Life Is A Highway

Have you ever been in the middle of a particularly major life transition and wondered if you were doing the right thing? Or, perhaps you were quite certain that you were headed in the right direction; you, however, weren’t sure that some of the lesser but still impactful decisions you had to make were correctly decided.

That’s descriptive of me right now.  I’m in the middle of a huge life transition–I’m planning a move to the West Coast next summer.  Were it just me it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but I’ve got my daughters’ quality of life to consider.  We are all in the mix.  I’ve got to sell my house, put the finishing touches on moving to a different post-graduate program, find housing in the Bay Area (yeah, that’ll keep you up at night), minimize all my possessions, and…and…and…

It’s a colossal effort, and yet I know it will come together.  But…

There are those moments of quiet when I take in the magnitude of it all, and I ask, “Am I doing the right thing for everyone?” It’s not often, but it’s not an unimportant question.  When there are children depending upon us to care for them and build a foundation under them, we need to ask such a question.  As a Jew, I pose that question to God as I and my ancestors have come to understand him both personally and corporately.  And, I sincerely expect an answer although answers don’t always come on my preferred timeline.

The late Brennan Manning once told a story of a Jewish Bubbe out with her grandson at the shore.  She was delighting in watching him play with his new shovel and bucket until a large wave unexpectedly washed ashore and swept his toys out to sea soaking her young grandchild in salty water.  Running to her grandson as he sat crying on the sand, Bubbe called out, “Bring back my grandson’s shovel and bucket! It makes him so happy to play with them, and, if it makes him happy, then I am happy!” A few moments passed, and suddenly a wave spit out her grandson’s bucket and shovel right at their feet.  Smiling and clapping, her grandson resumed playing as if nothing had ever happened.  Bubbe, however, frowned and said, “He had a hat!”

Some would say that Bubbe is ungrateful.  Look at the miraculous quality of what just happened! The sea returned the shovel and bucket! So what that his hat wasn’t returned to him.  I say that Bubbe is expectant, and this boldness and sense of anticipation in believing God, as she understands him, is what informs how she interacts with him.

So, what does this have to do with my moving out West? Well, I think that regardless of one’s understanding of who God might be–even in terms of agnosticism, interacting with God (or if you want to call the Divine “the Universe”) can be a highly rewarding and reassuring process.  It can remove a sense of ontological loneliness that plagues so many of us and guide us through incredibly difficult circumstances.  In my case, on the day I decided that we were going to move West, I asked for a reassurance that it was the right decision–something I rarely do, but it was such a big, life-altering decision.  I wanted the strongest sense that it was right.  So, I drove my car along a stretch of highway pondering what a “good reassurance” might be.  Something that I could look back on when circumstances got rough and remind myself, “Oh, you’re on the right track.  Remember? You saw that sign.”

Suddenly, I had it! I love bald eagles, and we have a few of them in my neck of the woods.  I decided that I wanted to see a bald eagle in a tree right by the road as I was driving–something I never see.  It didn’t have to be that day.  Just…soon.  I’ll confess that I felt silly.  Asking for a sign.  P’shaw! as my grandfather would say. As soon as I asked God to give me a sign, I almost took it back.  I don’t do things like that.  But then, in the middle of my embarrassed rumination, I saw it.  I slowed down my car to take it in.  A beautiful bald eagle perched majestically on a branch overhanging the highway’s shoulder at 7 AM.  I was shocked.  “Did that just happen?” I thought.  It did indeed.

My mind has returned to that moment during times of high stress and anxiety, and it has caused to me to wonder what signs really are.  What is a sign?

Street-signs.jpg

Quite literally, these are signs.

When we drive, we see signs all the time, or at least we should see them if we are paying attention.  We’ve probably all encountered people who don’t pay attention to the road signs.  Those are the people driving the opposite direction on a one-way street or doing a U-ey when they should not.  How about those folks who run stop signs for lack of paying attention, thusly, causing an accident? Signs serve a very good purpose.  They let you know where you are, what you should do, how fast you should drive, where to go, and where not to go.  The most important thing to note about signs is that one has to see them in order for them to be effective.

Well, if Tom Cochrane’s song is correct and life is a highway, then it stands to reason that we need signs, too.  We need to know when we are on the right road.  We need to know where the next rest area is.  We need to know where we should not turn and where we should.  What does a Do Not Enter sign look like in terms of our own lives? What does a Be Alert For Bears sign or an Avalanche Warning sign look like metaphorically speaking? More important, what does a Dead End sign look like? How do you know when you can’t go any further?

For me, this is why I asked for a sign.  I needed to know that the road I had just turned onto was the right one since the journey was going to be so long and, frankly, fraught with hurdles.

So, how does one recognize a sign?

  • Many signs directing us are dismissed as coincidences, but the longer I’m alive the more I’ve come to believe that there are few coincidences in life.
  • Stay present to your circumstances and surroundings.  Pay attention to the interactions you have with people.  Just as in driving, when we fail to see crucial signage we often miss exits we intended to take, get stuck in traffic, or get lost.  This is analogous to our lives and our journeys.
  • Learn to trust your intuition and insights.  For example, a few weeks ago I was at a crossroads.  I needed to decide if I was going to continue taking classes next trimester in my medical program.  I have the support of everyone around me to discontinue at my current school and continue at the program in the Bay Area, but I still feel anxious about it.  I woke up last week wondering if I should just enroll in classes next trimester even though I don’t really want to do it.  Then, the mail came.  The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) found my college guilty of discrimination based on sex–a violation of Title IX.  I read through all the provided documentation and the OCR’s mandated corrective actions which will cost the school thousands of dollars into six figures.  I knew then that I could not enroll again.  My original decision not to continue my medical education with this college was the right one.  The documentation and guilty verdict were a sign or sign post, if you will, that I was on the right road.
  • Don’t feel afraid to ask for a sign.  Why? Well, traveling outside of the spaces in which you feel safe requires taking risks, and humans don’t like uncertainty.  We like to know where we are going and what to expect.  While it’s not possible to know the outcomes of everything, it is possible to get into the driver’s seat of your own life and gain a sense of personal empowerment.  There is paradox in here.  The people who do their best to avoid risks are generally the ones who are bound by anxiety.  There is a strong link between risk aversion and anxiety and depression.  Leading a narrow life never lessens the anxiety.  It just forces one to become an emotional and physical shut-in preventing one from experiencing the happiness and fulfillment so desperately desired.
  • Cultivate trust in yourself: “How do we leap and trust that it will all be okay? By cultivating a practice of self-trust, which connects us to the well of our deepest knowing where the answers to the unanswerable questions live. And these aren’t answers so much signposts or hints at the paths we want to walk, the decisions we want to make, the risks we’re willing to take. Because death exists life cannot be anything other than risk. Because loss exists relationships are the ultimate risk to our hearts and how can we do anything other than forgive our ego – that part of us that desperately attempts to safeguard against pain – for trying to protect us in the only way it knows how? 

    But risk we must if we’re to live a full life (like our cat). People who take risks are happier because they live their lives more fully, without fear at the helm of their ship charting the course (which means they venture out to open seas). They not only jump out of airplanes and off mountaintops – as my son is itching to do – but they dive into the murky waters of the greatest emotional risk of all: relationships of all kinds. They risk their hearts (which do not heal as easily as a broken bone). And they do so from a platform of self-trust, which is the launching pad for all of life’s decisions, big and small.” (Risk Aversion and Anxiety)

     

Further Reading:

What Happy People Do Differently

One of life’s sharpest paradoxes is that the key to satisfaction is doing things that feel risky, uncomfortable, and occasionally bad.

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Big Changes Start with Small Ones

I went out to lunch yesterday with three of my daughters (I have four).  We went to our favorite Asian restaurant which happens to be just a few blocks from my house.  How many people live within walking distance from one of their favorite restaurants? I can get just about anything I want made vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free.  It is a dream come true for the dietarily restricted diner.  Plus, it’s a family owned business which means that one gets to know the proprietors after a bit.  It’s like walking onto the set of Cheers–everyone knows your name.

Our family has witnessed their family’s births, deaths, and marriages.  I did not, however, know anything about a divorce in the family.  One of the women who more visibly runs the restaurant (and whom I just adore) divorced two years ago.  I had no idea.  That’s when I separated from my ex-husband, too.  A few months ago, I emerged from my chrysalis of recovery and decided to go back to my favorite spot.  Karen was there, of course, with a ready proclamation: “I haven’t seen you in forever! How are you? How are the girls?” We hugged.  She seated me.  I didn’t say much.  As is her way, she would subtly insinuate herself next to me to refill my water glass and ask, “Really, how are you? What’s going on?” I quietly answered, “I’m getting a divorce.  It’s been a rough year.”  She paused and looked at me.  “I’m getting a divorce, too.”  Our eyes met.  I thought I might cry.  She looked like she might cry.  “Okay, okay, we’ll talk later,” she said.

It was the mutual recognition of familiar suffering that evoked that response, I think.

Back to yesterday…

There was a moment when business slowed, and Karen talked to me.  She asked how my current life looked.  How is post-married life? How are the girls? She fears that she will be alone forever, and she’s not sure how she feels about it.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Why is it so hard to meet quality people? How does one go about building a better life when you never expected to be in this position?

I talked to my boyfriend about this last night.  I shared with him all the questions Karen had.  Those were my questions as well when I was still married, and I suspect that questions of that nature are what keep people stuck.  The Great Unknown is scarier than what is known.  No one wants to be alone.  So, they choose the lesser of the two perceived evils–staying in something dysfunctional, abusive, or just plain wrong for them vs. entering into something potentially better but completely foreign.

He responded, “Yeah, we all have criteria defining what we want.  We might want someone with tempered wisdom and humor, but do we actually think about the life experiences and effort one has to endure and take to acquire those characteristics? We have to actually put in the work in our lives and character to become the people we ourselves would want to partner with.”

He is right.  To attract the people and circumstances that you most desire, you have to become that which you want.  If you want a patient partner, then you yourself must become patient.  If you want a good humored partner, then you yourself must become good humored.  If you want a tolerant partner who doesn’t criticize others, then you yourself must become that kind of person.  Why is this true? Well, a patient, tolerant person will not find a critical, impatient, intolerant person attractive nor want to partner with them.  So, if we desire positive attributes in a potential partner or friend but lack those very qualities in ourselves and lives, then how likely are we to actually get what we want? This is why that cliché “Become the change you want” works.  There is truth within it.

There is nothing easy about any of this.  Change is hard.  Our bodies are not wired for change.  Our bodies are wired for homeostasis.  We are designed to maintain the status quo whatever that is, but, in my experience, you cannot achieve a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment without changing.  Change is required.

Okay, okay, you might say, but how do you start? What if too much has to change? What if you are generally unhappy, lonely, sick, and confused?  It’s one thing to say that you need to change, but what does that look like in real life?

I’ll leave abuse out of this discussion, but I will make this comment.  If you are being abused, then make that your priority.  You absolutely must leave any circumstance or relationship that is abusive.  People who abuse are not likely to stop.  Abusive people most often tend to have feelings of entitlement and feel as if they have a right to their behaviors.  There is no cure for entitlement and rarely is it curbed in a therapeutic setting.  It is symptomatic of much larger personality and character issues (Entitlement and Domestic Abuse).

Abuse aside, how can you begin to get traction in life and make real changes that stick? Here is an example from my life.

One small change at a time sticks far better than many changes made too quickly.  Two years ago, I realized that I was consuming far too much sugar daily simply due to putting sugar in my coffee.  It might sound ridiculous, but you don’t know how much coffee I drink.  The caffeine aside, I had to deal with the sugar first.  So, on January 1, 2015 I decided to develop a taste for coffee with no sugar.  By mid-2015, I could drink my coffee sans sugar.  I am very sensitive to bitter tastes which is why it took me so long to grow accustomed to coffee with no sweetener.  I overcompensated for the lack of sugar, however, with half-and-half, but I could drink any coffee without sugar.  In fact, I could no longer drink any kind of fancy coffee drink.  They were all too sweet for my new palate although I still required some kind of milk be it coconut, almond, soy, or dairy.

At the beginning of 2016, I decided to learn to like coffee black.  Blech.  Alas, this was the change I was committed to making.  By the end of 2016 I was drinking my coffee black.  The unexpected side effect of cutting out sugar and milk? I lost 14 pounds in two years.  Just from removing sugar and half-and-half from my coffee! Isn’t that somewhat alarming?

The reason I could sustain these changes were:

  1. They were both small changes.
  2. I could commit to them consistently.
  3. My intention was sincere.
  4. They both blended well into my value system.  I value changes that promote health and well-being.  Plus, I wanted to drink less coffee.  By removing sugar and dairy from my coffee, I now drink less coffee, too.  Frankly, it doesn’t taste as good.

Once you witness a positive result from making a change, you will want to apply yourself to making another positive change.  You begin to see that your efforts produce results.  I started with diet and my social life, and my changes were small and manageable.  Seeing positive results builds momentum and courage which is what enables you to start thinking bigger.  This principle is exactly how you continue to keep making changes and also how you stay the course that you’ve set.

Now? My life is completely different, and it all started with very small, manageable changes that didn’t really seem that applicable to the bigger problems I had at the time.  Cutting out sugar from my coffee in no way seemed to relate to my bad marriage, but it had a direct impact on my ability to view myself as effective in my life.  Why?

As funny as it sounds, I had two friends that always teased me for putting heaps of sugar in my coffee.  When I showed up for a coffee date and put no sugar in my coffee, one of them said, “Oh my gosh, hell has frozen over.  You didn’t put sugar in your coffee! What has happened to you?” I was experiencing change.

We all have something idiosyncratic that others recognize as uniquely “us”.  If we stop doing it, then something really has changed in our lives.  It’s most likely little, and it may not be that beneficial.  Maybe you smoke.  Maybe you’re a social drinker.  Maybe you emotionally eat.  Maybe you watch too much TV or rely too heavily on retail therapy.  Maybe you’re ill-tempered and angry too often, or perhaps you’re judgmental or not so secretly bigoted.  No one is perfect.  We all have areas in need of development.  Pick one thing, reframe it, and decide that you will change it.

In my case, I didn’t say, “I will stop putting sugar in my coffee.”  That would have put my focus on the sugar.  I simply said, “I will learn to like coffee without a sweet taste.”  In this way, my focus was on the coffee. So, for example, if you struggle with becoming angry too quickly, then you would not say, “I want to stop becoming angry so quickly.”  That statement puts your focus on anger.  You would say, “I will develop a more calm and serene character even under pressure.”

Why change the language? Well, people who are angry, for example, do not have “anger problems”.  They have no problem feeling anger.  They have no problem expressing anger.  They do, however, have a lower capacity for peace, self-control, and calm.  So, their focus should be on the latter rather than the former.  I didn’t have a “sugar problem”.  I had no problem consuming sugar.  I had a poorly developed palate and sensitivity to bitter tastes.  I needed to increase my capacity for consuming and enjoying bitter tastes, and I did.  I now no longer enjoy milk chocolate as much as I did and even prefer very dark chocolate.  I used to hate dark chocolate.  Isn’t that funny?

Small, manageable changes and a change in focus.

That’s how you set your foot on the path of meaningful change.

 

 

Einstein on Changing Your Life

I read an article in the New York Times this morning entitled:

Want to Be Creative on Purpose? Schedule It

Right off the bat I can tell you that it’s a quick and dirty read and probably true.  Written by Carl Richards aka Sketch Guy, the article’s opening thesis relies on artist Chuck Close’s famous quote “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”  I love this quote.  I love the idea behind this quote.  It’s on par with Albert Einstein’s sentiment: ” Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.”

The idea presented by both Close and Einstein is something of an iconoclastic notion if you will.  If the definition of an iconoclast is “a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition,” then I suppose that an idea could do the same.  There is an idea within the subconscious of Western culture and many people that you have to be special, gifted, ultra-intelligent or somehow other in order to do or accomplish something remarkable.  People base their identities on this idea.  “I am special because I can do X,” or even more common “I am better than that group of people over there because I can do X or because I look like Y.”

The truth, however, is that who we are as people is expressed through our actions and choices.  I hold the belief that every human is unique and expresses some aspect of the Divine image making every human intrinsically valuable.  We express this value and pursue excellence in our lives not from a deficient self-perception driven by perfectionism but in order to express the worth that we already possess.  No one can steal this value from us, but, at the same time, the world can be robbed of witnessing our expression of this Divine essence in us as expressed through our personalities, actions, thought processes, and acts of generosity and charity when we ourselves are stifled due to trauma, various hardships, skewed self-perceptions, or even the most basic forms of human activities such as a lack of desire to act or change.  We, too, can be robbed of even understanding and experiencing our own value by these very things because the world around us is not set up to speak the truth.  Instead, we are surrounded by perceptual manipulations, deception, violence, and a constant barrage of the reality of endless representations of human suffering in its myriad forms.  What does compassion look like? What does goodness look like? What is the face of kindness? With all these songs on the radio about love, why is it so hard to find and experience?

At this point on my journey, I will have to agree with Close and Einstein.  There is no good time to start.  There is no better time to try.  To be frank, life will always be hard, and it will never be easy.  So, why not just start showing up in that one area that will not change or get better, and get to work? Take that 1% genius that you’ve got and apply 99% effort.

Now, this might be the moment when someone would say, “I don’t believe in any of that Divine image stuff.  I’m average and so is everyone else.  Every snowflake is unique and special.  Just like every other unique and special snowflake.”

In a way, this point of view makes my case for me even more.  Why? Well, the world is not full of Einsteins or Closes.  I’ll give you that, but take a look at Albert Einstein the man–not the myth:

“Einstein attended elementary school at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich. However, he felt alienated there and struggled with the institution’s rigid pedagogical style. He also had what were considered to be speech challenges…Albert was left at a relative’s boarding house in Munich to complete his schooling at the Luitpold Gymnasium. Faced with military duty when he turned of age, Albert allegedly withdrew from classes, using a doctor’s note to excuse himself and claim nervous exhaustion. With their son rejoining them in Italy, his parents understood Einstein’s perspective but were concerned about his future prospects as a school dropout and draft dodger…

After graduating from Polytechnic, Einstein faced major challenges in terms of finding academic positions, having alienated some professors over not attending class more regularly in lieu of studying independently. Meanwhile, Einstein continued to grow closer to Maric, but his parents were strongly against the relationship due her ethnic background. Nonetheless, Einstein continued to see her, with the two developing a correspondence via letters in which he expressed many of his scientific ideas. In 1902 the couple had a daughter, Lieserl, who might have been later raised by Maric’s relatives or given up for adoption. Her ultimate fate and whereabouts remain a mystery.

Einstein eventually found steady work in 1902 after receiving a referral for a clerk position in a Swiss patent office.” (Biography)

Einstein was like you or me.  He was living life while working on all his ideas in the background–the ideas that won him the Nobel Prize.  He faced hardship.  He struggled.  He didn’t even appear to be all that bright as a kid.  He dodged the draft! His parents didn’t like the woman he fell in love with due to her race.  He was underemployed.  Einstein? A patent clerk? Clearly, the human condition is still the same.  You.  Me.  Einstein.  We are the same in our humanity.  Unique, special, and just like everyone else.

There will never be a convenient time to show up and start doing what you really want.  There is never a good time to get something started.  There will always be reasons why you should not, and there will always be a case to be made against it.

But, there will always be two reasons why you should.

  1. You want to.
  2. You were made to.

So, whatever it is in your life that is keeping you from moving forward and attaining that “something better” space that you just know you were made to occupy, I suggest this with great humility–start showing up and getting to work.  A year will pass, and you could be closer to where you want to be if you started today.  Or, you could be right where you are today next year.  You are as brilliant, talented, and capable as anyone else.  If you don’t believe you are, then start there.

If there is never a good time to change your life, then perhaps the best time to try is now.