What Do We See?

Many years ago, I worked with a woman who lied habitually. It took me a while to realize what was going on because I’d never met anyone with that habit.

One day she told me that a coworker would be out for a few days because he’d received a grand jury summons. She said, “I thought he was lying, but he brought in the jury summons.” I hope my jaw didn’t literally hang open in front of her. I understood all at once that she thought everyone else lied the way she did and that her life must be really isolated, difficult, and unhappy.

The priest giving our parish Lenten retreat put it this way: people who lie can’t see other people. I think we miss seeing each other in so many ways. I often assume other people are approaching me with the same small, fearful voices with which I’m approaching them.

A small example: I hate it when I’m driving in the left lane and someone zooms around me in the right lane and then cuts back in front of me, not because it’s unsafe but because I’m insulted that the person thinks I’m going too slow. As I was speeding to catch the van the other morning, I saw my impatience and frustration with the person in front of me who was going slightly under the speed limit and realized that the people on the freeway might be perfectly happy to zoom around me. I’m projecting my frustration onto them.

A larger example, I sometimes worry that my friends are mad at me or don’t want to be around me when there is zero evidence or history to support this concern. (If you need a good laugh, The Onion did a marvelous piece on this particular psychosis.) Which means I’m not seeing my friends, some of the people I love most in the world.

So in a very real way, whatever I’m doing to myself, I’m doing to others, and vice versa; however I’m judging myself, I’m judging others the same way, and vice versa. One more argument for loving kindness all around.

Hold, Carry, and Don’t Kill Anybody

silk floss tree
A silk floss tree in bloom. Photo by Daniel Orth; used under Creative Commons attribution license.

Some days it’s possible to maintain an awareness that we’re really here to connect with that divine spark inside our fellow human beings and all of creation, to notice the miracle in the profoundly pink blossoms of a silk floss tree, to be kind, be kind, be kind. Some days, I might even see the value in loving my enemies. And other days, it’s all I can do to keep from throttling my friends.

I used to think the friend-almost-throttling days were a failure, but maybe not; maybe, for that day, they’re a tremendous success. After all, no strangulation occurred. Maybe grinding my teeth and doing nothing on the less enlightened days is as much a step toward loving my enemies as being kind is on the easier days.

Ronald Rolheiser said the first thing that ever made sense to me about Jesus on the cross, which is that he demonstrated how to hold, carry and transform whatever hurtful energy is directed at us. We are a mirroring species. If someone glances up to see a passing bird, we glance up, too. If someone likes us, we tend to like them, and if they dislike us, we usually return the favor.

So to really change anything rather than just reflect back what we get, we have to hold, carry and transform that energy. I don’t know why, but I think our capacity to do that is not the same every day. My conception of my best used to be that every day I would be the most efficient, disciplined and intelligent achiever of things that I could imagine. Now, I’m pretty sure that I’ll never reach what I can imagine, and I’m convinced that some days will be impressive and some will be of the not throttling variety.

But not throttling still contains an iota of holding, carrying and transforming, and it’s a lot better than the alternative.

Letting Things Slide

There are things that you know you shouldn’t do, that you pretend to resist doing, but that you know you’re going to do anyway. Like opening a bag of chocolate chips with no intention of baking. On a day when you’ve already eaten frozen yogurt and an almond croissant.

Or sliding oh so casually from semi-upright to horizontal on the couch instead of going upstairs and brushing your teeth when it’s very near bedtime. Or clicking on Facebook in the middle of writing a blog post. Not this blog post, no, surely not.

Our resistance, though futile, is well-intentioned. We might not enjoy the results of these things. Our pants might be a little tighter or our work a little sloppier for lack of sleep, but sometimes, I think, it’s OK. In fact, a little celebration may be in order.

We have an unending litany of things to get right in this culture—health, career, appearance, family, house, garden, etc.—and we need to take it easy on ourselves once in a while. Letting something mostly harmless shift from not OK to OK now and then could help us realize that life might actually be OK much more of the time than we think.

I don’t mean eat the entire bag of chocolate chips—unless it’s the day you really need to—or give up on flossing all together. I think this is another area where David Roche’s Church of 80% Sincerity has the right idea. Being human, we can only strive for self improvement about eighty percent of the time. For the other twenty, pass the chocolate chips.

Strike Anywhere

Wouldn’t it be nice if our mental, emotional, and spiritual lives required no activation energy?

Activation energy is the energy you have to put into a system to start a chemical reaction. Paper doesn’t burn on its own—you have to provide the match or the lightning bolt. Applying this concept to life in general is a brilliant idea I am stealing from a biology professor I recently interviewed.

Activation energy in life is the oomph it takes us to force ourselves to begin things: go to the gym, do our taxes, write a blog post, bake a cake. Even when I know the result will be enjoyable—cake!—beginning is often difficult. Lying down on the couch seems like a better idea. Sometimes, I really need to lie down on the couch, but oftentimes, activation energy appears to require the power burner on a professional gas range when a match will do.

The problem is that I don’t usually recognize the illusion. Whatever I’m avoiding appears to be a long and arduous journey fraught with peril when really the first couple of steps are just a little muddy.

I think being more conscious of this difficulty with beginnings will help me remember that my resistance isn’t as powerful as it seems. Instead of telling myself, wow, this is way too difficult, I must lie down on the couch, I can say, oh, that’s just the activation energy talking; I only have to take a few steps and then the reaction will continue on its own.

On Big and Small Steps

Any sane person knows that “a.m.” shouldn’t really be combined with “5:30” in any sort of active sentence. Nonetheless, I sometimes run with friends around this time before work.

Some days are harder than others, not because we run farther—we don’t—just because they are. On these days, I talk us through the last few blocks about 20 meters at a time. It goes something like this, “Just make it to that car, now to that mailbox, now to the tree.” It’s amazing how much more possible it feels to finish these small chunks than to finish the whole run.

But do I replicate this practice in my day to day life? Not so much. I prefer to concentrate on the end product as a giant, overwhelming thing to freak out about.

Never mind that everyone from the Buddha to E.L. Doctorow to David Allen to bad ‘70s sitcoms have pointed out that it’s not actually possible to complete an entire journey, novel, project at once. They all subscribe to that one step at a time philosophy. When else have an enlightened being, an author, an efficiency expert, and Hollywood ever agreed on anything? I mean aside from the time they all shared a box of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate sea salt caramels.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen explains how you can’t actually do a project, say landscape a yard, you can only do the smaller actions that add up to some state you consider done—pull out the old plants, fertilize the soil, etc. So the idea of focusing on the journey instead of the destination may simply be practical advice instead of deep and mysterious spiritual direction.

And yet it’s usually my last resort, somewhere after pulling out my hair and before drinking. My resistance might have something to do with the previously discussed lack of patience or perhaps some slightly unrealistic expectations. If you have suggestions on how to join the ranks of the contented and well-organized step-by-steppers, leave them in the comments. In the meantime, pass the caramels.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation next week. Merry Christmas, belated Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice—enjoy your various celebrations of the returning of light.

What We Need

You have everything you need was the theme of our church retreat this week. Apparently it’s going to take me more than one day to master that concept.

To find out how truly bad you are at knowing what you need, go to a buffet. I went to two very good ones in one fabulous day this week.

In case you’ve forgotten, at a buffet, all the food is infinitely replenished. You cannot run out. The person in front of you cannot take the last piece of Tandoori chicken because the kitchen will bring more. Because it is a buffet.

Is my reaction to this state of abundance relief, peace, and contentment? Do I think, wow, there is more food here than I and everyone else in the room could ever eat in one sitting, what a wonderful, relaxing, rare, and magical situation in which to find myself?

If you guessed that the answer to the above questions is yes, thank you. You must be new to reading the blog. Alas, you are also mistaken.

My first instinct is to load up my plate to ensure that I get my fair share. I worry that I won’t get enough when too much is guaranteed. I avoid painful overeating only by holding myself strictly in check, like Dr. Strangelove fighting down his arm as it tries to salute. (If you haven’t seen Dr. Strangelove, you’re leading a deprived life. You can find out how deprived by watching this clip.)

So my judgment of what I need may be a tiny bit off, say three or four stomach’s worth. I might try remembering the buffet problem when my mind is working to convince me I can’t live without the latest whizbang whoozewutsit.

Of course if it’s a chocolate whoozewutsit, bring on the buffet.

Creeping Contentment

Last Saturday I had a few moments of not wanting my life to be any different. And even worse, I was not at all scared of this clearly unreasonable contentment.

You might be saying to yourself, but why is this unreasonable? Your life is pretty darn good. Yes, actually, it is, but popular thought in my brain holds that if you say that above a whisper, the complacency monster will jump out and gobble you up.

Though a few weeks back I proposed observing my life to see whether anything was truly running amuck, I didn’t really intend to do that for more than a couple of days. Any longer and this whole acceptance thing could get way out of hand.

Then obligation and discipline both took a long vacation. Two people I told about this said, “Oh, it’s summer,” dismissing any need for continuous improvement for at least another month.

So I floated around for a couple of weeks, not trying to increase my holiness quotient, reduce my impact on the environment, clean, or win a Nobel Prize. In other words doing what I usually do but with much less guilt.

Come Saturday I had succumbed to such an extent that I thought, wow, I like this. Even my usual “you will become an eternal couch potato of contentment” thoughts seemed inconsequential and possibly unlikely.

Couch potato fear does have reinforcements. The next attack goes something like, but you haven’t achieved everything you said you wanted to and since you are not a) actively pursuing it or b) feeling like you should be actively pursuing it, you are screwed.

I suppose this may be true. It may also be true that enjoying where you are helps you get where you want to be. But don’t tell anyone I said so.

Giving In

Have you ever had a day when every attempt at productivity forced you to the bottom of an ocean of frozen molasses? My mom and I call that a 20% day. Don’t fight the 20% days. They are Muhammed Ali or Mike Tyson, and you are a featherweight.

The term 20% days comes from Anne Lamott’s book Plan B. In one of her essays, she tells the story of David Roche, who leads the Church of 80% Sincerity. He preaches that eighty percent of the time, we can strive to improve ourselves or attempt other noble actions, but 20% of the time, nobility will likely escape us. And that is OK.

Telltale signs of a 20% day:

  • Approximately nothing can inspire you to get out of bed, and you are not sick.
  • After you manage to get up and have breakfast (serious bonus points for anything beyond cold cereal or toast), putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher requires herculean effort.
  • When you try to convince yourself you can achieve any of the tasks on your list, your head threatens to explode.


  • As soon as you feel your head reaching exothermic potential, desist all thoughts of productivity. It is really, really helpful when 20% days arrive on the weekend.

As you may have guessed by now, I had a 20% day recently. It took me half an hour of lying in bed to recognize it and another 15 minutes to remember the bit about Mike Tyson. Fighting is tempting because it feels as if you will never find the motivation to get out of bed, but if you wait, the time will arrive.

I got up and made breakfast (bonus points for me!) and forgot again that resistance is futile. So I sat in my chair after breakfast feeling as if I should do something. Then I remembered to concede to the inevitable and spent more time in my chair not feeling as if I should do something.

That was my breakthrough moment: 20% days do not have to suck. If you don’t try to produce Nobel Prize winning research or clean behind the stove, they can be remarkably pleasant, somewhat foggy and definitely not productive, but pleasant.

And remember, 20% is one in every five days. If you’re basically functional for a week straight, you’re an overachiever.

Hold Still

You might think that after thirty-two years of playing soccer, enjoying it would no longer surprise me. But I strive not to be that sensible.

Driving home from a game the other night I thought, “That was fun.” The thought is not new, but this time I paused long enough to let it expand into some open space in my brain, space that is usually occupied by other, less fun thoughts, such as, how can I exercise more, write more, eat more vegetables, and have more down time? In my next life I want to worry about why I can’t do less, just for variety.

Quality improvement processes go like this: look at what’s happening, see which part is broken, figure out a possible solution, try it, check to see whether it’s working. My brain, on the other hand, goes like this: assume nothing is as good as it could be, come up with twenty-five hours worth of daily improvements, begin system overload due to attempted expansion of space-time continuum, scramble to scale back and prioritize, fail, shut down system, reboot and run again. I am pretty sure I found this method in the Tao Te Ching or Bhagavad Gita.

That momentary space in my brain allowed me to wonder whether anything actually needs to be improved. Might it be possible that I am healthy enough, accomplishing enough, treating others well enough? And if so, what do I do about it?

Because it only took a few minutes to realize that everything being OK is pretty scary. What happens next if we’re OK? What is there for us to DO? How can we prove our worth? What will prevent us from sitting on the couch eating potato chips to the exclusion of all else?

Age-old wisdom aside, I think I’ll risk living my life exactly the way it is for a few months and check to see whether, just maybe, everything’s OK.