Tag Archives: responsibility

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embrace your way,

William

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving,

William

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

Clinging to Life on Earth

IMG_1029Hello friend,

I used to feel really prepared to die. I did. I didn’t have a death wish, and I wasn’t necessarily eager to go, but I definitely felt ready. Lately, though, I have swung completely the other way. I obsess over the possibility of my death. And it is not only mine; it goes for my wife and children as well. I think about it way too much. Worry. Fear. Dread. They are all part of the package. But why? How did I go from welcoming death to obsessively dreading it? How did I get this way?

When I was a kid and young adult, I didn’t think much about death. Like most people at that age, I felt pretty bulletproof. It simply didn’t occur to me that I might die at any moment. In my mid-20s, I went through a spiritual overhaul. I spent a lot of time contemplating God and my place in the Universe, and I became much more clear about what I believed. I felt intimately connected—united–with everything. It was a beautiful way to live, really. During those years of blissful union with the Divine, in particularly rapturous moments, I found myself saying out loud, “You can take me now, God, if you want. I am ready any time.” I guess I was just really solid in my belief that, no matter what form we are in, it is All God and will never be otherwise. The end is not in doubt.

With that thought as my foundation, it really just didn’t seem to matter to me whether I was “alive” or “dead”. The difference was only a superficial one. I loved the life I was living here on Earth, but I figured the next part was at least as good, so why not? I could go either way. When I heard of people dying, I thought two things: 1) Good for them; and 2)Bless their loved ones. I went along that way for a lot of years, loving life but welcoming death. The Grim Reaper was certainly not my enemy, nothing to fear.

That all changed suddenly on a hot Friday night in August of 2008. It was not a car accident, terminal diagnosis, or some other brush with death. No, it was, in fact, a brush with LIFE. My daughter was born. My whole world changed in a flash. The sun rose and set in her eyes. I hung on every breath, and the slightest smile from her could carry me through the day. But it was not this immense joy that she—and later her brother, too—brought to my world that completely turned my relationship with death. Rather, it was the responsibility. Yes, suddenly I was completely in charge of raising and nurturing this magical little creature to adulthood, and it needed to be the most loving, joyous upbringing ever. In order for me to insure that she had her greatest friend and protector, I needed to stay alive.

In that instant, death became my sworn enemy and greatest threat. It is true that my spiritual foundation did not suddenly fall to shambles. I still believed that All is God and that the end is not in doubt. I still believed it was going to be beautiful on the other side. And I knew that everyone on Earth figures out a way to carry on no matter what the circumstances, so they would make it without me. But I couldn’t have that. The idea of leaving them behind is a torturous one for me. Everyone always says that the worst thing imaginable is having your child die. I can see that so clearly at this point, which is why I have come to obsess in my dread of my children’s deaths. I have been reading and re-reading John Green’s novel, The Fault In Our Stars, lately. Its leading characters are kids with cancer, and I am just sick the entire time, not just in imagining my own children suffering from something so awful, but also in thinking about their parents.   What an awful, helpless feeling!

But I think that not so far down the ladder from that pain must be the idea of dying yourself and leaving your kids without you to raise them. Talk about helpless! A couple of years ago, my cousin Heide died of cancer. She was the mother of two amazing little girls. I have thought about her and her family a million times, both during her battle and, of course, after it ended. I can’t stop imagining how helpless she must have felt, knowing that she was not going to be there to nurture and watch her girls grow up and become women. I would be absolutely shredded by it. Just thinking about it knocks me into a state of shock. Unselfishly, I want to be of the utmost service to my kids every step of the way. Selfishly, it would absolutely eviscerate me to miss out on their daily magic. I want to be the shepherd, but I also want to be the witness.

It is also for these reasons that the thought of my wife’s potential death haunts me as well. As I said, I need my children’s upbringing to be the absolute best, most loving experience, and she is a crucial part of that. The kids need their mother, and she needs to be their mother. We have a vested interest in living this earthly life for a while.

Does this mean I will stop freaking out about death and return to my “Take me any time, God!” mode when they reach adulthood and no longer need the shepherd? I imagine the dread will diminish some, but not entirely, because the witness will still want to witness. I have no doubt that thoughts of missing out on their lives (and potentially the lives of their children) will keep me wanting to stick around to a ripe old age. Still, I think I won’t be as clingy to this life as I am now. My seeming desperation to live right now will more likely become a mere preference for life over death. Hopefully I can always maintain my focus on the present, secure in the knowledge that the best way to make the most of my time here is to stay in the moment rather than obsessing over the past or future, a future which certainly will include all of our deaths.

How about you? How desperate are you to keep living? Grab your journal and pen, and dig in. How do you react when you hear of someone dying? On a scale of one to ten, how peacefully do you think you would accept the news that you have only a year to live? How much does your family situation play into that rating? How much do your spiritual/religious beliefs affect your feelings regarding your acceptance of death? Has your acceptance of your mortality changed over the years? Do you think you would accept a terminal diagnosis better for yourself or for a family member? Obviously this topic is a deep and challenging one, but I believe it is very revealing and thus highly worth your while. So write! Then, leave me a reply. I want to know: Are you clinging to life on Earth?

Live like you mean it,

William