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Spoiled, Selfish, & Stupid: Why We Are Not To Be Trusted

“Living as I do with human beings, the more that I observe them, the more I am forced to conclude that they are selfish.” –Natsume Söseki, I Am A Cat

“Pride and folly, they go together like two tightly grasping hands.” –Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear

Hello friend,

Open the floodgates! The Americans have left their homes and their senses!

We gave it a good run. We–well, most of us–did the decent thing for a solid month or so. We sacrificed. We listened to scientists who told us that the best way we could help was to stay home and keep our distance from one another. We actually considered how our behavior affects others. We showed a conscience. We were selfless, altruistic. It was like a weird, totally surreal, alternate universe. But we made it cool! Social distancing and masks became the darlings of social media, inspiring all sorts of clever memes, GIFs, and videos. It was this quaint little throwback thing we were doing together–like having a 1980s Day at school or pretending we were re-enacting “Little House On The Prairie”–all with a collective ‘wink-wink’ knowing we were way too cool to actually live like this. We were playing along until we got the first signal that we could call off the charade.

Apparently, the signal was not a vaccine to prevent anyone else from getting Covid-19. It was not a medicine to help alleviate the symptoms. It was not the steady decline of new cases over a 14-day period, as the experts had told us from the start would be best indicator. The signal wasn’t even any sort of decline. As it turned out, all it took for Americans to assume permission to return to regular social living was the mere mention by folks on TV of the possibility of a slow, measured re-opening of the economy.

And with that, social distancing (and sense) is a thing of the past.

Exhibit A: Last weekend, my wife, kids, and I took a bike ride around our neighborhood. The first park we passed had a full parking lot, people playing volleyball and other sports, grilling, playing on the playground, and hanging at the beach. I could feel my sensible wife fuming behind me as we passed from the road. She had already made clear before we left that we would not be entering that park, as the nice day would draw too many people. But this was another level. This was Summer-day-level crowding. I sped up my pedaling to get past it, and we soon arrived at the next park, where we would be circling the more remote path that surrounds the hub of the park. Of course, we immediately spotted in that center a large gathering of what appeared to be friends, some playing full 6-on-6 volleyball and many others gathered around the court lounging and socializing in very close proximity. Again, it looked like an ordinary-times Sunday afternoon at the park.

Keep in mind that at that point, where I live in Minnesota, there had been no new guidelines for removal or even decrease in social distancing or gathering size suggested by the governor or other top scientists in the state, just talk about some upcoming small measures to get a few more businesses operating.

My wife, who may be accused of being cautious and germaphobic–qualities I have finally come to appreciate with a killer virus in town–but also has a track record of wisdom and sense, was livid. She could not wrap her head around what these people were thinking–or, perhaps more accurately, not thinking–to be in each other’s space and touching the same things willingly. I admit, I was outraged at their behavior as well, but I was less shocked. I had felt it increasing the entire week leading up to that day. And immediately prior to our bike ride, I had witnessed Exhibit B.

I was in my kitchen and happened to look out my window to see some neighbor kids and their friends from a few blocks away right up on the front patio of a different neighbor, where that neighbor (a middle-aged man) was sitting with his girlfriend. (You may recall that I mentioned in my last letter my anger with my neighbors that have kept up frequent play dates and social gatherings throughout the pandemic. Well, these were the kids and friends.) I was immediately shocked and angered at their proximity to one another, of course, but its lack of appropriateness also captivated me. I kept watching. The kids proceeded to circle this guy’s house over and over again, stopping by the man and woman as they went. Then, when they seemed to tire, he gave them a drink from his cup, which they proceeded to pass around to everyone in the group.

As someone who has taken the scientists very seriously regarding the necessity of social distancing and mask-wearing during this global pandemic, my jaw was practically on the floor. Why worry about the spit droplets traveling randomly through the air and only maybe reaching someone else when you can just pass those little guys directly via a cup? Brilliant! These same folks were part of a several-family, no-distancing yard party just a couple days earlier that I also got to witness in horror from my window. All that is to say that by the time we got to that park last Sunday, my sense of disgust was still strong but my ability to be shocked by foolishness had been dulled dramatically. Mostly, my neck was getting tired from shaking my head so often.

Though I have no satisfactory justification for anyone willfully breaking the simple social distancing guidelines that have been in the public forum for several weeks now, I have thought a lot about the mindset behind it. As always, I spend a lot of time considering how we humans think and the impulses behind our actions. It starts with myself, of course, in my daily journal entries that have been helping me understand my shenanigans for decades. But I am equally fascinated by others, both individually and collectively. I am a fan of all studies sociological and psychological. And obviously, immersed as I am in American culture, I am particularly fascinated by attitudes and behaviors that seem uniquely American.

This recent abandonment of conscience and the corresponding moral free-for-all regarding social distancing and our obligation to care about the health of people we don’t know seems to fit the bill as something thoroughly American.

For the sake of today’s discussion, I am separating the people gathering at my neighbor’s house and in the park to celebrate and play socially from the maskless hordes storming state capitols and shouting in people’s exposed faces in protest. Although there is some relation between the two groups, I think the arguments get much more complex when you bring in the economic aspects of stay-at-home orders, which I like to think are motivating the protesters. People simply craving human contact and unfettered hanging out occupy a different spot on the spectrum. It is these people who are just over social distancing and are moving on despite the potential consequences that are the ones I am pondering today.

When I think of my wife’s shrill, panicked, “WHAT IS HAPPENING????” when she first witnessed up-close these blatant acts of disregard for established guidelines for protection against a deadly virus, the first thing that came to my mind to sum up my theory was “spoiled Americans.”

Sacrifice is not something we are accustomed to at this point in our history. For those of us in the middle class and higher, anyway, we haven’t spent much thought on how our lives affect others or ever had to “take one for the team” and make do with less so others could live. The term “first-world problems” has caught on in the common vernacular precisely because for many of us, we simply aren’t very inconvenienced by the world. But now this coronavirus has kept us away from the blowouts, hangouts, and make-outs that we have come to see as our birthright.

So sure, we played along at first (at least most of us). We stayed at home. We stayed apart. We wore our masks and acted like this virus was real. We posted on social media about the blessings and bummers of staying at home, the heroes on the frontline, and the plethora of new memes on this fresh topic. It was a quaint little game we were playing together. For fun, sort of. Something to tell the grandkids about one day, anyway.

But then it became dull. It was no longer enough that we all had computers, phones, FaceTime, ZOOM, Google Hangouts, Facebook, Twitter, InstaGram, TikTok, and a million other ways to connect with friends and family in real time. The world had denied us of one thing–proximity–and we aren’t people who suffer denial well. So, over the past couple of weeks, the bat signal somehow went out. Every time I took a walk or rode my bike around the neighborhood, I saw more and more gatherings with less and less space between the gatherers. Before I knew it, neighbors were passing cups around to share. Americans had revealed themselves. Spoiled, self-absorbed, foolish.

Now I know, of course, that it isn’t everyone. Obviously, I am writing this letter as someone who has not changed his behavior recently, and I have seen other shows of dismay and disgust in both conventional and social media (including a column in the Tampa Bay Times called, appropriately, “I Will Not Die of Stupid”). So plainly, I am not saying all Americans are selfish brats, but I definitely believe that streak runs through our culture. And, as so many people are showing us in the last couple of weeks, there is a critical mass of people in this country who are proving that this aspect of our collective personality cannot be held at bay no matter how dire the outcome. We are that petulant, arrogant toddler whose behavior embarrasses the parent when it comes out in public, so ashamed that they let the child get this obnoxious in its egotism.

Fortunately, I think (I hope) that we are also the parent, or even the onlookers who are appalled at the toddler spouting demands that his every whim be met immediately. I am confident that I am not alone in my astonishment and outrage at the foolishness of my neighbors. I know there are others who feel both hurt and confused by the collective lapse in morality by people who they have respected. I am aware of others speaking up, if only to people who share their dismay.

My question is, what is the score? How many people are on each side? Are there enough people with me to make a positive difference, or am I shouting into a vacuum? As I said, I have seen other people voice their anger and disgust over this flouting of science and disregard for the health of others, but every time I walk past the park or look out my window and see a big gathering of people ignoring the rules, all of those articles and social media posts seem like a whisper no longer heard over the shouting. I want to think that the bigger mass of people still has a conscience and integrity, but those volleyball players and cup-sharers make it hard for me to see things clearly.

We have a very long way to go with this virus, and at this rate, I know I am in for a lot of future outrage. However, I really, really want to think the best of people. I want to believe that they will look to their better angels and find the mental strength and the moral courage to do the right thing, no matter how dull and inconvenient it is. I just hope that when they are at their weakest moment, when they are lonely and cranky and bored, that they can look to the people around them and find positive role models, people who care about all of the people in their community and about getting through this pandemic as quickly and safely as possible. Together, but separately. I will be over here in my yard with just my wife and kids if anyone is looking.

How about you? Are you more likely to be hanging out with friends these days or watching the crowds in horror from a safe distance? Open up your journal and your conscience and lay bare your inclinations and your justifications? How annoyed and inconvenienced do you feel by all of the coronavirus-related restrictions? Were you annoyed and pent-up all along, or did you play along willingly at first but have gradually slid your standards of acceptability? If all of the restrictions and dangers magically went away today, what would you do to feel “normal” again? How closely have your actions approximated that lately? Do you do “meet-ups” with friends (e.g. for coffee), respecting social distance or not? If you have kids, do you allow them to play with other children who don’t live with you? Do you play sports with people from outside your household? Take walks with them? Have you had gatherings of extended family or friends? If you answered “YES” to any or all of those, how do you justify your behavior to yourself? Is it easy to do? Can you come up with sound, intelligent arguments to explain yourself? Can you reasonably claim the moral high ground? Does anyone call you on your questionable actions? Do you get defensive, or do you feel fully justified and unapologetic? On a scale of 1 to 10 and being as honest as possible, how much do you care how your behaviors affect other people? Do you feel like you deserve to do whatever you want? Does your conscience bother you at all when you skirt the guidelines of safety? How likely do you believe you are to become infected by the coronavirus? Does that percentage affect your behavior one way or the other? If you do get it, would you say it was worth it to act in whatever ways you are currently acting around distancing and mask-wearing? Would an impartial scientist say that the way you are behaving is on the risky side of the spectrum or the safe side of the spectrum? Would a wise person say you are being wise or foolish? Would I say you are acting like responsible, altruistic human of integrity or a spoiled fool who is in moral decay? Would you care what any of us had to say? Are there such things as character qualities that can be ascribed to nations or social groups? Do enough Americans act in spoiled, self-centered ways that we can declare those to be characteristically American? Thought experiment: if you were going into a theoretical battle and were choosing your teammates, would you want to get in the foxhole with “America”? Would you trust her? For individual teammates, would you more likely choose one of the people at the park playing basketball and having drinks with their friends these days or someone who is strictly conforming to social distancing guidelines? Would you choose you? Leave me a reply and let me know: What type of citizen are you behaving like these days?

Be big,

William

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

P.P.S. If you are stirred by this kind of introspection, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

Silver Linings: In Search Of The Positives In A Pandemic

“Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic.” –Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke & Bone 

“In a time of destruction, create something.” –Maxine Hong Kingston

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” –Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Hello friend,

I have had moments of anger during this pandemic, such as when I see my neighbors having yet another play date with their children’s friends and parents, ignoring all science and government warnings and putting the rest of us in danger (and keeping us home even longer) because they lack either the will power to resist their social nature or the moral fiber to care about their potential damage.

I have had moments of deep sadness, too, such as when I read the social media post of the nurse who had flown to New York to help in a hospital, who had just had her patient die, and she reported that they had 17 deaths in their 17-bed unit that night. How does that NOT break you?

I have had moments of fear and anxiety as well, each week when I go to the grocery store and when I think about the possibility of my wife losing her job or a family member needing a hospital visit.

I have felt at least some degree of all the negative stuff that I am guessing you and your loved ones have felt during this unusual time. And though currents of them dash in and out of my atmosphere like phantom winds, I can say with some certainty that–with the notable exception of the first few days following the cancellation of my vacation, as I shared in my last letter–I have not let the negative overtake me. Some of that, I am sure, can be chalked up to the fact that I have been lucky. My family has money coming in, food in the refrigerator, health insurance, and none of my loved ones have contracted Covid-19. Relative to what other people are dealing with and will deal with, I have a dream gig going here right now.

The rest of it, though, seems to be attributed to my psychological make-up. I am a glass-half-full kind of guy by nature, and I tend to have my radar up and tracking the potential blessings in any situation. In the course of my day, I tend to find the fun, the kind, and the beautiful that is available to all but seemingly noticed by few. I have been blessed by an inclination toward those things and a willingness to train my eye to find more. It leaves me uncommonly grateful and, by extension, happy.

So, amidst the throes of the rampant sadness, frustration, anger, fear, and anxiety that seem so common and expected in this unprecedented age, I have found myself all the more determined to uncover the blessings and the good that might come of it. In this storm of storms, I am looking for silver linings.

It is easy to latch onto the most popular ones, which start with the frontline medical personnel. These people are just amazing to me. I look at me, not wanting to so much as leave my yard because I don’t want to closely interact with anyone and risk getting the virus and subsequently passing it to my family members. Then I look at the emergency room staff and first responders, going into work every day nearly certain that they are going to get it, if not today then tomorrow. There was the video that went viral a few weeks ago of the man in scrubs coming home and his tiny child running to greet him. It broke my heart to watch him have to suddenly keep her from excitedly running into his arms for a hug. Anyone who has ever been a parent knows that is probably the single greatest feeling in the world. To think that there are people like that all over the world, voluntarily eschewing the proximity and affection of their loved ones in order to continue serving the sickest among us, well, that is simultaneously both deeply saddening and incredibly inspiring.

All of the other frontline workers are so uplifting for me as well, even as I fret for their safety. I go out to the grocery store once a week and, as I am standing in the long, spread-out line for my turn to pay, I am absolutely spellbound watching the employees–these folks barely, if even, making a living wage for their services–ringing people up. It boggles my mind how they keep doing it day after day. I am so grateful for them.

Obviously there are very few people who signed up for this gig, whatever it is they are doing in this new age. Nearly everyone’s job, if they still have one, has changed. So many public-facing difference-makers–the teachers, the coaches, the therapists–can no longer do their jobs in a way that they can feel the daily difference they are making. There are a lot of teachers in my life, and I know that it pains them to have to “only” deliver educational modules to their students through a computer every day rather than their usual nurturing of the whole, complex person for the 25 or 30 growing souls in their classroom. They don’t get to directly help them through their challenges and witness that spark in the eye when the light bulb comes on or the hug of gratitude and love when it is most needed. I exchanged a message with one of my colleagues about this, and she lamented, “Distance learning is like planning, shopping, wrapping, and sending the perfect gift for someone you adore, but never getting to see them open it or know if they even like the present.” But teachers keep pouring their all into it because our children depend on them even in their absence. Those kind of people inspire me.

There are so many others, of course, whether they work on the front lines or are struggling because so much has changed behind the lines but they keep putting one foot in front of the other because the world needs them. I am even inspired by the people who, unlike me, are so wildly social at their core and need company like they need oxygen, but are choosing to be good humans and stay home. There are admirable sacrifices all around if your eyes are open to them.

One thing that tickles me these days is seeing so many people out walking, running, or bicycling in their neighborhoods. I have always loved visiting “active” towns–usually in places embedded in the mountains or by the ocean–where it seems like everyone is an outdoors enthusiast and people are moving their bodies wherever you look. My community is not typically one of those hubs of energy, but it sure has become one in the last month. I have never walked so much in my life, and I get the sense everyone else could say the same. I love seeing them all out and active. It energizes me. I hope we can keep that outdoor momentum going even when gyms and stores open up again. There is new life in the fresh air.

I also take great joy and inspiration in some of the new opportunities that people, especially artists, have created and made available online during this time. The actor John Krasinski’s YouTube broadcast from home, Some Good News, has been a delight, and I highly recommend it. I have also loved the “quarantine concerts” that so many musicians have put on their social media, whether it is a daily song (I have been digging Michael Franti on Facebook) or weekly concerts (I adore Matt Nathanson’s weekly events from his home office on YouTube, during which he sings songs and reads beautiful passages from books of poetry or wisdom that inspire him) or those big sing-along collaborations that artists have been putting together through ZOOM. There is nothing like music to lift the spirit, and these times ought to give us a greater sense of the necessity of the arts in our society. I have also appreciated those virtual tours of some of the world’s greatest museums and our national parks, both the sights themselves and the thoughtfulness of the people bringing them to us.

Though all of these inspirations have flashed regularly across my radar throughout the pandemic, the one ray of Hope that has grown exponentially in my mind as the weeks have passed falls under the theme “How We Might Grow From This Experience.” I am enchanted by the possibility of some sort of simultaneous mass realization of the errors of our former, “normal” ways and a subsequent move toward a more highly idealized society, perhaps even to the extent of an evolutionary leap in the behavior of our species. Might we take advantage of this collective pause in our society–one that is unlikely to ever happen again in our lifetimes–and use it to gain wisdom in the direction of a world that is more peaceful, equitable, and just? Might we come to value each other more? Might we come to value our time more? I desperately hope so.

What kinds of things might this translate to? Maybe it is as simple as choosing our commitments–whether to individual people or activities or groups–more discerningly. Now that we have been pulled out of our sports, clubs, churches, stores, meet-ups, coffee shops, restaurants, classes, and gyms, I hope that we are using the time away from them to better understand how much we (individually) need each one of our diversions. Even though most of us are going stir-crazy in our homes, we may also be realizing for the first time that perhaps it would be wise to begin prioritizing some downtime at home when “real life” resumes. As we have been removed from nearly all of the people in our usual routines, I hope that we are realizing which of those people are really not a positive influence on us and perhaps which are more deserving of our time and energy. Maybe we need more quality and less quantity, both in people and scheduled activities.

I also hope that this time–with its isolation, its anxiety, its uncertainty–leads us to put a greater premium on our mental health and self-care. I hope it becomes easier and “more normal” to talk about mental health and to understand that the issues that we have been hiding are so very common in our community.

I hope that it becomes more obvious–and more painful in the realization–that the poorest among us consistently bear the burdens of our crises to a far greater degree than the wealthiest. It is the poor who are both put on the front lines of exposure in times like this–cashiers, janitors, delivery drivers, etc.–and also more likely to lose their jobs, being in positions less likely to have a work-from-home option. I hope that in this time that we suddenly have to think more clearly and become more aware of the realities of our usual set-up, we find it in ourselves as a society to become more compassionate of those most in need and more aware of our own, typically-unearned privilege.

Along the same lines of this potential growing awareness, I have been increasingly hopeful that this health-crisis-turned-economic crisis might make it more clear to the average citizen how much more humane a single-payer, “Medicare for all” health care system would be. I think of the more than 22 million people who have lost their jobs in the first four weeks of this collapse, and how many millions of people that takes off of health coverage. I am up-front about the fact that I have long been in favor of a universal health care system in America, seeing health care as no less a natural right than a “free” public education or police and fire protection, as I have written to you about in the past. It has always seemed crazy to me that we don’t have this system in place and instead spend far more per capita on health care than other “civilized” countries for generally worse results, not to mention leaving tens of millions of our citizens uncovered and poorly covered to the point that they don’t take care of basic medical needs. It embarrasses me as an American. If we have to go past the idea that it is a basic human right–which we should not; that ought to be the start and end of the discussion as to the necessity of universal coverage–I have always found it sad and tragic that the reason so many people stay in jobs rather than quit or change or try to start their own business or pursue a dream is because of the loss of health insurance. The current system is, in so many different, insidious ways, breaking our spirit. And now we have tens of millions of newly unemployed, resulting in millions of families losing their health coverage. How many people lost their coverage due to the pandemic in the rest of the world? Zero. Because they have humane systems. I have been surprised and disappointed that we have not seen more spoken and written about this in the traditional and social media as the numbers of unemployed pile up. It is my hope that people will see that now is the perfect moment in our history to do right by each other. Health coverage for everyone would be a giant step in the right direction. I remain hopeful that hearts and eyes will open.

It is this and so many other structural, systemic issues that I am looking toward in this time, hoping we open our hearts and minds to find the compassion and the wisdom to see our “we’ve just always done it this way” as a compilation of attitudes and tactics that have simply not served us all as well as we may have hoped. But I see people doing right by others, helping and giving and supporting. And I see others who want to be a part of a better world, who want fewer people to suffer and more people to get along, who want the resources spread out more equitably. I see all of that good action and good intention, and they make me hopeful. They give me light in a time that could too easily turn dark.

There are so many good people out there. You know that. So many lights. So many silver linings to this storm. You can find them almost anywhere you look. It seems to me that with this many good people, we deserve to live in a world whose structures–be they social, political, economic, or otherwise–serve to provide or facilitate all of those positive intentions and gestures of good will. But the responsibility is upon each of us to both do better in our own little corner of the world and to raise our voices to demand better of our larger structures. We must use this collective, reflective moment to consider the ways that our religions, our education systems, our health care systems, our political institutions, our judicial systems, our use of science, our natural resource consumption, and our philosophy of diplomacy and warfare facilitate the kind of goodness that is in our hearts. If we deem that those systems are not representative of our goodness, we need to rise up and demand that changes be made. And we must do whatever is in our own power to see those changes through. We must be the bringers of our own light.

This pandemic era is difficult. It is angering, frustrating, depressing, and anxiety-inducing. But it is also so much more, and its potential for a positive outcome is massive. Even with the scars that we will no doubt carry from this era, we could actually come away with a more caring, compassionate, equitable, just, and peaceful planet, both the humans and the systems designed to help the humans live their best lives. I see the possibilities all around me. I see it in hearts and gestures. If you are having a hard time seeing that light in your world, I hope you will find it in yourself. It is there, my friend, just waiting to be discovered. I am happy to lend you some of mine in the meantime. I have hope for you, hope for us. With so many beautiful examples out there to use as a guide and this quiet moment to steel my resolve, I am inspired to find out just how high we right rise. Together.

How about you? Where do you look for hope and inspiration in this time of crisis? Open up your journal and your heart and uncover the source of the light shining in? Where are you finding your positivity these days? Do you see it in the people in your community and the actions–or inaction–that they are taking? Which profession seems to awe you the most at this time? Medical personnel? Grocery store clerks? Delivery drivers? Janitorial workers? Teachers? Are you inspired by people’s willingness to stay home to limit the spread of the virus? What acts of personal generosity have you witnessed or been a part of that remind you of people’s goodness? Which people–individuals or groups–have you come to see in a more positive light as a result of the their actions during this pandemic? Are your own actions worthy of someone else’s inspiration? What other sources of positivity have you used lately that are unique to our current situation? Are there live events that you “attend” online, whether workouts or concerts? Do you watch TED talks? Have you started reading any books that you might otherwise have neglected were we not in a pandemic? What sorts of hopes do you have in the “How We Might Grow From This Experience” category? What realizations would you like us to have about our ways of living? What personal “A-HA”s have you had about your own lifestyle and priorities? Which aspects of our society has this crisis exposed for you in a way that you never realized before? Do you believe in our ability to at least begin large-scale, structural changes to the way we do things based on the lessons we are taking from this period? If so, what part do you see yourself playing in the positive change? How much light do you have to share? What sources of inspiration will you use as your fuel? Leave me a reply and let me know: What positives do you see emerging from this pandemic?  

Bring the light,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. This is a team effort!

P.P.S. If this type of introspection stirs something in you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

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.