It is not always needful for truth to take a definite shape; it is enough if it hovers about us like a spirit and produces harmony; if it is wafted through the air like the sound of a bell, grave and kindly.
– The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe
Over the last few weeks of action in our country, I have tried my best to listen and to learn. To force myself to look at inconvenient truths, to weigh my own understandings against those of others whose perspective I don’t regularly see through. To acknowledge the ugliness that does indeed exist in the world, whether I choose to look at it or not.
It has been an often inconvenient ongoing exercise. But it is one that I know in my heart is the right thing to do, and that makes it not as scary to look into the figurative mirror. The unease and the defensiveness of instinctual reactions is more easily diffused for me when I know that I’m doing the right thing.
The words above by Goethe have been giving me hope through this. Even more challenging than doing the work of breaking down my own biases and recognizing how I benefit from the world today in a way that others do not, is trying to see a way toward a productive path forward of fixing these deeply rooted problems of injustice and inequality woven into the threads of our entire society.
Just as frustrating as taking the journey itself, is watching others obstinately refuse to take it. Watching our current president purposefully antagonize the very wounds that many are seeking to heal is simultaneously infuriating and saddening. Seeing people refuse to sit down and talk to each other, to learn from one another, is depressing.
And yet, opposite of that I see room for hope and truth. I see people acknowledging things they never have before. For the first time, I see people empathizing in ways they previously have not. People are listening.
We live in a time where no one listens anymore. We only shout.
But right now, if you pay attention closely, and you look out over the cacophony and the multitudes, I see more people with mouths shut and ears open than I’ve seen in years. And it gives me hope. I see people who have previously been discouraged to the point of apathy suddenly taking action. And it gives me hope. I see society’s weak suddenly finding strength.
And it gives me hope.
And reading Goethe’s words above, the thing I am hoping for us most as a society is that Truth becomes a thing we learn to embrace again. That it isn’t a scary thing. That it shouldn’t be something we are ashamed of, and that the noblest thing we can do is seek it always, regardless of the shape it takes. I hope that it shines a piercing light into our speech, our politics, and our relationships, so that fiction or plausible deniability no longer guide us, but the patient, reconciling transparency of truth becomes a thing we all chase and aspire to. That truth will become an attribute that all individuals seek to prioritize again, instead of greed or gain. And I hope it is enough.
“…it is enough if it hovers about us like a spirit and produces harmony; if it is wafted through the air like the sound of a bell, grave and kindly.”
“Show me that the good life doesn’t consist in its length, but in its use, and that it is possible – no, entirely too common — for a person who has had a long life to have lived too little.” ~ Seneca
In a country that notoriously doesn’t take enough time off work to stop and take a breath, I’m thankful that we have a holiday that begs us to stop and remember the warriors who have fallen in service of it. In addition to a mindfulness of gratitude, I think every fallen soldier would also want us to take a moment to contemplate if we are making the most of the gift of their sacrifice.
And so for today, I leave you with a simple question: Are you making the most of it? Do you wake up with an excited vigor for what you are working towards? Do you experience the periodic moment in the middle of your day where you suddenly realize “this is my life, and I love it”? Or even better, do you have projects or goals in front of you that make you even a little nervous about? That frenetic energy that comes from staring at an obstacle course ahead, but knowing that the only thing you can do is run straight at it and embrace the challenge.
Do you have any of these things in your life right now? Even in the margins, in small fragments? If not, ask yourself why? And the key word in that sentence is yourself. That’s not a situational question, It’s not a question of “why haven’t any of these things found me?” No, it’s a question of why you haven’t put yourself into a place to find it.
Inspiration is always available. You just have to reach up and grab it. The easiest way to find it is to force yourself to do something new.
And if you do have these things in your life, consider yourself fortunate. Contemplate them today, call out why and how you are grateful for them. If it is a person that grants you this joy and motivation, make sure you tell them today.
If you do have these feelings, these motivations, these joys, then enjoy today with the confidence and hope that you are living life the way those who sacrificed for us would prefer. You are earning it.
Rather than relay to you what my focus is for the week, I want to share someone else’s words. I have only 2 requests: Read it, and then read it again. On the 2nd read-through, go slow and imagine each bit of imagery provided, as separate moments in a life. Then think about them all strung together, like lights on a string across your backyard patio at dusk.
Small Kindnesses By Danusha Laméris
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”
— If you feel like it, please share with me your thoughts after reading this. How does it make you feel? How does it make you want to interact with the world around you?
“If we ever do want to become wise, it comes from the questioning and from humility – not, as many would like to think, from certainty, mistrust, and arrogance. ~ Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic
Why are we so bad at “uncertainty?” Why does lacking a definitive answer make humans so uncomfortable? Why are we unable to be patient and wait for clarity to come to us?
Why, instead, do we manufacture our own certainty? Why are we unable to accept that what we don’t know is not a reflection upon our own value and character as a human? Why do we rush so quickly to premature judgment?
Why are we afraid to say “i don’t know”?
What if, instead of reacting immediately to every scary thing or suspicious thought we are introduced to, we simply didn’t do anything? What if we just decided to sit on those thoughts for a bit? What if we didn’t expend so much energy hammering away on the keyboard? What if we didn’t re-share that video that raises a lot of “important” questions that “everyone needs to see”?
What if we didn’t allow our nervous, insecure thoughts to control our brains? What if instead we looked for healthy ways to empower our brains to control our thoughts. What if we slowed down?
What if we were able to take an honest look at what we do know, and what we don’t know? And what if we could find a way to accept those 2 things, regardless of how little control it causes us to realize we actually have over everything?
What if we just paused, and waited for the answers to catch up to us? Would we miss that time?
Or do we instead know for certain that the way we are reacting quickly to things now is definitely the best way? Does it feel like the best way? Are we definitely accomplishing more? Are we winning? Are we proving to everyone that we definitely know more than the next guy? Do we feel better now?
“Your principles can’t be extinguished unless you snuff out the thoughts that feed them, for it’s continually in your power to reignite new ones… It’s possible to start living again! See things anew as you once did – that is how to restart life!
~ Marcus Aurelius, “ Meditations”
This morning when I was trying to figure out what to write, this Aurelius quote that I had previously jotted down in my notes stuck out to me. Now seemed like the perfect time to reflect on it.
I don’t have to tell you how crazy the world is right now. In fact, many out there are looking for anything other than another reminder of how serious the situation is. And in the midst of all this, understandably, I have been completely knocked off my metaphorical horse. I’m sure you have to, to some degree.
Most of 2020’s theme for me has been about focus, determination, and most importantly, discipline. That discipline has been channeled specifically into routine. This is the first year of my life that I’ve been able to truly realize the power of routine, and the effective outcomes that it can yield. But for the last 2 weeks, I’ve been struggling.
My whole normal routine, the thing that had acted as the stabilizing anchor to my change in behavior and mentality in 2020, has been completely broken.
All the things that I normally do every day in the order I do them? Kinda pointless. The way that I usually do them? Kinda not relevant. Finding motivation in a quarantine with a total societal stoppage has been a lot more challenging than I could have possibly imagined.
And I think that’s how my perspective is shifting through this crisis so far. Not that “everything is pointless,” but rather that even though everything has changed, on the other hand, nothing has changed. We still need to get up every morning, feed ourselves, dress ourselves, clean ourselves (admittedly a little more frequently than before), and care for our own lives in some fashion or another.
Reduced to life’s most basic needs, none of that has changed. If I want more (like health & fitness goals, or professional accomplishment, etc.), I can still achieve it. And I still need a system, a routine, to reach for and accomplish it. Perhaps the system I was using yesterday no longer applies to the system I need today. Fine. Time to take a step back, reevaluate what I need, and structure a plan, a new plan, to continue reaching higher.
So that’s what I’ll be committing to doing this week. I’ll be reevaluating my daily routine and short term goals to find a daily routine and mindful focus that is more suitably adapted to the world’s current situation. I hope you will too.
The last week has been quite the wild ride, no? But instead of the crazy roller coaster ride that takes you up and down and all around, this is more the kind of roller coaster that just takes you straight down.
I didn’t really know what to write this morning (which is why I’m late sending this out). Coronavirus panic and concern has been unavoidable. There isn’t a social media platform or news outlet that isn’t completely plastered with news, advice, statistics, and general content related to this global pandemic that has suddenly gripped the entire world and awakened us to a new reality. You just can’t seem to get away from it, and it is becoming obvious: Things are going to be different now.
I spent some time yesterday reflecting back on just how surreal this whole thing has been over the last couple months. Particularly in the last week, the havoc has been remarkable. Financial markets have been decimated (my stock portfolio is basically toast), the travel industry reeling, the service industry and all its employees suddenly not sure how bills will be paid, all sports industries canceled indefinitely (it seems in retrospect that this component seemed to suddenly wake americans up better than anything else. Leagues like the NBA should be commended for such quick movement, while other organizations like, say, our President and his team, should be ashamed for their incompetent, and even reluctant inability to take action.), and so much more have all been thrown into a dreadful uncertainty of what the foreseeable future looks like. It really is a crazy thing we are going through right now. A true black swan event. Something that I certainly have not seen in my entire life, and in fact the successful investor Warren Buffet even said it took him 89 years to see something like this happen. It is unprecedented.
As I’ve watched and read and listened to people talk about and dissect this worldwide crisis that is playing out before us, I’ve paid close attention to people’s response mechanisms with a passively observant curiosity. I wasn’t even aware I was doing it until yesterday, as I reflected back upon the last week. Two things struck me:
Firstly, I was struck by how little we still know, and how that is currently affecting us as a people. Not that the scientific community “doesn’t know anything,” quite the opposite (in fact, if you’re looking for a really good central resource, check out this Google Doc my friend Marcus put together, pulling info mainly from Johns Hopkins, instead of the conjecture being passed around on Facebook). I’m more referring to the eventual outcomes of the disease and this “containment phase” we must endure, and the fallout of the economy and residual effects to communities worldwide. It is strange that such a faceless villain can wreak so much disruption, and leave us with such a heavy sense of unease and uncertainty.
And that leads me to the second thing that has stuck out to me: our behavior in that unease. Through conversations with friends, silent observation on social media, and the rest of the cacophony sounding off on the subject, 2 response patterns seem to emerge the most obviously:
Defiance and denial. This behavior is marked by those who minimize the danger and refuse to adjust behavior. Things like “We’re all gonna get it anyways” and “It’s no different than the Flu,” and similar statements are frequently expressed.
Total panic, overwhelming stress. Doomsday prepping, irrationally buying toilet paper, getting worked up to the point of exhaustion, are all common for this behavioral response.
Obviously neither of these are healthy, nor are they responsible. Neither of these behaviors are well informed, well researched, or well balanced strategies. But they seem to be the loudest. It begs the question: Why do we rush to assess judgment in uncertainty?
I’m sure there is a psychological explanation available in this somewhere, that people have an instinctual need to comfort themselves in confidence during crisis, even if it is constructed from a false sense of security. But I’m no psychologist, so I’ll spare the speculation.
But there’s a less obvious third behavior that remains patiently silent. Waiting, watching, collecting information, self-educating, this person doesn’t make declarative or ignorant proclamations on social media or amongst friends. In contrast, they cautiously prepare while also maintaining a cool head by not allowing emotion to get the best of them.
Unfortunately this third person doesn’t use the soapbox approach by trumpeting their thoughts outward, so they get drowned out by the other two response types. It is the unfortunate reality of modern life, and it often feels like there is a severe lack of reasonable thought out there.
So how do we address this? How do we find a way to bring more reasonable thought to the forefront and fade ignorant behaviors to the background?
In times like these, I think it is important to take an honest accounting of our own behaviors and assess. In the last few weeks, if you’ve behaved like one of the first two behaviors, don’t feel any shame, just change your behavior. It’s not even a difficult change: If you’re not an expert, just quiet your desire to speak up, and make room for those who actually are experts. It’s that simple. Don’t contribute to confusion, panic, or ignorance.
And if you are someone who has been patiently observing and educating yourself, keeping quiet, keep doing what you’re doing. And perhaps try your best to gently let others know what they are doing or saying is not really helpful in as peaceful a communicative effort as possible. Be an example of patient confidence in a world of chaos. Show people a better way.
As a species, we need to get better at living with uncertainty. We don’t have to immediately possess the answer to everything. Arrogant confidence is not a strength, it’s a weakness. It’s okay to say “I don’t know,” it’s okay to acknowledge gaps in understanding or skill, in fact it is crucial to success. It is imperative we learn how to shut up and wait.
We’re going to eventually get the answers and the security we seek, and we’re going to get through this together. We just need to maintain composure, be patient, and make room for wisdom to be the loudest voice in the room. And no, that wasn’t a social distancing joke ;-p
There’s an old saying I’ve been thinking about recently. It is often incorrectly attributed to Abe Lincoln or Mark Twain, but the actual author is unknown. It goes like…
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”
In my readings on Stoicism lately, a quote with a similar meaning from Cato the Younger was the focal topic (though not quite as humorous). I have been trying to meditate or use these words as a mantra as much as possible. It has a slightly different angle, but similar purpose. Here are those words:
“I begin to speak only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.”
~ Cato the Younger
Anyone who knows me well has undoubtedly seen me dig my heels in on something at some point, and if i’m being honest, such moments will not be included in my lifetime highlight reel. My opinionated nature is something that can embarrass me or get me into trouble from time to time. But those passions have also led me to some of the most satisfying moments in my life as well, as the commitment and effort driven by my passion makes the victory that much sweeter in the end when the path isn’t easy.
As I’ve begun lately to commit to the effort of self improvement, finding a more graceful middle ground of these two extremes without dimming the fire has been at the forefront of my mind. Over the last month, I have focused simply on shutting my mouth and listening more, but that is only part of the equation.
In another recent reading from “The Daily Stoic,” the topic was “You don’t always have to have an opinion,” and the central idea was learning the discipline not to give control to your opinions, particularly negative ones. This is accomplished simply by observing an idea, acknowledging its existence without assigning it any personal meaning. It is a strange exercise, and one that goes against every modern human instinct, but it is surprisingly beneficial, as it allows one to collect more information and learn more than is possible when one quickly wades into battle with an opinion.
But when combined with Cato’s words above, it has proved to be a powerful combination of self-analysis and evaluation of my words and how I use them. When I combine the importance of delaying the selection of my opinion with the evaluation of whether or not I am *actually* changing anything by speaking the words in my head, a sobering humility is the first result. This discipline forces you to place an actual value on your thoughts, and to censor yourself if that value is not greater than the value of silence.
But there are also other unexpected outcomes. You begin to really listen a lot more. And you begin to collect much more information. You suddenly have more space to analyze the words of others, and you are often able to pull out truer motivations than what others’ words are even directly conveying on their own.
Another outcome is the leveling up of one’s contributions. The self-regulation of one’s contribution sharpens ideas to a point where only the best efforts are offered, enhancing the efficiency and output of the quality of work at hand. Everyone benefits from this practice, in multiple ways.
In today’s world of always-on, extremely loud, and overly aggressive in-your-face opining on display at every social media platform or publication available, this discipline may be more valuable now than ever before in our history. And while I may only be at the beginning of this practice, I know this work is worth the effort, even if I fail often.
Or, as Ernest Hemingway once wrote as advice to his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
May we all be so eloquent, so as not to remove all doubt.
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.