Remember to Cry

Amid the pandemic, some of us may not have as many close, personal interactions with other people as we did in years past. For extroverts, it may be easy to empathize with people when you can look into their eyes and see their emotions so plainly.

I wouldn’t know about that part; I’m an ambivert, and I’ve always related best to introverts.

A few days ago, I received a beautiful card from a dear friend. Their words moved me to tears, and I could feel in those words the ache of being so far apart from so many that we love, and for so long now. It’s easy for me to read emotions on paper, and my friend’s pain and hope and love and fear all came through clearly.

But the bad news plays non-stop these days, and it’s all too easy to grow numb. To survive, sometimes we must harden our hearts just enough that we don’t bleed our emotions all over everything we touch. It seems that most people only have so much to give before we are exhausted. Without some good things happening around us, the one-sided cycle can build up enough momentum to crush the fragile hearts of all but the strongest among us.

Of course there is still beauty to be found — or made — in these sometimes endless days. Even with a pandemic raging across the burning planet of struggling people, there is still some good news. But you must dig for it, or for the peace to create some of it yourself. And how do you do that when your heart is growing numb?

Luckily, the answer to that is easier to find than it may seem: CRY. Yes, I can explain.

Cry. Not with helpless rage. Not in rolling fear. Help yourself to cry again. Find a song, a painting, a sculpture, a photo, a portrait of someone you love (and perhaps lost), a poem, or some prose. Anything that can soften the frozen barrier around your heart can save you from apathy and the terrifying disconnect that can creep over even the greatest empathizers when the world becomes too much.

For me, I keep close a small collection of poems and cards, some long messages with friends, and a short, specific playlist of songs. Any one of these might help if I’m just starting to slip, but sometimes I have to run a gauntlet through them to crack the shell I didn’t realize had grown so thick.

I consider myself pretty self-aware, and I can usually tell when I’m getting overwhelmed. Detecting when I’m growing disconnected is harder, but I can pick up the signs for that as well. Once I recognize the disconnect, I have to carve out at least a few minutes to immerse myself in these memories and works of art. Not just the most painful memories I have, but those specific mementos I keep to evoke a nostalgia of someone I love who is too far away, or a poem or song by an artist I love that expresses their pain. Really swimming in that, I can usually let myself get carried completely away into the art or the memory. With some of these experiences in succession, eventually I start to cry again.

Have you heard the advice that the best way to forget your own problems is to get involved in someone else’s? The reason that works is that it invokes your empathy. It opens your heart to someone else’s struggle. When their trouble is not the same kind as yours (or at least not currently), it can stir a rush of selfless love that refreshes those cold, drained channels inside of you. And that compassion can give you the courage to face their pain with calm dignity and the strength to lend your aid in whatever way you are able.

When you find a way to draw out your own empathy, whether the subject of your unconditional love is at hand or not, you gain a perspective that is just outside of your own struggles. Even that small distance can make yours seem more manageable, and that can mean the difference between wandering listlessly through your day, cold and detached, or engaging fully with everything you do, bringing even a little bit of hope and light to all you touch (distantly or not).

That difference is as tangible as life and death, or daylight and the darkest night. And it can save you from yourself when you question how you can continue to work effectively, connect with the people in your life, or maybe even get out of bed on the most difficult days.

For most of us, the highs can outweigh the lows, whether you love to mix with people, or whether your plants and your pets are the only ones you want to see most days.

Open your heart as much and as often as you can, and I promise you, life will be more rewarding because of it. More difficult? Certainly. But far more worthwhile.

Just remember to cry, and you will know you are truly alive.

You Deserve Better

Six months ago, and a year ago, things may have seemed simpler for a lot of us, for so many reasons. Today I considered a crucial one that we often overlook.

I have heard a number of friends lately struggle with this concept, as have I. Anyone who is trying to build a brand, or write a blog, or start a podcast, or anything that you are trying to do… you want people to listen. You want people to hear you. And on the surface – in the beginning – ANY reader, viewer, or follower seems important. And everyone IS important.

But.

If you walk one of these paths – indeed, if you strive to achieve any goal at all – you will find trolls. You will find people who want to tear you down. You will find people who always have something to say about what you said, or did, or wrote, or made. But it’s never uplifting; it’s never constructive; it’s never encouraging. It’s never even questioning. Some of these people just always want to tear you down.

I’m all about questioning. I love to have people challenge my ideas (most of the time, anyway). But challenge them with your own thoughts and your own ideas, not just some twisted dogma or vitriol, because you had a hard day, or a hard year, or even a hard life! I feel for you, if you have. Everyone has gone through struggles, but that’s one of the things that connects us.

Many of you will have heard this before, or one of its variations:

“Always be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you do not know.”

Struggles, challenges, courage, hope, overcoming, even grief! These are things that can bond us together. These are things that can help us find common ground, understanding, compassion, for each other. I don’t worry much when someone has a bad day and says one rude thing. (I’ve certainly done this! And no one is too big to apologize.)

Anyone can have a bad day, and anyone can say one hurtful thing. Accidentally, or even on purpose, by lashing out because of some emotional damage they didn’t realize was being externalized in the moment. And if that person realizes what happened and apologizes, the odds are very strong that I will forgive them and we will move on, as adults.

But some people just want to trash talk, and I don’t have time for those people anymore.

I have a tiny blog, with perhaps a handful of readers. But I already don’t have time for people who just want to hate. I have had to part company with some old friends, because while we once had spirited discussions, debates, and even disagreements, they became bitter over something. Anything! Often politics. Sometimes personal losses that weighed so heavily on them that, instead of leaning on their friends for support, they simply became sour, toward everything.

One of them, I had to separate from months ago. I saw him struggling, read what little he shared online, and reached out to him and asked him what I could do. I made sure to take it offline, so there would be no audience, and we could just be two adults who respected each other, having a discussion about our lives. He dismissed me; brushed away my offers, which is fine; that’s his right. But he continued to be extremely caustic in public, and whether that’s his brand, and he wants an audience, or whether he’s just become so filled with frustration that he hates everything most days… I don’t have time for that now.

That’s just one example. If you’re reading this now, you may have encountered what we call The Internet (!), and you can likely think of many more!

If you’re an artist, an engineer, a builder, a designer of any kind, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.

You need to know this: shutting out destructive people, toxic people, bitter people, who have no room left for joy, encouragement, hope? Sometimes that is the only option you have, for your own survival.

If you have a strong foundation, if you’re in a good place, with lots of resources – time, energy, even money – and you want to help a lot of people… do so! I encourage that, too. If you want to start an organization that can reach people who are struggling in a community, in a sector, in a country… by all means, go for it! That can be a wonderful cause!

Even if you have limited resources, but you’re still in a position to help someone else, and you want to, that’s terrific. But if you’re in a troubled place right now, maybe you should start with yourself. Maybe you should get yourself on steady footing before you try to throw a line to others.

Of course I don’t mean to be rude, or heartless; not ever! Sometimes we find new strength and energy in the very act of helping other people. And that can make us stronger, help bring us more focus, and more confidence. Even fulfillment.

All these aspects of human emotion and psychology and character are real. But if you’re struggling, whatever your work hustle is, or even if you’re just trying to survive this moment, don’t give anyone who wants to hurt you the time of day. Don’t give anyone who has nothing useful to say to you, a minute of your time, or one spark of your energy.

I’ve long said that you can only truly love another person once you love yourself. You can’t appreciate respect from another person until you respect yourself. Plenty of people struggle with these aspects, too. In fact, I wrote another entire blog about my own journey from self-loathing to self-respect, and it has literally turned my life around.

You must help yourself first. If you don’t put some of your energy into yourself first, you will very quickly feel spent dealing with other people, even people you love, even people you’re trying to help. Thankless work may be fine for saints, but most of us walk a line somewhere in the middle! Most of us want to feel appreciated, at least from time to time. Most of us want to know that we’re doing the right thing, as often as possible.

If you know your path well, you have an excellent start. But if you can filter out some of these people who have nothing to add to your life, and who only take things away, then the struggles won’t be as hard. And your successes just might feel every bit as sweet as you deserve.

Regular pruning helps trees and other plants to thrive, because life is about growth, and growth is messy. How many people do you know whose life has followed exactly the course that they charted for it? At best, I know people who have accomplished one or two major goals that they set when they were younger. But most of us are finding our way every day, and it’s okay to change that course.

If you’ve found your North Star, and you can follow it firmly, so much the better. If you’re still looking for it, that’s fine, too! Some people know what they want in life at age 20; some people are still seeking it at age 50.

Grandma Moses always loved art and preferred embroidery until her late 70s, when her arthritis made that craft too difficult. She took up painting again, and we all know that turned out well. But she found joy in it, and sold paintings for just a few dollars at first, and later for thousands of dollars. Quite the success story, though she started off doing something else.

So there’s plenty of hope for all of us.

Prune your life of people, places, and things that hold nothing but ill will or bad memories for you. If you need to give away something from an old relationship so that you can let it go and finally move on with your life, give it away. And if it was a bad relationship, break it. Burn it. Consecrate it and bury it in the ground. Whatever you need to do.

If there’s a place you can no longer stand to be, consider a move. I know that’s a huge step! I don’t pretend that’s easy or simple. But it is possible. It’s possible, and it can give you the fresh start you need. It can give you a fresh outlook, new energy, and a clean slate.

And if it’s people that are holding you back, or holding you down, or always trying to discourage everything you do, you can change that, too. If you’re brave and they’re reasonable, bring it up. Frankly, honestly, simply. Plan a time, plan a place, make it over a meal, make it in a public place, make it at home – wherever it needs to be – and talk. Tell them what’s bothering you. And if that’s not possible, you can simply break off contact, with or without an explanation. Whatever is appropriate for you.

You deserve to have people around you who support you, who lift you up. My best friend says that you become like the five people that you spend the most time around and invest the most time in. And so he makes sure that those five people are good for him. He feels that I enrich his life and that he can learn from me, and that I help him strive for better things. And I feel exactly the same way about him.

Maybe it’s time you start choosing the top five people in your life. And if you have a close family of twenty or more people, maybe some of your top five will be in that family. Maybe they all will. Maybe none of them will. That’s okay! I’m not telling you to abandon your family if they’re not in your top five. I’m just saying, find the people who lift you up, and make sure to invest your time and energy in those relationships.

It doesn’t have to be five. It can be three, or ten, or whatever you have the time and energy for. Extroverts will have more energy to deal with more people. Introverts may only be able to handle two or three people.

You CAN do this.

You deserve strong, supportive relationships in your life.

Carve out some time to start thinking about this. It could be in your commute. It could be while you’re washing dishes, or sewing, or working out, or cleaning your house or apartment, or sunbathing, or on the beach, or at the library, or hiking through trees, or in any place where you can hear your own thoughts. Write these things out if you need to, and be honest. No one else ever has to see it. But you’ll appreciate figuring this out, and you may have more energy than you ever dreamed possible once you do.

You can do this. Find a safe space and start now. You can thank yourself in six months.

Playing not to lose

The best possible case for “playing” life as a defensive game is holding your position. But you can only advance if you take action.

Life is not a game, of course, but any metaphor that helps you gain insight on how to approach it with more joy, more courage, and more success, can be worthwhile. I have always loved chess, and this can be fine lens for reflection at times.

For many years, I have seen people who play not to lose, without development, without any substantial action to better their positions. As with any form of life that does not grow up and outward, the world will encroach on such a quiet existence, and one can even lose important pieces unexpectedly. Some people will be slow and cautious before such a loss, like the chess King, and can even lose the most powerful people they have ever known. Many chess players feel lost without their Queen, and it is easy to understand how this feels if you have ever seen it first-hand in real life. But playing not to lose is no way to succeed at anything. As someone wiser than me once said, you have to risk losing; sometimes you have to risk everything.

To play an offensive game in chess, indeed to accomplish anything of note, you must attack. But first, you must observe everything, plan carefully, coordinate with everyone around you, and move swiftly and attentively. An offensive game in life is very similar, though attack is not required; you need only take action to move forward. Even lateral moves and temporary retreats have their place in chess and in life. And whether you live life as the king, carefully bearing a heavy responsibility for everyone around you, or the queen, moving swiftly and decisively, inspiring awe among those in your path, you still must keep track of the larger picture to have any chance at your ultimate goals. In chess, there is only one. In life, there are many: joy, health, love, friendship, knowledge, wisdom, service to others, self-respect, self-awareness, peace of mind, and so much more. Some of them may come easily, and some of them may take a lifetime of hard work, but all of them are only within reach if you mind the big picture while you take each step along the way.

So live your life on purpose, and remember to play sometimes, whatever your games of choice. But always pay attention, plan ahead, improvise when you must, and be bold enough to keep moving toward what you want.

It’s your move.

Potluck Lunch Loophole

One week before our office’s Thanksgiving potluck lunch, I was getting a little desperate to find a recipe that no one else was making.

All of the usual fare had been covered already: dressing, sides, desserts, breads, even drinks were volunteered by my colleagues. Keeping a vegetarian or even vegan diet for the past decade, my choices for what to bring were limited by more than my lack of culinary skill. I wanted something interesting that everyone could enjoy, but that I could confidently craft in no more than three tries, lest I run out of time, first, and food with which to experiment as well.

Happily, while reading a new friend’s lifestyle blog on Saturday, I discovered a marvelous little recipe with the perfect loophole: Healthy No-Bake Apple Cinnamon Energy Bites. Since the actual cooking was bound to be the hardest part for my potluck contribution, skipping it altogether seemed like a wonderful way to begin! The ingredients seemed simple enough, if somewhat unusual, but they looked tasty, and my friend had posted a brief and entertaining video wherein she put them together, so the entire process seemed foolproof. Of course, I had not yet begun to look foolish in my kitchen, but I was game for the challenge and set out to find what I needed before the day was out.

The recipe, which is posted in full right here, called for chewy apple rings and agave syrup, among other more common items, and those took some looking. I found the cinnamon, vanilla, and blue agave syrup at a grocery store in town, and the dates and bulk apple rings at Sprouts Farmers Market, though I read that Trader Joe’s has good apple rings as well. Still, I overbought dramatically, since I needed room to go wrong a time or three before making enough to feed a dozen people, preferably without rationing too sparsely. Sprouts was definitely the best place to get the fruits I needed at reasonable prices.

Smartphone in hand, I read up a bit on oats right there in the grocery store, before deciding on old-fashioned rolled oats instead of the instant variety. It seems like instant would work just fine, but old-fashioned oats bring exactly the consistency you want to offset the softness of the sticky dates, and I highly recommend them.

After one cycle without the oats (um… to check the consistency, thank you, not because I didn’t realize I had skipped something… oh, shut up), and one more with everything in order, I started to get a feel for the process and the goal. A total of eleven cycles, from measuring, to food processor, to shaping by hand and chilling on parchment paper, produced what I was sure would be plenty of Apple Cinnamon Bites for everyone. Little did I know that I had underestimated my friend’s deceptively-simple recipe, and the quality ingredients I insisted on using for my first run at this new process. I came home from the potluck utterly bereft of Bites, and with one colleague patently asking for more the next time I made them. I was not the only one delighted with the results!

While there is no profound insight in this blog post, in keeping with my frequent theme of trying something new and expanding your horizons, I did make a discovery that charmed everyone around me and left a healthy dose of confidence in its wake, though not so much as a crumb on the empty dishes I brought home. Even a man with zero cooking skills, but with a fine formula and good food choices along the way, can strike gold, and so can you. Choose your next testing ground and set yourself up for success. Then go make a mess, and have some fun doing it! Wherever you land, you can be glad you took the leap.

Why Not Try?

I’m sure you noticed that this blog is new.

Until recently, I spent most of my life thinking of reasons NOT to do things, and boy, are there an endless supply of those, once you start looking! I don’t know why I did that, other than simple fear of failure or of success. Yes, success! (“What would I do if I failed at this? Admit I’m worthless? Never try anything new again?”) If you HAVE these conversations with yourself, it can be so much easier to get around the unspoken fears that hold you back from the shadows of your mind; put a name to them, and you remove their teeth (another blog post will focus entirely on this subject). Or, might I simply say, “That didn’t go as well as I hoped, but I liked trying, or didn’t. Maybe I’ll try again, or try something different next time.”

Also ask yourself, “What if I try something and it works well? What if I succeed? Will people look to me for guidance or inspiration or even just with admiration? What is wrong with that? What if I don’t like the attention? And do I have to keep doing this forever once I find I’m good at it or I like it today?” Of course not! Start these conversations with yourself and remove the fear of uncertainty. Then you’re simply trying something new, and new experiences can turn out good, bad, or everywhere in between. You literally never know until you actually try it.

Think about it. Read about it. Plan something. Try something. Risk a little or risk nothing, learn how it goes, and learn how you feel. Once you know better, do better. Or move on if you don’t want to do better at that. But either way, be honest with yourself and open to whatever you are trying. Join me in starting something of your own. What do you want to try next?

Soldiers as Guardians… and more importantly, as Humans

Soldiers are celebrated as heroes, as well they should be, putting their lives on the line to defend what they believe in. But problems arise when people can no longer believe in anything real. Artificial borders, political affiliations, religious zealotry… these are ideas that are meant to divide humans from each other, and they do so quite effectively.

I heard something tonight that got me thinking more than ever about this issue. Whether fictional or not, the very concept of a “NQK” (No Questions Kill) mission is troublesome on the face of it. The supremely destructive act of taking a life, while sometimes necessary for the greater good, should never be undertaken lightly, nor blindly. Well-trained soldiers with understanding from an informed populace make the BEST soldiers, because they understand the reasons behind their orders, and so can follow them with conviction when right, or know to question them when wrong.

The problem with “blind loyalty” is right there in the name: it is BLIND. And of course, “there is none so blind as one who will not see.” If someone refuses to consider new ideas, that person has stopped learning and indeed has stopped thinking. Confirmation bias is a widely-known psychological phenomenon to which no one is immune; the only way to avoid it is by constantly questioning one’s own reasoning and conclusions. Sound reasoning can stand up to this. However, rationalizing what we already want to believe is no way to live, and it is the antithesis of truth.

Regarding leadership, some people have been shown to thrive with firm guidance, but most people can do so much more with encouragement, education, and opportunity than with slavish obedience. There are people who are so scarred, mentally and emotionally, that they need structure imposed upon them to function at all, but “breaking” people so they can become better at following orders still requires BREAKING in the first place. If breaking the spirit of horses is innately cruel (since they have a right to life), then breaking the spirit of humans is just as cruel (since they have a right to life, too). There is no difference unless we close our eyes and cry dogma, and that difference is artificial and deadly to all life.

With compartmentalized knowledge and secret missions, police become simple tools of the person or group in power, and military soldiers become no more than pawns in power struggles, and not the guardians of their people that they should be. Even our so-called National Guard simply protects financial interests in other countries much of the time. Soldiers should be entrusted with the protection of their people, and the full understanding of what and whom they are protecting, and why.

People with strong tendencies are easy to steer. This is not necessarily the same as passion. Passion for something is a choice you make, something you are happy to pursue. Drives, however, can compel you to take actions, good or bad. These can stem from healthy convictions or from poorly-understood emotional obsessions. The detective who never misses a clue at the crime scene may still feel compulsions that capture his attention in daily life, even to the point of letting him walk right into danger unawares. The officer or agent who remains cool in the face of most criminal activity may still lose his self-control in the presence of someone who did what was done to him in his youth. If it made him feel powerless and victimized years ago, he may overreact to the newest villain and even lose sight of his training, perhaps even compromising the prosecution against the new monster before him. Mature children of manipulative parents who outgrow the oppressive grip under which they were raised, still may find the old reactions coming back years later, even after just a phone call with a parent or someone who reminds them of that time.

All of this speaks to why blind obedience is just as dangerous for soldiers and the people they would protect, because blind followers can be used like tools if you know how to grip their handles; sailed like winds on the sea if you know which direction they blow and how to tack. Rich metaphors for certain, but the same is true for those who train people too narrowly.

Soldiers who are best suited to protect themselves, their families, and their homelands, are well-rounded, intelligent people who understand their own psychology as well as that of their opponents. Enemies of humanity abound, but they can only climb to power and work from within if they first train their guardians not to look inward. True heroes may or may not be patriots, but if you believe that this is the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, then the Free and the Brave must be free to question their leaders and brave enough to do so. Everyone is wrong sometimes. The wisest among us understand this, value honest feedback, admit our own mistakes and learn from them, to grow wiser and stronger over time. This is true leadership. The stubborn and the strong may defeat a person, a group, or a nation, but they will never be handed victory without a fight by anyone who knows who they are but questions everything honestly, to ensure that they stay true.

Any path through the chaos of life is never easy, and we must always remain vigilant to know upon what ground we stand, and which way we are facing as we move across each terrain that we encounter. Stop and rest, recover your strength, look inward at yourself and at those around you, and you will see which way to go after a time. Life is like travel by foot. Sometimes there will be fog all around; sometimes visibility is clear for miles. Sometimes everything seems uphill, but there is always a balance to that if you just keep going. I read once, “If you’re going through hell… KEEP GOING!” Anywhere you stop and give up, you will remain. Even if you settle in a fertile valley by a river, if you do not pay attention and tend to the land around you, you will stagnate and start to decay.

Only through challenge can we grow stronger. The person whose injuries are healing but who will not test his muscles because they still hurt, will lose what muscle he had, and will continue to weaken. The person who never pushes the boundaries never learns what she can do. The child who never encounters bacteria or dirt may never develop the immunity to carry him through the dangers of adult life. The adult who stops questioning her values stops understanding them and shrivels into a creature of blind habit. The elder whose habits and traditions have never been challenged collapses upon himself and may wonder one day what all he has missed by never looking the other way. Or he may never wonder at all, and lose even the benefits of hindsight and the wisdom of reflection.

Struggle, in modest doses, makes us stronger. It makes us wiser, as we learn where we thrive as well as what always hurts more than it helps. It broadens our horizons whenever we take up something new, even for a day, a year, a decade. Exercise your body when and where you can. Be careful, but take risks. Push a little every chance you get, then reflect on how it made you feel. Even fear cannot rule us when we understand it and call it by name. Everything you learn makes you stronger. Insight is a tool at least as powerful as a strong back. Experience opens more doors than you can count. “New” may be daunting, but growth can be inspiring. The endorphins people talk about when they exercise are from pushing themselves in the right ways and the right amounts. People can feel the same invigorating release of energy from mental accomplishments and emotional milestones.

Work. Push. Think. Learn. Reflect. Discuss. Understand. Find peace in motion and growth in sharing, whether you connect with other people or with everything else around you even while seemingly alone. There is always something. No part of this planet is truly empty. And if you are there, it can be a rich place indeed.