The hazards of freedom

While I was washing out my plastic yogurt cup the other day, intending to recycle it, I asked myself why I was doing it. What was the point? I am guessing that only one in ten of us yogurt consumers are anal enough bother to recycle the darn things. Most, like my daughter, just throw them into the trash and forget about them. (I feel compelled to fish them out of the trash when she does this, clean them and recycle them.) If the vast majority of us will simply toss them out, what effect does my tiny effort having on saving the planet? My effort seems so wholly pointless.

After all, they will be likely around in some form long after I am fertilizer. I recently turned 50. The odds are decent that I will live to see 80, but I will probably not live to see 90. I am unlikely to witness the fruits of this peculiar obsession of mine. Nor, unless I can get my fellow neighbors to develop a similar passion for recycling, will it fundamentally change anything. It will not stop global warming. It will not keep humanity from breeding like bunnies. Nor will it stop us from tearing down more forests to support our burgeoning population and insistence on first world lifestyles. For sure, it will not make my family carbon neutral.

Why should I care about the Earth, as it will be a hundred, a thousand or a billion years from now? When I die my association with the Earth is gone. Why should I not treat the Earth the same way I treat a rental car? When I rent a car, my job is to avoid getting scratches on the car and to return it with a full tank of gas. I let someone else wash and vacuum the car. Since my life is finite, am I not simply renting space on this planet? Why not embrace the philosophy, endorsed by so many drivers and smokers, that the Earth is my trashcan? Yet I cannot. During my eighty or so years here on Earth I hope to do things to make this world a better place. Yet being just one among billions I also am sanguine enough to realize my efforts at best they will be marginal. Despite my first world lifestyle, I hope that the fruits of my labors will justify my effect on the environment. This blog is part of how I hope I try to add value to the world. In addition to being an excellent form of therapy, the occasional positive comments I receive indicate that I can touch lives and hearts for the better. In short, unless I develop a chronic case of Catholic guilt as I age, I expect I will have paid my dues as world citizen.

Which gets back to the question of why I cannot throw that used yogurt cup into the trash. Why am I compelled to recycle it? Why do I have the energy saver setting enabled on my dishwasher? Why have compact fluorescent lights all over my house? Why do I drive a hybrid and pay more for it when I could drive a bigger and more muscular car? Nothing I can do by myself will have anything more than the tiniest and most marginal effects on the environment. Why not just let it go? Why not be like Hugh Hefner and will my life full of opulence and beautiful women?

I expect by now you are waiting for my thoughtful answer. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer, at least not one that will satisfy. Nonetheless, I am confident that I will continue to buy cars that are less harmful to the environment. Moreover, I will continue obsessively recycling my yogurt cups, along with all the other recyclables in my house. Maybe it is a compulsion; or maybe it is some sort of neurosis.

On the other hand, maybe something truly spiritual is at work. Maybe something beyond me (my soul perhaps) is speaking powerfully to me. Maybe some part of me realizes that although I will die someday, I will not really be gone. Maybe I innately know that I will reincarnate someday, and I will have to deal with the toxic legacy to the environment that I am leaving behind. Maybe I sense a mission and a purpose to existence with a grander vision than my feeble mind can comprehend. Wherever it comes from, this presence inside me is powerful and I am compelled to honor it. It speaks to something permanent and authentic about me. Although I am far from being a model environmentalist, the actions I do take for the environment are really wholly selfless acts. They are expressions of love to not just my planet, but to the universe.

Perhaps you have heard of the Gaia Theory. Simply stated, this theory says that our world is one gigantic living organism. Just as it is hard for an ant riding on the back of a turtle to detect the turtle, so it is difficult for us to see that the Earth is not just a planet, it is a single organism. This reality is easier to grasp, perhaps, from a distance. One of the most captivating images of all time occurred in 1968 when Apollo 8 relayed pictures of the Earth surrounded by the blackness of space. For the first time we had an outsider’s perspective of the Earth. Until Apollo 8, we could ignore our interconnectedness. After Apollo 8, it was hard to ignore. We could see the Earth as a planet was alive.

Perhaps this is one reason that Unitarian Universalism resonates with me. Among its principles and purposes is this one that is so obvious, but which few religions explicitly address, since they are more concerned about salvation.

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

I think some part of me realizes that the notion of self is an illusion. While it frames our existence, it is still an illusion, and carried to extremes it can be a delusion. When we fail to acknowledge and respect our interdependence, our behaviors become destructive to ourselves and also to our community. This principle should be self-evident. Any physicist will assert that we really are connected. They will say we are unique expressions of organized energy, matter simply being an instance of energy. In addition to inhaling and exhaling, we radiate to the universe, from infrared rays from our body heat to our brain waves. From the viruses we share to the carbon dioxide we recklessly release from our cars and power plants that is warming our world, our actions affect the world. Everything affects everything else, but mankind’s actions affect it disproportionately.

The sooner we acknowledge this fundamental reality the better. While the United States is premised on the notion of individual freedom as a right and a virtue, in one sense, freedom is bad. It is bad when we freely make choices that degrade our natural ecosystem or deny our human interconnectedness. Having more than two children, in my opinion, is a selfish and unethical choice. For myself I see no way to become carbon neutral, but I recognize it as a goal toward which I and the rest of society needs to strive. I am ethically compelled to do what I can, even when it seems pointless and of marginal utility, as in recycling yogurt cups.

I do not know how as a species we can truly honor the interdependent web, but we must begin in earnest and we must do far more than we are doing. At least I understand this: I am tied to this planet, physically and spiritually. What we are doing to our planet we are also doing to ourselves. We are like teenagers cutting themselves. Our actions are both globally destructive and spiritually toxic. Our relentless focus on unbridled freedom is in some way unhealthy and counterproductive. Like Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead or Number 6’s in The Prisoner, by aggressively asserting our right to free choice without bound we are denying our interconnectedness. Freedom offers the illusion of happiness, but I believe that genuine happiness comes from working with others. Perhaps that is why a recent study says that the most satisfying professions were the most people focused. Being a minister usually does not pay very well, but it is the most rewarding.

I believe that the more we embrace our interconnectedness the happier we will be. For my part, I will keep recycling those yogurt containers. I hope that small actions like these will contribute toward a mindfulness of the preciousness of this organism we call The Earth.

Why be happy?

Money cannot buy us love, the Beatles told us. Apparently, it cannot make us happy either. At least that is the conclusion of this article in today’s Washington Post.

A wealth of data in recent decades has shown that once personal wealth exceeds about $12,000 a year, more money produces virtually no increase in life satisfaction. From 1958 to 1987, for example, income in Japan grew fivefold, but researchers could find no corresponding increase in happiness.

I feel like the sirens should be wailing. Adam Smith should be rolling in his grave too. Could it be that our capitalist society is built on a foundation of sand? Wasn’t the whole purpose of gaining wealth for us to be happier? Would most of us really be happier, or at least as happy, grubbing at some minimum wage job and living in austere surroundings than we are in our McMansions with three cars in the driveway?

I am thinking of a man I see regularly where I work. I see him when I go home in the evenings. He is on the ground floor and he is pushing a wide broom across the tile floors. “Have a great evening sir,” he says to me without fail, with a big happy smile on his face. He is utterly sincere and the content sound in his voice is impossible to fake. Just down the hall a bit there is the guard I usually see in the morning as I enter our building. He is always exceedingly pleasant. He could even be described as perky. He is such a morning person. He greets me with a sincere, “How are you doing today, sir?” I always mumble something polite, but I just do not feel as full of life as he does. After he checks my badge, he tells me “Have a wonderful day,” and it is clear that he means it too. I say the same to him, and while I mean it intellectually, I do not feel it in my heart. I have other things on my brain other than how wonderful this guard’s day turns out. I head upstairs to my office to slog through a hundred or so emails. He hangs out in the lobby, checks badges and makes light conversation with the many people coming in and out. I have been admiring him for his contentment and wholeness, characteristics I still lack after 49 years. For this modest security guard also has something of a following among the women in the building. He flirts with them and they flirt back. He walks with a skip in his step. It is not that he is especially handsome; he is middle age like me. I suspect I make at least three times what he makes a year. Am I as happy as he is? I doubt it.

So here I am with my six figure income. Why am I not happier? I have been to Hawaii and enjoyed it immensely. In two days, I fly off to Paris with my family. That will make me even happier, right? I will have experienced more of this world. I do not know what kind of vacation, if any, the broom pusher in the lobby at work will be getting this year. I imagine pushing the broom is just one of two or three jobs that he is shuffling. I have time to exercise after work and even to blog. I hire people to cut my lawn. Maybe his idea of downtime is going to church, or bowling with friends. Yet, I must, I should be happier, right? Ain’t necessarily so.

I often ask myself, is this it? While I will not get into details, I realize we spend a lot of money in my family trying to make ourselves happier. For example, there is mental illness in our family. We do the modern things to improve the situation. Certain unnamed family members may or may not be on antidepressants and may or may not be talking regularly with therapists. Would we have been happier if we had less choice and opportunity than we do? Was our pursuit of prosperity the very thing that led us to having more unhappiness in our lives? Consequently, is this why my family now needs frequent consultations with mental health experts?

I appear to have all the things by which one measures success and happiness. I have a wife and daughter who love me. I have a job I truly enjoy and which fully engages me. I have a comfortably sized house that is well maintained and keeps appreciating in value. My nest egg grows every year and after talking to my financial adviser last week, I know it will grow even faster in the future. I myself earn more than twice the average national household income. Yet what fixates me is not what I enjoy about life, but those things that really should not matter at all. You might say I spent thirty percent of my time obsessing about the five percent of my life that I feel is out of kilter. I cannot be happy unless I am happy all the time. Otherwise, some part of me remains miserable. Otherwise, my life feels cheapened and not optimized somehow.

Perhaps happiness comes from letting that five percent go. Perhaps happiness is simply a state of mind. Perhaps it comes from the willingly suspending disbelief. Instead, I am fixated on what might happen. If someone earns $12,000 a year, he likely does not have any health insurance. Yet according to this article, he is as happy as I am. Yet for some illogical reason I feel I must be happier because I have health insurance and they probably do not. If they get seriously sick, they are in serious financial straights. They can even die. I am more likely to hang around. So I will be alive to do what? I will still probably do what I do now, and keep spending thirty percent of my time obsessing about the five percent of my life that is not optimized for my personal happiness.

The angels are whispering to me, “To be happy, let it go.” Let go of that five percent. It is beginning to dawn on me that the reason I obsess on the missing five percent is that all my life I have been in a Darwinian struggle for survival. Survival of the fittest is hardwired into my brain. I cannot escape from this pattern because it is integrated into my character the same way my irises have always been blue. However, improving the odds of my survival does not necessarily make me happier. It should make me less anxious. It is more likely to make me neurotic. Perhaps that is the reason my family spend so much money on doctors and therapists. Yet improving our odds of surviving will not keep us from dying in time either. However, there may be some illusionary satisfaction from keeping the wolves outside the gate. The happiest people though seem unconcerned that there may be wolves at the gate.

Yes, it was Paul McCartney who crooned, “Money can’t buy me love”. Moreover, didn’t he just turn 64? Didn’t this song suggest that no one could really love him when he turned 64 because at that age he was old and therefore unlovable? Well, maybe Linda would still love him had she survived. Is it just coincidence then that now at age 64 we find in the news that Paul divorced his baby doll wife? Heather Mills now has a reputed ten million pounds from Sir Paul to help her find happiness somewhere and with someone else. Presumably, her happiness no longer takes the form of spending time with a rich senior citizen.

I do know who is happy though. It does not appear to be Sir Paul, and it is not me at least for a significant chunk of my day (although logically I should be very happy). Whom do I know who is happy? I see him many days pushing a broom. Yet for the life of me, I do not know whether such happiness is worthy of aspiration, or delusional. Survival of the fittest may not actually make me all that much happier, but human history suggests that maybe it is a worthier aspiration.

Good Night Lauren

My friend Lisa was turned on to blogging by her teenage goddaughter Lauren. It was Lisa, who in turn, got me started on my blogging adventure in December 2002. My adventure has consumed 489 entries over the last three years or so and a minimum of six hours a week of my life. Yet it may not have started at all without Lauren.

It was also Lauren who redesigned my blog to give it its present look. For the price of a $50 donation to the American Cancer Society, she invested many hours over many months designing and touching up my blog. I told her I wanted my blog to look a bit buttoned down. Yet I could not seem to do it on my own. While I have taught many classes in web page design, my attempts at giving my blog some style were utter failures. However, Lauren had that gift of making an ordinary web site look extraordinary. Do you like its look and feel? I know I do. You can thank Lauren.

You may wonder why it took months for Lauren to redesign my blog. I am a patient man but under the circumstances, I could hardly complain. It was not that the price was right, although I was happy to pay her much more. It was that Lauren had bigger fish to fry. She had Ewing’s Sarcoma, and a cancer had taken hold in her femur. An operation later, her femur was replaced. Everyone held their breath and hoped that this would mean the last of her endless hospitalizations and rounds of chemotherapy. She tried to resume a normal life and began attending college about a year late.

For a while it looked liked she had shaken the cancer. With her unflagging spirit and youth, I assumed she could put cancer behind her forever. Surely, she had more than paid her dues. Unfortunately, the cancer came back. Her pelvis acquired the cancer and then it spread to her liver. She died serenely on March 5th in her home, surrounded by many friends and family, after a heroic final battle with her disease. She was 19.

I never met Lauren in person, although I did have the good fortune of meeting her sister. Through many emails, reading her blog, and seeing her through the eyes of my friend Lisa, I did get to know her. Her radiant picture, which you can see on Lisa’s blog, shows a woman for whom love, unfailing good manners, humor and an enormous spirit of life simply shines through. It certainly came through in her emails. Despite months spent in depressing hospital rooms, and years of chemotherapy with its associated vomiting and other side effects, her spirit never wavered. She faced her own death courageously. Her faith in God never faltered either.

When I received the news of her death, I of course immediately sent Lisa my condolences. Yet it was not until Lisa posted this diary on Daily Kos that I understood the magnitude of this loss on everyone who knew her.

When my own mother died last November, I did not cry. My mother’s dying was a long and drawn out process. Her death was actually something of a blessing: an end to her suffering. However, when I read Lisa’s diary I cried right there in my office.

Most Americans never met John F. Kennedy yet millions cried the day he was assassinated. They cried, perhaps, because they saw in him someone they wanted to emulate but could not. Perhaps I cried for Lauren for similar reasons. Tragedy is a word used too frequently these days, but Lauren’s death was truly a tragedy. She was a shining and unfailing good-natured spirit who was forced to deal with horrendous adult issues while still an adolescent. Her death was nobody’s fault. Yet not even death itself could flag either her faith or her good spirits. She was at peace with herself through it all. She set something of an ultimate example to all who knew her. Everyone who knew her, including some like myself who never actually met her, feel both sorrow by her absence in our lives, and humbled that nothing nature could throw at her could change her sweetness.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” Gandalf the wizard said in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. From a distance, that seems to have been Lauren’s philosophy of life: make the best of every day, no matter how challenging. I hope when my time comes to depart this earth that I can do it with just half her grace and a quarter of her courage.

Defying Gravity

When life’s thermals decide to take you into the stratosphere you simply have to buckle up and breathlessly enjoy the ride.

For no particular reason that I can pin down, I have been feeling good. Not just good. Great. Exceptional. I feel full of energy. I feel in very high spirits. Certainly, I have both good and bad days, but lately I have been feeling, well, terrific. I am trying to think how long it has been since I felt this way. Years most likely. Decades perhaps.

I am trying to find an explanation but nothing can wholly explain it. It is not as if I have found a new love (the old one is still fine, thank you). It is not as if my sex life has suddenly skyrocketed. Nor has this blog taken on thousands of new hits. In fact, there are many aspects of my life right now that should be downers. My mother is dying. My wife is still chronically underemployed. My daughter still has issues she is working through. I still have some weight I could stand to lose. The yard needs a lot of work. Clearly these are not all huge issues, but they are issues nonetheless that must be groped with and through.

So why do I have this good mood? Perhaps it is a combination of lots of things. Washington D.C. has delivered a lovely summer week, with low humidity and highs in the mid 80s. The skies are blue and the haze is absent. As a result, I can ride the bike to work every day and it was more of a joy rather than a pain. My body really appreciates the extra exercise. Getting my heart rate above 150 several times a day through biking seems to tickle my body.

It also likes the workouts at the gym. Usually I hit the gym more out of necessity and resignation than with any eagerness. Yet I find myself bounding up the stairs to the gym and almost jumping onto the machines. Adding additional weights to a set is not as difficult as it usually is. I like coming home and having my muscles stretched. My body tingles in a healthy, aerobic glow.

A large part of it is doubtless my job, which I seem to enjoy more and more everyday. I have felt optimized for quite a while now. My In basket is generally overflowing in the morning and overflowing in the evening. Rather than get upset over it, I seem to like it. I like the frantic nature of my job. I like its chaos. Moreover, I like its management aspects a whole lot more than I expected. That is because I am empowered. It is lovely after 48 years to finally be able to be in charge.

I feel great being so challenged at work everyday. This is the aspect of my job that I strangely like the best: being pushed to excel. Although my job is sedentary and it seems like nothing much gets done, a lot actually does get done. I am blessed with a dedicated and professional team. Unlike most managers, I have no deadweight to deal with. This leaves me free to lead, and I like to lead aggressively. I do not lead recklessly but I do move confidently and strategically. Fortunately, I have a team full of people who feel exactly the same way. While realistically they know they have limitations too, each employee seems to arrive at work in a similar frame of mind: anxious to get into the tasks of the day and to do things exceptionally well.

If you saw the movie Apollo 13, you may have some idea how my team works. While that flight was a failure, it was also a success. Despite all the odds, the astronauts and Mission Control successfully brought a crippled spacecraft home from the moon. That is what we do. It may not be obvious to you, but the Internet is a big, chaotic environment. Entropy tries every day to bring our distributed system to its knees. Yet we persevere. We keep it going at it full throttle. My team certainly stumbles now and then. Nevertheless, we never give up nor despair. No matter what the Internet gods throw at us during any given day we can work through it or around it.

It is a glorious form of chaos. We juggle dozens of balls in the air at once. Occasionally one drops to the ground. However, what is amazing is that we mostly keep them all in the air at the same time.

It is like this pretty much every day. Yet I seem to thrive in this sort of chaotic environment. I love the asymmetric nature of the job. I love the fact that it is hard and complex work. I also seem thrive in our much-challenged budgetary environment. We always have to pinch our pennies. We are not funded like Microsoft or Google. It is hard to do anything complicated with computer systems, but it is a lot easier when you are flush. When you are not, you have to think outside the box. We think outside the box a lot.

So why am I happy? I am not sure. Nevertheless, many things are going right, or at least feel like they are going right. And for once I feel a sort of synergy from it all that is almost ecstatic. My body seems to be in step with my mind. We are a team. We are moving, we think, toward greatness. We are changing our little corner of the universe for the better.

I feel like Elphaba from the musical Wicked. I feel like I am defying gravity:

So if you care to find me
Look to the Western sky!
As someone told me lately
Everyone deserves the chance to fly
And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free
To those who ground me
Take a message back from me!

Tell them how I am defying gravity
I’m flying high, defying gravity
And soon I’ll match them in renown
And nobody in all of Oz
No Wizard that there is or was
Is ever gonna bring me down!!

The Wonderful World According to John Denver

I keep adding to my list of men who are often scorned or lampooned but that I wholeheartedly admire. I could make this entry about the late Mister Rogers. I will save my tribute to him for another day. Today I will save my praise of dead people for the late singer and songwriter John Denver.

Yep, I shamelessly admire the Rocky Mountain High man himself. I know his voice is an octave or two too high for many people. I know many people thought much of his music was sophomoric and trite. To many he seemed goofy.

They miss the point of John Denver. John Denver was the 20th century’s most authentic human being. He had his travails in life (such as his painful divorce from his wife Annie) like we all do. Nevertheless, John seemed hardwired into the joy and ecstasy of life.

John taught us a wonderful lesson: life is truly beautiful. Suck the marrow out it. Revel in its robustness. Marvel at its complexity and weirdness. Let life fill you to the brim. Let its overflow cascade onto the people around you. John was pro-life in the best sense of the word. His message was to be reckless with embracing your life. Take all of life in. Just like waves crashing on a beach endlessly sift through the sand, let its fullness and reality surge endlessly through you. In John Denver’s world, life was the ultimate adventure movie. Indeed life, even the ordinary life was far more fulfilling than any movie could possibly be. In the world according to John, all you have to do is fully embrace it to experience your authenticity.

As an artist, John brought the joy that he felt in living gloriously alive in his music. To me his spirit was infectious. He asked you to hang up that ragged coat of your own perceptions. He wanted you to open the shutters to your life, face the sun, feel the wind on your face, hear the cacophony of nature around you and revel in it al. You are to accept life as a glorious mystery. Your mission when listening to his music is to let down your shields and let his music infect you. Then perhaps you will experience it too. If you do then you may find yourself transformed, at least for a few moments. You may feel again the same exhilaration we all felt as infants when life was forever and the possibilities were infinite.

John’s interests were not limited just to music. He was passionate about many things including the manned space program, equal rights, ending racism and world hunger, photography and philanthropy. As you probably know, John died in 1997 at age 54. An experimental plane he was flying alone failed. It reportedly dropped like a stone into Monterey Bay. I am sure John was one of the last people who would want to check out of life prematurely. However, perhaps he had drawn too deeply from the well of life. Perhaps the gods were upset that one human being could draw so much meaning from one life in so short a time.

For me the antidote to a down day is to listen to a John Denver album. Invariably I can snap out of it. At least for a little while I am full of the promise and mystery of life once again.

John’s philosophy of life is succinctly summed up from a couple lines from Sweet Surrender:

Sweet, sweet surrender, live, live without care
Like a fish in the water, like a bird in the air.

Godspeed, John. And thanks.

The Quest to Graduate to Human Being

Wow! The more I get into this book on shame by John Bradshaw that I mentioned the more my mind is opening. This is excellent material. Even though I am only on Chapter Three I am already of the opinion that if it is not on your reading list I think it should be. In some ways this book makes me feel like I have been choosing to see the world through squinted eyes. Only now are they wide open. And only now are some of the big mysteries of life coming into focus.

Like: why are so few of us humans truly happy with ourselves? How many of us wake up excited to engage the world? If you are one of these people then count your blessings. You are a human being. John Bradshaw suggests that the rest of us are human doings, stuck in patterns learned early that squeeze a lot of the joy out of our lives. No wonder we are a nation where addiction runs rampant. For most of us getting up and tackling the day is about as much fun as getting a high colonic.

The irony is often times we delude ourselves. We tell ourselves we are happy with our family, or our marriage, or our employers, or the beliefs we subscribe to. But in fact most of us are not getting much out of life. Instead of living we are existing. We have allowed outside forces to direct our lives. It’s not just mommy who has attached apron strings to us. It is society. It is everyone we choose or inadvertently let slip in through our psychic front and back doors. We are unhappy because we are playing roles in our lives out of guilt and shame, not out of genuine desire.

In many cases we have taken our natural desires and stuffed them into a strong box. We have locked it in a dark closet or buried it underground and swallowed the key. And yet it tugs at us day and night. “Help!” it says. “You are living a false life! You are meant to be happy, not be the actor of your own life! You are squandering away your life!” We try not to hear it but occasionally the voice comes through. And when it becomes deafening we deal with it by deadening it. Out comes to booze. Or the cigarettes. Or the Bon Bons. Or we go out cruising for sex. Or we rush to church to hear from our ministers that God tells us we must never give in to the voice. Our life is to be used wholly in service to others. Yes, that’s the paradox of the whole altruism bit. You are supposed to make everyone happy but yourself. You supposedly gain the highest level of happiness only through abject misery which you delude yourself into thinking is actually ennobling.

Now I’m not going to go Ayn Rand on you and start preaching the virtues of Objectivism. I think altruism is fine. But as is true of any virtue or vice, altruism can be taken to extreme. It is okay to give of ourselves and nurture others along too. But I don’t think it is okay for most of us to become Mother Teresas and spend our lives doing nothing but helping others. This is not to diss Mother Teresa. Her life is an extraordinary accomplishment. I hope giving service to others was something she truly enjoyed. I hope she woke up every morning absolutely thrilled to help the poor and the destitute. On the other hand if she woke up every morning preferring to eat Godiva chocolates and instead decided she’d do nothing but help the poor from dawn until dusk every day of the week I would suggest that while she did great good she was also a woman with huge issues. To use Bradshaw’s words she would have been a human doing.

Now I know where all this dysfunction comes from. It comes from survival. I can pin it on bad parenting, or nutty religions, or the educational system where your worth as a human being is determined by your grade point average. But basically we survived as a species by deferring our wants to make sure our needs were taken care of. We are only now beginning to emerge from the lower reaches of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If we reach self-actualization, then that’s fine. Part of self-actualization is often altruistic in nature, but it is not just about altruism. It’s about finding our authentic self. It’s about becoming a human being instead of a human doing.

And that’s the hard part. Many of us don’t have a clue on how to find our authentic self. If we have survived in the jungle of life long enough to be at the plain where self-actualization can happen then we find that we lack the tools to get there. Instead we often feel guilt or shame when we reach. “I shouldn’t do X. Instead I should cut the grass, make love to my spouse, pound the beefsteak, dust the furniture and clean the kitchen floor.” And if we finish those things on our immediate To Do list, then we are told we should also spend the rest of our time doing things for others. We should be ushering at church, or going to PTA meetings, or doing Mormon missionary work, or tutoring children. We don’t know how to just kick back and take delight in things that may give us inward pleasure.

And I notice that some of us do things that genuinely do make them happy but they won’t cut themselves any slack for it. For example there is a significant other in my life who is this way. She will spend her days surfing the Internet reading stories written by others. And then the day will come to an end and she will berate herself for being such a bad human as to have actually spent the day having fun.

So many of us are stuck in these toxic patterns that are ultimately debilitating and self-defeating. We need escape. We need to find a way to say it’s okay to revel guiltless in the pleasure of doing things that feed our fancy.

I myself find myself stuck somewhere between the two extremes. I am finding lots of things that I enjoy. I don’t usually give myself a hard time about enjoying them, but I haven’t quite turned off that nagging voice in my head. It tells me what a horrible human being I am because I am blogging instead of removing cat gorp stains from the carpets. But with every passing year these feelings of shame recede more. I am too engaged. I have found activities that really turn me on. My list is doubtless not your list, but they are interesting enough where I find I am usually eager to take them up.

I even had a little fun today grading my students’ papers. Why? Because I chose to teach as an extracurricular activity, not because I needed the money. Between my job (which is about 50% fun, which is higher than most jobs), blogging, hanging out in electronic communities, biking, movies, theater, romance and even good dirty sex I feel pretty darn good most of the time. So it’s not so hard these days to laugh at those voices telling me what I should do. Perhaps one of these days my total liberation will be complete.

If you are a human being in the fullest sense of the word: congratulations. If you have a moment please reach down and pull me up. But if you are like me and you still hear those “shoulds” in your brain more often than you would like, then here’s hoping we both graduate to human being.

The Unseen

Where I work we don’t give much thought to the mailroom. It seems like snail mail somehow find us and it ends up in our mailboxes. The people who pick up and deliver the mail zip by a couple times a day. They move from station to station largely unseen and unacknowledged. Without meaning to I had totally tuned them out. It was like they were not there.

My somewhat famous name occasionally it gets remarks. Usually it goes in one ear and out the other. I keep my office door open but I face the hall. Usually I am engaged in work, so my eyes are focusing on my monitor and my hands are flying over the keyboard. I am only dimly aware when people pass by. So I was a little surprised when the other day one of the young women who pushes the mail cart struck up a conversation with me about my name.

Like many in the mailroom she had handicaps. She wears coke bottle glasses and moves unsteadily down the hallways. She runs by my office a couple times a day. I was only tangentially aware of her. I never spoke to her because I had nothing to say. If I were to think about it, which I never did, I assumed she would never have anything to say to me either. Two people with less in common would be harder to find. She delivers the mail. I direct a bunch of knowledge workers using tools like email and conference calls. But she spoke. Her name, she told me was Karen. Nice to meet you Karen, I said. She remarked again about how my name is similar to a famous actor. I smiled pleasantly but wanly. I didn’t mean any offense but I hear such remarks about once a month on average and they are a bit tiresome. She smiled back. And she looked at me awkwardly. I could sense she felt somewhat embarrassed and on some level she was attracted to me. We traded a minute or so of polite conversation and then she resumed her mail run.

Weeks went by. She kept pushing around her mail cart. I tuned her out and kept typing words into my keyboard. Then I heard her ask me a question by name. And I looked around wondering who it was. And there she was outside my door smiling. She said something to me and I have no idea what it was. My train of thought was somewhere completely different. “Umm, can I help you?” I asked. But by that time she was gone. It is only now days later that I pulled her name from my memory.

The unseen are all around us. To call them “unseen” is to really tar myself. But since Karen changed the dynamic I have been looking around me. I am finding the unseen everywhere. Our building, like most federal offices, contracts out most services such as the mailroom, the cafeteria, cleaning the restrooms, picking up the trash and polishing the floors. Like most civil servants with twenty or so years of service I had largely tuned them out. I didn’t mean to. I just sort of picked up this vibe from my coworkers. They never talked about them. So I didn’t.

But sometimes the unseen invade my personal space. A guy comes into my office about noon to get my trash. I always acknowledge him with a “Hello.” I get a muffled “hello” back but basically he wants to be neither disturbed nor acknowledged. I am one of a thousand offices he will visit today. He wants to get the trash and get out. I do always make a point to say “thank you” as he leaves.

For the most part the unseen are in uniforms. Maybe that’s why I don’t see them most of the time. Their uniform where I work seems to be dark blue. I have learned to tune out people in blue uniforms. When I engage others in conversation in the halls it is always with coworkers. The unseen walk past quietly, never talking. Most of the time they will not look you in the eye. It’s like they’ve been told by their managers to blend in.

It’s four o’clock and that means it’s time to clean the men’s room. For some reason Mother Nature wakes me up around this time. I often arrive to find the restroom closed, or about to be closed. Here is a rare case where the unseen sometime need to talk to me. They ask if anyone is inside. If so I holler back. Or I give them an all clear. I know I certainly appreciate a clean restroom. I take plenty of paper towels and toilet paper for granted. Our toilet bowls always sparkle. But it seems to be the nature of these things that we only care when the usual high standards fail. If we run out of paper towels then I am upset. Sometimes I even fume about it. But I don’t acknowledge the many other times when all supplies are in place and the restroom is clean.

In the evenings as I exit work I find the main foyer invariably being buffed by the floor polishing crew. I don’t know their names. I suspect I never will. They are also in blue uniforms. The hum from their polishing machines is almost hypnotic. They are always quiet, methodical and single minded. The bright yellow wet floor sign is about a dozen feet behind them. They squirt polisher onto the floor and buff the tile. The truth is the tile always looks gorgeous. Polishing it so frequently seems unnecessary.

They are the service class. On those rare occasions that I go to the basement of my building I see them in a different state. In the break room they turn into regular people. They laugh and joke. But then the break is over and they resume work. Silence and ubiquity are then again the norms. They move around us but remain unseen and largely unacknowledged.

But because of the unseen I get to work in a professional office instead of a smelly hellhole. I get to do what I do best and have the freedom to concentrate on my job. I wish I were better at acknowledging the unseen. I wish I could find ways to have more meaningful conversation. I wonder is it just me or are they not anxious to talk to me too? Is not being seen or acknowledged a standard they strive to achieve in their performance plan?

I don’t know. But I do know I appreciate the unseen. What they do may seem unglamorous but it is important. I wish we could find ways to better appreciate them. If I were in their shoes I think I would see us as a haughty, stuck up and pretty obnoxious bunch.

I’m sorry you are supposed to be unseen. But I do thank you today for all you do. And forgive us when we tune you out. That seems to be the way it has evolved. We certainly don’t mean you any offense. And I will try to get better.


Right on! That’s what I thought, anyhow, after reading an article in today’s Washington Post about psychiatrist Gordon Livingston. After 33 years of listening to people tell them about their problems he finally decided to talk back in the form of a book, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now“.

Most of the heartbreak of life, he says, comes from ignoring the reality that past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future behavior. Good intentions aren’t a substitute for good acts. Sweet nothings mean nothing. Just do it.

I confess I am losing patience with those who spend their lives whining about the bad things that have happened to them over the years. It’s not that I don’t have some empathy for their problems. I have plenty of it because I went through many of those miserable experiences myself. I do know that dwelling on my problems never solved them. If anything it just made me worse. It was when I stopped dwelling on my problems and figuratively stood up, rolled up my sleeves and engaged the world that things started to improve. I haven’t looked back.

Now clearly this is not something everyone can do overnight. Therapy and antidepressants have their part. But they are only part of the solution to happiness. The other part is to engage the world. It doesn’t matter so much how you engage it as it matters that you just engage it. Life happens through living: through engagement. It withers like a parched garden when you do not engage. This is a truth of life borne out by simple experience, and stated so unambiguously by Gordon Livingston. If we are a garden we make our own rain. This rain though does not come from us directly but through interacting with others. Engagement is essential to our growth and our mental health. It’s really that simple.

I think I can finally say that I’ve cleared my midlife crisis hurdle. It has lasted about ten years, which is about nine years too many. And maybe I was one of these people that needed ten years to get through my stuff. But I know it didn’t happen by staying in my little mental black hole. It happened because I decided the only one I could change was myself so I had better get busy.

Resolution began with graduate school. That consumed three years of my life with no difficulty. And it was a good but very exhausting experience. I discovered that I had the perseverance and smarts I thought I had. It positioned me well in my career. I rode my degree and my work ethic to more interesting and better paying positions. But it was not enough. I was still mired in midlife muck.

It seemed with every couple steps forward there were steps back. I put on weight that I shouldn’t have. Taking it off was yet another difficult and time consuming chore but it focused me. Meanwhile around me members of my family went through mental health crises and physical traumas. Dealing with it drained and depressed me. But I never wholly gave into despair. As best I could I kept fighting it and moving forward.

I discovered that the only one I could change in my life was myself. There was no point in wasting time or energy trying to solve problems that I could never own. My wife has her own issues. I wasn’t helping her any by taking ownership of them. She has to take ownership of them. The same was true with my daughter. She is an A student pulling C’s. I can offer her support but I cannot change her either. She has to feel the impact of her decisions. It’s her life, not mine.

I have learned that you can love someone with all your heart and soul but you cannot change them. You can only choose to be pulled into the gravity of their problems, or you can choose to stay above, weightless and in orbit, yet nearby.

Instead I started to use my time in more meaningful ways. I attended services at my Unitarian church regularly even if I couldn’t get my wife out of bed to come with me. I started teaching in my spare time. I ran the church web site for a couple years. I thumbed my nose at society, which seemed to be saying to me that I should only have friends in the context of my marriage. I found my own friends. If I found someone interesting in the course of life I engaged with him or her. And it turned out I found the hers often more interesting than the hims so be it.

I have chosen to step outside the boundaries of what is expected of me. I’m not sure why I was in bounds in the first place. No one was holding a gun to my head. Perhaps I felt I should do what was proper, whatever that meant. Now I do what brings me some satisfaction. That is not to say that I spend my days in reckless hedonism. Rather I spend my days in ways that give me the most personal satisfaction.

So I no longer watch television. I want to engage with the world, not watch images of it pass by on a phosphorescent tube. I blog because I find it fun. It gives me an excuse to write, which I enjoyed so much growing up. If it engages a few friends and others who arrive serendipitously via search engines so much the better. If I cannot find a friend to see a movie, or if my wife is not interested I go alone. While I wait for that day when my wife decides to exercise again I am off on my bike on 20 or 30 mile trips alone.

Maybe it’s a tad myopic of me. Maybe it is selfish. Maybe, but I don’t care anymore. I am in command of my own life again. Life will continue to have its ups and downs. The downs will doubtless change me but suffering is an inevitable part of life. But suffering doesn’t last forever. If things are good then the day is a blessing: I am free to make the most of the day given to me. Good or bad as long as I engage in the experience of the day at least I will feel fully alive.

Six Figures Ain’t What It Used To Be

Sometimes life’s milestones go almost unnoticed. In filling out the paperwork for my car loan this week and totaling up my income I discovered that my income alone was now just barely in the six figure range.

So why don’t I feel richer?

I always figured that if I were making this kind of money that my life would be a heap more upscale. Maybe I’d be driving a Lamborghini, but if not that at least a Lexus. Instead I have this lovely brand new but modest 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid. This hardly screams midlife-crisis babe-attracting-magnet mobile.

With a six figure income isn’t it time to get a McMansion with a three car garage? We seem content with our modest three bedroom single family home. The McMansions are all over the place in my community. It would not be out of our reach for us to trade up to a grander house. But the truth is I don’t want a McMansion. My income is now in six figures but apparently my neighbors have much deeper pockets. They have the McMansion, three cars in the driveway and a wife who stays at home and drives the children to ballet classes. But not everyone can be an executive vice president. Where do these people get the money? Am I underpaid at $100K a year?

Perhaps I could buy a vacation home, weekend getaway or timeshare condominium. But I don’t want any of them. I don’t want to spend my weekends driving somewhere to have some stolen moments in the country. I don’t want the hassle of maintaining another piece of property. I can hardly keep up the one I have. And I doubt that even on six figures that I could really afford two mortgage payments.

While I no longer struggle from paycheck to paycheck I find that my experience with poverty and struggling to make ends meet for so many years still controls my behavior. I cannot be reckless with money. I largely practice pay as you go. I won’t carry a credit balance. I typically buy used cars and keep them until they are just short of falling apart. (This new car is the exception, but even so we put $10,000 down.) As for style, I have none. I have no sense of fashion. Blue jeans and T-shirts supplied by technology vendors account for much of my wardrobe. My daughter says I need a visit from the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy folks. I have no idea how to be hip. Worse, I have zero desire to be hip. I am comfortable being indistinguishable from the crowd.

Still I have noticed the income creep over the years. A family vacation in Hawaii a few years ago would have been unthinkable at one time. It probably cost us $7000. It was paid for by extra paychecks and by dipping into savings a bit. I hardly noticed the cost. Similarly this year my wife elected to get some cosmetic surgery. The operation cost us $6000 or so. We paid for it out of savings and paid ourselves back within a few months.

Such things are helped by having low housing costs. Our mortgage payments are about $1500 a month. At one time the payment seemed obscene, but now new residents have a hard time renting a decent apartment for that kind of money. We have been fortunate in the timing of our housing decisions.

I spend money in places and in quantities I didn’t before. I give a lot more money to charity not just because I can but because I want to. And I gave thousands of dollars to political candidates and political organizations in the last election. It was too bad I didn’t get a better return on those investments.

So I’m certainly not complaining. Poverty sucked. Some part of me continues to be scared that I will be impoverished again. On some level I realize this is foolish. I have 401Ks, mutual funds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity that can be tapped in emergencies. It gets easier to spend money with every large or frivolous purchase. But I still feel the need to horde my money. I pay myself first but I often wonder why. Am I afraid to live the larger life? Or am I simply comfortable living in the trappings of a modest life even though our financial reality suggests more expansive possibilities?

I don’t know. But I often feel I should be more financially savvy. Trading up to a bigger house would make a certain sense at this stage in my life. Perhaps the class of my neighbors would improve (not that I have many problems with my existing neighbors). Perhaps the Rotarians would ask me to join. Perhaps I would feel what it would be like to be “in” or at least a member of the somewhat moneyed crowd.

But overall I sense that passing this particular milestone doesn’t mean that much anymore. There are plenty of other people in my fortunate boat and we are all trading up. This means that prices are going up, which means that my income doesn’t mean as much as I think it does. I’m doing well. I consider myself fortunate. But I still can’t see coming up with $24,000 a year to send my daughter to Sidwell Friends School, something she’d like us to do. I can’t see buying her a car when she gets her license. Although we have money set aside for her education I can’t see her in a preppy private school somewhere when a public university will do just as well. All these things still feel beyond our financial reach, or at least don’t seem prudent.

Perhaps I’ll do it if I ever reach the $200,000 milestone.