Breaking rocks

I called a friend the other day to ask a simple question about some software I was using for a project. It seemed that I caught him in a lack-of-job-related funk that has persisted for many, many months. “I’ve done everything I can think of,” he told me, including changing his resume, changing his approach when applying for work, applying for very different kinds of jobs outside his field. All of it, unfortunately, to no avail.

“And what really pisses me off is that people don’t call you back,” he said in a tone that was a mix of frustration, anger and depression.

My heart went out to him. It’s a situation that many people in our country, and the world, know all too well.  I wondered if I would show the same courage he’s shown during these difficult times.

What struck me very clearly is that the situation will change despite what we may believe to the contrary. It will change. But in the meantime…

I was looking for a lesson in this. Perhaps it is this: We cannot let a letter of rejection—or not getting a job after applying for one or dozens—determine who we are. Human nature tries to connect a “no” answer to “I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough. I’ll never get out of this hole I’m in.” Truth is, the “no” is just a “no.” It doesn’t change our character, who we strive to be, what we love or who loves us. It is simply a statement that “somehow, the job and I don’t fit.”

It could be argued that we’re not qualified, we’re the wrong age, we’re not pretty enough. But all that matters little. And it’s pointless to try to connect dots that just aren’t to be connected.

I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t honestly (but gently) look for ways to better ourselves. There’s certain value in self-assessment and improvement. It takes persistence, that’s for sure.

I’m reminded of a question someone asked about breaking rocks with a sledge hammer: Which blow cracked the rock? The answer is “the last one” according to those who engage in such thinking. But not so quick.

Doesn’t each swing of the hammer, each blow to the rock, lead to the end result? Doesn’t each blow matter in some, sometimes imperceptible, way? We don’t need to know exactly how, we just need to keep swinging.

Several years ago, I was visiting some friends and in their bathroom, strategically posted near the mirror, was this reminder: “You are strong. You are smart. You are beautiful. I believe in you.” Yet, how easy it is to focus on what we perceive ourselves not to be. “I’m just not ____ enough,” the thinking goes as we fill in the blank with our shortcomings.

The truth is, we’re stronger than we think we are. Sometimes it takes a gentle reminder.

Redefining perfect

It’s been a nearly perfect day. But it didn’t start out that way.

I woke up angry at things too numerous to mention. My dad used to refer to it as “getting up on the wrong side of the bed” which always confused me because I could never imagine mattress makers purposely building right and wrong sides into their wares. Regardless, one’s bed-exiting strategy should be chosen with care.

As I lay there contemplating the day ahead, I decided to confront the belief that I needed to be unhappy, mad or upset. If I wanted a better outlook, I needed a better “inlook” (I suppose that could be a word). I realized there was no good reason to begin a day with thoughts of darkness and doubt. The here and now (see the previous post) was the only place I needed to be.

So, I exited the bed from the same side I got into it the night before: the right side.

I was to have lunch with a friend at 1:00 pm but, due to a schedule change, my friend wasn’t able to leave work until 2:00 pm which left me about an hour to “kill”—as they say. I’m not sure why anyone would want to kill an hour because, as they go, hours are relatively innocent and not deserving of such sentences. So, I went to a favorite store to shop. After returning to my friend’s place we sat outside eating, talking, laughing and enjoying the beautiful fall temperatures and bright sun.

Soon, the winter cold will seal all of us inside our long pants and jackets and we’ll look back on the beauty of autumn with longing. If we’re true to form, our complaints about summer’s heat and humidity will change to complaints about winter’s cold and rain, but none of those complaints will change a thing. We’ll invest our time and effort into something that we don’t control and miss that which we do—the way we think about those things supposedly outside ourselves.

Perhaps even the idea of a “perfect day” misses the point. Perfect is largely in the eye of the beholder. Maybe there’s really no set standard for bad, not-so-bad, nearly perfect and perfect. Maybe it’s more how we mine the moments to find the jewels they offer.

An author of a newly published book described her writing technique and how, with computers, it is easy to delete large passages of text by hitting a single key. She said that, when writing on a typewriter or with pen and paper, eliminating words was much more difficult. This made me wonder what I might remove from my life (so far) if I had the power of the delete key.

But then I had a different thought: What if we had the power of the insert key to add something to our lives? What would it be?

For me, the answer would be “more time to love.”

Well, that’s not as difficult as it might seem.

As I reflect on it, today was more perfect than I could have imagined.

be here now

Several weeks ago, I came across a phrase that seemed sort of ordinary at first. Lately it’s been growing on me—and in a good way.

The three-word phrase is pretty simple: be here now.

As used in the context of the meeting I was attending, it meant that to truly listen to someone else, you have to turn off the mental chatter that often fills our heads and focus exclusively on the person you’re listening to. Listening for words and inflections, observing their posture and gestures, but always doing just one thing: intently listening. (Not that anyone reading this ever lets the chatter drown out another’s voice, but just in case…)

As most of us know, shutting out the chatter isn’t as easy as it seems. At any given time, there can be lots of stuff going on in our lives that begs for our attention. Whether it’s concern about work, finances, partners, the children, health, a busy schedule, (the list goes on), all these things can keep us from being “fully present in the moment,” a phrase I’ve never really liked enough to make it work for me.

But be here now has a different ring to it.

No matter how much my mind wanders, or which thoughts are clamoring for attention, “be here now” brings it right back to, well, the here and now and the place I’m being asked to be.

But the idea has uses beyond listening to others. I had an example of be here now a few days ago when a big deadline loomed. Although I was making progress, I found myself going through a series of distracting “what-ifs” on a variety of subjects, some of which were relevant but most of which were rabbit trails to nowhere.

At some point I just stopped and reminded myself to be here now. The mental clamor stopped, the computer screen became clear and my mind stopped wandering. Be here now.

The phrase is also a reminder to appreciate a moment of beauty, to laugh, to thank someone for their help, or to offer a compliment. As fall approaches, I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy the changing colors and crisp morning air, provided that we be here now.

Give it a try.

Following intense rehab, snowboarder Kevin Pearce returns home

After four months of intense rehab following a near-fatal snowboarding accident, Kevin Pearce returned to his family’s Norwich, VT home last week. Although hopes for an Olympic metal were dashed, for him, being home with his family was a golden moment that gave him a new perspective on his young life.

You can read a New York Times account here and watch NBC Nightly News coverage here. An ItsJakesWorld post from February 27, 2010 is here.

Of greener grass and the proverbial fence

Winter’s weeks-long grip on the South has relaxed a bit of late. Temperatures, which have barely peaked above the 40s in what seems like forever, have climbed into the 60s much to the delight of children and adults playing in the parks and strolling along walking trails. It won’t be long before tulips push through the soggy ground and the local soccer fields turn green.

For some reason, this change of scenery reminded me of an expression I first heard from my dad when I was probably five years old. We were engaged in one of those “I wish” conversations where you want what you don’t have. After wishing things into the ground for several minutes, he looked at me and said, “Son, you know they always say that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” To me, this confirmed that fences were meant to deprive animals of the good fortune of better grass “over there.” In this case is was in the neighbor’s pasture.

My five-year-old logic said that if you took the fences down, horses and cows wouldn’t have to be jealous of another’s better fortune and could move wherever they perceived the greener grass to be. Admittedly, it wasn’t the most practical of solutions.

Despite my childish logic, his point didn’t escape me. Nor does it today.

But we do seem to live in a world that, just beyond our grasp, is slightly better than the one in our hands. We long for warmer weather in the throes of winter and more moderate temperatures during the summer. Or, we’re on the prowl for better jobs, friends, houses or lovers. And, because greener/better is always “over there,” we never quite find it.

Another take on the greener over there proverb came to me awhile ago as I was waiting for a friend to arrive at her office. As I waited patiently, one of her office mates began describing the strong odor of solvent coming from another office in the building. She complained about the thoughtlessness of the landlord and the lack of ventilation, how she’d had to cancel classes during the week and how miserable the situation made her. Despite my suggestion about not letting this take her joy away, nothing would shake her angry words about the problem in which she seemed firmly anchored.

Largely, her story is the same drama in which, at times, we act. Becoming so enwrapped in a situation, we cannot choose a different scene or better context. We see and experience only the moment in all its horrifitude. (That’s a new word.)

In my own experience, I find it’s difficult to see how stuck we really are. But others often see what we don’t, that we have options, choices and potential. Potential that goes unrealized as we look and relook at the same problem, seeing the same evidence over and over again.

Is there a way out? Almost always. Here are three questions that help:

  • Is there another way to look at this problem/situation/event? Think of it this way: How would someone completely unconnected describe it?
  • Am I letting this define who I am and how I think about myself? It’s a case of choosing a new script or a new role to take on.
  • If I can’t change the whole picture, is there a part I can change?

My dad’s admonition about the grass being greener on the other side is a good reminder that where we are often looks more bleak than where we aren’t. The idea of moving “over there” is, of course, tempting but not always practical.

Yet the grass remains under our feet. How we look at it is largely up to us.

Dialing back the noise

I caught the first faint glimpse of fall a couple of days ago. Unlike winter which announces itself with the first big storm, or summer when the first really hot day says “I’m here,” autumn is a time that whispers. “Something’s different,” it inkles, “but you’ll have to carefully look and listen for it.”

iStock_000007706240XSmallIt was only after slowing down and letting the moment sink in that I realized the shadows were a bit longer and the foliage more pronounced than it was the week before. Tiny, almost imperceptible wisps of oranges and yellows and reds painted the leaves. In a few days they would riot with color.

All of this seemed more obvious after listening to a speaker earlier in the week. He was bemoaning the fact that there was “too much noise going on” in his life to think clearly.

Does that ever happen to you?

As I was sitting at my desk reflecting on the speaker’s message, I mentally paused to listen to “my noise.” I’m often a multi-tasker so it’s not unusual to have the television news on, streaming music coming from my computer, and a Word document open while I’m answering email.  (And, if this could go on while taking a shower, it would be even better!)

All this startled me enough to turn off the television and the streaming audio, and to close the Word document and my email. I closed the cover of my laptop and sat in total silence. After a minute or so, I became aware of the gentle rustle of tree leaves outside my window. Then I heard a bird call out and another one answer.

The fact is that the trees didn’t just start rustling, nor did the birds just begin singing. Both had been going on imperceptibly, but “my noise” was masking it and keeping the quiet mental insights from being more easily heard.

Author and speaker John Maxwell has an interesting take on the topic. He says we need a “place to think our thoughts,” and suggests finding a quiet location, away from the bustle of our lives, to do so. I like his idea, but without such a place, is it possible to quietly reflect? Truth is that “quiet” is less a locality and more a state of mind. The “place to think our thoughts” can be anywhere we choose to be.

As a result, I’ve renegotiated my morning routine. No television news rehashing the same stories over and over in the background. No streaming audio. And no Wording and emailing, just quiet time to reflect, listen, study and to find joy in the moment.

The difference is amazing. I still get all the news I need (and them some). I still enjoy music. And I find myself less inclined to head to the email program even if a computer voice tells me I have new mail. (Maybe I should turn that feature of all together…)

This quiet time helps me do my work more effectively. And now it’s much easier to reach out to others during the day—plan-fully and in a much less frenetic way.

Being a contribution

Okay. It’s confession time. Basically, I don’t like to wait. I choose next day shipping when buying from Amazon, and I wish it didn’t take so long to hard boil an egg. And, don’t get me started on how slow microwaves have become…

Well, I exaggerate, but you get the idea.

For many of us, waiting for stuff to happen can be a doldrums-like experience–like someone pressed the pause button on the DVD of your life. “If only they’d hurry up,” you might think, believing that the event (or life) you long for will bring the satisfaction that, until this point, has remained just outside your grasp.

todayRecently, my view of waiting has taken a turn for the better.

As I write this, Gerald Finzi’s “Eclogue for Piano and Strings” is playing on my iTunes. At a precise ten minutes, “Eclogue” (it means “pastoral poem”) is both haunting and bittersweet. Haunting in that there’s a yearning and tenderness in the melody and orchestration. Bittersweet because Finzi meant for it to be the slow movement of a piano concerto that he would never complete. (You can listen to the music here.)

Now, despite my jokes about being sometimes less than patient, I would never think of skipping to the end of the track just to hear the last note. I’ll bet you wouldn’t either. In music, it’s not the final note we savor (unless it’s getting through a Wagnerian opera!) it’s all the ones from beginning to the end that make up the musical story.

But in “the waiting game,” we can be so focused on what will be (the final note of music) that we miss what is. Within the waiting game is a subtle (or not-so-subtle) belief that tomorrow will be better than today. Now, that may be true. But today is the time and place to make a difference. It’s the only time and place we have any influence over.

So, how do you turn waiting into action?

Benjamin Zander, author of “The Art of Possibility” and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, has a phrase that fits for me. He encourages people to be a contribution. Not to “make” a contribution, but to “be” one. Putting this idea into practice is as simple as throwing yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why. And, by being a contribution, you are one—not tomorrow, not when the waiting ends, but during the waiting! Now.

The difference between “being” a contribution and “making” one may seem slight. For me, it’s recognizing that our very life is a contribution should we choose to throw ourselves in. In that life of being a contribution, there is no waiting game to be played.

There’s another post about Benjamin Zander’s book here.