Archive for September, 2015

Invisible Blessings: Appreciating Our Talents

September 15, 2015

No matter who you are, where you come from, or what your background is, we all come into this world blessed with multiple talents. What forms these talents take is as varied as the people who have them. Some can be traced to familial disposition such as the balancing abilities of the Flying Wallendas or the quick witted sense of humor passed from one generation to the next. Others arrive out of the blue—nobody dreamed that little Johnny (from a family of pacifists) would prove himself to be a crack shot at the shooting range.

But not all our gifts are so easily defined. How do you encapsulate the combination of instincts and skills a person has whose confidence and common sense enable him to lead effectively? Or that of someone who unconsciously knows what to do or say in the immediate aftermath of a crisis? Or what it takes for somebody to be able to look at a column of figures and “just know” something is wrong?

If you were to list your top three talents, what would they be?

If asked, what would your closest friends say about you?

How do you account for the difference?

In a life filled with demands on our time, energy, and resources, with change occurring on a global level and at a breathless pace, it’s understandable that we tend to feel drained or overwhelmed. One way to compensate for this is to seek out things we can feel good about. An easy place to begin and one that is often overlooked is to acknowledge and be grateful for our talents. I don’t know whether the practice of playing these down is a residue of our Puritan heritage or a reaction against the braggadocio culture we see on tv, but a lot of people spurn what they do well, dismissing these innate abilities out of hand. Why is that?

I know what the answer is for me. The answer is that I was afraid—afraid I wasn’t good enough, afraid that if I expressed an interest or pride in doing whatever, I’d discover that I was wrong—that I wasn’t so great at it. When it came to writing in particular, the possibility that I was actually mediocre was so painful to contemplate that, for years, I pretended it didn’t interest me at all. It felt too vulnerable to admit in the DC power player world where I grew up that I wasn’t interested in changing the world or becoming a millionaire or saving a life. What I wanted to do was tell my little stories; what drew my attention each time I opened a newspaper or magazine was silly and frivolous—therefore, I must be, too.

Which of your talents have you walked away from?

As for my other talents, I dismissed many of them as unimportant. As it turns out, I have a fairly good singing voice with a range of three octaves. Growing up, I was encouraged to sing, enjoyed it, and regularly performed, but the more important other people’s opinions became to me, the more I withdrew. As the years went on, I stopped singing altogether, fearful of drawing attention to myself, letting my imagination run away with me. A very different example involves my people skills. Apparently, they’re good enough that I am regularly approached to do work as a fundraiser—a field in which I have zero interest. I won’t budge on this, no matter how many times I’ve been chastised as short sighted and just plain stupid. My point in sharing this with you is not to set out a roster of talents, but to demonstrate my reaction to them and why it is they lie unused.

Which of your talents do you ignore? Why is that?

 

The risk we run disregarding our talents is that, eventually, they will shrivel up and blow away. These abilities, if we pursue them, may open up worlds of opportunity we never considered. It’s akin to diversifying your financial portfolio rather than investing all your money in a single stock. We’ve been given these talents for a reason, but it is up to us to discover what that reason is! Minimizing the things that come easily is an error many adults make. “If I can do it, anybody can do it.”

How often have you thought something similar? How often do you let stubbornness, ego, or laziness get in your way?

To make my questions less threatening, let’s first start by considering somebody else. Whether it’s a relative, friend, or random person you know, what talents have you watched them flout? Why do you think they do so? What possibilities could you imagine for them were they to give this thing a serious go?

Re-booters understand that we don’t have to be the best in the world. While there will always be others more talented than we, what utilizing our talents does is introduce us to additional experiences of success, knowledge, and insight. The willingness to take advantage of what we do naturally well enhances our understanding of ourself. Positive energy increases when we build on what we’re good at.

Take a few moments to remember those talents you have that you’ve been blowing off—why not give them a trial run? You don’t have to tell anyone, just take ‘em for a test run. See what happens next.

Talents

Mourning What We Don’t Have

September 10, 2015

I just thought there’d be more,” muses a character in the coming of age film Boyhood. Hearing these words caught my attention because they represent a universal wistfulness and a trap we can fall into if we’re not careful. I don’t believe anyone’s life turns out the way they expect, but it’s the ones who exude an overriding sense of disappointment who run the greatest risk for missing out. Our lives are not profound; the lessons we are here to learn are, but the ways we spend our days are not. From what I’ve seen, the most potent messages and morals we master often arise from the most mundane of occasions. Hungry for wisdom, re-booters learn to watch and listen closely as they go about their routines, knowing that the key to greater understanding often reveals itself not with banging drums and sounding horns, but quietly, resting gently in the shadows of our awareness waiting to be found.

Here’s an example from my life that I hope will make sense. Being an individual whose wardrobe would suggest a calendar crammed with important engagements and an active social calendar, the truth is I’m ready for a life I don’t lead. My closet mocks me. While I used to wear “grown up clothes” when I had a clearly defined identity as a competent professional, I can’t recall the last time I put on a suit. Most of my aspirational party outfits remain just that, hanging forlornly in my closet. I could make myself very unhappy thinking about all the events I’m not going to or the clients I no longer have. I could berate myself for not making more of an effort or any number of other reasons. I could do all those things. But you know what?

I don’t. Not anymore. As I’ve moved through this re-booting process, I’ve come ‘round to see that I’m incredibly fortunate that I don’t need to wear a uniform or get dressed up for some boring lecture and meal where I paste a smile on my face, exhausted, listening to some ding dong bloviate, mesmerized by the sound of their own voice. The exact same strategy can be applied to finding the benefits in much more significant struggles: you married the wrong person, you never married, you had kids, you never had kids, you feel ignored, everybody wants something, whatever it is, there’s always an upside if we look for it.

What aspect of your life makes you mope? What might you learn from this challenge? How might you shift your perception to embrace the blessing hidden within?

For instance, an intense dislike for certain relatives or coworkers may teach you about tolerance, diplomacy, and maintaining boundaries. Not only does it not matter what they think, but you also don’t need to let it annoy you. Maybe a project you worked hard at failed—could this be a favor in the long run? Learning to become self-reliant (looking to ourselves for confirmation or approval) instead of seeking outside approval is one of the most powerful life lessons a person can master. As devastating as bankruptcy would be, finding a way to live happily in reduced circumstances teaches us something about the source of contentment. A serious illness or handicap forces us to reprioritize what and who is important. Being denied the “perfect” spouse or college admission or blue ribbon of your longing is not a failing. Or, going back to my wardrobe example, having a bunch of clothes I have no occasion to wear offers me the opportunity to realize how serene my days are, giving me time to focus on far more interesting challenges. This is my lesson. This is how I’m lucky. Realizing this makes my life better!

We all know people who have dedicated significant time and energy to nursing their grievances. “Poor me, poor me,” they cry. “Look what I have to deal with. Boo hoo.” What has it gotten them? Who do you think of when I say this? Has this perspective served them well?

Just because we fervently believe something doesn’t mean it’s true! I thought I had slammed into a brick wall when my life fell apart, never mind how miserable I was at the time. I couldn’t see how I could possibly recover (although a small part of me knew different). I wailed and carried on for months and months, a weepy, conflicted, frightened mess. This was where I had it all wrong. I know now that the beliefs and priorities I had at the time were not good for me. Looking back, I am so grateful I escaped; my life is a thousand times better and I’m a thousand times wiser. Thank God it happened. But, seeing things in this new light required me to change, required me to be willing to look for the opportunities instead of the losses. Sort of like my wardrobe.

Returning to my question about the person you know who drags around, what do you think about this? Why do you think they refuse to acknowledge the possible positives in this very real difficulty? What makes their anger or grief or malaise so much more appealing? Is there some part of your life where you run that risk? What blessings do you not see?

Rainbow

Letting Our Memories Take Us for a Ride

September 8, 2015

I’m offering you a way back.” If someone said this to you, would you take it? What event springs to mind when you read that sentence? How would you do things over, if you could?

Revisiting our past is a useful but potentially dangerous exercise. Although we learn from our mistakes and can be nourished by recalling sublime moments, losing ourselves in them is risky. Dwelling on what was or what could have been does little to enhance our now. It’s the manner in which we hold our memories that I focus on in today’s post. Memories can be a powerful basis of wisdom, healing, and happiness, but they can also weigh us down, diminishing our ability to find new joy.

How often do your thoughts drift back? Why do you think that is?

While it’s true that, over time, our bodies grow more fragile and our energy wanes, this doesn’t mean that our minds must calcify. As everyone knows, most elderly people tend to fixate on their past, often because they believe their present has less to offer. I’ve watched them become more and more occupied with sorting through old boxes of photographs, correspondence, and receipts that are so old nobody recognizes who or what they are about. I suppose part of this behavior could be attributed to an attempt to make sense of what happened, to identify overarching patterns, or to document the migration of a certain family dynamic, but what occurs to me as I watch it is what about now? That was then; it needn’t predominate so much of today and letting it do so minimizes the possibility for new growth.

Letting the past control the present and future is a pothole a lot of adults drive into. Their reasons are wide ranging: such as 1) a belief that clinging to the past is respectful, 2) forgetting an old hurt negates the wrong entirely which doesn’t seem right, or 3) distrust that life can ever improve upon what once was. Memories used in this manner become shackles.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote the philosopher George Santayana. As a history major and someone who considers context to be the key to understanding, I strongly agree. However, the constructive use of memory has its limits. People change, contexts shift, who we are today isn’t who we were then. The things that made us happy long ago might not have the same impact now. Empowering a single, fixed moment to hold sway over a fluid present fails to take into account all the changes that have occurred.

Does what I’m saying make any sense at all?

This line of reasoning applies to any memory—good or bad. What we remember provides a snapshot of time-date stamped information; like a Chevy Nova, it’s a reflection of its era. Memories are useful because they provide data and may help us recognize patterns (which is how we learn), but beyond that, they’re limited in terms of their utility. And yet, some of us simply cannot move on. I get it. I do it, too. I replay certain interactions and experiences over and over because, well, because they remind me of particularly wonderful times that I’m not sure I’ll get ever again. I hope I’m wrong. How sad it is to find comfort in such an obsessive manner…

Words can’t be unsaid, bells can’t be unrung, and people move on. Life isn’t static. I’m a pretty sentimental person but I’ve seen the burden that comes with revisiting the past. I’ve watched people bind themselves to old ideas, old grievances, old joys, and old mistakes. I’ve seen how this can crush the potential for new possibilities to take root, new happiness to blossom.

Ok, so having laid out my thinking about the role of memories and how we use them, let’s focus on you: when you go back in time, where do you go? What is it about that person or situation that you replay? What does doing so give you and why do you need it so much? Given who you are now, would this person or experience be as important today?

In a roundabout way, what I’m trying to do is remove some of the emotional tentacles that we wrap around our recollections. The more dispassionate we can be towards the past, the easier it becomes to forgive, to understand the larger picture, to redefine its significance, and to plot a future course that is based on who we are now, not who we (or they) were. It can feel weird at first—being objective and rational has none of the grounding, dramatic power of an emotional response—but with practice, it gets easier.

Use this analogy when assessing the role memory plays in your life: do you really want to drive a Chevy Nova because that’s what was cool in the 70s? I used to ride in one with plaid seats and no seat belts. Trust me, it wasn’t so great—even if Mr. Haley did go 80 mph up Watson street to get me home.

Chevy Nova

The Pluses and Minuses of Radical Honesty

September 3, 2015

Honesty as a concept and a practice fascinates me; it’s something I use to guide my words and decisions whenever possible—I think the same is true for most folks. What makes radical honesty such a thorny construct is whether and when we use it (with ourselves or others). Too much honesty can result in hurt feelings or distorted understandings, often permanently changing the dynamics between two people. But then, there are circumstances where nothing less than radical honesty is right if the purpose is to serve the highest and best interests of the listener. A tricky business, indeed.

When was the last time someone was radically honest with you? How did that feel?

On the occasions when someone has summoned the courage to be radically honest with me, I’ve felt grateful because I recognize the risk they took in sharing their impressions. Whether I agreed with them or not, their words shook me from my regular train of thought. Now, I happen to be someone who vastly prefers clear cut communication, but I’m no masochist and certainly don’t relish being taken down a peg or two without some sort of cushion. A big difference between a re-booter and a narcissist is that we’re willing to hear it; we’re willing to consider whether the other person’s perspective may be accurate. It’s a highly useful counter check to the wildness of our own imaginings…

Do you have people in your life who you can trust like this? Have you told them how grateful you are for their friendship?

Being able to withstand or to offer up radical honesty is not for the faint of heart. It requires a great deal of self confidence because of the risk involved when telling (or hearing) something that might be very unwelcome. We don’t always get it right, either. There have been times when I thought I had the sort of relationship that could handle such an exchange and I was patently wrong. A few relationships didn’t survive, but others strengthened considerably–it’s a crap shoot. And sad as I have been about the ones I lost, I also came around to the understanding that they were never what I thought they were to begin with.

Can you think of a time when a relationship broke under apart as a result of such stress? Looking back, what insights have you gleaned from this? How has such knowledge influenced your relationships going forward?

Of course, the vast majority of our friendships do not demand radical honesty—how we typically interact with those in our circles doesn’t require this sort of exchange. What others do in their lives can’t make that much difference to us. Their decisions, their business, right?

I’m not totally sure where I am going with this, except a general rumination on the concept of radical honesty. As a re-booter, I believe there are only a few occasions when being brutally honest serves a constructive purpose, and only if the recipient has solicited such feedback. Offering unsolicited opinions is nearly always a bad decision. Most of the time what we believe doesn’t matter, no matter how well intentioned we may be. Most folks don’t want to know.

How about you? In your heart of hearts, how strong are you to hear something threatening or unwelcome? And when, in the past, have you done so? Have you practice radical honesty with somebody else? Did that turn out to be a good decision…or not?

Making choices

Confusing Ourselves by Overthinking It

September 1, 2015

In the EL James megahit series Fifty Shades of Grey, the “hero” is a deeply conflicted and confused individual who vacillates between seeking solace in unusual sexual practices while isolating himself from any real connection with others. Although there is much about the storyline that I don’t identify with, the fact that this fellow is at odds with himself, troubled and torn by wanting things he knows would disturb and upset those around him, and loathe to hurt those he cares about makes Christian Grey a regular sort of everyman.

What?!?

Setting aside the whole BDSM spectacle of the series, the reason I use this example is because this character is an exaggerated springboard from which to examine the topic of conflicting desires and the sort of quagmires we create for ourselves when we overthink a problem. The smarter we are the harder it gets because we can invent such clever reasons and counter-reasons to do or not do whatever it is we want. Note that I chose the verb “want” because, at the heart of the matter, we’re trying to talk ourselves out of taking an action or making a choice that calls out to us like a siren’s song. It’s irresistible.

What is it that relentlessly calls to you?

There are very, very few things in life that are permanent, which is why it seems so futile to me to strain so hard to retain our status quo—especially when whatever it is isn’t working for us. What I mean by this is that while, sure, the job pays our bills or the relationship gives a certain definition to our identity, if we continue to fantasize at length about our lives minus these core obligations, these thoughts are telling us something critically important. I cannot tell you the number of people I know who spend part of everyday fighting against or actively suppressing instincts, desires, or ideas that they are inexorably drawn to. Repeatedly, they chastise themselves for being ungrateful for what they have, for being “bad” people for wanting something else, for being profligate or astonishingly naïve to play with such dangerous ideas. If they were to take such steps, they reason, the fallout would be significant—made worse by whatever unanticipated consequences may be lurking in the shadows. It’s “more honest,” they reason to imagine all the bad that could happen instead of all the good…

Thinking like that would freeze anyone in their tracks.

When trapped in thinking like this, we basically become both the spider and the fly, wrapping ourselves in layer upon layer of seductive thoughts counterbalanced by sticky reasoning as to why we shouldn’t or can’t. This “reasoning” slowly immobilizes us from taking any action at all; eventually, we petrify, unhappily caught in a web of our own making. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Our catastrophizing possible outcomes does a grave disservice to our life’s potential. Telling ourselves over and over that we can’t, that we dare not, that to try would be suicidal or disrespectful or unkind or could subject us to ridicule—what purpose does this serve aside from sheer self torture? Instead of imagining the positive possibilities, we fixate on the worst.

How many times have you done this?

When was the last time you took a risk? Was there a disastrous outcome?

(The answer is no.)

While I recognize that nobody gets to live out their every dream or shed their every obligation or the escape the residue of a misbegotten decision, there’s a lot more room for resurrection in our lives than we give ourselves credit for. But we can’t know if we don’t try, and one of the most sure fire ways of not trying is overthinking all the implications and possible consequences of pursuing what we want.

I have yet, in my entire life, ever heard a single person say they regret taking the chance to pursue what they wanted–even if what they wanted didn’t manifest in exactly the way they hoped. I have heard plenty of people bemoan the fact that they failed to try, refused themselves the chance to see if they could “do it” because what was at risk was simply too great. I understand that the more you have achieved, the more you have invested in your current life, the scarier the prospect of “losing it” can be, but if you are dedicating so much thought and energy on some other path, how much do you really value the one you’re on now?

Is it really better to remain rooted where you are, a smile plastered on your face, having to remind yourself to feel grateful as you watch others cycle past? Are you honestly that much safer, betrayed by your thoughts the way you are?

Do you have so little confidence in yourself about landing on your feet? That those around you will be so utterly destroyed if you’re not there in your current capacity that they couldn’t possibly continue?

The confusion that inevitably results from overthinking things acts as a paralyzing force in our lives. It’s all based on fear. You have a wellspring of confidence available to you; trust that you can manage this. Trust that you can take this step and be ok. Because you will be.

Spider and fly


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