Tag Archives: Crisis

Have You Made Any Lemonade From All Of These 2020 Lemons?

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive.  You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over.  But one thing is certain.  When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.  That’s what this storm’s all about.” –Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’  One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.  In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.” –John F. Kennedy

Hello friend,

I am SO HAPPY to connect with you again!  It feels like forever since I have written to you.  I love to write these letters.  I love the whole process: what I learn about myself in the exploration, the struggle to piece together the right combination of words to make my idea clear to you, the ecstatic blend of calm certainty and dancing butterflies I feel deep down in my chest and my soul from the knowledge that I am acting on my purpose, the joy and relief of hitting the “Publish” button and seeing my labor of love go out into the world to mingle with your beautiful mind, and the connection I feel with you as a result.  All of that is everything to me.  I love to write.  I am so grateful to be in your world, to share space with you today.  This is where I am supposed to be.

So, why haven’t I been here more often lately?  That is the logical question.  In Pandemic America, after all, the story goes that Time itself has slowed down, and with it, all of our lives.  We have the headspace and the minutes and hours (and days and weeks and months….) to collect ourselves, to nest, to make our spaces feel more like home, to set our priorities right, and to finally do all of the things we have been longing to do for ourselves.  As disruptive as the coronavirus has been to our normal—our economy, our relationships, our work, our fun, our faces—it supposedly gave us this gift of a “RESET,” the time to get ourselves right and clarify who and what we love.

This is why I have been racked with guilt and frustration that I haven’t been writing more over the past several months.  This would seem to have been the ideal time to churn out letters to you every week like I used to.  After all, Journal of You is about digging into our own existence and coming to understand where we have come from, where our passions lie today, and where we see ourselves going in the moments we have left on this Earth.  This should be our opportunity to nail that stuff down, right?  A chance at complete clarity, at least for a moment in our otherwise-busy lives.  Somehow, I have failed to capitalize on this most golden of opportunities.

I suppose it was some combination of laziness, busy-ness, and distractedness.  That natural slowing down during the earliest, “lockdown” phase of the pandemic seemed to slow everything down, including my ambition.  I was enjoying the relative quiet and solitude of my home and family, content to soak up their company and the extra moments without errands and commutes.  The urgency to write it all down just wasn’t there.  Then came the urgency to do the other things that are typically much more neglected than my writing.  Like so many other people, I took on all sorts of home improvement projects, becoming an apprentice painter, landscaper, and organization guru.  With my time going into those tasks, the hours allotted to writing diminished.  Then there was the issue of headspace.  For so much of the last half a year, my brain seemed to split its thoughts three ways: pandemic, racial injustice, and governmental/political nonsense.  All three are psychologically and emotionally draining in their own ways, leaving precious little energy for regular functioning, much less for creative expression.

I found myself at the breakfast table this week reading up on the wildfires currently devastating the American West.  The whole thing is absolutely heartbreaking to me on so many levels: the loss of life (human, animal, plant, and more), the loss of Beauty, the loss of habitat, the loss of personal property and the priceless feelings of “home” for so many, the loss of jobs and dreams, the recklessness of human-created climate change, the addition of even more greenhouse gases from the fires themselves, and all of the trauma caused, to name just a few.  The thought that rose up from inside me was, “My God, I hope we are learning something from this, at least.  There has to be some good that comes from it.  Something!”

It came out like a plea, I suppose, an imploring of the people of the world to find a way to do better as a result of this catastrophe, to create a silver lining from these darkest of clouds.  To make lemonade from this overabundance of lemons we seem to be tripping over wherever we step.

Just think about these last few months and the swirl of awfulness that has joined our already-tense and divided country. The gross mishandling of the coronavirus and subsequent spiraling death toll and economy.  The very public murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (to name but a few) and the subsequent protests across in cities big and small across the country.  Unemployment and food insecurity for so many.  The deaths of social justice giants John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The continued lies and indecency of the President.   The approach of a contentious election.  The fires.

These are all things that have the potential, individually, to knock you down and leave you feeling lost and unmoored from your moral and emotional home base.  They can also, individually, leave you deeply bitter and lacking faith in our country, its institutions, and its people.  They have the potential, individually, to make you want to shut down, to retreat, to go into self-preservation mode.  With powers of destruction that strong individually, when taken together, in a series of relentless, cascading blows one on top of another and often simultaneously, the cumulative effect of 2020 has proven devastating.  The countless memes it has generated are a reliable testament to that (e.g “Cue the murder hornets!” and “Apocalypse Bingo”).

In a year when so much seems so wrong, the natural reaction feels like it ought to be to simply weather the storm, try to not get sick or committed to the asylum.  Dodge the bullet.  Just try to wait it out and hope to begin dreaming, loving, and achieving again next year.  Save self-improvement for 2021.  That makes sense.  “To everything, there is a season,” right?  This year definitely feels biblical, so maybe this is just the season of our lives to hunker down and ride it out, having faith that next year must be better.

That idea soothes me.  It placates me, softening my usual urgency for personal and global improvement, lets me off the hook for my recent lack of achievement and production.  My guilt is assuaged.  I appreciate the pass for 2020.

But I can’t help being suspicious of it.  I tend to disbelieve any philosophy that tells me it is okay to stop learning, growing, and making my life and my world better.  Sure, I understand that our ambition ebbs and flows along our journey, and I try to listen to my intuition about how hard I need to push in a given season.  And I am a huge fan of self-care and filling up one’s tank when it is running low so you can face the challenges of the present and the future.  On top of that, I realize that some of these blows that 2020 continues to deliver require true grieving—they are just that painful–which takes its own time.  Still, my internal dashboard is always measuring for Progress.  I am naturally monitoring myself for signs of growth and surveying the world around me for ways I can both use my talents for good and be enriched.  I am also naturally optimistic, so I live with the assumption that all situations can lead to better ones, and Growth is ours to claim.

With those traits in my nature, I should not be surprised at my response to the wildfires in the West (which are sending their smoke across the country as though to remind us that we are all in this together and no one gets away clean).  Even in my deepest despair, I cling to the idea that we must learn and grow from our situations. 

But have I?  This year, I mean.  Have I hunkered down and simply tried to survive—which may be enough, honestly, depending on how close to home each crisis has struck—or have I found any ways for these calamities to improve my life or the world around me?

I would say I have done very little directly for the world (e.g. I protested for racial justice and wrote some pieces, but I definitely didn’t write often enough), but I have improved myself in subtle but certain ways.  Much of it has come in the form of solidifying my priorities and values.  The pandemic, with its extra time to think and the need to stay in one place with only the people in my household, has served to thrust those values and priorities into bold relief, forcing an examination and a culling of the excesses and the things that just don’t feel authentic and uplifting anymore.  And because all of these other tragedies and tensions have occurred inside of the pandemic, each has received a thorough vetting in the recesses of my mind and the pages of my journal.

It has become increasingly clear to me this year that my family is the most important thing.  It turns out that I chose the right wife, and my kids are the right ones for me.  With all of this working and schooling from home and acting as each other’s playmates, teachers, and co-workers, I can only imagine how many families are at each other’s throats during all of these overlapping crises.  For all of my pre-family-life worry and fear I had over whether I could exist—much less be happy—with the responsibilities of a husband and father, I am so glad that I ended up with these guys.  I feel much better about that now, and I believe that foundation will support me no matter what else I have to face.

In watching the way my country’s institutions and people have handled (or mishandled) the crises of 2020, I have become even more deeply committed to moral and political positions I have held in the past.  The coronavirus pandemic has made crystal clear what a failure of leadership looks like.  In the halls of Congress and the White House, and in examples from different governors and mayors from around the country, I have seen examples of the best and worst kinds of politicians.  It has affirmed for me that, even though I am not a fan of our two-party system and neither party acts exactly as I wish they would, the folks that at least lean my way are doing so much more basic Good for ordinary Americans—that is, almost all of us—than the ones leaning the other way.  The particular political issues that have come into relief through the crises—climate science with the wildfires, health care coverage with the coronavirus and its ensuing unemployment, voting rights and women’s rights with the deaths of John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, racial injustice with the murders of George Floyd and others, and the need to protect our democracy with the regular assaults on it by the President—have made me feel stronger in my positions than ever before.  My conviction has multiplied.  I have become even more of Me.

These things have also cast each of my relationships and potential relationships into the light, making me very protective of the kind of people I want to keep in my life now and let into it in the future.  Though my heart will be wide open with love, I have no doubt also that the gate will be well-guarded.  Boundaries are beautiful.

These overlapping crises and the time I have had to consider them has made these things very clear to me.  I am certain that this clarity will make me a happier person going forward, better able to see my way and also better able to use my gifts to serve the world and all of the beautiful souls finding their way through it.  Though I am eager for this year and its many calamities to be behind me, I can honestly say I am grateful for it.  I will come out the other side of 2020 as a better person.

How about you?  Have you managed to grow and improve your world amidst the stress and tragedy of this year?  Open up your journal and write out your own version of a progress report.  What changes have you gone through internally as the various crises of 2020 have piled on top of one another?  What is your balance of “just trying to ride it out” versus “I can thrive in this” mentality?  How different is that balance this year compared to a “normal” year?  Which aspects of the year’s drama—coronavirus, job loss, racial injustice and protests, social isolation, change of routine, economic stress, climate emergencies, death of heroes, murder hornets, political drama—tend to send you into self-preservation mode, where simple survival is the goal and personal growth seems out of the question?  In which areas have you made efforts to address the issue head-on and learn more about it to achieve better clarity in your position and/or take action in the world to help the cause?  How has that effort changed you?  If this year has had you “stuck” at home more often and unable to physically interact with others much, how have you dealt with that?  What have you learned about yourself through that aspect of the experience?  Did you reach any conclusions about yourself that caused you to make any major changes?  Do you feel like you have clarified who you really are this year?  What do you value most?  What are your top priorities?  Are there things that you have reduced or eliminated from your life in this process?  What about people?  How has seeing your “friends” react to this year on social media (e.g. their responses to George Floyd’s murder) changed the way you feel about them or their place in your life going forward?  If you have let some habits or people go, do you feel lighter and more authentic for it?  Have you started some new habits?  Are they healthy or unhealthy?  Can you point to anything specific in your world where you are making a more positive impact than you were before this crazy year happened?  Is it enough just to know that you are bringing a better self out into your regular life each day?  If you feel like you haven’t spun any of 2020’s calamities into growth experiences, how might you start today?  No matter what you have done to this point, which crisis area feels ripe for your next growth spurt?  I hope you will take on the challenge.  Leave me a reply and let me know: How have you turned 2020’s many lemons into lemonade?

Rise,

William

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

P.P.S. If you appreciate this sort of personal introspection, I encourage you to purchase my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.

Hurricanes & Health Care, Russians & Racists: How do you deal with it all?

“Perhaps there could be no joy on this planet without an equal weight of pain to balance it out on some unknown scale.” –Stephenie Meyer, The Host

Hello friend,

I got a big jolt on Monday night right before I fell asleep. I was in bed doing a very quick perusal of the day’s news on my tablet before I was to begin my usual book reading that always knocks me out. I popped on the ESPN app and noticed a picture of the Dallas Cowboys kneeling in a national anthem-themed protest, the last of many that seemed to gobble up all of the oxygen over the weekend. Then I flipped over to Facebook, and one of the first things that came up on my Newsfeed was a post from Dan Rather, who was sharing his thoughts and a photo slideshow about the devastation in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. His thoughts are always poignant, and they led me to click on the link to the slideshow. What I saw was absolutely heartbreaking, an island decimated by the storm and so many of my fellow Americans without power, water, or help from a country that had just spent the last couple of weeks falling over itself to help the people and communities ravaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

It was quite a jolt, as I said. It was bedtime, though, so I forced myself to let it go and get to sleep. The jolt came right back to me the next morning, though, as I began my breakfast. My first, almost-panicked thought was, “Did I forget to share that slideshow??? People need to know!!” So I opened up Facebook on my phone, found it again, and shared it.

As the day went on, I was increasingly fascinated by my intense reaction to the images from Puerto Rico. Not my sadness or my empathy—that part was totally normal for me. The part that intrigued me was the terror I felt at missing this important news while it was happening. I realized that my panic at not absorbing the full extent of the devastation of Hurricane Maria on my fellow human beings was borne out of one thing: GUILT.

How could I have given those poor folks in Texas my emotional investment one week during Harvey, and those poor folks in Florida my emotional investment the next week during Irma, but then hardly notice when these poor folks in Puerto Rico were in even worse condition last week?  

I was very disturbed by this. My conscience was definitely eating at me. I felt like I had failed my moral obligation by not paying closer attention and lending my positive thoughts and my voice through my writing and social media posts, if not through direct monetary donations to the cause. I try to give voice when people are in need, to raise awareness and empathy, hopefully leading to both emotional and monetary resources being lent. But I had definitely let this one slip past me.

I started questioning my focus, looking for reasons why I had let my guard down and missed lending a voice to people who clearly needed all the help they could get. Maybe I was just looking for a good excuse. If I couldn’t get relief for my guilty conscience, I at least wanted an explanation to settle my mind.

I didn’t have to look far. It was right there in my journal entries and my social media posts and shares. I had spent the last several days deeply embedded in the controversy around the national anthem protests. This has actually been a pet project in my head for the last year, but it seemed to overtake the nation last week in the wake of the President’s incendiary comments and the reactions by football teams. It was a firestorm, at least in the view of the media that ultimately decides which topics will gain the most buzz and largest viewing audience.

I, of course, got into it. As I said, I latched onto this topic with Colin Kaepernick a year ago and have become increasingly invested, so I have read a lot about it, from both the historical and factual side of it as well as the many opinions swirling about. So, even though I think that much of the reaction from NFL teams was hypocritical and more of a response to the attack by the President rather than actual concern for injustice against people of color, I took advantage of the attention the topic was getting again and shared what I thought were some solid, helpful articles on social media. My attention and emotions were definitely on the topic, anyway. And since they were there, they were NOT in Puerto Rico. So, I missed it (or nearly so).

By way of excuse-making, though, it was totally obvious that nearly everyone missed it. The coverage on all of the networks and news outlets seemed as focused as I was on the national anthem and NFL’s response to the President. It was the media-driven firestorm that distracted us from the real storm in Puerto Rico and the desperate American citizens trying to survive in its wake.

I am definitely not trying to blame this on the media. They have taken more than their share of criticism this year, much of it unfair. Still, it is fascinating to me how completely dialed into the coverage of the previous hurricanes in Texas and Florida they were and then how clearly NOT dialed into this one they were.

I have no doubt that the NFL’s battle with the President over the national anthem is more sensational for the media to cover than the third consecutive week of hurricane coverage—is “hurricane fatigue” a real phenomenon?—but this situation in Puerto Rico is beyond tragic. I know that by the middle of this week it finally gathered some traction in the news, but we were all about a week late on this one. And when you are dealing with the health and welfare of fellow human beings—not to mention fellow Americans—that is a full week too long.

I know my guilty conscience was earned, but I think I am not the only one who should be feeling those pangs.

My point here is not to wallow in that guilt or to make you wallow in it—really, it’s not–but really to wonder about our responsibility toward the events of the world around us and how spread out our emotional energy amongst the wide array of issues.

Living in America in 2017 with the President that we have, it feels like one crisis or drama after another. We don’t need actual hurricanes to stir up our fears and our outrage or engender empathy toward people getting a bad deal; we have human-driven storms already (dozens of them) for that. We are living a storm! At least that is how it feels to me.

So, after I have used my journal or my wife or Facebook or whatever as a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on for things like anti-Muslim travel bans, threats of the loss of health care, Nazis and White supremacists marching in our streets, Russian corruption of our government, the killing of another unarmed Black person by police, or the White House denying climate change, it is hard work to then add forest fires (the thing that no one paid attention to before they weren’t paying attention to Puerto Rico) and three consecutive hurricanes to the emotional load I am carrying.

I know some of those are things to be outraged about and some of them are things to feel empathy about—and some are definitely both—but what if my outrage and my empathy get emptied from the same barrel? It feels like I only have so much emotional energy to give these dramas, and whether it is my heart breaking for the people in Puerto Rico or my outrage at the government’s slow response to it, I feel like it is all draining that barrel.

I just don’t know what to do about it. I want to be here for my world, an active participant in fighting injustice and helping those in need. But, just like last week, I feel like if I keep my eye on one ball, the others all fall out of the sky. I hate the helplessness and guilt I feel when that happens. I just don’t know how to spread it out the right way.

How about you? How do you spread your emotional energy around in these turbulent times? Open up your journal and write about the issues that move your needle and your process for balancing them in your head and heart. What types of things in the world get you stirred up? Presidential tweets and character issues? Racial injustice? Health care? Humanitarian crises? Forest fires? Religious persecution? Terrorism? National anthem protests? White House firings? Hurricane damage? Congressional ineptitude? Climate change denial? Taxes? Potential wars? White supremacists? Are your hot button topics more things that make you feel sad and empathetic, or things that make you feel outraged? Do you think that these things draw from the same well of energy? That is, does depleting your supply of one leave less of the other, at least at the temporarily? Do you ever feel bad that you emptied your barrel on “outrage issues” rather than “empathy issues” or vice versa? How big is your capacity to spread yourself amongst all of the issues that seem to run roughshod over our world today? Are you able to stay updated and also engage with them all emotionally? If not—and you are human, so I am guessing you cannot—how do you manage your attention and distribute your emotions according to your priorities? Are there certain issues (e.g. politics) that you just avoid altogether? Do you take “timeout” periods when you basically bury your head in the sand to replenish your heart and mind for the inevitable next round of drama? Do you “tagteam” the issues with friends or family members so that you can share the burden and use each other for emotional support? Do you feel guilty for “missing” an issue—like my lateness to Hurricane Maria—or do you see that as necessary for survival? Are most of these issues as big as we make them out to be, or are we overblowing them? Has the news media gotten us all hooked in their web by making so many things seem so urgent and necessary for us to attend to (then immediately moving on to something else)? I would love to hear how you spread yourself out, because obviously I am struggling with it? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you distribute your empathy and outrage in these emotional times?

Be Peace first,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, I hope you will share it with others. Let’s support one another!

What A Difference 10 Years Makes! Revisiting Life A Decade Ago

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” –Robert Frost

I have been fighting off a lot of yucky feelings and negative self-talk this week. You know those feelings. They are always lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce when your defenses go down. I usually have mine up. My defenses are 1) my attitude of gratitude, 2) my optimistic view of the future, and 3) my big dreams. When these things are intact, all is well in my world. I am sunshine and happiness. That is my normal mode.

This week, though, I have been dealt a few blows that have threatened my usual sunny outlook. Things just haven’t been going my way. My car needed a major repair. Then the furnace went down and needed to be replaced. The taxes brought their annual drama. Amidst all of this extra financial pressure, I have been beating my head against a wall trying to get my dreams going and figuring out the next source of income for my family. The weight on my shoulders feels like it has suddenly multiplied.

These simultaneous setbacks and struggles have created a storm inside my head. I have been all sorts of things I don’t want to be. Worried. Confused. Self-pitying. Stressed. Unsure. Pessimistic. Fearful. Doubtful. Disappointed. Defeated.

Yes, it seems I allowed my circumstances to ignite a pity party in my mind, and then I realized that the party had gotten a bit loud and out of control.   I needed an intervention.

One of the strategies that the self-help gurus often suggest for people facing some kind of drama or dilemma is to ask yourself, “Will this even matter in X number of years?” (you fill in the X: five years, ten years, twenty). Supposedly, that helps to put the problem in perspective, perhaps revealing that it is really no big deal at all.

So, I wondered: Would this little moment I am having now—this crisis of dreams, career, and finances—even matter ten years from now? Will I remember it? Or will it be just a minor blip on the radar?

Maybe Life is just a constant flow of these moments, some just less stormy than others, but all of them basically just blips, not so much blow-ups. Or maybe not.

I decided that I needed some perspective. Luckily for me, I have a few big storage tubs full of perspective in my storage closet. My journals. They are all there: keys to the past just waiting to be turned. I searched through the stacks to find the one that contained my daily entries from ten years ago at this time—Volume 36—to see what I was up to, how stressful and dramatic it was, and if it all even mattered in the end.

What did I find? Stress. Drama. Exhaustion. Happiness.

Ten years ago this week, I was in the middle of making a big decision about which of two job offers to accept at the company where I worked. I was also studying and taking some important exams for my career. There was also a lot of political drama going on at work that I was forced into the middle of. And in the background of all of that was a very real struggle to become a parent (which all by itself would have been stressful and dramatic enough). In between lots of visits to doctors’ offices in our quest to become pregnant, my wife and I were also interviewing to adopt a child.

Some excerpts from those days in late April of 2007:

Is my body supposed to be this sore so early in the week? My goodness!……I am wiped!….It is coming down to it on the job thing……There is so much to do every day. No wonder lifetimes just zip by and roll together. I will blink and be 50. It is crazy. I am happy, though, always happy. It is good to be me. La vita é bella.

 After all of this rollercoaster nonsense, I am actually pretty excited about it. I hope that it goes well and that I can report some good news in my next entry. I am optimistic. Come what may, I will be happy.

I accepted the job tonight. ….So, on we go. I hope it is tons of fun. I am excited about it. New challenges. It will be that. This week has tapped me. …It is a mad, mad world. The beat goes on. I am so very blessed. Life is beautiful.

Who ever thought there would be so much to do in this world? I really do not like being crazy busy, but it has certainly been that way in the last several years. …The extremes are there. I would love to get some balance. Some day. I am alright. I am Love. I am Joy. I am Peace. Life is beautiful.  

I am no fan of these political battles… I am optimistic. ….I am excited for the challenge. They never seem to be in short supply. …Let’s cross our fingers. Good things will come.

It is a busy time in the world. … What an adventure lies before me!. ….I am always optimistic. Good things are coming our way. Blessings abound. Life is beautiful. 

Whew! I really was running around like a crazy man in those days! Working long hours, and every day of the week. Stressing hard about my job. Basically, I was a workaholic. Thank goodness for a supportive and understanding wife! The only other saving grace was my attitude and worldview. Despite my circumstances—which I would not recommend to anyone—I remained so grateful and optimistic. So happy. I am pretty impressed by that (if I do say so myself!).

What can I learn from those days that will help me now? Is there really a gift of perspective?

On the one hand, I made it through that drama, which should give me hope that I will make it through my current crisis. On the other hand, that moment was not nothing. Those decisions and actions were important and had long-lasting effects.

Of course I survived, and I would have survived whatever came. But things could have gone in different directions had I acted differently, and especially if my attitude had been different. I could have let the pressure and the exhaustion get to me. I could have been less diplomatic at work and ruined my opportunities. I could have let the pregnancy/adoption stress drive a wedge between me and my wife. I could have given up on lots of things when it got so hard. I could have failed to enjoy it and be grateful for it all. I definitely could have made it worse.

So, is this current dramatic moment something? Or is it nothing? It certainly feels like something to me. It feels like there is a lot riding on the coming days. It feels like much could change in my story and the story of my family depending upon the way this all shakes out.

Does that give me any specific direction on my next action? No, not really. But what it does give me is a reminder of the importance of my attitude and outlook. I need to take a lesson from that guy I was ten years ago. No matter how uncertain or contentious things get, I need to be grateful for the wonderful blessings all around me. And I need to be optimistic and excited about what the future holds. I know that will help to guide my decisions to the outcomes that are best for me.

Ten years from now, I hope to look back at this moment with complete gratitude and wonder at what a magnificent life was brewing in the middle of this divine storm. I hope I will be proud of the way I rose to the challenge and acted with courage, kindness, and integrity. The lesson, after all, will be decades in the making.

How about you? What did your life look like ten years ago? Open up your journal and your memory. What was going on with you a decade ago? How old were you? Who were the most important people in your life? What kind of work were you doing? Were you heavily involved and connected with your job? Too much so? Where were you in relation to your dreams? How would you describe the state of your spirituality? How tired were you? What were the biggest issues you were facing? Did it feel like a lot of drama or crisis at that time, or were things flowing smoothly? How happy were you? Describe your attitude at that time. Were you grateful? How optimistic were you? Looking from today’s eyes, what can you learn from you and your life of a decade ago? What were the things you did then that have carried over and shaped your life today, for better or worse? Now answer all of the questions above as they relate to your life today. Do you prefer today’s version of you and your world, or would you take yourself back a decade if you could? Which parts would you do just the same again from that time? What would you change then to shape a better today? What is your biggest regret from that time? What was the best thing you did for yourself ten years ago? What can you do for yourself now that you will thank yourself for in ten more years? Leave me a reply and let me know: What can you learn from a look back at yourself in 2007?

Enjoy the ride,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please pass it on. We are here to teach each other.

Thanksgiving & Responsibility: Refugees & the Home of the Brave, Part 2

DSC_0061 2“The price of greatness is responsibility.–Winston Churchill

Hello friend,

Thanksgiving Week is always–for me, and probably you, too–a time of reflection about all of life’s many wonderful blessings. Seeing everybody’s gratitude posts on Facebook and getting texts from family members, it always puts me in the mindset of counting my blessings. This year was no different. Although I think of myself as habitually grateful—reminding myself every day in my journal of how blessed I am—Thanksgiving Day found me thinking in specifics about the things that make this life so magnificent.

Halfway through that day’s journal entry, I wrote to myself: “I am truly grateful for this wonderful life of mine. There is Love all around me and in my heart. I cannot believe how lucky I am to share this little world with Karla, India, and Isaiah. We have the best time together, and it makes me shudder to even begin to imagine a world without them. They are the best. And of course, my big Rutten family is all I could ask for in that department. I am also so, so grateful that I woke up a couple of years ago to the fire inside me and the need to pursue my passion and share my voice with the world. I am every day driven by that, and happily so. It is an enormous challenge, but that challenge represents the blessing of knowing who I am and what I have to give. It’s a beautiful responsibility. I’ll take it! It is plain to me in this moment that I am blessed in every way. It is a Happy Thanksgiving, indeed! Life is beautiful.

It’s a pretty typical gratitude check for my journal, the kind of sentiment that has filled up many lines of many pages of many journals in the last twenty years of writing. The part that my heart keeps going back to this Thanksgiving week, though—the word that feels exceedingly relevant in light of recent world events—is “responsibility.” Yes, with all of the focus everyone is putting on being thankful, my mind cannot help but carry gratitude to its next logical step. For me, Gratitude’s child is Responsibility.

I have always been a big believer in the principle, “With great gifts come great responsibilities,a.k.a. “To whom much is given, much is expected. In my mind, if you are lucky enough to have hit the lottery in one form or another—your intelligence, your physical abilities, your wealth, your power—then you have an obligation to do the best you can with your special gift. Honor what is special about you by using it to its fullest, especially in raising up others who were not given your gift. And don’t act like you are so much better than everyone else just because you won the lottery. You got lucky. Be grateful for that, not arrogant. That’s how I see it.

Lately, my beloved America has been embroiled in the drama of the Syrian refugee crisis. Even though there is, theoretically, space enough and resources enough for a few more in this great land, we ardently demand that our borders be closed and our resources saved just for us. Mine, not yours! It is greedy and small of us. But mostly, it just feels like our response is a blatant display of ingratitude.

We have struck the geographic lottery by being born in America, where we have tons of freedoms, clean water, never wars on our soil, and relative economic prosperity. And very few of us have personally done anything to earn this stuff. We got lucky by being born here. We have so much, and we like to think of ourselves as the world’s leader (e.g. we have taken it upon ourselves to explore space on behalf of all humankind, and it is always a “U.S.-led coalition” that goes after the bad guys). And yet, when a situation like the current refugee crisis arises, we avert our eyes and sit on our hands, pretending this is not EXACTLY the time that the world needs a real leader. The world needs a beacon of light right now, and instead, we are playing small. I am embarrassed by that.

The other angle of this situation with American attitudes toward the refugees that increasingly bothers and embarrasses me is the religious hypocrisy slant. Despite liking the idea of being a melting pot, the majority of people seem to cling desperately to the idea that we are a “Christian nation.” Though I am not a Christian, I have been one, I’ve read the Bible from start to finish, and I think very highly of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. From what I know of him and his principles, my guess is that he would be first in line to welcome the refugees and help them to re-establish themselves and become prosperous and contributing members of our community.

Jesus was, if nothing else, a teacher of love, tolerance, and humility. And yet, here we are as a nation of his followers, and the dominant features of our attitudes in this situation are fear, intolerance, and hubris. I shake my head as I think how sadly appropriate the meme on my friend’s Facebook page was this week showing Kermit the Frog sipping tea, with the caption reading, “All of the Bible Belt states refusing refugees put on a Christmas play every year about a Middle-Eastern family seeking shelter, fleeing persecution…but that’s none of my business.

It is easy to have principles when everything is going your way. It is convenient to be righteous when nothing is being asked of you. Well, guess what? Something is being asked of us now. We are being asked to share. Share our compassion. Share our resources. Share our country.

For most of us, the reason we are Americans is that our ancestors came here seeking a better life, a life with greater opportunity and less persecution. Others of us are here because our ancestors were brought here against their will and sold into slavery. Whatever the case, we are all here now, and we are pretty darn lucky to be here. We are blessed in so many ways that others are not. We have good reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. Collectively, our cup is full.

The question we have to ask ourselves—individually and collectively—is this: How are we going to express that gratitude? Not just, “How are we going to be grateful?” but rather, “How are we going to act grateful?” What will we do? How can we make ‘gratitude’ a verb? Will we take up the responsibility that our many blessings call for? Will we take Jesus’ example seriously? Will we lead? Or will we play small? Will we hide behind fear and bigotry, seeking only to protect what we are sure is “ours” alone? We have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves a loaded question.

Basically, if we really are grateful for all we have and all that comes with being an American, then we have a responsibility to help. To open our grateful hearts and share. I want to think that we are big enough to rise to that. I want to. But are we? Our day of reckoning is here. Let us reveal ourselves. I am ready to stand with my arms open.

How about you? What kind of responsibility are you feeling this week? Open up your journal and explore your relationship with gratitude and responsibility. What are you most grateful for this year? How grateful are you to live in this country? What about being an American is so special and makes us so lucky? Is it mostly about the principles that the country was founded upon? Or is it the economic prosperity and opportunities? How about the relative safety and security? If you are reading this letter, you are probably one of the more prosperous people in the world. How much of that is your own doing? Do you agree with me that much of what we have is dumb luck, that we could just as well have been born in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Syria? If this is true, then how greedy are we justified in being with “our” space and “our” resources? Where would you be now if your ancestors were shut out of America the way so many of us are demanding that we shut out the refugees now? If we are as blessed as I believe we are, don’t we have a responsibility to help these people who are literally without a country? If not us, who do you think should help them? When you turn your back on someone in need–someone whom you have the resources to help–how does that make you feel? Powerful? Or small? It makes me feel small. Are you a Christian? What do you think Jesus’ stand on helping the refugees would be? Do you think it would matter to him what their religion is? What can you do to step up today, to honor your privileges? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do our many blessings come with greater responsibilities?

Happy Thanksgiving,

William

P.S. I thank you for reading my letter. If you are grateful for it, please share it with friends.

Searching for Light in a Time of Darkness: Refugees & The Home of the Brave

DSC_0522“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” –Nelson Mandela

Hello friend,

A dark cloud has followed me around this week. Feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and despair have figured prominently in my days. I’m disheartened. The terrorist attacks on Paris were a painful reminder of our vulnerability and the fragility of life. It can all be over in a moment. The attacks also showed vividly how a force of evil can be the dark, scary monster lurking in our collective closet, something we can all rally together against. And though the terrorism hurt my heart, it has not been the darkness that has been my companion through the week (sadly, the regularity of mass killings in our society has numbed me a bit, making me better able to bounce back from their shock).

No, the disappointment and sick-to-my-stomach despair I have been carrying around have been caused not by terrorists but by my own countrymen, my acquaintances, even my own friends. My Facebook newsfeed is a storm of anti-refugee sentiment. People are shouting (in their Facebook voices): “Lock the gates!“Refugees are terrorists!“Muslims keep out!“Not in MY state!They are calling for the President’s head because he simply suggested we keep our hearts open to these people who are literally without a country due to the atrocities and widespread destruction in their homeland. They literally have nothing left, and yet the level of negativity toward them is absolutely off the charts. Honestly, it breaks my heart.

It pains me not simply because innocent people in dire straits are being subjected to intense bigotry based on their religion—though that would be reason enough to hurt my feelings—but mostly because it is happening in my Facebook feed. In other words, my ‘friends’ are the bigots. Like most people, my Friend List is a huge mix of people who are from my hometown, my extended family, or other stops along my path. Some of them I know well, some not at all, and everything in between. But somehow, one of us invited the other one to become ‘friends,’ and the other one accepted. I have to take some ownership there. So now I have these people in my little web–some of whom I was just last week liking their photos of their kids’ swim meets or their vacation or whatever–who are unleashing all manner of ignorance and negativity upon me in the form of their posts and shares of videos and memes. It is a gut-punch. It feels like my house is infested with fear and hatred, and I have the guilt of someone who allowed it in by creating the group in the first place. I feel dirty.

I have gone through my own evolution of reactions to the ignorant posts as the week has progressed, something like the stages of grief. At first, I was in denial. When I saw the first few, I just shook my head and tried to pass them off as someone who was just unusually misinformed on the situation. I made sure I read up a bit more on the real situation to be sure I had my facts straight. When more posts came in, I started to see the seriousness of the situation. It wasn’t just a random extremist. I began re-reading them several times, angrily rebutting the bigotry and misinformation in my mind. Pretty soon it felt like bombs were falling on me from everywhere, and I started to become numb to it. I tortured myself by reading the comments after the hateful posts, which, of course, just piled it on thicker. I felt helpless. What could little old me do in the face of such darkness? My stomach was actually sick from it. Psychologically, I went into the fetal position. I went to bed that night a beaten man.

When I woke up the next day, my mind had cleared just enough to resolve that I had to do something to feel good and authentic again, something that proved to myself I wasn’t yet buried by the darkness. Scrolling through my newsfeed, I soon came across a meme from a ‘friend’ (who I don’t actually know) that was both false and totally mean-spirited. Before I blocked him, I commented on his post: “Do you actually think about these things before you post them? His response: “Facebook is supposed to be fun. Enough said.

Later that day, another ‘friend’ shared an article and her own rant about how all of us soft-hearted people should be forced to house these terrorist refugees in the article so that we would learn our lesson. In my new resolve, I read the article with an open mind and found that this was probably not the best piece to back up her opinion, as it pertained to Americans who were leaving our country and going to Syria to join ISIS. I decided that, even though her emotions were already clearly charged up and her opinion decided, I would still respond in a neutral yet authentic way. My comment: “This article is about AMERICANS traveling to Syria. I’m guessing the refugees would like to avoid these folks as much as you would. Perhaps learning a bit more about the atrocities happening there and the unlivable conditions might give us all some more compassion toward these people who have nowhere to go. Her response: “Zero background checks. That’s all I need to know. Apart from that being false, it was clear that her mind was made up and my energy best spent elsewhere. Before she was unfollowed later that day, she had posted a harmless anti-Obama meme meant to be humorous—which I don’t mind at all—and then a twenty-minute, extremist, rock-video style video meant to frighten everyone into shutting out every future refugee from anywhere (as many of the folks in the video were definitely not from Syria).

It was then that I decided that I cannot have a personal exchange with every hate-monger, fear-monger, and misinformed person out there. Sure, I can block and unfollow, and I can comment where I think there are ears that might hear, but it isn’t in me to squabble continuously. Thankfully, in the midst of all of the dark posts, I found something else that resonated with me. Another ‘friend’ of mine, herself in a minority group that has dealt with hatred and ignorance aplenty, posted a very personal message of how pained and disenchanted she was by the darkness that had consumed her own Facebook newsfeed, to the point that she would no longer be on it for a while. It sounded like the way I was feeling the day before. I sent her a short note of support, and suddenly my burden felt a little lighter. Later that night, I found an article and a meme that I thought would help people understand the situation of the refugees more clearly and shared them, and I have since shared a video that will hopefully open people’s hearts and minds regarding Muslims in general.

Much more than those shares, though, is that I have combed my newsfeed for posts that are positive and uplifting, and I have made it a point to like and comment on them, to thank the person for sharing. I have especially made it a point to send support to people who seem to be feeling the way I was—overwhelmed by the hate and fear-based posts—to let them know that they are not alone. It is no fun to be alone in the dark and under attack. In these attempts to connect with and support people who are leading with open hearts and open minds, I have found myself and my voice again.

“A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” –Father James Keller

How about you? Which emotions are driving you at this unique point in history? Open up your journal and really get down to the bare essence of what is in your heart. When you think about the situation with the Syrian refugees, what feelings well up? Sympathy? Suspicion? Sadness? Self-preservation? Openness? Guardedness? Are you able to separate your feelings about the refugee situation with your feelings about recent terrorist attacks?  Some people say that our attitudes and actions come from one of two places: Love or Fear. In this situation with the refugees, which one do you think is driving your position? Compared to the people around you, are you closer to the Love end of the spectrum or the Fear end? How do you deal with the people on the opposite end of the spectrum? Do you try to state your case and get them to change their mind (are you calm or passionate in your pleas?)? Do you simply avoid the topic or ignore their comments that oppose yours in order to keep the peace? Do you block and unfollow people? Whichever way you approach it, how does your response make you feel? Are you okay with it—proud of yourself, even–or do you feel small and inauthentic, perhaps frustrated with yourself? Do you stand up to some and let others go? How do you decide? What about when it comes to those who are on the same end of the spectrum as you? Are you more willing to speak up around them? How openly supportive of them are you? Do you know someone whom your opinion inspires? Are you proud of that and the example you are setting? What can you do today to bring more love, more hope, and more light to our world?

Be a light, always a light,

William

P.S. To live our best lives, we need to know ourselves better. If this letter helped you to better know who you are, share it with the world around you. Many thanks!