Branching Into a Third Class

I am always on a mission for greater self-awareness. Striving for this bears its own merit, in my opinion, because I think we can all be healthier, stronger, more productive, more efficient, more honest, and of course happier, with greater self-awareness. It’s not always pretty to look inside, especially when we’ve made mistakes, or if we have survived trauma. But facing such things honestly can take away some of their teeth, as naming any fear helps to defang it.

So self-awareness is a worthy goal in its own right. But that journey leads me to some most interesting places.

I pondered some things on a long, familiar drive today. I was alone in the car. I never turned on music. I just thought out loud. And I challenged one of my oldest biases: the bias against waste, which for me, hinges on three things more than any others:

  • wasted water — clean water running down the drain for no benefit;
  • wasted paper — crisp, processed, brand-new paper, thrown away for no benefit; and
  • wasted fuel — gasoline, with all of the pain and all of the destruction that goes into producing it, being burned so that someone can sit there, inside a very large truck, burning a great deal of fuel, while someone else stands outside the truck, leaning up against it, leisurely smoking a cigarette.

You may have surmised that I saw this last one today up close. It disgusted me, it infuriated me, and it made me angry and — because of anger — probably a little bit afraid. And as soon as I realized I was having this reaction, I started asking myself WHY.

I’ve learned to throw out a little bit of leftover food, rather than eat it, if I know that eating it will only make me feel sick (or worse), and if I know that putting it away will only mean that I’ll have to throw it away tomorrow or the day after, and then I’ll have a dish to wash, which will cost more water, and more energy, and more space in my head and in my life.

So I’ve learned to throw away food at times (“wasting” food), because it is sometimes the more efficient and the more effective option. Knowing the true cost of food, and especially of meat, how can I justify accepting that with a calmness I do not feel when I see people throw away perfectly good paper? Not into the recycler, but into the trash. Or when I see someone run water down the drain, and walk away from the tap while it’s running. Or sit in a car for one full hour, reading a book and eating, or even sleeping, while they just burn gas and pollute the air around me.

(Note that I’m not referring to someone who is sleeping for a bit between long shifts on a cold winter’s night while trying not to freeze; this frustration comes from seeing people sit in an air-conditioned vehicle when it’s barely hot out, while I’ve sat in my own car at the same time, with windows down and a sunshade in the windshield, enjoying the breeze while I eat my own lunch and read in the indirect light.)

These things infuriate me, but I still wanted to know why. This level of awareness has been long in coming. I’ve lived with these observations for years, but I haven’t always been able to figure out why they affect me so. And today, I set out to do just that.

Careless pollution infuriates me, but it should anyone. That’s a reasonable reaction. We all need to breathe the air!

And if I can accept wasting a little food sometimes, but not wasting water, why is that? I can pour water out on the ground, where plants will absorb it, and that’s fine. To me, that’s returning it to the natural water cycle, and some life still benefits from it. Even pouring it out in a parking lot seems better than just pouring it into the drain (back to the chemical treatment plant with you, clean stuff of life!), or throwing a plastic bottle (that could also be emptied and recycled) into a garbage can, water and all.

Exploring these curious variances, I wondered if my drive for efficiency has been my dominant force for so long, professionally and personally, that I’ve finally taken it too far.

Time to look back, then.

When I was much younger, I focused on mastery. Everything that I tried, I wanted to get very good at immediately. I found this was often possible, but if I couldn’t master it quickly, I tended to lose interest just as quickly. Eventually I learned that I will NOT always master everything I attempt to learn anyway. There are things I do not have the physical prowess for, or the mental acuity for, or the discipline to focus on, or the interest in spending the time to master. And that’s fine, too.

Knowing where my strengths lie, and focusing on getting a return for those, seems like a better investment anyway. I love to learn a smattering of all new things, but if I lose interest for any reason, I don’t always try to drive myself deeper now, unless there is another goal at stake (professional accomplishment, some personal attachment, or solving a mystery, for example). And so I move on.

For much of my professional life, efficiency has been my chief driver. It is one of my Unique Selling Propositions, as recruiters, salespeople, and consultants often say. Efficiency! Learn accuracy first, and follow with efficiency. If you do it right the first time, that’s still more efficient, so really, it’s the same driver for both.

And if efficiency goes too far, you start to worry so much about waste (in time, distance, or complexity) that you can lose sight of the bigger picture. Small moves do add up, and tiny steps can make a real difference in the grand scheme. However, if you keep sight of the bigger picture along the way, you will often find that you chose a better course in the end.

Which leads me to my third driver. My first phase was mastery. My second phase was efficiency. And perhaps my third phase is harmony.

Harmony requires calmness, and honesty, and lots of communication. But mostly, calmness and honesty. As many throughout history have paraphrased, think before you speak, and pause again if you need more time to do that thinking. Snap judgments and harsh words can destroy harmony in seconds, and they can break trust that takes ages to rebuild, if ever you can.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” – (attributed to everyone)

In seeking the source of my inner disharmony — the imbalance between my logical observations and my visceral responses — I remembered something curious. Even games from forty years ago can still teach me lessons today.

I learned about role-playing games when I was five years old. Too young to realize that this art mirrored life in many important ways, I focused on the rules and stretched my childish imagination. Characters could only have one “class” (or profession) for their whole lives. An oversimplified view of the world, for certain, but it welcomed new players with the concept of a deep study and lifelong specialization.

As a teenager, I discovered an evolution in these games. Someone’s character could now switch “classes” later in life, and they could keep using their skills and insights in the first class they had chosen, but only after surpassing their achievements in the new class. Again, real life tells some of the best students that they cannot serve two masters… or at least, not at the same time. Even geniuses seem to stay in one field until they reach an endpoint of study, or until some new curiosity leads them to step into a different lane, whatever changes that may require.

Mastery. Efficiency. Harmony.

Long ago I read a version of how to think on your words before you loose them into a room, or onto the world at large. This is how I remember it today:

  • Are you about to speak the truth? Not “your” truth, but objective truth?
  • Does this need to be spoken? If not, save your breath for something better. Maybe listen instead.
  • Will it help or will it hurt someone? Never hurt anyone on purpose, and try not to hurt anyone by accident, either.
  • Is it kind? There is usually a kind way to deliver difficult news or necessary criticism. Be humble, and patient, and always share bad news or corrective actions in private. Help someone learn, but let them save face, and you will find more grateful friends than bitter enemies by far.
  • If it needs to be spoken, it is truthful, and it will help someone, speak it kindly! If not (to any of those criteria), remain calm, and often quiet.

For the wise, study never ends as long as we draw breath in this world. You can only reach a new level of awareness by understanding where you are now. Better still if you recognize a problem or three around you as the stepping stones they are perhaps meant to be. There are lessons everywhere, if you pay attention.

Harmony may be an overarching goal that can lead me to the next phase of my life and my growth, and can still help the world an immense amount.

Today I begin this new journey.

Where is yours taking you?

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.

A Slice of Unity

This is piece #2 of 21 in 21, a collaborative publishing project by husband-and-wife team Matthew D. Futter and Meredith Silverman, as we write about a series of 21 things we look forward to being different in 2021. (Read parts #1 here and also here if you missed them.) Throughout the year, we will publish pieces on the same subject, but from our own unique perspectives. You can find us both at the links above.


It’s hard to think of what else to say about our new President and Vice President that people haven’t already said for the last several weeks.

Since the election, which was called on November 7th (never mind that it was contested until January 6th), a lot of people have been writing their thoughts on the President, and I am far from the first to bring mine. There’s no need to rehash how his COVID-19 actions and plans date back to January of 2020. Or that a moderate President can be a truly transformative one. Or why I am much more confident about his experience than I am concerned about his age. Or that even if President Biden had to leave office after one term, due to health concerns – and he is transparent about his health and shows no significant signs of any decline – he chose a Vice President to accompany him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who is also experienced and impressive in her own right.

As the United States of America is (almost by definition) a patchwork of incredible diversity, so too has President Biden begun to build his own Cabinet and other leadership teams from a cross-section that represents more of this country than has any President who has gone before him.   

Many Presidents, and certainly our previous one, built their inner circles and installed department heads, almost entirely of white men. This is a new day. Joe Biden knows that we need something better. He stepped into office and immediately spoke of uniting the country. Sure, easier said than done. But he still stated his goal, and he’s working to build this team with transparency and diversity, and that is a plan that we can all get behind, and a team of which we can all be proud to be a part.

I am relieved and excited to have a President in office who speaks of the good of the country, not at the expense of the world, but as part of our global community. I am delighted that, in his first hours in office, he began to rescind some of the more alienating policies that his predecessor had implemented. America does not stand alone. We shouldn’t need to, and we shouldn’t want to.

The Americas, in fact, make up less than 30% of the planet’s landmass, and they only host around 13% of the world’s population on those two continents. For the United States of America, an even smaller piece of only one continent, to claim to stand above or apart from the rest of our planet, is arrogance of the highest order and unrealistic in the extreme.

The office of the POTUS has long been known as the most powerful leadership position in the world. So it brings me joy, hope, and no small degree of comfort, when the latest holder of that office sees leadership as a responsibility to those who follow, and not a mantle of might to wear at the expense of those around him.

Our President was never meant to be a dictator. He is, as Dave Kovic put it so well, only a temporary employee of the people. As the Chief Executive Officer of a company may have to answer to a Board of Directors, so does the President have to answer to the citizens. And if you install the right kind of person in that office for four (or eight) years, then you can have every reason to expect that they will serve the needs of the many and not just the one.

Joe Biden’s record of public service is long and transparent. I’m not saying the man is a saint — and as a good Catholic, he would never assume that title, either! He knows he is fallible, and so we can accept him as a man who is still learning at the age of 78 and will continue to learn throughout the remainder of his career in public service. That’s a sign of an excellent leader. Knowing what you don’t know is a sign of wisdom, too. Socrates famously said this centuries ago, and it remains true today.

Vice President Harris has not been in public service for as long as President Biden has, but that means she has even more years to learn and grow and help people. Help guide us to a better place. Help us build a better country than we have now. The work has already begun! And if we all keep an eye on this North Star together, we are far more likely to stay on course.

equality, equity, dignity, honesty, truth, transparency, courage, kindness
They all point us in the right direction.

A better world is well worth the work it takes to make it real. I’m honored to pick up all the tools I have and follow these two through the trenches to help build it.