Sincerity demands a certain level of attention.
I can truly say that being genuine in the midst of suffering has been life’s one consolation so far. Throughout all the pain and suffering I have tried to be real –real with myself, and real with others, but the challenge has been to hold that course.
The more I try to sugar-coat my current situation, the harder it becomes to deal with it. Sincerity forces me to reckon with facts and not just get by with wishful thinking.
After all, wishful thinking is what got me here in the first place.
The key to multitasking is the ability to handle many things all at the same time. Some people thrive on this kind of life -kicking out email after email and overfilling their calendars with the greatest of ease. These same people will often remind you that if you want to get something done you should ask a busy person. I used to be one of these people, courageously attacking overlapped projects and deadlines like a conductor orchestrating a symphony. In the end, it wasn’t about how much I could handle doing, it was about how much I could accomplish. I prided myself on the stack of “things I got done” and I was always ready to compare my stack with others’.
It’s been a while now since I’ve been any good at multitasking. The ironic part is that the number of things that need to be accomplished has not decreased (and in fact has increased) but my ability to handle them has.
When you are doing a lot of things at once but not really accomplishing anything you are no longer multitasking you are simply inundated.
Being inundated has been neither thrilling or life giving. No amount of emails or scheduled meetings has been able to alleviate this pressure. The unaccomplished things of this life are constantly pooling around my feet.
So much of my time is spent running around trying to turn off open spigots.
I need a break.
A man who I held in high regard passed away unexpectedly yesterday. He was someone who bucked convention for a higher purpose. He worked on a global scale but with a neighborhood mindset. There are people on this earth who have cheated pain and death because of his work. You will most certainly be missed Phil.
Death is a not-so-subtle reminder as to the limits that exist in life. Limits are rarely looked upon with favor –mostly they’re complained about and ignored.
Some limits cannot be ignored.
The challenge now is to engage a perspective that speaks most loudly when death has interrupted our lives.
I was wrong.
It’s a simple sentence that carries a heavy load for me. For years, I thought about admitting that I was wrong but everything inside convinced me otherwise. Misguided interpretations of reality combined with a narrow belief structure only delayed the acknowledgement of my offenses.
Looking back, I can see how effectively I insulated myself with like-mindedness and common neutrality. Thus, creating an atmosphere in which I was sure to thrive. I was opportunistic. I was the king of my own castle.
I was wrong to keep certain things and certain people out of my life. I became a master of the arms-length relationship. I was more manipulative then I’d like to admit. I could be convincing and dismissive at the same time.
Charisma became a most unfortunate crutch.
Half-truths became whole truths.
No became yes.
Nancy drove to the diner more so out of habit than anything else. She had no desire to be at work, but the alternative was worse. After taking a couple of sick days to deal with the latest news, she realized that sitting alone at the dining room table with a reheated cup of coffee while staring out her bay window was not a good rehabilitation plan.
She could hardly hear the short-order cook barking out orders over the incessantly loud ding-ding-ding of the bell he was slapping with his greasy spatula.
“C’mon Nancy! These eggs aren’t going to serve themselves!”
As she approached the server’s station to grab the order for table number 30, it seemed like everyone was working at twice their normal speed. Coworkers rushed around her. They whispered to one another, rolling their eyes and giving her sideways glances.
‘They would feel bad if they knew I was suffering’, she thought to herself.
Nancy was determined not to tell anyone what was happening to her. She wanted no pity. She was already tired of being unique and the weight of being a medical statistic was almost too much to bear. She wanted so badly to go back to an ordinary life.
She longed to engage in meaningless small talk and joke around with her customers. She wanted to think about what she’d make for dinner that night, or when she was going to mow her backyard.
She wanted to be consumed with thoughts of ordinary things, but ordinary was gone. It had slipped through her fingers and there was no way to retrieve it.
The distance between me and “confidence in this life” is measurable. Normally a headstrong individual, the greatest challenge of late has been to venture out not knowing when I might be sideswiped. Like driving for the first time after being in a car accident, I live my life assuming something terrible will play out again.
The minute I let my guard down I know I’ll pay for it.
Living a guarded life has its privileges. Because of my careful, observant life I’ll be ready to volley back whatever life throws at me. In the end, I’ll come away unharmed and unaffected by the terrors of the day. I’ll become the master of deflection.
Living a guarded life also has its downside. I am tired of walking around all the time with catcher’s gear on. Padding from head to toe, feeling like an oversized pillow being thrown from one side of the room to another. Things are happening around me but my response time is limited by the amount of safety measures I’ve set in place.
I’m not sure that the guarded life is the right one, but it’s the only play I’ve got right now.
I am not a quiet person by nature. As a communicator, I employ passion and volume to accentuate significance. I have a voice that carries and I've rarely been afraid to use it. When I drive in my car I prefer the volume up as opposed to down. When I watch movies, I want to be surrounded by sound. I have grown very accustomed to the whirring of a fan running at night when I sleep. Our house is on a busy highway and I’ve never minded the road noise. Externally speaking, I have no need for quietude. Internally though things have changed – it is not as noisy inside as it once was.
Some might consider it a blessing to be set free from the internal monologues of life but this uncomfortable noise-free zone has made me wary. I’m not all that enthusiastic about it. Maybe it’s because I have always trusted my own voice. No matter what the situation or the opportunity around me was, I knew I would have the last say. My inner noise was better than your inner noise kinda thing.
The turmoil of the last few years has silenced me.
I am learning that there’s a difference between quiet and silent. I can always add noise to a quiet life, but so far I haven’t been able to make this silence go away.
Much like the church in Graham Greene's masterpiece The Power and the Glory, beauty and art persist through the harshest of days. This is easily a top ten read for me. Well worth it's time.
If your eyes are open to it you'll see inspiration everywhere. I have seen it in hard working, blue collar folks. I've seen it in broken people. I saw it in this guy who pushed a stranger's car across a busy intersection to the nearest gas station.
Today, I saw it in a child.
The feeling you get when you see something that pushes against your very existence and forces you to take quick stock of your life --that feeling is a gift. The key is not to deny it.
Inspiration is like a life line thrown to those who are drowning in hardship. It comes in all forms but however it gets to you, let it change you.
ALSO: never let the fortune of others cause you to sulk.
Good for them.
Yesterday I saw something that I haven’t seen in a while. A younger man, who was working in a management-level role, was being critiqued by his superiors regarding the overall performance of his work crew. Immediately upon hearing the news of his team’s less than average output he triaged with his two closest workers and set a meeting for later that evening to discuss long-term strategies that would hopefully rectify the situation.
What made this scenario so remarkable was the absence of blame in the young manager’s response. It was not his desire to find out exactly who’s fault it was that they were in this spot – he knew that would only take more time and energy away from the ultimate goal. He wasn’t looking to make himself feel better by punishing someone else. Instead he accepted blame and moved on. It was a beautiful display of proper management.
This young man had never been classically trained in the art of business management. He was just a very stable individual.
The presence of stability allows for selfless responses in life.
More than I’d like to admit, I have looked for someone to blame for the situation I’m in. Countless times I’ve wanted to point the finger at something else to justify my own actions. I did so out of a lack of stability. Even though I am running and scrambling and distracted, I am not excused from trying to build stability in my life at the same time.
In doing so, I might be able to move on from triage and start making plans for the days to come.
When I was younger I bought into the belief that life was mostly about finding answers to important questions.
What will I be when I grow up?
Where will I go to college?
Will I get married?
Where will I live?
What kind of car will I drive?
So far, answers to questions like these have come in handy when asked things like:
So, what do you do?
Where did you get your degree?
Are you filing single, or jointly?
What’s you mailing address again?
Is that your car?
There have been times when I’ve felt like I was on an extended Easter Egg hunt. Running around and looking for answers under trees and behind fences hoping to exclaim, “I got one!” loud enough for everyone to hear. (Note: Now the possibility exists to broadcast your findings even more so thanks to online social communities. Not only can you show everyone the answer you’ve found, but you can quickly discern how your answer measures up with others around you.)
The nice thing about answers is that they provide closure.
The problem is that answers are static and finite.
Sometimes I worry that all I have is a basket full of answers.
I’m done with finding answers – what I want now is better questions.
Claustrophobia was setting in fast. Nancy needed some space to deal with all of this. Nobody would've blamed her for running away -the only problem is she didn't know where to go. No matter where she chose to run, the pain would be there too. She could get a new job, change her hair color, even move to a warmer climate but her diagnosis would be unaffected.
Nancy was struck with the startling reality that her life was no longer her own.
In the back of all our minds exists a small notion that there's more to this life than we give credit to. Our own abilities make for a good distraction until the circumstances of life overcome them. When we "lose control" we haven't really lost anything -we're just handing our life back over to something bigger than ourselves. Words cannot adequately describe what it's like to be in the passenger seat of your own life.
For Nancy running was no longer something she did twice a week for her health - now she was running to survive.
I was talking with a friend this past weekend and he asked me how I was feeling. I tried not to overthink the question and just say the first thing that came to mind.
"I am feeling pressed."
The answer I gave him was an honest one. In so many ways it feels like the walls have been slowly and consciously moving inward. It hasn't been a rapid progression -more like a steady,in-working of things from multiple angles.
(When I think too long about it I begin to panic. Sleep becomes lighter and breathes become shorter. I don't much like this and, despite my efforts, very little changes the pressure that I feel.)
I've decided that if I can't alleviate the pressure, perhaps I can alter my perspective.
When you iron clothing, the ultimate goal is to press out any wrinkles or deformities in the fabric. The weight of the iron in combination with it's internal heat work together to force a clean and straightened article of clothing. The goal of this type of pressing is to restore something back to it's original state.
Things like fruits and nuts undergo a similar type of pressing but the outcome is very different. For example, when pressing grapes to make wine the goal is not to produce perfectly flat, wrinkle-free grape skins. No. On the contrary, the point of pressing grapes is to extract something that is inside. Ultimately you are harvesting from the grape something that it would not have been able to give up on it's own.
My goal this week is to change the metaphor.
I am not being squeezed and suffocated, rather this current period of pain and suffering is meant for restoration. This current "pressing" is working to force something out of me that I could not produce by my own strength.
I can remember back to a day when making important life decisions wasn't a full-time job. Now, though, life seems so complicated.
When you're not in a place of suffering, decisions are easily isolated. Seemingly, their outcomes would have little bearing on anything else. As the important choices and opportunities of life come rolling down the conveyor belt one-by-one, you just quickly assess and decide. Easy.
The same cannot be said when the weight of the world is upon you. Every choice you make affects the whole of your life (and others). Simple decisions have a gravity that they never had before. Your pain becomes louder as you realize how complex the problem really is.
How do you deal with a complicated life? Well, sometimes you stall, or you avoid -hoping that somehow the giant knot will just unravel itself.
Note: Knots never unravel themselves.
So I have begun the process of untying the knot - which at times seems like I'm going backwards.
Have you ever watched someone untie a knot. It's no fun. There's frustration and anger and confusion.
I have always been a lover of film. (No other medium has been able to tell stories quite like a motion picture.) In today's world we're privileged to have an endless catalogue of movies, but it hasn't always been that way. Post-war era filmmaking was a unique period for the industry. It was a time when films were in demand, and directors were breaking new ground.
One director that was advancing the art of storytelling to new heights was Akira Kurosawa. He, and a grand troupe of actors, redefined the Samurai film genre for Japan. Kurosawa's work has influenced some of the most prominent directors of our generation.
His entire filmography is worth watching.
Here are two of my favorites:
My father owns a snowplow business, and the other day I was riding shotgun with him as he finished up his list of customers. It was a long day of work and we were both happy to be almost finished. As we turned down a side street enroute to our final customer of the day we let out a collective gasp as we encountered an all too familiar sight. A 2-foot snowdrift had swallowed up a half mile stretch of the road we were driving on. Ordinarily this would pose zero threat to a plow-laden F350, but buried in the middle of the snowy mass were three sedans, one police officer and tow truck.
The tow truck driver was of no help in this situation. He shook his head in disgust and did a quick about face. The officer, who was at a loss for next-step ideas, decided the cars would have to stay until the next day.
My father, though, was determined to save the day and plow everyone out. So with the help of a local farmer friend (and his John Deere tractor) all of the cars were pulled out and a pathway was cleared. As amazing as this feat was, it was not the joint rescue effort that fascinated me. It was the people stuck in the snow who really caught my attention.
It was a sunny, clear afternoon. The road before and after the massive snow drift was dry and black -so any of the drivers stuck in the drift had full knowledge as to the potential hazard. Something inside told them that they could successfully drive their ill-equipped, 2-wheel drive sedans over a stretch of road that even veteran snowplow drivers would avoid. So they went for it. Some made it farther than others, but at the end of the day they were all stuck.
I walked by each of the cars chatting with the drivers - asking them if they were okay and letting them know about the plan for extraction. The looks on their faces said it all. The high-school kid in the Audi knew he was in for it when he got home. The guy in the Lexus was mad at himself, but even more upset at the tow-truck driver who left him stranded. The husband and wife in the BMW were arguing about who's fault it was that they were in this mess.
What is it about situations like these that convince us to flirt with the potential landmines of life?
Did these drivers trust more in the carmaker's commercials that show similar vehicles bounding over snowy terrain rather than their own abilities to drive under such extreme conditions?
When we're stuck, are we to worry ourselves about fault and guilt rather than getting to a place of safety?
Should we have known better?
Is pain and suffering something that we willfully enter into because we're not thinking clearly?
For a long time I would have characterized myself as the snow-plow savior in this story, just yesterday I realized that I am actually the wide-eyed, nervous sedan driver.
There is a place where art and reality move in unison.
There is a place where individual stories overlap.
There is a place where suffering loses it's identity and is mistaken for meaningfulness.
There is a place where hurting is promoted and normality is overruled.
There is a place where darkness eschews the light.
This is the place that I want to explore.
Nancy was told that she would most likely loose the use of her legs by this time next year. She could hardly make out the words that were coming out of her doctor's mouth. He continued talking to her but she couldn't hear him over the loud ringing in her ears. She was certain everyone else could hear it too, but for some reason they weren't reacting to it. Nancy's eyes darted back and forth between the doctor and her daughter. She was making herself dizzy. "Who's dimming the lights", she thought to herself and as she got up out of her seat to escape the noise and confusion her daughter tried to catch her before she collapsed to the ground.
It was the second time in two days that Nancy had fallen.
Sometimes the hardest part about being with people is trying to navigate their reactions to your fall.
Nancy had asked her family to gather at her home the Saturday after she received the news from her doctor. She told them that she had been diagnosed with a rare form of late onset poliovirus. The virus had been developing in her left thigh for quite some time and her recent fall at the diner had forced her to deal with the lingering pain. At this point paralysis was inevitable.
After a long while of hugging and crying with each other, the family slowly walked out to their cars. Nancy stayed at the front door -holding it open with her one hand and giving out reassuring waves with the other one. As the last car backed out of the driveway Nancy closed the front door. She remarked to herself that this simple act of closing the door had more significance than ever before. It was as if Nancy was closing the door on a certain way of life.
Things would be different now.
Nancy was no longer in charge of her life.
Now she was scrambling.
Whenever I think about what I should be doing at this stage of my life, or where I should be on the "sliding scale of successfulness", the word thriving comes to mind. I've been on this earth long enough and I've had plenty of experience and opportunity --to the point that I should be out in front with the wind at my face.
The mere fact that I am not thriving, but only just surviving, has become an unwanted reality.
Survival isn't all that bad if you're stranded on a deserted island, or lost at sea. In those scenarios the best you could hope for is to stay alive. In fact books have been written and movies have been filmed about people who just barely survived and they were considered heroes.
How come my survival doesn't feel very heroic? Why does it feel like being a survivor is last on the list of wanted lifestyles?
THEM: "So, what are you doing currently?"
ME: "Oh, I am just trying to survive right now."
THEM: "Sorry to hear that..."
It's hard to be a survivor when everyone around you is doing so much more than that. By all appearances they are thriving. Thriving in life. Thriving in their marriage. Thriving in their social media posts. Thriving in their vacations. Thriving in etc. etc.
I know that a lot of that is surface-level analysis and if I were to dig deeper I would surely unearth a different outcome, but I don't have the time to do that because I am just trying to survive.
I need to learn that within the right context, survival can be more than enough.
After all, the opposite of surviving isn't thriving.
The opposite of survival is death.
When suffering is present in your life the weight of everything seems to change. Things that seemed important and necessary lose their heft and give way to a tenuous lightness of being. For a time everything is nebulous and nothing goes as planned. Change is a constant companion and even the most trivial of things are confounding. For example, you have no real answers for even the simplest questions of life.
"How've you been?"
"What are you up to these days?"
"What's going on?"
These types of questions, mostly intended as conversation starters, become philosophical curveballs that freeze you in your tracks. Small talk becomes big talk. You can't find the energy to exchange even the most common of pleasantries with the person you're talking to.
This is why I've become fragile --not necessarily because of who I am, but because of my surroundings. When everything around you turns into fine china and you realize that you're the bull you either cause a lot of damage, or you learn how to tiptoe around.
I remember meeting with people in the past who told me that they were in a fragile state. My first thought was always about them and their lack of moxie and determination. I would attempt to help them rebuild their lives from the inside out. I never paid much attention to their surroundings and how that may have affected them.
I never realized how strong fragile people actually are.
I have a new found respect for the fragility of life. It did not choose me, rather I had to choose it because I was breaking everything around me.