Is This It?

In the middle of my 35th year, for the first time, I stopped, surveyed my life, and thought, “This is it? This is life? This is all there is?” I’d never asked that question. Without a good answer I sunk into a prolonged depression. Over time I realized my reasoning for asking that question had a foundation of several years. I had never thought to ask that question before because I always had something “bigger” for which I was living. For most of my life that was the idea of God – that there was a supreme being watching my life and waiting to judge what I had done. There was also the pressure of other people watching me – I wanted to prove that I was good and doing good. For a long time, it was also the pressure I put on myself – I had to continue to perform to prove to myself that I was good.

What happens when you finally reach the end of the rope? I never thought there was an end to the rope. The idea of this supreme being [God] was painted so expansively and fully there never was an opportunity to doubt; I couldn’t see I was even tethered to anything. I wasn’t given time to question, I was only told to believe, to increase my faith, to grow my belief. The driving force was “accountability” – performance was key and only by continuing to be and do good would I thrive.

But I never really “thrived”. All the beasts I’d battled in myself are the same beasts I battle today. Try as I might to be perfect, I never was. But I performed better than anyone, making it look like I was in fact thriving. It was that “exo-living” [yes, I’m making up a word] which gave me an appearance of life, but I was only moving further and further down my rope, until I came to the end of it. And then I was left to cope without the things I’d grown up believing to be true.

What happens when you reach the end of the rope is that you find out if you have any other drive. Once I found myself without the pressure to perform out of the spotlight of church, I found that a lot of the things I dreaded about myself were true. I’m lazy. I like the easy way out. I’m an addict. But after languishing in that shallow water, I found myself yearning for more, wondering what would fulfill me. I’d spent twenty years searching for satisfaction in that supreme being (or rather in satisfying that supreme being) being filled up on placating confessions and prayers hoping that one day he’d change me. And then I woke up to the fact that I’m the only one responsible for my satisfaction, happiness, fulfillment, and goodness.

It is easier to stop and ask the question, “This is it?” and give up hope in anything great or good. It’s easier to get drunk every night so you don’t have to think about it. It’s easier to drown yourself in laziness and entertainment, wiling the hours of your life away waiting for death’s sweet face to appear and take you down the hall. It’s also empty. I find it disappointing that our conversations seem to settle into the question: “Have you seen (insert TV show) on (insert streaming medium)?” But it is easier that way. It’s easier to be entertained and not to produce anything at all.

But when you find yourself asking, at 35 with three kids asking, “This is it?” you’re doing something wrong. My argument is that I’m not doing enough creating and producing to find satisfaction. That question is always going to remain, regardless. I think it’s a fact of life – that this thing we’re doing called living is largely full of emptiness. Unless we choose to fill it with something of value. Unless we choose to expand the horizons of our lives past what’s streaming on Netflix and choose to dig into the psyche of what makes us tick. It’s different for all of us – some of us are writers, artists, healers, teachers, or starters. There’s no box for us to fit in, no mold to shape us into a unified entity where all our hearts beat in sync and our songs sound the same and our minds think the same. We’re unique. And we have an opportunity to build something greater, bigger, funnier, bolder, brighter, animated, beautiful, and intentional.

I don’t want to ask if this is all there is. I want to ask, “Have you seen what I’ve done?” and be proud of the result.  

In Review: Into the Magic Shop

Into the Magic Shop [Nonfiction] – James R. Doty, MD.

My brother sent this book to us for Christmas – I wasn’t immediately drawn to it and I only picked it up because it was a non-fiction book in our house that I hadn’t read and was new to me. But as I started the book, I was immediately captured by the introduction: a brain surgeon talking about performing surgery on a 4-year-old child. Doty is intimate and bizarrely personal. I was only going to read the intro but kept on into the first chapter, when suddenly, I found myself as a 10-year-old boy standing in a magic shop, meeting a woman named Ruth and feeling so important and special that I reached the end of the chapter without meaning to. I was intrigued by the story and what sort of message Doty was trying to convey.

It’s sort of a memoir, yet also a self-help book [though not quite as pushy on its instructiveness]. It’s a decent thickness but broken up into 3 different parts. The first section is his childhood experiences meeting the Ruth, who teaches him how to control his body and mind through four “magic” tricks: 1] Relaxing the body; 2] Taming the mind; 3] Opening the heart; and 4] Clarifying intent. Doty has some nice summary sections at the end of each chapter relating to these four steps for your own guidance.

The second part of the book is an exposition on how he only took parts of the tips Ruth gave him into adulthood, focusing instead on forcing his way through life and obstacles with out regard for anyone or anything else. I found this part of the story a bit weird because in some ways he was acknowledging his extreme ignorance of how to interact and engage with people. But in many ways, he attributed the success of his “magic tricks” to gaining access to what he needed. There are several examples of him forcing his way into a program or lucking his way into college where he attributes his “mind over matter” mindset as the reason for his success in gaining access. From the outside, though, it just seems like luck.

The final section is about how he finally realized he was missing a major part of the puzzle from the magic tricks that Ruth had taught him: his heart. This moment comes when he’s lost practically everything, going from incredibly rich to possibly broke and it brings with him a moment of reckoning that changes him for the better. He delivers some ideas about the heart that are cute, but not ground-breaking [see 1st Corinthians 13 for the most recent ground-breaking anecdotes on love]. He works to explain how, really, the heart is responsible for dictating much of what it needs/wants/delivers to the brain.

All in all, it is a pleasant and readable book. I found Doty’s childhood encounters extremely captivating but was much less impressed with his encounters afterward. Perhaps that is just because I felt so intimate with his 10-year-old self and was disappointed in how he played it out after that, knowing in advance what he was missing. I am intrigued by the four “magic” tricks – I do want to explore those and implement them in my own life. In the end it is a story of redemption, and that, by itself, makes it a worthwhile read.

On Apologies

Black and White Boy in the Dark

As I have been processing these thoughts and ideas about speaking words, I’ve come to realize the main reason for exploring this vein of thoughts is centered around the idea of the balancing act required for optimal human living and interchange. That was the heart of my search for understanding in speaking fast and slow, and in writing about speaking with authority, I was searching for when I had the authority to speak into someone else’s life and when that was acceptable. The next step to explore is the apology but this is a polarizing idea. There are some who apologize too often. There are some who never apologize for anything. And there are some who have it down just right. I want to explore these identities and discover, for myself, the importance of apologies and their effectiveness in helping to balance out optimal human interchange.

Let me start with this: I believe apologies are a necessary and important function of relationship because humans tend to be selfish and short-sighted regarding others’ feelings. It is difficult to look past another’s eyes and see into their mind’s eye to know how they are interpreting an exchange. The other night, my wife crawled into bed and pulled the comforter over to her side; unbeknownst to her I had a drink sitting my chest and it tipped over, spilling out on myself and the bed. An innocent mistake, but even innocent mistakes bring about unnecessary anger. My anger was given away by my brooding silence as I got up to clean up; my wife took the comforter off the bed and went off in search of a blanket to replace it. I tried to tell her not to worry about it, but when she didn’t “listen” to me [i.e. hear me], I grew angrier [because I have unresolved things to sort out], and when she came back, my attempts to say, “Hey, I don’t feel like you listened to me. Just listen to me for once.” came out bitter and angry. But I felt completely justified unable to hear myself or her properly. My wife shut down and rolled over, going to bed. The next morning, as we spoke, I discovered she was still angry – to my complete surprise – she interpreted my words as, “Just do what I tell you – obey me.” I hadn’t meant that in the slightest but reflecting on it in a clean state of mind, I was able to see how much of an ass I must have been. The slight I felt was magnified into a greater slight for my wife. The night before I was bound and determined not to apologize for simply wanting to be heard. I had no idea the strength of my words in my anger and how my wife interpreted them. Faced with a new reality, I apologized because I realized the way I came across rather than the way I intended.

The origin of the word apology comes from the Greek idea “of a defense of one’s opinions or conduct and not an expression of remorse or guilt.”[1] That’s a far cry from when I tell my son to apologize for hitting his sister – he’s not defending his conduct; I’m trying to get him to be remorseful for his conduct. It’s this distinction between the former meaning for apology and the more current meaning that I see as so interesting – people who do not apologize very often are much more likely to defend their opinions or actions, in a way, presenting the original idea of apology. And how often do we hear a public apology for the actions of a politician or celebrity, and feel a complete lack of remorse echoing from the orchestrated, carefully worded announcement? How often do we truly get apologies that offer remorse?

I’m more concerned with the intimate exchanges between people. The moments between coworkers who disagree. The fights between partners. The interactions between parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and family. The truth is, we speak so many words every day without understanding the value assigned to them by those who hear them. I think about the fight with my wife and how she interpreted my words so disparately from what I intended them to be…how much differently do those to whom I haven’t dedicated the last 15 years of my life to interpret my words? Each person’s interpretation of another person’s words is based on the equation that develops from their own individual experiences and their experiences with that person. The unknown variable in that equation is the other person’s experiences – the side of the equation that is generally known is personal experience with that person – but even that part of the equation could be unknown. How they interpret it could be completely different.

When people have a different opinion about something, we dismiss it because that’s not how it feels to us. Our interpretation of events doesn’t translate it that way so there’s no way their point of view could be valid. This plays out when one person is offended or interprets an exchange with another in a different manner than the other intended. In that moment we often come to an impasse, because we don’t see eye to eye. There is no apology to be granted because [we feel like] there was no insult intended. Instead we tell people to get over it, to grow up, or to mature. Or we call them names. “Liberaltard”. “Conservadick”. [I recently discovered a “Conservative Insult Generator” which was sort of funny, until I saw its nickname: The Magic Hate Ball.]

We’ve always lived in a time where views of one side are markedly different than the other, it’s just that in this time more people have an opportunity to share than ever before so the contempt and spewing of hate seems louder than ever before. But the idea of touting a Magic Hate Ball to lob insults at people who don’t see the world like you do is the exact opposite of what I’m proposing when I write about apologies. Instead of working to see eye to eye, that good effort is replaced by tearing the other person down to shut them out of the conversation.

Do I apologize too often? Probably. Does that make me a “pushover”? Perhaps. But I’d rather be on good terms with someone whose beliefs I don’t agree with so that we could have more fully developed conversations about the things we disagree about. I’d rather be wrong and have full relationships than right and everyone angry with me.

Living is messy. Our lives intersect and there are major differences in how we think, view, and respond to things and those complications can cause chaos. And throughout that chaos, it’s important to find peace and peace comes from stopping, looking, and responding with an apology.

I’m sure the response to this is, “Well, then you’re just getting rolled over.” And sure, it can feel that way – I guess it depends on the relationship, and again, the level of authority that you’ve granted and the other person has granted you. This is a balancing act; I’m not saying that we need to be running around apologizing for everything. But I do think we need to be more aware of our actions and our words and how that affects people and that we need to be more readily willing to apologize for those things. We need to be more willing to see eye to eye and find the balance and harmony that comes from hearing each other out and understanding when we’ve misinterpreted or been misinterpreted. And then apologize.

Because what does it hurt to say, “I’m sorry.”?

[1] This definition pulled from:

Speaking with Authority

In this post, I pondered the reality that I am more often a Slow Speaker [processing my thoughts before uttering a word], rather than a Fast Spewer [spitting out thoughts without regard for the detriment they may cause], or the more coveted Eloquent Motivator [being well thought and able to speak to a variety of topics yet still uplifting]. I also wrote about the balancing act that is required for optimal human living and interchange, yet rarely adhered to. In this post, I want to venture into what is required to deliver words with authority and why.

This authority is not about being in control. This authority is about knowing when to use your words and trusting they’ll be well received. The type of authority I am writing about is not: “the right to control, command, or determine.” The type of authority I am writing about is: “a persuasive force; influencing.” Envious of Eloquent Motivators and trying to understand my own tendency to take my time before speaking, I came to this idea of authority, of influence. Scrolling through social media comments stokes my pursuit to understand why people spit out whatever they want to say, and if they really think they’re going to change their opposition’s mind.

I also see this struggle of authority and the influence of words with my kids. When my kids were first born, and began comprehending vocal commands and requests, they were almost always compliant. But as they grow, and as I fail them in certain ways, that trust breaks down a little. That’s when I find myself face to face with my 11-year-old in an inane argument where she’s simply repeating herself over and over. There are portions of her trust that have slipped through the cracks of my parenting which give her pause when I ask her to wholly trust my words.

Those are two very different situations: one between strangers “shouting” at each other online; the other between an intimate father and daughter. And the question gnaws at me: if my own daughter doesn’t trust every word I say, why would a stranger would buy into any of my thoughts?

Who is in Authority?

One question that stimulates my thinking is, “How do we choose whom we let influence our lives?” As children, we were surrounded by authority – almost everything had influence over us: our parents, our friends, grandparents, teachers, friends’ parents, and adults in general. But as we grew, we found our own voices – some of us timid, some of us emboldened by an older generation telling us we were leaders, and some of us prodded by the insistence of other that we have a voice worth hearing. Some of us naturally became influencers with our voices, others not so naturally, and still others remained the entertained/taught.

Regardless of our own voice we each learned to allow certain voices an influence and authority in our lives. We also learned to discern if there are any voices we should allow in to our realm of influence. As we traverse through life as adults, we run across many different voices trying to speak influence into our lives – from advertisements, to politicians, to friends, to bosses, and family; there’s a constant barrage of influence being passed around. Why would you ever let anyone else add to the noise? Why would you let any one else have authority and influence in your life?

The transformation of social media over the last decade and a half started with Myspace pages glittered with individualistic expression and grandma’s Facebook spamming of everyone with personalized message to their grandchildren. Slowly, social media turned into everyone’s platform for spouting their thoughts and ideas – not only pumping their own brand of belief into cyberspace, but also engaging in vitriolic diatribes attempting to destroy someone’s online personality. A whole generation is growing up with the belief that their thoughts are right, everyone else wants to hear them, and anyone that doesn’t believe what they believe can go to hell.

[As an aside: one of my least favorite things is seeing one person tell another who doesn’t align with their beliefs to “fuck off”. It’s a classless move.]

Taking the current state in, this is my struggle: why should I say anything at all? Is there any influence left to be granted? Is there any influence I have and is it worth the time and energy amid the noise of everything else that is screaming for attention?

One thing the church has going for it is it’s abuse of this idea of authority. Growing up in a conservative Christian household, authority permeated throughout life and started in the home. Mom and Dad were the boss of the kids, Dad was [or should be] the boss of Mom, and the pastor was the boss of Dad. Every Sunday you went to church to hear from the authority of your life. If you ever had a problem, you went and talked to your authority and they relayed what your next steps were to resolve that problem.

Do You Have Authority?

That model of authority has very many flaws. But the idea of it – the heart[1] of it – I believe is good. It’s one thing to deliver a monologue “with authority” and to come off as bombastic and bloated. It’s another thing to speak into a situation with “authority” or to be granted the favor of those listening to adhere to what you say. It’s fascinating to watch someone with natural authority [some might say charisma] speak – it is difficult to separate facts from fiction.

When we speak, we should be aware of the authority with which we speak. We cannot take authority – it must be given. I see a lot of social media posts based on the idea that “I have a right to speak, so I’m gonna speak my mind!”. In response, a disagreeing party retorts and there’s a back and forth until one of them gets tired of dealing with the harassment and disengages. What good does that do? Nothing was accomplished, as far as I can see. Just two people disagreeing and never working to see eye to eye or attempting to honor each other in their discourse. I think it’s a waste of effort to try and have a discussion with someone that isn’t willing to grant you any level of authority [and vice versa]. It doesn’t matter if you’re right – they’re not going to listen to you because they think they’re right and they have no respect for you.

To listen to another [allow them influence] is a learned trait. Authority is gained by agreement. But authority can be gained in other ways: by treating others right, being attentive, and offering up your time you can show others that you care and by caring you lend yourself to a place of influence in a way that makes sense.  You too will find yourself willing to hear the other person out, because you have allowed their sense of authority and influence into your life.

Here’s where I land in my own struggle: I’m not in control of whether you allow my words to influence you, except so far as I can show compassion and care for you. It’s not up to me – it’s up to you. I’ll just keep writing. Maybe you’ll keep reading.

[1] I do not mean to say I think the Christian church has authority figured out and we should adopt their implementation of it. Instead, what I mean by the “heart of it” is the idea that people generally need some sort of authority/influence in their lives to drive them forward and point them in a good and true direction.

Efforts on Essays

I’m continuing to write on topics related to this post, Speaking Quick and Slow, [which I thought was going to be a two part post, but has some how expanded] and I’m finding it difficult to sort out my thoughts on the topics 20 minutes at a time in the early morning. It’s hard to distill the unexplored thoughts of the mind in just a short moment and then go on to the rest of the day, picking up your thoughts from the last two weeks and getting started writing again without a hitch in your step. I guess the lesson to learn from this is I need to do more thinking and note taking on those thoughts before sitting down to position them on the page as eloquence.

At any rate, out of that initial post, I’ve decided there are a couple of areas related to thinking and speaking that I want to explore: speaking with authority, speaking apologies, and the nature versus nurture perspective of how and why we speak/think the way we do.

As I’ve struggled over the last two weeks to get these thoughts on page and am now thinking about my commitment to posting these sorts of thoughts once a week on Mondays, I grimace to think that time is fleeting and 52 posts a year is not much and here, now I’ve wasted two of them on filler made up on the fly. The time and the effort is the magic, not the appearance of your work. Here’s to the next 49 Mondays.