Tag Archives: Peace

The Magic of Common Ground

(Image by Harry Evans)

(Image by Harry Evans)

It was the most barbaric, cheap-shot act I had ever witnessed.

Heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson bit off a piece of opponent Evander Holyfield’s ear live on television during a fight in what was, at the time in 1997, the most-watched Pay-Per-View event in history.

I’m a pretty nice guy. But if someone bit off part of my ear, I’m pretty sure I’d stay pissed about it for… I don’t know… forever?

Fast-forward 18-ish years. Tyson and Holyfield now act like old friends. Maybe it’s because Holyfield has millions so the jacked ear isn’t a huge liability. Maybe it’s because Holyfield has a huge heart and capacity for forgiveness.

I like to think it’s mostly because of their common ground.

Fighters. Champions. Aging and somewhat incapable of doing what they did as younger men. Fading celebrity.

How many people can understand that? What it’s like to experience that? Hardly anyone.

People need others to understand them. To connect with people like them.

When I first started writing here, I was mostly just venting. Writing therapy because I didn’t want to pay a professional.

It was a huge revelation to me when I realized there were a bunch of other people out there just like me. People who hurt like I hurt. Felt like I felt. People who wanted what I wanted.

People who understood.

I felt so alone.

But then I didn’t anymore. Because we became a tribe.

The magic of common ground.

I Don’t Get All the Fighting

I was having a conversation earlier about American politics.

I’m interested in politics. I care. But I’m constantly disheartened and disillusioned because the average American politician DOES NOT give a shit about the same things I give a shit about.

Near as I can tell, the vast majority of elected officials are more interested in re-election. And they seem to believe that working with members of another political party cooperatively is political suicide.

So Washington is full of out-of-touch, selfish, power-hungry politicians who want to ascend the ranks of American politics and never actually accomplish anything that serves the greater good.

What if we did Everything Differently?

What if the first thing a President and a new Congress did was get together and write down all the things everyone agreed on?

Everyone is for good schools.

Everyone is for accessible health care and affordable insurance.

Everyone is for reducing crime.

Everyone is for efficient transportation and public utility infrastructure.

Everyone is for safety.

Everyone is for beautification and eliminating blight.

Everyone is for jobs.

Everyone is for a robust economy.

And then, one problem at a time, you put the nation and world’s best and brightest minds to work on solutions. In many cases, there are already examples of successfully improving these areas. There is ALWAYS an example of “the best way” to do anything. Someone already thought of it. And it can probably be done even better.

Research a smart, effective way to fix a problem. Then fix that problem. Something on the common ground list.

Why is no one doing this? Why does everyone spend so much of their political currency attacking people who don’t agree with them? I don’t understand why everyone insists on being intolerable assholes all the time.

I don’t want to pretend like cheesy science-fiction films are a reliable predictor of human behavior. But. I do feel confident they are correct in their portrayal of humans from all walks of life banding together to stave off extinction from otherworldly predators.

In other words, if aliens try to eradicate us with big-ass space lasers, I don’t think we’re going to spend a lot of time haggling over whether gay people should be allowed to marry or how to fund Medicare. I think Russia and the Ukraine might be able to set aside their differences. Maybe even North and South Korea.

Maybe terrorists would spend more time beheading menacing extraterrestrials and less time beheading innocent people. I’d like to think so.

My point is that there is ALWAYS a reason to band together. There is always some commonality, even if it’s just—we’re both human.

Why all the conflict?

I get frustrated with all the shittiness. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Because I know I’m an asshole, I’ve gotten infinitely better at slowing down when I hear about people messing up. The mob rallies and rails against the offender. If I had a magic wand, I think maybe I’d put a sin on display from each member of the mob so they can also enjoy the experience of a million stones flying at them.

Almost all of us have committed them.

And redemption is just about the best thing in the world.

Maybe we can practice rigorous forgiveness, like David Brooks writes about in this New York Times column.

Like two warring nations working together to eradicate an alien invasion.

Like politicians with enough balls to get something done by teaming up with someone on the other team.

Like angry ex-spouses who put aside their grievances to love their children.

Like Evander Holyfield.

Who laughs with, smiles at, embraces, and forgives a man who bit off his ear.

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The Human Mosaic

mosaic tiles

“I love pizza.”

“I love pizza, too! It’s my favorite!”

“What’s your favorite kind?”

“Deep dish with white sauce and chicken, tomato and spinach!”

“Wait. What? That’s barely even pizza.”

“Of course it’s pizza. I get it from pizza makers. What’s your favorite kind?”

“Normal stuff! Pepperoni. Sausage. Mushroom. Extra cheese. Tomato sauce. New York-style crust, preferably.”

“Sausage? Thin crust? Gross!”

A couple of human beings with a shared passion. And still disagreeing.

One of the worst things about me is my ability to make people feel like I don’t respect them when my personal tastes differ from theirs.

It might even be why I’m not married anymore.

Because my perfectly intelligent wife couldn’t flip through TV stations and pause on 16 and Pregnant or some other morally bankrupt show without me making some snide comment about it that made her feel like I didn’t respect her.

Because everything I do is so smart and righteous!!! Excuse me while I drink too much and air hump something, puke in the bathroom, and play Grand Theft Auto V all morning while I recover from the hangover.

I’m such an asshole sometimes.

“I love music.”

“I love music, too! It’s my favorite!”

“What’s your favorite band?”

“I mostly listen to whatever is popular on the radio!”

“…”

“What!?”

“I love peanut butter.”

“I love peanut butter, too! It’s my favorite!”

“Crunchy or creamy?”

“Creamy, of course!”

“God.”

“I love wine.”

“I love wine, too! It’s my favorite! What’s your favorite kind?”

“I like many wines, but lean heavily toward dry reds.”

“Ohhh. You’re one of ‘those’! I like sweet wines!”

“Like boxed white zin?”

“Yes!”

“God.”

I wonder why it is that so many of us have so much trouble accepting that other people have radically different tastes and points of view, then embracing and acknowledging that it’s not only okay, but preferable to everyone liking the exact same things.

“I love God and want to go to heaven!”

“I love God and want to go to heaven, too! Also I’m gay and pro-choice.”

“Burn in hell, sinner.”

Why do we fight it? Politics? Is that why? The political arena is a useful place for healthy debate and exchanging ideas. But out here, where 99 percent of us live, why do we treat people like shit because they voted for the other guy in the last election?

If an asteroid was going to destroy the planet tomorrow, I wonder how many people would care about who voted for who.

“I love reading.”

“I love reading, too! It’s my favorite!”

“What do you like to read?”

“French poetry, biographies, and romance novels. Want to borrow a book?”

“…”

We’re all different. But we’re all the same, too. We all have different interests and passions and beliefs.

Many people like sports! But golf fans don’t have much to discuss with auto racing fans. Soccer fans don’t have much to discuss with baseball fans.

Many people like sex! But straight people don’t like the same things as gay people. And the things that make one person feel good can feel like a violation to another.

Many people love beer and movies and food and clothes and dancing and charitable causes and writing and pets and an infinite number of other things.

Hobbies and passions that unite massive amounts of people. Yet, even within those groups of common interests, there are people with radically different tastes and opinions about what is “right” or what is “best.”

People knew it was okay to enslave African people like property and treat them shitty.

People knew if they hijacked airplanes and flew them into buildings that they would die martyrs and be rewarded in heaven.

People knew the world was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth.

People knew Y2K was going to cripple the world’s infrastructure.

People knew Bill Cosby was a good man.

People know they’re right and people who disagree are wrong. The people who are wrong know they’re right.

Maybe nobody really knows anything. And maybe thinking we do is holding us back from being the best versions of ourselves.

Maybe creamy peanut butter is actually better than extra crunchy peanut butter.

Maybe popular music is actually awesome. After all, it’s popular!

Maybe people who don’t like craft beer actually still like beer.

Maybe people who prefer white pizza actually do qualify as pizza lovers.

Maybe we’re always just too close to the mosaic to see what everything really looks like from the big-picture perspective. To see why that piece is here and that piece is there. And why they’re all different shapes and sizes and colors.

Step back and look.

A little bit further.

There.

Beautiful.

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How to Change Your Life and Always Feel Good

a-charlie-brown-thanksgiving

Warning: If you’re someone who A. Reads this blog regularly, or B. Prefers feeling miserable, you can skip this one because you’ve seen most of it before, or potentially run the risk of feeling better about your life.

Please just stop.

Just for a minute.

Stop.

And use every bit of brainpower and awareness and common sense you possess to ask yourself: Why am I doing this?

Doing what? Doesn’t matter. Anything. Whatever you’re doing.

It probably applies most to your job if you have one, or your decision to attend school if you’re a student.

It probably applies to your home life. To your relationships. To your decision about where you live and whether you rent or buy, and what you do when you have free time.

But it really applies to every waking moment.

Why are we doing this?

“What is it that you really want?” people like to ask. It’s a really great question. And we’re sometimes quick to fire off some answers that we probably think are true.

Money!

True love!

World peace!

Or maybe something more specific.

A million dollars!

A spouse who makes me feel safe!

An end to all the fighting in the Middle East!

I think I want all kinds of things. A more-lucrative career. Writing success. Maybe a really nice house and cars. Maybe the means to go on adventurous vacations and see the world. And little things. Like a massive television or a kitchen and bathroom upgrade or my favorite team to win the championship.

Sometimes I feel bad when I don’t get what I want.

Sometimes We Need a Wake-Up Call

The ability to empathize can sometimes provide us with the dose of reality and perspective we need without actually having to suffer through a crisis or tragedy. That’s always nice.

Other times, maybe we need the bad things to happen to us.

I lost my family.

The two most-important people in my world. One gone half the time. A little boy I sometimes feel as if I’m constantly failing. The other, gone forever.

And I felt so horrible that all of the things I thought I wanted I quickly realized—for the first time—just how irrelevant those things like money and new televisions really were.

When you’re broken on the inside, there is no checking account balance large enough to mend you.

Early this year, I had a tonsil infection with symptoms that mirror Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There were a few days where I thought I might have an illness serious enough to kill me and I was scared.

I’m pretty sure having a really luxurious kitchen or a 100-inch television wouldn’t have quelled my fears.

Last May, I was whining about my life right here when I learned about a lovely child named Abby Grace Ferguson. A little girl who the doctors say has a terminal illness they’ve never seen overcome.

Abby has a mom and dad.

A mom and dad like my son’s mom and dad. My son is 6. He’s in first grade and my soul bleeds any time I let the briefest thought pass through my brain about something bad happening to him.

Abby’s parents believed her to be perfectly healthy until she was 8, when she was diagnosed with Sanfilippo Syndrome—a rare disease that causes progressive brain damage. Without a miracle, or radical medical advancement (which they’re working on!), Abby will lose her ability to walk, talk and feed herself. She will more than likely lose her hearing and have seizures. Most children diagnosed with Sanfilippo Syndrome do not live past their teenage years.

It’s unimaginable. What her parents must feel.

But I can assure you, me having Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma would seem like a pleasure cruise by comparison.

Everything is relative. Some people prefer to deal in absolutes. I try to stay as open and flexible as possible. Because the older I get, the less sure I am about how much I really know.

But I do know one thing.

I Know What You Want

I’m not saying you don’t want money. Because it’s easy to want.

I’m not saying you don’t want love. Life is emptier without it.

I’m not saying you don’t want world peace. Things would be less messy, scary and complicated.

When you strip away EVERYTHING? All the noise and bullshit?

All you really want is to feel happy. Is to feel content. Is to feel inner peace.

That’s it. That’s what you want.

You think money will make you feel content. You think the freedom and purchasing power it provides will make you feel happy. And you believe you’ll have more peace if you eliminate debt and don’t have a horrible boss and have sex regularly with someone you trust who says I love you and makes you feel confident and safe.

You want the stuff because you want that feeling. That feeling we call “happy.”

We don’t need stuff or status to feel good about our lives.

You could lie still on a couch watching reruns and feel amazing about your life if you only felt happy enough. And there are people like that. They’re called stoners and tweekers. Drugs are not a good choice. But they DO illustrate my point fabulously.

You don’t need more money.

You don’t need a nicer car or bigger house.

You don’t need things.

And if you believe otherwise, you might be doomed. I think most people are. To a life of dissatisfaction and sadness. And that’s no way to live.

I might argue you only need ONE thing to be truly happy: Gratitude.

“What!?”

Genuine, heartfelt gratitude is the prerequisite to true happiness, and you can change your life overnight simply by realizing it and working daily to stay mindful of it.

You have a house and aren’t sleeping outside in a box with no money or food? Thank you!

You have friends or family or children or pets to love and love you back? Thank you!

You can hear music and people speak because you’re not deaf? You can see sunsets and attractive people and your child’s smile because you’re not blind? You can walk or kiss or have medical insurance? You have lungs and breathe because you’re not currently drowning or being choked by someone mean and horrible?

Thank you!

Some people are going to roll their eyes. “You know who says ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness?’ People who don’t have any!”

Not everyone can be helped. Pity them and move on.

We have enough.

You ARE enough.

Choose happiness because it’s so much better than feeling terrible.

Choose gratitude because you can never be happy without it.

Choose love because you get what you give.

Tomorrow isn’t here and yesterday hardly matters.

All we have is right now.

I am eternally grateful for you.

Thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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The Truth About Lying

truth

I looked my mom in the eye and lied to her about watching a movie I wasn’t allowed to watch even though she totally knew I was lying.

Even when I was young and extra-stupid, I was still smart enough to know she knew.

Parents just know.

It was a conservative house. No R-rated or even PG-13 movies for me. Even actually turning 13 didn’t convince my mom that PG-13 material was age-appropriate for me.

When I was probably 9 or 10, we had just one PG-13 movie in the house. Hiding Out. A random late-1980s Jon Cryer movie I’ll be surprised if any of you have ever seen.

I totally watched it whenever I had a few hours to kill home alone because I was young and liked doing things I wasn’t supposed to.

There was a word used in the film that no one ever uses: execrable.

And I used it once in a sentence while talking to my mom.

Because she’s not a vegetable, a small-brained woodland creature or a moldy piece of ham, my mother knew instantly I had watched the one movie in the house I wasn’t allowed to watch.

When she asked me where I’d heard that word, I told a lie.

Because self-preservation is one of our greatest instincts.

Because no kid wants to get caught doing things they’re not supposed to, or more specifically, punished for the behavior.

Because we don’t appreciate the freedom of honesty when we’re too young and innocent to know how poisonous dishonesty really is.

My son got in trouble in gym class this week for sliding on the floor even after the teacher instructed him not to. He wasn’t allowed to participate in gym that day and it made him cry.

We got a note from the teacher telling us what happened.

Our six-year-old denied it. He suggested his first-grade teacher was lying to us.

He gets his facts wrong a lot because he’s 6. But this is the first time I know of where he was being intentionally dishonest out of self-preservation.

He didn’t want to lose rewards and privileges. And I’d like to believe he didn’t want to disappoint his parents.

I never want to lie to him about anything not related to Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny.

So, we hugged.

“Daddy used to get in trouble at school too, bud. And when the teachers told my mom and dad about it? They were never lying,” I told him. “I know it’s hard to tell the truth sometimes. Sometimes people say things that aren’t true because they’re afraid to get in trouble. Everyone does, man.”

And then we hugged again.

So here we are. Just a little more innocence lost.

He can lie when he’s afraid just like the rest of us.

But maybe he’ll choose not to.

When I was five or six, I spent a summer staying with a family during the day while my dad was at work. They had a little boy named E.J. He was a year younger than me.

We would run around behind their house, playing in sandboxes and doing Big Wheel stunts and picking raspberries while trying to avoid bee stings.

On one random afternoon adventure, we discovered a bucket of discarded motor oil outside a neighbor’s house.

E.J. picked up a pinecone lying nearby, dipped it in the bucket of oil and started drawing oil marks on the wall of the house.

I don’t remember feeling like we were doing anything wrong.

The neighbor discovered the oil mess on his house later and contacted E.J.’s mom—the neighbor lady who babysat me.

She sat us down at the kitchen table to ask us what happened.

E.J. told her that I did it.

I denied it.

She believed her son.

And I was simply the lying vandal shitty kid that helped supplement the household income for however many more days or weeks I stayed with that family that summer.

That’s the first time I can remember someone accusing me of something that wasn’t true.

That’s the first time I can remember feeling a real sense of injustice and outrage.

I’m almost certainly the only human being in the world who remembers the story and knows (or cares) what really happened.

The truth matters.

I hope I’m always brave enough to be as honest as possible without hurting people.

I hope my son is always brave enough to be as honest as possible without hurting people.

I hope the power of truth prevails for people who deserve justice.

I hugged my son so tight. The missteps of growing up have begun.

Everything’s going to be okay.

“It’s always better to tell the truth,” I told him.

Something I’m sure to repeat over and over and over again for many years.

Something I need to always remind myself to be.

Because we must lead by example.

Because honesty takes courage.

Because that’s where peace lives.

Because the alternative is execrable.

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Now I Can Die in Peace

There will always be a higher mountain to climb.

There will always be a higher mountain to climb.

I root for professional sports teams in a city famous for not winning a championship in 50 years.

It’s almost statistically impossible to have a five-decade run of suckage like we’ve had in Cleveland, Ohio. That’s why sports fans in northeast Ohio collectively showcased the world’s largest erection in the history of sexual sports metaphors last summer when basketball star LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The return of James ignited a series of events that now have the Cavaliers as the odds-on favorite in Las Vegas to win the NBA title. Probably for the next five years.

Typical fans expect major injuries to crush all of our hopes and dreams.

Sensible fans simply hope this team built for dominance will deliver Cleveland its first major sports championship in five decades.

Fans like me engage in conversation about how many championships we might win.

I’m never satisfied.

With what? I don’t know. Everything?

My poor (at worst) to middle-class (at best) upbringing shouldn’t justify my high expectations. But I have them anyway.

This dissatisfaction would manifest itself in my youth as materialism. I wanted things. I had a lot of friends with infinitely more financial resources than my family did. There was no jealousy. Please don’t think that. But it did establish a standard in my mind. A standard of living which, if achieved, would seem to indicate you’ve “made it.”

Hardly anyone has money in college. So, when I started getting my full-time job paychecks from the newspaper after graduating, I felt like I made it.

I was living in an affluent beach town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, surrounded by boat owners, country club members and owners of prime real estate. I’d feed my lust for big houses and piles of cash by walking through multi-million-dollars homes on the weekends and dreaming of life in a place like that.

That’s the recipe for making a totally pleasant three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment three miles from the beach seem like a shitty place to live.

When we moved back to Ohio, we bought a house that would have cost three times as much in the town we’d just moved from. So it seemed awesome.

All it took was a job offer I was unable to accept that would have made me a lot of money to make my perfectly adequate house seem wholly not so.

I drive a new Jeep Grand Cherokee. But it’s not the Limited!!!

I have six televisions (and don’t even watch TV that much). But I need a new big-screen for my basement!!!

Everything is relative.

I might never have most of the things I want. But I could lose a whole bunch of things I already have and still always have everything I need.

Fortunately, my cravings are no longer material. I want to achieve a higher state of being. I want to walk a higher path.

I don’t seek things. I seek peace.

I’m intellectually capable of understanding that contentment and happiness come not from attainable things, but from within.

Even still. I want more.

Desire is Full of Endless Distances

That was the headline of marketing genius and prolific writer Seth Godin’s blog post today. I read it three times and hugged myself because sometimes that’s how much I love things I read.

Here it is:

“Just one more level on this game, she says. Once I get to level 68, I’ll be done.

Just one more tweak to the car, they beg. Once we bump up the mileage, we’ll be done.

Just one more lotion, she asks. Once I put that on, my skin will be perfect and I’ll be done.

Of course, the result isn’t the point. The mileage or the ranking or slightly more alabaster or ebony isn’t the point. The point is the longing.

Desire can’t be sated, because if it is, the longing disappears and then we’ve failed, because desire is the state we seek.

We’ve expanded our desire for ever more human connection into a never-ceasing parade of physical and social desires as well. Amplified by marketers and enabled by commerce, we race down the endless road faster and faster, at greater and greater expense. The worst thing of all would be if we actually arrived at perfect, because if we did, we would extinguish the very thing that drives us.

We want the wanting.”

Seth’s usually (always?) right. I think he’s a genius and a master of asking the right questions.

And I agree with him here.

There’s something tragic about it, too. About a life lived chasing and climbing and chasing and climbing… and never arriving, OR getting there and thinking: Shit. Now what?

I’m skinnier. But not skinny enough.

I’m stronger. But not strong enough.

I’m smarter. But not smart enough.

I’m a better man than I used to be. But I’m not good enough. And I’m now realizing I probably never will be.

Maybe I’ll never have my Rocky Balboa moment. Maybe I’ll never conquer all of my personal battles or achieve all my goals.

And there is something inherently dissatisfying about that. But it’s also honest.

And the truth is: I want the wanting.

I want to chase after the things that move me, even if it amounts to nothing more than a cat chasing its tail.

Because what the hell else am I going to do?

I want things. Things I may never have. Things that, if I acquire, might lose their appeal and have me looking longingly toward other things.

I choose to embrace the tragic purity of climbing and chasing knowing I may never arrive at my destination. That the Browns may never win a championship. That I may never have my dream home. That I may always feel like I have a bunch of growing to do.

We’re human. The real beauty is in the trying.

There. Now, I can die in peace.

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How I Could Just Kill a Man

We can be so cruel to one another. When we are kind, who do we choose? And why?

We can be so cruel to one another. Why are we kind to some people and not others? What’s the difference? (Image/Wallpapercave.com)

I could kill a person trying to harm my son.

I could kill a person trying to harm others I love or in self-defense.

I could kill a person trying to harm other innocent people if in the moment it was clear the act would save lives.

I may not have the physical tools or weapons to get the job done on a case-by-case basis. But I could muster the nerve. If the stakes were that high. I’m sure of it.

But what if the person causing harm was my father? Or my sister? Or my childhood best friend?

How long might I hesitate if this hypothetical person I’m so certain I could kill was someone who resides permanently on my “People I Don’t Want to Kill” list?

Who matters?

Who doesn’t?

Where do I draw that line?

Of all the things I never want to do, I think killing someone ranks No. 1. And I don’t mean murder. That should go without saying. But even a “justifiable” killing. The thought of taking a life makes me very uncomfortable.

I don’t know very many people who have killed someone. The few I do are older men who were once soldiers at war. The curiosity in me has always wanted to try to coax those stories out of them. To get a sense of the feelings those memories manifest.

But I’ve always stopped short of asking because I don’t want to ask men to relive what are likely their worst memories.

Is This the World We Want?

I’ve been asking myself the following question every day for about a week now.

What is the difference between the people who matter and the people who don’t?

Where do we draw the line? Between all of the people we care about or treat kindly or help versus those we don’t care about, treat poorly or ignore altogether?

The idea popped into my head while reading Tom Shadyac’s Life’s Operating Manual. Shadyac is something of an anti-capitalist. He and I don’t see eye-to-eye on economic theory. BUT. I do respect very much where he’s coming from when he poses the very thought-provoking question: What separates the people you are willing to profit from, from the people you simply want to help?

He argues that the mindset of capitalism—always trying to maximize profits and charge as much as possible for goods and services—makes the human experience so much uglier than it should be.

For example, he says, if someone you love very much needed help—didn’t have food or clothes or shelter—you would instantly invite them into your home, and feed them, clothe them and let them stay with you (without asking for anything in return.)

Generally speaking, I think this is true of most of us.

But then we walk around major cities, or even suburban Ohio communities like where I live, and occasionally see people asking for help.

Maybe they’re really homeless and have good hearts.

Or maybe they’re really con artists.

Or maybe they’re really drunks or addicts looking to score a fix.

No matter what the situation, I submit all of those people could use help of some kind.

Who Matters?

Everyone ranks the people in their lives relative to their specific circumstances.

But I think this is representative of the general order in which we value people.

1. Spouse/Partner/Significant other and children

2. Parents and siblings

3. Friends

4. Neighbors

5. Co-workers and acquaintances

6. Strangers who are like us (Social, spiritual, economic, cultural, geographic commonalities)

7. Strangers who are not like us

8. Known enemies

Where do you draw the line?

Where on this list do you decide: “That person means so much to me that I want to help them with their problem,” as opposed to your cut-off point? The place where you say: “Screw ‘em. I don’t care. I have enough problems. Let them figure it out for themselves,” or worse: “That person isn’t like me, so I don’t like them and I’m going to hurt them.”

This question about who matters versus who doesn’t makes me think about the post-apocalyptic world on display in The Walking Dead.

It truly is survival of the fittest and every man for himself.

Every stranger is a threat. Someone who might steal your supplies, murder you, or murder you so they can steal your supplies.

But often, after a warming-up, get-to-know-you period—after one of the strangers puts his or her life on the line in service of others—trust is formed.

Bonds are built.

And these strangers, these random people who didn’t care about each other days or weeks ago, morph from stranger to acquaintance, from acquaintance to friend, and (if you believe as I do that you don’t have to share blood to be family) from friend to family.

These people who were threats become people you will sacrifice everything for.

There are bad people in this world. Threats. People who in a lot of ways don’t deserve our kindness, generosity, charity, help, whatever.

An irresponsible or naïve Pollyanna-like view of life benefits no one.

But I don’t know how to muster the cynicism required to not believe that everyone deserves a fair shake. That every person deserves a baseline amount of respect and benefit of the doubt before we rush to judgment.

We don’t need to write a 10-page letter to their boss petitioning for their promotion, but being courteous to the customer service representative on the phone who is NOT responsible for our problem seems reasonable.

We don’t need to invite every kid in school to our birthday party, but smiling at them, not engaging in bullying and treating people kindly doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

We don’t need to give our weekly paycheck to the guy panhandling outside the grocery store, but maybe a sandwich and a bottle of water would serve to nourish more than just his hunger and thirst.

We allow ourselves to disconnect and then we treat people like enemies.

People who, if we were stuck in a survival situation with, might become our family.

I know a little boy who—just seven years ago—wasn’t even a figment of anyone’s imagination.

And today I love him above all else and would do the unthinkable to keep him safe.

And I want him to live in a world where we don’t scream at each other and bully people on social media and hate one another because our skin color isn’t the same or because we care about different things.

Maybe we can be one little ripple in the pond. One kind act at a time.

And maybe those acts can cause more ripples because others agree that these arbitrary barriers we put up between us and other people seems like a silly reason to completely change the way we treat one another.

And maybe good spreads.

And then maybe there are fewer 12-year-old kids in Catholic school cafeterias celebrating the release of a Cypress Hill rap song called “How I Could Just Kill a Man.”

Even if those kids do grow up wanting to be part of the solution.

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The Pursuit of Happiness, Vol. 2

People in Bhutan are happier than you. Because, there? That's always the goal. They choose it.

People in Bhutan are happier than you. Because, there? That’s always the goal. They choose it.

There is a small country in South Asia—Bhutan—where the government measures its success based on the collective happiness of its population.

The Bhutanese government has officially dubbed the measurement the Gross National Happiness Index.

Economics. Education. Health care. Crime.

These are all factors in much the same way most of the developed nations evaluate the state of things. Bhutan simply frames things differently. Bhutan’s government exists to create an environment for its citizens where they can pursue happiness. Not temporary measures to feel good. Not drugs. Not sex. Not alcohol. Not amusement parks. Not quick-hit entertainment. Not fake happy.

But, real happy. Long-term contentment.

The Gross National Happiness Index measures:

1. Psychological wellbeing

2. Health

3. Time use

4. Education

5. Cultural diversity and resilience

6. Good governance

7. Community vitality

8. Ecological diversity and resilience

9. Living standards

I didn’t know about this small country (less than one million people) with big ideas. A complete paradigm shift in the way we measure what’s really important.

Not money.

Not material things.

Not status.

Not fame.

Not “success” in the way western culture tends to superficially define it.

Just… happy.

Wisdom: A Byproduct of Experience

I’m not wise. I’m not.

But compared to my high school and college years? Yeesh. I’m like a Master Jedi now.

It never dawned on me until after my wife left and I had so much time alone to evaluate who I was and who I wanted to be.

I’ve been chasing this dream of having stuff for so long. Chasing this idea that if I just had enough money, I’d eliminate all of my problems.

And I was lying to myself. And everyone chasing the dime is lying to themselves, too.

I knew it before last night. But last night really drove home this point for me.

While most of the country was tuned into the Academy Awards, I was watching a documentary I’d found on Netflix called “Happy.”

This film taught me about Bhutan. And it reinforced something I had already heard, but didn’t believe until now.

A person with an appalling lack of income—someone without the money to have their basic needs met—can increase their happiness quotient by a lot simply by coming into a salary or a pile of money that will allow those fundamental needs to be met: Food, clothing, shelter, safety, health care, transportation, general comfort, etc.

But once your basic needs are met? There just isn’t much to be gained from increasing your financial place in the world. Not from a “happiness” standpoint.

The research data suggested that there is an enormous amount of happiness to be gained between annual earnings of $0 and $50,000. But that there was very little change between someone making $50,000 versus someone making $50 million.

I would have never believed that 10—even, five—years ago.

But I do now. I believe it strongly.

Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whitney Houston. Kurt Cobain. Junior Seau. Judy Garland. Heath Ledger.

And we can go forever.

People who had what so many of us think we want. And they were absolutely miserable. So miserable, that they felt the only choice was ending their lives or doing enough drugs to make the pain of the real world go away.

According to the film, 50 percent of an individual’s ability to be truly happy comes from their genetic makeup. I thought that seemed pretty unlucky, if true. That people are genetically predisposed to feel sad.

And I instantly counted my blessings because I believe I’m genetically predisposed to feel happy as I have most of my life. I just never appreciated it like I do now after having gone through my worst few years.

An additional 10 percent comes from all of the stuff most people spend all of their time chasing: The money and the sex and the fun and the fame and the experiences and the stuff.

Wait. What about the other 40 percent?

According to the researchers from Baylor University consulted in this particular documentary? Intentions.

Our intentions make up 40 percent of our ability to feel or actually be happy.

The filmmakers zipped around the world capturing images and interviewing people in impoverished conditions in Asia and Africa and in poor regions of the United States.

And a lot of these people were VERY happy.

I thought it was a pretty effective film, and I’m glad I watched it. It provided some data to back up what I’d already been thinking about for several months now.

This idea that I no longer am interested in chasing the large bank account and big house. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t want those things. They’re just no longer on my list of goals.

All I want in this life is to feel true happiness and contentment. And I’d like to live a life where I can help other people achieve that, too.

I don’t want to make this about feelings. I just don’t have the vocabulary to word this differently.

But what really matters besides our health and happiness?

I submit: Nothing.

How to Feel Happy

Choose it.

Deliberately be happy. That’s the choice we’re faced with. Choosing to be happy, or choosing to not be.

Bad shit will happen. It will. But when our happiness muscle is fully flexed, our ability to show resiliency and bounce back will be on full display.

The chemical compound most responsible for our feelings of happiness is a substance called dopamine. Stimulants like cocaine, amphetamine and methamphetamine amplify the effects of dopamine.

Our brain’s ability to create dopamine decreases naturally as we age. Which might explain why so many of us miss being kids. We were LITERALLY happier then.

Researchers recommend engaging in healthy activities that increase dopamine levels in our body.

It’s all the stuff you already know about:

  • Regular exercise.
  • Being spiritually connected.
  • Having active relationships with friends and family.
  • Community involvement.
  • Acts of kindness.
  • Achievement, in all its various forms.

These are the things you need to focus on if you want to feel happy.

It begins with gratitude.

It ends with living for something greater than yourself.

And being connected every step of the way.

Somebody stop me if you think I’ve got this wrong.

But what matters more than this? Big-picture faith questions, aside. What, here on Earth, matters more than achieving long-term contentment?

I’m trying very hard to take a look at my life and make better choices that can lead me to this place. This state of being where I’m not just running around chasing the next short-term good time, only to feel shitty and unfulfilled the rest of the time.

I want what these truly happy people have.

And I want that for you, too.

Smile.

Because we’re going to get there.

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The Pursuit of Happiness

I think I know where happiness lies. I just don't think it's easy to get there. But isn't the climb worth it?

I think I know where happiness lies. I just don’t think it’s easy to get there. But isn’t the climb worth it?

People chase money.

They chase sex. Fame. Status.

They chase adventure. Education. Fitness.

People chase fun. Friendship. Spiritual peace.

In the end, people are chasing these things day in and day out because they believe achieving them will make them feel good.

We don’t really want millions of dollars. We just want to not be enslaved to debt. To never be stressed about unexpected bills. To never worry about how we’re going to pay for something. To have the means to acquire things or participate in various activities.

We want to do all those things because we believe doing so will enrich our lives.

It’s the pursuit of happiness.

Misery Loves Company

I was several hundred words into another post when a friend texted. Her marriage is on the rocks. Has been for a long time.

She had a rough weekend with her husband.

Then something happened, triggering some atypical emotional responses in her.

“It sent me into a tailspin,” she said. “I’m questioning EVERYTHING.”

I know how you feel.

It doesn’t take much, sometimes.

I told her we both suffer from the same problem.

That we’re both in phases in our lives where we’re simply waking up every day, doing what’s required of us, and trying to not die.

It’s a wholly dissatisfying way to live.

There’s little fun. There’s no peace. And happiness is a long-forgotten stranger.

A figment of my imagination, it seems. Something I remember feeling, but not what the actual experience is like.

Like a decadent dessert you tried long ago.

You don’t remember the flavor. Only that it was beautiful and that you want to taste it again.

What I Want

I texted my friend: “What do you want? Be specific.

“To me, the only thing that makes sense is to write down specifically what you want. Really specific.

“Then, only do things that get you closer to those things.

“Everything else is a colossal waste of time and energy.

“We don’t have a lot of time.”

Well, alright then, Matt. Try not to be a hypocritical douchebag for once in your life.

What do you really want?

  1. I want a partner who I love and trust. I want to share the same life philosophies. I want to share meals and laughs and drinks and friends with her. I want to have ridiculously adventurous and spirited sex that would make all of my friends jealous if they only knew. And I want to always be giving more to the relationship than I’m taking.
  2. I want to be a good father to my son. I want to set a good example for him spiritually, intellectually, financially and socially.
  3. I want to spend more time surrounded by friends and family.
  4. I want to wake up every day, write whatever I want, and make enough money to maintain whatever lifestyle I choose.
  5. I want to be at my physical peak. Because I like how I feel when I am. I like feeling wanted. I like having mountains of energy. I like being strong.
  6. I want to live a life where I help other people acquire all of the things on their What I Want lists.
  7. I want to achieve spiritual peace.

So, what do I need to be doing right now, and tomorrow morning, and the next day, and the next to achieve those things?

  1. I can’t do anything about #1. But it will come. I can concentrate on the rest.
  2. I can be a better man, I can read more, I can be more financially disciplined, and I can be a better friend.
  3. I need only reach out and make the effort to be with those I love.
  4. I don’t know that I can do much more than I’m doing. I need to read more. Get smarter. Get wiser. Practice the craft. And maybe, if the stars align, someone will decide to trade money for words. Goonies never say die.
  5. Work out. Stop being a chump. Make the effort. Every day. First a little, then a lot. I need it. Excuses are bullshit.
  6. I do try to help people. Perhaps I can do a much better job. Ask more questions. Listen thoughtfully. Then, when possible, take meaningful action to help others achieve their dreams.
  7. All I need to do is say “Thank you” every single chance I get and be good even when no one’s watching. That will be an excellent step toward being the man I want to be.

I don’t want to be rich.

I don’t want to be famous.

I don’t want to be popular.

I just want to feel, deep within me, the peace and happiness that has eluded me in adulthood.

And I believe so strongly that it can only be achieved through great effort.

That this world gives you what you put into it.

That you must ALWAYS give more than you take.

In your human relationships.

In your professional relationships.

In your spiritual relationship.

You can sit around like me. Play the victim card. Why me, God? Why?

Or you can actually do something.

Happiness isn’t hiding behind that bush over there.

It’s big and shiny and on display for the world to see.

Only it sits atop a mountain. A big one.

And the weak can’t get there. The lazy can’t capture it.

Without strength, without discipline, without resolve, without faith, without perseverance, without courage, the climb will break your spirit.

Better to just sit staring longingly at the summit?

Or to prepare for the difficult climb?

I’m tired of this shit.

The climb must begin.

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How to Change the World

Be the change.

Be the change.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” – Nelson Mandela, facing the death penalty, 1964

I don’t know much about the life of Nelson Mandela.

It’s because I’m a self-centered American often guilty of not considering the suffering that goes on in other parts of the world.

I only knew him as the poster child for racial equality in South Africa and that he’d endured so much to see that dream realized. A champion for human rights; adored and respected globally.

Mandela died December 5, at age 95, to the sadness of admirers worldwide.

I wanted to get a better sense of the man whose life and death reverberated globally. So I read about him. I’m no historian. I’m going to miss major milestones in his life. But these are the highlights that jumped off the screen at me.

The Life of Nelson Mandela

  • Born 1918.
  • Lost his father at age 12.
  • Expelled from college for participating in a student protest.
  • Graduated college in 1943.
  • Married in 1944. Had four children—two boys, two girls. One of his daughters died in infancy.
  • Co-founded South Africa’s first black law firm in 1952.
  • Separated from his wife in 1955. Divorced in 1958.
  • Remarried in 1958. Fathered two more daughters.
  • He was arrested several times between 1955 and 1962. He received a five-year prison sentence for leaving the country illegally and inciting workers to strike.
  • In 1963, he stood trial with 10 others and faced the death penalty.
  • In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.
  • His mom died in 1968. His eldest son died the following year. He was unable to attend their funerals.
  • He had prostate surgery in 1985, after serving 21 years of his life sentence.
  • He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1988 and was hospitalized for three months.
  • Released from prison in 1990.
  • Helped spearhead talks to end white minority rule in 1991.
  • Won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
  • Inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994.
  • Divorced again in 1996.
  • Kept his word, and stepped down in 1999 after one term as president.
  • Lived the rest of his life championing freedom, education and equality for all.

The Legacy of a Hero

Mandela was just a man. He didn’t have superpowers. He had marital troubles just like the rest of us. Failed at marriage twice.

But what a life—from the outside looking in. Not one to envy. Just one to admire.

We don’t have to be political leaders to change the world. We don’t have to be messiahs. Or miracle workers.

You can just be you, living with a servant’s heart.

A soldier changes the world when she dies fighting to protect her country’s citizens.

A firefighter changes the world when he rescues a child from a burning building.

A teacher changes the world when she makes a breakthrough with a troubled student who goes on to do great things.

A volunteer changes the world when he serves the homeless, not with pity, but with compassion.

A writer changes the world when she pours her soul into the words, helping us heal.

An adoptive parent changes the world when he provides opportunity for children to maximize their human potential.

A spiritual leader changes the world when she helps us tap into life’s greatest mysteries, where peace and hope live.

A coach changes the world when he teaches young people the value of teamwork.

A mother changes the world when she brings a child into it.

A father changes the world when he serves his wife and family.

The lessons of Mandela’s life are that if you’re willing to accept that life won’t always be easy. And that there won’t always be shortcuts to success. And that we’re all human and prone to failure.

And that we must sometimes endure great pain and hardships along our journey.

That everyone is capable of changing the world for the better.

That we’re all capable of being part of the solution.

This isn’t about hippie circles and peace signs. This isn’t about being the most sensitive person in the world. This isn’t about peace rallies or candlelight vigils or political causes.

It’s just about using today to love and respect yourself. To love and respect others. To love and respect life.

Mandela spent the better part of 30 years in prison fighting extreme injustice and racism, health issues, emotional turmoil, and came out the other side a hero and symbol of hope.

Isn’t that proof enough that we can love our neighbors?

That we can stand up against the wrongs that plague our lives?

That we can be brave enough to say: I can change the world?

It won’t always be comfortable. It won’t always be safe.

It will never be easy.

But you absolutely can make a difference.

And you can start today.

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Do What Matters

what-matters-most-678x278

What matters most varies from person to person.

Often it’s our children. Our family. Our friends. Our faith.

We value our pets. Our homes. Our jobs. Our money. Our cars.

We’re passionate about our hobbies and interests. Our pursuit of fun. Adventure. Pleasure.

But what really counts?

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple weeks because of two things I read.

The first was this great blog post by Seth Godin, titled What kind of media counts?

In the post, Godin writes about how actors would rather be cast in low-rated cable television shows than appear in YouTube videos that will be seen by millions.

Godin writes about famous newspaper columnists that look down at bloggers—even though there are bloggers (like Godin, himself) with significantly more readers and impact than the columnists have.

He writes about how television didn’t count when radio ruled. How cable TV didn’t count when network sitcoms were all the rage.

His point? The definition of “what counts” will always change and evolve. And we need to think about which line we want to stand in.

The second thing I read that really has my wheels turning is James Altucher’s Choose Yourself.

Altucher might come off a little radical to some people. He’s anything but conventional. But as I read him, and I read some of the more “outrageous” or unconventional things he espouses, and then think about them, my initial reaction is never: “That guy is wrong.”

I always just nod.

This guy makes so much sense, it frightens me.

I brought it up a week ago today when I was losing it and wrote about some overdue library books I had at home.

I’m beginning to question so many things about my life. About how much it makes sense for me to go to work every day so I can just have enough money to pay for my house to sleep in, and my vehicle to get me to my job.

That’s it. A cycle of senseless suck.

It BEGS the question: Does any of this make sense?

Every day is one day closer to my death. Every day I’m running out of time.

The hourglass is always spilling from top to bottom. And if I knew I only had one week, or one month, or one year, or whatever to live, how would I choose to spend that time?

What Makes Us Happy?

I always cringe a little when I write about happiness. Especially after yesterday when I labeled feelings “bullshit.” I do not want to come off hypocritical, but I hope people can appreciate the distinction between how we feel about our human relationships versus our never-ending quest as human beings to pursue happiness.

Happy is just a word. It’s a word we use to describe a feeling. And it’s the feeling we have when things are going really well in our lives, or when we feel peace, or love, or pleasure, or fun, or some combination.

Our happiness is triggered by a variety of things and it varies greatly from person to person.

I’ve been asking myself a lot lately: What makes me happy?

I don’t have a comprehensive list. But here’s a brief overview:

1. I feel happy when I’m with my son and we’re getting along.

2. I feel happy when I’m with a woman who makes me feel loved and wanted.

3. I feel happy when I’m in good physical condition.

4. I feel happy when I am spiritually balanced—when I don’t feel dark and disconnected because I’m not living the way I believe I should.

5. I feel happy when I’m connected to friends and family. When I’m physically present with them, laughing and sharing moments.

6. I feel happy when I travel, exploring new places or revisiting places I love.

7. I feel happy when I do things for other people.

8. I feel happy when people appreciate and acknowledge the work I do—both here and professionally. It feels nice to have your efforts validated.

9. I feel happy when I have financial peace.

So, here’s the question: What really counts?

How important is my house? How important is my job?

Shouldn’t I ONLY spend my time pursuing the things on this list? Isn’t everything else meaningless and wasteful?

I don’t know. But I think it might be.

I think I waste a lot of time. I think I procrastinate. I think I rob myself of the joy of feeling happy by not taking small steps that will accomplish many of the things on this list.

I think I’m running out of time. I think that life is precious. I think that I want to be so much more than I am.

I want my life to have mattered. I want my life to be substantive. I want my life to be happy.

I’m chasing it. That dream.

We all are, really.

Do you feel stuck on the hamster wheel, like me? Just running in place all the time but never really getting anywhere?

What makes you happy?

Don’t you owe it to yourself and to the people you love to pursue those things? With vigor?

Of course you do.

Think. Pray. Feel. Love.

Choose yourself. Be grateful.

Find the best-possible you. Maybe help someone else find theirs.

This is your pursuit of happiness.

It happens once in a lifetime.

So please figure out what really matters to you.

Then make it count.

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