating ones about The Band—Once Were Brothers and The Last Waltz—but have also been captivated by pieces about Keith Richards, the artists who lived in Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon in the sixties, and Sam Cooke, among others.  I have dozens more on my watchlists.

Of the non-documentary things I have watched, a few of my favorites from this year are When They See Us, Schitt’s Creek, and The Trial Of The Chicago 7.  There are so many more that intrigue me, but I know my chances of getting to them are slim.  I am grateful for what I have seen, and grateful to 2020 for opening my eyes to so many wonderful works of art.

Whenever I watch a movie or TV show, though, it comes with a measure of guilt that I am ignoring the many brilliant books in the world.  I did, however, find one released this Autumn that has stayed with me in the weeks since I have finished it.  It is Greenlights, by the actor Matthew McConaughey.  I was drawn to it because I learned that, like me, he has kept journals for all of his adult life, and the book used many of the insights he gained in writing them over the years.  I have never been particularly drawn to McConaughey as an actor and so was otherwise skeptical going in, but I found myself captivated by his tales and the wisdom he drew from them.  It is my favorite literary discovery of this year.

While I doubt I will ever be anyone’s favorite literary discovery, I did have a Journal of You highlight this Summer, albeit coming not from something I wish I had to write about.  By many times over, more people than ever showed up to read and share my piece called “But I’m Not a Racist!” And Other Things We White Folks Need To Do Better.  It came on the heels of the George Floyd murder, as the protests were getting into full swing.  I certainly appreciated the positive feedback and was glad I could contribute to something so important.

I never know when something I write will resonate, but that moment in American history seemed to sweep so many of us up with it, and rightly so.  In addition to writing a couple of pieces on it, the George Floyd murder brought me to another significant first in my life: my first real protest.  I wasn’t in the throngs of people downtown getting teargassed or anything so dramatic, but I did bring my children to a local event where we got to lift our signs and our voices in a show of solidarity with our community against police violence and racial injustice.  It was moving for me and hopefully something of a precursor for more social activism, both for me in my later years and for my children for the rest of their long and precious lives.

I spent more of 2020 than any other year on the seat of a bicycle.  That seems a strange record, but it is true.  With fewer “play” options for my kids, we took so many more rides on the streets of our town.  I also got more into mountain biking at local trails; that was tremendously invigorating.  Then, as Fate would have it, I sustained an injury that would not allow me to walk, run, or play sports.  That would normally drive me to the nuthouse, but in a stroke of luck, I discovered that I was still able to ride a bicycle.  Early mornings in Summer and Autumn were spent pedaling out the miles on the quiet streets in the surrounding towns.  It was a delightful release to drink in that fresh air and still be able to sweat amidst my other physical limitations.  When the days shortened and chilled, I got myself an indoor bike to sweat away the Winter.  While I miss the fresh air and the lakes and trees, the workout is fantastic and much-needed.  Perhaps I won’t need the riding so much in other years when my body is more cooperative, but I am so grateful to have found it and made it a big part of my life.

Speaking of that fresh air and those lakes and trees, my last, best discovery of this year was about spending time outside and having more adventures.  Maybe this one qualifies more as a re-covery, since I have had it and lost it more than once in my many years on this planet.  I feel like the year has left me more committed than ever to design my remaining years around being outdoors and exploring the beauty of Mother Earth.  Most of my social media scrolling this year has been on the pages of National Parks and travel sites.  I don’t think a single day has gone by when I haven’t added to my itinerary and fantasies for my next trip to Glacier country in Northwest Montana, and I have plotted adventures all across the American West, from Utah’s “Mighty Five” parks to the Sierra Nevadas of California and the Cascade Range in the Northwest.  I have developed plans for overnights and weekends near home as well, with lots of hiking and sleeping in the pine-fresh air to the sounds of the forest and rippling streams.

Even as much of a Winter-hater as I am, my Christmas gifts this week included new snowshoes, trekking poles, fleeces, and a backpack (and I am even planning my next car and its necessary adventure accessories).  I am more determined than ever to be an active participant in the outdoor activities of every season.  Maybe I was coming to that anyway in my life’s evolution, or maybe 2020’s message of “Stay Home & Cover Your Breath” only served to stir up my natural resistance to being contained, or maybe it is some combination of the two.  In any case, I now know in a deeper place that being in Nature is one of my greatest inspirations and an absolutely necessary fuel to get me through the rest of the world’s obligations and nonsense.  It is both my escape and my spiritual home.  I am relieved to know that so clearly now.

I guess most discoveries and favorites are like that: something outside of us—music, books, blogs, bicycles, and mountain streams—lights up something inside of us.  They give our existence meaning and value.  They buoy us against the storms of Life and make historically bad years seem pretty darn good after all.  They are the source of our Gratitude and thus our Happiness.  I am deeply grateful that there are so many of these points of light in my life, no matter the year.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I want to do 2020 all over again!  But I know that it brought me many gifts, and I refuse to look past them just because they arrived on the same train as COVID, racism, and political folly.  I am grateful for this year and the many new things I know and love because I lived through it.

How about you?  What are the coolest things you learned or tried in 2020?  Open up your journal and your spirit and expose what the light let in this year.  First, what new things did you learn?  If you had extra time in the house, did you pick up any home improvement skills (e.g. Marie Kondo organizing, carpentry, plumbing)?  How about personal improvement skills, like learning a language or a musical instrument?  Did you learn how to be a teacher?  Did you learn some new technology tricks, like how to Zoom?  Did anything blow your mind?  What did you try for the first time this year?  New foods?  New fitness routines?  Online grocery shopping?  Something outdoorsy?  Did you do anything social justice-related this year that you had never previously been so moved to do, like a protest or a sign in your yard?  How about with politics: did the extreme divisions among this year’s election issues and candidates spur you to participate in ways that you hadn’t before?  Were most of the new things you tried in 2020 related to things specific to this year—being on lockdown, COVID, Trump drama, etc.—or were they more random and could have happened any year?  Which of them will you continue with even when things return to whatever “normal” looks like to you?  Now to the Arts.  What musical styles or artists did you discover this year, whether they were new or just new to you?  What was the best thing you watched on television?  What were your favorite 2020 movies?  Books?  Did you try anything unique to get Art in unconventional ways, like attending a virtual theatre performance, concert, or museum tour?  What else did you love?  Did you have any personal bests this year?  Did you excel at anything at your work?  Did you improve upon a hobby or passion project?  Were you a better friend, sibling, parent, co-worker, or ally?  Did you find you were great at the self-care this year demanded?  Finally, what did you discover about yourself this year?  What issue or passion might you have had only a hint at before this year but now have a clear position on?  Do you have a core belief that has changed?  Do you know what you want to do more of (and less of) going forward?  Are you clear that there are some people in your life who you need to distance yourself from?  Are there others you would like to cultivate a deeper relationship with?  How have you grown in the last year?  Leave me a reply and let me know: What are the coolest things you have done and discovered in 2020?

Seek out the light,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with your community.  Let’s chase the bright spots together!

P.P.S. If this way of reflection and introspection appeals to your way of being, consider buying my book Journal Of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.  Namaste.

What Always Brings Tears To Your Eyes?

“Those who do not weep, do not see.” –Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“Tears are words that need to be written.” –Paulo Coelho

Hello friend,

Last weekend I attended my first virtual funeral.  I don’t ever go to real funerals.  It is just not my jam, for many reasons.  However, this one had me especially intrigued, and since it was over Zoom, I figured that I could escape whenever I wanted.  My commitment was minimal.  I was drawn to this particular memorial not because I was so close with the deceased—indeed, we didn’t know each other well at all and hadn’t seen each other in years—but because of my sense of who he was (perhaps a kindred spirit) and the wide variety of lives I imagined that he had touched in his too-brief stay on this Earth.   I knew that he was special, and I wanted to see how that presented itself in this final farewell.  And honestly, I wanted a little more of him.  I am sure we all did.

Throughout the service, which was designed to pack in as many different voices and testimonials as possible from the lives he touched along the way, I discovered a pattern in my emotional state: when the speaker was dry-eyed, I was dry-eyed; when the speaker cried, I cried.  It never failed.  Oh sure, I cried at a few other times, too, like when they showed a picture of him and my daughter when she was a baby or a picture of him and my wife smiling together.  Those got me.  But otherwise, it was a pretty safe bet that when I witnessed weeping, I wept.

I have come to know that pattern about myself over the years.  When raw emotion is in front of me—especially crying but beyond that as well, even in Joy—I am an instant puddle.  After studying myself through my journals for this long, I have come to chalk this characteristic up to the same Empathy that has shaped so much of my worldview, including my politics and spirituality.  When I witness someone deep in feeling, it just seems to channel directly into my heart.  I am powerfully moved in an instant.  It can be a problem, but I mostly appreciate it.  I like to be reminded occasionally that I have not hardened myself too much against this world that is so full of slings and arrows.  I am still raw and affected.  That is alright with me, especially the part of me that wants to remain an artist and a warrior for justice until the day I die.  As long as I keep having authentic interactions with people and absorbing their genuine emotions, I am going to be a weeper.

But when else?  Other than diving headlong into others’ drama, what are the other moments that get my tears going?

If you have been with Journal of You for a while—whether through these regular letters or just the book—you know that I spend a fair amount of time obsessing about Death and Legacy, the importance of my impact and what I will leave behind.  I am so grateful that I have not yet had to face many deaths of those closest to me; I have always been lucky in that department.  But it doesn’t stop my active imagination from running wild with images of that loss.  I don’t mean scenes of graphic violence or horrific accidents; my mind does not go there.  It does, however, go often to thoughts of learning of their loss or having the difficult conversations about life without them.  I picture things like hearing about my child’s (or sister’s or mother’s) death or explaining my wife’s death to my children.  Vivid scenes that sweep me away and leave me tear-stained.

Those daydreams, however, are nothing compared to the ones in which I am the one dying  (usually of cancer) and have to communicate that with my wife and, even more often, my kids.  Somehow, I seem to fall into this awful habit when I am driving alone.  I think about making videos for them to watch when I am gone, on occasions like birthdays, graduations, or weddings, messages from their father who would be so proud of them and wish he were there.  I make big speeches, often out loud in my car, by the end of which I am full-on sobbing, hardly able to see the road through my gushing eyes.  By the time I realize what I am doing, I am practically panting in despair.  It is embarrassing.  It is that idea of leaving my family, though, that I simply cannot abide.  That is a guaranteed tear-jerker.

Speaking of leaving my family, I am pretty quick to get weepy in saying goodbye to my parents and siblings after our too-infrequent visits.  I try to fight it by rushing through the process, but by the time I hit the gas pedal to drive away, I am mush.  Even though we all get frustrated with my Dad for doing it, sometimes I envy him for his habit of just sneaking off before the goodbye part of the visits.  If we have gone to his house to stay for a holiday, he always manages to be “at work” when it comes time for us to leave town.  If we meet up with him at the cabin and we are all planning to leave the same day, he gets up early and gets on the road before anyone realizes it is time to go.  It’s pretty weasel-y, but at least he doesn’t have to face the emotion of goodbye.  He leaves that for the rest of us, most of whom are pretty teary about it.  I don’t really get that way with goodbyes with other people outside the family, but that is why family is family.  It’s just deeper.  I know I will be awful about it when my kids are grown.

I have a terrible time reading out loud, too, without crying.  This happens with sad stories, of course.  I still read to my daughter every night before bed, and it is highlight of my day, but I occasionally struggle to keep it together.  I can laugh now at my attempts a few years ago to get through Where The Red Fern Grows with her, but it was a choking, teary mess at the time.  Any sentimental message read aloud can get me, though, like a card or a Facebook post that I am sharing with my wife.  It happens with my own writing, too, especially things about my feelings for loved ones.  I sometimes read my work aloud to myself before publishing it, just to see if it flows, and I have definitely found myself in a puddle of tears on more than one occasion.

Likewise, I can envision wanting to say something at my parents’ funerals but just not being able to.  I am one of those criers who simply cannot speak through the process.  The emotion stabs me like a knife, and it’s like my air is just gone.  I tried to say a few words about my grandfather during the visitation the night before his funeral, and it was a sobby, chokey, mostly silent mess.

Strangely, I have occasionally fancied the idea of being a television news reporter or anchor, probably a poor fit for a guy who cries when sharing almost any impactful story.  It was more acceptable when I was studying to be an actor, which, now that I think of it, is probably how I fell into the habit of imagining all of those dramatic scenes I mentioned above that so regularly slay me in the car.  I guess I am drawn to sharing the Truth of any situation—whether my own or of those whose stories need hearing—even if that sharing brings me to tears.

As I come to recognize that realization, I am reminded of my tendency to tear up—not sob, but just get “watery eyes”—in just about any direct, intimate conversation (typically one-on-one).  I can recall so many conversations, especially ones concerning my loved ones or my own work—things like parent-teacher conferences and job interviews—when the eye-to-eye and the intimacy itself seems to draw the water involuntarily up to my eyes, even when seemingly inappropriate.  As I said, it is not weeping in the usual sense—I am not breaking down emotionally in these otherwise-normal moments, just tearing up a bit (which can cause the normal to become slightly awkward, though people typically pretend not to notice).  I chalk it up to sensitivity.  I am a bit of a raw nerve, prone to really feel everything.  It is just one of my idiosyncrasies.  I roll with it.

I am not sure what it says about me, the things that bring me to tears and the regularity of them in my life.  I tend to not judge it, not seeing it as either a particular strength or weakness.  But is it?  I kind of appreciate the cleansing nature of crying, but I don’t seek out opportunities for it (like I said, the dramatic driving scenes are not planned or even fully conscious, but rather just the result of getting swept up by my overactive imagination).  I don’t have a strong desire to cry any more than I do now, though I would prefer not to have so much of the “watery eyes” in mundane, everyday conversations.  I tend to see the source of my tears as an understanding of Love and the value of connection.

I also understand that I come at this topic as someone who is unusually blessed in my life circumstances and psychological make-up.  I have been lucky all my life, with a healthy upbringing, a pleasant nuclear and extended family, always enough food on the table, with things I enjoy doing and people I enjoy spending time with (and, as I mentioned, I haven’t dealt with much death yet).  My worldview is naturally optimistic, and I don’t struggle with anxiety or depression.  I am resilient and self-confident, and I understand, thanks to my daily journaling, the minute details of what makes me tick.  My mental health is in good shape.  For all of these things, I am extremely lucky.  I understand that if any one of them went the other way, my outlook on this topic of crying would likely be entirely different.  I am grateful that most of my tears to this point have been healthy ones and from situations I could choose.  I don’t ever cry because the world all seems too much for me, because I am stressed out or just can’t take one more thing working against me.  I don’t cry because I hate my life or feel trapped or overburdened.  I imagine those kinds of tears are pretty common in the world, and I know that Life still has many challenges remaining for me.  A run of good luck doesn’t last forever.

This is part of why this topic is fascinating to me, and why I want to know your answer.  It illustrates yet another way in which our stories are all different and thus why we need Empathy and Grace.  Our tears, whether of Joy or Sadness or anything in between, reveal something special about us.  No, reveal is the wrong word.  Maybe indicate.  The tears don’t tell the story.  They merely indicate that there is something special worth digging into.  Something deeper.  Something worth the effort to understand and appreciate, because it is soul-level stuff, the kind that makes us who we are.  For me, that means there is magic in those tears.   The magic of our Truth.  And I always, always, want to be a part of the Truth.

How about you?  What always makes you cry?  Open up your journal and your heart to explore the source and significance of those tears.  What predictably makes you cry?  Are your things specific events (e.g. a funeral, a break-up, a goodbye) or mental health-triggered issues (e.g. anxiety, depression, or the accumulation of Life just becoming too much sometimes)?  What are the events that trigger you?  Are they obviously heavy hitters, like death, or are they more subtle things?  Who are the people usually associated with your tears?  Has it been the same people all your life?  How often are the these “people tears” due to how much you love them, and how often are they due to these people wronging you?  Is that a healthy ratio?  How do you do with goodbyes?  What about books and movies (I’m a big movie crier)?  Do you have any memories that always bring tears with them?  Are those good memories or bad ones?  How often do you cry tears of Joy?  What other emotions make you cry?  How often do ordinary, everyday life situations bring tears to your eyes?  What kinds of conversations do it?  Do you cry at the sight of others crying or suffering?  How empathetic are you?  Do you think your Empathy rating dictates how much you cry in response to others’ pain?  Do you ever wonder about the source of your tears, their true trigger?  What do your tears actually say about what is going on deep down inside you?  Are they revealing of something you haven’t yet addressed and need to dig into?  Do you need help with that?  Do you believe your crying to be mostly a healthy sign, or a sign of problems?  Do you usually feel better afterward?  Do you wish you cried more often or less often?  Which topics give you your best cries?  Leave me a reply and let me know: What always brings tears to your eyes?

Be free,

William

P.S. If today’s topic resonated with you, please share it.  We could all use a release from time to time.

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

What Has Surprised You Most About LIFE?

“I know enough of the world now to have almost lost the capacity of being much surprised by anything.” –Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

“But better to get hurt by the truth than comforted with a lie.” –Khaled Hosseini

Hello friend,

Watching the news lately is a horrifying experience for me.  A couple nights ago, I was listening to the anchor detail the skyrocketing number of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 all across America, leading some states to begin to place restrictions on schools and businesses, as well as announce mask mandates and recommendations for gathering sizes.  The next story relayed the pushback from the new restrictions, including the angry, sometimes-gun-wielding protesters refusing to wear masks, claiming their rights are being violated by having to cover their nose and mouth before entering places like the grocery store (or the hospital where their loved ones are dying from COVID).

My first reaction was to wonder which story was more sad.  Because seriously, a quarter of a MILLION dead Americans is a truly depressing thing to consider, especially when you know it didn’t have to be this way.  But how about those anti-maskers, demanding the right to harm their community members because they don’t want to be inconvenienced?  I couldn’t help but be captivated by these folks and their line of reasoning, such a sucker am I for a peak into how others view the world we all share.

So I started thinking of other things these folks probably do in the course of their daily routines that are the same as you or I do, none of us ever wondering why or protesting the oppression of it all.  I am guessing most of those people who won’t be shackled by the oppressive mask probably put on a shirt and shoes before they enter a store.  They probably cover up their genitals with a swimsuit or other clothing at the public pool or beach, even on really hot days.  I would bet that they stay reasonably close to the speed limit when they drive, or at least slow enough that they keep control of the car and not hurt themselves or anybody else.  They probably even wear a seatbelt, follow the rules of the road, and have auto insurance, all things designed to protect oneself and the people around you.  I do all of those things, and I am guessing you do, too.  I haven’t seen any protests about those fascist speed limits lately.  No gun-toting folks storming the state capitol building about those pesky indecent exposure laws.  Not even anyone plotting to kidnap the governor over that dictatorial “No Shirt No Shoes No Service” policy the stores continue to enforce.

And yet, that mask.  That thin layer of cloth covering the nose and mouth in a global pandemic of a respiratory virus.  Yes, that is a bridge too far for these folks.  That is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, the hill they choose to die on.  The utter absurdity of this is staggering to me.

REALLY, PEOPLE?  REALLY??????????

This whole thought exercise, besides just making me sad and angry, serves as an unpleasant reminder of how, despite myriad examples over the years, I am continually floored by how petty and ignorant grown folks tend to be throughout their lives.  I say it floors me, but it shouldn’t, because, as I said, I have seen it over and over as I have aged.  I think its power to shock me must be in its historical place in my mind.

You see, growing up, like most kids, I was taught to respect adults and do what they say.  I never wanted to disappoint a teacher, coach, principal, neighbor, or even a friend’s parent.  Somewhere in that superstructure of respect, I guess I unconsciously bestowed upon all adults a lofty presumption of maturity and moral superiority.  I believed that with all of those years under their belts, they must be highly evolved beings, sure to make the wisest decisions, with everyone’s best interests at heart.

It seems that most generations, as they seek out their independence and navigate their late teens and twenties, begin to question those who came before them and attempt to buck the system a bit.  I had some of that in those years.  However, it is only as I have aged, especially as I moved into my thirties and forties and watched my own generation move into full-fledged adulthood and my parents’ generation move to senior status, that I have come face-to-face with the frightening reality that folks don’t really mature all that much.  There is a suffocating normalcy to pettiness and small-mindedness.  Ignorance persists.  I find myself often comparing people in their forties, sixties, even eighties to high school students or elementary students.  Stunted.  (Sadly, I have also been amazed at how much mental illness is out there, and I know that plays into some of this stuntedness.)

Even after studying adults for decades, this immaturity is still hard to wrap my mind around.  It has probably been my single biggest surprise about this thing called Life.  I totally had it wrong from how I thought things worked when I was a kid.  It may be the biggest, but it’s not the only thing that has come to surprise me.  And I don’t mean about my own life; I definitely had that journey mapped out wrong in my head, too, though.  I mean Life—capital L—in general.  The way of the world.  How things are.  You know: Life.

I suppose it is fitting that I guessed wrong about the wisdom and maturity of adults, because I also have been surprised, as I have aged, to learn how “young” a person feels inside (the spirit, the mind, etc.) when she gets old.  I remember decades ago, my Grandma Jeanne once telling me how she still felt like a kid and had felt that way all of her life long (and she seemed so old to me then).  I didn’t get it at all and assumed she was the lone exception.  My 75-year-old mother talks the same way now, and I can feel that in her.  Heck, I still feel my young self inside my nearly half-century-old shell, despite all these extra scars and wrinkles from a full life lived.  I’m still silly.  I still want to play sports and have adventures and eat candy.  I think my spirit might even feel more free now than then.

When I was young, adults always seemed old; I didn’t think I could relate to them.  Now I am that age, AND I work with a lot of kids, and I can tell that they are thinking the same thing about me.  I want to have real conversations with them—feeling myself near to their age and in touch with what they are going through—and they are not the least bit interested.  I am often reminded of my old teachers and coaches; they must have felt as frustrated and disappointed as I do now.  We feel like it was just yesterday when we were that age and so of course we can relate to them, but they feel like we are not just a generation apart but rather eons.  It is one giant missed opportunity in our culture (I tend to think that other cultures navigate this divide much better than we do).

That surprise about how young a person feels when she is old connects with my next surprise about Life: how astonishingly fast it moves.  I did not see that coming at all when I was growing up!  Along the same lines, I did not have any sense when I was young that Time goes faster the older you get, which, from my experience, it plainly does.  I remember as a kid, when my parents said we had to wait two months until school was out or the next family trip or hockey season or whatever, it was like they were talking about some distant era when cars might be flying.  That was so far in the future!  The wait seemed unbearable.  Similarly, when they talked about doing something when they were in high school, I could only picture that in black-and-white.  Their life may as well have been with the dinosaurs.  It was completely unrelatable to anything in my life.  Meanwhile, even as a high schooler, ten years into the future seemed unimaginably far.  Now I look at my kids and realize I have been a father for a dozen years and have had both of them for at least a decade.  Where did that time go???  I feel for my parents, who are now wondering where the 50+ years went since they started having kids.  I can already tell I will be pleading with Time to slow down for the rest of my life, begging for more of it as I approach my end.  It just goes by so fast.

And even though I know that about Time intellectually, I still haven’t internalized it yet.  I don’t think I am alone, either.  We all seem shocked whenever we are confronted with another reminder from the calendar: when we turn another decade older, when our kids hit double digits, when we receive a graduation or wedding announcement in the mail from a “kid” we knew as an infant.  This lesson about Time flying is one that seems to be an ongoing, until-the-day-you-die kind of surprise.

A whole new category of Life surprise for me has surrounded the stories our society grooms us on.  I have been shocked to learn as an adult—often through my own research and critical thinking rather than anything suggested by the powers that be in media or government or even education—that almost all of these foundational stories are half-truths or outright falsehoods, and often quite fairy tale-ish in nature.  As a kid who very much appreciated being thought of as on the winning team and one of the good guys, I totally ate up all of the wonderful, heroic things that American society tells its children not just about American history but also about Christianity (and religion in general).  I find myself as an adult so often saying to myself things like, “Wow, we really have been a terrible people!” or, “How come I never learned that in school?” or, “How could any rational, clear-minded person truly believe that?”

I guess I hoped we were better than we have proven to be (in just about every way).  It has surprised me how lowly-evolved we are.  Human beings in groups are, on the whole, really horrible to each other and so very far from “enlightenment” in any aspect of our development.  Given how lofty my beliefs were about us as a child, that has been a most unpleasant surprise.  We are just not very good at any of it.

In examining all of these aspects of Life that have surprised me as I have aged, I notice that each of them is a disappointment, in varying degrees.  That all by itself is pretty sad.  Is that inevitable for a natural-born optimist like me?  Are those of us who expect the best from people and from the world destined for disappointment?  Maybe that is only for those of us who attempt to push past the superficiality of the stories we are told and look for the Truth in all matters.  It may be more pleasant to believe only what suits us, but I think I will keep going for the Truth, even if it tends to rattle my foundation.  I can evolve.

How about you?  What has surprised you most about Life as you have aged?  Open up your journal and take a deep dive into Existence and how you once imagined it to be.  To begin with, how did you look at the world and the way things seemed to work when you were a kid?  How did you view the adults in your world?  How did you see authority figures?  Did religion play a major role in how you understood the events of the world and your place in it?  What role did your formal education play in your worldview?  How did your heroes shape the way you saw your future?  Did you believe that the way you grew up and the people around you were “normal” and basically the way things were everywhere else?  What was your impression of people in general?  Did you believe that most people were happy and living the way they desired to be? Did you feel that adults, even senior citizens, were relatable?  How much trouble was out there in the world?  What was your sense of Time and how quickly Life passed?  Was your outlook on humanity and the world and the future generally a rosy one, or were you more pessimistic?   Based on all of those aggregated impressions, what has surprised you most about Life?  Has its speed surprised you?  Does Time fly faster the older you get the way it does for me?  When did you first get a sense of that?  Will that keep surprising you until the end of your life?  How about people?  How do they surprise you?  Are they generally better or worse than what you thought as a kid?  Were you aware of all the addiction and mental illness in ordinary people all around you?  How about your foundational beliefs about your country’s goodness or the righteousness of your religion?  Have you come to doubt those stories that you were told?  If so, is it more that you have learned the actual facts or is it just a general feeling that you have or a reasoned doubt?  Are you more or less of a true believer now?  Which direction do you see that heading in the years to come?  Do you imagine that there are even more surprises in store for you beyond the ones you have already experienced, perhaps about relationships or priorities or views of death as it draws nearer?  What has been your most pleasant surprise so far?  How about your most disappointing?  On the whole, have your surprises been more pleasant or unpleasant?  Do you think that is due to how optimistic or pessimistic you were in the first place (i.e. optimists being more likely to be disappointed and vice versa)?  Which one aspect of Life continually surprises you?  Leave me a reply and let me know: What has surprised you most about Life?

Keep growing,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it.  Let’s grow our worlds together!

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

How Many Great Years Do You Need To Call It A Great Life?

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” –Mae West

“May you live every day of your life.” –Jonathan Swift

Hello friend,

I remember so clearly the high I felt upon publishing my first Journal of You letter to you more than six years ago.  The adrenaline rush, the ecstasy, the peace and satisfaction of doing what feels exactly right and true.  It was like falling in love.   I had always tried in different ways—teaching, coaching, managing–to help other people to be their best, but this time it was like I was finally tapping into my best stuff.  It was fulfilling in a way nothing else had ever been, making me believe I had truly and finally locked into my purpose.  It was heavenly.  I figured if I could just stay dialed into that energy for the rest of my life—just keep doing the meaningful work—when all was said and done, I could lay claim to a truly great life.  That’s all I wanted.  That all I have ever wanted.

For the first months after beginning my letters, I was going like a madman: working a lot, spending every possible minute with my young children, and then staying up into the wee hours to pour out my heart and soul into the keyboard to keep your inbox full of new thoughts from me.  I hardly slept at all, fueled almost entirely by my passion for the work and that inimitable high I mentioned above.

Before long, it became clear that I could not sustain the wild pace, and I settled on a deadline of one letter per week.  It would still be a stiff challenge for time and sleep, but it seemed to strike the right blend of reasonably demanding to my mind and deeply fulfilling to my soul.  Writing was in me, I knew that, and committing to producing constantly made it feel professional, like I wasn’t merely dabbling but instead was giving it the effort and attention that it deserved.  I was being a “real” writer, which felt like what I was called to do.

That hectic pace kept going right up until the time when I realized I could not edit and assemble my upcoming book if I was preoccupied every week with producing a new letter to you.  Even though the answer was obvious, it was still heart-wrenching for me to put the blog on hold until the book was ready for release.  It was a grinding process but richly rewarding to the soul in the end.  All of that blood, sweat, and tears had left some small mark upon the world; it would live beyond me.  I was proud of myself.  And I was sure it was just the beginning.

I have always had a very wide variety of interests and don’t like to limit my areas of study or work.  I could imagine being deeply fulfilled by years filled with writing in all sorts of formats—books, articles, blogs, personal correspondence—but I know that other things could fulfill me also.  Coaching, counseling, public speaking, working to make the world a more peaceful, sustainable, and equitable place to live—all of these things are meaningful to me.  So, although I think of myself as a writer and saw the publishing of my first book as a harbinger of things to come, I knew that writing wasn’t the only way I would measure “success” along my journey and certainly wouldn’t be the only consideration when I got to the end of it all and gave myself a final grade.

And not that work or career are the only ways I want to gauge my progress as a person and the quality of my existence.  As I go along, and definitely in my final measure, I will be looking hard at my relationships and the amount of love given and received in them.  My role as Dad will be especially under the microscope, followed by husband.  Son, brother, and friend, too.

I will also take into consideration how much fun I have had and the quality and quantity of my adventures.  I hope that, in the end, I will not be disappointed by the number cross-country roadtrips I have taken, how many new languages I have been lucky enough to try, and how many nights I have spent under the stars.  I will want to recall how many times I laughed myself into a bellyache, played my fingertips raw, and sung myself hoarse.  I will consider all the times I have played my muscles to exhaustion.  I will delight in replaying the moments when I have been moved to tears by live music, a poetry reading, an interpretive dance, or live theatre.  And of course, I will ache to recount the times (hopefully many) I have allowed myself to be moved to pure creation by The Muse.

I have no doubt that part of the equation will also be the quality of my actions and how they affected the greater world around me.  Did I show enough empathy for those who have not been as lucky as I have?  Did my writing do enough to raise awareness of the importance of living our best lives, including being better to the people around us?  Did I make visible the people too often ignored?  Did I raise my voice enough to help the voiceless?  Basically, is the world a better place because I was here?

The other thing I will really want to establish is if I was happy.  Really, truly happy.  I have read books and articles that suggested being happy is the meaning of Life.   I don’t know if that is true, but it certainly is important and a necessary consideration when assessing the quality of one’s full life.  After all, what good are adventures, ideals, and good deeds if they don’t make you happy?  Answer (I think): some good, no doubt, but not good enough.  So, I will measure my joy and satisfaction, my degree of fulfillment, and the delight at being me.

These subjective assessments should matter—just because they are difficult to measure does not mean they don’t have a significant impact—because they are the truth behind what we see in the mirror every day.  They cover over us and ooze out of us in our most quiet moments alone.  That’s why I will take them seriously in my final judgment.

But I know myself too well; I am sure that much of my grade will be based on “production.”  I will want a clear calculation of how many Journal of You letters I have published, and how many years I published them.  I will want to know how many books I have written (and it better be more than one!).  The same for podcasts, articles, TED talks, or anything else I put out into the world.  I will want specific examples of the people I have made a positive impact on: my students, clients, readers, listeners, and anyone else I somehow touched along the way with my endeavors.  I’ll need names!  There will be a list.   I’ll want proof of a great life.

That proof is exactly why my lifestyle since publishing my book has been gnawing at me lately.  You see, after I exhaled that giant sigh of relief two years ago when the book went out, I decided I needed some time to be without the strict deadlines I had kept for myself the previous five years.  I wanted a break from that pressure to produce writing all the time.  Instead of a weekly deadline for these letters to you, I gave myself an extra week in between.  So, instead of stressing every week, I let myself relax for a week, then stress the next week until I hit the “Publish” button.  It was a delightful ease that I had forgotten all about since I wrote that first Journal of You post years earlier.  I felt a little guilty—like I was cheating on my commitment to professionalism—but the ease was so nice.  I actually let myself do some other things, from home repairs to extra time reading, even an occasional movie.  I felt more well-rounded.  It seemed like self-care, which I have heard is a good thing.

But then, if something came up and I couldn’t quite squeeze in a post that second week, I gave myself a pass.  I wasn’t as hard on myself about meeting deadlines.  I let myself be okay with not having a new book idea to pursue.  I let myself stay in work that doesn’t deliver a high enough level of impact on others.  My standard for disappointment in myself loosened.  I justified more self-care.  Pass, pass, pass.  Slide, slide, slide.  And I have been happy.  I am enjoying myself and my time.  I notice the lack of tension and appreciate the absence of the weight on my shoulders, the need to constantly rise to my high standards.  I Iike doing the other things, too.  Life is good.

And yet, just below the surface, there is always the gnawing…

I can’t help thinking that I will wake up one of these days in a full-blown panic with the realization at how much time has passed since I was in fifth gear, churning out evidence of how I want to be in the world and the impact I want my life to leave.  I will remember vividly how, only two short years ago, I was on fire with productions of my purpose and my passions.  And I will be devastated by regret.

I am a lifelong student of Tennis, and I think often about the three guys that are at the absolute pinnacle of the sport: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic.  They only got there by doing everything right all along the way.  Nutrition, fitness, stroke production, mental strength, attitude, work ethic.  Everything.  All of that has to be done consistently to have the best career possible, to be Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic rather than Kyrgios or Safin.  If you are asking who those last two are, my answer is, “EXACTLY!”  You have proven my point.  (Answer: They are players who shared the era with the three giants and had at least as much talent but nowhere near the results, victims of their own inconsistent efforts.)

Is Life the same way?  Do we get to coast for any extended periods—mindlessly going through the motions without putting our noses to the grindstone of our dreams and ideals and pointedly attempting to do our best—without ultimately being unsatisfied with our run?  That is the question that gnaws at me.

I will turn 48 soon.  It’s not ancient, but believe me, that proximity to 50 has made me aware that my clock is ticking.  There is more sand in the bottom of the hourglass than the top.  I hate that!  I love this life and want it to go on and on.  I have thought that all along, but now there is that ticking in the ambience, supplying the years with an urgency that didn’t exist before.

I want my lifetime, when all the dust settles, to have been a great one.  Not just a good one.  Not just one with a smattering of good memories and sweet loves, or a handful of milestones that I was once proud to hit.  I want it to have been great.  Roger Federer great.  I want to know that I made good use of my gifts, that I lived up to my potential.  That’s really what it is, now that I write the word: potential. When I go, I want to have wrung out every last bit of goodness from my soul and left it here on the Earth.

When I think about that standard, the regret begins to pour over me.  It just seems like the people who have lived the very best of lives probably didn’t do a lot of sliding.  You know, like Mother Teresa, she probably didn’t knock off her work with the poor in India for a few years to recharge her battery, kicking back to read and do coffees with friends.  Martin Luther King probably didn’t do a lot of retreats or take sabbaticals from injustice (My goodness, the man did all he did and was killed before he even reached age 40; that is humbling to any aspiring change-maker.) .

And while I understand that Life requires balance, and while I accept that self-care, downtime, hobbies, and even perhaps some mindless television or social media are part of that balance that makes for a healthy existence, I also can see how easy it is to fall into the trap of overindulgence.  “Self-care” can be a drug, too, an opiate that allows me to piddle away my time on what genuinely appear to be pleasant activities and personal growth but are, after a while anyway, simply justifications for not doing better for the world around me.  That translates into a life that is enjoyed but not fulfilled.  I want both.  I demand both.

So, given that I know I haven’t done it all right to this point, my main question is: How much slide time do I have left, if any, before I no longer have a chance to make mine a truly great life?  Has my relative slide these past two years been too much to overcome?  How “productive” do I have to be every year going forward to negate this slow patch?  More generally, I just want to know what percentage of a person’s life gets to be unambitious in the direction of her ideals and goals compared to the percentage that she spends fully engaged in the good stuff.  Because, like I said, I do enjoy my sliding activities, but I think they would be all the more enjoyable if there wasn’t that perpetual gnawing that accompanies them.  It would be nice if present guilt and future regret didn’t accompany every period of ease and contentment.  I would champion and embody the whole Balance and Self-Care movement if I knew just what the acceptable balance was.  Acceptable for Greatness, that is.  I don’t want to be just generally satisfied at the end of this ride.  I want to be completely fulfilled.  I want to have made an impact.  I want to be able to call my life great.

How about you?  Are you using your time in a way that you will not have regrets later about squandering the potential you had to build a great life?  Open up your journal and explore your goals and ideals in juxtaposition with the way you have passed the years.  Are you on your way to living the life you have imagined for yourself, or are you mostly coasting through to wherever?  Perhaps it is best to begin by envisioning your best life.  What does that look like for you?  What kind of work would you be doing?  What positive impact on the world would you be making?  Whose lives would you be touching?  Which ideals would you be advancing?  How fulfilled would you be?  Does that vision feel like a great life?  Let’s keep that vision as your standard.  Now, how are you doing at living up to it?  Over the last decade, in how many of the years do you feel like you have made significant strides in the direction of these goals and ideals?  How many of the years have you coasted through?  What about this year?  Are you in a Progress Mode at the moment, or are you sliding by?  How much does it bother you when you realize you are in a coasting period?  Do you feel guilt about your slides?  How much do you think you will regret them later?  How do you feel in your most “productive” periods, when you are advancing your dreams and doing good work in the world?  Does the satisfaction give you fuel to do more, even as the work is taxing?  How long do your ideal stretches tend to last, these times when you are really in the flow and knowing you are making a difference?  How long do your more passive, coasting stretches tend to last?  Is your ebb and flow of ambition fairly consistent?  Do you need the down times to refuel your tank for more of the good stuff, or do you just get sidetracked?  How aware are you of the phase you are in at any given time?  Do you know when you are in Self-Care Mode versus Hard Driving Mode?  Do you plan it?  What do you think is the right balance for you?  What percentage of your adult years will have to have been good ones for you to proclaim, in the end, that you have had a truly great life?  Do you think your standard is pretty similar to most people’s?  Do you feel driven to have a great life, or is a good or okay one acceptable for you?  At the end of it all, how closely will you have come to reaching your potential?  Are you on track for that now, or do you have some catching up to do?  Do you believe it is still possible?  What will you regret coasting by?  What is one thing you can do today to advance your cause?  I hope that you will take advantage of the opportunity.  Leave me a reply and let me know: How much of your life needs to be great to have lived a truly great life?

Seize the day,

William

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

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

COVID Paranoia: The Awfulness Of Thinking You Might Have It

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

Let me rewind the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well and be considerate,

William

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

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