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My Apologies.

My original intent for this website was to give readers a different (and hopefully helpful or at least thought-provoking) slant on how to view life and its problems, predicament, upsets, and daily challenges. (Actually, this was the second intent for this website. My first intent when I created the website for a grad school project was to provide cake recipes.) I wanted to show that we all can handle tough times with finesse and show grace under pressure. I think most folks, if given the chance and a bit of guidance, can face occasional disasters and days of drudgery with dignity. I just wanted to remind everyone of that fact.

During the last few months, I have had a lot of oh-no-this-cannot-be-happening moments and have not handled them with any dignity or grace. Actually, I smashed whatever rosy-colored glasses happened to be laying around the house and succumbed to depression and reclusion. I allowed myself to fall apart. I replaced self-respect with self-pity.

Because I was so busy wallowing in regret and disappointment, I felt I could give no advice or insight or ideas. I saw myself as a screw-up — surely others would see that and ignore anything I had to say, no? Thus, I have not made any posts recently.

Finally, I stopped blubbering. I accepted that I had plenty of reason to be disgruntled, but also admitted that my bouts of depression were simply avoidance tactics developed long ago in my youth and fine-tuned in recent days. Whereas I could lose days when I was young, I cannot avoid life and its consequences ad infinitum.

So now I am getting back in the saddle and taking charge of my life once again. And I can see that this lousy period of my life has given me some new insight and taught me some valid lessons about living gracefully.

I do hope you will check back to this site if you are searching for a different viewpoint, an alternative to the usual self-help one gets these days. I will not go into it right now, but here is my first piece of advice (to be expounded in the next post): Create a short answer and find a sympathetic ear.

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Offbeat Advice

How about Giving Up Giving Up for Lent

Something has been bothering me for a few years now. During Lent, many Christians give up something they enjoy or consider important to their lives — chocolate, smoking, wine, playing video games, posting on Facebook — for 40 days to make a sacrifice as a form of solidarity with Jesus who went into the desert and fasted for 40 days. Luke 9:23 reads: Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Lent is a time of fasting and abstinence and the faithful go without something in order to commemorate (and hopefully understand) the sacrifices Jesus made in the desert. Such abstinence will bring us into closer fellowship with Jesus.

Okay, I get it. In the past, I have given up (with dubious results) everything from sweets to smoking to watching television shows. As a child, my family never ate meat on Fridays during Lent (actually, never on Friday all year round) and had little meat at all during the pre-Easter season. And you know what? Giving up something never made me feel closer to God. I understand the whole idea, but it always seemed kind of … oh, I don’t know … showy to me.

Then I heard someone on a radio show make an offhand remark about Jesus spending 40 days in the desert in preparation for his ministry. The Holy Spirit sent Jesus to the desert to reflect, to be tested by temptations (three times by Satan), and to feel what the Israelites had felt while wandering for forty years in the desert. He did all this while fasting in order to prepare him to lead followers and remain strong in the face of adversity. No, he did not pack a lunch, but the purpose of the sojourn was not just to do without but to go within himself and prepare himself for his ministry which was revolutionary — it broke down social barriers (love thy neighbor regardless of their tribe or place of origin) and offended the current religious status quo — and would require great sacrifice and strength on his part.

So while Lent is a period of fasting, abstinence, and alms giving, it is also a time of preparation. Preparing to live a more fuller life in Christ requires reflection, reassessment, and possibly adjustment of your purpose and path and how you live your days. It may include ditching some habits and thoughts. It could mean more time spent in prayer or time spent in more deeper prayer. We might want to look at how we give alms and to whom and how we incorporate our beliefs into our daily lives. And while we might benefit from abstaining from those things that make us feel too comfortable, Lent is more than just giving up your morning coffee or chocolate cookies for 40 days, only to happily resume old ways once Easter rolls around.

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Self Improvement

Yes, these are the days …

In the poem Song of the Open Road, Walt Whitman writes, “These are the days that must happen to you.” He goes on to state that those who are always restless to answer the call of the open road will not accumulate riches or have long careers or enjoy love affairs because they will always be kissing farewell, giving notice, and saying good-bye before heading off for the next adventure. This is part of the deal, those days one must endure if they choose to pursue a life of eternal quest and adventure.

All of us have days we must endure because of choices we have made. Parents must put up with colicky babies and insolent teenagers because this is part of parenthood. Attorneys must put up with long days in court, executives with back-to-back meetings, soldiers with danger, janitors with dirt. It is simply part and parcel of your current job or slot in life — in short, these days are due to the choices you have made.

If you are pleased with your decision (or at least accepting of it), you will accept upsets and less-than-stellar circumstances. You will tolerate long hours, loneliness, red tape, filthy floors, complaining clients, low pay, or other lousy situations caused by your station in life. You may complain occasionally and question your choices — with drink in hand — but you keep putting up with these days because overall you like the choices you made. These days are simply the downside which must be endured. They indeed are the days that must happen to you.

But what happens when you are constantly complaining? When you are continually enduring trials but seeing no triumphs? When it seems as if all your days are these days? It could be a rough patch, or it could be that you need to make a new choice. You have changed and the path you are on is no longer worth all those days that must happen to you.

So formulate a new plan, find a new path. While you are looking for that next job or home or lover, however, take a moment to be grateful for the path you are trying to leave. It may seem unfulfilling or overwhelming or completely pointless at this moment, but if you take a moment you will see that it has been enriching. Every experience teaches you something. You acquired new skills, you interacted with different people, you clarified your likes and dislikes. You did not endure those days that must happen to you in vain. They prepared you for your next position or place in life. They were a test. The test is over. You know the score.

Now go and search for the next step to take and the next day that must happen to you will happen. It is inevitable.

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Self Improvement

Problems? To Solve, Evolve.

I took a trip out into the desert right before Christmas and stayed in Thermal, California. There, in the middle of land that sees three inches of rain a year and where the temp is 120 degrees for weeks on end during the summer, is the Salton Sea.

If you were thirsty or tired, you might think it was a mirage, but it ain’t. It is a sea that developed over time and then was given a growth spurt by a flood from the Colorado River, filling up a basin way out in the middle of nowhere. While at the seaside, I visited the cactus garden by the entrance at the north end. There was a small pool in the garden with a sign telling about the pool’s strange inhabitant — the pupfish.

The pupfish is a small fish (one to two and a half inches long) that can take on big odds. An old species (they have been called living fossils), pupfish were around 10,000 years ago when glacial lakes started to dry up and become land. It is theorized that pupfish became separated from other fish species (who became amphibians or became extinct). Rather giving up and dying, the pupfish adapted to survive harsh conditions. This short guy lives in places you would never expect to find fish — shallow marshes, salty lakes, mud holes, desert aquifers. Pupfish can tolerate high salinity plus high heat — existing in waters that top 95 degrees in the summer, freeze in the winter, and have enough salt to brine your Thanksgiving turkey. You can find pupfish surviving and thriving in places as harsh as the Salton Sea and Devil’s Hole in Nevada — not where you would expect to find fish.

At the time of my visit to the Sea, I was recuperating from a lousy year. No major setbacks, but a stream of petty problems, minor disappointments, opportunities missed, cash shortages, unexpected expenses, betrayals, blow-ups, and the slogging-through-mud drudgery of picking up pieces thrown willy-nilly all over the place in the last couple of years. I found myself making adjustments (not always willingly) and coming to know myself better in the process (not always happily). I often felt like a fish out of water during 2018.

I persevered. I gave up old routines and started new ones. I cut back. I got by without things I previously felt I could never give up. I was in situations where I had no idea what to do next but I figured out some course of action and sallied (or stumbled) forth. I talked to God in my kitchen on a daily basis. I called creditors almost as often. I lost my routines and started new ones. I lost (or got rid of) friends so I got some new ones. I gave up certain goals and dreams and expectations and trudged forward. At times I felt I was gasping for air and stumbling through a murky dark world, but I survived.

And that is what the pupfish does — change itself to meet the new environment that is presenting itself. I had tried to keep myself in the same trappings (get a job similar to the one I had lost with a similar salary and similar benefits and the same routines so I could just swim through life unobstructed) but found my old environment receding from me and not showing any signs of coming back. I had to get creative or croak.

So my inspiration for 2019 is the pupfish. I will adapt. If need be, I will shrink a body part, build up another, get a new diet, get used to the heat, withstand the cold, grow a thicker skin, live a saltier existence. When faced with new (and even bizarre) conditions, I will not only survive, but thrive. Like the pupfish, I will adjust and alter myself in order to overcome adversity.

And as for feeling like a fish out of water? It occurred to me that were not for some aquatic creature crawling out of the sea on God’s sixth day and gasping for air, we humans would not be here.

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Self Improvement

Accidental Discernment?

Five years ago, I took part in a group undergoing the Ignatian Exercises. (These Exercises – created by St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order of Catholic priests – are utilized during a month-long retreat to help priests and deacons strengthen their connection to the Lord. The Exercises can be modified and utilized by lay people on their own schedule.) My group was led by a salty old Irish deacon who spoke his mind and gave me new insight into biblical events, Catholic traditions, and the life of Jesus. A major goal of the Exercises was discernment, the determination and/or confirmation of the path that God wants you to follow. Using prayer, Bible reading, scripture analysis, reflection, and discussion, everyone was to gain a clearer idea of how to find and follow the path that the Lord wants us to pursue. We could use our God-given talents to live productive lives once we knew our path. Discernment was to help us make practical decisions with divine guidance.

Everyone in my group was doing their own bit of discernment. One man was weighing his next career move, another man (a recent Catholic convert) was considering marriage, one woman was deciding whether to further her education, another woman was contemplating relocation. My life at that time was stale and I was chronically dissatisfied, salty, and out of sorts. (This might explain why the deacon favored me.) I looked forward to gaining some clarity as to what I should be doing to develop a fuller life and stop being a grouch all the time.

Everyone (including me) prayed and reflected and read the Bible daily. One man used a decision-making matrix from a Jesuit website. (I tried it.) Someone else prayed a novena. (I tried that also.) The man with the matrix moved to Detroit, the other man proposed, one woman decided to pursue a Masters, the other woman decided to stay in L.A. Almost everyone had some breakthrough, a specific moment that made them realize that discernment had been achieved. I say almost everyone because one person remained clueless and fumbling. That one person was me.

While everyone else got some clarity as to what choices and changes to make to get in line with what the Lord wanted them to do, I stumbled along in the dark. I did not decide on a new job, a new home, hell I did not even decide on a new haircut. I kept everything the same yet I still questioned if I was doing anything right. It seemed that discernment was simply not in the cards for me.

That said, I found that I enjoyed reading the Bible daily and particularly liked viewing its events from a modern perspective. I improved my prayer life and gained a deeper understanding of my religion. I discovered that my faith did indeed make the days a bit easier to navigate. I still wondered if I was following God’s will and using my talents wisely, and was ready to pack up everything and make a change when the moment of clarity came. That moment did not come, but I was better able to focus on ordinary tasks and found a new sense of satisfaction in overcoming everyday trials.

Years passed and then I accidentally tripped over a definition of discernment I had not seen before. It emphasized that learning about yourself – what makes you happy, what ticks you off, what you need, what you can do without – is a part of discernment. Discernment need not necessarily be focused on the future and change. It can help you enjoy the days the Lord has given you in your life at this moment. Discernment can lead you to make alterations and seek new endeavors in your life, but it might also lead you to accept your current situation and live well in the present. Years after I completed the Exercises, my ability to gain strength through prayer was particularly helpful during an unexpected long period of unemployment. I dealt with reduced income, a less prestigious job, a loss of daily routine, and a cutting of connections with dignity. Keeping my cool while everything fell apart and I felt my spirit being crushed was what the Lord wanted me to experience. That’s what I discerned.

So in the end, while I had no grand epiphany, no game-changing decisions, no makeover of my life, I did experience the Lord’s will. I learned to use my faith to overcome adversity and maintain stability. There is an art to getting by gracefully when you are just barely getting by. Rather than fall apart (and I sometimes felt that might be a nice change of pace), I had discerned how to carry on with dignity. The Exercises did indeed make me stronger and more resilient. I did indeed experience discernment.

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Self Improvement

Moving on WITH Your Life …

A psychologist told me something years ago that popped into my head first thing this morning. (As the recollection came to me before I made coffee, I knew it was significant.) She told me that she was tired of having people come to her and say, “I want to move on with my life.” Yes, she understood what they meant. These folks felt stuck in some way — enslaved by bad habits, derailed by depression, trapped in toxic relationships — and they wanted to change their lives for the better. She had no quarrel with that — hell, helping people live more fully was the reason she went into counseling in the first place. What irked her was the way people said “move on with my life” with an emphasis on “move on”. Her clients felt their lives were stopped, stuck, on hold, and they needed to do something to get their life going forward once again. If they did nothing, they would remain frozen in the current moment.

In truth, life is always moving on. Life is simply our time on earth and time always goes forward. Actually, that is all time does. Whether we get up and do something or stay in bed for 24 hours, a day passes. Whether you are living a life you love or you are chronically unhappy, time marches on and you grow older. Nobody has to do anything to make time — and one’s life — move on.

What people really need to focus on is moving on with their lives — emphasis on “with”. The days are passing — how do you want to spend them? Seriously, how much down time do you want to have? How much time do you want to devote to your job, your goals, your dreams? Do you need the awards and accolades that require a lot of hard work or are you more content with a quieter life and more free time? Do you want a full social life or a lot of alone time? What are you doing in your life right now that feels insincere or just plain wrong? Why do you feel you are spinning your wheels? Life is a gift to be enjoyed and only you can decide the balance you need to feel fulfilled. This was something she felt was the key to “moving on” — deciding what it is you truly want for your life (not the life your friends or family think you should have) and pursuing it now because time is marching on and it is marching on toward death.

I have realized recently that certain goals and dreams and relationships I pursued earlier in life are simply no longer wanted. The forward movement of life leaves some things behind, and that can include friends, projects, hobbies, habits, living arrangements, even lifestyles. And while there is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind or mission, it is a pointless endeavor to keep pursuing a goal or dream when it truly does not interest you anymore. Your life is chugging forward like a train. You either get on board or you miss the ride, because the only stop is at the end.

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When searching for passion …

I recently spoke with a man who started a business for one specific reason: to make money. Now you may say, “Well, of course, that’s why everyone starts businesses.” You are partially right – 99% of people want to make a profit in their businesses. That said, 99% of business books will tell you that starting a business with the mission of making of a profit is a very bad idea. The market can be unpredictable, cash flow even more so, start-up costs spring up unexpectedly (and licenses can be prohibitively expensive), and you simply don’t know if your idea will take off, if folks will like what you offer and become loyal customers. Moreover, running your own business is all-consuming. If you just want steady pay, a job might suit you better. It is better to start a business because you have a passion for something (clothes design, resume writing, organic soap) and you want to pursue it on a daily basis.

Okay, I understand. Pardon me if I beg to differ.

While passion is grand and can inspire one to do grand things – build businesses, seek a cure for cancer, feed the poor, etc. – it can also be fleeting. Ask anyone who has fallen madly, passionately in love and then (just as quickly) fallen out of love and they’ll attest to the transient nature of passion. Passion also has a nasty tendency to dry up in the light of day – i.e., the daylight or desk light where you will be crunching numbers, washing dishes, dealing with upset vendors, or sitting in yet another meeting. Yes, a lot of entrepreneurs accept the drudgery that goes with owning a business, but just as many people are astounded (and exhausted) by all the minutiae that pursuing their passion entails.

How about – instead of passion – we have commitment? Yeah, yeah, yeah, it sounds boring and stifling. Commitment reeks of obligations and duties and signing on the line to do a bunch of piddly-assed chores. Who can garner one iota of enthusiasm for scrubbing toilets or proofreading documents when they could be meeting with like minds and creating a plan to end homelessness or hunger or human trafficking?

Therein lies the rub. Plans are just words on a piece of paper. To implement them requires grubby and greasy ground work. Someone needs to go out and grow crops, build shelters, change adult diapers, raise funds, arrest criminals. A lot of this groundwork is neither inspiring nor glamorous, yet it needs to be done. And for any of it to produce any results, someone needs to commit to all the steps and see the process through.

A friend of mine, a former Army paratrooper who took part in dangerous and exciting missions (some which had long-term political implications), told me that all these endeavors were “Like life – 90% grunt work. A lot of prep and cleanup.” The cool part that made you feel as if you were in Mission Impossible was generally not much more than a few hours or so.

But back to passion. Is it necessary to do a good job? Can you replace passion with a calling to precision and professionalism? If you cannot get excited about what you are doing, can you at least feel a sense of accomplishment at a dirty job done damned good?

And here’s a funny thing about passion. It can pop up at the oddest times in the most ordinary circumstances. I asked the businessman how his business – the ones he started specifically to make a profit – turned out. He told me he sunk everything he had into this venture and promptly lost everything. He lost his house and lived in his car for a while. He met with prospective clients in Starbucks. He held one business meeting in a park. Yet he persevered because – surprise! – he found he actually liked what he was doing. He had not intended it, but he developed a passion for his job. From this passion developed a purpose and now, finally, he sees a profit.

He would have never experienced this passion nor developed this life path without commitment. Commitment was what got him out of bed (his back seat) and kept him seeking customers. Commitment strung him along when passion might have left him high and dry. Since so much of life is mundane, perhaps we should commit to doing our best regardless of our feeling meh about it all. And perhaps we should not be too surprised when the rewards for a job well done is a newfound passion, no?

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Hope revisited …

About a year and half ago, I wrote a post about hope. I felt that hope (much more than that other four-letter word — love) makes the world go round — or at least get out of bed. I still stick to the premise that hope — the anticipation that a desire will somehow be fulfilled — leads people to tackle difficult problems,  and try to improve their lot in life. Recently, however, I had a conversation that gave me pause for thought.

A friend has been trying to improve her marriage for many years. She and her husband have raised a family, built a home, and contributed to their community, but their relationship is that of housemates who share a living space but have separate lives. They tried counseling, getaway weekends, trial separations, date nights, and long discussions and all they got were awkward moments and arguments. No amount of effort forged a new connection, improved their communications, drew them closer. Finally, my friend threw in the towel. She accepted the marriage was never going to be more than what it is now. stopped hoping that the marriage would change and become a loving union. It was a waste of time and tears to hope for what would never be. She stopped hoping and started coping.

In my own life, I have recently questioned if hope is always that helpful. Sure, hope can get you motivated to make changes, stay the course, and tolerate living when life is crummy, but what about when you hope and work hard and your efforts are never rewarded? If  you are constantly disappointed, shortchanged, irritated, and exhausted, is hope worth the hard work? When does hope become pointless, delusional, or simply counterproductive?

Hope can help us pursue dreams, but it can also have us squander time, energy, and money on dreams that will never be anything more than dreams. Our resources could be better spent dealing with the situation at hand as it is right now. Of course, that begs the question: When do you accept the fact that the here and now is also the future and you cannot change it?

It is not always clear. You cannot always know if what you are hoping to happen is going to happen. It could take years for your career to take off and then you are a success — or you might never succeed. That new cancer treatment could work — or kill you. Your boss could see things your way — or fire you. So when do you stop hoping and start accepting? I am reminded of what the late advice columnist Ann Landers would tell women wondering if they should leave their husbands: Are you better off with or without him? Sometimes, we need to leave hope out of our decisions. Sometimes, it is best to stop hoping and start coping. Sometimes, we are better off without hope.

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A new year needs new standards

With the commencement of a New Year comes the creation of resolutions. Yes, as corny as it sounds, I truly do want to improve myself and, at the beginning of each year, I brainstorm to discern what resolutions will guide me to my goals and help me better myself. In the past, I would write my resolutions down and then promptly forget them. I would then fumble my way through the year. (Yes, I have followed through on a few resolutions, but it tended to be happenstance more than dedicated effort.) I decided that this year I would try a new approach.

I read a number of articles about resolution making. Some experts (and I have no idea as to what you need to do to be considered an expert at resolution setting) suggested making goals with very concrete and measurable goals (say, lose 30 pounds). Others said to focus on a process and not a goal (eat less and move more). Another method that’s gaining popularity is to have a theme for the year (for example, healthy eating or snack-free living), while some writers suggested focusing exclusively on habits or practices you need to quit (snacking, smoking, oversleeping). All these methods are helpful to some and useless to others. I decided on another method I don’t see covered anywhere. It is setting standards.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, said that man is “pushed by drives and pulled by values”. While we may have many desires that motivate us, our values clarify what is worth pursuing. Before you can improve your life, you need to define your values. Once you define your values, you can set standards, which are the measuring sticks that let you know if you are living your life as you intend to live it. Frankly, my life has changed a lot in the last two years due to various occurrences (job loss, hitting sixty, some health issues) and I think it is time to take a look at my needs, wants, and abilities and evaluate my standards. Am I making a concerted effort to be the best I can be? (I want to read more and eat healthier.) Are there areas where I need to possibly set some new standards? (Housekeeping comes to mind.) Are there standards I can discard as they no longer serve a purpose? (I am no longer on a career path, which changes my standards of suitable employment.)

While it is important to set goals and evaluate how you go through your day and live your life, setting standards will help you live your life according to your values. Of course, your values may change and your standards will follow suit. Such is personal growth. (Although some standards, such as always being on time or telling the truth may remain constant through your life.) In the end, living according to your standards is a life well lived.

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A lesson about going forward learned after being left behind …

Years ago, I had a friend whom I met through work. We joked around in the office, commiserated when things got ugly (thanks to a very difficult boss), and socialized outside of the work place. She was an actress and I watched her captivate audiences in small, intimate theaters. We had dinner together and discussed anything that came to mind. She had very different views from me on life and work and God and just about everything. She offered me a fresh perspective and always left me feeling challenged and charged.

Then she hit a rough patch. She left that awful office for another job which folded within a week. She stayed unemployed for a long time. Throughout this time, we met for coffee. We discussed job searches but also God and his plans and his timing and our impatience.

Finally, she got steady work. She was happy at first, but then dissatisfaction enveloped her like her own personal cloud. She couldn’t get promoted, she couldn’t get another job, she was stuck. She became short-tempered and argumentative.

She got a chance to study abroad. It was a great opportunity and I was thrilled. I felt it was the best break she could have gotten. I met with her a few months before she left and mentioned how I looked forward to hearing all about her big adventure. As we talked, it slowly dawned on me that she was starting a new life and leaving behind her old life — of which I was a part. This was our last breakfast together.

I tried to stay in touch with her, but she ceased contact, so I did likewise.

I thought about her this morning. I was disappointed that our friendship ended, but realize that such is the way it needed to be. She started a new life and wanted her old life to stay outside the fence, and if I am any kind of friend at all, I’ll respect her wishes and wish her well. And, frankly, I understand. I have had a few fresh starts myself.

I am also reminded that, as I get ready to go into a new phase myself, I can shed relationships without guilt or grief. The folks I leave behind may be disappointed or disgruntled, but they will not be destroyed. They have their own dreams and desires, and they will understand.