Category Archives: Self-knowledge

Wing It Or Plan It: How Do You Go Through Life?

“He who every morning plans the transactions of that day and follows that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life.” –Victor Hugo

“The problem with a plan is that you fill up the blank page of a new day with a ‘to-do’ list before you get there. And if you’re not careful there’s no room for anything else.” –John C. Parkin

Hello friend,

I am caught in an existential crisis at the moment. My head is trying to convince my heart that it would be better off if I would just go against my nature for the short-term. And even though I can see the logic in it, my spirit translates that logic as clipping my wings and putting me in a cage. Thus, the spirit is railing against “the rules” of the brain with all its might, fighting for its freedom as though its very life is being choked out. I cannot be contained!

I am leading my family on a big adventure to the mountains in a few weeks, complete with camping, sightseeing, special adrenaline-rushing excursions, and lots of restorative communion with Mother Earth and The Man In The Moon. I have been looking forward to this trip for what feels like forever, and I could not be more excited to get out there under the big sky and “sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world,” as Walt Whitman once wrote.

I say I am “leading” not just because I have been out to the mountains before and feel at home in the outdoors, but mostly because my wife has given me complete responsibility for the planning and execution of this giant trip. Argh!

Other than the implicit pressure that comes with that responsibility–basically, “Make sure we all love it!”–I was initially enjoying the job as trip coordinator. I got to pour over maps–a favorite pastime of mine– to plan a general route that would cover a mix of my favorite memories from past trips and also some fun new stuff–like zip lining in the canyons and whitewater rafting–that will make precious new memories for all of us. There was a general vision in my head, but plenty of fluidity to allow for whims and spontaneity. We have a tent, and I was busy accumulating the other camping accoutrement. And the last time I was out there–just a couple of wee decades ago–there seemed to be campsites everywhere I turned. I figured that was about all there was to the coordinator job. Planning complete! Now back to the daydreaming…

Oh, if only it were that simple.

I had to go and start talking to people about it! From my siblings and friends, I was looking for insider travel tips for the national parks, camping suggestions, hidden gems, cautionary tales, and, as always, great personal stories of how the land and the adventure have affected them.

I started with my siblings, one of whom lives out there and two who have traveled extensively in the area. We met up recently for a leisurely family vacation, and the topic of this adventure was infused into nearly all of our conversations from the beginning. Far from confirming my happy memories and fantasies of open campgrounds and quiet trails in the forests–communing with Nature in blissful solitude–all I got were horror stories of how crowded the parks have become, what a nightmare it is to find campsites anywhere that haven’t been reserved (requiring multiple back-up plans), and how exorbitant nearby hotel prices are.

Instantly, I could feel knots growing in the back of my shoulders and the pit of my stomach. Stress. Dread. Despondence. This was not at all what I was expecting from the conversations, and definitely not the feelings I wanted to associate with my beautiful fantasy of a trip. And I was on vacation when all this came up! I didn’t want the feelings then, either!

I tried to let them slide by me: “Oh, I suppose I have a bit of research ahead of me when I get back home next week. No big deal.” But inside, I could feel the awful churning and the knots. These were not going to allow themselves to be stifled. Because I know myself quite well after all of these years with my journal, and I was absolutely certain of two things that would ruin a day–or many–on my dream adventure: 1) chasing around in vain all day trying to find a place to spend the night instead of exploring the natural wonders (and even the prospect of chasing around the next day), and 2) getting stuck without a place and being forced to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a high-season tourist hotel in some town away from where I really want to be. I am not willing to accept either of those options on this trip; it means too much to me. Hence, the churning and the knots.

They kept building and building for a few days as I labored at denial. At last, they got the best of me. While my children, siblings, and extended family frolicked in the laziness of a day at the lake, I closed the door to my bedroom and bunkered down with my books, maps, phone, and tablet. I needed to make some reservations.

Yuck! Even that word makes me feel constrained: RESERVATIONS. Maybe it is a silly class thing: I don’t want to be associated with something fancy enough to require “reservations” for me to get in or to keep other people out. Maybe it triggers my dislike of crowds and feeling cramped: if you need “reservations,” there must be limited space (and I hate limited space). And maybe it is just my natural distaste for the tedium of research and planning: I just want to be there and flow with it.

I see as I write this that the last one is a loaded issue for me. I do not appreciate the grinding of details and numbers and other minutiae that remove me from the experience of the thing. I want to be in Montana; I don’t want to plan the budget and research and book the hotels and campgrounds and excursions and plot the exact movements of the days so I can be in Montana. I just want to be there! The details only serve to annoy me.

I chide myself for this petulance, as I know it reveals the spoiled child aspect of my personality. I want things to be easy for me. I get irritated when I have to be bogged down with the details rather than the big picture, or if I have to labor too much to get what I want. It is the same stuff that I lecture my children about. But I am a middle-aged man! My frustrations reveal the part of me that has yet to grow up. It’s a little embarrassing.

On the other hand, I am trying to become more accepting of myself and allowing space for my imperfections. I get that I am a little bit spoiled. I get that Life is a challenge and things like making ends meet and getting to do all the things you want to do is not the norm, but I still expect that for my world. I have always had people in my life that have been sympathetic to my cause and have filled in the gaps of my personality quirks, most especially my parents and my wife.

My wife–bless her heart–does all the stuff at home that my mind (well, let’s be honest: every fiber of my being) rejects. She fills out forms and deals with insurance companies. She does product reviews and full-scale research for every major (and most minor) purchase. She looks at bank statements and retirement documents. She books airline tickets and knows the password for Amazon. She even talks to the cable company! All things that make me want to shut down and hide in a cave. It is why this trip-planning experience has proven to be such an odyssey of travails for me. All of this is her element and her role in the relationship. I am completely out of my water! It is quite pathetic, actually, because of course I understand that regular people do this stuff every day. My stress and the fears that my soul will be crushed under the weight of the planning are silly, no doubt, but I still feel them. (Thank God I live with a grown-up!)

I once heard discipline defined as “freedom within the form.” That idea has always stuck with me. Freedom within the form. It seeps into my mind now as I try to make sense of my predicament. It strikes me that what I need for this trip is not so much complete freedom but rather this freedom within the form. I need discipline. The only way I can feel free to wander freely along the streams and sit by the campfire gazing peacefully at the enormous night sky is to have all these reservations in place ahead of time. The only real constraint is knowing I have to be in certain campsites or hotel rooms each night of the trip. These are the milestones. What I do in between those nights–which mountains I climb or rivers I cross or roads I travel–is left to the stirrings of my soul. When I look at it like that, it is so much more palatable. Sure, I still have to go through this torture of research and reservations and holding myself to a plan in order to gain that disciplined version of freedom, but I suppose that is the price of the ticket to this show. Sometimes you just have to pay it (or so I keep telling myself).

I am addicted to Freedom and will always desire that ability to run wild and to wander without limits. I won’t ever stop preferring to trust in the Universe to provide and simply winging it. I will always want a big, wide-open space that is safe to play in so I can just do my thing. I suppose that in grown-up life, what makes the safe playground is plenty of money, things like health coverage and a low crime rate, and some well-made plans. Unless I can get someone else to provide all of that for me–“Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?”–I better get used to earning my freedom by working to create a big enough and safe enough form to play in. I may never become a happy planner–it is probably just not in the DNA–but I hope I can find the wisdom to summon that little bit of discipline that will make me a much happier camper. Yeah, I think I’ll plan for that!

How about you? Do you prefer to plan things out or fly by the seat of your pants? Open up your journal and process your preparations for some of your bigger life events and adventures. When it comes to the big stuff–trips, weddings, work events–do you like being the planner or just showing up and going with the flow? Does planning too many details or every minute of the day excite you or take the fun out of it for you? Which gives you more self-confidence: going into a situation knowing you have a plan, or coming out of a situation just fine despite entering without a plan? Do you tend to worry if you don’t know what is coming next? On a scale of 1-10, how spontaneous are you? What is the biggest thing you have ever just winged? How well did it work out? What did that teach you about yourself? What do you think about that idea of discipline as “freedom within the form”? Is that something like a middle ground between being an obsessive planner and a freewheeling floater? Does it work for you to lay down milestones–like me figuring out where we are going to sleep each night–and then give yourself freedom to do what you want between those markers? Does it give you more stress to plan hard or to be without a plan? How much can you plan for your next adventure before it becomes too planned? Where is that line for you? Are you the same way in your regular life as you are with special events? Are you good with the grind and details of things like monthly bills, insurance, taxes, retirement planning, subscriptions, and the like, or does that stuff feel like a completely different planet to you (as it does for me)? Do you feel like you need a “real adult” around to keep your life in order so that you can be “free” and wing it? Are you that adult for someone else? If so, do you hold it against them or just accept that we all have different strengths? Do life partnerships work better when there is one planner and one winger? Do you keep a real schedule that you access regularly? Do you appreciate its convenience or resent it for running your life? Whichever way you feel, do you think the plan is necessary for some degree of peace of mind? How has your planner vs. winger dynamic evolved as you have moved through life? Which way do you tend to be evolving toward in the long-term? Does that feel right to you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do you plan your way through life or just show up and roll with it?

Gulp down every moment,

William

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How Valuable Is Your TIME?

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” –Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life

“No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.” –Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life

Hello friend,

I think I have finally reached the point in life when I understand that the worst thing you can do to me is take away my time. I see now that it was always true but that I just didn’t realize it. I was running around in denial or confusion, I suppose, never minding too much if you dragged me along somewhere on your agenda or if my time with you did not inspire or engage me. I was not much offended by that. I went along. “What else do I have to do?” I passed the time. I wasted it. I spent it. But I didn’t really use the time. I didn’t make the most of it. And I didn’t realize what a tragedy that was, what an abomination. I realize it now.

I don’t know when it started for me. I know I was acting on my repulsion to time-wasting before I was aware of it. Somehow my soul knew. It sent the signal to my body. I would get antsy and irritable.

I once worked as a low-end manager for a large corporation. It was part of my boss’s duties–as assigned by his boss and the boss above him–to have a weekly one-on-one meeting with each of the managers who worked under him. I should probably mention that I have never known a mentally lazier, less invested or engaged person in my life; the one and only reason he held his job was because of who he knew above him in the chain of command. It was like a character out of a farfetched movie. Anyway, in addition to the weekly management team meeting, he and I had our one-on-one meeting in his office. I would enter and sit in the chair in front of his desk with a pen and a notebook open just in case anything important came up (spoiler: it never did). He would say hello from his desk and then swivel in his chair and sit with his large back to me and look at his computer for several minutes as if he were engrossed in some deep reading and I were not even in the room. Then he might come out of his reverie and say something like, “Uh, I guess your numbers are looking pretty good again this month…” and then drift back into remote silence. (As I said, it was like a movie scene.) He would do that a few times over the course of a half-hour, then finally swivel back around and say, “Okay, buddy, you got anything for me?” By that point, even if I did have an issue that I could use some executive assistance with, I was too exasperated with the time I had just spent doodling on my note pad and looking at his large back that I was ready with a quick “NOPE!” and a sprint to the door. Beyond just the disbelief that this type of person could exist and be well-paid for his time, I always left that room thinking, “With all that I have to accomplish in my jam-packed twelve-hour work day, that part did no one any good.” That was when I also grew accustomed to the thought, “Well, that’s 30 minutes I will never get back!” I came to hate that idea.

I think my experiences in the wasteland of unnecessary–and unnecessarily long–corporate meetings probably ushered me directly into the next phase of my working life, when I downgraded my responsibilities and time commitments so I could be efficient when I was there, have hardly any meetings, and get out of there to do the things with the people (my wife and kids) that made every moment feel sacred and priceless. I didn’t care that I had to give up money and prestige to do it. I just wanted my moments to count.

It is from this vein that sprung my efforts to be the best and most present father I could be. That vein is also the source of this entire Journal of You experience, including a book and more than five years worth of letters to you. I want to make the moments–even the “spare” ones–meaningful to me and impactful to everyone whose lives I touch.

I see this sensitivity to time all over my life now. I have become highly averse to traffic and other unnecessary time spent in the car. I avoid most errands like The Plague, unless I can string them together into one trip. I chose a job that was about four minutes from my house and feel like I hit the logistical jackpot with how it fits into my children’s schedules (and I have almost no meetings!). I had a follow-up appointment after a surgery that ended up being basically a “How are you?” kind of deal that I could have handled with a one-minute phone call, and I was at least as annoyed with them for wasting my time to go there as I was for the crazy money they charged me for it.

As I write this and perform this scan of my life both past and present, it becomes so much more clear as to why I have always hated small-talk. I always thought it had only to do with a lack of depth and true connection, just making noise to pass the time–like watching television–and keeping everyone (except me) comfortable/unchallenged by keeping it all superficial. Because that alone would be enough to make my skin crawl. But I see now that the previously undiscovered part of my frustration with the small-talk experience that characterizes most interactions in this society is the time-wasting aspect. I think of all the times I have finished a conversation and thought to myself, “Well, that was a complete waste of time! Neither of us know each other any better now than we did five minutes ago. What a missed opportunity!” It is like death by a million cuts, all of these conversations that eat up the days and years of our rapidly-dwindling lifetimes. I have donated enough blood to that cause. I don’t want to die that way anymore.

I feel like I need to set up some sort of fence or filter through which every request upon my time must pass to make it onto my docket. That filter is probably just a simple question or two, maybe something like Does this make my life feel bigger? or Does this resonate with the Me I am trying to become? I imagine that keeping only the engagements and the people who can pass that kind of test would leave me feeling much less buyer’s remorse for the way I have spent my time.

I just want everything I do to feel like it is worth it. The people I hangout with. The work I choose. The media that I consume. The curiosities and passions that I pursue. The meetings I take. The conversations that I join. The causes that I take up. I want every last bit of it to feel like it was worth the investment of the most precious resource I have: time. From here on out, I will guard it with my life.

How about you? How ferociously do you protect your limited time? Open up your journal and consider the ways you pass your days. What are the things in your life that feel most like a waste of your time? Do you have hobbies–e.g. watching TV, Facebook, YouTube, drug or alcohol use, video games, etc.–that eat up large portions of time but don’t make you feel any better? Why do you continue to give them your energy? How about the people who aren’t worth your time or energy but still receive your attention? What is it about these people? Is it logistically impossible to remove them from your life? If so, how could you make your interactions with them more valuable? Are you too afraid to have the uncomfortable conversation that could help them rise or remove them from your life? Is that conversation more uncomfortable than keeping them in your life and dragging you down? Are there certain places that always leave you wishing you had never gone there? Can you stop? Are you aware of the things that waste your time as you are doing them, or is it only in hindsight that the recognition comes to you? How much of your job/work life ends up feeling like a waste of your time, and how much feels very productive and worthwhile? How much do you drag things out at work just to fill in your required hours? If it were left entirely up to you, could you streamline your workplace and significantly shorten everyone’s work week while maintaining productivity? What are the very best ways that you regularly use your time? Is it in communion with certain people? What makes the time with those particular people so valuable? How can you get more time with them or people like them? How about your best activities? What about that activity time distinguishes it? Is it the mere doing of the activity–e.g. I love the feeling of hitting a tennis ball–or is it the things that come along with the activity (the exercise, the camaraderie, the connection with Nature, etc.)? How can you work more of that activity into your schedule? Is there a different activity that you have been wanting to try that you sense would also be worth your investment? Is there some place that always nourishes you and makes you glad you went there? Can you get there more often or find those same feelings elsewhere? Better yet, can you bring its qualities to you? What would your life look like if it were filled with only things that felt like a good use of your time? Starkly different than your current life, or only subtly so? How close could you reasonably get to that ideal version? What would you choose as a filter question(s) to help you make better decisions about who and what to allow into your life and your schedule? Would that be enough? Can you begin to use that filter immediately? What is holding you back? On a scale of 1 to 10, how selective/picky are you about what you allow onto your docket? Does all of this really boil down to a question of your own self-worth, i.e. is this about believing that you are worthy of only things that lift you up and speak to your soul? Are you worthy (Hint: YES!!!!!)? Leave me a reply and let me know: How valuable is your time?

You are so worth it,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with loved ones or your social media network. It is a profoundly important topic with an answer whose deadline is pressing.

P.P.S. If you enjoy the challenge of questioning yourself and examining your life, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Does Your Hometown Still Feel Like HOME To You?

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

So, what has changed? Or has anything changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise above it all,

William

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

Why Are We Here??? Searching For A Reason For It All

“The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning.” –Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future In Space

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.” –Richard P. Feynman

Hello friend,

For the last month, the same thorny subject has been dogging my psyche almost every single day. It comes to me in my most quiet moments–writing in my journal, sitting by the water, out walking in the fresh air–and it returns when I read the news of the day. It pins me down and makes me think hard, sometimes making me sad and other times inspired by the possibilities.

It came along innocently enough. I was skimming through Facebook and happened upon a simple meme that a friend posted. In words only, it said, “No offense, but what is like…..the point? Are we just supposed to work and buy coffee and listen to podcasts until we die? I’m bored.” Whether he intended it to be serious or snarky, the sentiment reached deep down inside of me and gave me a cold jolt. Then it settled over me like a fog and hasn’t let up, burdening me under the immense weight of its question and the absence of an easy answer.

That assaulting difficulty has led me, for the vast bulk of my life, to hold the question at bay. Despite priding myself on conducting a constant, unflinching examination of my life, the impact I am making on the world around me, and the specific purpose and passions that my soul seems called upon to pursue, I have mostly managed to avoid this ultimate question: Why are WE here? All of us. What is the purpose of our existence? It is a much bigger question than that of my personal purpose, with many fewer clues from which to draw for a clean and clear answer. So I have focused on the personal.

It has been, I suppose, just a safe way to remain in denial of a question with such magnificent ramifications. I think I am like just about everyone else in that way. We don’t face it. At least not really face it, like, “I’m going to hammer away at this until I get some answers!” No, we keep it at arms’ length, because I am guessing most of us realize–possibly unconsciously–that we aren’t going to get a straight answer, and it is highly frustrating and/or demoralizing not only to not know but also to not be able to know.

Or can we? Is it possible that there is a reason for our existence AND that we can know the reason?

For the personal aspect of our purpose–i.e. each of our individual purposes–that feels more possible. We receive messages via intuition–tingles, shots of adrenaline, gut feelings and flutters of the heart–and they seem more trustworthy than facts and figures. When I wrote to you in my last letter, I mentioned that I would not be able to sustain my recent trend of complacency with few “accomplishments,” as I would soon need to contribute. “I will need to help others rise,” I wrote. That is what feels to me to be my purpose here on Earth. When I am writing to you or coaching someone to achieve their goals, I am alive inside in way that other activities cannot approach. And even though I cannot claim to know for sure, there is something in those tingles that feels like hard evidence to me.

But all of that seems different than identifying our purpose as a species (or even as a planet). That species-wide purpose doesn’t reveal itself with the same kind of evidence trail. You feel something different than the next person during the same events in history. A racist, misogynist, mendacious fear-monger wins an election, and many religious leaders hail him as God’s gift to us and so their flocks celebrate him and follow his directions unquestioningly. Meanwhile, the rest of us are repulsed by the same circumstances and rise up in protest because, in our hearts, we know that this simply cannot be the way forward for our country or our species. Which side’s feeling should be taken as evidence in the same way our gut feelings about our own individual purposes are?

I do wonder if each of us doing our very best to live what feels to us to be our own individual purpose isn’t really as close as we can possibly come to living our purpose as a species. That seems at least as good as the other answers that are floating around out there.

Those answers generally seem to boil down to one of these: love God, be good, or be happy.

In pondering this topic, I sought out my Bible-thumping, devoutly Christian sister-in-law and asked her what, according to each of 1) the Bible, 2) her church, and 3) her own reckoning, is the purpose of our existence. She told me that it was really quite simple, and that the answer was the same from all three sources: our purpose is primarily to love God, and secondarily, to love each other. Why? Because we are commanded to do so. That’s it. End of discussion.

But why would our presence be required in the Universe? I wondered. Would not an all-powerful God be self-sufficient enough that she would not require the creation of a big species whose specific purpose was to love her? It feels gratuitous. I mean, I can see “Love God” and “Love Others” as good commandments, things that are good to do while we are here. But loving God as our whole purpose for being here?   Perhaps it is my heathen spirit, but that strikes me as odd.

It reminded me, though, of my years of reading Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God series. I loved those books, and most of his (God’s) answers resonated with me. The one answer that I recall definitely not resonating with me, though, was when he said that we are here so that God can experience himself experientially. As though he, as the Supreme Being, surely understands all of the emotions and sensations and such, but he created us just so he could actually experience the full range of, well, experiences. Much like the commandment thing, I was left wondering why an all-powerful being would require that, or even desire it. It just feels unnecessary.

I recall reading books that said the purpose of our existence is to be happy. I don’t know about that. I see happiness as a goal, something that we should strive for and to live (and think) in such a way that happiness is a blessed byproduct. But our purpose? That seems insufficient.

Then there is Emerson, as quoted at the top. He represents what I would guess to be a pretty popular answer, at least to the non-God-referencing crowd, to a question with no apparent answer. His argument amounts to this: Be Good. Make a positive impact on the world with your character and your actions.

As you might guess, considering my personal purpose and the way I try to design my life, this Emersonian view holds some appeal to me when it comes to the question of our greater purpose. It may not be the answer, but it may at least be a clue as to the answer, if one exists.

If you look at it in the relatively short-term–how your life affects the present as well as the next generation–Emerson’s edict to “be a good person” (in other words, to maximize your potential) seems to have more of a practical application. If you act well, you tend to attract good people and positive circumstances to you–which makes for a happier life–and you set a good example for your children to also have a positive impact on the world. Those things make you feel good, so they may seem self-serving on the surface (as most service work tends to enrich the servers at least as much as the served).

But perhaps if we take the long view, there is more to maximizing your potential as a human being than just how it affects you and your inner circle. Play along with me for a moment. What if it is our purpose as a species to maximize our potential? I am thinking of the way Buddhism would say that we reincarnate many, many times as we work toward full enlightenment, finally (we hope) achieving Nirvana and freeing ourselves from the binds of human form.

Imagine if human evolution were like that, with all of us working together over thousands of years toward enlightenment/excellence/kindness/Peace. If we were being drawn forward by this evolutionary force–perhaps set in motion by a God or perhaps by random chance as one of the possible outcomes in a nearly boundless Universe full of billions of planets–then it would indeed be each of our individual purposes to maximize our potential. It would be our jobs to be as kind, compassionate, industrious, and helpful–to just generally make the greatest positive impact–as possible in our short time here. Things like bigotry, greed, violence, and oppression would be seen to be not simply mean or immoral, but anti-evolutionary, a step backward for our species.

If this were indeed the case, then one can see why we as individuals, when we strike upon our true calling, feel it so plainly in our heart and in our gut, and when we are in the midst of acting on that calling–such as me writing to you now–we feel those magical tingles and that addictive rush of adrenaline. That would be the forward pull of evolution working its wonders at the microscopic level so that the macroscopic level–us as a species–can creep toward our magnificent potential. That is an exciting thought!

But is it true???

Ah, there’s the rub! I can’t know for sure. And because I can’t know for sure, I would never claim it to be so. This is why I am deeply skeptical of anyone claiming to know the answer. BUT! But it feels better to me than the other answers. When I say it, it feels more true to my gut. That ping is the essence of what we mean when we say something resonates with us. That’s where the very first quote at the top comes into play. Carl Sagan says, “We are the custodians of life’s meaning.” Basically, we get to decide what this whole Humanity thing is all about. We get to say why we are here, because whoever dropped us off here forgot to leave us the instruction manual. Or, at least, the manual in the way we would like to see it (maybe these intuitions and tingles are more than we give them credit for…).

I generally find it to be very annoying to not know the answer to this most important question. So, while I am not going to bury my head in the sand and deny the issue, and I am not going to ignore the reality that I really cannot say that my inclination is the capital T Truth, I will go so far as saying that I am going to go with my hunch and live as if it is true that it is best both for me and for all of humanity if I strive to live my absolute best life as long as there is air in my lungs. That will have to be good enough. At least for me.

How about you? What do you think is the purpose of our existence? Open up your journal and explore your assumptions and beliefs about why we are here. Have you ever fully considered this question, or are you generally in denial of it–despite its importance–due to either its magnitude or its frustrating lack of a clear answer? What keeps you from thinking of it more often? Is it because your answer is totally clear in your head already, or because you know you don’t have an answer? So, what are you inclined to believe about our collective purpose? What do you make of the claim that we are here simply to love God? How much of your response to that is based on your belief in the existence of a God? How much of your response is based on the Bible or another holy book? What does your spiritual community–if you have one–have to say about this? Is it logically consistent to believe that there is a God but that our purpose as a species is not just to love that God? How about Walsch’s idea that God created us to that she could know herself experientially? Would an all-powerful God have a need to be loved or a need to experience human feelings and sensations? What else might a God have created us for? Okay, what about the claim that it is our purpose to be happy? Could it be that simple? How about the Emersonian idea that our purpose is to be Good, to make a positive impact on the world? Could the thing that is the most practical and useful way to live a happy life also be the thing that is our purpose as a species? Do you believe that we are evolving into something more advanced, even if it may take many more thousands (millions?) of years? If so, could that evolution be part of some purpose, whether divine or otherwise? Is human evolution somehow special as compared to plants or other animals, or is it all moving along as naturally and consistently as any other species on our planet? Is there a special purpose for them, too? How about for our planet as a whole? Would it be depressing to learn conclusively that this whole existence came out of a random mingling of elements and that there is no real purpose for any of us, much less our entire species? Is it better to not know for sure so that we can essentially create our own reality? Whether or not you believe any of the theories mentioned here–or any others that you have heard along the way–as to why we are here, which one seems the most comforting to you, if you could believe it? Is that also the most plausible one? Wouldn’t it be nice if the most comforting explanation was also the most plausible? How suspicious are you of anyone who claims to know the answer to this question? Even if we understand intellectually that we simply cannot know the answer, is it a better way to live to act as though we do know the answer? Must we either pretend to know the answer or live in denial of the question in order to keep our spirits up? Is this truly the most important question there is? If so, isn’t it all the more maddening that the answer is so elusive? What is your strategy for handling that reality? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is the purpose of human existence?

Stay curious,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it with someone you love or your social media channels. It is a wonderful topic for discussion.

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

Soul Sucker or Soul Stirrer? The Role of Screen Time in Your Life

“If you are losing your leisure, look out! It may be you are losing your soul.” –Virginia Woolf 

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” –Neil deGrasse Tyson

Hello friend,

It is no secret that I am seriously prone to guilt? Well, let me clarify that. I am not much for guilt from other people; in fact, if you try to guilt me into doing something, I will almost certainly withdraw from that situation (and you) entirely. Self-inflicted guilt, however, is an unfortunate staple of my personality. I can make myself feel bad about the least transgression, like skipping a day at the gym or not writing letters to you as often as I once did. If it involves me not taking advantage of every opportunity to live my best life, I am vulnerable to an internalized flogging. And anxiety. I get antsy when I am not obviously growing.

So it is that the other day, while taking stock of my current life and my degree of contentment and longing, I noticed a most interesting and unusual phenomenon: despite the absence of any “big rock” that I am progressing daily in the direction of my dreams, or any major soul-stirring new dream that I am forming in my mind, I am feeling uncharacteristically serene and accepting of my status. At least for the moment, my relative lack of “progress” is not freaking me out. And I am starting to wonder if that alone should freak me out.

Am I getting complacent in my middle age, losing my passion and idealism? Am I allowing my dreams to slip from my once-stubborn grasp? Is my spirit dying, its light snuffed out by laziness and busy-ness?

Possibly because none of those things are true, or, just as possible, because I am unwilling to allow those thoughts into my head, I have decided to take a look at my habits from a totally different perspective. I need these new lenses in order to make more clear to myself just why my mind and soul are feeling pretty engaged without one of those big, obvious dreams or achievements that I am usually striving toward and that put wind in my sails. What are these more subtle forces at work that have been invisible to my eyes until now?

Interestingly, it was–quite literally–right there in front of my eyes all the time. Media. Screens. All of the information and art that I absorb on a daily basis.

When I have finished working and then spending the bulk of my “free time” face-to-face with my greatest inspirations–my children, my writing (either to you or in my journal), and Mother Nature–there are these last few fleeting moments of the day. They are usually found on a cardio machine at the gym early in the morning or in my bed as my eyelids get heavy at the day’s end, but I am always on the lookout for moments to steal.

It is in these precious moments that you can find me with my tablet–I hardly ever use my phone–which holds my books and, for the special occasion, my Netflix account. In recent months, I have found myself in turns fascinated, inspired, devastated, and mesmerized by what I have learned through that screen. And that is exactly what it has been: an education.

Allow me to share of the marvelous gifts my favorite device has bestowed upon me in recent months, just in case you are in need of some ideas for your own enrichment and growth.

Believe me, I wish I could share tons of movie suggestions, but my schedule and priorities don’t allow for two-to-three-hour blocks of time to sit and focus (if it did, you would get many more letters from me, or perhaps news of my next book). I did, however, catch the film Bohemian Rhapsody on a plane ride, and I recommend it. It jelled nicely with the main focuses of my education lately: the 1960s and 1970s (though the film is actually more of the 80s), and the culture around the music of that era. I have been drawn to this era for an unusual reason: because, in theory, these are the decades that would shape my parents’ late adolescence and young adulthood, yet neither my mother or my father has ever seemed at all engaged with the politics and music of that dynamic time–the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement, rock ‘n’ roll, the Motown sound, drugs, etc.–a phenomenon that befuddles me. It is also the era that flowed into my childhood, so I am trying to better understand my upbringing and the world I came into (better late than never!).

In the absence of Hollywood movies, I have used my random and stunted Netflix time (usually once per week at the gym) on documentaries, often about musicians. I have been fascinated by The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke, Bowie: The Man Who Changed Everything, Keith Richards: Under The Influence, 20 Feet From Stardom, and Studio 54: The Documentary. The one that I am completely engrossed in now, that I can see will take me some months to finish its multiple parts, is Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War. It is eye-opening, blood-curdling, heart-wrenching, and infuriating. But so detailed and informative. It is a lesson I have needed, one that perhaps we all need. I hope you will give it a look.

Prior to this one, the “special” (not exactly a documentary) that truly captivated me was Springsteen On Broadway. The things that most interest me in the world are people’s stories, especially if told by the people themselves. Springsteen’s performance in this, from a storytelling perspective, is brilliant. The occasional musical numbers are just gravy. I highly recommend it.

Watching these documentaries has only increased my thirst for more of them. The ones on my wish list after I finish The Vietnam War are Planet Earth II, Brené Brown: The Call To Courage, The Seventies, Our Planet, Bobby Kennedy For President, The Story of God, How The Beatles Changed The World, Mountain, One Strange Rock, and Ken Burns’ The Civil War and The West. I think Netflix mostly exists just to tease me about my lack of time to watch its countless delights!

But there are even more books to read. I read with my 8-year-old son, I read with my 10-year-old daughter, and I read alone. And even though the children get the final say on the titles we read together, most of the books are enjoyable and enriching for me, too. My son and I have been reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, which, mostly because it has inspired him to become a Greek Mythology expert, has taught me so much about a subject that I have long wanted to study. And it is entertaining. Another clever children’s series that an adult can appreciate is Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories. Last week, I also finished (alone) a sweet book by Alex Gino called George, about the experiences with cruelty and courage of a fourth-grader who is transgender. I then passed it on to my son, who read and enjoyed it this week. My daughter and I are currently quite engrossed in Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting By 7s, about a young genius dealing with the sudden death of her family.

I have in recent years come to appreciate books for middle grade kids and have no trouble recommending them to adults. I had earlier caught onto that feeling about adolescent/”coming of age” tales such as Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, both of which I strongly recommend. I find that a great children’s book is, without trying to be, also a great adult book.

But I still love to read my own grown-up books, which are usually something in the Biography/Memoir section but spread out into other areas of nonfiction and fiction as my intuition guides me. One recent, highly-detailed, biographical portrait that supplemented my study of the 1960s and 1970s–and the music thereof– was Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine. It is fascinating (if a bit tabloidish). I have also recently had a very personal look at both mountain climbing and rape culture through the eyes of one of my favorite authors, Jon Krakauer, in Eiger Dreams and Missoula, respectively. At the moment, I am in the middle of Azar Nafisi’s thoughtful account of the myriad devastating effects of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Reading Lolita In Tehran. It is opening my eyes in a whole new way, taking my heart and mind to places I had never imagined.

But that is just what good media does, right? That is the potential of these screens we are always staring at: to stimulate our brains, to open our hearts, and to inspire our souls. In short: to lift us up, to expand our lives. Growth.

This, I can see now, is the answer to the puzzle of why, in the absence of any huge dream that is currently propelling me forward by the power of its hold on my enchanted soul, I am still feeling the tingles in that soul and the stretching of my heart and mind as they open with new knowledge and inspiration. It points to something that I clearly needed a reminder of: not only am I, at my core, a dreamer and a follower of my dreams, but I am also a student. It is in my soul’s code. I simply love to take in what is new and different to me. I get excited to try what I haven’t tried, whether that is a foreign language or a physical skill or another person’s story. I want to see, feel, and do it all so I can know better how the world works and how everyone else experiences it. When I feel those things stagnating in me, I become anxious and irritable. Unhappy. This is why I am in constant search of enrichment opportunities. My radar is always up. Basically, I am addicted to Growth.

With that realization, I can see why I have continued to be buoyed without my usual life-saving device: the big rock.

I have no doubt that before long, the pendulum will swing back the other way, and I will need to do something that satisfies my other soul compulsion: to contribute. I will need to help others rise in a more obvious way than I am now.

But for now, it is nice to know that when I my tank is running low, I don’t have to feel so guilty about turning to my screen for inspiration. There is some magical stuff in there! I plan to mine it well and allow myself to be lifted.

How about you? How do you use your screens and your media? Open up your journal and assess your relationship to your devices and your leisure time. How big of a role do your screens play in your life? What percentage of your leisure time is spent in front of a screen or page? What do you do with them? Movies? TV series? Sports? Video games? Books? Articles? Social media? Word games? Other apps? How much of that screen time would you describe as relatively mindless? Do you feel guilty, as I do, if you reach your threshold of “just passing time?” How much of your mindless time is necessary (i.e. you need it to decompress from daily stresses)? How much of it is really just wasting time? Which screen-based things that you do are inspirational? Which are entertaining? Which are educational? Which grow your life in other ways? What are those ways? Do you gain more of your leisure time enrichment via screens and pages, or via other hobbies? By what margin? What are the best movies you have watched lately? Which one(s) stand out as being particularly enriching? Which have moved you the most? Do you have any documentaries that have changed your perspective on the world? Which TV series do you find yourself recommending to others? A few weeks ago I was moved to tears by the comeback of Tiger Woods, and I always love the human stories covered during the Olympics. Do you watch sports? How engaged does the “human drama” element of sports get you? How would you rate your level of enrichment and personal growth via social media? Does the negative ever outweigh the positive? Do you waste time there? What other apps would you recommend to someone looking to be inspired and/or educated? What have you been reading lately? Do you prefer books or articles? Which blogs do you read? What have you read in the last year that has really stuck with you? Has anything changed your life dramatically? What has reminded you of Who You Really Are? Are you satisfied with the role of screens in your life? What would you like to change about them (e.g. more or less time on them, more books, less social media)? How about your leisure on the whole? Is it not just relaxing, but enriching? Do your hobbies inspire you and make you a better person? Are they enough to round out your work life and make the whole package seem fulfilling, even if temporarily? Do you cycle back and forth from being passive and content with your free time to needing to do something truly “meaningful” and life-changing? What is the proper balance? Leave me a reply and let me know, What is the role of leisure and screen time in your happiness?

Grow and grow,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it with someone who might be enriched by it. Grow your world!

P.P.S. If this way of introspection appeals to your sensibilities, check out by book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

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.

Adventure, Relaxation, or Option C: What Do You Want From Vacation?

“Resurrection, rebirth, reincarnation, resprout, revive! All these words can be summarized only in one word: Vacation!” –Mehmet Murat Ildan

Hello friend,

This has been such a fun week to live in my imagination! I am oozing fantasies and positive vibes. My happiness hormones are in overdrive from so many visions of Mother Nature in all her glory, and me basking in it.

This flood of daydreams and smiles comes courtesy of the perfect storm of circumstances. First, I am just a few days away from my long-awaited, much-anticipated Spring Break trip to the white sand beaches and turquoise waters of Florida, so my mind can’t help but go there any chance it gets. And second, this week I also found my way to the Montana Tourism website to begin the storyboarding for what will be my best Summer adventure in nearly two decades: a family roadtrip to my favorite state and the mountains that sing to my soul. I feel like I have been given some wonderful hallucinogenic drugs that fill my mind with an endless stream of delightful images of me and my family frolicking in these dual Paradises. Flashes of majestic peaks and mountain goats feeding along clear streams alternate with vivid jolts of the shimmering ocean at sunset and silhouetted dolphins at play in the eternal surf. It is simultaneously the most soul-stirring and most serene interplay of imagery, and I am absolutely tickled to have a ticket to the show. I am flying high.

As I watch my mind with that third eye that sees from above the scene, I cannot help but be fascinated by the way these two very different vacations are both exciting me and soothing me. After all, one is a very passive, chill-on-the-beach-and-watch-the-water trip, while the other is a more active, hike-in-the-mountains-and-be-explorers adventure. Somehow, as the alternating images flood my mind and light up my soul, I get the same sense that each vacation will have me communing with my brand of God, served in very different ways but feeling the same in the end.

Maybe it is the places themselves and the sense of me being exactly in my element in the ocean and in the mountain forests. I realize that if you asked me, should I die today, where would I like you to toss my ashes, I would probably give you answers that described my two vacations for the year: Avalanche Lake in the mountains of Glacier National Park (Montana) or somewhere in the shimmering blue waters of the ocean. Those places make my soul feel at home.

But does that make them ideal vacation destinations? It certainly makes them nice places for me to visit when I get a chance, but if you forced me to answer which of those two types of vacations I would choose, which would I go for? Or would I, perhaps, go a different route altogether, choosing a trip that fulfills some other need that my regular lifestyle doesn’t provide?

Why do we go on vacation, anyway?

At first blush, I am tempted to lump people into two main categories: Relaxers and Doers. I have had many occasions to talk vacations through the years with people in relationships, and it seems to often be the case that one spouse doesn’t consider it a vacation unless their butt has been in the sand and several books have been read, while their mate goes crazy after a morning sitting around on the beach and would much rather be on a ski trip. Perhaps they compromise by alternating years between the beach and the mountain, or one spouse sits on the beach while the other goes on excursions from the resort every day: snorkeling or deep see fishing or parasailing or jet skiing. The Relaxers and the Doers are different breeds, indeed.

But are they the only breeds? Have I covered it all right there when it comes to vacationers? I think of the different trips I have taken over the years, alone or with others, and I realize that there are all sorts of different things, at least superficially, to get out of a vacation.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I spent a few months wandering around Europe. I wanted to learn about everything: the people, the history, the architecture, the vibe. It was definitely more of a Doer thing, as I was lugging a big backpack and walked hundreds of miles. But it wasn’t like a ski trip–not that kind of doing. Because, while it was physically taxing, it was certainly more of a mental and spiritual journey for me. I was a Learner, or perhaps an Explorer. Trips to the many museums and monuments in Washington, DC, I suppose, fall into that category. It is about growing your mind, expanding your view of the world. I would like more of these vacations at some point, especially to the other continents that I have yet to visit.

Some folks are Event people. They use their vacation days for trips to concerts or sporting events, maybe Broadway shows. Although I can’t see this as a regular thing for me, I have always wanted to go to the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York and Wimbledon in London. A variation on the Event crowd is the Theme Park set. Many parents I talk to try to make it sound it like it is my parental obligation to my children to take them to Disney World at least once in their young lives. I call Nonsense on that one. Not that I think it wouldn’t be fun–it would–but I also cannot imagine a more draining vacation than this. I would need a few days alone on an empty beach to recover.

One vacation that would be exhausting but rewarding is a Service trip. There are people in need in all parts of the world, and what a way to combine doing some good with expanding your empathy and worldview. That would suit me well.

What else do the Relaxers do besides the beach? Maybe a health spa (perhaps one at the ski resort where their spouse is being a Doer). Some people who camp go to their campground just to chill out and enjoy being outside. In Minnesota, where I live, tons of people “go to the lake,” some to do active things but others just to sit and relax. There is something undeniably soothing about the water. I don’t blame them, and I jump on my opportunities to be a lake Relaxer each Summer.

But as much water, sand, and lounge chair space as there is available in the world, it definitely feels like the Doers get the better deal when it comes to vacation options. The entire planet is here for them to explore and play in! I have a friend who exemplifies this. He meets up with buddies at beautiful destinations for golf vacations, tennis vacations, hunting trips, fishing trips, and photo safaris. Then, with his family, go goes on ski and snowboard vacations, roadtrips across the land to hiking/exploring spots, and active beach vacations. What is left: spelunking and scaling Mt. Everest?

Whatever can be dreamt of, can be done (or, in the case of Relaxers, not done) on a vacation. The variety is amazing!

On the surface, it appears that we must be going on these very different vacations for very different reasons, each of us with some unique itch to scratch. The adrenaline junkie zip-lining through the rain forest cannot possibly be after the same thing as the religious pilgrim. The needs of the museum goer are obviously different than those of the theme park goer. Surely the skier’s itch is altogether different from the beach lounger’s.

Or is it?

When I think about my two very distinct vacations this year–both of which have me giddy with anticipation–the feeling that comes over me is one of absolute connection with my soul, a state of deep peace that comes with restoring my sense of balance and harmony in my life, filling in the places that are too much neglected in my normal routine. In different ways, each vacation will lead me back to my truest self. Each will make me feel whole.

I am beginning to believe, just now as I write these words, that this restoration, this reharmonization (I am making that word up) of the soul, is what all well-chosen vacations are truly about. We go to tickle or massage all of those needs that go unmet in our regular routines. Our particular untended fields look different in the landscape of our souls–the itches are indeed unique and require quite specialized scratching–but in the end, we vacation to give those fields the love and care that they have been missing. Even when we return exhausted and in need of a few “vacation” days to recover from vacation and before resuming our personal versions of ordinary, everyone who has had a great vacation has some deeper peace about them, that feeling of relief and contentment that comes immediately upon scratching an itch. All is well in the world, even if only temporarily. It is why I think vacations are a good eye-opener about the error in our ways, reminders of the elements of our souls that we need to take better care of in our everyday lives.

So I will go to the ocean next week and to the mountains this Summer. I will go to “have fun” and “relax” and “sightsee” and all that other good stuff. But what I will really go to do is take care of my soul, to fill in the voids that I have gradually created by neglecting essential pieces of me. There are messages in the vast magnificence of the blue water, the high mountains, and the big sky–divine messages–that speak to me in a language that my soul knows as its native tongue. These messages aren’t in my day-to-day, and I feel that in ways that are subtle some days and not-so-subtle other days. And so I vacation. And in that vacation, I find my way back home.

How about you? What do you hope to get from your vacation? Open up your journal and write about the way you spend your time away from your “real life.” What type of vacations have you taken most recently? Can you place them into neat categories like Relaxation or City Touristing or Physical Adventure? Were these trips your preference or did you go along on someone else’s desires? What did you get out of them? Was that what you were looking for? Did you get the sense that it was “just what the doctor ordered,” or were you unfulfilled, perhaps anxious, afterward? If it was somehow soothing to your soul, can you name what exactly it was about it that made it that way? The place? The activity (or inactivity)? The company? What in your normal day-to-day are you missing that was filled by the vacation? Is there something that you can add to your usual routine to fill that need more habitually rather than only on vacation? If it was just you choosing your next vacation, where would you go and what would you do? Who would join you, if anyone? What needs and desires would this vacation fulfill? Is it a one-time-only kind of thing you want to do, or is it something you could imagine yourself making into an annual thing? How different is this fantasy than your usual vacations? What category do most of your vacations fall into? Which categories would you like to add to your menu? Which categories are of no interest to you at all? Which vacation that you have already been on has left you feeling most complete, connected, and at peace? How can you find that feeling again? Even though we all do different things on our vacations, am I right in believing that we are all actually searching for the same thing? Is there some feeling that is common to everyone who has had a great vacation? Is it just as simple as “satisfaction,” or is there something deeper to it, something that is difficult to define but worthy of our effort to do so? Do you know what I mean when I describe that soul fulfillment? When have you been there? Is it asking too much of a vacation to take you there? What else do you want? Leave me a reply and let me know: What do you want from your vacation?

Be Peace and Bliss,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with your community. Let’s find our happy places together!

P.P.S. If this way of reflecting on your heart, mind, and soul is appealing 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.

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.