Kindness matters

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When I was in business, I had a client who used to make big speeches about “random acts of kindness.” He had read a book, and was convinced that the secret to life required only these unexpected gestures; even the smallest act could yield enormous results. He was very excited to think that each person could make a difference. He always made a point of relating every such act he had performed recently in order to illustrate the theory and how well he was adhering to it. The upshot of the speech was, of course, what a great place the world would be if everyone was as thoughtful as he was. What a great guy.

The truth is he was a good guy, but he evidently was only committed to random acts. Anything as structured and regular as paying invoices on time didn’t seem to qualify. He didn’t pay me, he didn’t pay his employees, and presumably he didn’t pay his other suppliers. His delinquency was one of the contributing factors in the loss of my business, and certainly caused hardship for his employees. He was aware of the effects of his actions, but was not able to take responsibility for them.

He was causing other people pain, but kept talking about kindness.

The reality of who we are is often divorced from who we think we are. Most people see themselves as either far better or far worse than they really are. Not many people see the truth: that most of us are just doing the best we can. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. We are both the best and the worst that we think we are, and a lot of stuff in between.

I remember a conversation I had once with friends at a Chinese restaurant. Someone’s fortune said: “Everything will now come your way.” Everybody oohed and aahed over it. How great! Everything is going to be terrific! I pointed out that it doesn’t say “Everything will be terrific.” It said, “Everything will now come your way.”

Big difference, but it took them a while to see it. Everything is simply…uh…every thing. All things, good and bad, welcome and unwelcome. And that’s life. Everything does come our way, but we reject some things as being “bad,” and rejoice at the rest. Where there is light, there is shadow. We forget the shadow part — forget that it is a normal part of life — that without the shadow there can be no light. Light is defined by shadow, and vice versa. Black needs White, Good needs Evil. They both have to be present.

Often we can’t accept the shadow in ourselves. We don’t even see it most of the time. It’s there, believe me. In everyone. No one is perfect, and I think, actually, that is the point. The shadow — our own, others’, the country’s, and the world’s — the shadow side of life in total, is our path to freedom, but because it’s strewn with big ugly rocks that are difficult to pass, and guarded by big hairy monsters, we’d rather not go down it. We keep thinking there must be another way.

I would like to believe there’s an easy way, too. But I just don’t think there is. There is just the one path, this “human life” road, rocks and monsters and all. The thing is, though, that it’s an exciting journey; for better or worse, and sometimes it’s a lot of fun. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes arduous. But it is always worth it.

Yes, I believe that. Even when people let me down. Even when life lets me down. Even when I let myself down. We’re all just here, and we’re doing the best we can, and that’s okay. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others. It’s hard for everyone.

Step into your shadow. Examine it. Understand it. It really is everything coming your way.

Ultimately, it’s the only way.

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No joke

Why don’t cannibals eat clowns?

Because they taste funny.

Ba dump ba!

That’s my favorite joke. It always makes me laugh. Now you know: I’m really rather easily amused!

I’m trying to cheer myself up. I had a less than perfect day. Waaaaaay less than perfect, as a matter of fact, and I’m beat. Still I have to remember: the reality of my life is that my worst day is still usually better than the days at least 50% of the people on the planet experience.

I have a job. I have enough food, and I have teeth with which to chew a warm nutritious dinner. I have a warm, cozy house to come home to at the end of this less than perfect day. I have a car that runs, money to pay my bills, good health, eyes to see, and two legs to carry me where I need to go. I haven’t lost my home to a tsunami or forest fire, or my life to a murderous dictator.

I love this poem by Wendell Berry:

What We Need is Here

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

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The trick is to remember that, especially on less than perfect days, because sometimes it seems like something’s missing, or something is out of place, or not right. If only I had…If only it was…I wish I could…

It depends on where we choose to look, I think. At least, that’s it for me. Not that the problems aren’t there, and not that they’re not difficult sometimes. Life is not easy. Not for anyone. But it is definitely harder for some than others, and I don’t ever want to lose sight of that. My life is sometimes challenging, but it has never been really horrible. It doesn’t even register on the scale of human suffering. I have what I need, though I may not always have what I want.

I think that’s a distinction we’ve lost sight of in this country. Want vs Need. They are not the same thing. We have an idea that we deserve better. I hear people say that a lot – that they have rights; that they deserve attention because they think someone is getting something better than what they have. Better stuff, more stuff, better treatment, whatever. Entitlement is an idea that has taken over our culture. Why do we imagine we’re entitled to anything? Aren’t people in Bangledesh or Afghanistan entitled, too? What do they deserve? Is it just people in this country? Have we done something to “deserve” special consideration?

What about people in Rwanda, or China, or Russia or Liberia? Does our American citizenship make us more deserving? A certain color skin? A religion? A way of life? Are we entitled to a perfect life because we work, or don’t work, or give to charity, or disapprove of the homeless? Are we better because we haven’t landed on the street or in a shelter?

No! Of course, not. It’s all just us, folks, and until we really understand that — that we are all in this thing together, and that nobody wins until everybody gets in the game — we aren’t entitled to anything.

A Jewish parable: “There were some sailors in a boat, which started to ship water. One sailor began to dig a hole under his seat to let the water out. The others stopped him at once. He was very surprised and rather angry. ‘What right have you got to stop me?’ he said. ‘I was digging a hole under my seat, not yours.'”

This life doesn’t come automatically with fresh air and good schools, good food, big houses, let alone freedom. A good share of the human beings on this planet have no idea what it is, or can only dream of what it might be like.

We got lucky, if we were born white in the United States of America, were able to get an education, keep all our teeth, work to feed our children, and have time and money left over with which to get fat. It was just luck, plain and simple. Why was I lucky and someone in India was not? I don’t know.

I don’t think why matters. I think only how matters now. How are we going to make it right?

How can we ensure that everybody has the luxury of thinking about a less than perfect day?

On the trail of the talking dog

I love this:

A guy sees a sign in front of a house: “Talking Dog for Sale.” He rings the bell and the owner tells him the dog is in the backyard. The guy goes into the backyard and sees a black mutt just sitting there.
“You talk?” he asks.
“Yep,” the mutt replies.
“So, what’s your story?”
The mutt looks up and says, “Well, I discovered my gift of talking pretty young and I wanted to help the government, so I told the CIA about my gift, and in no time they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping. I was one of their most valuable spies eight years running. The jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn’t getting any younger and I wanted to settle down. So I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security work, mostly wandering near suspicious characters and listening in. I uncovered some incredible dealings there and was awarded a batch of medals. Had a wife, a mess of puppies, and now I’m just retired.”
The guy is amazed. He goes back in and asks the owner what he wants for the dog. The owner says, “Ten dollars.”
The guy says, “This dog is amazing. Why on earth are you selling him so cheap?”
The owner replies, “He’s just a big liar. He didn’t do any of that stuff.”

Talk about missing the point!

I got a fortune in a Chinese restaurant a couple of years ago that said essentially the same thing: “Stop searching forever. Happiness is just next to you.” I have it taped to my desk, because I have trouble remembering that. Sometimes you just can’t see what’s right in front of you (or next to you). Happiness is just as difficult to find sometimes as a talking dog. Not because it’s not there, but because we don’t recognize it for what it is, or because we’re not looking in the right place.

Sometimes we don’t realize we’re happy until we’re unhappy. The Buddha taught that it is not things or events that make us unhappy; it is our attachment to things and events that causes us always to be dissatisfied. It appears that it is not human nature to simply  be present fully in the moment and experience life directly.

Most often I suffer the same problem as the dog owner in the joke: my expectations get in the way. Things don’t come to me in the form I expect or think I want, so I don’t recognize an opportunity for what it is. By the time Iunderstand, it’s long gone. Then I regret my mistake, I get attached to “what could have been,” and I’m unhappy.

~Sigh~

It’s very hard not to expect things to be a certain way. It is our nature to want to understand our world.  The human brain is wired to fill in gaps, to make patterns, and to find meaning in what the senses perceive. We spend years in school learning about “absolutes” in the world; laws of nature and physics that cannot be broken. Things we can expect to always be the same. 2 x 2 is and always will be 4.

If we couldn’t expect some things to be the same at least most of the time, we would be under constant stress. Expectation makes us feel safe; gives us a feeling of security that we know where things fit in – where we as individuals fit in. The world would be way too scary if nothing had any meaning; if we approached each moment as if it were our first.

In human history it has been to our advantage to exchange spontaneity for constancy; wonder for safety, variety for control. However, that exchange has brought us and our planet to the brink of destruction. That way of thinking,was useful for a long time, but it is not useful now. If we aren’t willing to be surprised we miss joy, we miss beauty, we miss love. We miss life.

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Helen Keller said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.

Nothing less than a rebellion against brain chemistry is required. No small thing. At some point each of us has to make a choice: do I go on trying to feel safe, or do I choose to live fully? The second option requires letting go of expectations and seeing the world  and everything in it as it really is, in every moment, and trusting that it’s all good, no matter what it is. Roses have thorns, after all that. That’s just the way things are.

Go forward into that daring adventure. Look for the talking dog. Smell the flowers, accept the rain. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way.

The alternative is nothing at all.

May you listen to your longing to be free.
May the frames of your belonging be large enough for the dreams of your soul.
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart…something good is going to happen to you.
May you find harmony between your soul and your life.
May the mansion of your soul never become a haunted place.
May you know the eternal longing that lies at the heart of time.
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.
May you never place walls between the light and yourself.
May you be set free from the prisons of guilt, fear, disappointment and despair.
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you, mind you, and embrace you in belonging.

~~John O`Donohue

Small wonder

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https://www.instagram.com/mindfulness.everyday/

January 6 – The Feast of Epiphany in the church I grew up in. It marks the day the Three Wise Men visited baby Jesus, bearing gifts for the newborn, as described in the Bible. The symbolism is of something which comes to light; something hidden becomes apparent, in the way God became flesh. In common usage, usually, the word epiphany indicates a sudden revelation; an unexpected change in the way of thinking about something.

I’ve had a strong connection to this day and it’s meaning most of my life. The metaphor resonates deeply with me, even though I no longer attend church. I rarely think things out in a logical path; most ideas and thoughts come to me in an “I could have had a V-8!” kind of way. Even as a child I understood the symbolism in the church and in my life. My brain is, and always has been, more about revelation than reason. Every year around this time, something comes to light in a way I hadn’t seen before, usually right on the day. Often, in hindsight I find that I had an epiphany on Epiphany. Less often I recognize it as it’s happening.

This year it came yesterday as I was walking on a beautiful snowy, sunny northern Michigan day:

After living in the same small town most of my life, I finally realized I like it.

There are lots of times I’ve wished for more excitement, or opportunity, especially when I was younger. Many times I’ve been frustrated by a lack of anonymity, and the social obligations that come with living in a tiny community of people who have known me all my life.

But there are also times, especially in the winter, when I’m very happy to live in a rural area, and to feel a part of small town life. Summer is hectic and crazy when the tourists are here, but in the late fall, winter, and early spring, it’s just “us.” The locals. Doing our thing, keeping these little northern towns running, raising families, working and playing hard.

There aren’t many places to “go,” not compared to a city, and the pace in the winter is pretty slow. In my town there’s one movie theatre, one bookstore, one video store, one coffee shop, a few restaurants, a couple of bars. One two-lane street through downtown.

One stop light.

The library has evening programs fairly frequently, and they’re well-attended. There’s a book lovers group that meets once a month, high school basketball games almost every night between the girls’ and boys’ leagues, and lots of places to volunteer.

There’s the Kiwanis Club, the Lions, the Rotary, the Garden Club, the Grange. Every Christian denomination is represented, and if you belong to a church the congregation is small and there is a lot to be done, and activities to attend throughout the week. The kids are involved in sports, 4-H, Brownies, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. There are support groups, charity groups, two gyms. The Masons hold a Cribbage tournament every year, you can hike, snowboard or ski at the ski hill,  and every other weekend there’s a snowmobile ride-in. There are adult hockey leagues in a nearby town, for both men and women, and evening basketball and volleyball leagues, too. If you’re in your church choir, you most likely practice on Thursday night.

The rest of the time you work — hard — in one of 4 large local factories in the area, or farming, or fishing, or a combination of jobs to make ends meet. You drive a bus, or work in a body shop. You teach school, work for the county, run a daycare, or wait tables. Maybe you’re a part of the large artists’ community that meets and shares work in the old library building. Maybe you own a store or run a business that’s been in your family for generations.

You might work in the same place all of your life. You might live in the same house all of your life. Family is important. On Friday night in January, chances are when you walk in a restaurant you will know most of the people at the other tables as well as the person who cooks and brings you your dinner.

Not only do you know those people, but you know their parents, their brothers and sisters, and your kids play on the basketball team or are in Daisies together. At least once a week I run into someone with whom I started kindergarten and who was beside me 13 years later when we graduated high school 39 years ago. I see his kids and now grandkids in the paper. My parents knew his parents, and did since before we were born; they may have gone to school together, too.

Your doctor is your neighbor, and the police chief lives down the street. There are two fire trucks, one ambulance, and the EMTs and the fire department are mostly volunteers. The fire whistle blows every night at 9:30 for curfew (which no one acknowledges anymore), and no matter where you are in town you can hear the noon fire whistle and the bells on the Catholic and Congregational churches at lunchtime. At least one event you attend this winter will be a potluck, and someone will bring a jello mold, and something made with tuna fish.

The nearest “city” is 60 miles away and is only a little bit bigger. The real cities are “downstate” – Lansing, Detroit, Grand Rapids. All three to five hours away.

Like a town stuck in time. But I suspect that most towns are like this, all over the country. The excitement is in the cities, and that’s great for lots of people, but small towns are the largest part of American life still, I think. Especially in the Midwest. I feel a part of this place, and I know that it’s a part of me, and that for all my complaining about the weather, etc., when I leave it will be hard.

There are downsides, too, of course, and sometimes they’re hard to bear. For example, in my town, there aren’t many people of color. Also, if you’re Jewish or Muslim, you have to worship in another town.

Sometimes people’s perspectives and attitudes are as “small” as the town. It’s rather insular, this small town life in this sparsely populated area of Michigan, and you have to make an effort to stretch yourself and your horizons. Not everybody feels the need to do that, and that has to be okay. In a town this size, you don’t have to be friends with everybody, but you do have to find ways to get along, and that means for sure you are going to encounter someone with whom you absolutely do not see eye-to-eye, and you must accept that person’s right to be as he is, or you had better move to a bigger place.

I grew up here. Lots of people have known me since my parents brought me home. It’s hard to escape your past when someone reminds you of it everyday. Winter stretches on forever and summer flies by in a whirlwind of activity. As in all things, you have to take the good with the bad.

No matter where I go later in my life, I’ll always be from this little town. I’ll always be a Midwesterner, a northerner, a small town girl. How could I not love it? It’s part of me, this place with the water and the trees and the snow, as are these people who look and sound like me, and who recognize me as one of their own. Suddenly that seems like a good thing. I belong here, for now, at least, and that’s comforting. Knowing that this place is in me, and knowing that I’ll take it wherever I go is comforting, too. We all have to be from somewhere, and as “somewheres” go, this is a pretty good place to be.

This year, too

I am an optimist by nature, and I usually love the idea of a New Year. A new anything, really. This is the first year I can remember not feeling hopeful about the year ahead. I’m usually brimming with metaphors about new beginnings and clean slates, but this year I just see more of the same ahead, and that vision is sorely lacking in hopeful metaphors. 

2018 was challenging for me, and for many people I know. I started out the year excited about possibilities, but in short order 2018 laughed at my optimism and kicked me squarely in the teeth. I made it through – broken and bleeding for much of the year – and I stand at the threshold of this year willing to go on, but decidedly not optimistic.

I would like to believe something different is ahead this year – something good, something I want. In Numerology, the number 9 signals an ending: the end of a cycle, the end of a story, the end of an era. There are a couple of cycles I’m ready to end, for sure. There’s no end in sight, however, and this year, the idea of a “new beginning” or “possibilities” just sounds like a lot of work. 

I’m tired. Bone weary. Every day is a new mountain to be summitted. I get to the top and look ahead and all I see are more peaks. Maybe beyond my sight line there is an oasis; more likely just more peaks. Maybe something worse  a raging river to be crossed, a wall of fire to be breached. I don’t know, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. Most days it doesn’t feel like I’m making my way toward anything – I just keep going on for the sake of going on.  That’s all there is, finally. Just going on.

Life.

This is life. It’s a gift, and this is what I’ve been given. It’s not the worst, it’s not the best. It just is. I know some who have it much better, and I know some who have it so much worse. A childhood friend has lung cancer and will die this year. I think about her alot, and the other young friends who died last year. I’m sure they’d trade my life for theirs in a heartbeat.

So.

2019. This, too. A powerful mantra. Not just the good things. The hard things, too. This, too. All part of life – the ups and downs and the in-between – and all must be accepted if life is to be fully experienced. There is so much beyond the level of circumstance. Our true selves reside in possibility. Potential. Change.

Hope.

So to 2019 I would like to say, “please be gentle.” With all of us. I know, though, that request will not be heard. There is no Complaint Dept. Life is not concerned with what I want, just what is and what I have to offer. To accept life is to accept challenge. So, though I feel challenged-out, used up and spit out, I will try to rise again.  I’ll try to let it all in, no matter what it is. No matter what this year brings, I will do my best to accept it and keep moving forward. 

I’ll try hard to keep saying “This, too” to everything. The good, the bad, and everything in the middle. That’s my resolution this year – just to keep going. To keep trying to hope. To hang on to and honor my optimistic nature. To hang on to myself – my SELF –  and to life. Whatever it takes. It’ll be hard and I won’t like it and I’ll want to give up. 

Probably.

Maybe not. Maybe it’ll be great and easy for a change. I would like that. Ultimately, though, what matters is me – not what’s going on around me. I promise myself that I will try to embrace it all. I will do my best to keep going, and to remind myself as often as I can that it’s all part of the same thing. Inseparable. No good without bad, no light without darkness. No satiation without hunger. No strength without adversity.

So welcome 2019. To you I say: This year, too