Priorities are Essential

Heading into the backcountry excites me. The draw of serene days and stunning scenery coupled with the physical demands and danger set up an ache that won’t let go until I set my boots on the trail.  My last post, Pilgrimage, recounted important trips I took into the Rockies and Tetons in order to lay claim to who I was and who I wanted to be. The outdoors are where I am most alive, and in my pursuit of natural highs, I find many metaphors for living a good life.

Speaking of which, have you noticed how time, or rather the lack of it, drives how we spend the hours of each day? Don’t the pressures of getting things done cut deeply into our life and rapidly bleed it to death? Yeah, me too. But I have taken some time and bothered to ask, does it have to be that way? And my experience as a traveler has provided me with some metaphorical insight.

One of the first things I do to prepare for a backpacking trip is to determine what to bring. There are certain items: tent, sleeping bag, cook stove, etc., that aren’t really much of a choice. You need these things. I know where to put them in my backpack; they’ve been allotted a place already. In my metaphor, these are eating, sleeping, and making a living. I have to do them in order to live. (Although many people dangerously play with sleep.)

It’s when you start trying to determine the other items where some thought comes into play. Factors like, how long the trip is, what’s the terrain like, and what weather can you expect come into the decision process. If it’s a short trip, I’m not going to pack as much food and may even decide to splurge a little and bring something special, like a pouch of tuna or a tiny bottle of wine. If the terrain is rugged and steep, everything is pared down. No book, music, or fancy food.

Are you seeing some parallels to life yet? When we sit down to “load” our week with events, projects, and work, shouldn’t we enter into a similar process? Are you discerning and careful about what you choose to fill your days with, or are you apt to quickly say, “yes,” to demands on your time out of politeness or some need to meet an imposed standard? Of course you have to be at every game your four children are in! What kind of parent wouldn’t?

Of course you have to be at every game your four children are in! What kind of       parent wouldn’t?

If I packed my backpack to meet some machismo ideal, I might try and carry heavier weight just so I could prove my manliness. However, I’d probably ruin my enjoyment, since at the end of every day’s hike I’d be totally exhausted and weak. I wouldn’t be able to take that quick side trip to the hot spring, or climb up to the valley precipice to look out over the incredible panorama of snow-covered mountains. All I’d be able to do is stagger from camp to camp, growing more tired with every step and that feeling would build each day and every passing mile.

That describe your current life?

Maybe not that bad, but you see the point. So many people today insist on doing everything, stuffing their lives with too many events and projects. I can do it all!  is a modern mantra. The problem is, it’s also a myth.

In Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism, he reminds us that we can’t do everything, and therefore we shouldn’t try. I can’t fill my backpack with everything; I would literally breakdown and fail to enjoy the trip. Nor can I fill my days with everything–for the exact same reasons. Cramming life with obligations and standards to meet means living a life that is imposed on you and you’ll be miserable while you’re at it. To avoid this scenario, set personal priorities for living; if you don’t, someone will set them for you.

To move in the direction of an essentialist in the backcountry is to actually follow core guidelines for the outdoors, but to follow that direction in mainstream society will be counter to the current flow. There will be push-back and taking charge of your time will require courage and discipline, which everyone has when the stakes are high–and what’s higher than the quality of your life?

Make sure you take the time to enjoy the infinite points of beauty in your life.

In order to wholly enjoy a backpacking trip, I need to pay attention to every step. Between every two end-points are an infinite number of others that await my enjoyment. The same is true for every life, and all of us can politely take control of our own priorities, pare down to those essentials that mean the most to us, and start enjoying life even more. Have a blessed journey.

Pilgrimage

Every pilgrimage really begins within the soul.

Every summer when I was single, I embarked on a three to four week/over-sixty-mile backpacking or rock climbing trip. And it wasn’t just something to do either. I needed it. The military life I had adopted did not mesh with the soul I cultured by growing up in sedate, rural South Texas. Where, on summer nights, I listened to coyotes and called back to owls hooting in the mesquite trees surrounding my family’s five-acre place.

Working in rotating, 12-hour shifts and living with the speed, aircraft noise, and pressure of life on an Air Force facility set me on edge. I always knew when it was time to go. I would grow steadily more depressed and my right eye would begin to twitch. That was my body’s signal to provide my supervisor with a leave projection and set about planning my annual pilgrimage into the backcountry.

There was lots to do: pick a destination, obtain the necessary maps, plan my meals, etc. But this really wasn’t the beginning. Every pilgrimage really begins within the soul. And I don’t necessarily mean a pilgrimage must be religious. You don’t have to walk the El Camino de Santiago or embark on The Hajj into Mecca to step off into self-discovery and restoration. Those paths, while not magical in themselves, draw power from the traveler’s faith and the history they represent.

A traditional religious pilgrimage possesses a meaning before you have taken a single step. You can tap into the power of those who have traveled before you. Meaning rises from every traveler’s story and the belief that drew them there. Those stories and beliefs, like crumbs marking the way, show you where to walk, which can embolden any traveler. There is an inherent optimism set in the success of those pioneers who trod the path before. However, sometimes the deepest discoveries are made by setting aside maps and their legends to rely on the compass of who you are and what unique understanding you are seeking.

Going mapless allowed the deepest discoveries

My pilgrimages were always of the second sort. I found that going mapless allowed the deepest personal discoveries. Rather than a religious trek, I let my soul’s needs guide my inner direction. On the trail, every step is a prayer, and the miles, like rosary beads, passed under my feet in a litany of meditations on what it meant to be a modern American man, to be a Christian, to be single, to be searching for purpose, accomplishment, or meaning.

Even though I may have shunned a spiritual map, I was smart enough to carry maps of the land, and I did carry Rainer Rilke’s  Letters to a Young Poet. The mountains, like a library, are deep with quiet surroundings, which lend themselves to thinking–deep or shallow, and Rilke was my favorite muse. As a bonus, it was under a hundred pages and didn’t weigh much. Rilke always provided me with insight about maturing, being creative, or what love is and is not. He had his personal flaws and failings, but the wisdom he chose to write down for public consumption, rarely failed me. To me, such a book is as important as any map I can carry into the wilderness.

Rilke urges us to live our questions now, so my backpack would be stuffed with animal necessities, while my heart brimmed with the unsolved questions I struggled to fall in love with. Questions that arose out the day to day experiences of life as a young man in a world burgeoning forward technologically but seemed to be tumbling backwards socially. Rilke advised not to seek answers, but I grew up in the nascent era of instant gratification, so I was prone to being impatient. Sue me. However, as I walked the rocky trails of America’s and Europe’s wild places, my pilgrimages began to open up what it meant to “live the questions” and to gradually live into answers. Not The answers, but answers that belonged to me.

For example, in July 1998, two months before my marriage, I hiked into Rocky Mountain National Park. As I crossed the Continental Divide on foot, I felt I was crossing another divide, one that parted my life in two. I was 38 and had always been single, never even had more than three or four romantic relationships before. Now, I was about to join with a woman for life, and I was unsure about what the future held. Some of that uncertainty arose  from my past.

My childhood family life haunted my ideas of marriage. To say I came from a “broken home”  doesn’t capture it, shattered is more like it. I have three half-siblings, all four of us are from different fathers as my mom married six times. I have two step-brothers and a step-sister, but all were distanced by my father’s abuses. My wife, Brenda, says I don’t have a family tree. I have a shrub; it’s been cut back so many times. A successful marriage was light-years outside my personal experience.

But two days deep into Tonahutu Valley, I began to break free of questions or choices that belonged to my family past, but not to me. I slipped into the scenery and the silence and became more able to look objectively at possibility. Still, even as peace flowered within me, more questions buzzed in my head like hungry bees: What was marriage’s promise? Could life alone be as good? Should I look for certainty, or was the bend past this current hour allure enough?

Did my pilgrimage provide answers to those? Well, frankly, no. But it did allow me the opportunity to look at my life from an uncluttered perspective. And now, I have my wife of eighteen years, two teenage children, a personal training business of my own, etc. Many questions have been lived and that living has provided, if not outright answers, at least assurances. And I am well.

Now, more than a half-century into my life, I feel more like every day is a journey into unknown possibilities like loss, failure, and uncertainty. And since I am less of a cynic, there’s also the potential for success, joy, and hope. As I live more in the present the gifts of the future are more of a surprise, which I like, but I also still like going on long pilgrimages into the wilderness. Perhaps I’ll see you out there, or we’ll pass on the street, caught up in the pilgrimage of living.

GRIT

When I was younger, Grit was something  people around me talked about more than they do now. There were men and women in my small South-Texas town who were known to have “grit.” My grandfather and my Dad, really all my male relatives, would exhort me to “quit yer whinin’ and grow some grit.” We watched the John Wayne movie, “True Grit” and idolized his depiction of tough, Western sticktoitiveness.

Whatever the current word or term is today, Grit is a good thing to have. To get anything big or intimidating done, you gotta have some Grit.

As a personal trainer who is in the gym five days a week, over twelve hours a day, I run up against the lack of grit all the time. Outside of sports, mainstream and urban society has swung away from the ideas of sacrifice, especially when the alternative is the pleasure and ease of sitting on a couch streaming Netflix and eating Doritos.

I see people come in month after month, making little to no progress toward their fitness goals because they lack grit and will not stand up to the nagging in the back of their head for more Doritos, a quart of ice-cream, or a quick trip to Pizza Hut.

Exercise isn’t the best answer to their problem, but they do need to have the drive to intensify their workouts. They say, “I don’t want to work that hard,” and tool lazily along on an elliptical machine, thumbing through pages of People Magazine, which might burn through the calories in a Big Mac before it rusts away from under them, but it’s not likely.

Working hard is the clearest path to success–even more than talent. Michael Jordan says, “I’ve always believed, that if you put in the work, the results will come.” Even in a field outside the fitness realm, Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, says, ” A dream doesn’t become reality through magic, it takes sweat, determination, and hard work.” These are the components of grit.

What Powell says about dreams not coming about by magic, is an important statement. In there is the secret to improving your life in general and your Grit.

Talent and genius are seen as something one is “magically” born with. You either have it or you don’t. And to an extent–that’s true, but both talent and genius can be improved upon, no matter where you’re at on the scale now. You may not be the smartest person, but with work and practice, you can get smarter.

Grit scholar, Angela Duckworth is a MacArthur “genius” grant winner and author of the book, Grit.  In her book she outlines how to build grit, and one of the most important elements is a growth mindset, which basically means a person believes she can build and strengthen traits like intelligence, talent, and grit that traditionally have been seen as static. Without that belief–no one tries to get better.

So, with a growth mindset, a woman can build her determination and perseverance to get gritty and as tough as a gymnasts’s hands–regardless of how much she possesses them now. By getting to work, she builds a better self.

woman on rings
A woman can build her determination and perseverance to get gritty and as tough as a gymnasts’s hands–

So when you’re faced with troubles, a new, long-term project, a new career, twenty pounds to lose, or the birth of a child, remember that it is by the resilient power of grit that you wear down the obstacles in your way. Without it–the obstacles wear you down. The barriers you face can be physical or mental, but either way you need more grit than the opposition.

 

 

Motivation: Getting beyond, “If Only”

 

 

A Lack of motivation can seem like a blank, insurmountable wall
A Lack of motivation can seem like a blank, insurmountable wall

What stands between many people and their goals, dreams, or hopes is a lack of motivation, a seemingly insurmountable, blank wall that they must climb in order to reach the top.  As a personal trainer, I see people clawing against their lack of motivation every day.  They constantly search for a way to achieve their goals. They look on-line, read books,  try all manner of diets and supplements. Time and time again they try but never seem to succeed.

Why can’t they find what they’re looking for? What are they missing? I believe their main error is in thinking that motivation exists outside themselves. Looking for motivation outside yourself is as misplaced a hope as looking for an external source of happiness. It doesn’t exist.

You see, another word for motivation is desire, and when it comes to reaching goals, there’s great truth in the simple phrase, “You gotta want it.” And if the outcome you’re seeking is difficult or requires life-long effort–you gotta want it bad. There is no program or supplement that can fuel that hungry inner fire of need. The food for that flame comes from your own heart.

So now what? What can I or anyone say to a client, friend, or family member who struggles with finding their deepest, elusive drive? First, one needs to carefully feel out their reasons for wanting to change in the first place. The one who wants to change needs to peel away the onion skins of “why” in order to discover her deepest reasons.

It goes like this:

Why do you want to lose 20 pounds? To look and feel better. Why do you want to look and feel better? So I can feel more attractive for my wife and can play more with my children. Why do you want to feel more attractive for your wife and play with your children? I want a better relationship with them.  Ah. Now, there’s a solid reason.

The thing is, if you’re trying to be healthier and lose body fat, are you really motivated by, “I want to weigh one-hundred and eighty pounds and have fifteen percent body-fat?” Who cares! What you need is to know what that’s going to do for you. Are you lonely and want more friends? Do you feel that playing ultimate Frisbee with your office mates will help, but you can’t because you’re fifty pounds overweight and your knees constantly hurt? Then let that need for friendship be your drive to losing weight and making the necessary changes to your behavior.

And there are behavioral changes that will need to be made. Most people are in their current state due to behaviors,  and the way out of that current state are new behaviors. Once you’ve found an inspiring reason to move toward your goal and have lit that internal fire, then you start the work of breaking down the steps that will continue to feed that flame.

The thing is that we can’t feel our way into behaving differently. We have to behave our way into feeling differently. It’s a mistake to think of our emotional state as the cause of, rather than the effect of, our actions and environment. Emotional states can drive behaviors, but for control of your life–turn that around.

For me, evidence of the relationship between behavior and emotions appears whenever I’m about to do a workout and I’m feeling sluggish, unmotivated, and like maybe I should put it off until I feel better. Those feelings come from outside influences and are transient. Dozens of times I’ve felt like that and when I pushed past them and did the workout, about five or ten minutes into the session, I started to feel more energized, more awake, happier. And I always left the gym in a new state of mind. This pushing past emotional blocks is a necessary skill to reaching any goal in many domains of  life.

Need to feel differently? First, you must act differently. It almost never works the other way around.

 

 

Play the Lottery: Dream Big!

“Luck is not as random as you think. Before that lottery ticket won the jackpot, someone had to buy it.” ― Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

A little over a week ago people around the world waited with bated breath every evening to see if they had picked the billion dollar numbers of Powerball. Nationwide, the populace went a little crazy as greater and greater numbers of people climbed on the bandwagon of possibility. What was the possibility? Never more than one in 292 million. Not much.

Nevertheless, people played. The thrill of possibility must be pretty strong, either that or the escapism of spending hours dreaming about winning big is more entertaining than I ever imagined.

If people are willing to play the seemingly impossible odds of the lottery, what I’d like them to do is invest in some other long odds activities. For example, the chances of keeping a resolution for losing weight are somewhere around 8 to 1–against. But here’s an important side note, those who make resolutions, successful or not, are ten times more likely to change their lives significantly than those who don’t.

This is an crucial distinction. Those who play the lottery are the only ones who win. Even though the odds are supremely against them, some do win. What are the odds for those who don’t play? Well, their odds of winning the incredible prize are always the same: zero.

The point I’m making here is that sometimes, we have to be Hans Solo and demand that the reasonable C3PO’s in our heads and around us, “Never tell us the odds.” We sometimes need to take our chances and go for whatever drives us. Why? Because we just might win. And if we don’t–we are certain to lose–in more ways than one.

Hans Solo

To never throw ourselves headlong into our dreams, despite abysmal chances, erodes our courage, makes us fearful and unconfident. We may tell ourselves the odds will never be in our favor, or employ reason and logic to prove how we will never win, but after a while our voice will start to sound like we have a mouthful of sour grapes. We need to dream big sometimes. Otherwise we’ll miss out on that one chance in a million that we win big–really big.

And winning doesn’t have to involve dollars and cents. You may be dreaming of lifting or losing a heavy weight or spending more time learning how to code a new video game instead of sitting on the sidelines, playing someone else’s game.  Think about it, every week someone posts something on Facebook that goes supernova viral and makes it to the front page of Huffington Post and appears on Good Morning America. Every year, some new, unknown author writes a New York Times best seller. All of these things, and so many more, feel like lottery payouts to me. The difference? The odds aren’t as long.

So, don’t be one of those people who loses all grand ambitions for significant change and greatness by heeding the advice of the “realists” and the fearful who tell us to set our sights low. The resulting wins are almost assuredly going to end up being small, uninspiring, and predictable. They will never take you into the wilderness where real vision and progress lives. Play the lottery. Take a chance. Win big–and “may the odds be ever in your favor.”

 

I’ve Lost So Much

 

Over the course of my life’s half-century, I have lost many things. Some were dropped unnoticed, others were wrenched away from me, and some I laid aside gently, like one might bury a dear friend.  And each time I thought I might lose my heart, or my identity, or even my will, but I never did—not totally. I would be changed, but not so much that there was a loss of self-recognition. And sometimes, after I put something aside, I discovered that who I had been was the lie—not who I became.

In my blog about “Letting Go,” I wrote about how quitting smoking became easier once I discovered how the habit had been incorporated as a part of my identity. It wasn’t until I quit that, unclouded by addiction, I clearly saw how false the habit was to the core of myself and who I wanted to be. As I became more connected with my new choice of livelihood, Personal Training, other things that ended the sentence, “I am a person who likes…” disappeared and different ones took their place. I continued losing things because they didn’t tell my story any more, and I set them aside.

The deepest heartaches followed having to part with friends who no longer belonged in my life. Friends are especially difficult since a true friend enjoys an intimacy that goes deep, deeper than a lover at times. Some friends grew up with me and remained loyal throughout every stage of life. We shared youthful memories of favorite teachers, first kisses, and riding bikes on long summer days lit with freedom. Unfortunately, or fortunately, everyone changes, molded by time, circumstance, and will. The time to sever ties with a friend always came late—dawning on me in surprise, but there it was, chronicled in arguments, silences, and hurt.

Falling out of love has caused me to set aside the old, but falling in love with my wife was also one of those times. The person I referred to whenever I said, “me,” underwent a transformation, a metamorphosis, as I swam deeper into the enveloping waters of Love. I am reminded of the biblical passage, “two will become one flesh,” when I recall the experience. And in the beginning, love is supremely concerned with the flesh. Oh, the savory, subtle, stormy, sweetness of love’s physical expression filled time and my memory to the brim. With this came a breaking open, a willing loss of control, a sharing of my animalness, my reason, and my spirituality. As with any metamorphosis, there is a molting; in order to be born anew, the old must be shed.

Fear made a showing then. Remember when “I swam deeper in the enveloping waters of love?” There was a shocking moment when I realized that an easy return to the surface was impossible. That meant drowning and death. And the truth is that Love is similar to death, in that—part, or even most, of you must wholly surrender before love can truly blossom. The seed you were must die before it can realize its new purpose, and as I fell in love, my heart held back in fear, but eventually it had to break open. There is a death, a burying in love, but there is also a resurrection, and oh, what a rising.

I have lost many things in my life; some of them I regret—others I should have let go sooner. Even though losing things will continue, I am more comfortable with the process now. So many things have come and gone, and I have always come through. It’s not as scary now. My identity is a kaleidoscope of people, places, ideas, activities and things and each image is lovely, even as it morphs into the next.

Tempus Fugit and Carpe Diem

carpe-diemAll my life, I have heard people say, “Time flies, especially as you get older.” But for me, time always seemed to pass about the same. Sometimes it even felt like the month of April when I was twelve–seemingly interminable, but usually time just passed, neither fast nor slow; it just went. Carpe Diem wasn’t on my mind until after the movie, “The Dead Poets’ Society.” Then, it was on everyone’s lips. But as far as Carpe Diem went, I already had.

In my twenties, I was a big fan of one of the early self-help book writers, Hugh Prather. In his book, I Touch the Earth, the Earth Touches Me he writes“It’s not that “today is the first day of the rest of my life,” but that “now” is all there is of my life.” The fact that now is all anyone has resonated with my philosophical bent. But it makes sense even to my everyday experience. The past does not exist outside of memory, and the future is nonexistent, having not occurred yet. Which leaves humanity submerged in the ever-changing present, flowing around us. As I saw it, if I was to live, I had to seize what was going by before it was gone forever.

But Prather’s books didn’t only teach me to “seize the day” they also taught me something about how to stay centered, no matter what I was doing.  In one passage, Prather describes going to the Post office and his infant son being fascinated with the bushes along the way. This lodged in my brain, and has become like a dedication to me.  On Crete, when I walked down the sidewalks, I made it a point to notice the color and scent of the oleanders. On the way home, I gazed out across the island’s vineyards at the blue Mediterranean Sea and the island of Dia. No matter how insignificant a place I am in or how mundane a place I am going to–I focus on where I am and it keeps me centered in the moment.

Lately, I’ve been reading and listening to Brendon Burchard,  renowned writer and creator of the High Performance Academy, and he agrees that one slows time by being mindful and focused. He talks about how, “People are doing everything and yet life feels like it’s just spinning by. Matter of fact, for many people, every week just feels like they didn’t sense or feel any of it. Or if they did, it was frenetic energy. They don’t feel like life has depth, meaning or beauty.”

It is the curious and unhurried eye that brings color back into life. Brendon Burchard

So, people can have a “full” life, filled with softball games, ballet class for the kids, volunteering at the church social, etc, and still feel like life is going by too fast because they took on too much, and ironically, because they’re simultaneously moving on to the next thing. What happens here is that life goes by like the landscape outside your car at sixty miles per hour; There’s no sensory or emotional connection and it’s all an unremembered blur. And even though they feel like they’re busy, and working, it’s not their life’s work they’re busy with—it’s just busy work.  So their moments are actually crammed with obligation and distraction.

And don’t think that obligation and distraction have to be things like TV or Harlequin Romances. Distractions are dangerous because they can seem important. This is where individuals need to examine their Life’s Mission and be very clear about what it entails. Set some time aside, sit down, and write out what your vision of life is and what it will take to get there. And to protect that vision,  set up some guidelines. Like, as a general rule, at first, every draw on your time gets a “no, ” or at least a “let me think about it.” That way you can have some time to give it some serious thought instead of an immediate, unconsidered “yes.” Without a clear idea of what you want out of your life and some rules to keep life on track, life can slip away one distraction at a time.

Burchard points out an excellent example of how attention and focus affect our perception of time. He asks if you’ve ever been in a car accident or a situation where there was an emergency, and it seemed like everything went in slow motion? The reason that happened is because your awareness was heightened and you started taking all this information in because maybe in that situation you felt like you were in danger and were hyper attentive. Or have you watched your kid walk across the graduation stage and it looked like it was in slow motion because that moment meant something to you and you were focused. So, the challenge in experiencing slow time, is deciding to focus our attention and heighten our senses.

There are many efforts one can make to remain focused in the moment. Centering yourself through a short meditation or focusing on your breathing is one way. Setting an alarm on your phone that reminds you, “Stop a moment and take in what’s around you with at least three senses.” Another is just to make it a point to pay attention to something other than visually.  Slow down and savor every bite at meal time. Drink your wine and wallow your tongue in the flavor of it. The next time you go to the mailbox, really listen to the sounds around you.

This will take daily practice to do, as anything worth doing does, and it will take being more critical of how you allow your time to be spent. Life will remain a speeding merry-go-round unless you cut back on obligations that do not fit into your vision for life. Not anyone else’s and not society’s idea of a good life. Your life, or at least your experience of it, is at stake. Isn’t that worth it?

 

Letting Go

Letting Go

 

I love to smoke.

A dozen times a year I find myself thinking about sitting on my patio on Crete looking out at the sea, holding a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in another. Sometimes when I’m on my porch with a cup of coffee and it’s raining, I think, “Man.  A cigarette would be really good about now.” I can still feel the satisfying fullness of a deep inhale and the relaxed release of every exhale.  Even though I quit smoking, these temptations hang onto me, and to some degree, probably will for the rest of my life.  But I have done something that has weakened the power smokes have over me–I have let go.

I don’t mean I have let go of cigarettes, but I have let go of their place in my identity. It turns out that removing them from my sense of self was more important than putting the physical pack aside. I noticed that in every attempt at quitting, I found it impossible to imagine never having a cigarette again.  To think about never being able to drive and smoke or have a glass of wine with a cigarette made me squirm with anxiety. This was my clue that they had a place within me that went deeper than my cells’ addiction–I saw myself as a smoker.

The last time I quit, with the help of nicotine gum to relieve the physical addiction, I was able to focus more on changing my inner attitude toward my bad habit. I centered my attention on how I identified who I was and  who I wanted to be. Having always been adventurous and physical, it was an easy step to more deeply identify with those traits and to point out how smoking ran counter to them.  In particular, the deeper I identified with my fitness self, the less attractive smoking became.

This letting go was a gentle process. For the first time, quitting actually made me happier. In the past, trying to quit was a knock down-drag out and that fight kept happiness at bay. Happiness is generated from within, and when there’s a struggle going on–happiness will not enter. Our ego thinks we can drive out bad habits and addictions through a force of will. We have been conditioned to berate and blame, but those leave us exhausted and demoralized. It’s actually better to quietly usher the unwanted out of our lives.  By calmly ordering the way we see ourselves, we make the habit seem out of place.

Quitting a habit, be it smoking, eating unhealthy food, or drinking too much, has more in common with surrender than fighting. What do I mean by that? Think about what you do when you’re at a restaurant and there’s a lovely cheesecake or craft beer on the menu and you know you do not need those empty calories. Do you order it, eat it, and then spend the rest of the evening hating your weak, loser self? Or, do you insist you don’t want it? That’s a lie though, isn’t it? Rather than hate yourself or lie, why not accept your craving and quietly set it aside in favor of your personal vision–your desired identity. You may have to do this several times and you may even have to compromise–have a small piece of cake–but remain at peace, treat yourself with mercy and soon or eventually, you will emerge with a new identity–free of your habit.

This letting go is gentle, but it isn’t characterized by passivity. Let go with specific intention and patience. Let go with a willingness to challenge habits of doing and ways of seeing yourself. Let go of what you have known, no matter how comfortable, in favor of your dream that promises a new life, different pleasures, and unknown adventures. Peace be with you.

 

Faith Value

Leap of Faith
In truth, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

 

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1

In modern society’s expanding secularity, faith is losing ground; at least, this is true of religious faith.  Faith, to the ever more scientific mind of the common-man, is growing steadily useless and without value.  “What good or use is faith?” Asks the modern believer in the scientific method.  This is really a good question, and one that I’m sure most people, especially religious skeptics, have failed to pursue with any rigor. And before the religious among you get all high-handed, I’d add that, in all probability–neither have you.

The question of what faith is, has birthed many debates  across history.  Theologians and lay persons have sought certainty about what faith is so they could know what was necessary to possess it. When I use the word faith, as in “I have faith in X”, I do not mean that I have confidence in X, or that I hope X is true; I am claiming to know X is true. And I only use the term in the absence of proof. For myself, faith needs uncertainty. Without it, faith is unnecessary, and all we need do is memorize the facts.

Fortunately, for the faithful, uncertainty surrounds us. Every future second does not exist except in our faith.  There is no CSI team on Earth who can discover evidence of God. There are no experts writing texts on the immortal souls of humankind. We need faith to feel anchored in the world, to offer some answers to the questions that haunt us: Where did we come from? What lies in our future, beyond the hour of our death? In truth, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

Scientists need some faith too, I think. Some of the factors used in their studies are very mysterious. Time has never been seen or measured. It has no direct effect in our cause and effect universe, therefore it is undetectable. It does not flow through clocks, yet the scientist knows it is there–somehow.  Newton’s laws of conservation assert that energy cannot be created or destroyed and Einstein’s theory of relativity shows that energy and matter are forms of the same thing, so in view of the laws of conservation, where did all of the matter/energy in the universe come from?Mysterious indeed.

Crushed_Flowers_on_Road
Without faith in my life’s redemption, the hopelessness would have crushed my spirit like an apple blossom underfoot.

Even in the face of obvious needs for faith, how do we know its value? My personal answer arises from my days of clinical depression and subsequent unemployment. I learned the value of faith when it was tested. When I looked in the face of pain and knew I could end it–that was a test. When I lost my teaching position because I wasn’t getting better–that was a test. Like so many aspects of life, my sense of faith’s value remained abstract and unquantifiable until it was lost or tested.  Had I not had faith in my life’s redemption, the hopelessness would have crushed my spirit like an apple blossom underfoot.

In the midst of my darkest days, did I doubt? Absolutely. My faith is as imperfect as I am. But at some level, I knew my doubt did not diminish my need or render me incapable of faith. The path of faith is not being impervious to doubt. It is simply the stubborn refusal to let doubt have the last word.  And so I held on, even when I felt like a failure. Faith’s value remained with me.

Faith is more valuable than diamonds but just as hard. When Peter stood next to Jesus on the water–his faith faltered. Here I am, two thousand years distant in time and unknowable space, how could I expect to be different? Nevertheless, I continue to value faith, even when it’s flawed. Now, my prayer is, if life slips into darkness again, may I remember that my life is what it is, not what I ask for. May I find the strength to bear it, the grace to accept it, the faith to embrace it.

 

Words on the Winter Wind

Winter Haiku

As many of you know, I write poetry and am fairly active in literary circles. I have hosted poetry readings in Hartington’s Library, participated in a poetry contest here in Yankton. (I won) I even wrote an article for the Newspaper when the Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser, came to read at Mount Marty. In addition to those, every year I am invited to Words on the Winter Wind, a reading held by the Nebraska Writer’s Workshop and hosted by the Baright Library in Ralston, Nebraska.

This year’s reading occurred just over a week ago, and I thought I might share two of the poems I presented this year. I hope you enjoy them, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


The Snowman

I met him on my walk

About the neighborhood.

He wore his hat and grey jacket

Of dust, some dirt, and leaves

With careless flair, while one

Twiggy arm pointed skyward,

And the other sagged to the ground

In a familiar polarity.

 

Even so, his eyes of coal

Held a sparkling, black glint,

Like he’d just recalled

A childhood memory

That served to warm his heart

On these days when life’s pains

Drifted high in seeming permanence.

 

He canted dangerously to one side;

His small, defective bottom almost

Unable to hold his ample middle

Or his tilted head and hat.

The children who made him

Must have forgotten about

His bottom side in their rush

In the same way I wished

To forget about mine.

 

I passed close and caught his gaze.

My tilted smile mirrored his tilted hat;

We traded silent pleasantries.

The sunlight lit his eyes for a moment,

and in them I felt our warm accord.

“See you tomorrow.” I said.

Then briefly waved and stepped

Around the corner into the wind

Toward home.

Winter II
Photo by Michael Helgerson

 

Winter Siren

In January, a siren of silence calls

Me every morning until

I don my coat and boots and cap

To walk the wooded windbrake

Between the North and me,

Where jointed reeds rake across

A contrailed sky–

Crooked fingers on guitar strings

Plucking pale white tones

That settle on the switch grass

As feathery ice.

 

My labored breath billows

Into smoke, sinking down

To settle around my cold

And heavy feet, until

Soon, I am held still

In an impotent immobility,

Eyes frozen

On everything offered here:

The ringing fullness of prairie earth

Suckling the morning;

The snow top hieroglyphs

Of wings, claws, and feet;

Downy, sunlit frost molting

From trees like fairies.

 

Here, rooted in this moment,

I want for nothing more.

The winter siren’s sing

The song of now and that

Is where–I live.