Archive for August, 2012

How Do I Get There From Here?

August 30, 2012

Getting ourselves from Point A to Point B, whether it’s in the literal sense or the metaphorical one can be easy or be complicated. Regardless, the only way to make any progress is to start from where you are. This can sound reasonable or daunting, depending on the scope of the change you need to make.

 

I want to lose 25 pounds. I have to rebuild my career but have no idea what I want to do. I need companionship. I want my own space. How in the world will I manage to get through this challenge? I feel lost and have no idea what I’m doing with my life. What do I need to do to regenerate an important relationship?

 

These questions, or a million others, are the sort that can easily overwhelm us as we try to grapple with the demands of daily life, sometimes feeling as if we simply lurch from crisis to crisis, event to event as if caught in an unfortunate game of Whack-A-Mole. The challenge of figuring our way through an issue that lurks in the back of our heads or in the hidden corners of our hearts may seem to be just too much for us to handle. So we shut down, or we compartmentalize, or we develop a rash or an eating disorder, or we yell at our family, or just resign ourselves to the (effortless) belief that there’s nothing that can be done.

 

But there is.

 

I’m not letting you off the hook that easy. You can do something to alleviate your pain or confusion or misery. The first step is to start where you are. The simplicity of this sentence belies the complexity behind the thought. All too often, when daring to contemplate how to address such challenges, we project so far down the road that all the possibilities come clattering down around us like dominoes.

 

No. Stop. Start over. Start where you are now. What’s the first, obvious step you can take to move this ball down the field? Not buy cookies from the market. Make a list of the expert skills I’ve developed over the course of my career. Tell my friends I’m looking to date again. Find a way to carve out even 5 minutes of  “me time,” away from the familial chaos. Spend a few moments remembering the activities you’ve always loved. In other words, do the first, most attainable action needed to get you where you want to go. You do want to go there, right?

 

Here’s a tough example: someone I know recently lost his child to suicide. Months after the initial tsunami of grief, this man needed to find a way to move forward in life, for his own sake and for that of his family. Doing so seemed impossible, but he knew he had to try. So, when he could, he tried, first, to recount all the happy memories of his child—in other words, before contemplating what the future might be like without his child, the father started where he was at that moment. He built up his own strength and courage from a place of love for his lost child. With this as his foundation, he discovered it was easier to move forward.

 

When re-booting our life or contemplating an enormous change (whether wished for or not), the logistics can seem vast. We fear the unknowns and question whether we have the capacity to manage such a task. And, as we grow older, there seems to be even more at stake, even more to lose, a greater likelihood that we might fail. I know.

 

But, I also know that there is some small voice inside of you, pushing you forward, pushing you on. Instead of listening to your doubts or the “voice of reason” so that you might talk yourself out of the effort, reconsider. You’re stronger and braver than you give yourself credit for. Build from your strengths. You know you have them. The more you do this, the more encouraged you’ll feel and the braver you’ll get. Point B may feel a long way away, but with baby steps, you’ll get closer.

 

Listening to those voices of fear, doubt, grief, and worry will never move you down the field. You can start right now—you’re in the right place. Just breathe.

The Hyperbole of the Hero

August 28, 2012

The term hero is overused. In a media cycle of 24/7 where drama drives the story, this idiom is handed out like candy. Everyone is a hero. When did simply being a decent person and doing the right thing become transmogrified into mythic status? The hyperbole our society indulges in results in a warped sense of perspective that erodes the basis of our common sense.

 

It’s sorta like social promotion and the abhorrent practice of holding graduation ceremonies when a kid finishes kindergarten. Really? Why is it necessary to carry on as if these ordinary passages merit pomp and circumstance? In fact, I believe that these practices have an adverse impact on us in the sense that we are communicating to ourselves and our children that unless we get outside notice and praise, our efforts count for little. Nonsense!

 

An element of living a mature, thoughtful, independent life is one where the most important evaluations and approval come from ourself. All too often, there will be times when nobody is there to witness or to notice what we have done. Nobody but us knows the motivations behind our choices. They’re too busy thinking about themselves. This is why, my friends, we must be self-assessing and self-praising. Because, at the end of the day, we are the only ones who truly know what we’ve accomplished and how we got there.

 

This ability to sustain ourselves is especially important when undertaking challenges that most will never see. Whether it is by learning to manage an unpleasant aspect of our personality or quietly doing our job in an atmosphere of egoism and competition, the world is filled with those who’d take up all the oxygen in the room. They beat their chests; they strut; they threaten; they shimmer, they shine. So, unless we decide to challenge them for the limited air, we need to find another way of moving forward.

 

I liken the perils of proclaiming Ordinary Joe a hero to that of watching too many movies or reality tv shows. We see portrayals of storybook romances that get resolved in 120 minutes or less or see individuals who have no talent or merit to speak of (other than gross over-promotion) who enjoy lavish lifestyles and think, why not me? The prevalence and pervasiveness of media today makes such distended examples prosaic and so, they seep into our subconscious and we grow unsatisfied—hence the erosion of our common sense.

 

Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that Ordinary Joe isn’t capable of being a hero, but heroes are known for extraordinary feats. Winning the Tour de France or graduating from high school may be an accomplishment, but it’s not heroic. (No exclamation points used to heighten the drama of this statement.)

 

When re-booting ourselves and our lives, a mainstay of such an effort is to return to basics. We must strive to be self-evaluative and self-praising, not seeking the approval of others. I struggle with this everyday. But, we are not children. We know what’s true, what’s important, and what’s honest. Who can evaluate us better than ourselves?

The Parable of Predatory Towing

August 23, 2012

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An adjustment I have yet to make now that I reside in the nation’s capital is the ominous specter of “predatory towing” that occurs with disturbing frequency throughout the greater metropolitan area. Predatory towing is a relatively new practice that involves independent towing companies sending out monitors and lingering tow trucks to patrol parking lots for vehicles whose drivers have left the lot or have stayed beyond the posted time limit. The issue has become so widespread that the Washington Post has written at least two articles about it in the past few months.

 

One article detailed the experience of a mom who sent her child into a McDonald’s to get some food while she ran over to the post office across the street. The spotter saw the woman leave the boundaries of the property and called in a tow truck that dragged off her car, despite the fact that her son had the receipt from his purchase of a Happy Meal. No matter, the company rebutted; the driver had left the premises, so the car was towed. Despite multiple complaints, local governments shrug their shoulders and say they can do little about practices on private property. And so it continues.

 

What does any of this have to with re-booting your life? An excellent question.

 

What this fearsome example represents is the challenge involved in adjusting to a new normal. Life circumstances change for all of us. While there is much to grieve about the erosion of a gentler, more gracious parking policy, the fact is that in order for local merchants to provide free spaces for their direct customers, current realities demand greater vigilance. More people competing for fewer available parking spaces results in a greater number of drivers choosing to ignore rules designed to provide customer only parking. I know; I’ve done it, too.

 

I chafe at the idea of rogue towing companies interfering with my unfettered ability to enjoy a few hours of worry-free consumerism and rationalize my choices by telling myself I shop at Giant a lot, so why not avail myself of the free parking? But Giant sees it differently. My car means one less spot for somebody who’s considering running in to pick up dinner versus ordering delivery. I get it. So they take the steps they believe necessary to protect their commercial interests and I’m left driving around the block.

 

Of course, I’m annoyed. Of course I grumble and wish things were now the way they were “then.” Don’t we all? But circumstances change. Demands on resources change. And my shaking my fist at the sky or refusing to drive to Bethesda or Capitol Hill because of the draconian parking realities only hurts me. I get to go nowhere if I refuse to adjust. So, it’s up to me to find a new way to enjoy the activities and locations I like. This requires planning, flexibility, creative solutions, and most importantly, a decision not to sit there and fume. I remind myself over and over that people aren’t doing the things they do to annoy me on purpose. If I choose to see it any other way, I’ll self-immolate out of frustration.

 

 

So, how do you adjust? What is it that you tell yourself to find a peaceful way through a seemingly hostile or ungracious new reality? Or do you prefer to remain incensed, sitting at home gnashing your teeth, unwilling to change?

Transforming Ourselves: An Underlying Cure

August 21, 2012

What happens when you harvest wheat and pound it into grain?

What happens when you blend flour, eggs, milk, and sugar?

What happens when you bake this combination?

What happens when a child grows into an adult?

Or when fear mutates into confidence?

 

An object or person or belief is reworked so thoroughly that its original form is no longer present.

Each of these examples of permanent alterations have been transformed.

 

The flour cannot go back to being wheat.

The cake cannot return to its separate ingredients.

An adult cannot become a child again.

Once true confidence takes hold, the original fear evaporates, forever.

 

Transformation is a conversion process whereby an element changes so much that it cannot return to its original structure. Once combined, you cannot separate out the milk from the batter; its form, identity, and function is irreversibly changed.

 

We can do the same thing with our attitudes and reactions. With conscious effort, discipline, and diligence, we can transform our beliefs, priorities, and sense of identity—the results of which can include enduring change in our sense of competence and ability to think about and handle our daily circumstances.* Instead of getting annoyed or angry each time your Boss/Spouse/Child does X—and you know they will do it again and again—you find a new way to think about them, the situation, and their actions, thus transforming your attitude.

 

Transformation differs significantly from temporary, willful change. Willful change is just that—an act of will, which can dissolve as soon as we’re sick or tired. For instance, I decide it serves no purpose to get annoyed–that my dad pays so little attention to his surroundings that he regularly wears his shirt inside out or that a supervisor prefers the chaos of the last minute rush so I know he’s going to change the plan at the 11th hour–so I determine that the next time it happens I refuse to get upset. An act of will. But this resolution can dissolve in an instant should I get overly stressed, with the result being I react the way I always have—no change whatsoever.

 

The goal of transformation is that as I practice thinking about these people and scenarios from a more calm/bemused/empathetic perspective, I eventually reach a point where I think differently about them and their behaviors such that I am no longer bothered when these things happen, no matter how often it may arise. I have transformed my anger into tolerance: a permanent change that significantly enhances my ability to cope with these situations. Not only does this help keep me sane, but the likelihood is, my revised reaction and approach will actively change the energy attached to these interactions—a win/win if I can swing it!

 

As we all know, the contrast between an underlying cure and the temporary relief of symptoms is considerable.

 

Apply this same thinking to understanding how an “act of will” to handle X in a certain manner differs from the transformation of how you think about (and subsequently react to) X. Very different, indeed. Instead of believing myself to be a victim and reacting to people and situations as a supplicant, I transform my personal identity to that of a person of competence and capability. And it is utilizing this transformed identity that I now engage with the world. Clearly, a far superior, more successful, and more satisfying way to proceed through life.

 

Converting a mistaken belief such as “I’m incompetent” into “I believe in myself” happens only if we repeatedly practice corrective behaviors. What we whisper to ourselves matters! This is the process of transformation. How might you transform your disappointment into contentment? Confusion into understanding? Sadness into cheerfulness? Come on, I know there’s something you need to work on, something that were you to transform it, your worldview would improve.

 

For instance, let’s say you have been nursing a grievance or disappointment for years. This sadness has cast a shadow on your life outlook. Rather than believing that your original interpretation of events has been handed down on stone tablets and is the one and only way to accept what happened, what if you tried to list out the things you’ve accomplished since that time? What progress have you made (on any front)? Could you revise your perspective to embrace the good that came after the heartache rather than simply nurse your wounds? If you choose to see the positive, doesn’t it make sense that perhaps by holding onto this perspective instead, you might feel better and more hopeful? Don’t you think this might improve your experience of daily living? Nursing old grievances is a popular pastime and allows us to wallow in familiar feelings, I know, but have you ever seen even a single example of someone who was better off for doing so?

 

These are simply seed thoughts. The transformational process is one that can be long and challenging, but the result will change you and change your life. Forever.

 

*Taken from the writings and lectures of Dr. R. Leichtman, New Life Clinic, Baltimore, MD.

What does it mean to come home?

August 16, 2012

As part of my personal re-booting process, I decided to go home. Home, for me, is Washington DC. It’s where I was born and reared and attended school. I always knew I’d return home; I just needed several years away in order to gain a perspective I needed before it felt safe for me to return.

 

As with any journey home, it is all too easy to slip into the habits, behaviors, and mindset we held while living there the first time ‘round. But, as life has a funny way of demonstrating, many of these original frameworks are neither accurate nor helpful to mature adults. For instance, as a child, I used to watch a tv ad for a local bank (now defunct) which proclaimed it was, “the most important bank in the most important city in the most important country in the world.” How’s that for hyperbole?

 

Repetition has its effects. Hearing the same messages over and over—especially as a youngster—does impact one’s perspective. I knew Washington was important and believed that importance extended to me as one of its denizens, regardless of the merit of my claim. Despite my susceptibility to the arrogance and self-centeredness that defines much of Washington, there was another part of me that knew  my secret entitlement beliefs rang hollow and that there was something else, something different and exciting “out there” if only I were brave enough to leave the fold.

 

And, so I left—for a long, long time.

 

This same, localized arrogance can be found amongst people who call New York or Boston, Los Angeles or London home. But why limit it to urban mythologies? What about growing up on the flat Texas plains, the golden valleys of the Santa Ynez Mountains, or the deltas of the Mississippi? There, too, people are given messages about particular ways of “right living” with everything else being lesser. My point about home is this: growing up, we have no perspective that there exists anything outside of what we know, and rarely do children question that there might be a very different view of what it means to live successfully.

 

What does “home” mean to you? Have you ever, seriously questioned the assumptions and priorities by which you live your life? By that I mean do you believe your family life must be a certain way or else it’s no good? Do you measure yourself according to your career achievements? What about the progress your child is making? Have you seized upon some definition of family values no matter how ill the fit may be for you? Are you terrified that relaxing or altering some of these definitions might throw your life into a tizzy? Is your home a place, a person, a livelihood, a way of living? And if you haven’t found your home, what’s missing? What do you wish for?

 

In many respects, I have multiple homes because several places provide great comfort to me—I can relax and relish what certain locales have to offer. There are people, too, who represent home to me. As for a livelihood or a way of daily living? Haven’t found those, yet, but I’m on the hunt. I think I know what I want, but then again, maybe not. The bumps in the road I’ve encountered have sent me wandering, so I stumble along, testing out this or that, weighing the pros and cons, seeing what can be negotiated and what appears to be a non-starter. As a result, I feel a little lost.

 

So, that’s me. What about you? What does home mean to you? Is it a place? Is it a person? Is it simply a memory? Have you yet to find your home? What assumptions did you make as a child that perhaps have outlived their usefulness? How do you create a home that’s right for you? If not now, when?

August Wanderings

August 14, 2012

Ah, the pleasures and perils of mid-August: sweltering afternoons which engender rivulets of perspiration to run down one’s cheek or back; shimmering blue pools with unexpected chilly spots tucked away in the shade; hints of autumn in the occasional spotting of a bright red leaf, or displays of school supplies and shiny, patent leather shoes, and the gradual shifting of the quality of light in the sky.

 

No doubt due to academic schedules, I consider fall the “real” start of the year, so it always surprises me to realize that, in fact, most of my calendar year efforts are, alas, behind me. It’s a bundle of mixed messages: you believe you’re just ramping up when, in fact, the ball has rolled forward—without you.  Or at least it seems that way from reading online updates or idle chatter of what everyone has been up to; a ceaseless forward progression: trips taken, degrees conferred, promotions made, illnesses overcome, babies birthed.

 

For me, particularly as I continue to tread water in the job search shallows, I am struck by how efficiently everyone else seems to achieve their goals and live their lives. Of course, intellectually, I know this isn’t the case, but the hustle and bustle that accompanies the final third of the year triggers many of these insecurities.

 

At what point does the observed progress of one cease to be meaningful to another? I say this not in a hostile way, but in a hopeful, non-comparative tone. I’ve read in books that at some point in adulthood, most wise people consider comparisons meaningless due to the variety of choices, conditions, and factors that influence outcome. But regardless of all this, appraisals and assessments endure. Is this good or bad? Inspiring or debilitating? Is it fair to “pick and choose” how we will react to another’s success or loss? Why is a promotion for one person a well earned achievement that inspires us to try harder, whereas another’s triumph simply proves what a brownnosing manipulator he is?

 

And what about the question of whether it’s better to be lucky or smart? I know a whole lotta folks who fall into the brilliant category, but never utilized their gifts. Was that their right or merely an example of wasted talent? In contrast, I know others who fell into the honey pot due far more to circumstances than their great contribution to the field. And when we think of them, does this inspire or depress us? Never mind the group that consists of individuals who work hard and are honest but just can’t seem to get a break. Malcolm Gladwell observes in Outliers that there is no need to be an uber genius, you just need to be “smart enough” and in the right place at the right time. How much of life is timing?

 

Which leads me to wonder about the era we currently face. Honestly, as far as I’m concerned, these times stink—they really do. But they aren’t worse than World War II or the Great Depression. Hell, I doubt any of us would swap our current historical period in order to be a hopeful pioneer lurching along towards Pikes Peak. Now, I recognize that each generation indulges in its own ritual of hand wringing, so it’s fair to guess that this too shall pass, but I didn’t feel that hopeful as I surveyed my fellow citizens in the DC Jury Lounge earlier today. If what I saw there is the grand result of 236 years of this Grand Experiment, well, I’m not confident for the future—and these are the people who showed up! The ones who didn’t bother, they vote, too.

 

I realize I’ve wandered around a bit in this post, for which I hope you’ll forgive me, but August puts me in that sort of mood. Beginnings and endings all jumbled together. So, if anyone cares to weigh in, what do you think? Is it better to be smart or lucky? When does that magic moment occur where you no longer waste time comparing yourself to others? Or is such an escape even possible?

The Perils of Being Overly Prepared

August 9, 2012

One of the main purposes of education (formal or informal) is to prepare the pupil with the skills necessary to handle whatever life throws at them. This is a most admirable goal and a key to survival, no doubt about it. Generations of Scouts across the globe have embraced the motto, “Be prepared,” as part of their purpose and the dictum extends way beyond these groups.

Of course, I could launch into an entire post about what happens when you’re not prepared, or when you believe you are prepared but aren’t. Those essays will need to wait for another time. What I want to address today is the topic of being overly prepared.

Is there such a thing?

Yes, I believe there is. Recently, I was catching up with an old friend who shared with me that she used to carry around a satchel filled with her daily necessities but also a lot of other items that she might need “just in case.” Things like umbrellas and bags for groceries or other sundry items, sunblock, snack food, an extra laptop battery, phone charging cord, extra jacket—that sort of thing. As a result, the satchel was seriously heavy and irksome to lug around. After years of doing so, with few occasions when these items were needed, she decided to offload. If a need should arise, she decided she’d simply have to deal with it at that moment. Girding herself for all sorts of eventualities that rarely manifested created a burden greater than being caught out should a particular need arise.

I’ve thought about my friend’s experience and her freeing decision to deal with a matter at the time it happened versus dragging around a bunch of what ifs in her bag. While the Girl Scout in me is somewhat apprehensive about this decision, the adult me appreciates how wise divesting herself of these various preparations was.

An abundance of caution isn’t always the best choice.

What about you? What do you lug around in your metaphorical tote? A wariness around authority figures or some certain type of people? A ready song and dance routine to distract others from seeing your real reaction or feelings of awkwardness? An automatic shut down response to certain stimuli? Bracing against people or situations who have hurt us in the past or made us feel stupid or out of place is understandable. Sometimes we need these skills, it’s true, but going into every situation anticipating that we might need to pull these behaviors out of our bag of tricks when, in reality, such problems arise infrequently burdens us far more than the trouble they can cause. After all, how bad is it if we get caught out? So, you get a little wet or you procure an umbrella when the need arises. You already know what to do.

Being overly prepared can mean we drag our pain with us in an anticipatory fashion. Isn’t it better to have confidence that we can take care of ourselves if the need arises, rather than drag around all that armor for every eventuality? Because, even then, there’s no guarantee.

Is the American Dream Dead?

August 7, 2012

Such an awful, awful question. After all, we Americans are optimists—this country was built on the promise and premise of prosperity and success through one’s own efforts. But, times they are a changin’.

 

Looking around, I see a developing chasm between the generations: those who followed and found the American Dream and those who came after, fed promises of the same but whose current realities do not match what we were told. I see hard working, honest individuals who are struggling to keep up with the costs of life. Sure, nobody needs a flat screen tv or a cell phone, and certainly no one is entitled to exotic vacations or a fancy car, but for the folks I am observing this isn’t the source of their problems. The everyday cost of living is.

 

When you take this issue and compound it with the dissatisfaction that is sewn into the collective subconscious of those who watch The Kardashians or any number of movies or tv programs where the protagonists have fabulous clothes, cars, and careers, it is little wonder that the “Why not me, too?” mentality sets in. That, and easy access to credit cards, makes a perfect storm of buying things we don’t need for lives we don’t live—nor does almost anyone else–but we choose to believe what we see on tv. It doesn’t help that politicians promise voters “free money” in a variety of formulas and subsidies, if only we can find our way to vote for them. News flash: there is no such thing as free money.

 

Notice that the new federal health care laws exempt members of Congress and their families from the mandates? What’s that all about, I ask you.

 

But back to the American Dream. How’s it working out for you? How do you think it’s looking for the next generation?

 

I detest gloom and doom. I continue to believe that America and the philosophical foundations on which it was established continue to offer more and better than any other place on earth. We can speak our minds and not be shot; social strata do not prevent someone from success; women are respected, educated, and are in a better position here than anywhere else I can think of.

 

But, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, as a result of nearly unmitigated prosperity and security for the past 50 years or so, and the fact that Americans are, by nature, a generous and optimistic group, we have tried too hard to be all things to all people. Nobody can do this! No one. And now the chickens are coming home to roost.

 

For a variety of reasons, the public education system is crumbling, graduating scores of kids who lack critical thinking and writing skills. We lack the worker base to support a ravenous and burgeoning elderly population, and those who are fortunate enough to be working are working harder than ever and making less as they go. Throughout the nation, the political gridlock is comprised of too few honest legislators and too many self-dealers who want to get theirs before it all dries up.

 

Still, at least we have freedom of speech. At least I know I won’t be sentenced to death by stoning for walking along a street with my head uncovered in the company of some man. And I have ultimate confidence that sectarian violence will not compromise my ability to cross the street or go to the market. And the fact that we can have confidence in such things, in addition to a whole lot more still means to me that the United States remains the brightest light out there in our unruly world.

 

So, maybe the American dream isn’t dead after all. Maybe there’s an enormous course correction occurring that will require a big chunk out of our generational hides, but it may lead to a saner and more reasonable expectation for life.

Re-booting often does.

 

What do you think? How do you see the American dream these days?


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