My husband is not guilty of crimes against the state. The state may be guilty of crimes against him.
The news about what is happening or not happening in Washington, D.C. is robbing him of his optimism and faith in the future.
I watch him going down as he reads about venality, greed, the partisanship that forgets the common good, and failure to act upon the pressing issues of the day. Top that off with doses of real tragedy and unconscionable actions or neglect–no wonder he looks droopy.
By nine am each morning, after spending a piece of his prime time reading national newspapers, he emerges with a hang-dog I-can’t-believe-what-they’re-doing or did-you-hear-what-just-happened look. So much for the rest of the day.
OK, many of us are suffering, but after seeing what the news is doing to him, I decided to take drastic action.
For the record, I believe in the importance of educated citizenship. But what good results from keeping up with the news if it leaves one feeling hopeless, like there’s nothing that can be done? Broken spirits will not save the country.
That’s why he’s under house arrest. Unlike the fictional, aristocratic hero of my favorite vacation read, A Gentleman in Moscow, who lived under house arrest for twenty-six years, my husband can still go out.
News of the world will reach him through NPR as he travels to his morning coffee conversations with his guy friends. And I can’t prevent them from talking politics.
At home, though, strict limits are called for.
Here’s what must be banned:
- Washington Post headlines as well as articles.
- New York Times headlines and articles.
- Teasers on Facebook or social media (he’s not too susceptible).
- Spending too much time thinking about the Supreme Court.
I haven’t decided whether he can read the Guardian. Consumer Reports is OK.
What he can do:
- Give money to causes he already knows are important.
- Vote intelligently and give money selectively to campaigns (and no, he can’t support all the worthy candidates.)
- Give time to LOCAL causes. He is not likely to fix the national health care crisis, but he has a good crack at contributing to preserving the future of health care on our island.
- Take naps and read novels.
I am NOT denying him his deep compassion for the unfairly treated of the world.
I do want him to try laughing again.
I don’t suggest that we should all tune out, just that we need to pay attention to how the news flattens us.
Perhaps my husband is a special case because of his age and heart condition. But I doubt a regular diet of heartbreak is good for any of us.
I can’t place YOU under house arrest, but my cautions still apply. Stop absorbing news when you feel it weakening your spirits, your resolve, your compassion or your heart.
Then go find the one small thing you can do.
Last year a good friend went through a true dark night of the soul brought on by medical circumstances. The prednisone she was given for an acutely painful condition weakened her bones, leading to a serious fracture of her lumbar spine. Even in rehab, the excruciating pain contributed to a trifecta of misery. Like many who have suffered intense pain know, it’s hard to keep the faith when your body is relentlessly challenged. Friends kept a flame of hope going for her, lighting candles and sending love and prayers. She says the support was key to keeping her going.
I had the enormous joy last week to spend a little time with her. She shared how every morning before she starts her day, she lifts her arms in gratitude and appreciation for the apartment she returned to, for her friends, and for her life. She doesn’t kid herself that the future ahead will be easy or that her years will be without sorrow. In her profound gratitude, she embraces life. She radiates hope.
Being with her gave me hope. (I’ve started her practice of raising my arms in gratitude when I wake up. )
Is hope a distraction?
Some argue that hope distracts us from being present to life. Meg Wheatley writes that it’s time for us to give it up. She believes that hope sets us up with expectations and attaches us to results, According to her, we would be more present to life if we were more hope-less.
What Meg Wheatley is referring to is what I call “small hope,” hope that leads to almost certain disappointment. I may hope for a pony for Christmas, that I will win a contract, or that our country straightens itself out. When I was in 8th grade, I fervently hoped that Roger Wilcox would look at me.
He didn’t. Many of these little hopes won’t come true. I never got the pony at Christmas and had to wait until I was 42 to buy my first horse.
Small hope can deceive us into sitting back, believing that somebody or some group “out there” will fix the environment, and to no longer observing carefully or listening for what we may be called to do.
Finding deep hope
Yet hope can be more than that. A deeper kind of hope can infuse our spirits without attaching us to specific results. It can support us to listen and be more present. My friend blesses the day, not because she is going to get everything she wants the way that she wants it, but because she is grateful for the spirit of life moving through and around her.
Deep hope is a power, a state of being in the world that can say “yes” to life, even as we say “no” to a lot that is happening.
Deep hope lets us stand with an open heart in the face of an uncertain future.
Deep hope allows us to sit at the bedside of a beloved living with pain, and still find blessings. Deep hope allows us to cry about climate change while working with others for solutions.
Deep hope tells me that despite all the disappointments, and failures of the little hopes, I matter, you matter and this world matters and that it is still worth believing in truth, in goodness, and in compassion.
Deep hope asks us to be present and within that presence trust the calling we may feel, however it comes–the whispers that invite us to step into more of ourselves and to do our part for the world, however small that may be.
Deep hope does not seek proof in outcomes but offers us an invisible force and energy we can tap.
Vaclav Havel said it eloquently:
“Hope is a dimension of the soul. . . an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. . . .It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”
In these times when it’s so easy to despair about the state of the environment, we need deep hope to expand our imaginations, trust, and perseverance. Deep hope has spaciousness and helps us expand to find more of the creative potential we can use to solve problems. Deep hope allows us to stand together.
Without that hope, the force of constricting despair can become oppressive.
When I think about hope, a key question I ask is, “Is my hope such that if I don’t get what I want, hope will remain?”
Do I write a book hoping to become a New York Times bestselling author? If so, I’m setting myself up for all kinds of anxiety, expectations, illusions, and potential disappointment. Or do I write, because committing myself to writing my book expands me and feels in sync with the path that is calling me forward? Whether I am published or not, I am larger and more hopeful for having said “yes.”
Thomas Merton urged us to “concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
No matter how dark the world can seem, I claim my right to be hopeful, to expand my spirit in partnership with the universe, and to find the strength to stay awake and present even when I don’t understand what is happening.
I can stand like my friend, with arms outstretched in the morning, and give thanks for each day.
I like the combination of hope and acceptance in this poem “Perhaps” by the contemporary Chinese poet Shu Ting.
Perhaps these thoughts of ours
will never find an audience
Perhaps the mistaken road
will end in a mistake
Perhaps the lamps we light one at a time
will be blown out, one at a time
Perhaps the candles of our lives will gutter out
without lighting a fire to warm us.
Perhaps when all the tears have been shed
the earth will be more fertile
Perhaps when we sing praises to the sun
the sun will praise us in return
Perhaps these heavy burdens
will strengthen our philosophy
Perhaps when we weep for those in misery
we must be silent about miseries of our own
Because of our irresistible sense of mission
We have no choice
~ Shu Ting ~
Thanks to Meg Wheatley for the article from which I drew the quotes.
When the late William Stafford, one of my favorite poets, was asked how he managed to write one poem (or more) every day, he offered a phrase that endeared him to many:”I lower my standards.” Stafford wasn’t suggesting that he had low standards for the poems he published, just that he knew how the daily practice of turning his thoughts and observations into poems furthered his craft.
Many of us have high standards and want much of what we do and plan to be the best it can be.
We want the report to look beautiful as well as be useful. We want to find the best AirBNB in Barcelona, the most highly rated pair of shears, and cook the best dinner for our dinner guests.
All are admirable goals, but “best” can be exhausting.
We’re egged on by online sites offering have-to-read rating systems, because who would want to buy an electric toothbrush that had a 4.2 rating when you could have one that was 5 stars? We study the comments. Two hours later, we’re still researching toothbrushes while being tempted to check out the best roller point pen before ordering our next batch. (Guilty!)
The problem with “the best” or even “great” is that it sucks up our time and turns us away from what’s most important. Often, our friends don’t want “the best” dinner–they just want us to be wholeheartedly with them. In the area of house cleaning, I am definitely “good enough” and not “great.” When I focus on making my home impeccable, it usually means I’m avoiding writing.
My singing teacher, Peggy, hung a sign on her studio wall that said it all:
“Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually,”
That was so Peggy, choosing to focus on her students one hundred and ten percent plus, rather than worry about a little clutter or dust around the edges. Her students accepted the bargain and loved her for it.
When we set a bar too high, we may talk ourselves into giving up before we’ve even started.
Lower the bar, with humility
I recently took on a project of teaching Zumba at a local senior center. (I know, this defeats rule # 1 below, “Say No” to new projects.) I couldn’t resist the possibility of teaching Zumba for the first time with this absolutely wonderful group.
Turns out teaching Zumba takes way more preparation than I anticipated, and I didn’t have much time. Half of the day I had allocated for preparing was lost as my computer came up with every possible tactic to keep me from putting together a simple playlist of music. Then, I realized that my poor, getting poorer, memory was not about to allow me to memorize the choreography for seven songs in one evening. What to do?
I lowered my standards.
When I dance, I’m usually improvising, so I decided to call on that skill. With a heaping dose of humility, the next day I explained to the group that I’d need to improvise class for a while.
No one complained.
The group was more than OK, and we had fun together. Turns out they needed my smile more than perfect steps.
How many mountains do you want to climb this week?
Many of the mountain peaks in our schedules are caused by our expectations. I’ve been informed that podcasters “should” produce on a regular weekly schedule. Guess what? No can do, even though I have some great interviews in the queue. No one will die as a result of gaps in my production calendar.
Gardeners “should” weed and keep the most pervasive weeds down. My standards dropped below the low mark while I tried negotiating a truce with a major group of weeds: “If I don’t pull you out this year, could you promise not to come next?” (Lost that one.)
Writers “should” write. Now, this point is different because writing is a priority for me and not a “should do.” I aim to write every day and I do pretty well with that. Good enough.
Tips for best-aholics or those who always go for great
Learn to say “No” or negotiate. Breathe before you pick up that Zumba class (alas). Overfilling your tank won’t help your engine run any better, and it might defeat you. (But you already know that.)
Check your priorities
Reserve “great” or “really good” for what matters most. Then limit your priorities. (You can read about a cool system that helps you focus here.)
If Tom Sawyer could do it, so can you, Pay for help to paint that fence or stage a work party people can’t resist. Buying help may be pricey, but if it relieves you, improves the work, or allows you to keep your attention on what matters most, maybe it’s not as expensive as you think. At your workplace, delegate and collaborate.
Assess what’s required
When I’m avoiding a task, it looms large. When I assess how much time it will actually take, I usually calm down. I estimate that weeding that pernicious sticky weed out of the garden could be done in an hour. That’s do-able. The rest can wait.
Don’t polish the first draft
If you are working on a project that will go through multiple iterations, don’t fuss the early versions.
Choose when not to settle
Lowering your standards in some areas allows you to focus on what’s really important. Enjoy polishing that final draft.
The memoirist Kerry Cohen, with whom I did a writing weekend, encouraged me to keep writing by signing her book with this inscription:
“It doesn’t have to great, just good enough.”
That might be a motto for life.
Why is it that when we’re totally qualified for a job, totally right for a project, or totally entitled to a big dream, we feel the need to throw in the caveat, “Or, maybe not.”
I’m working with a new client who deserves the job for which he is applying–120%.
Yet still, the voice comes through, as it does in all of us, “Maybe I’m not that good.”
Welcome to the world of the Inner Critic. This is the codified voice within you that lives to point out your flaws. He/she/they might sound like your mother, like Uncle Harry, like Mrs. Zinsmaster, your third-grade teacher, like your husband or partner (I hope not!), or like a conglomerate of all the many voices that have tried to tell you that you’re not ok.
My Inner Critic always remembers, and is ready to remind me, that Billy Johnson thought my nose was funny in second grade. Mrs. Flatfoot (can’t remember the name,) told me that my voice stood out in our school chorus and not in a good way. Mr. Cosgood gave me a “B” in my 3rd-grade art class, which is when I stopped drawing. my Mother told me that I was selfish and my table manners were terrible (dooming me for life)…and, and, and,..you get the drift.
Combine all the voices and you create a stealth agent who spies on you from within your brain. Unfortunately, you have probably divulged to him all of the secret data that only you could know, including every way that you failed to meet an intention, stopped short on a project, didn’t meet a deadline, gave up prematurely on a dream you had, or mopped the kitchen in a rather sloppy way.
Your Critic lives in your imagination, where, if on a loose leash, he could (occasionally) be a helpful friend. There are times when you might want to hear, “How might I do better?” or “What are all the possible ways I could screw this up?” (so that you don’t).
You might suggest to your Critic that appreciation often works better than judgment, and, if he sincerely wants to help, he should get down from your shoulder and stop heaving banana peels for you to slip on.
Put your Critic into training with the rest of your pets. You wouldn’t let your new puppy play in the living room before he was housebroken, right? So why do you let your Critic poop on your path?
How to spot the words of the Inner Critic
It’s time to take action to beat the Critic at his game. Learn to recognize his language and the way he sneaks his phrases into your head.
“You see? I told you.” (Putting a hex on a project is not informational.)
“This will NEVER work out.” (It might not work out, but the word NEVER is a sure sign of the Critic’s handiwork, He is the MASTER of over-generalizations.)
“You always screw up.” (See above. You do screw up. But only sometimes.)
“Nobody likes you. Nobody will want your art/book/song/contribution. (Are you getting the drift that gross generalizations are a sure-fire sign?)
“Everybody hates you.” (See above.)
“If you do this, then”… (Insert terrible, but over-dramatized consequence.)
“Who do you think you are?” (An intelligent, good-hearted, flawed human being?)
“It’s no use.” “It’s hopeless.” (Fill in any kind of immobilizing despair.)
“It doesn’t matter. The world is screwed anyway.” (The world does have a particularly high rate of challenges these days, which is why it DOES matter.)
‘Save it for the next generation to handle.” (Nasty, nasty. The Critic knows you can’t fix the environment, but forgets that you have wisdom and resources that could support the younger generations.)
“Those people are…(some variation of) bad.” “Politicians are…(some bigger variation) of bad.” “Corporations are… (some jumbo version) of bad.” (All of the preceding groups may have faults, sometimes egregious, but they may also have the occasional good points which you will never be able to see from the Critic’s perspective.)
“You can’t trust….(someone you barely know.)” (The Critic starts from distrust and proceeds from there.)
“It’s foolish to dream/hope/try at your age.” (Well, frankly, what other age do you have?)
When you’ve been attacked by the Critic, there are many phrases you can use. But your three superpowers for taming him are:
The Critic HATES these.
Which is why I suggest appreciating your Critic. He might be trying to help. Thank him for his contribution. Laugh a little with him. Give him a hug.
Then tell him to shut up.
The books written about Purpose or “Finding Your Inner Purpose” on Amazon have it almost right. They just spelled it wrong.
Change a few letters and you’ll have more fun.
Finding a purpose can feel heavy. A porpoise is buoyant.
Just to be clear, I think having a deep sensing about the “why” of life can help you through the “how.”
But the statements of purpose that we hang on the wall often go flat.
Porpoises, on the other hand, soar.
Have you ever been to one of those weekend growth seminars (guilty as charged) where you stand up on Sunday afternoon and announce to the whole group how you’ve found the meaning of life, or discovered your life’s (yep) purpose?
You feel bold and “empowered.”
But by Monday morning your Big Insight has already faded.
It probably dove back into the deep sea from whence it came.
Which is why I recommend focusing on porpoises, who go deep and then surface again.
My attempts to teach about vision and purpose
When I taught leadership to managers, we did a Very Important Exercise (VIE) in which I asked class members to write about their vision, mission, and purpose. While vision-loving participants perked up and grabbed their pens, others looked as if they had been hit by a sledgehammer or realized that they had to check all of the emails they had received over the previous week.
With hindsight, it might have been better to start with questions about specific moments in their lives, asking them to:
- Describe a supper you had on the Fourth of July and who was with you.
- Write about the funniest (or most awful) thing that happened at your wedding.
- Tell about the one person you never want to meet up with again.
Chances are, questions like these will produce a set of living, breathing answers instead of verbal monuments you can pin to your wall. (I tested this in my workshop “Writing the Moments.”)
In praise of the porpoise-driven life
Knowing your Inner Porpoise invites you into the land of play. Near the beach. In the water. With lots of great fish. No need to sit in a sterile training classroom contemplating the meaning of life.
Instead, I invite you to relish being outside, notice what nature is up to, stop leaving trash in the oceans, and try to leap in the air again. (I can only jump a half inch, but it’s the spirit that counts.)
Having a purpose as we age
Having a purpose in our later years has been “proved to be important.”
It is reported to help one get out of the bed in the morning, even when aching joints beg for another two hours of sleep.
I propose an alternate approach: get a dog.
Jackson, my foster dog, is gifted at getting us out of bed. Every morning he announces, with a big, baritone bark, that 5:45 am is late for breakfast and if we don’t prepare it NOW he will wake up the entire neighborhood.
To compensate, Jackson rewards us with slobbery kisses and tail-wags. I have never seen a purpose do a happy-dance.
As a meaning-seeking junkie, I admit that the quest for “what’s it all about” can be very addicting and I’m often drawn to write about it.
Perhaps I would be better off if I spent my time:
- Tracking whether the “shot weed” or the “sticky weed” will win the Millionth Weed contest this spring on my property.
- Discovering why I have a hundred hazelnut trees and yet never see a single nut (might have something to do with gray, bushy-tailed marauders).
- Learning how to play nice with the thatching ants that have created a four-foot monument to antdom in the middle of my ornamental garden bed.
These concrete issues beg for attention.
The meaning of life is an oasis that keeps disappearing as I approach it.
Having an Inner Porpoise will not transform you into a GBP (Genuinely Better Person) or give you permission to feel superior to folks. That would be very un-porpoise-like. Porpoises know that they live in a fragile eco-system where everyone has to pull together as a team, and no one gets to take more than their fair share.
Time to delete your inner smugness about being transformed.
Enjoy the Porpoise-Driven life
Learn to go deep under the surface of life. Swim in the ocean of great unknowns.
Amazon lists over 50,000 books about purpose.
I checked and there are currently NO books on Amazon on the “Porpoise-Driven Life” or “Finding Your Inner Porpoise.” If I hurry, I’ll have a crack at becoming the number one Amazon Bestseller in this category.
Unless you get there first.
Your attention is precious. Me, I could always use more. I need it to write, finish reading a book, plan a project, and any work that requires sustained concentration. It is so damn easy to lose focus with interruptions, as I wrote last week.
We’re in the age of distractions, and it’s only going to get worse, so let’s buckle up and design a strategy for preserving some needed brain power.
We can blame our electronics, but the real problem is us! Sure, taking a prolonged technology break might help, but not as much as you think.
Taking one day a week as a Sabbath without devices might be restorative, as my friend Marilyn Paul advocates in her book, An Oasis in Time.
But those month-long or year-long breaks? Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen, authors of The Distracted Mind; Ancient Brains in a High Tech World write:
“While taking a break is certainly a good thing and can act to improve our metacognition about the influence of high-tech on our minds, to put it simply, there is no evidence that extended IT tech detoxes actually work.”
I kind of get it. A prolonged tech break is like going on a food fast to lose weight but finding, at the end of the fast, that your old food habits are waiting for you. AND you have to eat all the food that you ignored.
Who wants to come back from a break and deal with 50,000 messages?
What you can do
The authors describe two types of options to strengthen your focus and avoid being sucked into distraction: 1) build your brain power/cognitive control and 2) change your behavior.
No magic pill
I wish I could find a magic pill, but despite the hype about “smart drugs,” I ain’t racing to any off-line pharmacopeia. Although there’s a rage in Silicon Valley and college campuses to pop a smart-pill in order to enhance brain power (the authors say that 25% of college students may be using smart drugs), the verdict’s not in on whether a pill will help your brain in any significant way. Obviously, messing with drugs can have unwanted side effects.
The tried and true, well-researched favorite for increasing brain power is EXERCISE. Dang! Everywhere I look it turns out exercise is good for something. Time to load up on Zumba classes and dog walks this Spring.
Runner-up techniques for building cognitive functioning are meditation, being in nature, brain games, and carefully constructed, non-violent video games.
Manage your behavior
Noticing how you become distracted and experimenting with fixes can help you to keep your attention focused.
Keep interruptions from setting back your progress, productivity and concentration.
- You can add apps to your phone that track your smartphone use, and monitor how you let yourself become distracted during peak-concentration times.
- You can close all computer programs you don’t need so that you’re only dealing with one program when you’re working on a project.
- If you’re a bit addicted to social media, computer apps like “Freedom,” “SelfControl,” and “KeepMeOut,” will let you block websites that could lure you from your work.
Plot out your day or week and identify times when you need to concentrate.
- Partition your day and week into project units with blocks for concentrated work, maintenance work, and fun, or whatever categories you choose. I sometimes color code the blocks in my schedule.
- Use the times of day when you’re tired or not running at peak brain-power to check social media or respond to email. Not all life or work has to be brain-rich. Some people like to establish set times for checking e-mail, I do it when I need a break.
- Put a firm boundary around the periods that require your concentration. If you’re interacting with others, letting them know what you are doing will help decrease your anxiety or “fear of missing out.”
Take restorative breaks.
- Use your breaks wisely. I find it SO frustrating when, after a good writing streak, I take a break and forget where I was going with my work. I’m going to try writing out what I need to do next, before I take a break.
- If you’re focused on a critical piece of work, you might keep breaks short to sustain momentum.
- Use breaks to nourish the non-brainy sides of you. Move your body, walk in nature, or read something that allows your mind to wander and stimulates your emotions. Laugh. Sing. Make music. Not only will these activities give you a break, but they’ll help you find balance.
When I try to do too much concentrated, brain-rich work, I begin to wither away.
Use your intention as a life-preserver.
- Set an intention every morning that you can return to throughout the day.
- Use a tool like Personal Kanban to avoid the curse of “Multi-tasking” (or, more accurately, rapid attention switching). Personal Kanban can help you select three critical priorities for your focused attention during any given period.
My personal suggestion: Find your passion.
Passion can help you concentrate without efforting and find flow without force. Being delighted by what you’re doing is a natural and powerful way to avoid distractions.
Explore, experiment, discover.
It’s a brave new world out there, and we’ll all be learning how to build brain power and sustain our attention in a time of increasing distractions. Think of yourself as a pioneer.
If you crack the code, let me know immediately!
Till then, remember the ad:*
A mind is a terrible thing to waste…
I want to preserve mine, and my attention, as long as I possibly can.
*Factoid: that famous ad was designed by Young and Rubicon in the 1940s to promote the United Negro College Fund.