Category Archives: Relationships

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give your heart,

William

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

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

Do You Have A Busy Life Or A Full Life?

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

Full. Not busy.

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

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

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

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

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

I guess I want to be busy feeling unhurried.

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

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

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

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

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

I despise being in a rush.

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

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

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

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

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

May Peace be with you,

William

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

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

Your Personal Utopia: Where Should You Live?

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortune favors the bold,

William

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

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

Re-Defining Your Best Life: Is It Okay Just To Coast & Be Happy?

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” –Mark Twain

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor–such is my idea of happiness.” –Leo Tolstoy

Hello friend,

I have gotten myself into an emotional pickle since the start of the year. As last year came to an end, I began to think the usual New Year-type of thoughts: changes, goals, habits, resolutions, and the like. I started with my usual question: How do I want to FEEL this year? Even though I had figured out a couple of years ago that “BRAVE!” is always a fantastic answer, for me, to that question, I was feeling something else that had been growing inside me recently. I wanted to feel at Peace and connected to my soul, deeply rooted in contentment, like what I was doing was exactly right for me, playing all of the right chords of my heartstrings. I wanted to be in a state of active bliss, but not so driven by something down the road, some goal or milestone. I wanted to be happy and content in the present. At Peace.

But there was a catch to it, and that catch is what has me in this state of emotional flux: my personal pickle.

I am such a striver. I tend to exist in a near-constant state of assessment: Am I doing enough? Is my life making a difference? How could my gifts be of better use? Am I making the most of my time? What will my next letter to you be about? Is it time to write another book? Is this a good example for my kids? When I am not assessing, I am prodding and urging myself on, proclaiming and declaring my intentions and willing them into existence. There are lots of “I must…” and “I will…” statements in my journals. “I must be more efficient.” “I will have this letter ready by Sunday morning.” “I will get this book published by November.” My mind, left to its own devices, is a hard charger (sometimes a tyrant).

By now you are probably seeing the source of this year’s tension. In making feelings of Peace, ease, and soul connection my hope and my focus from the outset, I was basically disregarding all of my history and my habits.

As I mentioned, my New Year’s intention basically said that I wanted to shirk my ambition and shun the hard deadlines and goals in favor of walks in the sunshine, refreshing swims, music appreciation sessions, and lakeside meditations. I wanted to take my kids on more and longer adventures, into the forests and mountains that make me feel at home and whole. More than wanting that, I wanted to feel free to chase those things with abandon and bask in them without guilt. I wanted to be let off the hook that I seem to have been born upon.

That last part is probably the crux of the matter: to seek out avenues for Peace and Contentment without the strings of Guilt attached, without feeling like it was a decadent waste of time and that I had certainly shortchanged my dreams and my legacy in the process.

Because that’s the thing: I always have these dreams and goals, these aspirations and ambitions driving me. They don’t just stop. I want to do big things, make a difference in the world, be the best father ever, and leave a lasting impression with my writing. In order to fulfill those dreams, I have to produce. I have to be at the computer typing words and then getting them into the world by the self-appointed deadlines. That thought nags at me constantly, alternately inspiring me as I work and tormenting me when I take a break. I seem to be able to hide from it only rarely and in short spurts, and only then if I am doing other things that I deem to be enriching.

Given this almost crippling propensity to STRIVE, is this new resolution to consistently seek out Peace, present Joy, and soul connection even possible? Just laying it out in plain terms like this makes it seem quite illogical, but I feel the question keep scratching at my soul, gnawing at my heart, demanding a deeper hearing. It seems to want me to find a way, to make it make sense. It will scratch and gnaw until it gets what it wants. From 46 years of experience, I recognize that as my intuition talking, and I better engage.

So, could I make it my ambition to act as though I am without ambition? Or, perhaps all along the question needed to be about whether I could convince (con?) myself into believing the pursuit of Calm and Contentment is a worthwhile endeavor, perhaps even a meritorious use of my precious time. More pointedly, could I believe that, simply by living in Peace and Happiness, I could make a positive enough impact on the world to justify my actions (and my inaction toward more “normal,” measurable goals)? Could just BEING Peace emanate enough goodness from me to affect the lives of the people in my sphere of influence? Given my natural inclination to strive, answering affirmatively to that would seem quite a stretch.

I get a bit (sometimes a lot) jealous of people I see on social media who have decided that they are done with needing to run a marathon or work toward a promotion or improve their diet and exercise as part of a weight-loss goal in order to feel alive and happy. They have determined that those ambitions and challenges have come to feel more like weights to carry rather than inspirations, and that life is better without them. They are done striving. They are instead choosing to seek satisfaction in simple, “irresponsible” pleasures: good company, binge-watching their favorite TV shows, a glass of wine or delicious dessert, a walk with their dog. Things that make them feel good.

On first blush, that sounds absolutely wonderful to me. Freedom! A complete unburdening. A release of all that feels like a responsibility to produce, improve, and excel. It has all the allure of the Sirens’ song.

But like the sailors who were drawn to the Sirens’ island by the enchanting songs only to crash upon the rocks, I can tell by the poisonous feeling in my gut as I write about my pleasure-seeking Facebook friends that their lifestyle–specifically, the lack of “something bigger” to strive for–would almost certainly shipwreck my life. I just couldn’t go for long without my soul–my purpose–shouting that it needs work. It would need to grow and contribute and be challenged. It would need to feel like its gifts were being used for their intended purposes. It would need to feel not just massaged by the feel-good stuff I hope to add this year but also stretched and tested by new and difficult pursuits.

As I come to this realization about myself, I feel no criticism arise for those who are able to pull off the contented, unambitious life. I can see real value in “just being happy” and the benefits that that kind of energy puts out into the Universe. And I can tell that we don’t all have the same level of natural urge to create or learn or engage our environment. Not everyone is wired like me (probably a very good thing!). I am happy for people who find Happiness in any way that isn’t harmful to others. I just know that for me, I can’t pull off the unambitious way on anything but a very sporadic basis. To force it upon myself for any great length of time would, despite the enjoyment I would take from catching up on movies and music and such, feel a little too much like I was abandoning my soul’s call, letting go of the rope. In an effort to “just be happy,” I would inevitably become very frustrated and unhappy.

Maybe, in the end, the goal will be just to do the unambitious thing for longer periods, to make the ebbs larger between the waves of striving and “difference-making.” Maybe I will settle for being theoretically in favor of “just chill and be content” and cheer on the people who can pull it off, knowing full well that it works better for them than it does for me. Maybe I can somehow get my brain to re-define the terms in a way that I can ambitiously pursue less Ambition and more Contentment. Maybe I will learn to accept that for me, perhaps “engaged” and “content” are actually the same thing. Maybe one day I will even learn that I don’t always have to push the river, that it flows alright on its own. Maybe….

How about you? What is the right combination of striving vs. contentment for your personal happiness? Open up your journal and examine the ebbs and flows of your ambition. Right now, on the spectrum that runs from, on the one end, hard charging at goals, to the other end of just trying to chill and enjoy life, where are you? How long have you been in this mode? Has that been pretty consistent throughout your life, or have you gone through extreme periods on both ends of the spectrum? When your level of engagement wanes, what do you think causes it? How does your soul feel in those periods of calm and contentment? Do you get restless? How long do those periods last? How about in the periods when you are more ambitious and goal-oriented? How often are you fully engaged in that way? What causes those periods? Do you tend to return to the same types of goals over and over (you’re your health or career), or does your ambition bounce around? How often do your goals and dreams feel like yokes around your neck, the responsibility to fulfill them weighing you down and keeping you from ever being fully happy? Do you think you could ever decide to completely ditch your dreams and ambitions and “just be happy?” Does that even make sense? Is pursuing our soul’s calling–our deepest, truest ambition–the only thing that can lead us to real Happiness anyway? Can we be truly happy by disengaging completely from growth and improvement, or are those who are trying to merely fooling themselves? How much psychological tension does this question cause you along your ever-changing journey through Life? Back to our spectrum: where do the people with whom you most like to spend time fall on the scale? Where do you think your parents and siblings fall? Your significant other? How about your heroes? Who are you most like? Does that feel good to you? What would be your ideal balance? Leave me a reply and let me know: Is Happiness something you pursue with goals and effort, or is it something you ease into by letting go of ambitions?

Embrace your way,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s all find Happiness together!

P.P.S. If this way of challenging your thinking and investigating your soul feels important to you, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOW! That’s a staggering number of souls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnificence is in you,

William

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love without condition,

William

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

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

Jesus & Me: Our Complicated Relationship

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shine a light inside,

William

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

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

How Little We Truly Know About Each Other

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

Wasn’t I great?

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict: I WAS SO WRONG!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t know. We simply don’t know.

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

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

Shallow lacks empathy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open your heart,

William

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

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

The Accidental Haven: Stumbling Upon Your Peaceful Garden

“Having a place of sanctuary is very important for the mental well-being. No matter what happens in the outside world there needs to always be a place for you to balance out and recharge.” –Avina Celeste

Hello friend,

Last weekend I took my kids on a little getaway to their cousins’ lake cabin so they could have some fun and make the kinds of memories that I so cherish from my youth. My old man used to get together with his siblings at cabins often when I was a kid, and my cousins seemed almost like siblings to me. There was a range of ages–I was on the younger side–and personalities, and it made for some wild and lasting memories. Whenever I think of those halcyon days of childhood, I feel compelled to provide my own kids with those opportunities to bond and be wild with their cousins.

We usually meet up with my extended family at a lake house that has been in the family since I was a kid. My grandpa bought the land on the waterfront, and he let us kids help him build what would become the house. The process made for great memories, and all the wonderful times that we have shared there in the years since have made the place all the more special. It is familiar and relaxing, much like my childhood home is to me when I return for Christmas. I am grateful to have a couple of places like that in my life: where nostalgia meets good people and a pleasant environment.

I tend to think of those places as the ones that are my sanctuaries, places that I can return to at different points in the year to find my center, to be in emotional and spiritual harmony. At Peace. That’s how a home should feel. Just right.

That is what has my mind tied up this week. Not my fascination and gratitude at these feelings of deep Peace, but the unlikely spot that I happened upon that Peace.

I had been to my sister’s cabin once about 14 years ago when they first bought it, but honestly, I don’t recall anything from that trip other than playing with my nieces, who were very young then. In the last few years, my kids and I had casually talked about going for a weekend to see their cousins, but it didn’t materialize until late last Summer. Despite some cool weather, it was a wonderful, just-what-the-doctor-ordered kind of weekend for my soul. Saturday, in particular, hit all the right notes, and I shared about it in my letter to you entitled “The Best Day of Summer,” which it really was. On the drive home, I was determined that we would return to see if the magic was part of the essence of the place–some cosmic connection with my soul that cannot be adequately explained–or if it was a one-shot, perfect storm kind of deal.

So, when I packed the kids into the car last Friday, there was plenty of curiosity mixed with the usual excitement that accompanies a weekend adventure. I genuinely wanted to know how it would feel. It did not take long to find out.

I felt at ease from the moment we pulled into the driveway. Unrushed, accepted, inspired, calmed, cared for. Throughout the weekend, my inclinations were generally split between “I want to do that fun thing (swimming, kayaking, tubing, paddle-boarding, playing with the kids) right now and as much as possible,” and “I just want to sit here and enjoy this view (of the lake, the trees, the stars, the fire) and this energy.”

I understand that to be an ideal tension for me, because it is the same one I feel when I am at a quiet ocean beach or a mountain forest. It is an energized serenity, an engaged calm, a dynamic Peace. Like yoga.

And as the weekend progressed, I practiced a nice balance of that engagement and relaxation. I definitely had an agenda of all the things I wanted to do while we were there. Some were purely for fun (e.g. tubing with the kids), others to learn something new (stand-up paddle-boarding), and others that gave me a mix of exercise and spiritual communion (an early morning kayak trip around the glassy lake). I also had clearly chosen spots that I wanted to just be. These included the beach chair in the sand by the water, the hanging chair just off the beach, and the lounge chair up on the veranda looking out over the entire lake and encompassing trees. I wanted to be with the water, be with the trees, be with my sister, and be with the energy of the children. I had my spots for that being. They all seemed just right in the moments I sat there.

Everything about the place felt just right.

At first I was tempted to chalk up my unusual sense of Peace to the place itself: the cozy cabin and the little calm lake and the big old trees and the sandy beach. These are my kinds of conditions, after all. Put them in any travel promotion and I am in. But to attribute my profound serenity simply to those physical characteristics would be to miss a key ingredient in the magic potion: the people.

My sister has a way of setting the scene at the cabin with just the right blend of everything. It is engaged conversation but also sitting with you in silence to take in the beauty of the sunset or the songs of the birds. It is meals that are delicious but also low-maintenance and easily eaten anywhere. It is being up for fun and excitement but also up for quiet reading time afterward. It is filling the day but also making sure the kids get to bed at a decent hour. I guess I would describe the tone she sets at the cabin as a perfect balance.

It helps, too, that her husband makes no drama about anything, and her younger kids play easily with mine. The older kids are fun for me to talk with but also want their own space enough to also keep their presence low-key. They all come together to make it feel like a come-as-you-are, do-as-you-like kind of place. There is a goodness and sincerity about them that complements the simple beauty of the surroundings.

That sense of welcome and acceptance, I am seeing, are a key part in what makes their cabin a unique and surprising place of Peace for me.

You see, prior to last weekend, I would have told you that the four places that have always made me feel calm and centered are 1) my childhood home, 2) my family’s lake cabin, which I mentioned above, 3) my current home, where I have built my own family in the last eight years, and 4) in the grand beauty of Nature (e.g. an ocean beach or a mountain forest). As I see it, the thing those first three have in common (outside of a connection with family) is a sense that they are what I think of as mine. I feel some ownership there, like when I go there, I am not a guest and don’t have to play by someone else’s rules. I am welcome as I am. They are my homes. And while I don’t feel like I own Nature when I am out amidst its soaring grandeur and staggering beauty, I feel a part of it. I feel like it is where I am from and where I am welcome. And it is okay that I don’t own it, because there is a feeling that no one else does, either. I am not intruding there, and I have no need to temper who I am. Authenticity is welcome. That is a crucial connector to my other three long-time homes.

This is why my sister’s cabin–literally someone else’s home–seems an unlikely place for me to come upon this overwhelming Peace. The kind of Peace that makes me feel like home. After all, I am a visitor there, a guest playing by someone else’s rules. There is no sense that it is “mine” or “at least not someone else’s” like with my other soul homes. That is not typically a recipe for relaxation for me.

And yet, there it is. An astounding Peace. Two visits in a row.

And thoughts of that Peace stuck in my mind, demanding answers as to why.

Because it would be nice to be able to locate other places where I could feel this way. But I suppose that you feel just how you feel in a place and probably don’t have control of those forces behind that, or at least some of them. So, perhaps I will stumble upon another spot like my sister’s cabin and be melted by its Peace. Or perhaps not. But her brand of welcoming and acceptance is something that I can learn from. I can keep my sensors attuned to it in others, but perhaps more importantly, I can do better to try to foster that energy and those feelings in my own home, and even in my mere presence. I can work to help the people I encounter feel seen, heard, and accepted just as they are. I can make them feel welcome.

In a day and age when divisiveness permeates, I think that might be a welcome surprise.

How about you? Are there places in your world that aren’t home that somehow feel like an emotional or spiritual sanctuary anyway? Open up your journal and take a tour in your mind to all the stops on your journey through Life. Which places have felt the most peaceful to you? What is it about those places that brings you to that feeling of serenity? Is it the familiarity of the place, somewhere you know so well by the time spent there (e.g. your home, Grandma’s house, a favorite vacation spot)? Is it the physical beauty of the surroundings (e.g. a beach house, a mountain chalet, an opulent mansion)? Is it the personal safety you feel there? Is it the memories you have of the place? Is it the people with whom you share the space (e.g. friends, family, spiritual community, co-workers, social club)? Is it the proximity to Nature? Does it have something to do with your sense of the Divine? Is it your sense of ownership of the space? How many places do you have on your list? If you have more than one place where you feel that deep Peace, do they all have something in common? What is the theme running through them? Is there any place, like my new discovery of my sister’s lake cabin, that stands out for you as somewhere unlike the others on your list, a place that surprised you to feel that ease and contentment there? What about that space doesn’t fit the bill? How does it make it onto your list despite its differences? What is the magic ingredient or combination of ingredients? Do you believe it can be duplicated and that you might find it elsewhere? Is your home or your physical presence a place of unique Peace for someone you know? How can you become more of a sanctuary to others? Are you willing to try? Are acceptance of people just as they are and welcoming them into your heart the keys to a more peaceful world? How cool would it be to find Peace around every corner instead of only in your own home? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where have you stumbled upon Peace?

Be a haven right where you are,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your people. When we share our stories, we build bridges of empathy.

P.P.S. If the journey of self-discovery intrigues you, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

What Makes You YOU? Contradictions & The Trouble With Boxes

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large–I contain multitudes.” –Walt Whitman

Hello friend,

I am a combination homebody and adventurer. When I am home–that is, in my house–I don’t want to go anywhere. I cannot stand running errands, don’t like going out to eat, and think that the time driving anywhere local is a waste. I don’t go to social events and wish I could work from home. Basically, my house is where I want to be. Unless, that is, I have the option to explore the world and see something new (especially if it is outdoors). Then I want to get on the plane, train, car, or boat and start the adventure! I love road trips cross-country, hiking trips into the mountains, and bopping around Europe on the train. I dream about Tanzania, Brazil, Iceland, and Belize; about the Ganges, the Amazon, the Danube, and the Nile; about the Rockies, the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Andes. I want to go! I want to be out there covering every corner of the planet. Everywhere except my town. Because when I am there, I want to be at home. I am one or the other.

Well, I suppose I am, more accurately, one AND the other. I am both ends of the spectrum, but not the middle. A walking contradiction.

And this isn’t the only characteristic on which I seem to compete with myself. The list goes on!

I try to spend just about every waking minute with my children. I want to take in every moment of their beautiful, little lives. I have plunged headfirst into the waters of fatherhood; I am fully immersed. I also love my wife and appreciate all of the richness and meaning that our marriage has brought to my life. I am all about this family thing! I can see how much bigger and better it has made me, despite the reservations I had before I dove in. I encourage it to anyone who asks. I am here with all of my heart and for the long haul! And yet, if you offered me a second, parallel life to run alongside this one–one in which I might double up on the pleasures and fulfillment that I presently derive from my roles as happy husband and father–I would instantly turn you down and go with a life of solitude. I would live alone, work alone, travel alone, everything. Before I met my wife, I expected a long life like that. I looked forward to it. I knew it was far to one side of the spectrum, and that was just fine with me. I now see that the lengths to which I go to be completely immersed in my kids’ lives is very far on the other side of that very same spectrum, and that is also just fine with me. I am fairly sure that there isn’t a middle ground for me in this deal. It is a peace that I have had to make with myself.

I think that most people that I come in contact with–outside of a work situation, where I am supposed to be “on” in my role–would say that I am either shy or unsocial, perhaps even rude in the distance I keep. It is true that I can be very quiet. I told you that I don’t often go to social events; most of that is because I cannot stand small-talk and other superficial interactions. And I definitely fall on the Introvert side of the Introvert/Extrovert spectrum, in that my energy grows when I am alone and tends to drain when I am in a group. That parallel dream life of solitude I mentioned above was no joke. I like my alone time. And yet (there it is again!), I absolutely LOVE talking to people. I want to dive deep into your experience of the world–your passions, your influences, your heartbreaks, your beliefs, and your dreams–and learn about all the nuances and contradictions that make you YOU. I might grill you for hours if you let me. But just you. Not you and a bunch of friends at once. And not if I see you out at the store or the gym or a party. I don’t want to chit-chat with you or trade witticisms about passersby. I want to connect, and for that I need to get below the surface. So, while it is true that I don’t really want to talk to you, it’s also true that I want to really talk to you.

As I uncover these contradictions within my personality, I find it remarkable how accepting I am of them. I shrug my shoulders and think, “Why not? I am a complex guy. OF COURSE I am capable of occupying both ends of the spectrum simultaneously!” And I move on. No big deal.

What concerns me about that realization of my easy acceptance of my complexities is the idea that I might be much less broad-minded and open to something bigger when it comes to other people’s personalities. I definitely see that characteristic displayed by the people I know: an unwillingness to let someone play outside the box we have placed them in.

We like to make cartoons of people. Drama Queen. Dumb Jock. Gentle Giant. Sweetheart. Loudmouth. I know those are oversimplified, but consider other ways you think of people or the way you might describe them to a friend who is asking. “He’s really smart and pretty nice once you get to know him.” “She’s sweet and loves kids.” “He’s gay and super-sarcastic.” “She’s serious and really into her career.” These are boxes and caricatures as much as the other labels are. When we think this way, we miss out on so much of the richness of the people around us. We don’t get a chance to appreciate all of their nuances and complexities. In shortchanging them, we shortchange ourselves.

If I considered you a friend and all you had to say (or think) about me is, “He is a homebody who doesn’t talk much but is always with his kids,” I would laugh at how little you knew about me. I understand that not everyone occupies the same extremes on so many spectrums as I do, but I have no doubt that they have their own extremes and are more complex than I usually make them out to be. I cheat them and me by simplifying them. That’s a disappointing realization. I plan to work to do better with that.

Our job here–yours and mine–at Journal of You is to ask and answer the questions that will reveal our Truths. If we do our job well, we come to know ourselves deeply, including all of the quirks, nuances, and contradictions that make us US. We come to understand that the idea that we might fit neatly into a box is foolish, almost nonsensical. How much of our broad, beautiful mosaic of a personality we reveal to others is up to us, but how much of it that they absorb is up to them. You may put your elaborate beauty on full display, only to have them grab a few snippets to squeeze you into one of their boxes so they know how to treat you. Let that be their issue, not yours. I hope that if you have come to Journal of You often enough, you know you are so much bigger than boxes. You are complex and contradictory and capable of occupying more than one position on any number of spectrums. And you are beautiful just as you are. I am going to get to work on seeing people that way. Not just myself, but everyone else too.

How about you? Which aspects of your personality seem to contradict one another but are still completely YOU? Open up your journal and explore all of your uniqueness. What characteristics seem to be in complete contradiction with each other? Is it more personality traits (e.g. you are super laid-back but have a crazy temper when it fires) or habits (e.g. you almost never cook, but when you do, it’s a gourmet feast)? How do you explain your contradictions? Do the people in your life know about your contradictions, or do you tend to only reveal one side to the public (e.g. people see the laid-back side but have no clue about the wild temper)? How big of an effort do you make to let the people around you know who you really are? What are some things that make you unique? Do you appreciate those unique traits? Do you put them out into the world as often as you put out your “normal” traits? If someone asked your family, “What is (s)he like?”, what would they say? What would your friends say? Your neighbors? Your co-workers? What would people who met you at a social gathering say? How different would all of those responses be? Which would be closest to the “real you”? Taken together, would they form a fairly accurate picture of you? What part of your personality do most people not know? Why don’t they? What do you wish people knew about you? Do you fit into a box? How would you describe your box, your “What is (s)he like?” answer? Are the boxes you make for the people in your life as big and generous as the one you make for yourself? Do you need to do away with boxes altogether? How can you better embrace your complexity? Leave me a reply and let me know: What makes you YOU?

Be unabashed,

William

P.S. If this topic resonated with you today, please share it. Let’s know ourselves and each other better so we can better care for each other.

P.P.S. For a deeper dive into who you really are, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailer.