Riding the Waves

I thought, when I sat down to write today, that it would be nice to share some uplifting thoughts with you.  Something to encourage you and brighten your day.  Something to reassure you that, despite the unprecedented series of upheavals we seem to be witnessing around us, all is well.  But when I sat down, that seemed like a tall order.  Hmmm.  What can I share?

Well, I had a chance to walk through some awe-inspiring autumn scenery this week, and there was one moment when, immersed in nature’s splendor, I felt truly lucky just to be alive.  Think of all the events that had to happen just the way they did in order for you to be here.  What are the odds?  They must be incalculable.  Think of all the things that had to happen just for the planet itself to be here.  Yet here it is, and here we are.  Even if we have no idea what “here” really is or how we got here, or what life is all about.

I heard a lot of stories this week about things that were happening in my friends’ lives.  About their jobs, their families, their relationships.  I heard about the things that are worrying them.  Computer problems, financial problems, health problems, social problems, political problems.  And then there’s the behavior of the planet itself: the fires, floods, earthquakes, winds.  Oh my.  Whatever reality is, it seems we believe is just isn’t what it’s supposed to be.   Didn’t it used to be a lot simpler?  More certain?  Isn’t it supposed to work more smoothly than this?  And when, oh when, will it just settle down!

Maybe it won’t.  Maybe chaos is the new normal.  What if it is?  What are we to do?

A poster I saw back in the 60’s had some sage advice.  Those were chaotic times, too.  The poster showed this old bearded guy in a wet, blowing toga riding a surf board atop a huge wave, his arms spread wide, his face beaming with a smile.  The caption said, “You can’t stop the waves.  But you can learn to surf.”

You can still find joy, and peace, and contentment even when reality is heaving like a storm-tossed sea.  Part of learning to do that involves a willingness to embrace what is without wanting it to be something different:  This is my life, right now.  This is the experience life is giving me.  This is life’s gift to me, it’s present.  I can do with it what I will.  I can treat it as an adventure.  I can treat it as a challenge.  I can see it as a mirror of who I am.  I can choose who I will be in it.  I can choose to let it in, to let it enlarge me.  Or I can choose to push it out and make me small.  I can see it as a chance to use my strengths, or I can blame it as a showcase of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  Perhaps I can find comfort in it, or give comfort to others.  I can use it to create, or to destroy.  It’s all up to me.  Because it’s mine.  It’s my life, right now.

And that’s the bottom line.  Regardless of the reality we’re in, regardless of its unpredictable shifts and changes, we’re here.  Alive.  And that, in and of itself, is remarkable and wondrous.  May you celebrate your being, and learn to surf the waves.

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Life Ain’t for Wimps

Not for Wimps

When I first got the news that Hurricane Nate was going to pummel our southern shores this weekend, my head reeled.  I felt like one of those inflatable punching dolls that pop back up as soon as you knock them down only to get another blow to the head.

“Holy Mackerel!”  I said, right out loud.  “What next?”

What was next, it turned out, was a vivid memory of Uncle Ron’s stern, booming voice informing me in no uncertain terms that he had studied the Bible extensively and could assure me there was no such thing as a holy mackerel.  I felt roundly chastised at the time and took great care never to mention the fish in my uncle’s presence again.  It took me years to realize he was teasing me.

I always smile when I think of Uncle Ron.  His deep voice may have been intimidating, but he always had a twinkle in his eye.

Maybe that’s why the phrase “Holy Mackerel” came to mind when I pondered the stream of mind-boggling events that’s been confronting us lately.  It was to remind me of Uncle Ron and how he taught me that fear could be a foolish response to life’s confusions.  You see, my Uncle Ron was a learned man, possessed of great intellect, humor and wisdom.  If I hadn’t interpreted his voice as threatening, I might have had some interesting and enlightening conversations with him.

And so it is with life.  News of fires and earthquakes, hurricanes, terror acts, and floods can be frightening.

Or not.

Life ain’t for wimps.  It comes with its bruises and blows.  But it’s we who decide whether to respond out of love or out of fear to what’s happening in the world around us.  Choose fear and you could be cheating yourself out of a great conversation with life.  Choose love and you open the door to unlimited possibilities.

Author Anais Nin wrote, “Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage.”  And courage is nothing more than keeping on even in the face of fear.  We come equipped to survive, so we respond to threats by going into full-alert mode.  And that’s a good thing.  If a tiger’s coming at you, you want to notice it and get the heck out of its way.  But once you’ve done that, or have determined it wasn’t a tiger at all, you gotta switch back into love-mode even if you’re still charged up with adrenalin and suffering from knocking knees.   There’s always something beautiful out there that you can do.  Pick a flower.  Smile at a stranger.  Pet a dog.  If you just cower in a corner because somewhere in the world tigers roam, your world gets awfully small, and you with it.

But get back out there and love, baby, and pretty soon all that energy that was fear converts into amazement and gratitude and a willingness to engage in life, whatever it brings.  Look at it and whistle, “Holy Mackerel!” at its string of surprises.  Then get yourself some mustard and have that fish for lunch.

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Dealing with Drastic Change

Change

Whether you’re in a natural disaster or facing a crisis of the personal kind, drastic change is tough.  Even changes we choose to make for ourselves bring discomfort.  But extreme and sudden changes win the prize for throwing us into shock.  We find ourselves in the midst of the Big Unknown, and feel disoriented, uncertain and insecure.  Our survival mechanisms flick on.  What’s happening?  What am I going to do?  How will I get through this?

Zen Philosopher Alan Watts says, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

“The dance!” you might say.  “Are you out of your mind?  This is no dance!  It’s a crisis, a disaster!.”

Yup.  That’s what it is alright.  The shock and fear and rage you feel is just the thunder of the drums as the dance begins.   And here’s the magic of it.  You get to choose its rhythms and its moods, its tempo  and all the steps and melodies.

First Steps

Life will, after all, go on.  Even when you can’t begin to fathom how.  And the only way to find out how it will go is to keep moving forward, one step at a time.

Let your first step be recognizing and respecting that you’re in crisis mode.  Our normal response to emotions is to generate stories or recall memories around them.   When you’re in shock and overwhelmed with strong emotion, it’s important to make stories that center around your values and strengths instead of painting the situation as an unrecoverable loss.  Yes, it may be a loss of huge, important parts.  But while the loss itself may be unrecoverable, you are capable of creating a new and positive version of your life as you go forward.

The old saying that every change has within it the seeds of opportunity is true.  Decide that you will adapt and overcome.  Consider the idea that you might not only overcome, but make something incredibly strong and beautiful from this experience in your life.

Instead of being overcome with sadness, let the heaviness of your grieving take the form of deeper, more grateful thought.  Experiment with looking at things from a different perspective.  Imagine you’re that guy over there, looking at you.  What would you want him to see?  Imagine looking back on this in time and feeling proud of how well you handled it.  Play with this as being a dramatic section of your life dance, or as an adventure or a grand exploration.  See what you find interesting about your current status.  Be curious about it and about what you might make of it.

American poet and educator Nikki Giovanni gives us this insight about change:

A lot of people resist transition and therefore never allow themselves to enjoy who they are.  Embrace the change no matter what it is; once you do, you can learn about the new world you’re in and take advantage of it

Isn’t that an extraordinary idea?  You can allow yourself to enjoy who are even in the midst of stepping from a familiar world into a brand new one.   It’s like stepping onto a new stage in this dance of your life and writing its music any way you want.  You decide.  What kind of soundtrack is playing?  How do you want to shape it from here?

It’s up to you.  Isn’t that wondrous?

*     *     *

You may also find these articles helpful:

How to Be Resilient When Crisis Strikes
When the Future Dies: Making a New Start After Tragedy and Disaster   When Happiness Goes Dark: How to Deal with Life’s Traumas 
When Things Go Wrong: 7 Steps to Regaining Balance

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Winning Against the Wolf

Winning Against the Wolf

So this wolf comes knocking at my door.  He’s all earnest as he starts his spiel, but I see a sly glint in his eyes.  He says he’s there to warn me that a fellah down the road a piece is up to no good, and he has a big bundle of sticks and a bulging bag of rocks he wants to sell me.  I might need ‘em for protection, or I might want to join with my other neighbors to do the bad guy in before he makes more trouble.

If I buy his wares right now, he says, he’ll even throw in this super-duper sling shot at no extra charge.  He opens his trench coat to show it to me.

I tell him I’m not a fighter.  I have something better up my sleeve.  He selects a heavy stick from the bundle and kind of caresses it with his front paw.  “Better than this?” he asks.

“Yes,” I tell him smiling.  “But thanks anyway for your concern.”

He takes a round, heavy rock from his bag, slides the sling shot from under his coat, loads it up and fires the rock at one of my trees, hitting it.

“Hey!” I protest.  “That’s my tree!”

“Yeah, and look at the patch of bark I knocked off,” he growls.  “Listen, this fellah we’re talking about is a bad dude.  Evil through and through.  And he’s got a tribe of mean cronies, too.  But at least with this, you’d have a chance against ‘em.”

I walk over to my tree and pat it where the rock hit, telling it I’m sorry.  Then I tell the wolf I’m really not interested in his wares.

“Well then, tell me, Missy, just how you plan on dealing with this problem?”  He sneers at me.

“C’mon in,” I say to him.  “I’ll show you.”  I lead him into the kitchen, where the scent of chocolate chip cookies is wafting from the oven, and tell him to have a seat.   I pour him a big glass of cold milk, pull the cookies from the oven and place a few on a pretty plate in front of him.

“Here,” I say.  “Have some cookies and milk.  And tell me how you got into this line of work.”

He’s a little taken aback, but he slurps the milk and starts nibbling cookies and unfolds his story.  I ask about his family and where he’s from, and I tell him a couple stories of my own, and before long, we’re laughing and chatting like old friends.   As he finishes his sixth cookie, he pushes back the plate and says he’d better be getting on his way.  I thank him for stopping by and give him a bag with more cookies to take with him.

He’s two steps from the door when he turns back.  “Wait,” he says.  “You never showed me your secret weapon.”

“You’re holding it in your hand,” I smile, pointing to the bag of cookies.  He gets a sheepish look on his face—which is something for a wolf.  Then he turns, and with his tail between his legs, walks slowly down my driveway.

“I better think about getting into a new line of work,” he mumbles.  And off he goes, scratching his head, then reaching in the bag for a cookie.  And just as he turned the corner, I thought I heard him laugh.

The moral of the story is don’t buy the sticks and stones that the sly old wolves are selling.  We all have something far more powerful than conflict to offer.

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Focus on the Good

Focus on the Good

I don’t know about you, but personally, I’m getting awfully tired of watching the violent protests that seem to be erupting almost daily around the globe. Sure, I understand that a lot of things need fixing in our world, and I appreciate dedication to promoting a worthy cause. But those who practice violence and destruction do nothing to further the betterment of our situation, especially when they utterly fail to carry any message proposing workable solutions to the problems they are railing against. What if, instead of focusing on perceived evils and shortcomings, we devoted ourselves to identifying and promoting the things that further the flourishing of humankind?

Almost 20 years ago, professional psychology asked itself the same question about its own direction. It had been focusing almost exclusively on illness and giving little attention to identifying the factors that promoted individual well-being. When it turned its attention to searching for the life-promoting traits in people, the science of positive psychology was born. And studies world-wide are now proving that we live happier, more productive, creative and satisfying lives when we focus on building our strengths than we do when we focus on trying to improve our weaknesses.

Remember the saying, “What we focus on expands.” Focus on what’s wrong and you get more of it. Focus on the good and it increases.

What Goodness Is

Don’t fall for the idea that goodness is relative, that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The good in life is what supports it, what lifts burdens and alleviates suffering. What’s toxic is action that produces suffering where it doesn’t have to exist.

When the founders of positive psychology got the idea to identify what things contributed to the Good Life, they looked at the qualities that people found most worthwhile across cultures and across centuries of time. They ended up finding six general categories of time-tested values that were held in high esteem all over the world:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity and Love
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

These virtues form the pillars that uphold civilizations that give rise to the Good Life.

Under these virtues, the positive psychologists identified character strengths that were linked to each category. (See: The 24 Personal Strengths: An Overview)

Strengths and Virtue

These strengths are the vehicles by which we creatively and productively move forward in the world, the means by which we bring the six universal virtues into existence, both in our individual experience and in the world as a whole.

When individuals become aware of their signature strengths, they can use them as a channel for joyfully pouring energy into work that contributes to the well-being of all. Strengths such as curiosity and “street smarts,” for example, are expressions of the virtue of knowledge and wisdom. People who possess them invent new and unconventional ways to get things done. They value practicality and look for ways to make things work in the real world.

Instead of bowing to the mob or basing their choices and actions on currently popular slogans and memes, people who use their strengths to foster the expression of universal values discover genuine depth and meaning in their goals. They focus on creating the Good Life for all, and they work to understand more and more clearly what the Good Life truly entails. They look for ways to increase the deliciousness of life, to promote the things that make living worthwhile. The torches they carry are the torches of truth. The fires they build are the fires of freedom.

If we want to build a better world, one that is just, and balanced, and wise, we need to hone our focus on the Good and to promote it, each in his or her own way, each with his or her own strengths. The wrong is all too evident. The way out is to focus on the Good.

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