Friday, December 25, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 26, 2020 - Be More Selfish Next Year

There is a long held belief that sacrifice is the pathway to all accomplishments ranging from high school diplomas to eternal salvation. These are the types of things which are accomplished through sacrifice. In the sense that the word is being used here, meaning that sometimes they gave up parties they really, really wanted to go to because they had an exam the next day, yes, they are making a sacrifice. Probably, hopefully, many of them. That type of basic sacrifice is easy to point out. Naming those sacrifices which merit eternal salvation, however, are well above my celestial security clearance.

We give a lot of weight to the act of sacrifice. It is seen as the path itself, unfortunately, not just a way of thinking about the experiences along it. That does us a disservice.

I often wonder who I’m really doing things for, to be honest. I make a practice of it, actually. It’s a very useful exercise. The stark truth is that we always and only do things for ourselves. That may not seem true on the surface, but the real motivating factor of any action we take is how it will benefit us in terms of the love we wish to show or staying out of trouble or getting brownie points or feeding our sometimes addiction to receiving validation from others. We sacrifice of ourselves most for the benefit of love. We, as the hopeful recipients of that love, sacrifice of ourselves to receive it every day. Sometimes for good, sometimes not so much.

The distinction I’m possibly sluggish to make here is that some sacrifices are ultimately not in service to our highest goals. Some sacrifices make it worse. Some destroy the very things we think we are sacrificing ourselves to preserve. So the question comes again: Who are you doing it for?

This question is an arrow marker toward a way of thinking about the subject of your sacrifices. It will not give you an answer to the question: Are my sacrifices sacrificing me? Not immediately, anyway. But it will begin to illuminate your own view of it. It will create a picture over time, every time you’re brave enough to ask it of yourself: Who am I doing this for? Ask it of every single action you take from brushing your teeth to caring for your elderly grandmother. Make sure it’s a good answer.

The answers will almost always be mundane. But do you brush your teeth so that people won’t smell your bad breath or do you brush them so that you are always in possession of healthy teeth? The answer could be both, but what’s the real percentage of each? You can tell by what you do on your day off when there’s no one around to smell your breath.

We fear that if we ask these things we will be considered selfish. Good. I love that word. In fact, being more selfish is my favorite New Year's resolution. I make it all the time. And every year I get more selfish. At least in the way I mean it. It comes down to the same methodology as that of airplane safety, really.

But first, a little refresher on the history of the word selfish.

The word selfish has a definition that does not match its structure. It’s origins speak of that, and in their own way, contribute to the unsustainable societal meme that sacrifice is the path to salvation. Not a path, the path.

The word selfish was coined in 1640 by an archbishop for his own use to describe, in the most repugnant terms, the events of his day. To him there was no word sufficiently hostile to describe the unworthiness of human nature as he witnessed it. So he created one.

The concept of ‘self’ up until that time was thought of very differently. Even the ancient Greek and Hebrew had no words for it in the way that combined body, mind and soul. Self referred to our physical bodies only, not the entirety of our being. That archbishop, I suspect, began something ultimately benevolent in his dark attempt to group a person’s soul with the actions of their physical body. He helped to create the notion of recognizing our self-identity as being more than just our physicality.

When we do things for ourselves we are being literally self-ish, meaning we do them with an awareness of self. That is neither good nor bad on its own. It’s when we serve ourselves to the exclusion or harm of others which typifies the standard usage of the word selfish, but that’s the archbishop’s inelegant definition. And it’s now getting in the way of our continuing growth as a society. We aren't being selfish enough in the truest sense of the word and we’re being held back by the pervasiveness of old, outdated ways of thinking.

Sacrifice is not the path. It is a tool we carry with us on our journey upon the path. Alongside it are character, faithfulness, empathy, wit and compassion, among others to be sure. Sacrifice has its proper place and value. It should not be misused.

The question returns: Who are you doing it for? Because we might still do much of what we are already doing in life. Helping your elderly grandmother is often something we must do, but what’s the fuel in your tank? Is it a good fuel? Does it fill you or drain you? Is it real nutrition or junk food? Think deeply about this. It is the underpinning methodology of every action you take. It is so deeply entrenched in who we are that it impacts our nervous system, our immunity, our sleep, even our diet.

If an airplane for some reason depressurizes in flight, oxygen masks will automatically drop down from above each seat. During the pre-flight safety instructions we are told by the flight attendants that in the event the masks should come down we are to put on our own masks first before helping others with theirs. This is not considered selfish. One cannot help others if they are not able to breathe properly. Take a deep breath now. That is a selfish act. Do more of them.

When we are more careful about the effectiveness of our sacrifices, we are behaving in greater consonance with our highest goals. Thinking this way might help us to remember once in a while that we need to ask for help with caring for our elderly grandmother on occasions we might otherwise have just shouldered through it. We too often maintain an unsustainable sacrifice, even if it means that the rest we habitually lose from neglecting our need for rest, over and over, makes us vulnerable to the flu that winter which kept us from being able to help our grandmother at all for over two weeks, but not before giving it to her. This is a hypothetical example, but we know this story.

It might mean insisting that your child make at least token savings for their own college education rather than paying for it outright. Having some skin in the game is better for you and them both. They still get an education, but more. That’s the kind of selfish I’m talking about.

It’s when we are self-less that we always get ourselves into trouble. Breathe.

Being more selfish is compassion without burnout or harm. Being more selfish is empowerment of others rather than enabling them. In the words of a local social entrepreneur whom I admire named Ginny White, it’s a hand up, not a hand out. It does not mean giving up being a good neighbor. It’s just remembering that the philosophy to do no harm means to ourselves as well.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 19, 2020 - Joy to the World, Please

I can’t think of anything I’d like more for Christmas than joy for this world, who has been through so much of late. This saddened and wicked world, full of disease and dis-ease, both. Wounds of the heart so deep even the light cannot penetrate them. Sorrows resting quietly inside and unknown. Likely to be taken to the grave, still unspoken.

And yet…

I have so much hope for this world. A world who want for nothing more than to just be together. To be held with the intent that their sorrows be eased, no matter if it’s possible through the act of embrace or not. Embrace anyway. If the weight cannot be lifted, it is better to be lightened.

I firmly believe that’s who we are. We are that better side of ourselves who tends to trust, and to heal. Our wounds are not us. Our politics are not us. We caused them, but we are not them. We are something else entirely. We are light, having a darkened experience.

If you read between the cracks in the news, you can see it. There is progress and love everywhere. It’s hidden amidst the boulders of conflict. But their size is an illusion. Look away from them. If you filter out the hate on your Facebook and Twitter feeds, and remember that social media is for entertainment purposes only, it suddenly becomes so much clearer what to do. Turn the other cheek. Turn away from it.

Should we know about the darkness? Yes. Ignorance is not bliss. But should we live in it? Never. Should we pray for its peace and ease? Always. Our hearts are eased a bit when we pray for those who hate us or wish us harm. It changes us chemically from within. Every ounce of weight lifted is one less carried. You’ll get much farther.

What would you be willing to do to feel better? We go through quite a lot to try. Think of the pills we take and the booze we drink and the games we play just to experience an approximation of what we imagine feeling good must be like. It seems as if we are chasing our imaginations; a daydream of what ease and comfort and satisfaction must feel like. If only we knew for sure.

There are those who feel ease, however. They feel it genuinely and most of their days are spent in a state of hopeful anticipation of what’s to come. They look forward to life. They, unlike many of us, have managed to crack the code and feel peace even amid the tumult. Are they fools or are we?

The weeks leading up to Christmas are called Advent for the Christian world. It is intended as a season of giddy expectation. Though most of us, including those who actively celebrate Christmas, often forget entirely the purpose of the weeks leading up to it. We encumber ourselves with layers of stress and obligation. But we are meant to revive ourselves during this time and remember that the winter will eventually end, both symbolically as well as literally. We are meant to consume cheer as though it could be spooned from a heaping plate on a buffet table.

This is a particularly challenging year for good cheer. But that doesn’t mean we need it any less. Yet the ways by which we attempt to approximate the good tidings we are supposed to know are all different now. We have a choice between gathering unsafely, and thereby unlovingly by default, or fighting the desire to gather and missing our friends and loved ones so keenly. It seems we can’t win.

But human ingenuity reigns supreme always. We never fail to come up with innovative and creative solutions to our most profound problems. Even healthier is when we live in a state of expectation for their eventual resolution. This is where healing lives.

When we alter our thoughts to include anticipation and hope and even gingerly venture in the direction of joy, things have a natural tendency to shift for us. It works in inexplicable ways to our human brain, though many attempt to explain it. Some theorize metaphysically, some scientifically. Each doing their best to explain why it is that when we change our thoughts we change our life.

As the new year approaches, putting the more religiously-originated holidays aside for a moment, we most of us see an opportunity for a clean slate. Will you? This year has been a genuine tragedy for us all. Even those who didn’t lose their jobs or who managed to avoid getting sick or lose a loved one to the virus, still had to contend with either the reality of its existence in the world or shoulder the enormous burden of ignoring it. All of humanity has experienced something together, even if in our own ways. That has a tendency to change things for the better. So long as that’s what we choose.

Do you believe in wishes? Maybe you should try. But also, when you do make that wish, remember it's a contract. Your end of the bargain is to never let go of what you’ve wished for. Your task is to maintain hope that what you’ve ordered is on its way, and only your patience and determination to believe shall outlast its journey. Never give up.

I hereby place a purchase order for joy as my gift to the world. It might not arrive on time for Christmas, but it’s coming. I believe that with every fibre of my being. Joy is coming. It may, in fact likely will, look far different than what we expect. It may appear as though it's a sweater, which at the time we ordered it, were so sure would fit us perfectly just as we are. But no. This is not a garment that can fit or not fit, nor can it be returned. Once here, joy will align with us as we will rise to align with it. Our form will shift to accommodate the shape and size of joy just fine. Fear not.

Do what you can to instill a sense of ease and purpose for this unusual time. Heal the sick, grieve those lost, and then live our lives in dedication to them. Let this tragedy compel our hearts into loving more, forgiving more and seeking ways to not just restore or retain our old relationships, but make new ones entirely as well. Expand your circle, even if only by a few people. Your life will change.

But first, as this year comes to a close, remember that you are the center of the Universe. What occurs within you radiates outward in ever-widening circles of whatever it is you’re transmitting. Let it be joy. We need it badly.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Hopeful Thinking, Saturday, December 12, 2020 - Whose Feelings Are Whose?

Rightly or wrongly, I have always thought of myself as a bit of an empath. It’s a loaded term, really. It can give impressions of every claim from the psychic to the emotional. I am somewhere toward the latter on the spectrum. 

It’s hard to tell sometimes whether my emotional experiences are those of others or of myself. Assuming it’s a little of both, I try to be mindful of the percentage. It’s preferable that the majority of my emotional experience originates from within myself. I’m better equipped to help others if I’m not taking on their feelings but just listening to them. 

To sit with someone in their grief should not be the same as grieving. That’s not to say we don’t grieve alongside our friends. A healthy version of grieving alongside one’s friend is a prayer to the Universe for their ease. May their grief be eased. Amen. It has a different character to it than taking on the grief of others. 

Back in the early 90s when I moved to New York City I remember feeling waves of despair. It wasn’t about moving away from home, though I did have a slight bit of homesickness. My sense of adventure was far more demanding than any desire to return home just yet. But I couldn’t help feeling as if it were better to just give up even though I’d hardly gotten started. That didn’t sound like me at all. 

Walking the streets of New York especially, I could feel the despair of the city. I didn’t realize that at first. At first I thought there was something wrong with me. I don’t even know what caused my sudden realization, but one day walking near Bryant Park it suddenly occurred to me that the feelings I was experiencing were not my own.

I don’t know where the idea came from, but I absolutely knew it to be true. I felt immediately better. And slowly, I learned how to distinguish other people's emotions from my own. It resulted in a greater curiosity and empathy for others. Essentially, it made me more brave. It made me more compassionate and less judgemental. It felt like a window into the hearts of other people. Not specific individuals, but the aggregate sea of humanity that exists in Manhattan. I felt for them.

I attribute that vast sea to the reason why I was able to figure it out. Manhattan has such a dense and emotionally seismic population. The range of emotions is off the chart and thickly concentrated. Frankly, it was easier to discern it from my own because it was so powerful and distinct. It made the boundary clearer than in other places I have lived or visited. The minute I realized where this newly-visible boundary lay I simply felt better. No great awakening other than just feeling better.

Over time I began to realize the implications of seeing the line. Once I saw the demarcation point between my own heart and that of others it changed me forever. Just realizing there was a line at all changed me. 

I still struggle with taking on the emotions of other people, but now I see it. That’s the difference. It’s like wearing special glasses whose task it is to filter in new things which had always been there but were previously blinded from my knowing. Those glasses are in my toolbox. And sometimes I forget them there. It is a life practice to remember to put them on.

Do you wonder what your percentage is? Do you wonder how much of your emotional experience originates from within you and how much is being transmitted by others? We all are walking radio towers transmitting vibration and electromagnetism. We exhibit a field around us. And while we may understand virtually nothing of it, we know that it exists. That alone has implications. Just what is going in and out of your field?

Out of a desire for nothing more than to simply feel better, assuming one always has room to improve upon that, be curious about your percentage. If you are brave, be radically curious about it. Be forensic. Ask the question aloud to yourself. Pray to see the difference between your emotions and those of others. Pray to see the line.

Acknowledge that you are a sovereign entity, designed with benevolence and purpose. Our weakness is often merely strength in excess. Our ability to see into and feel the hearts of others is a superpower we just need more practice in using. I’m here to tell you you have the power. I encourage the exploration of spiritual life practices in order for you to begin using it. 

Empathy is a wonderful gift, treasure it wildly. But especially now, during these trying and emotional times of our human civilization which we will in time overcome, learning to discern the difference between our emotions and others will give you the focus you need to spend time healing the wounds on your own heart without confusing them for something more profound than they are. Whatever size the troubles on your own heart may be, they are smaller than that combined with the sorrows of others.

Today I heard from my mechanic that the repair I needed was going to cost a lot less than I thought. I guess I shouldn’t have worried so much about it. I’m glad I finally took the time to have it looked at. It seems a much more manageable problem to me now. 

Notice your emotions objectively. Stand back from them and acknowledge them. That will be the first step toward getting under the hood of it and finally determining the difference between the repairs you actually need from the smoke that’s coming into your car from the truck in front of you.