May 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
I have often heard people say that they wish they could ask God a question—it’s usually something about the meaning of life or why bad things happen to good people. More often, it involves an angry diatribe about how messed up the world is, and how God owes us an explanation for this mess. As for me, there has never been a day when I wanted to ask God anything. This has nothing to do with a lack of questions on my part, or with a belief that I have all the answers. I simply know my limitations, and realize that I am just not smart enough to understand divine answers.
Instead of asking questions, I have long wondered what it is that God would ask me. There have been times when I thought he might be angry and ask, “Are you stupid?” More often, however, I believed he would be much kinder: “Hey, Bob—can you explain some of those decisions you’ve made?”
Lately, I imagine different questions, such as: “How do you think you might have done that better?” I even imagine that God could ask me to role play: “Can you tell me what she felt when you did that?” I feel certain that he would be reassuring: “That’s okay. You have learned from this mistake, and you will do better next time.” Regardless of the particular issues addressed, the questions are consistent in that they are always kind and loving, and they always serve a higher purpose.
So, I’ve learned to use God’s questions as a diagnostic tool that can help me to do better, by learning to ask these questions of myself before they are asked of me. This strategy helps me escape the trap of seeing my errors as catastrophic, and of allowing my limitations to define me. I have discovered that my errors carry the keys to my salvation; with each wrong turn, the Universe guides me through the next door and provides another chance. I now view my errors as the keys that can free me from the prison of my own ignorance, rather than the locks that shackle me to my lowest moments.
I have no illusions that my questions will miraculously lead to a carefully crafted and completely correct answer every time. But there is also something very awe-inspiring in the attempt. There is something courageous in the simple effort to face your lowest moments. There is something to be gained with each misstep that is ultimately understood. Rather than simply seeing a flawed world and questioning the Universe, there is something very empowering about taking personal responsibility without falling back on our habit of blaming God.
And so, with the help of kind and loving questions, I can begin to do a bit better with each new day. With kind and loving questions, I can begin to understand the best of who I am. I can begin to measure my life by improvements, rather than by mistakes. I might even begin to understand the best of who I am. And if I ask myself enough of these questions, I won’t have time to question the divine plan—only my place in it.
March 4, 2012 § 6 Comments
There are days when I get up in the morning, and I’m not quite sure why I’m around. Don’t get me wrong; my life is fine. I have my issues like everyone else, but I wouldn’t trade my life for someone else’s. Still, I sometimes wonder exactly what it is that I am really here for. After all, I’m just a small guy in a big world filled with problems; a small guy who sometimes doesn’t seem to possess the mental muster to see an opportunity, or the physical strength to carry on through a day. I am not sure if I’ll ever have the spunk or the smarts to figure out why I am here.
And yet, what I’ve come to understand is that figuring it out on my own is actually unnecessary. This is because each and every day, I know I am going to encounter a miracle. You read it correctly: a miracle. Each day, this mysterious universe that we live in is going to hand me the miracle of the day— and when it does, that miracle will tell me why I’m here.
Every day, there is something that crosses my path, explaining my assigned job in great detail. This description is much like the opening scenes in Mission Impossible: “Your mission, Bob, should you decide to accept it, is to…” So begins a miracle I am being asked to participate in. Each day the miracle is different; it can be small or large. Help this person. Sit with that person. Say something meaningful to that person. Each day, it’s a matter of dealing with tears or smiles, victory or loss, intelligence or stupidity. I never get to choose. Those who make the recordings decide; I am just a servant.
You may ask why I would spend any of my time doing this for people. I do it because it’s my job. I do it because they need me. I do it because I can remember what it felt like when I needed someone, and that someone showed up. I know the feeling of being pulled out of a dark well by a stranger and taking a fresh look at the sun. I know what it feels like when people follow their instructions to help me, even when they have nothing to gain. I can also remember what it felt like when I needed someone who did not show up. I never want to be the person who the missed the appointment and undid the miracle that was meant for that day.
So, why are you around? I realize that the answer is complicated, but believe that one significant reason is to listen for your tapes to arrive, and then follow your orders. It’s to do something for someone else, even if your mission of the day is simply to plant a seed. It’s to understand that while it’s impossible to truly change another person, the impossible is not your mission. It is simply doing what you’ve been asked to do today. Let go. Listen to your heart, and to the tapes the Universe has handed to you.
Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to follow the orders, and in so doing, experience the miracle of the day.
Tag, you’re it.
February 23, 2012 § 3 Comments
I was a quiet kid with few friends, and baseball was my link to the world at large. I followed terrible NY Mets teams that only a true fan would enjoy watching. It was never about how well the game was played, but the simple joy of watching the game. As I got older and developed more and more friendships, baseball was often the connection.
Last week, Gary Carter, the great NY Mets catcher died at 57. I felt a sadness I’d never experienced for someone I did not know personally. Coincidentally, I recently seen the documentary, “Last Play at Shea, “ which culminated in a fast motion dismantling of Shea Stadium that brought an equally sad feeling. So often over the years, I had described the dilapidated Shea in derogatory terms, particularly when describing the lovely smell that emanated from the surrounding areas. Neither the death of a former catcher nor the demolition of a stadium should have evoked much emotion, but they did for me—and it left me asking why.
Gary Carter was part of a Mets team that should not have won the World Series. He was the team cheerleader; the “never give up” hard-nosed guy who always kept going. He was my emblem of what happens when you keep trying, when you do your best, and just let the Universe play out the game of life. Although I never realized it as I watched him play, Gary Carter represented hope for me. It was the hope that things would work out all right. Keep playing hard until the last out. Don’t quit. And with his demise, I lost a symbol of hope. If you are the fan of another team, your symbol of hope has a different name. If you are a fan of dance, theater, art, music, or literature, your symbol will come from a different walk of life. But wherever your symbol comes from, I know you understand what I mean. So often, our symbol of hope has a name and a face.
Shea Stadium held a different meaning for me. I once saw a tee shirt that read “Shea Stadium: It may be a hole, but it’s our hole!” I laughed at that then, because Shea really was a hole. But it wasn’t until watching the scoreboard drop upon demolition that I realized that along with the crumbling scoreboard, a place chock full of memories was disappearing as well. Shea was where I saw my first baseball game and my two oldest kids saw theirs. It’s where I first understood the joy of just watching something that no one had to tell you to enjoy. And when I saw the footage of that scoreboard coming down, I realized that those days were gone forever; all that was left were the memories. Everyone has place like that. For you, it might be a beach, a restaurant, a park, a theater, or the local neighborhood hangout. But I know you understand what I mean. So often, places and memories are inextricably linked.
What I am left with now, whenever I think of Carter and Shea, are wonderful memories of hot summers without air conditioning, and watching Met games on a small, low quality screen. With all the technology we have today, I have yet to see a game I have loved any better. I will always remember a wild, wind-blown ride in a convertible on the way to Shea with my old friend John. It was a day when we were carefree and our lives were in front of us; a day when neither of us knew that this past year, he’d be sitting with me at my mother’s funeral. I will always remember walking out of Shea with my friend Paul, taking one player’s name forever in vain on a needed break from a doctoral program and a mentor that nearly killed both of us. I’ll remember my son Drew pretending to be a New Yorker, and abusing the other team so much that fellow New Yorkers just stared in horror. I’ll remember my laughter when the cup of peanut shells I’d collected fell over the ledge and down below. When I remember Shea, I’ll remember it like a good donut, never thinking about the hole. And I learned that long after the last play at Shea.
Gabriel García Márquez said it best: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” So today, do yourself a favor and think about your best memories and smile. Think about the days you laughed best and laugh again. Remember the people who made your life better and say a prayer of gratitude for them. Remember that today will be the yesterday you recall years from now. And on that day, you will understand something critical about happiness. It is small things that count, small things that have significance, and small things that will make you wonder why you spent time on anything else. It will be moments, small moments that you collect and hug in your memory.
There are many joys you will appreciate long after they happened. But pay attention: Appreciate them today. Hug the moment as it happens. Don’t wait until after the last play.
January 22, 2012 § 4 Comments
Many of us live most of our lives feeling feel fairly certain of who we are as people. We feel comfortable with the image we have of ourselves, leading us to feel comfortable with most of our choices. Unfortunately, the aspects of ourselves that we tend to feel the most certain of are all of our perceived “holes” or imperfections. We believe, with great certainty, that these imperfections strongly limit what we can do with our lives and who we are able to be. We may feel certain that we do not look quite right, that we are not quite smart enough, or that we do not have the right personality to do what we want to accomplish or become. We are convinced of things that simply are not true.
We are certain of our illusions.
The paradox is that one day when we are older and more tired, when we have hit the proverbial brick wall, many of us finally recognize the fallacy of so many things we have believed about ourselves; illusions we have harbored with an almost religious faith. We finally figure out, much too late, that much of what we believed was untrue.
And that moment of realization is truly unpleasant. Too tired to fight back, we must look at our purported illusions of inadequacy and realize they did not exist. One day, we look back at the photographs and realize we got it all wrong. There really was nothing wrong with the way we looked. We weren’t really too fat or too thin; we actually looked pretty good. We realize we were never stupid; we just never even tried. We see clearly that there was nothing wrong with our style; we were just being who we are.
We come to see that we had illusions about others as well. We realize our kid wasn’t inadequate because he failed to pass calculus, and our spouse was never the flawed soul we had imagined. Uncle George, who managed to ruin every holiday party, was never really a bad guy, just a troubled soul who warranted compassion. They were all illusions, created by expectations of what should have been, what should have happened, and what others should have done.
If you haven’t gotten there, I assure you that you will.
Even if you find the basic facts to be true, you are still likely to discover a different kind of illusion. One day you will awaken to see that even the facts never warranted the conclusions you drew from them. Yes, you may have been overweight or too thin, too tall or too short, or you may have had too little hair. Yes, your grades may not have been not quite as good as you wished, or your promotions as frequent as you had liked. You may not have had as much money as you needed. One day, you may be certain that objectively, the facts were true. But you will come to see that the real illusion was that they were the cause of your unhappiness. These facts were not the reason for your lack of joy. These things never led you to a life of anxiety and dissatisfaction. One day you awaken and see others living in the same objective circumstances, yet you notice that they are happy nonetheless. That is when you will know: it was not the facts that stopped you, but the illusion that the facts were the cause of your unhappiness; the illusion that your life had to turn out a certain way because of the facts.
What would happen if you stopped living your illusions?
- You would stop getting in your own way. You would begin to relinquish your self-imposed limits, and instead let your reality begin to reveal itself. You could begin learning the real parameters of who you are and are not; beginning to live as you were meant to live, not as you have deluded yourself into living.
- You would focus away from ideas that get you nowhere and move toward ideas that can change your life. You cannot build anything on a foundation that isn’t true. But when you build your life upon what truly exists, you have the opportunity to build something real, and experience the tremendous wonder that it brings.
- You would live more profoundly, more deeply, apart from all the surface inclinations that are taught by our culture. It tells you to be this or that, but when you live apart from the illusions, you begin to understand that these illusions never needed to be yours. You start to look for what is real in you, not for what they want you to pretend to see.
- You would allow the Universe to do its work. When you admit that you don’t know everything, you place your life in the hands of something bigger, something that knows better. Call it God. Call it a force. Call it whatever you prefer, but trust that it will always reveal the truth.
- You would have a chance to discover the happiness you deserve. Without the illusions, you are better able to follow the course of your destiny. Will it be a perfect journey? There are no guarantees. What I can guarantee is that setting a course based on an illusory GPS gets you nowhere. You receive no direction, no gauge of progress, and no knowledge of your target destination. You are simply traveling haphazardly, without any guidance.
It is time for us to wave the illusions and their influence goodbye. Start today. Begin questioning the “facts” about yourself and others that you have always viewed as absolute truth. Look for different evidence that leads you to different conclusions. Refuse to accept the illusions. Look for others who possess similar traits, similar “holes,” and find those that weren’t limited by their reality. Resolve to stop buying into the illusions, simply because you have always have.
You are so much more than you believe, so much more capable and worthy than you ever imagined. Resolve today to discard the illusions, and discover a new ability to change your life.
January 7, 2012 § 9 Comments
I have always found Elvis impersonators somewhat disconcerting. While I have always had a fondness for the King, I’ve never understood what satisfaction could be drawn from transforming, on a daily basis, into someone other than who you really are. What confused me more was the strange allure that these impersonators seem to have for others.
Upon further reflection, however, I think I am beginning to understand. We live in a society where the bulk of our citizenry live their lives pretending to be something they are not; aspiring to emulate the “kings” of society, i.e. the rich, famous, and powerful. Sadly, this deceptive way of life is, quite simply, a grand stage show that has gradually overtaken our country. People of relatively modest means are now boasting homes that heretofore had been the abodes of the affluent. Lawns in suburban neighborhoods are now meant to emulate the gardens of large estates. With the additions of designer clothing, unaffordable automobiles, expensive vacations, and fine dining, what we have is a citizenry that impersonates kings—all done on credit, of course.
In the true form of Elvis impersonators, we are not truly impersonating the kings of our society. Much as the Elvis impersonators rarely impersonate the drug-addicted, fat, dysfunctional version of the King, we tend to emulate the stage presences of our own social kings without the flaws, the personal dramas and struggles they may have faced, or the ethical shortcuts they may have taken; essentially, without an understanding of those elements that make them fallible, yet real human beings. We effect this impersonation after viewing their lives from our own very narrow telephoto lens. As a result, despite our best efforts, our impersonation is never really quite accurate.
We train our children to be impersonators as well, injecting them into activities that are designed to help them emulate these self created models of wealth, power, and prestige. We delude ourselves into believing that we are enabling them to develop their talents and life skills, but what we are actually doing is teaching them to imitate the behaviors that we believe will elevate them to royal status. In the process, we risk masking the unique talents and abilities that our “commoner” children may actually possess. Most troubling is that we dub this impersonation The American Dream, and identify ourselves with the aspiration to live our lives defined by a culture of copycat kings.
But America was never meant to be defined by counterfeit lives. The American dream was never about emulating someone else’s life. It was never about allowing snapshots of other people’s lives to define our personal and cultural aspirations. It had long been about following our own personal dreams, finding a place where we could define ourselves, and creating a better life for our children. These days, that life can simply be found and photocopied directly from our high definition televisions, where skilled manipulators provide us with the blueprints for our dreams.
As a society of veritable Elvis impersonators, we can no longer remember who we are; choosing instead to live a faux life defined by our synthetic appearance and inherited aspirations. We have become a society of fakes, so intent on emulating the kings that we cannot even figure out who we are. Of all that this new American dream has wrought, that is the most troubling.
With each individual who succumbed to mimicry, a bit of talent and soul escaped us as their talent and creativity were squandered. In the aggregate, we lost much of the character of our nation by creating a faux reality. We lost artists and poets who became television personalities in order to achieve fame. We lost healers and teachers who became executives in order to achieve wealth. We lost journalists, clergymen, historians, philosophers and intellectuals, all in an effort to achieve the money, power, and status of the social kings. We ignored our own innate talents, abilities, and inclinations in our attempt to live someone else’s life.
We lost what makes a society rich, varied, and great.
Undoubtedly, some impersonators have been enriched by their mimicry. Some have indeed become social kings; trapped by success, and floundering to understand their unhappiness. Much like the Elvis impersonators, each leaves behind only the vestiges of their parody: the black bouffant hairstyle, bushy sideburns, and garish sequined clothing that defined them. They leave behind their version of Graceland, and an emptiness that defines the vapid spoils of living a charade. For those never crowned, there is no royal history, for they were never kings. Their gravestones mark a fictitious identity and claim that they were once alive, but few ever knew who they really were since their core never came to life. Few people ever learn the true names and identities of Elvis impersonators.
In the end, the culture is left with an eerie silence; a feeling that something inexplicable was lost. It is something that no one will ever be able trace or recapture.
It is an American nightmare.
December 31, 2011 § 9 Comments
Once upon a time in a miraculous Universe where all things are possible, amidst the fires of hell where all is unholy, the devil had a son who had nothing in common with his father. Good to the core, virtuous and loving, the young man was a saint by the definition of anyone on heaven or earth.
And so it was that a saintly creature was born into the infernal fires of hell, where demons and evil souls resided, and was forced to live among those whose essence was entirely different from his own.
Each day, upon arising, the devil’s son would find himself mocked by all those about him. Rejected by his father, his actions derided and criticized by those who inhabited hell, he found himself lost amidst a sea of hatred, anger, and evil. Vowing never to capitulate to what others in hell deemed acceptable, he lived a life of constant sorrow, of inadequacy, and pain.
With no friends and a father who despised him, he awoke one day and decided that he would walk out of hell. His father and all the inhabitants of hell were glad to be rid of him, mocked him as he left, throwing balls of fire, and poured the foulest substances they could find on him.
Walking onto planet earth and finding himself hungry, burned, and smelling foul, he ran into a man who helped him clean up and took him to a nearby hospital. There, he met caring people who tended to him and made him comfortable. There, for the first time in his life, he ran into love and understood that good things and people were possible. There, he understood there was goodness in the Universe and found that he was loved and could love others. And when he was well, he left the hospital and spent his time on earth happy among people who understood and gave love.
What does this fable of the devil’s son tell us?
It tells us that you can find goodness—somewhere. Where all is wrong, in your families, at your workplace, in your neighborhoods, on the often callous streets, it reminds us of that goodness. If you are living in hell, it’s time to get out and be around people who are loving and caring. Risk all by leaving your hell and you will find the love you deserve.
It tells us that it’s not where you come from, but who you are that defines you. It doesn’t matter who your parents were. It doesn’t matter what horrors were perpetrated on you. It doesn’t matter how you were betrayed and what you were told; you can let your inner light shine. Oscar Schindler started as a Nazi himself, yet saved many in the midst of a mass extermination campaign that was well-funded and filled with hate. Goodness does not have a genetic strain, nor is it based on a history. Risk all by walking away from whatever negatively defines you—but that you know simply does not fit who you are.
It tells us that it is important to be vigilant, to begin to understand ourselves apart from our surroundings. The bad places where we may live and work should not define us. The “bad people” we know and meet should not characterize us. Hell should not and cannot make you believe that acting divinely is bad. You have to agree. You have to capitulate. You have to give in. Risk all by refusing to agree.
It tells us that for each of us who seek good and act out of love, there is a place. There are kind and caring people. And it reminds us to keep looking for that place and those people. On a planet called earth, the devil’s good son found in the arms of our neighbors the good he had been yearning for. So it must be that we who are not born in hell must hold on to our goodness as well. We must continue to act out of love, even as we see and experience hate. We must continue to look for the love that we deserve and can share with others. Risk all by believing in the power of love.
Never give up. Never give in. What is good is irrepressible. What is good is never alone.
Risk all—except love.
December 23, 2011 § 15 Comments
When I was kid, there was a strange game show on television called Supermarket Sweep. Part of the show was a live-action, timed competitive race through an empty supermarket. Contestants would hurl the most expensive goods they could find into a shopping cart in a given time period. The total value of what was in the cart determined which team won. It did not matter what was in the cart and whether the goods were useful or tasty—what mattered is that you hoarded more expensive goods than others did.
I have found this silly game show is a good metaphor for our modern American life. We spend so much time buying and gathering things that are often entirely unnecessary, and sometimes meaningless. Got a working cell phone—no problem, buy another one just because it is the newest thing. After all, your friends will have one and you need to compare favorably. So you spend money you often do not have, discard the other phone and leave it for the dump, and then move onto the next thing to buy. The television tells you all you need to know—buy, buy buy, and have more than the Jones’ next door. It hardly matters whether you need (or even like) that McMansion or fancy car. You buy it to keep up, only to find that once you have it, you are no happier. Sadly, once you get it, you are soon onto thinking about its replacement—something bigger, fancier, and more expensive. You struggle to get it before the Jones’ do.
It is no surprise we aren’t happy. We are too busy filling the metaphorical shopping cart to pay much attention to anything else. We fail at happiness because we are not focusing on doing those things that bring happiness. There is no time left to do important things because we are so busy running around accumulating and acting competitively with others.
What are the consequences of a Supermarket Sweep life? I’m left to wonder what this way of living has done to our children, to whom we leave a vacuous legacy of mp3 players, video games, and cell phones.
I’m left to ask what this has done to our neighborhoods, where once family helped family, but we are now all to busy to help one another.
I’m left to ponder if in the end, all we are aiming for is a life of shopping carts replete with meaningless things and empty relationships. A life in which we get a winning financial score compared to our fellow citizens, but a losing life score. I’m asking myself if what we are left with are nice houses and beautiful cars that unhappy and unfulfilled people can inhabit.
I’m left to question whether we all see that the end point for all of us is the check-out line, where life’s clock always ticks to a grinding halt, and contestants leave behind items for an estate sale.
I’m left to wonder if there is a better way.
I think there is. I am not suggesting we all live in mud huts or ride in foot-pedaled cars like Fred Flintstone. I am not suggesting we stop eating good food or go on vacation. I am not suggesting we dress in rags. What I am suggesting is that the best life can offer will not be found in the things we meaninglessly own, but in a more balanced approach to life. We can find that way by asking better questions about what we want and why we want it, before mindlessly dropping goods into our shopping carts.
1. Do I really need this? So often the answer is “no,” so the spent cash is money down the drain. Even more often, quiet reflection leads you to conclude that what you were considering as a purchase was baited on a hook by clever advertisers. Most of us listen to ads like they were the advice given by knowledgeable friends with our best interests at heart. Instead, what we are getting are the artificial hunger pangs for things planted in our mind.
2. Will it make me happy? So often the answer is “yes” because we are not thinking about the difference between long-term and short-term happiness. I loved new sport cars. They made me happy for about a week, and then I would forget all about them, though I would be paying for them for 5 years. In a culture that has us conditioned toward purchased, short-term happiness, learning this is not easy. So, be gentle on yourself and start slow, but mindfully. If you have reason to believe that something will make you happy—then perhaps you should get that one thing you want. But then carefully monitor whether it makes you happy. You will learn by trial and error that you were not correct in your assumption, and soon, you will begin to choose differently.
3. What am I hiding from? We are being sold goods that are designed to cover us from reality. The new miraculous makeup, for example, may be hiding the lines on your face, but likely it is hiding something deeper that the make-up cannot fix. It’s hiding the fear of rejection, the inevitability of death, and the desire to be perfect. What is tragically true is that it will fix none of these. You are trying to purchase what cannot be bought.
4. Why do I care what the Jones’ have? The answer is frighteningly simple: you were told to care. You were told to compete with them. You were told that if you had one less item, you were less of a human being, less worthy, and ultimately, less lovable. None of it is true. Accepting that reality will not change the Jones’ competitive mindset, but it will change how you behave. They can compete with someone else. Instead, as William Faulkner noted, your goal is to “Try to be better than yourself.”
5. How can I allocate my resources to help someone else? Once a week, stop focusing on yourself and look outside yourself to help another. The answer is not necessarily to donate more money, but to become a real part of people’s lives. It is not always about feeding the hungry, though this is a good thing to do. So often, we ignore the well-fed souls ripped apart by the hunger for relationships and meaning. Ask yourself if there is a way to spend some of your time (and perhaps some money) for others. Immerse yourself in them Help them. Be there for them. You soon will learn a kind of joy that no fancy car or expensive watch can ever bring.
And there are no doubt other questions. Feel free to suggest them!