2/17/2020 – And Not to Yield

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

~ ulysses, by tennyson

Yesterday was my birthday. I didn’t go out partying, I didn’t plan a big day with a bunch of activities, I didn’t even do anything outside of the ordinary. I made breakfast, read the news, went to the gym, did some grocery shopping, and followed that up by meal-prepping for the upcoming week while the NBA All-Star game played in the background.

During most of the day, I couldn’t help but sift through the normal thoughts one has during these semi-meaningful arbitrary milestones that we set for ourselves like birthdays. How am I doing? Am I working toward what I want? Am I where I thought I would be? Am I where I should be? Am I loved? Do I love? Do I have passion? Am I still curious? Am I inspiring myself appropriately? Is this still interesting?

At some point while I was wandering the aisles of Whole Foods and pondering these thoughts, the quote from Tennyson above crept into my head and stayed there the rest of the day until I had a chance to sit down and reread his poem, “Ulysses” (also known as Odysseus, of Homer’s “The Odyssey”). I previously read it at some point in college, but had found the old english vocabulary to be boring and therefore indecipherable for my underdeveloped brain. 

But this time around, I found a lingering resonance that I can’t quite define.

The poem takes place after Odysseus/Ulysses has returned home to his family, and he finds himself, for lack of a better term, bored. He has become part of the experiences that have shaped him during his adventures abroad, and he longs again for the great unknown, the call of the wild. He decides to leave his ruling duties to his son, and to rally his crew again for one last voyage at sea, with the final two lines of the poem offering a defiant refusal to bow to age.  

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

While I read and reread the lines of Ulysses to make sure I was pulling as much meat off the bone as I could, and organizing my thoughts for what I thought would be a triumphant and defiant topic here in this column, I had my Spotify account on shuffle in the background. On my third read-through, the soft, delicate tones of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” began playing. I stopped thinking, stopped reading, closed my eyes, and relaxed in my chair, listening as the gentle piano notes danced lightly around the room, filling the air.

As the composition progressed, drifting from the serene innocence of the opening to the dramatic ascending notes immediately following, then to the peaceful rolling motifs blissfully drifting around seemingly without direction in the middle of the song, until the melody quietly slowed into its wispful, melancholic yet satisfied end, I found myself experiencing emotions I had never let myself feel in the song before.

I felt the bliss and insecurity of innocence. I was lured by wonder. I felt the weight of helplessness, of being completely out of control. I felt the sting of pain. the bittersweet melancholy of love lost. I felt the release of healing. I felt the breathlessness of love’s first spark. I settled into gentle comfort. I felt cautious, and hesitant. The pull of curiosity. I felt the gentle confidence of true beauty. I felt hope.

I sat still as I allowed these emotions to wash over me, unsure of what it was I was experiencing, but trying to remain present nonetheless. Amid a fog of confusion, the song ended and I wiped the tears from my eyes. 

I looked at my notes on “Ulysses” and tried to make sense of how this poem could lead to the emotional experience I had just had with “Claire de Lune.” 

I am still not totally sure of what this experience is significant of, nor do I think these two works of art relate to each other in any way. 

But as I look back on my 37 years of life, I find great comfort that I can find such identity and resonance from a piece like “Ulysses,” knowing that though I may not have the accomplishments I hoped to have by now, I still possess a dogged determination to strive, to seek, to find, and that I am not yet ready to yield. Not any time soon. 

And yet I also find comfort that I can derive such passionate, emotional identity and definition from a piece like Claire de Lune, a song I’ve heard a hundred times in films or shopping malls without more than a thought of its recognizance. And yet, suddenly I can be moved to tears when it inexplicably decides to reveal itself to me in an intimate moment.

And as I grow through my experiences, and I continue to marshall the strength not to yield, I will continue to be increasingly open to these emotions that for most of my life I have avoided. For I am only recently realizing that they make me strong, not weak. Where the strength of my convictions and ambitions offer the form, my emotions and vulnerabilities offer the color, and together they weave the most beautiful tapestry I am only just now becoming aware of.

I am not yet where I want to be, and I am still learning who I am. But I know that I have a lot of life left to explore. And for that, I have hope.

To strive, to seek, to find.

The Virtue of not Actually Feeling any Better

Every morning i wake up, since the beginning of the year, I’ve been reading from “the Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday. It has been a useful way to begin each day with a thought, quote, or idea that I can attempt to carry with me throughout the day and give me something to chew on & think about.

February’s running theme and focus has been on “passions and emotions,” two things i’ve never been short on. Perhaps the easiest way to see my emotions get the best of me is when I’m playing sports. Sometimes my tunnel vision in the competition for a W is so intense that I completely forget about my manners, and i say or do things i regret later. Or perhaps it is when I’m driving and I have to endure the insufferability of hapless, oblivious drivers with no respect for concepts like flow of traffic, or merging appropriately, or focusing on the road instead of one’s mobile device.  All of these things get me quite worked up. But obviously these minor things are indicative of a greater battle I have been fighting most of my adult life with managing anger. I’ve gotten better in the last couple years, but anger is a devil that one never completely vanquishes once it has a hook into your emotions.

One thing I’ve noticed lately in particular is that little inconsequential things have been getting to me. Like not even anything worth speaking of. So small, I can’t even articulate a proper example accurately. It might be something like my phone taking an extra couple of seconds to execute whatever command i’ve just issued it. Or missing a yellow light when I’m not even in a hurry to be anywhere. But these little things happen, my blood pressure faintly and momentarily spikes, and I inexcusably might let a quick, unnecessary obscenity fly. There’s no reason for it, and it means nothing, but for half a moment, a mild form of tourette’s appears to take over, and the anger monster makes a brief appearance before disappearing back into its prison cell of domestication. 

By most accounts, this seems like a victimless crime. There’s usually no one around, and the moment passes and I move on. But I can’t let go of why I allow this to happen. Perhaps it’s just a side effect of how hard I’ve been focusing on getting back into shape with extreme diet and exercise (seriously, I’ve never worked as hard in my life at watching what i eat and working my ass off in the gym as i have in the last 45 days), and moments of low blood sugar yielding short bouts of “hangry” are breaking through like some sort of micro seizure. Or maybe I’ve just been experiencing moments of weakness a little more frequently lately.

When the calendar flipped to February, I was both wary and excited to see that “Emotions” would be a theme. Excited, because i relished the chance to focus on improvement, and wary because growth is rarely comfortable. I am enthused by the opportunity to turn a weakness into a strength, but aware that such a mission will be painful.

Just two days ago, the topic for the day was “Did that make you feel better?”   …Rather than recap it, I’ll just quote directly:

“The next time someone gets upset near you — crying, yelling, breaking something, being pointed or cruel — watch how quickly this statement will stop them cold: “I hope this is making you feel better.” Because, of course, it isn’t.”

On my first thought after reading this, the theatre of my mind played this scenario out and I laughed out loud at how much worse saying something like this would likely make things. But on the 2nd reading, I felt shame. Shame of the knowledge that this piece was specifically for people like me. Why? Because a logical examination of this behavior yields only one result: that losing your cool simply does not accomplish anything. And if it does not accomplish anything, why should it make one feel any better? If I look back, I can’t say that behaving badly has ever made me feel better. In point of fact, it has always led me to regret something.

But the best part of this learning process is the strategies and tactics for improvement you gain when doing the work, and for this topic, the latter half of the writing suggested the following:

“The next time you find yourself in the middle of a freakout… just ask: is this actually making me feel better?”

The answer will undoubtedly be “no.” I won’t feel any better in that moment. And the shame won’t suddenly evaporate. But I will be using this new tool, this strategy to improve. And I’ll suddenly be aware. And I’ll be doing the work. And that will make me feel a little better.

2/3/2020 – One play at a time

The Monday after the Super Bowl. The day of the year with the most unplanned absences in the American workforce. Also known informally as Super Sick Monday. While many fans don’t make it into work the day after the big game due to too many frosty beverages, or perhaps they are too stricken with grief due to their team’s loss on the world’s stage, Super Sick Monday is probably an appropriate hangover for a season that monopolizes our Sundays for 6 months out of the year.

But before we all hang up the cleats for 6 months til the next season, I want to spotlight something that inspired me a few weeks ago. It was in the Chiefs that just won yesterday’s big game (sorry to any of you grieving Niner fans!), and it was their leader, Patrick Mahomes’ determination to put one foot in front of the other that shone more than a bright light on his athletic ability, but also on his ability to inspire greatness in his teammates.

You probably remember it if you were watching. The Kansas City Chiefs were facing the Houston Texans in a divisional playoff game that got off to a shockingly unexpected start. On the 6th play of the game, Texans QB Watson connected with receiver Stills for a 54-yard bomb down the field for a touchdown. On the very next play set, frustrated by an inability to generate any positive offense, Mahomes and the Chiefs were suddenly shaken up when their punt was blocked and Houston scooped the ball up for an easy defensive score.

A couple play sequences later, Houston was punting back to KC when kick returner Tyreek Hill dropped the return, allowing Houston to recover the ball and score again on the next play. A few plays after that, Houston kicked a field goal for another score.

Suddenly, in a matter of a few minutes, the Kansas City Chiefs were down 24-0. No small margin in the NFL, the Chiefs were now facing a bleak outlook. It would now take 4 trips down the field to catch up, assuming no more scoring from the opponent, neither of which Kansas City had been able to accomplish thus far. Their season appeared to be over before they could even get a chance to get anything going against a Houston team that had stepped into the game and punched the Chiefs right in the mouth at the opening bell.

But something interesting was happening.

Patrick Mahomes could be seen on the sideline encouraging and rallying his troops. He was walking back and forth shouting messages of positivity to his teammates, instructing them to put everything they had just experienced behind them and forget about it. 

He wasn’t sitting down, hanging his head, lamenting about how he could have such poor luck right out of the gate of this playoff game. It wasn’t his fault that the last 2 touchdowns scored were due to mistakes by his teammates in plays where he wasn’t even on the field. It would have been completely understandable if he had been filled with anger at his teammates for their lackluster play thus far in the game. But was that his response?  No.

In his post-game interview, Mahomes explained that he was encouraging his guys to “go do something special” and take it “one play at a time.” He knew there was a lot of football left, and he knew how good his team could be when they were at their best.

2 plays later, The Chiefs scored their first touchdown. On their next possession, they scored again. Then they forced a Houston fumble and scored again. On their next possession they scored again and took the lead, 24-28. But they weren’t done. They would score 2 more touchdowns before the stunned Houston offense could do anything. By the end of the game, Kansas City would put up 51 points in a commanding victory.

Asked after the game, wide receiver Sammy Watkins admitted thinking they had already lost the game before they turned it around, saying “A couple of times, I was like, ‘This is over.'”  But his teammates Mahomes & Kelce encouraged him and made him believe. They showed him there was a plan.

And what was that plan? What do you do when the deck is stacked against you and clearly the cards are not falling your way?  The solution is simple: One Play at a Time. You don’t dwell on the past, and you don’t dream about the future. You stay present, keep your head down, and you focus on what is immediately in front of you. You go to work.

Mahomes knew if he could get his teammates to focus on that simple instruction, they were talented enough to come back and win that game. He remained confident in his team’s abilities, he knew they had prepared appropriately for the match-up, and he knew that nothing had really changed if he zoomed out and took a bird’s eye view of the entire game. If they took it one play at a time, they could do something special.

And now they truly have. Congrats to the Kansas City Chiefs on winning their 2nd Super Bowl. They have a special player in Patrick Mahomes and we all hopefully have many years ahead of us getting to watch him showcase his leadership skills both on and off the field. One play at a time.

Patrick Mahomes displays leadership in Super Bowl win