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Self Improvement

Oh quick — I think you forgot this …

Are you reading this blog post by yourself? Be grateful someone took the time to teach you to read.

Is someone reading it to you? Be grateful for that person.

Are you indoors? Be grateful you have a place to go to get out of the elements.

Are you sitting down? Be grateful for a chair (even if it is a wheelchair).

Are you standing up? Be grateful you can stand.

Do you think I am an idiot for suggesting you be grateful for basic things? Leave me a comment and be grateful that you can do that. In some countries, you cannot speak your mind.

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Self Improvement

A Deep Down Decluttering …

I have done my fair share of decluttering. I have donated or disposed of books, bed linens, clothes, cooking utensils, artwork, and furniture and always enjoyed the end result — a cleaner apartment. Moreover, I find that having less stuff helps me think clearer, feel calmer, and live in a more organized and efficient fashion. And — surprise, surprise — I rarely miss the things I shed. Frankly, I often find myself wondering why I kept something as long as I did.

There is another level of decluttering that goes beyond clearing out your closets and cabinets. The clothes you wear, the books you read, the furniture you use are not the only devices that help you live and enjoy your daily life and move about in the world. A lot of your daily life is lived in your head and that space might need some clearing. Here are some constructs and collections which you might consider weeding.

Obligations. Are you the one always expected to host the holiday party? Babysit your friend’s kids? Give up your weekend to finish the department report on time? Obligations are a part of life, but so is wearing clothes and sometimes we need to weed our closets. Ask yourself: Do you need to be doing all that you are doing? Are you the only one who can do a certain chore? Would dropping this obligation negatively impact your life? Get you fired? End a friendship? Would that be so bad? There are chores we accept as our responsibility, duties duties we take on because we believe in a mission, extra tasks we actually enjoy doing. Grab these gigs and go at it with gusto. If, however, you are feeling overwhelmed by all that you are expected to do, determine what is making you feel put upon and go in decluttering mode. Do you really truly absolutely need to do this? If the answer is no, say no to it and let it go to someone else or go undone. (Note: It is surprising how many “obligations” can be ignored without changing the status quo.)

Standards. Standards can be beneficial, benchmarks to evaluate your quality of life. You can set standards on anything: the way you clean your house, the way you cook your food, the friends you keep, the jobs you take. Sometimes, however, the bar you have set for yourself needs to be adjusted — or even eliminated. Can you actually maintain your current lifestyle on your new salary? Does it truly matter what kind of car you drive? Do all your friends have to share your political views? Are your habits in line with your beliefs? Standards should help one live to the best of their ability but they must be reachable in order to be of any value. When circumstances change, our standards might need to change. While we should not abandon all our ideals, if you find yourself continually frustrated because you cannot meet your own standards, it may be time to remove that goalpost.

Regrets. During the last conversation with my mother, I asked her if she had any regrets. Of course she did, she told me, everyone does. If you have ever thought anything or done anything, you will have regrets — how you did something, what you could have done better, what you passed up. Regret is part of the fabric of human life. We are imperfect, often realize it too late, and remember that fact often. Most people regret things they did not do, although we all have those moments we replay in our minds where we did something we regret. Regrets may help or hinder us depending on how we use them. We may never again speak without thinking or we may never again miss a chance to speak up. We will take more risks or we might be more cautious. We will stop to help others or we might be a little less free with our charity. Regrets can keep us from missing opportunities but they should not keep us up at night. If you find yourself continually mulling over what you did or did not do, remember that no amount of regret will change the past. Acknowledge your regret, make amends or plans if possible, and then toss those regrets or at least put them where you cannot trip over them.

Habits. Obviously, getting rid of bad habits — smoking, gambling, drinking — will help you live better. But even if you don’t have addictions draining you, you probably have habits that hold you back and you don’t notice them until you look closely. Do you always hit the snooze button? Pay your bills late? Immediately accept any invitation? Check your phone constantly? Forget to bring lunch? Blame everything on everyone else? Take a good look at how you handle the mundane moments of your day. Do you have habits that hold you back, waste your time, cost you money? Some of them could be tossed out. (NOTE: I find this to be the hardest type of decluttering. When you decide to dispose of a habit, it tends to sneak back into your life like a stray cat you’ve been feeding. But just as Marie Kondo can help with decluttering up your home, there are others who can help you tidy up your habits.)

Dreams. We all have dreams — that adventure we are going to have, that goal we are going to reach, that life we are going to live. Dreams can get us out of bed on bad days. They can lighten our mood and help us focus. Dreams may give us purpose and a reason to persevere on a difficult path. But dreams can also waylay us. Why put any effort into your current job, relationships, living space, or life if you are going to be leaving town/running your own business/marrying your dream partner and heading off to Tahiti? Dreams can guide us but they can also trick us by giving us the view that our current life is insignificant and not worthy of any investment on our part. Do you have dreams that make you ignore your everyday life? And are your dreams still your dreams? Do you still want to bicycle across the U.S.? Do stand-up comedy? Adopt a child? If you do, please focus on these dreams and turn them into reality. If not, toss them and make room for new improved dreams — or perhaps just more space for all those plans for your current real life.

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Self Improvement

Simple Advice For Improvements Major or Minor

Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.

This sage bit of counsel comes from the late great Arthur Ashe, an athlete and businessman who was the first African American tennis player to be selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man (so far) to win the singles title at Wimbledon. This advice seems so simple that one’s first response is to either a) nod your head and say, “Why, yes, of course …” or b) roll your eyes and say, “Well, duh, of course …” Either way, these guidelines are great when you are trying to improve any area of your life – finances, athletic pursuits, business, friendships – but while they may seem straightforward, they deserve analysis and forethought.

Start where you are. Are you certain you know where it is you are exactly? You may know your geographic whereabouts, your biological age, and your strengths and skills, but do you know where you are in the scheme of things? Do a realistic assessment. How is your health (mental, financial, physical), what are your days like, what are your responsibilities and restrictions? Is it feasible to start up a business when you’re about to be evicted? Can you handle a cross-country move while you undergo cancer treatment? How much time can you devote to a small business, a creative project, a volunteer endeavor right now? Never mind how you felt ten years ago or how your life might be in a few years from now or what your days might be like if you lived somewhere else – where are you in your life right now? Know your starting point.

Use what you have. Never mind what you might have had in the past or what you could get in the future – what do you have right now? Assess your resources – skills, funds, equipment, connections – and don’t forget to look in the corners. A lot of us have opportunities, advantages, outsiders willing to help, and various sources of assistance that we don’t utilize because we don’t see them. Do be careful, however, of overestimating your resources and be certain to look at what you are going to need for the entire process.

I set up a website which was going to showcase all the great black and white photos I took with disposable cameras. I had bought a couple of one-use black and white cameras, knew how to run a WordPress blog, and had secured the domain. I had ideas where to take photos and what to shoot. I was just about to start this project when the first roll of film came back from the developer. I then found out that processing black and white film is expensive (at least for my budget). I simply could not afford to have my photos developed on a regular basis. The site then sat empty for over a year before I developed a new idea for it. Had I thoroughly assessed what I had and what I needed, I would have realized that I was not in the position to carry out my plans.

Be careful. A great idea or promising future is grand but getting there requires you to work in the present – and you can only work with you’ve got.

Do what you can. Obviously, you cannot do what you cannot do. And while it is possible that you may be able to do quite a lot, it is probable that you won’t be able to do as much as you want to do, particularly at first. That said, even if you can only accomplish a bit, do not squander this capability/opportunity. People will often do nothing when they realize they can only do a little. “I won’t be able to exercise for a full hour today so I won’t exercise at all.” “What good is saving ten bucks a month?” “I wanted to go back to school but I could only take a night course once a week.” We often take the attitude of “Go big or go home” without realizing how much can be accomplished through the accumulation of small steps. Success is rarely overnight, it is the accumulation of small triumphs and improvements.

What’s more, doing something for improvement – even if it is a small step – brings about a mental change. You realize that you have control over your life and that there is always something you can do to improve your lot. Studies amongst the homeless have shown that people who bathe on a regular basis are more apt to find work, get housing, and get off the street quicker than those who do not keep themselves clean. A small step, but a step forward nonetheless.

It is unfortunate but true: It is not that we can only do a little bit, but that we do nothing with that little bit we can do.

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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.