If attitude is everything, what do you do when you know your attitude stinks and you just don’t have it in you to change it? Fake it. If you want to make some positive changes in your life but just don’t feel very good about your ability to accomplish them, fake it. If
So I had an interesting conversation at work today. The subject of the conversation (as I hijacked it) was The Environment. Where I came in, one of the participants (I’ll call him The Liberal – by this I mean nothing derogatory to him nor to the term, it’s just accurate) was mentioning the problem with over population. Recalling a statistic that I read years ago in Reader’s Digest that the entire population of the earth could fit in Jacksonville, FL (or the surrounding county, I forget exactly), I begged to differ. We then engaged in a lively and civil debate over the issues of world hunger, monoculture farming, human greed, etc. What really struck me about the conversation wasn’t a sense that I was right and he was wrong or that either of us had convinced the other of anything but rather that there are two ways to view the world’s problems: we can do something about them or we’re all screwed.
Let’s take the issue of world hunger. The We’re Screwed side says that there are simply too many people to feed without resorting to monoculture farming which is not sustainable in the long term. 7,000,000,000 people sure seems like a lot, especially as populations have urbanized over the past 100 years. However, I did a little math before writing this and found that if you gave everyone on earth a 10 ft. x 10 ft. (100 sq. ft) plot of land the entire population of the earth could fit in the Mojave Desert (approximately). The Can-do side looks at numbers like that and concludes that there has to be a way to grow enough food on the earth for everyone.
The We’re Screwed side, having concluded that we cannot provide enough, approaches the problem from a standpoint of demand reduction – how can we stop population growth? The Can-doer in me has concluded that we can (and already do) provide enough food for everyone so the issue is one of distribution, not demand. (According to this article just a quarter of what we throw away at home could feed 20,000,000 people and this doesn’t count the amount that grocery stores and restaurants throw out.) It was at this point in the conversation when the real core difference between these two perspectives became evident: We’re Screwed because people are inherently greedy and selfish and cannot be trusted to do the right thing OR we Can Do anything because people are capable of doing good.
After that conversation this one thought became crystal clear – the only solutions possible for issues like world hunger start with all of us making a choice to think of others first. If we don’t, then we’re all screwed.
I was originally going to post this review weeks ago, back when Avatar was new and newsworthy and my opinion of it perhaps slightly more germane to any readers of this blog (if any of you are still hanging around). Since then, I’ve changed more diapers than I have gotten hours of sleep, started adjusting to using a CPAP machine at night and have generally just not been in a position to write much here. One thing I have learned, though, in my growing up lately is that commitment counts, and I made a commitment to myself to start this blog and to keep up with it. Sometimes following through is more important than creating something timely and brilliant. Inertia is both close friend and dear enemy to efforts like a blog. The more I write, the easier it gets to keep writing. Where I get bogged down is trying to produce a masterpiece every time my fingers touch the keys. As I learned while cooking dinner tonight…What I was in the middle of saying before I was rudely cut off by my blog host was that some times you just have to put some food on a plate that is tasty and nourishing and leave the fancy garnish for another night. Now that I have to recollect my thoughts on this entry yet again this is even more true.
Watching Avatar felt very much like being the main character in The Princess and the Pea. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get comfortable. At first I thought it was the 3D glasses or sitting too close to an IMAX screen. Then I thought it was because the plot kept jumping from convention to convention without any of the in-between stuff that makes for good storytelling. (Unless, of course, you too have fallen deeply and meaningfully in love with someone by engaging in a series of training montages.) As I walked out of the theatre I realized what it was: I felt like I had just sat through a big budget “youth group movie”.
What’s a youth group movie, you ask? A youth group movie is the kind of a movie that you throw against a wall and if it don’t bounce back you go hungry (bow bow bow)…Sorry, having an obscure reference moment…okay we’re back. A youth group movie refers to the straight-to-video pablum that I was fed as a churchgoing teenager. Imagine a religiously-themed ABC after school special without the good writing or big budget (though I think they both often have Kirk Cameron in them – ooo burn!) and you’ll get the idea. According to the YGM’s that I watched, kissing gets you pregnant, having a beer will make you kill people with your car, smoking will make you a junkie and staying out of church will make you a wife beating SOB with no job. Don’t get me wrong, I am not mocking these films because I am anti-Christian or anything. What drove me mad about them, even as a teen, was that sex, substance use and abuse and domestic violence are issues that are far too important to be given such awful treatment. The choices we make about these issues in our lives will deeply affect who we become and will also determine what kind of effect we will ultimately have on the world around us. It’s disgraceful to offer platitudes, glossy generalizations and stereotypes when purporting to educate people on these issues.
This is exactly the same kind of treatment that James Cameron gives to the issues of environmental responsibility and the modern corporate version of Manifest Destiny. Here are the lessons I learned from watching Avatar:
1) It’s totally fine to lie to and betray someone that you declare love for as long as you feel really bad when the consequences of your betrayal destroy their home, their family and their way of life.
2) When unjustly persecuted by people who embrace violence against the innocent the best solution is to become more effectively violent. This will show them the error of their ways and certainly will not lead to any sort of escalation like, say, being bombed to subatomic particles from outer space.
3) Everything is nature is connected. Except for the people who are not connected to nature. Those people will try to blow nature to smithereens until nature gets pissed off and sends cavalry units in against heavy artillery.
4) Fear is a powerful motivator.
5) Everything is better when you’re a ‘Toon.
In most cases I would find this kind of funny and would shrug it off. I don’t generally look to films of this sort to educate me or calibrate my moral compass. The thing is, I have a daughter now and suddenly the future of this world means something different. It’s not enough that it’s here long enough for me, I want her to be able to live a long and fruitful life as well. There now exists for me an “and so on” that wasn’t there a few months ago. So these issues carry weight with me and I want them to be discussed intelligently in the public forum because I ultimately want wise decisions to be made.
Sarah Palin’s recent talks at Tea Party events and the like (side note: that no one attending these events was in any way risking their life for the sake of obtaining independence is a testament both to the efficacy of the work of our founders and the laughable use of that moniker for this current political fad) and the popularity of commentators like Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity and such demonstrate that we are increasingly seeking people out who will aggressively agree with us and who will help us circle the wagons against the threat of The Other Guys. When public discourse is a) moderated primarily by entertainers who have more incentive to spew invective than to offer reasonable propositions and promote healthy compromise; b) reduced by the Sound Byte Brigade to slogans, talking points and catch phrases; and c) approached from the viewpoint that all answers are obvious and only great fools (like anyone who doesn’t see things our way) can’t see the righteousness of our beliefs, then we will never be able to solve the problems we face together.
Banal fantasies like “military types like killing things for money” and “Mother Nature’s gonna get ya” only serve to encourage people to tune out on what you might have to say. I remember a conversation I had several years ago with a friend of mine on why various Christian evangelizing techniques were so completely ineffective. Mostly it’s because the vast majority of people I know don’t want to read a pamphlet with strangers. It’s also because in those pamphlets and tactics and techniques the heart of the message is lost. I suggested replacing the class with one phrase, “Jesus effing loves you, man.” (JELYM for short). Be honest, if all someone did to try to convince you of their belief was say something simple like that, you’d listen more than you would to, say, Kirk Cameron reading the 10 Commandments on a street corner (ooo burn again! – I actually saw him encouraging that exact thing on late night TV once).
Right now we’re facing crushing public debt, a growing divide between rich and poor – especially as it relates to health care, terrorist groups who truly do hate us, ongoing war efforts and serious environmental concerns. We must deal with these problems sooner rather than later and we must do so maturely with the best interests of all in mind. It frustrates me to see our legislators (I will not sully the word “leader” by associating it with Congress) focusing on outmaneuvering their opponents rather than reaching useful consensus. Particularly when the heart of the issues is lost amidst the bellicose tumult and podium pounding. You see, I think that most people would agree that giving public money away in large sums to people who just squandered the last large sum of money they were given is a bad idea. I think most people would agree that taking steps to ensure the longevity of our ecosystem is a good idea. I think that most people would prefer not fighting to fighting if we can help it and that if we can find a way to make sure that everyone has access to medical treatment then we should try to do that. And I think that most people would accept the notion that spending more money than you have without consideration of the consequences is a very, very bad idea. Granted, we will certainly differ on methodologies and priorities but if we agree on the heart of the matter then we can focus our debate on finding the best way to achieve a common goal rather than on how to best malign our opponents. We have got to acknowledge that despite our differences we are ultimately all in this together. My daughter is counting on it.
There is something to be said for seeking to shore up one’s weaknesses in order to become a well-rounded person. I know this is true because the better I get at improving on my weaknesses the happier my wife gets. However, in a professional context I think that the thing to be said is, “Thpppppbbbbbt.” It’s all well and good to try to learn new skills that might help you in your day to day tasks but at some point you have to focus on what you’re good at or you’ll never achieve anything truly great. Excellence is found at the intersection of passion and talent.
During a yoga class recently I noticed some pain in my right shoulder while executing what amounts to a negative push-up (starting at the high point of a push-up and slowly lowering my body to the mat). Before my next repetition, though, my instructor used this entry’s title phrase, “Find your strength.” As I lowered myself down again I flexed all of the large muscles in my chest and around my shoulder and, low and behold, pain free! As I have reflected on that I have found the same principle holds true in other areas of life. For example, the more I focus on writing, one of my strengths, I find that I am becoming more disciplined with my use of time, one of my weaknesses. By giving myself an outlet for something that I love to do, I have also given myself a reason to set aside things that waste my time.
As a newlywed (just over 18 months now) and new father, I have found myself in lots and lots of frustrating situations where I just don’t know what to do. There is so much to learn about the women in my life, so many details to keep track of (I’m more of a big picture person), that at times it can all get a bit overwhelming. So lately I’ve been trying to play to my strengths instead – working around the house, making goofy faces at my daughter, laughing and talking with my wife on the phone. I’ve noticed two results: First, because I am operating in a comfort zone, I am in a more positive frame of mind when I think about my family and that positive attitude has helped to reduce the number of involuntary things that I do that can cause friction. Second, because I am focusing on the things I can do well rather than the things with which I struggle, I am generally more relaxed and operating at a less frantic pace which makes it easier to remember to put the seat down.
I started this entry talking about work and I’ll wrap it up on that subject as well. I realize very, very well that we don’t all have the freedom to drop everything in pursuit of our dream job. However, I think it is worth the time to look at where we are and think strategically about how we can play to our strengths more in our day to day work. Sometimes this may mean taking on some side projects, I know it has for me, but I have found that these projects energize me and make me better at the other, less appealing, aspects of my job. I have also found that the more I delve into forming closer relationships with my co-workers (a strength) the easier it is to stay motivated (a weakness). Finding your strength at work doesn’t necessarily mean looking for a new position, it means flexing your muscles to make the position you are in less painful and more exhilarating.
“All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance.” – Edward Gibbon (from my iGoogle Quotes of the Day gadget)
It is often said that life is a journey. This analogy can be extended in a variety of ways depending on your personal philosophy or spiritual world view. For some the journey is about holding firm to a path of moral rectitude. For others it is a journey of self discovery where twists and turns are welcome. There are those for whom there is no path at all, only the placing of one foot before the other. While the application of the analogy may differ widely, the vast majority of people agree that the purpose of the journey is not to reach a destination, but to move from one place to another, to travel.
In my younger days, I believed that I had a specific destiny, that I had been created for one purpose. Finding that purpose was a requirement, then, of achieving my potential. Progress could be measured by my level of certainty that the path I trod was leading in the right direction. When I reached a crossroads it was up to me to pick the one that would take me closer to my destination and if I chose poorly I would end up having to make up for lost time eventually. During this period of my life temptation could be defined as those things which distracted me from my goal or that moved me off the path intended for me. Temptations were forbidden or unexplored avenues that dazzled the eye but led to destruction.
Over the past few years I have come to believe that destiny, if I have one, is something that will find me. I have a wife and a daughter who need and deserve far more attention than my search for a more ethereal sense of purpose. I make choices to pursue things that I think will challenge me, like graduate school for instance, but they do not define who I am. I’ve also found that my choice of traveling companions means much more to me than where I end up going. Walking a lonely path covered in the rose-colored petals of Destiny was appealing once but I discovered that loneliness is a poor companion and flowers make terrible conversation. So when I reach a crossroad now I try to look ahead to ensure that those with whom I travel will be able to follow.
These days, the nature of temptation has changed as well. The danger is not is following a wrong trail but in ceasing to travel, to give up on maturing. Some days I think the greatest relief I can imagine would be to stop trying. To just yell at people who irritated me, or to simply impose my will where I see fit. Mumbling and grumbling to myself about the problems in the world around me instead of speaking up and trying to be part of an active solution. Perhaps even more insidious is the temptation to zone out, to live for nothing other than the gratification of the immediate moment.
The difference between facing temptation earlier in my life and dealing with it now is a matter of focus. In the past I would rely on the strength of my conviction that where I was going was right and true and ultimately better for me than the delectable diversions at the end of the various rabbit trails of temptation. Some times that would work great but other times the goal just seemed too far off, too ethereal and the hunger for something now too great.
Today my focus is much narrower – the feet in front of me and the people near to me. To shrug off temptation means taking a single step, making a single motion towards a loved one or replacing a “treadmill” activity with a “road race” activity. Interestingly, as I focus on continuing to move forward I am finding that as a matter of course I am also pursuing a narrower path than before as well.
Yesterday I took my second yoga class. I’ve done yoga stretches as part of warm-up exercises in acting and dance classes for years but I’ve never had a strong desire to take a class in it. Part of the reason for this is pure laziness. I’ve been relatively un-limber most of my life and it’s something that I have come to accept. I don’t do a lot of activities that require flexibility – or if they do I haven’t paid the price for my vise-like hamstrings. The other reason is that I was raised in a yoga-free environment, my only exposure being caricature images of middle aged women in tie-dyed tops and leg warmers or soft-spoken gentlemen on PBS in uncomfortably tight leotards. Not exactly the kind of things that make me want to jump in the deep end.
But a few years ago my dad had a triple bypass and I found myself instantly transformed from a relatively young guy in his early thirties who could stand to lose a few pounds to an overweight male approaching middle age with a history of heart disease in his family. A couple of weeks before my daughter was born I had some blood work done to check my cholesterol levels and they were a little bit high. Nothing major but a warning sign that without making some changes to my diet and exercising more I could be putting my family at risk. So when some signs showed up at work announcing a yoga class starting in the new year I decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
So there I was in class yesterday and the instructor starts talking about resistance. As we were contorting our bodies in a fashion that would have made an Inquisitor proud he continued to philosophize: Many people find that doing yoga brings up things, resistances, that they need to breathe into and let go. Something caught in my chest as I breathed in, imagining the air flowing to my recalcitrant leg muscles, grabbing the tension and flying away. My body isn’t the only thing that’s too tight. As the class continued I kept thinking back to quarrels with my wife that were caused because I didn’t want to take advice, I wanted to do something my way. I breathed into it and let it go. I thought about the ridiculous feeling of frustration when my daughter cries even though I’d prefer she was calm. I breathed into it and let it go. I thought about the friction at home when my personal would-like-to-do list gets overridden by the my-wife-and-daughter-need-me-to-do list. I breathed and let it fly away.
It wasn’t the episodes of conflict, frustration or anger that I was releasing, it was my need to justify myself in those moments. I wasn’t holding on to my anger I was holding on to my right to be angry. My leg muscles have no intrinsic desire to lengthen, soften or change in any way – that motivation and effort has to come from me. In the same way, my emotional muscles have no inherent impetus to make room for others. Muscles shrink and stay rigid for two reasons – lack of use and protection of an injured body part. Emotional inflexibility exists for the same reasons. By consciously embracing the practice of relinquishing my right to harbor negative feelings, by purposefully seeking to release when I find resistance, I am giving my heart the opportunity to expand, to soften and to experience love in places that have been dying for it like a cramped quad aching for some oxygen.
One of the Myer-Briggs personality trait pairings is Perceiving v. Judging. I’ve always thought of myself as a perceiving person, at least according to my test results. I think back to various times in my life where I’ve been happy to go with the flow. But feeling that resistance in me has forced me to rethink that conclusion. I think now that my concept of myself as being free-flowing was really a denial of my preference for putting off unpleasant decisions. If I could let circumstances eventually wipe out one of the choices then I would have The Universe to blame for the results. So my challenge to two-fold: to pursue and embrace flexibility both in body and mind and as my ability to move increases to use that openness to take more initiative in tackling things like taxes, chores, career and education.
When conflict becomes an opportunity for education and insight instead of a means for deepening one’s entrenchment then growth, flexibility and inner freedom become possible.
I learned something today from my daughter, or rather from taking care of my daughter. Rosalie Jayne is a sweet, sweet little 5 week old girl who seems generally very mild mannered and happy to be happy when everything is going smoothly. However, when she’s got some bad gas or an irritated bum (by the way Irritated Bum is the name of my new emo band [tips hat to Paul and Storm]) she has no problem demonstrating the quality of the work Katie did in developing her lungs in utero. Most days so far we’ve been able to run through the litany of food, diaper, hold her, rock her, walk her and fairly quickly she will calm right down and be as peaceful and beautiful as only a happy infant can be. Some days, though, we just haven’t been able to make her feel better no matter what we do and she is absolutely inconsolable for several minutes at a time. (Note: I have heard stories from several parents that have helped me to realize just how fortunate we are that her tough spells are still measurable in minutes.) However long, every time that she cries out it feels like someone is core drilling through my guts and setting off a fire alarm in my skull.
I adore my daughter. I am thoroughly and rapturously wrapped around every finger on her cute little hands. But I would be lying to you if I said I never got frustrated with her or hurt or afraid (which leads to the Dark Side) when she wails, especially in those times that we are trying so hard to figure out what is causing her distress so that we can fix it. When I reflect on the moments of frustration or fear I see clearly the they are rooted, as you might expect, in selfishness and helplessness. I try to use those moments to fuel my commitment to growing in those areas, consciously letting go of my daily agenda for the sake of what my family needs and acknowledging that having a baby that cries is not a sign of failure as a parent or as a man. This morning, though, I finally realized why I would feel offended or hurt – feelings that surprised me when they surfaced.
Gratitude. My daughter is incapable of actively showing gratitude. She cannot acknowledge our efforts to comfort her and care for her, she has know means of understanding that we are trying our best. All I wanted during that crying spell was to know that she was grateful for all that we do for her, all that we happily sacrifice for her. I know it will be some time before she develops enough to be able to say thanks and I know that this is an opportunity for me to improve my ability to love by removing the condition of gratitude. But I also see now how important it is to express my thanks to the people in my life who show me love, or compassion or generosity. I want them to know that their actions are thoroughly appreciated, that their efforts on my behalf were successful. I want them to reap the full measure of joy they deserve in giving to me (or to anyone).
If you know someone who loves without the expectation even of thanks, honor them and marvel at the perfection of their love.
…allergic to everything except Doritos and Mountain Dew.
…really fat looking.
…full of marshmallow goodness.
…fatter than you. Go eat a sandwich you skinny bastard.
…dating your sister.
…suffering from “puffy bone disease”.
…really good at denial.
…getting ready for a growth spurt.
For the past few years I have been jotting down random t-shirt design ideas with the thought of some day turning those ideas into a business. I have a few different series rolling around in my head, the above being one of my favorites. The last one above was inspired by my 4 week old daughter, whom I have already seen go through a major increase in feeding followed by a noticeable change in size. In the past couple of days she has started this process again (thank God I am not one of my wife’s nipples!) and watching her has given me some food for thought.
All growth requires massive amounts of energy. As I watch my daughter I realize that if I am to grow then I need to make sure that I am feeding richly and drinking deeply as well. I need to take some time to consider what I am taking in and there is no time like the present. I have an appointment this week with a nutritionist to go over how I can lower my cholesterol, which is a bit high. While I am considering how to cut the fat out of my diet, I am also challenged to take a close look at what I am reading and watching as well.
So I am going to try to make some intellectual strides this year as well as emotional. This will be the year that I finally read the non-fiction I have collected instead of re-reading my favorite novels. I will spend less time watching TV and more time engaging in debate online. If I am going to grow up, I need nourishment. I need more than the same old diet of overcooked ideas that are nothing but mush. It’s time that I developed my intellectual teeth and paused to consider that I might do better than to settle for merely being entertained.