Put the shampoo bottle down

Do you remember having to take naps as a kid? Being forced to just lay there in silence for hours! Okay, probably like 30 minutes, but it felt like eternity. Do you remember the sound that silence made after a while? Like a wave or white noise machine, that deafening, on-going whoosh type noise. Almost as if you could hear your insides–heart beating, ear drums waiting for something to happen. I don’t hear that sound very often now that I’m an adult.

How about you? Do you remember what silence sounds like? Can you try it right now? Just put your phone down or turn away from your screen and just be quiet. Try it for 60 seconds.

. . .

. . .

. . .

That was WEIRD, right? To just sit there in the quiet, nothing particular going on, not listening to something or watching something or accomplishing something, just being there in the silence.

Sometimes, when I’m in the bathroom (yeah, this is gonna get weird), when I’m just sitting there–where you might normally sit in a bathroom–I’ll suddenly realize I’ve picked up my shampoo bottle and started to read the back of it.

Literally. Reading my shampoo bottle. Here’s the thing–I have NO interest in the back of my shampoo bottle. I’m not like super jazzed to read about all its ingredients. It’s just that there was silence and there was nothing happening, and when nothing is happening it’s weird and uncomfortable! So I’ll grab anything–anything–to fill the void.

What do we call it when all of a sudden everyone stops talking and there’s just this quiet? We call it an “awkward silence,” right? We can’t stand it. We have to fill the silence.

Soooo frequently, we just automatically hate letting nothing happen. We have to find something–noise, information, food, color–anything–to fill the quiet times, the slow times, the empty moments.

What is your shampoo bottle? I bet you do something like that! I bet you find yourself cramming your quiet moments with stuff and things and information that you actually don’t care about, just because you can’t help it.

Do you pick up a magazine in a waiting room that you would absolutely never pick out in any other context, just because it would be weird to just sit there silently? Do you have to be listening to something or watching something every time you eat? Or do you have this compulsive habit of picking up your phone? Hopping on social media?

How about this: Have you ever realized that you’re mindlessly browsing Facebook, set your phone down, and then immediately picked your phone back up and mindlessly popped Facebook right back open?

 

Why do we do this? Why do we so automatically fill every spare second, every quiet moment, with NOISE? Information, media, activities, stuff. So often the things we fill every second with aren’t actually things we care about, but we do them because we’re so uncomfortable stopping.

Why do we catch ourselves reading the backs of our shampoo bottles?

Why can’t we just be quiet sometimes?

I think that it has a lot to do with fear. Sure, there’s definitely some habit, some addiction built in there. But I think even if we could stop distracting ourselves all day every day, we might choose not to, because of fear.

Each one of us have weird stuff in our lives. The stuff that sometimes keeps us up at night. Fear, uncertainty, confusion, hurt, crappy feelings. Quiet brings those feelings to the surface. When we just let quiet time be quiet, silent time be silent, suddenly we discover we have all these thoughts and feelings that we usually keep buried down inside us as we hurtle through our days. You know what feels better than facing our deep down selves? Facebook again.

When we slow down, embrace the quiet, and just be present with ourselves, as ourselves, for ourselves in this moment, we sometimes feel a lot of discomfort. Or maybe all the time. (“Every of the time.” – Kevin Malone)

Have you ever told someone, or had someone tell you, that they like to keep busy because it’s hard to just sit with their thoughts?

 

Quiet brings out the real. It brings everything to the surface. And I think that we generally expect that this is going to be disastrously painful.

 

But my own experience tells me that when you embrace the quiet, eventually it becomes so much better than expected. After a while, sitting quietly, embracing the silent, empty times can be one of the most wonderful parts of life.

After high school I spent a while volunteering in Ethiopia and in Uganda. Every day there, we had time to take naps in the afternoons. We walked slowly places, saw the sights, smelled the smells. And at each meal, we had time to just sit and visit and enjoy the moment.

It was quite the culture shock for me–not going to Africa, but coming back to America where life happens at breakneck speed. Suddenly there was hardly time for anything! Every moment was crammed full of stuff. Everyone walked quickly. Everyone drove quickly. Me, too! It took some reacclimating, but it just became life again: Hurry, hurry, hurry!

My wife and I got married and honeymooned in Italy (ugh, memories). A strange thing happens every day in many parts of Italy from about noon to 3. All the shops close up and everyone goes home to just sit quietly with their families and friends, relax, eat lunch together (probably cheese :'( oh my heart), drink wine, and just generally enjoy. This love for peaceful moments plays such an important part in the Italian way of life, they even coined a special phrase for it: Il dolce far niente. “The sweetness of doing nothing.”

I wondered if maybe I should insert some academic quote or study here about how beneficial it is for people to take more time to be quiet, to relax, to let go of doing, to just slow down, be present. But I don’t think any of us actually need to be convinced of this. I’m pretty sure this is something we all already know deep down. Right?

Are you too busy? Does the pace of your life make you feel stressed? Do you feel like there’s some really important stuff you’re missing out on because you’re always, always, always going, going, going?

 

Life has some really amazing stuff in it that you can only find and experience and appreciate when you sloooooow down, be present, and embrace the silence.

But slowing down makes us uneasy. We get addicted to filling each moment, and when we stop filling moments we start feeling unfamiliar feelings and OMG that’s weird.

So we zoom zoom zoom through life, like it’s a computer game, and even though we know we’re doing it the wrong way, we can always slow down and be present next time. Only, we don’t get extra lives. There’s no next time. If we rush through life and fill every second with distracting noise–that’s it. Life will be gone. It was your last life, and now it’s game over.

So maybe we need to go ahead and start slowing down today. Facing those silent times. Embracing those silent times.

 

Consider for a minute–what else could you find if you slowed down?

Try it now. Take this time. Look around you.

What do you see?

What do you notice?

What do you see that you don’t usually stop and appreciate?

There are probably some happy things around you.

There are probably some noises that you used to find interesting, comforting, or therapeutic.

There is probably some stuff that you like, that brings you lots of joy, but that you kind of forgot about.

Maybe there’s a human person sitting next to you with human person feelings and needs and a heart, somebody there for the connecting and the loving, and you forgot to notice that something that important was right there.

Feel your ear. Go ahead, touch it. You have an EAR! Isn’t that crazy??? Your ear is a beautiful and incredibly complex and elegant and delicate little instrument. And it is so much cooler than your iPhone! It gives you balance and spatial awareness. And it lets you hear the voices of your loved ones, and beautiful music. It’s amazing, right?

I bet you’re happy you have an ear. But I bet you forgot you have an ear today.

Did you know massaging your ear lobe is an easy and quick stress reliever and even pain reliever? And you have it free to you every day. Do you remember your ear?

Look outside of the window. What do you see? Something that’s there, there for you, right now?

How about a tree? Do you see a tree? Do you like trees? Trees are beautiful, right? Has a tree ever made you feel happy? Of course! What about today, though? Did a tree make you feel happy today? Pssh, no, why would you have looked at a tree today?! You’ve got to get to work! You have so much stuff to do!

Last weird-thing, I promise. Reach into your pocket, or your purse, or your bag. Or maybe look at your wrist or your finger or your neck. Do you have something with you that you’re wearing or that you keep on your person–something that makes you happy? Something that means a lot to you? Maybe a ring or a bracelet or a necklace. Or something significant on your key chain. Maybe when you saw it in a gift shop, it reminded you of adventure and you had to buy it. Or maybe it was a gift from someone special. What’s your thing you found? What does it mean to you? Does it make you happy, or bring you feelings of love? Let’s be honest, though–how often do you actually notice it anymore? Like when I bought my new car a few years ago, that was an incredible machine full of potential and adventures to be had. I appreciated it and wanted to show it off to everyone. I’d wake up in the morning and go oh man, my car! And then it got normal, and I forgot to notice it, and I forgot that I appreciate it, and I forgot that it makes me happy, and now it doesn’t make me happy anymore.

Until I slow down.

What doesn’t make you happy anymore because you are too busy to notice it? What is something you know you would like to get back in touch with, if only you could slow down a little bit? What do you take for granted now? What beauty and happiness in your life are you too distracted to have anymore?

I couldn’t help but ask for you to say it all again.
I tried to write it down but I could never find a pen.
I’d give anything to hear you say it one more time
That the universe was made just to be seen by my eyes
With shortness of breath, I’ll explain the infinite:
How rare and beautiful it truly is that we exist.

Saturn, by Sleeping at Last

 

So do you want to slow down? Do you need to slow down? Need more quiet times? More time to just be present? Discover beauty around you, discover yourself? Quiet time to just get in touch with yourself and what matters to you?

Me, too.

 

I hope that thinking about all this–thinking about your version of shampoo-bottles and how silly they are, looking around you and remembering what you’re missing when you’re too busy to look around you–I hope that all this inspires you a little bit to slow down, to be quiet, and to be present. To put the shampoo bottle down. It takes a lot of practice, I think. So good luck!

In case it helps, I have three little tips: Meditate; Go outside; And literally put “Downtime” on your schedule.

Meditation: Have you tried meditation? Have you tried making it a regular part of your life for a while? I think it’s amazing. Of course, there are hundreds of different kinds of meditation, and each kind works for some people and doesn’t work for others. Actually, “work” is the wrong word to use about meditation. See, I think the kind of meditation that helps us slow down and be present isn’t a meditation that “works.” It doesn’t fix our lives, get rid of our pain, make us happy. It is just a way to practice accepting exactly where we are, who we are. Accepting things. Accepting everything. Accepting life. So that when those awkward silences happen and when the alone-with-your-thoughts times come around, it’s okay for you. You’ve learned to breathe through the weird stuff. Only then can you be present for the good stuff, too. If you haven’t tried meditating, I’d really encourage you to try it. Click here to read about how meditation helps me, and click here for a couple great places to get started.

Going outside: Guys, outside is FREE! And it’s RIGHT THERE! It’s so accessible, just waiting for you to go be in it. If you don’t know where to go, ask a friend! If you live in Minnesota, ask me! And if you’re an introvert and asking people about something unfamiliar is scary, pop open Google Maps and look for the areas shaded green. Leave your phone behind and just go walk. (I know, this is the 21st century and leaving your phone behind is an absolutely terrifying prospect. See Ryan in The Office, season 8, episode 11: Trivia. Leave me a comment if you already know exactly what he says because then I want to be your friend.) Or at least leave your phone in your pocket. And just go. Go walk. Go sit or lie down under a tree. Go feel the fresh air. You know what’s not outside in nature? Your long to-do list, your crazy inbox, your busy workweek, your stressful social obligations, your house that needs cleaning. Nature is a great escape. It’s a place of beauty, a place of inspiration, and it’s a place that makes all the busy, stressful parts of life seem a whole lot smaller. So get outside! Escape! Find beauty! Find quiet!

Scheduling downtime: Okay, I’m going to bet you don’t have free space in your schedule these days, right? But let’s be honest, if you have absolutely no space to squeeze free time in to your schedule, you need it more than anyone else! We can’t afford not to. We only get this one life to be present for. We need to slow down sometimes. Like–top priority. I’m doing research for a school essay and ran across some scary statistics: You and I (the average American adult) spend well over 2 hours a day on social media type stuff on our smartphones. And we spend over 11 hours a day interacting with some kind of internet connection and media (see this eye-opening graphic from Nielsen). I really bet we do have time to slow down and be quiet and be present–if we make time. And if scheduling downtime really still seems impossible, if you really do have too much to do, then maybe just get reckless and throw your to-do list away for a day. Before you turn 85. Life goes fast! So please–commit to downtime.

I hope these help. What are your ideas for slowing down, finding quiet, and experiencing more present moments in your life? We’re all in this together!

 

Have you seen Pixar’s movie Up? Have you cried watching Up? Okay, have you cried like a baby watching Up? I thought so.

One of Pixar’s most iconic scenes, because it touches us on such a deeply human level: The old man, whose wife has passed away, is feeling guilty and regretful–they didn’t do all the big stuff they were going to do together with their lives. He pulls out an old photo album and flips through the pictures of their life together. And you know what he finds? The quiet moments. The little things! Sitting on a park bench feeding the birds. Sharing a mug of coffee at the kitchen table, smiling and laughing. Holding hands. Laying in the grass. Turns out they lived the richest, sweetest, most fulfilling life together they possibly could have lived. (Here, watch it again. You know you want to.)

See life has so much beauty to be found. So much peace to be found. So much love to be found.

But we’ll miss it if we don’t slow down.

So be slow. Be quiet. Be present.

Beauty, peace, and love to you!

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the mindfulness teacher:
“It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself.”

~

Eckhart Tolle - Most humans are never fully present

To a little kid, little hurts are big and real

I want to speak up for a group of people that can’t really speak up for themselves. A group of little people. People who don’t get taken too seriously when they speak up. Because they’re “just” little kids.

(Hey you, if you saw this title and clicked on this post because you were excited to shame someone you know, to make them feel bad for not having “parenting” figured out, or excited to attack anyone, really, please just skip to the P. S. at the very bottom.)

I’ve looked for the words for this for a long time, sat on a draft for over a year, because I actually think this subject matters a lot, but I probably don’t know enough about it and definitely won’t do it justice. But I guess it matters enough to say it anyway–at least this morning it does.

 

Bradford was a sensitive little guy, maybe 6 years old. He had the cutest little dimples and the sweetest laugh. I remember Bradford’s face when someone poured water over his head one time. It didn’t seem like a big deal to the adult who poured water over his head, but it was a big deal to Bradford, and he cried. A lot. I don’t think that makes what the adult did bad. But I think when Bradford starts crying, that matters. I think when Bradford starts crying, it’s time to hear Bradford’s feelings, to care, to see him as a human with valid experiences and needs.

The problem is I think we very frequently discount all those experiences and needs, because Bradford is “just a kid.” So we laugh awkwardly about it when Bradford is crying–silly Bradford. He’s just not emotionally tough yet. He’s overreacting. He’ll get over it. It was pretty funny.

Grace is the youngest in her family, still young enough that her little big feelings aren’t too consequential for the grown ups in her life. So when Grace gets to orders onion rings, and saves them for last, and then begs her dad not to eat her onion rings, and then cries when he eats them anyway–this is all pretty insignificant. Grace, after all, is just a kid. She will get over it. Onion rings aren’t something to cry over.

There’s a little girl I know who has such a big heart and big smile, and those come along with big feelings. She is cute as can be, and like any toddler, she is learning how life works. A while ago I was watching and listening to her do and say something just outrageously adorable. Like, she doesn’t even know. And it made the grown ups around her proud. Made us laugh a beaming-affectionate type of laugh. But the little girl saw us laughing, and she suddenly got quiet. She looked very worried. It wasn’t fun anymore. Why were we laughing at her?

 

Trying to predict the feelings and reactions of a little kid is about as difficult as it is to predict the feelings and reactions of “grown ups” like the ones you work with. (Let’s be honest.) So I don’t fault anyone who unintentionally makes a little kid feel sad, scared, embarrassed, or picked on. It’s going to happen.

I do, though, care a lot about what happens when the little kid starts feeling sad, scared, embarrassed, or picked on. When their smile fades and their eyes start filling up.

 

When Bradford is an adult, I don’t think he’ll care as much about water getting dumped on his head. When Grace is an adult, she’d probably just buy herself her own onion rings and not let people steal them. And when that little girl watches videos someday of her adorable two-year-old self, I bet she’ll smile and laugh, too, self-consciousness gone.

But the fact that they’ll grow up not to care as much about that little thing doesn’t make their feelings now unimportant.

Really, what is the difference between a child feeling hurt and an adult feeling hurt? Why do we have to be considerate of the feelings of an adult, but not of a kid? Why do we have to be kind and respectful to an adult, but not really a kid? Time? Age? Do those change the value of the hurting person? No, I think when we think really honestly and carefully about this, the really big difference is that the little people can’t stick up for themselves. It’s okay for adults to tease and laugh at little kids for being weak and vulnerable. It’s okay for adults to be thoughtless or unkind to little kids. It’s okay because the kids will grow up and . . . not have scars? No, it’s okay because the adults are in charge.

Lots of times, adults absolutely care when their little one starts crying–here’s to you, that can be an exhausting job! But sometimes, it’s just that adults don’t care when something ends up hurting their kiddos. For some parents, it never ever matters what their kid “wants.” And I think more frequently than we’d like to admit, adults actually get to be downright mean and inconsiderate to their little kids.

I want to say this, but I want to say it carefully: Little kids learn big lessons about the world from their little big feelings. When their tears are funny to you, they grow up knowing that. Even worse, when their tears just have no significance to you, they grow up knowing that.

I want to say that carefully, because “they’ll have scars when they grow up” is only part of the reason little kids’ feelings matter. Someone’s future feelings shouldn’t really be a necessary motivator for valuing their now-feelings. People just matter. People’s hearts matter. Feelings matter. Whether those now-feelings are felt in 6-foot-2-inches of body or “just” 3-foot-9.

 

I know 3-foot-9 feelings can be unpredictable or irrational. But that’s really no excuse to write them off, because 6-foot-2 feelings are also unpredictable and irrational. (Have you met grown-ups?)

And I know sometimes, no matter how angry or sad or hungry or not-hungry or definitely-not-wanting-to-wear-pants your little kid is in the moment, you have to get them in their car seat, they have to swallow some nutrients, and they cannot watch TV all day. So they’ll cry, and even if you love them and value their feelings, you still have to take good care of them, and you still have to keep your sanity. More power to you, moms and dads, because I can’t even imagine . . .

But when I grow up, I’ll remember if you at least cared to not let my tiny heart be broken unnecessarily. I’ll remember if you ever accepted or affirmed my emotions. I’ll remember if you thought they were funny or annoying instead of real. I’ll remember if my feelings never matter.

And honestly, that should matter before I grow up, too.

So remember to put yourself in your kid’s place, sometimes. To imagine what their feeling. To listen to what they’re feeling.

 

I’m no expert. I’m not a developmental psychologist. So maybe I’m wrong.

But I was “just a kid” once.

 

“Children’s emotions are as real as yours. Just because they might get sad over the colour of their cup, does not make their feelings any less real.” – Rebekah Lipp

 

P. S. One reason this post took so long for me to write is that I cannot imagine the challenge, the responsibility, and the pain of trying to be a “good parent.” We all screw up at just about everything sometimes, and you’re no more a monster for sometimes getting it wrong with a kid than you are for sometimes getting it wrong with the grown-ups in your life. This isn’t a you-should-feel-bad post, and please don’t use it that way, against yourself or against others. It’s just a please-see-your-kid reminder. I just wish you and your kiddo the best!

Dr Seuss - a person's a person no matter how small

7 Words of Hope from a Nazi Death Camp

 

One of the hardest books to read, but one of the most rewarding. I just finished psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. During the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of an estimated 17 million humans like you and me, Frankl was moved from camp to camp, doing forced labor in brutal conditions, threatened constantly with death. Man’s Search for Meaning serves both as a memoir of sorts for his time in concentration and labor camps and as an explanation of how that experience shaped his understanding of psychology.

I want to share with you just a few of the words of hope that I found in Frankl’s book, and I hope you’ll be inspired to read the rest of the book yourself. I can’t state strongly enough the impact that this book has had. No matter how sad its stories, I found it to be one of the most hopeful books I’ve read.

 

1. You matter.

Some days you may question whether there’s any point to your being here. But even in the worst of times, Frankl found that if he and his fellow prisoners considered the impact they might still have on others through their love and their work in the future, they could see just how much each of them did matter.

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'” – Viktor Frankl

 

2. You get to choose your life’s meaning.

Life is a weird path of twists and turns for each of us, and in comparing ourselves to others or to the ideals we think we’ve learned, we sometimes can’t find how we matter. But Frankl learned that peace can be found in giving up the search for an ultimate meaning, and instead choosing what you will live for.

“Everyone has is own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. . . . Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.” – Viktor Frankl

 

3. You can always find joy and fulfillment in LOVE.

Love is a powerful and beautiful thing. For me, this was one of the most meaningful and helpful messages in the book. In a strongly individualistic society, it is hard to grasp the significance and fulfillment in just loving another person. It is okay to live for love.

“My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. . . . A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” – Viktor Frankl

 

4. You can reduce your suffering by observing it objectively. 

It’s hard to imagine suffering worse than prisoners in a concentration camp, but even in such intense suffering, Frankl found relief. He discovered that a simple change in how you observe the present moment can make a bad situation much more bearable. He told a story about when, during a particularly awful day, he started imagining that he was actually retelling his situation in a future psychological lecture. Just this simple mental exercise helped immensely, reminding him that life was bigger than his current hurt, that the present was simply a circumstance that could be observed.

“By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself. . . . What does Spinoza say . . . ‘Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.'” – Viktor Frankl

 

5. Feelings of joy and suffering are relative. You’re not stuck in your feelings.

This may be a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it and what focus you choose. Frankl observed that the feelings of despair, suffering, frustration, and sadness, weren’t necessarily worse or more overwhelming, in a situation as awful as a concentration camp, than in a less severe circumstance. Humans tend to feel suffering very completely, whether the stressor is big or little. On the one hand, that can mean a small disappointment can be overwhelming. On the other hand, that can mean that you may handle the very worst circumstances much better than you think–which is a hopeful thought. Studies have shown that people who go through awful events often end up much less devastated, at least after a while, than they think they will be. In the same token, feelings of happiness and joy can be extremely strong, even when found in very simple experiences.

“Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative. It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.” – Viktor Frankl

 

6. Growing old is going to be okay.

This one sucks. I always hate thinking of growing old, watching my remaining time in this life get shorter and shorter. This book honestly helped with that. Frankl has the most beautiful perspective on this that I’ve heard. It’s a peaceful and hopeful one. I’ll let him speak for himself. I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.

“At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence. . . . I should say having been is the surest kind of being. . . . The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a younger person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.'” – Viktor Frankl

 

7. You are always free to choose and change.

Another one that is near and dear to my heart, that inspires compassion and hope for myself and for others: His life in Nazi death camps persuaded Frankl that people are not stuck being, thinking, speaking, or acting as they have, or as they’re conditioned to. Sure, the deck may be stacked against you. And on average, people tend to stick with their patterns. But at the end of the day, each of us is free to choose. Free to choose how we will react to the circumstances life brings to us. Free to choose who we are.

“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” – Viktor Frankl

 

Guys, it’s hard to communicate how much I loved this book. It wasn’t the most impressively written, it wasn’t the most exciting, it wasn’t the most pleasant. But it was full of the raw experiences of real life in all its nitty gritty weirdness. It was honest. And it was full of hope and inspiration. So full of hope. Real hope.

I hope you’ll read it. And I hope that every day for the rest of your life, you’ll find hope.

~

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl

When you’re absolutely sure, remember you’ve been sure before

Marcus Aurelius - I will happily change

I couldn’t stand Professor Bauman. I took a philosophy class from him where he constantly picked holes in his students deepest convictions and forced them to ask really difficult questions. I got his point–he wanted us to think carefully with open minds–but whenever one of us would ask him, “What do YOU believe?” he would refuse to tell. I couldn’t have been more sure that he was a bad person for teaching that way: Nobody should lead people to question themselves and then refuse to help them reaffirm their beliefs in the truth–or at least what I saw as the truth.

Now my mind has changed completely. I think Professor Bauman and another similar professor I also disliked for the same reason were two of the most valuable teachers I ever had. I got out into the real world where I was confronted every day by fiercely differing viewpoints, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I realized then that the unquestioning certainty and the relative lack of questioning that kids like me grew up with, was the worst possible preparation for dealing with life as an adult. Now I’m embarrassed that I was so vocally opposed to his teaching.

Who knows? Someday I could change my mind about this again.

The other day my brother-in-law sent me something I wrote as an over-confident teenager vehemently arguing for a viewpoint I no longer hold–he texted: “9 years is a long time.” It was equally hilarious and cringeworthy.

 

I’m not the only one who has done a complete 180 on big life things. In fact, a lot of people change their minds again and again and again.

Antony Flew was a champion of atheism who drastically changed his mind at the end of his life and wrote a book arguing for the existence of a god. Dan Barker was a Christian preacher for a long time but is now an atheist activist.

Almost 200 years ago, John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential philosophers and political economist in the 1800s, changed his mind completely about his core economic beliefs. According to his autobiography, his reading of romantic poets caused him to question the commitment to classical economics he had held since childhood, eventually leading him to a much more liberal viewpoint.

 

Here’s the thing. I was ABSOLUTELY SURE. So were Flew and Barker and John Stuart Mill.

What’s something that you used to be absolutely sure of that you no longer believe? I know there’s something.

 

I think it can do wonders for your life and relationships to remind yourself regularly that you used to be absolutely certain of things you no longer believe. That you’ve completely changed your mind about something you never used to question. That you now believe or do something you used to call “crazy” when you saw it in others.

When we forget that we have so drastically changed our minds before, we don’t consider that we might drastically change them again.

And when we are so certain there’s not a chance we’re wrong, we don’t easily learn, we frustrate people we talk to, and we miss out on the wisdom we could find in others whose different experiences have led them to see things we don’t see.

If I always talk to you as if I absolutely know that I am right and you are dead wrong, someday I’m going to have to eat my own words.

The more sure I am that I’m right about something, the more carefully I need to remember that I may someday realize I am wrong.

~

“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – William Shakespeare


P.S. If you’re nerdy like me and like reading, check out this little gem from John Locke, an influential thinker from the 17th century–talking about being respectful in argument, honestly admitting uncertainty and allowing for uncertainty in others:

[After pointing out that we must often act upon probabilities that fall short of certainty, he says that the right use of this consideration] “is mutual charity and forbearance. Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth, and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenants presently upon the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of. It would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that anyone should readily and obsequiously quit their own opinion and embrace ours with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For, however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another. If he you would bring over to your sentiments be one that examines before he assents, you must give him leave at his leisure to go over the account again and, recalling what is out of his mind, examine the particulars to see on which side the advantage lies. And if he will not think over arguments of weight enough to engage him anew in so much pains, it is but what we do often ourselves in the like case, and we should take it amiss if others should prescribe to us what points we should study. And if he be one who wishes to take his opinions upon trust, how can we imagine that he should renounce those tenants which time and custom have so settled in his mind that he thinks them self-evident and of an unquestionable certainty, or which he takes to be impressions he has received from God himself, or from men sent by him. How can we expect, I say, that opinions thus settled should be given up to the arguments or authority of a stranger or adversary, especially if there be any suspicion of interest or design, as there never fails to be where men find themselves ill-treated? We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance and endeavor to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse, because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds? Or of the falsehood of all he condemns? Or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds in this fleeting stage of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. There is reason to think that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.” (Quote taken from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy)

Scary till you do it

H P Lovecraft - Fear of the unknown

I find that things can be scary to me until I do them. If not scary, at least intimidating or overwhelming. Giving a performance, running a marathon, making new friends, confronting a coworker, or even just a little handyman project at home.

“It’s scary till you do it” seems like a good general rule to me, and one that can be very helpful to remember.

I say “general rule” because on occasion, things we are scared of get even scarier after we make ourselves do them. Case in point: Giant crowds or loud parties can get worse and worse every time for an especially introverted introvert.

But this really is a more common theme in life than we may first imagine. Sure, most things in life don’t scare you right now. But they used to. When you were a newborn baby, meeting a new face scared you. As a toddler, dogs scared you until you had met a few of them. You were scared of riding your bike without training wheels until you finally just went for it. You probably used to be scared of the pool. And even though you’ve gotten used to most things in life, there are probably a few things that still really scare you. Interviewing, mortgages, or maybe even spiders.

A perfect example: My wife and I were hiking the other day and found a snake. She assured me it was harmless. She and her siblings used to catch them in their yard. In my head I believed her. But when she reached down and grabbed its tail, I just about had a heart attack. The thing is, she had plenty of experience at this. I did not. Easy peasy for her. Not for me.

More applicable to day-to-day life–and what got me thinking about this in the first place–is car shopping. Last Saturday I went with my brother-in-law to a dealership to look at cars. The entire process was brand new to him, whereas I had bought from a dealer twice before, loans and all. More than anything, I was really there to help make it less overwhelming, to lend some confidence. After a day at the dealer, my brother-in-law talked about how much easier it would be next time around for him. He knew what to expect now. It was no longer uncharted territory. And someday he’ll be the experienced car shopper helping someone who’s a little scared because they haven’t tried it before.

 

Understanding that things are less scary after you do them doesn’t magically make things not scary. It just makes scary okay. It helps us do the scary thing anyway so we can have the big reward.

Planning our entire wedding and honeymoon trip to Italy by ourselves, when neither of us had traveled far in a long, long time, was very nerve-racking. I just kept feeling like something wasn’t going to work out. Like we’d get there and realize we hadn’t gotten our plans quite right. Like we weren’t actually going to be able to pull off our dream wedding. But there was also a little part of me that remembered traveling to Africa alone when I was younger, and how much easier and less scary it was than I thought it was going to be. So we took a leap and did it. It was absolutely incredible, and now travel planning is a lot less intimidating.

 

Understanding this general rule helps us to do scary things anyway. Understanding a bit more about how it works might make life even easier. So here are a couple more things I’ve noticed:

The longer you put something off out of fear, the scarier it gets. Standing at the top of a cliff, staring down into the water below, friends daring you to jump in–you realize just how high it really is. You take a step back and start to launch yourself. Halfway through you freeze. You panic. It’s too far. So you wait and wait and wait. You keep preparing yourself to jump. But for some reason, it gets harder and harder and harder the longer you wait. Sometimes life is easier when you just do the scary thing quickly.

It might still be scary after you do it–just probably not quite as scary as before. Doing something you were scared of doesn’t guarantee it won’t be scary anymore. In fact, with many things it will probably stay scary even if you’ve done it a number of times. Like starting a new job. It could be your tenth employer and you’ll still be nervous. But I’ll bet you’re not as when you started your first job.

The more you do the scary thing, the easier it gets. If you want to be less scared of something, do it again and again. I have come to love public speaking, but I was definitely not a natural at it. The first time I ever tried, I lasted about 10 seconds, did more squirming than speaking, and cried in front of an audience. Then I kept doing it through the fear. After a few times it was still awful, but a little less. I kept doing it through high school, and then later on through a Toastmasters club. Eventually, public speaking became so familiar and comfortable it just wasn’t scary anymore.

It is okay to be scared. Just let yourself be a human. You’re going to do better than you think.

 

Courage isn’t not being scared. It’s doing something even though you’re scared. And the more you exercise your courage, the less scary things get.

When you were laying in bed as a kid, the coat hanging in the closet that looked like a monster got a lot less scary when you got up the courage to go check it out for yourself.

Now that you’re an adult, remember: Big scary things life things usually aren’t so scary once you get to know them.