Archive for December, 2012

Within Every Bad Act lies a Seed of Redemption

December 20, 2012

A week ago today, those Connecticut school children and their teachers were healthy, well, and enjoying their lives. Now, they are gone and there is nothing any person or society can do to bring them back.

Making sense of the incomprehensible is a nearly impossible task, but I believe we still must try. And even if we cannot find a way to understand, there are intermediate steps we can take. It may not help those sweet babies and their brave, brave teachers, but what progress we do make will be in their name and in celebration of their lives.

As someone reminded me recently, within every bad act lies a seed of redemption. If you choose, as I do, to believe this and to seek out that seed, it can provide a motivation to move forward with our lives and society in a constructive manner. Those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary should not be defined by their deaths—it is easy to lose sight of this considering the circumstances—but by the bright light they added to their worlds and to those of their loved ones. While, of course, we who are left behind will cry and mourn their passing, we must also move beyond our sad reaction—herein lies the seed.

I will go so far as to suggest that the types of behaviors needed to cultivate that seed of redemption in the face of such loss are the same ones we as individuals need to hone in our own lives with our personal struggles and doubts and losses. Of course these pale in comparison to the Newtown tragedy, but the determination and discipline needed to overcome setbacks large and small require a similar skillset. Taking the steps necessary to recover and move beyond a loss requires us to decide we will seek out that seed and nourish it. As the father of one of the dead school children said, we cannot allow this loss to define us or her [his daughter].

I remind myself, too, that in each of the books I have read about near death experiences, those who have “died” and returned uniformly write about the tremendous sensation of loving support beyond anything they could ever have imagined. The survivors say they didn’t want to “come back” despite having delightful earthly lives, so wondrous was their experience on the other side. Because I believe in life after death, I also believe that a “better place” does exist and that those sweet children and their teachers are there. They are not abandoned, and neither are their families, friends, or even us.

So what does this mean for those of us left behind? We must remind ourselves how fragile life is such that any of us can exit this earthly realm before we are ready. The tragedy at Newtown will spur at least some societal changes, I hope, and, on a more individual level, impel us to draw upon the wells of our own resilience and compassion when confronted by shattering loss. If each day is lived as if it is our last or the last for the people around us, how might this change our behavior and attitudes? How might we rise above the tragedy and find a better way to live and love? Such presence of mind can fade in the course of prosaic, daily stresses, but let us hope that the tragedy at Newtown might also serve to remind us to nourish our own seed of redemption.


Exit plan–the new holiday tradition

December 18, 2012

Considering the time of year and the fact that many of us will be spending a portion of it with extended family or coworkers, I thought I’d write a bit about strategies one might utilize to manage such interactions while staying sane. Certain traditions are worth cherishing, but alas, for some of us, they become burdensome or constricting. So what can a re-booter do to shake things up and create an experience worth the effort? Striking out in a different direction can be both liberating and terrifying, signifying a new you and a new perspective on the world. The possibility of creating a new holiday ritual can feel like launching World War 3 against kinfolk committed to “the way we always do things.”  But it doesn’t have to be.

As re-booters, just about everything in our lives is on the table for examination and revision. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, sometimes these revisions require no more than a tweak here and there, while others involve a shift of seismic proportions. In many ways, the seismic changes can be understood by those around us a lot more easily than the minor tweakings. The reason I say this is that the minor adjustments may sometimes indicate problems beneath the surface, thus certain people get nervous and they start wondering if more threatening adjustments are to follow.

Take, for instance, a change in holiday traditions. Coast to coast, I know a LOT of folks who wish they weren’t locked into a fixed pattern of annual commemoration (usually involving relatives or coworkers they’d rather not see) but, absent extraordinary circumstances which provide cover, they cannot manage to extricate themselves from painful rounds of fixed socializing. Now, as someone who values tradition, I appreciate the hazy image of festive dinners featuring a long table of relatives and neighbors noisily chortling into the night. But, as a re-booter, I remind myself of the (veiled) barbs and boozy commentary that also occured at such gatherings. And don’t forget the awkward family photos that include some, but not all, attendees. Having been excluded from some of these photos myself, I understand that particular pain of being “other’ed” despite my usual grumbling of how bad I look in every photo. And to compound this sense of outsider status, I now no longer even wish to be part of the snapshot, let alone the group. And therein lies the real loss.

But, the other side of all this is the hope that I can create traditions of my own choosing where photos are taken that include all attendees, each of whom is happy to be there! Ah, yes, wouldn’t that be a lovely memory to hold?

So, how do we do this? How do we celebrate holiday traditions involving at least some people we’d just as soon not see and still extract some genuine joy from them? Well, there’s always the bit of advice of “taking one for the team,” to be a good sport and support your significant other. There’s also the admonition to be sure to cut back on the consumption of spirits. And, most practically, institute a hard limit on the amount of time you must spend with these people. Here’s a suggestion: start with however long you were there last year and cut back by an hour. Next year, shave another hour off. I have a friend who, over the years, has whittled down his visit with his dad by fifteen minute increments and has managed to reach a base line of two nights, one full day—every other year.

Reading this may lead you to believe I am all about bah humbug and selfishly thinking only about my personal comfort. But this isn’t true! What I am suggesting is a way to spend the time you do have to spend but doing so with integrity and with as much pleasantry as possible. My friend tells me that now, when planning out his minimized visits with his dad, he can enjoy the time he’s there, knowing he’s got an exit plan.  What’s yours?

Being Right vs. Being Righteous

December 13, 2012

Wait a minute, what are you talking about? Say again? Aren’t they the same thing? Well, no, they are not. While both words are adjectives, being right is a factual statement that can be confirmed, whereas being righteous is a way of behaving that usually induces fear or eye rolling from whomever is subjected to the righteous treatment—whether or not the person is correct! Are you still with me?

It is a rare event when a person feels righteous about something they know they are wrong about, so the converse of this is that righteousness and believing you’re right go together. Alas, the typical expression of righteousness is usually articulated with a vexed tone. “He should pick up his socks every night!”Anybody who supports that candidate is a swine.” “The very idea that she would require me to stay late to work while leaving early herself is outrageous.” Each of these statements comes from a speaker who may (or may not) be right, but is most definitely righteously indignant when making themselves heard.

Nobody likes being on the receiving end of righteous indignation. Not you, not me, and not the poor schmo who had the misfortune of standing in line ahead of you. The reason I am writing about this is to draw attention to the fact that, ideally, while we may believe ourselves to be correct 100% of the time, contrary to the passionate examples we see from our religious or political leaders, it’s rarely a smart move to be righteous in our communications with others. It’s difficult to keep this is mind when we know we’re so clearly right and the other person is so clearly wrong, but that’s what I am asking you to consider.

I’ll go a step further and suggest that you strive to moderate not only your verbal expressions but also how you think about these very same conflicts. Courtesy of manner is a good first step, but the real trick lies in disciplining our thoughts and our philosophy such that we aren’t marching down the street silently condemning everyone crossing our path as an utter fool or moral reprobate—that is, except for the most obvious denizens of Washington DC (ha ha, just a joke).

Let me provide an example closer to home: say you’re planning a family gathering for the holidays. You’re making plans and delegating responsibility to various relatives, only you already can’t stand Cousin Sal and when she and her feral brood appear, she’s done precisely what you asked her not to do. Yes, she brought three side dishes, but she already knows nobody else at the table will eat beets or asparagus and this is what she brought, along with her incredibly popular potatoes. So you bang around in the kitchen, fuming about what an obtuse ass she is which only serves as further evidence as to the sorry state of the rest of her existence: this, my friends, is an example of righteous indignation. She senses your grave displeasure and you have created a black cloud over your very own head! What does this achieve? You may have the satisfaction of seeing the beets and asparagus sitting cold and uneaten in their dish, and perhaps Cousin Sal will repeat this behavior again next year, but she certainly isn’t going to be motivated to change her ways if she takes a lead from your attitude, is she?

What if, instead, you see Sal arrive with yet another round of unwanted veggies to accompany her scrumptious potatoes and you discipline your thoughts sufficiently to express gratitude for the parts you truly appreciate? Holding yourself back from the remainder of your usual narrative may do wonders for how you feel about the entire celebration! This is the sort of disciplining of our thoughts and attitudes that can help curb those instincts to let others know just how right we are.

Does this make sense? Maybe you don’t need such reminders, but I surely do. It’s temptingly easy to confuse doing things our way with criticizing others for doing it another. Being right and being righteous are two very different beasts.

It’s Not About You!

December 11, 2012

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. The behavior of others has far more to do with them, not you. Repeat after me: do not take it personally.

Easier said than done!

Recently, I read a column that listed ten questions to ask elderly relatives about their life. Amongst them was the question, “What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?” While there are many answers to this particular inquiry, I believe that not taking things personally ranks pretty darn high up there in terms of keeping yourself happy and satisfied with your life situation.

Recently, I was chatting with some friends about this. It’s challenging not to take a person’s behavior personally when this same behavior impacts you directly, but oh, what a mighty instrument you have in your hands if you can see past the personal impact and recognize that their behavior is about them, not you! If I could bestow a gift to each of you, it would be this. It’s not about you. Truly. It isn’t.

Repeat this to yourself as you grapple with how to answer, think about, or react to another’s ill or obnoxious treatment. Whatever it is that’s prompting them to target you, is actually about themselves. This realization may not make withstanding their conduct any more pleasant, and it may not diminish your attempts to bring it to a halt, but it does make things easier.

Years ago, a close friend had the great misfortune of falling out with someone very important to them. They had seen a pattern of bad behavior demonstrated by this person, but always told themselves that there was no way such conduct would be directed at them; they were too close and it was inconceivable that the relationship could sour like that. My friend believed that they had demonstrated their loyalty and friendship so completely that this person would never turn on them.

My friend was naïve and oh so very wrong. It was painful to witness.

When a wise colleague commented that this person’s behavior wasn’t even personal, that they did this to everyone, well, at the time, my friend was furious—even indignant–they couldn’t wrap their mind around such a concept. Of course it was personal! It was happening to them! How could it be anything but deeply hurtful?

With time, they began to see things more clearly. And as “unspecial” as they confessed to feeling once they understood the truth of the colleague’s observation—that they just happened to be the next victim in a long line of people who got treated this way—that the bad actor’s actions really were about them, not my friend, it made a world of difference. In time, my friend grew to recognize and accept that they just happened to be the person who presented a threat, but it could’ve been anyone. Their ability to put this entire, painful episode behind them and even extend the tiniest glimpse of compassion for a person so wrapped up in their own sick narcissism is due entirely to being able to not taking their behavior so personally.

What about you? To what painful situation in your life might this truth also apply? The holidays are a potent time for such conflicts to arise, so if you can somehow manage to see your distressing situation is a less personal light, your experience dealing with them may be a whole lot more serene.

Think on this awhile and get back to me…

Sheer Force of Will vs. Cooperation

December 6, 2012

Not infrequently do I read articles extolling the virtues and accomplishments of someone who, against great odds, succeeded “through sheer force of will.”  These articles cite the grit, determination, and laser like focus of the person as key to all they have achieved. This line of thinking also plays into the American celebration of the individual. I get it; these stories inspire me, too.


But, what I have found is that there is so much more about life where the calculus is different than that of An Army of One. In fact, the vast majority of scenarios that I have witnessed require a pooling of talents and energies from a wide range of people in order to succeed. Far from the Lone Ranger riding off towards the horizon on his own where he will rise or fall based solely on his own performance, life most often calls upon us to work with others, to cooperate, to put aside our own agendas and egos so that we might attain a bigger mark.


The reason I am blathering on about this is that my experience has demonstrated to me that an important skill in re-booting one’s life is learning how to work effectively in a group. Way easier said than done!


Recently, I was speaking with a friend who volunteers at her child’s school and has involved herself in various school-related activities. She’s got all sorts of ideas and energy to invest in making these activities better or more meaningful to the participants, except she’s starting to realize that good ideas and energy to follow through are not the only variables in this equation. Rather, there can be other influences which can randomly throw all her efforts off for no logical reason other than certain veto holders choose to exercise their veto.


My point is this: part of gaining maturity and successfully negotiating your way through the modern, adult world requires that you skillfully know when to add some gas to promoting your ideas and when to apply the brakes. As much as you, personally, may be able to accomplish if left unfettered, the reality is that most scenarios in which you find yourself encompass a number of factors that you cannot control. You need to master the ability to gauge when and how much of your efforts can make a difference. A lot of this involves recognizing a situation as it is, not how you wish it would be. Sometimes, you need to let events unfold as they are, even if you can see a far superior way of handling the matter.


One of the things I continue to work on is being at peace with letting things resolve themselves in a group dynamic—despite the less than lustrous results—rather than trying to push my way on the group. In situations such as these, I have had to significantly ratchet down my expectations for personal and group. This is what I shared with my friend who expressed surprise and dismay at how the school group was operating.


Does any of what I’m saying make sense? Have you had to wrestle with such things?


Under what circumstances have you had to hold yourself back because there was simply no viable way for you to implement your ideas? Was the group effort still able to attain some success? What might have been the personal cost you would pay if you had forced your aims and approach onto others?


Sheer force of will can be an amazing thing under the right circumstances, but life is a group activity, and as such, we have to adapt our expectations as well as what we say and do to fit those contexts.


Don’t get me wrong, there is much about each of our lives that hinges on an exercise of sheer force of will, but its an image that gets celebrated simply because its so clear who the hero is. Someone who holds back from presenting all of their ideas, but instead peaceably and successfully works within the boundaries and capabilities of a less than ideal troupe often doesn’t merit notice, let alone praise. And yet, they’ve accomplished something, too. In many respects, what they’ve managed to do requires far more skill, finesse, and endurance than the Lone Ranger out there.


No hard and fast rules on when to apply gas or breaks on your ideas, but knowing when to do so is what smart driving is all about.

A Path to the Peaceable Kingdom

December 4, 2012

This is a message of peace. Stupid people, as a wise man once reminded me, are everywhere. There are more of them than there are of us. Stupid people come in two types: 1) the group who knows they’re stupid and are simply trying to scramble along like the rest of us and 2) the ones who, God only knows why, think they’re smart. And they’re everywhere. At every level of society and achievement.  Every race, culture, creed, national origin, age, gender, physical ability, and educational attainment. Talk about equal opportunity! Uncaged, they roam the streets on a daily basis.

I wish to address today’s post to the topic of learning to manage when you are confronted with Type 2 because you cannot escape them and must, somehow, find a way to coexist with people who, unbelievably, have cultivated a sense of arrogance and entitlement when they lack any cognitive abilities necessary for the task at hand. The consequences of not adopting a coping mechanism of this sort will nearly always result in either you being dragged off to jail for some unspeakable act of violence or a heavy regimen of pharmaceuticals. Give peace a chance!

Please note that my wisdom is hard won—I have the scars on my behind to prove it—and my quest continues to be a work in progress. However, Type 2 stupid people are unflaggingly resilient (somewhat akin to a cockroach) and will show up in all corners of your life at the least apropos of times: think bank clerks, development officers, our elected officials, IRS representatives. But don’t stop there, include your new boss or work colleague, your brother-in-law, or fellow board member. People with whom you must interact on a regular basis about something you actually care about or who hold your financial fate in their hands protected by a 1-800 number that requires a genius to override in order to speak with a live person. Yeah, those people.

So, here’s the formula for sanity that I have devised (please let me know any alternative approaches that have worked for you). First, you have to realize that this individual is stupid and then understand that they are unaware of their stupidity— unfortunately, sometimes this takes more than one interaction. Second, you must then prepare yourself in advance for the inanity that will reliably be directed at you as part of this person’s Standard Operating Procedure. Preparation is key because, otherwise, you will respond with reasonable yet increasingly frustrated responses which will only make things worse. Remind yourself to practice calm and say as little as possible. Do not roll your eyes. Third, be prepared to gently and cleverly spoon feed a solution to this idiot. Caution! If you employ sarcasm or start to act like General Patton all their defenses will be deployed and then you’re screwed. Fourth, you must, whenever and as soon as possible, practice detachment. Do not get emotionally involved with this person or the situation as morons like this are sure to leave you with a broken heart over whatever it is, bleeding in the metaphorical street. Love ‘em and leave ‘em. Seriously. Disappointment comes to him who insists on treating arrogant idiots like normal people. Handle with care!

According to my scientific study, if you follow this prescription, you are way more likely to survive this interaction with a minimum of upset and stand a fair to even chance of getting what you want out of it. The annoyance comes when you realize that you have to deal with them on a repeated basis! But, if it isn’t one Joe Idiot it’ll be another because there are more of them than there are of us. Remind yourself of this. It behooves you to master these coping skills because you’ll have a lifetime of opportunity to practice these behaviors. Who knows, maybe one day in the future you’ll be so skilled that dealing with an arrogant idiot will no longer enrage you.

Ah, wouldn’t that be nice? Talk about a peaceable kingdom.

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