An Answer, To Start With

25 02 2016

The Times once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” and Chesterton responded simply,

“Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”*

I know you’re worried about what’s happening in the world. We all are.  The politics of divisiveness. The epidemic of gun violence in our communities. The world refugee crisis. Growing economic inequality. The Zika virus. Regardless of your particular concern(s), the end result is the same: we are worried, frightened, perhaps angry. What are we to do?

In our increasingly polarized world climate, we are surrounded by voices haranguing us to engage in finger-pointing, telling us to shout down those with opposing views (or worse, “punch him in the face” as one presidential candidate indicated he’d prefer), insisting that we fall into lock-step with any one of a myriad absolute ultimatums promulgated by various “parties”. (My friend, Randy Greenwald, writes eloquently about his experience of this as a Christian pastor, here.)

In Drew Dellinger’s poem, Heiroglyphic Stairway, he says it’s 3:00 a.m. and he lies awake because his great-great-grandchildren ask him “What did you do?” when you knew the Earth was being plundered? As it happens, a lot of us are having difficulty sleeping. I mentioned my own recent insomnia to four acquaintances the other day and was stunned to discover that three of them take nightly sleep aids.

In the face of such overwhelming issues, what are we to do, other than medicate ourselves?

G. K. Chesterton’s famous response, above, may be a good place to start. I know: it is so much easier to focus on everyone else, to give in to the urge to fill our heads and ears with “news”, to focus our feelings on an ever-changing horizon outside of ourselves. It may be time, though, to focus inward, to look at our own internal battle lines. In what ways do my choices contribute to what’s wrong with the world? How is my thinking adding to the negative spin?

The first step, they say, is to admit there’s a problem. I recently read this quote that stuck with me, “We are the only author of our thoughts — the only thinker in our lives.” (Rev. June Kelly) Recent advances in science suggest, and are offering proof, that our thoughts have real consequences in the world. But even if we aren’t into the latest scientific studies, we know internally that what we dwell on in our thoughts has an impact on our own behavior and mood. And those two things definitely impact the world we move through in our daily lives.

If it is true that “I am” is the answer to what’s wrong with the world, it is also true that “I am” can be the answer to what is right with the world. Choosing to address your own thinking, and the actions you take as a result, can have huge positive consequences, too. Truthfully, we don’t have to engage in the mud-slinging, polarizing, visciously close-minded rhetoric – the interpersonal violence – we are being pushed toward.

As with so many key concepts in life, this is so much easier said than done. I know. I fight my own first reactions all the time – but gradually, we get better at it as we practice hitting the reset button. I’m trying to hit that button every time my immediate impulse is to dash off an angry retort, paint whole groups of people with dismissively colored adjectives, or raise an angry fist in the air. I’m not saying there is nothing we should be angry or concerned about – just that when we recognize that we, personally, contribute to the problem, we can begin to address how we do so. And when we start to correct that how, we move from making it worse to helping make it better. The same way anything gets better – one person, one thought, one action at a time.

Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.
Etty Hilesum

 





So, I Said to Myself…

18 02 2016

The other night, I fell asleep early in the evening. After several hours of dozing in an armchair, I woke up enough to put myself to bed. I consciously didn’t turn on lights; I even kept my eyelids lowered to maintain the illusion that I was still sleeping. All of this effort was intended to keep me from waking up enough to have trouble getting back to sleep.

Unfortunately, force of habit caused me to tap the mail icon on my phone when I picked it up to set an alarm. And there, staring me in the face, was an email from work. I opened it and read it. Immediately, I regretted doing so: my heart rate rose rapidly, my breathing became shallow, and I was in the throes of a midnight anxiety attack before I even realized what was happening. Suddenly, everything I hadn’t done or hadn’t done perfectly came rushing into my brain. My miles-long to-do list landed with a crushing thud on my solar plexus.

I said farewell to sleep for the night.

One of the things I found myself doing in the course of the sleepless hours that followed, was randomly rereading posts from this blog. The longevity of nearly seven years offers the humbling discovery that, despite the myriad changes that have taken place both internally and externally in that time, I have certain perennial life issues – as evidenced by this post from February 2011:

When I start to feel pressure from the things I know are on the horizon, I have a tendency to give anxiety free-reign. And as I feel more anxious, I grow less patient, less able to take minor setbacks in stride. As anxiety reaches fever pitch, I begin to resent the conditions in which I find myself – as if I didn’t have a hand in creating them.

Because a lot, though not all, of what I will be doing in this busy period is work related, I will have a tendency to blame my job for the outcomes of my anxiety – if I snap at someone, if I drop the ball and let a friend down, if I miss an appointment. So my challenge is to remain centered and on task in my own life, and to not allow myself to abdicate responsibility for my actions.

Parker Palmer, my go-to guy, says this, in A Hidden Wholeness:

“The notion that we cannot have what we genuinely need is a culturally induced illusion that keeps us mired in the madness of business as usual. But illusions are made to be broken. Am I busy? Of course I am. Am I too busy to live my own life? Only if I value it so little that I am willing to surrender it…”

My challenge, now as it was then, is to remain centered and on task in my own life. This includes having the self-discipline to skip checking my email at midnight and to forego entering the spiral of anxiety in order to preserve any hope of sleep! I haven’t exactly been surrendering my life to busy-ness as much as allowing it to slip away, often in empty hours of wakefulness.

It’s an odd feeling when your past self speaks directly to your present quandary. But it is also kind of nice to be reminded of lessons you’ve already learned. Reapplying them is often easier than the initial learning curve.

And on that note, I believe it’s time for bed!

 





Encounter: Your Art, My Self

11 02 2016

“Art, at its most potent, springs from the artist’s longing to bridge her private truth with the truth of the universe and transmute it into a public form that beckons forth the private truth of the viewer.”   — Maria Popova, Brainpickings

I trudged in the front door and dropped the two heavy bags I carry back and forth to work every day. I dragged myself up the stairs, where I changed out of my sweaty workout clothes into comfy fleece from head to toe. Downstairs once again, I put a serving of homemade soup in the microwave to warm up and turned on my computer.

It was just after 8:00 p.m. when the microwave dinged, letting me know my soup was ready. I sat at the table, dog-tired, eating soup and browsing through social media trying to decide whether I would do any of the things on my evening to-do list or give up and go to bed.

That’s when I came upon my friend C’s post announcing that she was about to do a radio show. At first, I assumed the show had something to do with her job, which was a fair assumption given C’s occupation. However, I soon realized the topic was poetry – not her line of work. I clicked on the link and started listening to the live community radio feed.

The show just coming to an end involved a woman reading a book, stopping to compare the current edition with the previous edition of the same volume. I wasn’t really listening, as I quickly made a cup of hot tea. I then ensconced myself on a chair with my feet up, a blanket over me, and a heating pad warming my back – I was in serious comfort mode and ready for some poetry. I didn’t know if my friend would be sharing her favorite poems by other poets, or whether C. would read some of her own poems. Either way, I expected it to be worth listening: many years ago, when we first met in graduate school, poetry was one of the things C. and I had bonded over.

The show began with the usual chit-chatty introductions. C.’s daughter, a senior in high school, was also in the studio and said hello. It was very sweet and a little awkward, the way on-air “spontenaiety” often comes across. And then C. began reading her first poem.

Suddenly, I was transported to a farm outside Kalona, Iowa: the fields and timber, a weathered old man, bees buzzing in and out of the story of a life – of a death – sweetened with a little wild honey.

The second poem had harder edges, but a softer core.  At its surfaces were a father, a husband, a doctor – their words, their actions, their betrayals. Inside, the pain and self-doubts and aching loneliness of surviving it all, unsure of anything other than that life goes on – and that is enough, somehow.

C.’s voice, as she read, was unwavering. Clear and strong. Her life experiences, lined up and revealed to anyone who happened to be listening, rolled from her tongue with just the right cadence and inflection. I don’t know how she did it – only listening, I was a puddle of emotions.

It’s funny: art has the power to touch us in unexpected ways at the oddest moments. What it takes, I think, is a shared agreement between the artist and the viewer (or listener) to bring their own vulnerability to the interaction. C. chose powerful, emotionally risky, poems to share. I had to be willing to open myself to those emotions, to the commonality of our human experience, in order to be moved by them. This is why art, in all its forms, is so important. It teaches us how to have moments of shared vulnerability – how to speak directly from what is deepest in one person to what is deepest in another. The vastness of this interaction, happening in many cases between souls separated by time, by geography, by lifetimes, is part of how we understand ourselves as members of the larger community of humanity.

To all the artists out there, known and unknown, striving to open yourselves to the power of creating, I want to offer a sincere thank you. Thank you for making yourselves vulnerable so I may better understand myself. Thank you for creating bridges that allow us to cross the chasms separating us from one another; for painstakingly crafting a way for us to meet outside our own cultures and times. Thank you for helping us all more deeply understand our shared humanity.

 

 





From Just Plain Stupid to Stupid Easy

4 02 2016

foot prints in the sand

(Image from Pattysphotos at https://www.flickr.com/photos/34121831@N00/4592567496)

Lately, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time writing responses to posts on social media that either anger or disturb me. Sometimes, I carefully craft my response, being careful to choose words that are not intentionally incendiary, removing any accusatory or judgmental language. Other times I allow my fingers to type quickly, spewing forth the outraged reactive language running through my mind.

And then I erase them.

As I think about the swift passage of time, the ways my days run together and my weeks come to an end before I have time to blink, I realize that this has been stupidly wasteful of my time. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I erased these comments before posting them. But if I tried to add up the minutes of precious time I’ve wasted writing/erasing/writing/erasing them…well, let’s just say there are better uses for my time.

What often happens when I finally face the inanity of one behavior, is that the absurdity of other things I do becomes impossible to ignore as well. For example, on Saturday I spent the better part of the morning taking an online IQ test, simply because a friend on Facebook had challenged others to do so. After something like seventy-five pattern-recognition questions burned out my retinas, I discovered that I would have to pay $9.95 to get my results. No thanks.

Not all of my bad habits are internet related (though most of my time-wasting ones are). If I were to create an exhaustive list it would include things like getting halfway through writing a letter or card, stopping, and never finishing it. Or (God help me!) watching “My Diet is Better Than Yours” instead of turning off the television and picking up a good book. Or staring at the still unpacked boxes in my apartment, thinking about where I will put the stuff they contain…when I actually get around to it.

Everyone has bad habits and self-indulgent time-wasters, I know. I am too old and, hopefully, too wise to strive for perfection in my own habits. On the other hand, experience has shown me that I can spend a lot of time spinning my wheels through inattention – that weeks and months and years of a life can disappear with little to show in terms of actually living in them. There’s the poem about how a man dreamed he was walking with God and saw his life as a set of footprints on a sandy beach. Often, there were two sets of footprints in the sand, but at the times in his life that were hardest, there appeared to be only one set. When he asks the Lord about this, suggesting that he had been abandoned in those times, he is told, “Those were the times I carried you.” My dreaming mind changed this story into a walk down the beach where, looking back, there were no footprints. Not because I was abandoned by God, but because I was abandoning my own life.

A week or so ago, I ran across a post on Break The Twitch, in which Anthony Ongaro shares his strategies for intentionally changing his habits. He talks about needing to establish good habits to replace the bad ones we wish to excise from our lives. Anthony says:

“I often refer to this quote from Annie Dillard when thinking about how to structure these specific actions:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

The hours of our days become the weeks of our months and so on. If I want to accomplish these goals, I have to do things that will get me closer to them every single day. To create these daily actions, here are the qualifications:

Stupid-easy. Each daily action needs to be stupid-easy, as in, so easy for me that I would feel absolutely ridiculous not doing it. Essentially, take a desired action and breaking it down to the no-possible-resistance level.

Focus on action, not the outcome. I focus on celebrating the successful completion of each daily task, not the outcome that it created. Some days, the outcome is great — other days, it’s crap. That’s why I’m focusing on the habit itself, so that I don’t get discouraged. If I complete it, I am #winning.

Establish early success. The two points above contribute to early success – establishing a habit of succeeding immediately. Quickly creating a successful chain of daily actions from the very start.

Start immediately. From there, I’d start immediately and refuse to wait for a new year or a certain day to get started. If I failed on any particular day I would not wait until a specific day of the week or turn of a year to start again.”

The very first qualification that Anthony shares, “stupid easy”, is a game changer for those of us who have difficulty establishing new, more proactive, daily habits. So many times, I’ve found myself setting expectations that, in execution, are too Herculean to actually accomplish: exercise for an hour a day; always wash the dish(es) I just used; 100 crunches as soon as I get out of bed in the morning; no sweets. (This gives you an idea of what passes for “impossible” for me, anyway, as beginning goals!)

But “stupid easy” – that’s something I think I can be really good at! After all, my time-wasters are already both stupid and easy! In order to begin, I’m going to pick one positive habit I want to establish: taking time at the end of each day for reflection and quieting of my mind. I’ve realized that taking some time to do this is a way for me to set aside the day’s anxieties while setting myself up for a more calm and peaceful sleep. If I just sit quietly, I tend to fall asleep – but not comfortably, nor having put to rest the worries of the day – which sets me up for restless sleep and middle-of-the-night wakefulness. And if I don’t make a ritual of it, I’m less likely to actually do it. So I need an activity that can become rote, while not also revving my brain up to further wakefulness. So here is my “stupid easy” habit, instituting today:

Habit: Daily, brief reflection before bed.

Stupid-Easy method: Write three short statements in my bedside journal each night – 1. Something I’m asking for help with; 2. Something I am grateful for; 3. Something “Wow” or awe-inspiring from my day. (Based on the premise of Anne Lamott’s book “Help, Thanks, Wow“)

I’ll let you know how it’s going. If this “stupid easy” habit gets established, I’ll add another. The idea is that positive daily habits, as they are established, crowd out the just plain stupid ones – the time-wasters and energy-suckers. I don’t know many things for sure, but I do know that life is too short not to inhabit each and every day. If I dream again that my life is a walk along a sandy beach, I want to look back at where I’ve been and see at least one set of deeply etched footprints.

 

Note: Will you join me (and Mr. Anthony Ongaro!) in trying your own highly beneficial daily activity(ies)? If so, I invite you to share in the comments!