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Can You Love Your Country But Not Your Countrymen? IT’S COMPLICATED!

“Asgard is not a place; it’s a people.” –from Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok 

“A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” –Edward Abbey

Hello friend,

Last month we passed the 18th anniversary of 9/11. When I woke up that ordinary day those weeks ago and started thinking about that extraordinarily awful day those years ago, I was transported instantly. I remembered it all so vividly: getting out of the shower to a phone call from my girlfriend, sitting transfixed in front of the little television in my office for hours, the emptiness inside me, the surreal feeling of actually going to a graduate school seminar that night and trying to have a discussion about something other than our completely changed world. The entire day was mind-bending and soul-wrenching. Nothing could ever be the same again.

Still, when last month’s anniversary came around, I struggled to fathom that 18 years had passed since that fateful day. So much water has flowed under the bridge in that time, and my country has revealed so much of its complicated nature.

I get nostalgic each September, first with those awful visions but then much more with thoughts of the beauty that followed. On this September the 11th, my attention was particularly drawn to the memes on social media about the way we, the people of America, came together in its immediate aftermath, with gestures big and small to show that we cared about each other and this country that we share. One example was a poster with imagery reminiscent of an American flag and these words: “I MISS 9/12. I would never ever want another 9/11, but I miss the America of 9/12. Stores ran out of flags to sell because they were being flown everywhere. People were Americans before they were upper or lower class, Jewish or Christian, Republican or Democrat. We hugged people without caring if they ate at Chick-Fil-A or wore Nikes. ON 9/12, WHAT MATTERED MORE WAS WHAT UNITED US, THAN WHAT DIVIDED US.”

It reminded me of a book I read recently, an autobiography called A Dream About Lightning Bugs by the musician Ben Folds, who is several years older than I am but basically of my generation. He had made the difficult choice to keep touring in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, feeling that people needed the music and the release it provided in that devastating time. Of those months, he wrote, “Anyone who was in the United Sates in the wake of 9/11 might recall that, rising from the ashes of the tragedy, something magical was also happening. People suddenly acknowledged one another in the streets, smiled, opened doors, and helped with groceries. Everywhere. I think this is often overlooked. As I toured the country, I saw a sense of community and humanity expressed that I hadn’t seen in my lifetime.”

How sad is it that I miss what only a tragedy could incite?

We are one year away from a major election, so divisiveness is about to get extreme. Well, let’s face it: division and antagonism have been extreme for several years now. But I have no doubt that with the stink-stirrers who are going to be the central players in the coming show, America’s internal hatred is going to reach an all-time high. There will be tons of glorifying “us” and vilifying “them” for reasons real and imagined, despite the fact that we all belong here.

I know in advance–because I know how I feel here most days–that I will really detest the lows that we will have sunk to and the new “normal” we will have established in all this pettiness. “We” are America. As we enter the 2020s, the we I see in our collective mirror isn’t what I used to imagine we were. I say “imagine,” because maybe we were always this shallow and antagonistic. Maybe the modern age of cameras everywhere and social media and other perversions of media (hello, Fox News!) have not so much produced our lesser angels but rather simply revealed who we have always been. It was easier to imagine our country–the people and movements who make up our country and its character–as better, brighter, higher. You know, like the America that showed up on September 12, 2001.

Wrap your mind around this: the children who were conceived in those unified, harmonious months in America post-9/11 will be able to vote in their first election next year.

They wouldn’t even recognize the America that they were conceived into. That is really sad. As they are now beginning to raise their awareness of politics and our country’s position in the world, knowing only what they witness in these times, how lacking they must be in both hope and the confidence in our leaders–and our people–to do what is right and just.

There are just too many examples on all levels of our country doing things that we ought to be ashamed of. Why can’t we get some of this stuff figured out? Decent health care for all of us. Assault rifles that are unavailable to those of us not conducting military campaigns. Not caging children. Treating our politicians like public servants with whom we can agree or disagree on a policy-by-policy, action-by-action basis rather than like celebrities or deities to whom we offer our blind devotion simply because they belong to a designated political party. Acknowledging our role in the escalation of climate change and then taking actual steps to reverse our impact and to help make Earth habitable for our great-grandchildren. Ensuring fair elections. Simple stuff.

And it’s too easy to blame the government or the President or whichever political party is not yours. We–the citizens–are bad at this stuff, too. We create the toxicity. We tolerate the empty promises and shady dealings. We tolerate people getting rolled over by the system. We numb ourselves to the school shootings and the scandals and the record temperatures. We spout our own ignorance or hate or empty “thoughts and prayers.” We deny, deny, deny. We simply aren’t very good to each other.

That realization really, really aches to absorb. We are a hollow country right now.

How long can we last on just the founding ideals when we don’t actually act on them? Can we still be the shining city on the hill if we have dug ourselves a pit–or a “swamp,” as the lingo du jour goes–and dimmed our brightest lights? How do we become admirable, whether or not you think we ever were before? Short of our government suddenly making a bunch of wise, beneficent moves that might draw positive attention from the press and the rest of the world, how do we–the people–get back to that kindness and decency of September 12th? How do we get back to seeing ourselves, collectively, as occupants under the same tent, each responsible for all of our well-being, and believing that the person in front of or behind you in line deserves the very best of you?

I don’t want to have to wish for a “9/11 Version 2.0” just to get a 9/12 America. I feel like that is the weak way out of this and would only lead to a quicker and steeper return to our current shallow meanness. I believe we are better than that and should prove it the hard way: act by act, day by day, person by person. I have faith that we could pull this off. After all, we have done this before. That feeling that many of us remember, that sentiment that inspires the memes, those acts of simple decency that Ben Folds witnessed as he toured the country: all of that is evidence that we are capable of making each other’s lives–and by turn America itself–a better, more just, and more inspiring place to live. We just need to rise.

We need to. Because I am tired. I am tired of despising people who wear red hats, tired of feeling embarrassed by the actions of my representatives, tired of feeling isolated from my neighbors or family members based on which signs they put in their yard during election season, tired of the distance that we have allowed our screens and our busy-ness to create between us, tired of justifying my absence from the public square, tired of being disappointed in others but not doing anything to be a better example to them, tired of missing opportunities to take the first step to bridge these gaps, and, most importantly, tired of the shame I feel at allowing all of this to take place in my precious America. I am tired of being low. It must surely be time for me to rise.

How about you? Are you ready to rise up and be the kind of citizen and country that we can be proud of? Open up your journal and consider the best and worst of your country and what role you play in each. How do you characterize your country at this point in its history? Is it riding a good wave and showing off its best colors, or has it sunk to a place where all of its warts are showing? From your vantage point, are you more likely to notice and dwell upon the shortcomings of your government or of the citizenry? Does one group seem to rise and fall as a result of the other one, or do the people seem to operate independently of their leadership apparatus? Are you proud of your country? When you give your answer to that one, what does it actually mean to you? Do you mean that you are proud (or not) of the actions your government takes toward its people or toward other countries around the world–e.g. providing health care or good education to its citizens, joining a coalition military campaign to fight an evil dictator, providing humanitarian aid to war-torn or famine-stricken countries, etc.–or, rather, that you are proud of the way the people in your country act toward each other and proud of the causes that they stand up for at the polls and with their pocket-books? Do you believe it is important to examine the distinction between the two angles and flesh out your thoughts on each? How different are your answers on your pride for your government and pride for your people? Do we need to also add the layer of being proud of what your country theoretically stands for–things like Liberty, Equality, Justice–versus what it shows that it stands for in practice? How would you rank what you are most proud of in order from least to most: the people of your country, the government and leaders of your country as it currently stands, and the theoretical values that your country stands for? How disparate are these three categories in your country? Is that okay? At what point in your country’s history do you think the three categories were most in step with one another? How do all of these answers form your concept of patriotism and what it means to be a patriot? How patriotic can you be if you don’t have faith in the people of your country? Might it be of some benefit to your country to have a crisis–like a 9/11–to shake it out of the error of its ways? Does it require a tragedy to bring out the best in people and reveal our common humanity? What are some ways that you could be a better citizen? Are any of those things that you could begin to apply today? If everyone took on that challenge, how much better could things get? How do you imagine your country at its very best? What would the government be doing differently, and what would the ordinary people be doing differently? How would all of that affect your lifestyle and your outlook on the future? How can you rise to meet that challenge of creating a better place to live? Do you tend to look at the big stuff–government level–or the stuff that you can do interpersonally to make that difference? If we do the small, will the big begin to take care of itself? Can you start with the person across the street whose sign is different than yours? If not there, then where? Leave me a reply and let me know: Can you love your country but not the people in it, and what good is the first without the second?

Reach out,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with the world. Reach out and rise up!

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

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.

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.

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.

A Life Sentence In Music: Choosing Your Only 5 Bands For Eternity

“To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.” –Aaron Copland

“People haven’t always been there for me but music always has.” –Taylor Swift

Hello friend,

I have had this question rolling around in my head for months. Months! Typically, if I get a question in my head, I do a little journaling and it works itself out. For some reason, though, I have not followed that path with this one, and it has most definitely NOT worked itself out. So, I write to you today not to share with you what I have worked out, but more to marvel at the process of working it out and how difficult (impossible?) some topics are to nail down and how likely they are to change at the very moment you think you have the answer.

It all started, as most troubles do, with a friend’s Facebook post. I love those people who post great questions that you cannot resist answering in the Comments or, even if you don’t have an answer on the top of your mind, you can’t resist looking at everyone else’s answers. He put one like that on there this week, too: something like, “What are your top five favorite movies, all genres included?” I took that question so seriously that I couldn’t put my answer down immediately because it required deep consideration, so I adjusted my settings so it showed me notifications any time someone commented on it (I love movies, and I love opinions even more!).

Anyway, the question he asked that night a few months ago that has been trailing me ever since is, “If you could only listen to five bands/musicians for the rest of your life, who would you choose?” I was stricken instantly by the difficulty of it. Even as I read my friend’s choices and the lists of the first few people who had already commented–evidence that it could obviously be done–I was overcome by the enormity of the challenge posed. It seemed a question as big as The Meaning of Life. An absolute stumper. As often as I have thought of it since then–almost daily–it remains just that to me.

You see, I am in love with music. It captivates my soul and moves me in a million beautiful ways. I am completely in agreement with the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who proclaimed, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” In the past decade of my life–ten years defined almost exclusively by heavily involved parenthood–I have often lamented that, for all of the magic and delight that my dotingly attentive Dadding has gifted me with, what it has kept me from is tons of hours under the cover of my big headphones, lost in the sway of this Divine language called Music. You don’t get that luxury when you are listening for babies crying or big kids squabbling. But oh, what a luxury! And there is so much of it filling so many different genres, each magnificent in its own way.

I find pleasure in a wide array of styles: Folk, R & B, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Classical, Blues, Reggae, Hip-Hop, Pop, Jazz, Broadway, Soul, Country (well, a few select old-timers, anyway), New Age, Gospel, Motown, and more.

I am not exactly sure what the proper name of the genre I listen to most is. To myself, I call it “Singer-Songwriter Music.” It is probably easier identified by the names of some of my favorites in that category: Matt Nathanson, Mat Kearney, Glen Hansard, Ryan Adams, Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, David Gray, Ben Rector, Ben Folds, Storyhill, Brenda Weiler, Ray Lamontagne, The Decemberists, Natalie Merchant, Joshua Radin, Marc Cohn, Amos Lee, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Jakob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Bruce Hornsby, Five For Fighting, John Mayer, Jack Johnson, and Joshua Kadison. Basically, it is music that is mostly (or easily) stripped down to guitars (often acoustic) or piano along with vocals. I listen to a lot of that, and when I first considered this thought experiment of narrowing my lifetime musical choices to just five, I was tempted to pull from this list only (well, maybe this list plus Counting Crows, a longtime favorite band who nearly fits this genre but is probably more considered Rock). That list would probably be (subject to daily changes of mind): Counting Crows, Indigo Girls, Marc Cohn, Matt Nathanson, and Mat Kearney. Wow, that’s hard to narrow!

But just when I think of how much I love those artists and how I would enjoy listening to their catalogues over and over, it strikes me how much Joy and inspiration I would be missing out on by sticking only to my favorite genre.

I love R & B! I am a sucker for the 80s and 90s slow jams from my favorites–Keith Sweat rules–but also love the stuff I can dance to. All of the family tree of New Edition–Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill, Bell Biv DeVoe–is amazing. But so many others, too: Luther Vandross, Johnny Gill, James Ingram, Keith Washington, Peabo Bryson, Hi-Five, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Ne-Yo, Guy, Babyface, Barry White, Janet Jackson, SWV, TLC, Boyz II Men, Deborah Cox, John Legend, and more. As much as it is paining me to think of leaving these artists out of the rest of my life, I cannot imagine leaving out the entire genre. I have to keep at least one for my five eternals. Right?

And that is just my second favorite genre! Could I ever do without Classical or Jazz Piano from the likes of Keith Jarrett? Could I survive without at least a little Hip-Hop flavor in my life? And Reggae? How could I narrow my lists down to just five artists and not have someone from these genres?

And then there are those few artists who aren’t necessarily in my categories but are amazing and possibly necessary for the list. Michael Jackson. Prince.

As I was thinking about this topic the other day, I walked into the house and found my wife jamming to a Beyoncé/Destiny’s Child mix in the kitchen. I couldn’t help but start dancing. It struck me: How could I live without this, something that I would never call my “favorite” because the songwriting doesn’t touch me but that is so catchy and fun that it makes me dance every time? Was Beyoncé a candidate for the list, too?

It might also be some kind of torture to be alive and not be able to listen to the singular songwriting of Bob Dylan, the golden voice of Patti LaBelle, the blues guitar of Buddy Guy, and other such unique talents. Mozart. Marvin Gaye. Al Green. Bruce Springsteen. Ray Charles. Willie Nelson. Wynton Marsalis. Shirley Caesar. John Prine. Bob Marley. U2. Jay-Z. Johnny Cash. Billie Holiday. The Beatles.

It is enough to make my mind explode! How could one possibly narrow all of this magic down to just five? And yet, that is the challenge. I am so drawn to these thought experiments because they are so darn difficult, could go any number of ways depending upon my mood, and are open to such thorough debate.

In this case, there is the internal debate about the grounds for choosing. Do you go with the five you seem to listen to most? That seems the most obvious and it’s what I did first. But it left me feeling starved for variety. But when I start thinking I should spread out my genres, I end up with too few of my absolute favorites. And with R & B, I deeply love the genre but don’t necessarily have one artist that demands inclusion. Then I try to compromise by combining, like, “Maybe Michael Jackson can satisfy my R & B fix with some of his songs, even though he is mostly Pop.” Then I try my last desperate ploy: “I will take New Edition if you let me include all of their solo careers that came after the band broke up, pretty please.” I’m going to pretend that plea/caveat was accepted! Then you have to consider if some of your possible choices have a big enough catalogue of music or if they are still young enough that they are going to keep putting out new music, which makes it more exciting.

So, what if I started by narrowing it? That might make it seem more manageable than trying to just pull five from the 76 artists (and counting) I have already mentioned. Okay, here we go, legitimate options……Matt Nathanson, Mat Kearney, Ryan Adams, Tracy Chapman, David Gray, Indigo Girls, Storyhill, The Decemberists, Joshua Radin, Marc Cohn, The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Joshua Kadison, Counting Crows, Keith Sweat, New Edition (and ensuing careers), Babyface, Keith Jarrett, George Winston, Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, The Beatles.

Okay, that’s 24. Not particularly helpful, but a start. It’s time to get tough. Next cut……Matt Nathanson, Mat Kearney, Tracy Chapman, David Gray, Indigo Girls, Joshua Radin, March Cohn, Bob Dylan, Counting Crows, New Edition, Keith Jarrett, Michael Jackson.

Alright, now we have definitely reached the painful point! Twelve would be much easier to keep than five! Okay, okay, I can do this (with teeth gritted)…..Mat Kearney, Indigo Girls, Marc Cohn, Counting Crows, New Edition.

Hooray! And sob. I love these selections; they represent so much of my history and memories, with still some music left to be made. That makes me happy. It’s sad, though, leaving out the great diversity of artists and genres that I love and that continue to shape me as I push every year to stretch my musical palate. It seems a great tragedy. To try to limit the infinite power of music is a crime. No wonder this exercise has been so difficult!

It is a good thing it is hypothetical. Still, I love this kind of challenge! Once I get going, I plunge in headfirst and take the process seriously to the end, fleshing out the finer points and multiple possibilities. After so many years of journaling, my brain seems to especially enjoy topics that are ambiguous and multi-faceted, full of intricacies and forks in the road. I am drawn to nuance, depth, and grey areas that beg to be understood more fully rather than just the black-and-white answers that we are so often fed by politicians and social media trolls. I think that is what so intrigued me about this topic of narrowing musical choices. I knew it would require a period of uncertainty, of not knowing exactly what I think, and that I would have to wade through those murky waters and linger in that discomfort until I could come up with, through my own process of analysis and ultimately trusting my own judgment, the answers that feel right to me.

So, in the end, this challenge was rewarding almost as much for the mental exercise as for the trip through my music collection and all of the brilliant artists that have blown my soul wide open through the years. Almost! Truth be told, I could just climb into my music collection and let my heart bubble over with Love. As my guy Matt Nathanson sings, “I feel invincible with my headphones on!”

How about you? How will you narrow your musical loves down to just five for the rest of your life? Open up your journal and your album collection and play your way through to clarity. Do you like these types of questions that, even though they aren’t “serious,” force you to dig deep to come up with the answers that best represent you and your loves? Do you tend to comment on them when someone poses a question like this on social media? If not, do you at least tend to make a list in your head? Do you scan the Comments for other people’s lists? It’s interesting, right? It gives us insights into people we may not get another way. How about this particular question? How keenly were you drawn to it when you first heard it? Did you instantly start thinking of your list? What were the first names that jumped to your mind? Were they artists that you have always listened to, or were they more recent additions to your collection? As you started to expand beyond your top couple and considered options for your final selections, how big did the list grow? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? What were the biggest factors you considered? The pure joy the artist’s music gives you? The memories tied to that artist’s music? The number of songs in their catalogue? How many albums they are likely to release in the future? How self-conscious did you get in the process? Did you feel yourself succumbing to considering how other people would react to certain selections, leaning toward artists who would give you more cachet with “music people” over less sophisticated artists who just make your heart sing more? Did you feel pressure to diversify your list when you saw what it might be? What was your Top 10? How did you get from there to five? How painful was it? Who were your five? When you read through it, how much Joy do you feel? Any regrets? How fun was it just to go through your collection? Isn’t music amazing? How could we ever limit it, even to our very favorites? Leave me a reply and let me know: How seriously can you take a hypothetical question about something you love?

Let your spirit sing,

William

P.S. If this got you thinking or made you smile, pass it on. The world needs more active minds and smiling faces!

P.P.S. If this way of questioning yourself invigorates you, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

How Well Is YOUR Country Doing?

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” –Alexis de Tocqueville

Hello friend,

I need to tell you about an old friend of mine. He has been so much on my mind lately, and I need to know what to make of him. You see, I have been watching this old friend–let’s call him Tom–not only the types of successes he has been enjoying financially and in his career, but also the decisions he has been making and the way he has been treating the people in his life. I have been taking it all in, and my gut is screaming out one way, but I would like your read on him. So, please indulge me and thank you in advance for your wisdom.

Tom lives in a big, beautiful house in an upscale neighborhood. He owns a very successful business–employs a lot of people and makes a lot of money–and also has made a killing in the stock market in the decade since the recession. Financially, he is sitting pretty. The rest of his life is less pretty. Tom has had some alcohol-related incidents lately, including a DUI and an assault and disorderly conduct charge stemming from an incident at a local bar. Also, after a back surgery last year, he became addicted to prescription pain medication and has not been able to kick the habit. It has had enormous ramifications in his relationships. He has become physically abusive with his wife, to the point where she has had to be treated at the hospital. After the latest episode–just last week–in which her collarbone was broken, she filed for divorce and moved out of the house with their two middle-grade children. He has not harmed either of the kids physically, but his emotional abuse has been quite traumatic for them both and they were deeply relieved when their mother moved them to the hotel. He has given up his long-held spiritual beliefs and alienated nearly all of his family and friends (though he claims his dealer is a “real, true friend”). He has been able to maintain his thriving business and financial well-being through it all–and he claims that that is the only proof anyone needs that he is “doing just fine, thank you”–but from my angle, it seems like that is just about all he has going for him right now. He seems adrift, bitter, and depressed. A lost soul. If I didn’t know anything about his finances, I would say he is at rock bottom.

What would you say? How is it going inside his world right now? Rate his life for me on a scale of 1 to 10.

I am going to pretend, until I hear otherwise, that you see life in a way that is somewhat similar to the way I see it, okay? So, I am saying that you gave him a low score. Somewhere between 1 and 3. Definitely not above 5. Right? That seems like the rational human answer. When your soul is lost, money isn’t enough to make it found.

I thought of this guy a lot last week as I followed the big news stories of the day on NPR, CNN, and Facebook. Two comments struck me the deepest and got me in my Pondering Mode (which usually leads to a letter to you). The first one came when I was watching CNN in the immediate aftermath of the first vote for the Supreme Court nomination, which happened to coincide with the day that America’s unemployment numbers were released, revealing our lowest rate in 49 years. One of the guests on the show was a Republican strategist–seemingly a clear-minded guy–and after opining on a few different issues, his summary, as it related to the President, was essentially this (I am paraphrasing): “Even if you are like me and find his personality and comments distasteful, based on delivering two conservative Supreme Court justices and the stock market and unemployment numbers, you would have to say that as a President, he has been a resounding success. The country is doing great.”

I am fairly sure that I drooled a large puddle onto my shirt as my jaw dropped onto my chest. He was being completely serious, and my eyes were bugging out of my head, in the same way they might if I had gone to my doctor for a check on a persistent cough and she told me that the diagnosis was simple: I had monkeys flying out of my butt.

I had to pause and collect my mind. After all, I had just written to you in my last letter about how little we know what is in each other’s minds. This pundit forced me to confront the possibility that his read on our President and the state of the union, though preposterous to me, could be a common one. I just hadn’t ever thought of it before, as everything I read and watch seems to be indicate that we are in a historically bad place in our country, led by a man that is historically unpopular.

Anyway, it was in that pondering state that I was looking at Facebook the next day and came across a post from my friend who is notorious for stirring the pot by putting out probing or controversial questions that draw dozens of comments and debates from her large and vociferous Facebook community. She asked something about the Supreme Court fiasco. Amidst all of these folks bashing the Republicans in the Comments section, there was this one woman who stood up for the conservative cause by saying, essentially, “Look how great the country is doing financially, so all is well. (And go Trump.)”  

Again I was staggered for a moment, but there it was, that same sentiment: If the money stuff is good, then we are definitely a healthy and successful country. We should just keep doing what we are doing. If you want to know if you live in a good country with good leaders, look no further than the stock market and unemployment numbers.

As I gave this idea a fresh spin around my brain to see the many ways it would strike me, a memory from my childhood came up. One of the very few things I can recall about politics or elections from that time was a candidate–it must have been Reagan–saying, essentially, “If you are in as good or better shape financially than you were four years ago, then the only logical vote is for me.” I understood where he was coming from and didn’t question his rationale, as I didn’t give politics a second thought at that age (my parents were big Reagan fans, and Republicans were winning, so I just figured they were cheering for the right guys).

But I give it a second thought now. And a third and fourth, too. I am quite interested, actually. (Sometimes I think I should even go into politics, but I wouldn’t survive, as I take the arguments too personally.) So, when I read that woman’s Facebook comment and listened to the pundit, both saying essentially that our strong economic indicators mean that the country is in great shape and our elected officials are doing a swell job, I was stunned initially. Honestly, after the initial shock of each, I was waiting for the, “Alright alright, just messing with you!” type of follow-up. When I realized that they were completely serious, I had to gather my wits about me, realizing that I have been out of touch with a perhaps-commonly held idea.

Of course, I know that the President has his roughly 33% of ardent supporters who are sure he is making us great again. But do people really think that the country is in good shape? Does a good DOW score and low unemployment mean we are a healthy country?

Don’t get me wrong: I like a strong economy. I like more people having jobs and people earning on their investments. But what about our collective soul? The soul of the nation? Does that not count for anything?

The historians that I read and listen to–old guys like Dan Rather and David Gergen, veterans of many administrations and wars and movements and eras–say the country hasn’t been so divided and faith in our representatives so low in their entire lifetimes. Our standing in the world, from the polls I have seen, has never been lower. Speaking just for myself, I have never felt less “at home” here. And, just by the feel of the energy in the air–not very scientific, I admit–it just seems like dark times in America.

I would argue that that stuff counts, too.

So, I guess what I am saying is I don’t buy the glossy, “Look no further than your bank account,” standard when I assess how well my country is doing. And I resent it when someone offers up the obvious moral decay and corruption in our elected representatives in Washington, the damage to the environment and human rights abuses brought on by the policies of the current administration, and the rise in the level of acrimony amongst ordinary citizens as proof of a country whose very soul is in trouble, the response is basically, “Shut up and cash your check.” That attitude and method of assessment is just too shallow.

It’s too shallow to judge a nation this way, the same way it is too shallow to judge a person this way.

It reminds me of talking to my Mom after she has been to some kind of family reunion or had lunch with old friends.

Mom: I had a nice talk with your Uncle So-And-So.

Me: How is he doing?

Mom: He looks good. And I sat with your Cousin Such-And-Such at dinner.

Me: What is happening in her life?

Mom: She looks great! Her hair is so cute. And her kids are adorable!

Me in my head: Who are my real parents???

When I think about my friend Tom–yes, he probably looks good, too–I see his big bank account and want to think he is doing okay, but I can’t get through ten seconds of the thought without my heart feeling overwhelmingly sad for him and the state his life is in. If I had a vote to live in Tom’s life or the life of someone with less money but more kindness and happiness, I would go with the latter every time.

Similarly, I would love to say that America is in great shape and our elected representatives are doing a swell job just because stocks are up and unemployment is down. But I live here and am neither blind nor stone-hearted. I see what is happening in Washington and in my Facebook feed. The level of acrimony is disturbingly high. So many of our recent policy changes strike me as morally repugnant. When I hear from people across the globe that we have become more of a laughingstock than a leader, I can find no fault in their arguments. I love my country dearly, but I am horribly embarrassed and disheartened about its condition right now, no matter what the NASDAQ says.

Like I said about Tom, when your soul is lost, money isn’t enough to make it found. I feel like the America I live in today is as far gone as my old friend, maybe more. And that makes me sad.

How about you? How do you rate your country’s condition right now, and what do you base that upon? Open up your journal and make an honest assessment of the land you call home? I think it is important to be clear about what factors you include in your assessment. Do you stick to hard numbers, like statistics a politician might tout as proof of success? Do you mostly use economic indicators, like the unemployment rate or the DOW? Do you factor in our current reputation in the global community? How much of your assessment of our nation’s condition is based on what you hear or read from friends or your social media community, especially in gathering your read on the level of acrimony between people with different views? How much is based on the overall vibe that you feel with your gut or sixth sense? How do you think your view of our situation is affected by whether you are a supporter of the political party currently in power? Specifically, if you are conservative, did you rate the country’s health as GOOD in 2008 when President Bush was in charge, despite the fact that we were embroiled in war and our economy was in a free-fall, then rated it as BAD during the Obama years, and now GOOD again with your party in charge of everything? Does a country have a soul, at least in a figurative sense? That is to say, is a country bigger than a sum of its statistics? Is it fair to assess a country in a way similar to a human: as more than just their job, age, marital status, and income? If it is, do you agree with my reading that America is in a bad spot right now–its soul is struggling–despite some promising economic indicators? How adrift are we? Way gone or just a slight shift in our course? Leave me a reply and let me know: How well is YOUR country doing?

Live open-hearted,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. Let’s raise our consciousness.

P.P.S. If this type of self-inquiry appeals to you, I encourage you to take a deeper dive with my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, available at your favorite online retailers.

The Satisfaction of DOING: What Can You Check Off Your List?

“Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s a day when you’ve had everything to do and you’ve done it.” –Margaret Thatcher

Hello friend,

I remember this time last year. I was busy organizing my mind and plotting about how I would go about the monumental task of finishing my book and soldiering it to the publishing stage. I was still naïve and unaware of all the million little things it would require, but I knew about the big stuff and that sure seemed like an awful lot. There was much editing ahead. There was formatting. There was cover design, photography, font choice, distribution, the e-book. It was daunting, to say the least.

But I was past the point of letting my fear stop me on this one. My brain was crystal clear about what my heart was set on, so I was not going to be talked out of completing the goal, no matter how many extra, unexpected hurdles popped up to make it more difficult and time-consuming. I just started taking action on the items on my list, no matter how small and distant from the end result they seemed. I whittled down the chapter list. I wrote the Introduction. I experimented with new formatting and learned about Smashwords. I learned about PDFs and JPGs and many other initials that I had no real interest in other than how they could get my words out into the world. Every day I did things to advance the cause.

Every time I finished a task, I breathed a sigh of relief. And I sat up a little straighter. The very act of doing something productive and necessary–whether it was small and simple or huge and totally out of my comfort zone–made me feel so much better about the goal as a whole and about my competence as a goal-chaser. I learned that I could take on things that were challenging and make them work. I learned that I had reserves of energy and resolve if only I dug in and made the attempt. And, best of all, I learned–or at least was reminded–that I was worthy of achieving my goals and dreams. Those were wonderful things to learn about myself, things I won’t soon let go of.

But I also learned something very important about the process of goal-chasing and the very nature of To-Do Lists: they are self-propelling, fueled and energized by the actions on the lists themselves. They are momentum-based. That is, the very doing of a necessary task creates a feeling of achievement and satisfaction that makes me want to get more of that feeling.

Of course, I want to get closer to completing the ultimate objective–publishing the book, in this case–but I also want more of that satisfaction and pride in achievement from conquering individual items on my list. It’s like, sure, you ultimately want to win the war, but the feeling of winning the battles along the way is pretty sweet, too. And the more you win, the more you want to win. Pretty soon you are gobbling up task items like gold stars in elementary school, and all the while, the big goal is getting closer and more realistic all the time. It is a beautiful, satisfying flow, and that satisfaction is highly addictive. And healthy.

This week, I had two fantastic reminders of this beautiful satisfaction and addictive momentum.

The first came in the form of a Facebook post from a longtime member of the Journal of You community. She was announcing the publishing of her own first book for children. The announcement triggered the flood of emotions and memories that I experienced last year when my Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth was finally published. I was so thrilled for her and proud of her (if you can be proud of someone you don’t really know), knowing how much courage and determination it took to make it all happen. Although I am sure our paths to publishing have some things in common, my imagination went wild in considering the many hurdles–artistic, technical, emotional, and more–that she had to overcome and the countless tasks she had to complete to get to this point. That To-Do List had to be miles long! But she checked them off and has an achievement of a lifetime to show for it. That is satisfying!

The second reminder has been building all month long, growing stronger with each checkmark I make on my list. I wrote a letter to you at the end of July called “Maximizing the Summer of Your Life: Are Your Aspirations Happening?” about how, at the start of Summer, I had had such big goals for adventures with my kids and how I wasn’t doing a good job of following through with making concrete plans and taking actions. Well, I am so pleased to report that we are crushing August! I have been downright giddy–and exhausted, I admit–coming home from each new adventure, so satisfied with how the Summer has turned into one big bundle of happy memories.

Just this month so far, we have had a few different weekends at lake cabins with all kinds of water sports and campfires and family, been to the water park, hosted a sleepover, had our first camping adventure sleeping in our new tent at a state park (after a few nights of trying it out in the yard!), hiked through a local forest along a river and waterfall, biked, had lots of play dates, played lots of sports, been to birthday parties, gone to the movies, and been to both the county fair and state fair. It has required discipline from me to put things in the calendar and commit to doing them, whether or not they are in my comfort zone. And each time we do something, on the drive home I mentally check it off the list and notice that sense of satisfaction that is clearly rising as I go deeper and deeper down the list. From that first week of the month until now, I have felt that momentum snowballing. It is an amazing high and makes me even more excited for the final week of Summer and our last great adventures. I am addicted!

That seems to be the way it works for me and my bigger rocks. At times, the big goal– getting a book published or getting in shape or creating the best Summer ever for my kids–just seems too enormous and unmanageable, and I can’t even deal with it in my mind. The sheer scope of the project paralyzes me. It’s only when I can carve it up a bit and see it as a bunch of definable pieces–tasks that I can name, act on, and put a check mark next to–that I can really get my teeth into it and begin that kind of addictive, self-propelling satisfaction that seems to eventually carry the project to completion all on its own. That multiplying satisfaction becomes a force that cannot be stopped.

But it needs action to be started. I need to DO SOMETHING first.

Last year I read a book by Jen Sincero called You Are A Badass. I only recall one line from the book, but it is a keeper: “In order to kick ass, you must first lift your foot.” I love that! Sure, I should have the dream or the goal; it is necessary to do something big. Yes, I should have the excitement for the dream and the right motivation; they help when things get tough. But no matter how noble my dream, how pure-hearted my motivation, or how eager my spirit, nothing will happen until I TAKE ACTION.

But when I do, BOOM! That joy and satisfaction pop up, and the ball starts rolling.

I see now that that is why my life seems to move in spurts. My goals are always out there, but they are floating around as if in space. They often seem too big and distant to act on, so I just kind of slide by for a while in complacency. But then I get antsy and annoyed with myself for that skating, so I reach out and take hold of one of those big rocks and start chiseling. I get my tasks lined up, and I start to get the fever. The momentum builds and carries me happily until the goal is finished and I feel satisfied. Temporarily satisfied. Then it starts all over again: sliding, antsy, grasping, beautiful snowballing.

I guess I should figure out a system to always have at least one thing snowballing toward completion. That would likely keep me more consistently engaged and enthused about my life and my prospects. For now, though, I suppose it is enough to understand that, whatever my circumstances and however lofty my ambitions, the one thing I need to remember is to LIFT MY FOOT. Just lift my foot.

How about you? What does it take for you to tackle your big goals and dreams? Open up your journal and write about your experiences with achievement. What do you do with your big rocks? Do they mostly remain giant floating bodies in a distant space that you cannot quite sink your teeth into, or do you take hold of them and get right to achieving them, or somewhere in between? When you embark upon a large goal, do you formulate a specific plan or do you just flow with your intuition and change with the circumstances? Are you a list-maker? If so, are the lists written down, or do you just keep a rough list going in your head (I have done both)? Do you get that little jolt of adrenaline or feeling of satisfaction from knocking something off your list? Does one success seem to feed into others for you with your To-Do items, the momentum building the further down your list you go? Is there an addictive nature to it for you? Can you name an example of a goal you reached using this kind of momentum-building? How satisfying was it on the whole? How widely did your satisfaction level vary between the first step in the process and the last? Does successful completion of one goal motivate you to get started immediately on the next one, or do you tend to slide for a while after you achieve something? Is that a healthy balance and an opportunity to refuel your tank, or is that lull a waste of precious time? When you think of the way you might describe the way you ARE–e.g. adventurous, generous, open-minded, outdoorsy, outgoing, faithful, Christian, family-oriented, social justice-oriented, selfless, courageous, kind–how does that measure up with the things you actually DO? Are your actions in line with your intentions, or do you mostly think and/or talk a good game? How does this comparison make you feel? Do you have some work to do? What is the next big goal you would like to achieve? Do you have at least a rough list of things you will have to do to get there? What is something you can do today to create some momentum toward that goal? Are you willing to begin? Leave me a reply and let me know: What can you check off your list?

Take that step,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. We can all DO better!

P.S.S. If you are looking to better understand yourself and move toward a more authentic life, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailer.

Child Cages, Moral Decay, and Appalling Silence

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What gives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will.

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

Make your heart feel big,

William

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

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

The Inspiration List: What Motivates You To Be Better

“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hello friend,

This week, I was fascinated to read about James Shaw Jr., the man who, during the “Waffle House Shooting” in Tennessee two weeks ago, wrestled the killer’s AR-15 assault rifle away and forced the shooter to flee, saving numerous lives in the process.

I admit that I purposefully avoided the entire Waffle House story when the tragedy first occurred. I felt like my system was just not ready to take on the emotional toll of another mass shooting. I saw the typical headlines on the television at the gym and in my Newsfeed–the young white male, the assault rifle, the victims–and figured that I knew the story all too well and could save on my mental health by avoiding this one and taking on next week’s shooting instead. It was all too depressing and too numbingly “normal.” I kept my distance. I wanted that sinking darkness to pass me by this once.

What finally drew me to learn the full story, however, was a piece on James Shaw Jr. and his humble generosity. I had seen Mr. Shaw’s picture after the shooting–a photo of his arm that had been grazed by a bullet in the attack–and knew that he had stopped the shooter, but what I learned this week is what truly captured me. You see, he not only saved all these lives, but he also then started a GoFundMe crowdsourcing page for the families of the victims who died in the shooting. His original goal was to raise $15,000. Well, word got out, and as of the last time I checked, he had raised an amazing $225,966.

When I read that story and researched the number on the GoFundMe page, all I could think was, “Now THAT is how to do it! THAT is a light that brightens us all! Bless you, sir!”

James Shaw Jr. is an inspiration to me. He has filled my heart with hope and made me want to be a better human.  

The whole situation of the awful-yet-familiar tragedy at the Waffle House and my accidental discovery of a new source of inspiration this week has caused me to pause and ponder about Inspiration itself and where I can find more of it in this world where conflict, corruption, and calamity that grab the headlines.

I am tired of being weighed down, tired of examples of our failings and our helplessness at the hands of the dark, cold world. I want to feel lifted. I want to feel awe and hope. I want to be reminded that I am magnificent and that I am part of something even more magnificent. I want to believe in a bigger, better me.

In short, I want to be inspired.

So today, I am making an Inspiration List. On my list will be anything and everything that makes me feel all those ways I just described. You know, inspired.

With that, here goes one beautiful brainstorm:

  • The sun, moon, and stars. Everything that goes on out there in space–and just thinking of the unfathomably large magnitude of the Universe–electrifies my spirit, but I am extra moved by those celestial bodies that are part of my daily consciousness. I love driving to the gym in the pre-dawn darkness and having my breath taken away at my first sight of the full moon, then watching the magical light show of sunrise on my way home. And nothing beats a night under the stars to remind me that I am part of something truly awesome. It is in these moments of looking past our Earth that I am most convinced that there is a God.
  • Jimmy Carter. This guy is building houses for the homeless in his 90s. Enough said.
  • My kids. Everything about parenthood is being my best and giving my best. When you realize that every moment of your life is an example for both how they ought to behave immediately and how they will remember you eventually, you better step up. My kids have raised the bar for me in every way imaginable.
  • Water.  In all its forms, water is a true wonder for me. The ocean all by itself is enough to leave me in amazement every time I lay eyes on it, or better yet, swim in it. The amount of life there, the power of it, the enormity. It boggles my mind in the best of ways and leaves me in a state of Peace I can find nowhere else. It is that Peace that I love best about water. Streams, lakes, even puddles. I am drawn there and revitalized upon my arrival. I have always been mesmerized the fact that the percentage of the Earth covered by water is almost the exact percentage of water that makes up the human heart and brain. That connection inspires me.
  • Libraries and bookstores. It is the artists who wrote the words and the sacrifices they made to get the books published. It is the knowledge and wisdom contained in those books. It is the words themselves. Being surrounded by books gives me the good goosebumps.
  • Protest marches and marchers. I have been deeply moved by the marches of this era–the Women’s March, the #RedForEd teachers marching for funding, the Science March, Black Lives Matter, etc.–in their attempts to create awareness and change. It lifts me up to see regular citizens rising to the challenges that their “leaders” have failed them in meeting.
  • Quotes.  People from all walks of life across human history have said and written the most beautiful words. I read them and rise.
  • Quantum Physics. I love how something seemingly way over our heads can deliver us the most simple and powerful Truth: We are ALL connected to ALL THAT IS.
  • The teachers where I work. I am in an elementary school five days a week, and every day I am impressed and humbled by the way the teachers (and aids) navigate the minefield of our children and guide them toward a better future. It is so hard to be good at that.
  • My Facebook friend Josie. I have never even met this woman, but even electronically she oozes optimism, kindness, and authenticity. She posts several uplifting memes every day–I steal most of them for my Journal of You page–and shares all kinds of personal stories and photos from her view of the world. She is my example of how to change the world with your being and your little actions. The image of her in my mind literally glows.
  • Glacier National Park. I can hardly think about this place without getting misty. It is my symbol for the natural beauty of this Earth and the gifts we earthlings have been granted in being born here. It is why we need to do better with what we have.
  • Leonardo da Vinci. This guy was absolutely amazing! Of course, genius is always amazing in its way, but I so admire the tremendous breadth of this man’s explorations of his talents. When you are known as “The Father of…” multiple scientific disciplines and one of the best painters of all time, you are awe-worthy in my book. When people wonder why I write about so many different things instead of finding a niche, I think of Leonardo.
  • The Parkland kids. I take so much encouragement from these young people whose friends were murdered while at school and then had the gumption to use their moment to push for a positive change, proving to us all that you are never too young to use your voice.
  • Barack and Michelle Obama. This is not political. This is about character in the face of antagonism, cruelty, and outright bigotry. When I think of the Obamas, the two words that come to my mind are Class and Grace. And I also think of Michelle saying, “When they go low, we go high.” I aspire to that.
  • The idea of a Divine Creator. I won’t try to tell you that I am certain that there is a God and that this God has a plan and created all of this beauty and magnificence for us to play in. However, I am attracted enough to those ideas to let it sway my soul into being inspired by it. As I have alluded to earlier, I am deeply moved by both the magnitude of the Universe itself and by the natural beauty and power of the “Nature” found on this planet, including the oceans, the mountains, the plants, and the animals (including us!). The idea that there was an intelligent Designer gives it all that much more Life and meaning.
  • Michelangelo’s The Pietá and David. When I first happened upon The Pietá in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I was struck motionless by it. My eyes welled up. I was absolutely spellbound. By the time I saw the David in Florence, I had seen so many replicas and pictures of it that I wasn’t anticipating much. Still, I could not take my eyes off of it. Michelangelo is an artist perhaps without parallel in history, and these sculptures are just two reasons why. I am inspired by his genius.
  • The nonviolence and strength of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. These two great men top the list for me when it comes to heroes. Both fought unceasingly against injustice–both ultimately being murdered as a result–and yet both did so without the violence that their oppressors used and that so many around them called for.
  • Teaching. At various points in my life, I have stood in front of college kids to teach them Philosophy, elementary and middle school kids to teach them World Religions, and everyone from ages 3 to 93 to teach them Tennis. And every time, my heart has been filled by the teaching, the love of the subject matter, and my immense joy at helping to expand the world of my fellow beings. Teaching gives me life!
  • My cousin Heide. She died of cancer several years ago, a beloved teacher, wife, and mother of two little girls. Her death at such a young age–and how she left behind a life quite similar to mine–has served as a constant reminder to make the most of the time that I have, as more is not guaranteed.
  • The books of Steven Pressfield. He writes in more than one genre, but the two books of his that I tell myself that I should read every year are The War of Art and Turning Pro. As a writer, these books remind me to dig in and work at my craft, to sit down every day and put words onto paper, no matter how difficult the process or how awful the result, because the world needs my gifts. I need to hear that.
  • Music.  Whether live in concert, through the speakers filling up the house, or coming to me personally through my big headphones, there is nothing like music to fill up a soul. When the first notes come through to me–whether it is the dramatic organ and monologue of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” the tinkling keys of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” the unmistakable beat of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” or the dramatic violins of Beethoven’s 5th symphony–my spirit soars.
  • Dan Rather. Growing up, we were more of an NBC household, so my news came from Tom Brokaw. But this late chapter of Rather’s life, where I have come to know him as a passionate social commentator on Facebook and a brilliant writer and patriot in his new book What Unites Us, has brought me to a man who has done and seen just about everything in his lifetime and has come away more empathetic and grateful for the process. His thoughts give me necessary, humble reminders and also great hope. So does his life.
  • Publishing my work. I will never forget the feelings of exhilaration that came when I put my very first blog post out into the world on this site. It was my reach-out to you, and hitting that “Publish” button felt like exactly what I was meant to do. I still get a charge every time I hit that “Publish” button in the early hours of Sunday morning, releasing my heart out into the world in hopes it makes someone else’s life better. Publishing my book was that way, too, only with a lot more relief after the many painstaking hours that project required. The feeling of sharing my Truth in the service of making others’ journeys more rich and full is enough to propel me to do it again and better. After all of the ways we beat ourselves up in life, it is a priceless treasure to occasionally be our own inspiration.
  • Science.  I absolutely LOVE to learn new things and get a little closer to the truth of how this Universe operates, so Science is my friend. One of my favorite things is the Ted-Ed Facebook page–I highly recommend following it–where they regularly produce these amazing little 5-minute videos, usually with animation, teaching us all about our world. Recent topics: “What’s the difference between hibernation and sleep?,” “How do touchscreens work?,” “The evolution of teeth,” “What happens during a stroke?,” “Why can’t you divide by zero?” Learning this stuff excites me, but what excites me even more is that every day scientists are discovering new things about how our world works, how we can better operate in it, and how we might eventually have to save it. That lifts me up.

That’s my Inspiration List! My spirits are lifted just by writing it all down and thinking about these wonderful gifts. The list has become the final item on the list! It reminds me of Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List when he says, “The list is an absolute good. The list is life.” It certainly feels that way for me.

How about you? What’s on your Inspiration List? Open up your journal and think about what lifts you up, excites you about life, and moves you to be a better person. Write down that list. What comes immediately to your mind? Who are the people on your list? Are they more people that you know–family and friends–or famous people? Are the famous ones from the present day or are they historical figures? Are your categories more general–like movies or music or books–or is your list full of specific songs, movies, and book titles? Which places are on your list? Are they places you have been or places you dream about going? Is there a spot on your list for spiritual practices? Are YOU on your list? How does it make you feel to make the list? Does your list inspire you? I hope so! What have I missed in my list–what do you recommend? Leave me a reply and let me know: What fills up your Inspiration List?

Do great things,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, I would appreciate if you would share it on your social media. And if you are comfortable sharing your list, even better!

P.S.S. Dive deeper into your whole life–past, present, and future–with my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth. Available at your favorite online retailer.

Can We Talk? Opening Your Mind To Broaden Your Horizons

“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” –Frank Zappa

Hello friend,

How many times, in the wake of an event that has spurred divisiveness and dragged out the worst sides of politics and social media trolls, have you actually struck up a thoughtful, deep-diving, and respectful discourse with someone from the other side of the fence?

Never, right?

In those moments when everyone’s nerves are raw and the sense is that people who disagree with you are evil at worst and foolish at best, it is usually best to avoid the interaction altogether. You know that if you get into it, you are probably going to let your anger get the best of you and say something you will regret (or should regret), leading to a spiral of hurt feelings and walls up, with no one hearing—much less considering—anything the other side is saying (or shouting).

It is even worse on social media, where, if you share your thoughts—or someone else’s video or blog or article that makes your points better than you can—the trolls come to pounce with every snarky meme, crude oversimplification, and attack on your character that you can imagine. That typically leads to a series of angry retorts from both sides and a growing divide between. More walls.

It begins to feel useless—even unhealthy–to ever say anything about any topic of importance to anyone at all.

I mean, sure, it is nice to talk about issues that matter to you with people who agree with you. They tell you that you are right, maybe even give your main points a little more clarity and nuance. You come away from the discussion with even greater conviction. But how much difference are you really making? Are you enlightening any of those who are ignorant on the other side? Are you changing any new minds, making progress toward that critical mass of people who will make the greater societal change you are hoping for?

While the choir definitely needs to hear the sermon, too, at some point the message needs to travel beyond the thick chapel walls.

It was with this frustrating but ordinary reality that I went to sleep on Sunday night. When I awoke in the early hours of Monday morning, there was a message on my phone from my sister, who had just arrived in Las Vegas with her family the day before, letting me and the rest of our family know that she was safe. I quickly got up to speed on the mass shooting, the numbers for which were updating as I read.

So began the typical week in America when something like this happens, as it so often does. First it is the “thoughts and prayers” moment, immediately followed by—or joined with—people jockeying for position in the gun control debate.

Of course, it never goes anywhere. I already reminded you how public debate happens. Anyway, after a few days of anger, insults, and trolling, our attention wanders to the next hot topic. But in those few days, things are definitely tense and combative. The number of articles written and posts shared spikes, as does the animosity between the two sides and their propensity to dig their heels in and refuse to listen or engage in anything resembling productive dialogue.

America. 2017.

It was right in the thick of this national drama—and my personal frustration about it—that I happened to get a private message from an old school friend whom I had, until a recent, brief contact, hardly heard from in twenty years.

I had, on Monday afternoon, shared two articles on Facebook that I thought were important and helpful thoughts about this moment in our country, good fodder to journal about or discuss with those who are willing to engage this thorny topic in this difficult time. The first one shared grief about the Las Vegas massacre and also bridged into why it is important to again begin to raise the issue of tighter gun laws. The second article was purely informational, a series of charts and graphs explaining America’s unique relationship with guns and gun violence.

I am, as I have made clear many times in these letters and on social media, quite liberal on most of the thorny issues we face—or fail to face, as the case may be—in this country. So I am sure that those two pieces I shared on Facebook on Monday afternoon came as no surprise to my old friend from school.

No, the surprise belonged to me. It was Monday evening when the private message showed up on my tablet. He explained that he had read the articles that I had shared that day and wanted to better understand where a guy like me was coming from so he could have a broader perspective. He gave a little personal history on living in areas with different levels of gun violence and a brief explanation of his gun control perspective, which, you may have guessed, did not match mine. He reiterated that he was merely looking to gain perspective.

I was blown over. Honestly, I had to read his short note over a few times to be sure of what I had just read. I know it sounds dramatic, but I was truly shocked. Delighted, but shocked.

I suppose it is a sad commentary on us all that the occurrence of someone from one political/philosophical bent approaching someone from another (“opposing”) side and asking simply if the “opponent” would better inform the questioner about the opponent’s view so that the questioner could see the issue more clearly would seem such a rarity as to cause shock. But, as I said, “America. 2017.” Here we are.

I, of course, jumped on the opportunity. I knew the potential dialogue was fraught with landmines and that we both might end up cursing the other for being so foolish as to not accept our arguments and blindly convert our positions on gun control, but I was too giddy at the possibility of this rare gem in the form of a genuine exchange of different ideas and opinions.

I stayed up past my bedtime that night, all riled up by both the topic and the chance to open a mind. I wrote out my basic arguments on the issue, then passed on a letter I wrote to you about the topic a few years ago. The next morning I happened upon a video that I thought clarified my perspective a bit and passed that on. Later in the morning, he sent along a couple of notes in response to my points and tried to lay out his position for me in greater detail. The next day, when I finally had time to write down my thoughts—as you know, I have a lot to say—I sent a long retort, explaining how his argument did not seem logically consistent and putting in a few more angles to plug my own position. Finally, he attempted to clarify his position again.

The entire exchange took place over 48 hours, from Monday to Wednesday evening. And believe me, lots of energy was expended, both emotionally and in terms of time and effort. Because I must admit, I was totally into it the entire time. I was invested in learning more about his perspective, so I eagerly awaited his responses each time. And I spent a lot of thought on how to best express my own perspective in a way that was thorough and respectful. I was clearly engaged, that made it all the more rich and meaningful.

And amazingly, I did not get angry during the exchange. I definitely scratched my head a few times trying to make his view seem logically consistent. Maybe I thought he was in denial about some things and short-sighted on others. But I understood where he was coming from. On the receiving end, I admit that I didn’t especially like it when he referred to people who share my views as “infantile, childlike, and naïve,” but I let that slide off me—which is very unlike me—because it was also very informative about his position, which he was being honest about. It didn’t feel like he was trying to deliver me a personal cheap shot. The whole vibe of the exchange was very genuine: passionate but not offensive, honest but not cutting.

And even if I did get worked up in the process, it was a small price to pay for the broadening of my horizons and a greater sense of compassion for others who don’t share my worldview. I was–and still am–deeply grateful for the trade.

I have wondered, in the few days since the dialogue concluded, if we could have had such an open, authentic exchange on such a sensitive topic—especially given the proximity to the tragedy—in a face-to-face setting and still been both respectful and heard. Would we have, in our quest to get our points across in as rapid an exchange as conversation usually is, been talking over each other and been triggered to anger, personal attacks, or caricatures of the other’s view? I am not so confident.

I usually think of the Internet—especially the Comments section of posts—as the place where people are at their most cowardly, hiding behind their keyboards to deliver cheap shots, knowing they do not have to see the face of the person whom they are trying to hurt. But in this case, I think the distance between us helped in that it gave us time to form our thoughts more clearly before we sent them, or at least allowed us to send along a clarification (or supporting articles, videos, etc.) later. It felt more thorough than a regular face-to-face or phone conversation this way. And obviously, I think the fact that we are old friends and have good will toward each other helped to keep it from devolving into the kind of shallow, crass exchanges you see online.

When I think of the exchange as a whole, the word that comes to mind is refreshing. Maybe I had lost too much faith in my fellow humans, but I simply didn’t imagine myself having that kind of dialogue this week (or any week, honestly). As I mentioned, the initial request itself floored me. Even had the discussion gone nowhere of great interest, just that simple request for better understanding—“Help me gain perspective” is my new favorite phrase—would have been enough to restore my faith in humanity for a little while. The fact that the dialogue that followed this beautiful plea was fruitful is all the more refreshing. I wish such a mind-opening gift upon everyone. I know I am up for another!

How about you? Are you open-minded enough to have a meaningful exchange about a sensitive issue with someone who comes at it from a totally different perspective? Open up your journal and consider the degree to which you are willing to both share your own thoughts respectfully with an “opponent” and also give serious respect and consideration to their views, building a true dialogue together rather than a fight. Which of the big issues are you most passionate about and get your blood boiling the most when you listen to the other side’s claims? Gun control? Racism? Health care? Immigration? Climate change? Abortion? Income inequality? The list goes on. Which ones rattle your cage the most? How well-versed are you in your side’s arguments? Well enough to put up a good fight in a debate if necessary? Are you eager to put your views out there and engage debate, or do you shy away from giving your opinions, even if they are strongly held? What is your typical reaction when you hear someone from the other side of your hot-button issue give their opinions? Do you get fired up immediately? Do you get so agitated that it would be difficult to engage in a meaningful, respectful dialogue on the topic? Have you ever been approached by someone who thoroughly disagrees with you on a thorny issue and would like to challenge your beliefs? If so, how did you respond and where did it lead? Has it ever ended well? It is my thoroughly biased belief that people who keep a journal have stronger foundations for their beliefs because, through their journal writing, they have considered the topics more thoroughly than people who don’t journal. I am not saying that we journal writers are more passionate about our opinions or even always correct, just that we are more likely to have logically consistent positions that can be expressed clearly. Do you agree? (Here’s a hint: you have to write one to find out the answer!) Have you ever had your view of humanity refreshed by a single exchange? Have you ever had a situation like mine and been engaged by someone who knowingly disagrees with you but who simply wants to broaden her view of the world? Would you prefer to do it face-to-face and all-at-once or through writing over time? How about the flip-side: have you ever approached an “opponent” with the humble request, “Help me gain perspective.”? On which issue would you most like to submit that request? From my experience this week, I would highly recommend it. Do you dare? Leave me a reply and let me know, Can you open your heart and mind enough to engage an opposing perspective with respect?  

Blossom and grow,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. Dialogue is good!