The purpose of this blog is to pursue happiness together. My aim is to share my thoughts, thoughts which i have accumulated through the experience of highs and lows in my own life, and thoughts from famous philosophers, thinkers, and humanity at large. My hope is that we can begin a dialogue, and that through discussion of what happiness is, and how we find it, that we can learn to be happy together and to help make the world a better place.

Followers

About Me

My photo
Hello all! Thanks for visiting my blog. I believe that creating and achieving a state of happiness and joy is the primary purpose in life. My mission for this page is to provide uplifting content, inspirational material, and thought provoking ideas; all of which I hope will help you come to a better understanding and experiencing of happiness and joy.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Memorial Day: a day of gratitude and appreciation


 


Today, Monday May 31, 2021 is Memorial Day in the United States. This is a holiday where nearly all schools and non-essential businesses and services are closed, so that we observe and honor the memory of the men and women who have died in military service to our nation. Those of you who know me personally or read this blog have seen or heard me being critical of the United States before. Whatever issues I may have with my country are not born out of hate or contempt, but out of love, love for the potential that this great nation has to be the greatest force for good in our entire planet, a potential that we have not yet lived up to. Whatever is good and great about this nation, and there is so much, is owed to those brave men and women who have served this nation and on this day, we honor the memory of those who gave their lives in that service. Whatever potential we have to be the driving force for liberty, justice, progress, equality, peace, and happiness is owed to our veterans and fallen dead. Chief among those freedoms with which we have been given thanks to our veterans is the freedom to be critical of our leaders and our government. This is one of the greatest freedoms of all, as where in other countries one might be jailed or murdered for their criticism, we have the opportunity to influence, however small, our national policy through our voices. Politicians and the greedy corporations who run our country have abused the men and women of our military and our families for far too long by using them as pawns in their schemes to grab power and wealth for themselves under the auspices of saving the world. One of the best ways to say thank you to our veterans and their families, and to honor those no longer with us is by calling for our government to end unnecessary military intervention abroad and to use our military as true peace-keeping forces fighting for good rather than as tools to secure national resources and open markets for the ultra-rich. I will always stand by and support the military and honor the lives of those who gave it all and I will always detest the politicians who hide behind faux-patriotic rhetoric and concern on Memorial Day or Veterans Day and then get right back to the business of slashing aid or benefits for the wounded soldiers who come home. If any of the politicians care about our soldiers as much as they pretend to on Memorial Day, then they can start by taking some of our massive defense budget and spend it in ways to aid the families left behind by our lost soldiers, supporting wounded veterans, and addressing the mental health crisis that faces so many. 

If you want to do something to honor our veterans, two great organizations you can support are the Wounded Warrior Project and Team RWB. The Wounded Warrior Project mission is to honor and empower Wounded Warriors who incurred a physical or mental injury, illnesses, or wound, co-incident to your military service on or after September 11, 2001 and Team RWB’s mission is to deliver virtual and local, consistent, and inclusive opportunities for veterans and the community to connect through physical and social activity to assist veterans in adjusting to a return to civilian life. 

Click the links below to donate to either organzation. 

Wounded Warrior Project

Team RWB


Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Theme of Revenge in Life, Culture, Art, and Media



 One of the most common themes in books, shows, movies, and legend throughout the course of recorded human history is the story of revenge. Revenge generally makes for an interesting and dramatic story. Our main character, usually either a well-to-do, mostly harmless individual or more commonly a former badass now committed to a life of peace, suddenly is the victim of heinous transgressions such as the murder of his family (the Punisher), the stealing of his significant other (the Iliad, Count of Monte Cristo), or the murder of a beloved pet (John Wick). The main character, usually a man, but not always (Kill Bill comes to mind) goes on an epic spree of revenge, wholly dedicating themselves to inflicting pain on any and all whom they perceive to have transgressed against them, and anybody unlucky enough to be even loosely connected to the plot. Then the book or the film ends, and our hero goes on to live happily ever after. Or do they?

I love a good revenge story as much as anyone, the deliverance of justice, the come-uppance of the evil-doers, and the kick ass action scenes that usually ensue on screen or on page make for great entertainment. As I dive more deeply into philosophy and psychology however, I cannot help but feel a sense of pity for these characters. First and foremost, whatever it is that usually sets them off is heartbreaking. Any parent can probably sympathize with Mel Gibson’s character in the Patriot has he unleashes a tomahawk wielding fury on the British following their murder of his son, and I can’t promise that I wouldn’t go John Wick on anybody who harmed my Floyd hound the way the title character’s canine companion was. That being said, the singular focus of these characters to bring harm to those who harmed them gives a grim view of our values of a society. While I can understand where the hateful emotions are coming from, I cannot support the intent and drive that is spent towards retribution. These characters think of nothing else but their own pain and sorrow and somehow believe that they will feel better by bringing destruction and then some against their aggressors. Does it feel good after getting revenge? I wouldn’t know, I’ve never gone on a revenge killing spree nor have I ever generally sought revenge period. Marcus Aurelius said that “the best way to get revenge is to not be like your enemy.” Your enemy has already caused harm, do not allow him or her the ultimate victory in corrupting your personhood and your values as they pull you down to their level.

Forgiveness is the better and more viable long term option here. By dedicating one’s life to revenge, one allows their life to be completely influenced by events outside of one’s control. Whatever happened cannot be undone. Do not allow whatever transgressions or crimes were committed to cause further harm by robbing you of the ability to live on your own terms according to your values. When we do this we surrender the possibility of having any true sense of joy in life and we in turn perpetuate the cycle of violence as we ourselves become aggressors and whether we justify that is a provoked attack, righteous vengeance, or justice served is irrelevant. Without a conscious effort by each and every one of us to dedicate ourselves to peace and to make the removal of suffering from the cycle of human existence as one of our primary goals, then the world may never know true happiness. As Gandhi said: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”


This says nothing about what happens to our protagonist after they complete their cycle of revenge. Then what? Are they happy now? Maybe, although whatever tragedy it was that set them on their murderous rage in the first place still happened. The past cant be changed and that void is still there. What will they devote their lives to now? What has happened to their purpose. In many ways it seems that the avenger is mistakenly trying to find meaning and purpose in their destruction of their enemies as a misplaced way of understanding their suffering and pain. Viktor Frankl tells us that one of the greatest ways to find happiness is to find meaning in suffering and in the trope of revenge, that meaning is manifested is in exacting harm on those who first harmed us. This horribly misses the point that Frankl was trying to make, as he never advocated revenge killings against his Nazi captors despite having every right to feel angry at the horrible atrocities they committed against him and millions of other Jews and ethnic minorities. The meaning that one ought to find in suffering, according to Frankl, would be meaning in adding something of value to the world. Exacting revenge adds no value to the world except selfish gratification in achieving that end, and instead only perpetuates the cycle of suffering.

Do not confuse my opposition to revenge as opposition to justice. Justice is how we enforce penalties for transgressions without allowing for a complete divulgence into perpetual chaos. Justice is a society putting its faith in a system and in shared values such that those who do wrong are punished in a deserved manner after a thorough examination and judgement of their wrongs. I believe that often times revenge is used to send a message, as it were, to deter any future harm committed not just by the original perpetrator but by any individual or party. I also believe that failure to seek revenge is often interpreted as a form of weakness. I prefer to view it as a sign of ultimate strength. Any animal, beast, or savage can lose control and act with ferocious rage in response to being harmed or wronged, but if we as a species ever hope to live up to the ideals and beliefs that we are the superior moral beings of the universe, then we must restrain ourselves. Losing one’s temper is not a sign of strength but rather the absence of strength as they are demonstrating quite clearly their inability to remain in control of their emotions and animalistic impulses. It could be said that this an over idealistic view of the world, while realistically there are any number of threats in many different shapes and that failure to use violence, or even mental or psychological retaliation as a deterrent will only result in harm. This is a legitimate concern as we seek to walk a peaceful path with enough presence and strength to deter an attack.

I do not honestly have an answer for the above conundrum, but I do have some real world examples where forgiveness rather than vengeance has proven to be a more gratifying option. In the Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu references two women, one black and one white, who each lost family members as a result of the violent civil war during the apartheid movement in South Africa. Each woman lost someone dear to them and by most realist’s consideration would have been completely justified in their hatred and violence towards the guilty parties. That isn’t what happened. Both women, in separate instances, chose to forgive those who murdered their children and did their best to exercise compassion and understanding. I think these two women demonstrate exceptional bravery, courage, compassion, and strength to overcome what must have been violent and furious impulses and instead move to a place of peace. What would have happened had they chosen to respond violently or with hatred and malice instead? Who can say, they are only two people. However, we do know that while South Africa may not be the most peaceful place on earth, the civil war has ended and the various ethnic groups exist in relative harmony at least in such that apartheid has ended and there is no longer large-scale bloodshed. This was not because two women decided not to act violently, but when enough people commit themselves to forgiveness rather than vengeance, compassion rather than anger, and love rather than hatred, then the world becomes a better place.

As much as a good revenge story makes for entertainment in art and literature, it is hardly a worthwhile way to conduct oneself in reality. History and even the news today are full of horrible headlines of jealous spouses, angry employees, disgruntled neighbors and more taking vengeance upon a perceived insult or threat and creating tragedy. Seeking revenge will forever prolong the cycle of misery that too often exists in life. This isn’t a cynical view of the world but as most every major religion and philosophy would agree, suffering is part of life. How we deal with that suffering is what makes our character. By choosing forgiveness rather than vengeance, one creates a happier world as they consciously determine  not to contribute to the cycle of suffering that pervades existence. There is plenty in life about which to be joyful, optimistic, and happy, but when we choose to seek revenge , we blind ourselves from seeing the beauty of life and we rob others of the possibility to find it for themselves.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Making the World Better through Compassion and Empathy



How many of you have turned on the television or browsed the news on your cellphone in the past several years and been so frightened by what you saw that you felt as if the world was ending? I have. Between the Covid Pandemic, police brutality, riots, claims of fraudulent elections, global warming, war, and violence, it would be easy to get that impression. One of the best parts about modern technology is that it connects the world such that anyone, anywhere, can send and receive information at will. One of the worst parts about modern technology is that it connects the world such that anyone, anywhere, can send and receive information at will. The beautiful thing about how readily we can share information is that we now have a greater capacity for learning, knowledge sharing, and communication than ever before. An aspiring young student with a love of science can email her Idol, Elon Musk, from her remote village in Ghana and perhaps he can give her some valuable input. Or someone in the Ukraine can log on to the internet, check out the latest blog post on happiness that some obscure American guy writes, translate it into Ukrainian, and ingest whatever knowledge that that post might contain. Technology allows us to stay in touch with friends and colleagues more easily than ever, a capability of greater than importance than ever following the 2020 that this world shared. It is truly a beautiful thing.

There is an ugly side to this issue as well. The ugly side is that bad news and frightening events are on greater display than ever before. One thousand years ago, the knowledge of a civil war in Yemen would never have been realized by people living in the Americas and a devastating mudslide in Nepal would never be known in Germany. With modern technology however, we become privy to nearly every event, good or bad, that occurs anywhere in the world. I want to particularly emphasize the bad news that gets shared. Keep in mind that most news outlets are for profit businesses, which ignoring their inherent biases and slants they put on the news means that they want to make money. The way they do this is by selling papers and generating website clicks. They also know that bad news sells better than good news. Good news just simply doesn’t make headlines and so the profit obsessed media is more likely to report tragedy that happened in the world and ignore the one hundred bits of good news. There are many historians, sociologists and other scientists who believe that the world of today knows greater prosperity and peace than at any other point in time. Yet because technology precipitates the sharing of information at such a fast rate and global scale, and because that slant leans toward the negative, it would be easy to believe that we are headed for imminent doom.

That does not mean that there aren’t tragedies every day nor worrying trends that we need to be concerned about. This brings me to my next point which is the alarming level of apathy that I notice in my peers. I am all for a certain level of cultivated ignorance. I routinely take social media breaks whether it be for several hours or several weeks, sometimes there is just too much happening in my head and I need to tune it out. The stoics introduced us to a concept called cultivated ignorance. Cultivated ignorance is willingly deciding exactly how much and what sort of information one chooses to pay attention to and act upon. There are simply too many happenings about which any one individual can inform themselves or act upon. Furthermore, many people who do wish to make the world a better place would be better served by working on themselves before they dedicate their majority of their time to solving the worlds problems. This can come in the form of taking better care of our own health, getting our finances in order, resolving familial conflicts, advancing our own education etc. These are all worthwhile causes and should not be considered selfish pursuits. Remember the Alchemist, where Santiago learns that by following his own personal legend, he is nurturing the soul of the world, for the soul of the world or the spirit of humanity is nurtured any time we improve ourselves. Take care of yourself before you take care of others. I am a big supporter of self improvement and believe it should be a lifelong process for all of us. Another stoic philosophy I mention here is that we must have the presence of mind to recognize that which is within our power to control and that which is without.

One of the consequences of the age of technology in which we live is that we actually CAN control or at least make a difference in far more ways than we realize. Ignorance of world events is no longer an excuse for not making an effort towards improving the world we live in. I am disturbed by the amount of apathy that I see in many people who cannot honestly say that they are unaware of the world but simply do not care enough to do anything. I feel that so long as they have food, shelter, and a stable WiFi connection that, I won’t say most but too many people, would simply be content to stay home and watch sports rather than lend a hand to help someone in need. I won’t adopt such a pessimistic view of humanity to say that all or even most people don’t care, but too many people are more concerned with their “likes” on social media or about staying informed on the latest shenigans from one of the Kardashians. There is nothing inherently wrong about having a few favorite tv shows or caring about sports. I have for years been a painfully loyal fan of Atlanta and Georgia sports teams, despite all the heart ache it has caused me, and I routinely binge watch television shows in bed with my girlfriend. But there is also time for giving a shit about other people. The Buddhists say that we become a better person when we adopt a genuine concern for others and make a concentrated physical and mental effort to alleviate the pain of any and all who suffer. The famous Buddhist scholar, former monk, and close friend of the Dalai Lama, Thupten Jinpa defines compassion as “what connects the feeling of empathy to acts of kindness, generosity, and other expressions of altruistic tendencies,” and “a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.” I don’t believe that the problem the world faces today are insurmountable or that things are as bad as they seem. I do see that one of the biggest issues of humanity is too much self-centered thinking and not enough compassion. The Dalai Lama said that “too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well being is the source of happiness.”

The good news is this: the same technology that sometimes frightens us into thinking the world is ready to explode is the same technology that can allow literally anyone to make a difference. There are many charitable organizations or funds that anyone with a little bit of extra money can donate to online. Take the time to consider an issue that matters to you, find an organization that addresses that issue, confirm that they spend their money appropriately, and donate to that charity if you are able. There is so much more to give than money. Perhaps the best donation that can be made is our most precious of all, our time. Take the time to educate yourself about a subject and find out if there is something you can do. Maybe you can fight homelessness by participating in habitat for humanity, maybe you can address poverty by volunteering as an educator and helping a struggling person to find employment and care for themselves. In the United States and other open societies, we also have the power to influence policy, or at least we are given the impression that we can. Exercise your first amendment right and join a demonstration for an issue that concerns you. Write to your senators or local representatives, they are or at least should be ultimately answerable to you the voters. The possibilities are endless and whether you are donating your time to help your own community or giving money to provide clean water to a community overseas is unimportant, what matters is that you are doing something. Even something as simple and silly sounding as talking about issues over whatever platform you command on social media is an effort to ease the suffering of others.

Do the problems of the world sound so great that they can’t ever be solved? Are you afraid that you are too insignificant to make a difference? Heed the words of Edmund Burke who said: “nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” EVERY effort helps. I believe that even thinking about helping is a step in the right direction. Ignorance is simply no longer an excuse for apathy. We all want to live in a better world, one where every person gets to enjoy what Thomas Jefferson called the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The potential for the realization of that dream lies within every one of us. We all possess the power and the means to improve the world in which we live. Pick something, anything that matters to you and see what you can do to address that. Remember, even starting by working on yourself is progress for all of humanity.


“You, the people have the power…to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.” – Charlie Chaplin, the Dictator.

 

Here is a list of 8 charitable organizations that give over 90% of their donations to their stated cause.

 

 


Sunday, May 23, 2021

Alexander the not so Great


 


Alexander III of Macedon is regarded by many as one of the greatest humans to have ever lived. If you don’t know who Alexander III is, you might be more familiar with the name that history has granted him, that being Alexander the Great, the very addition of “the Great” demonstrating the validity of my opening sentence. I remember learning about Alexander the Great throughout the course of my education, from 7th grade Latin, to World History, and then finally visiting some of the very places where he himself walked during my study abroad throughout the Mediterranean region in 2009. I, like many students, was enamored with Alexander, thoroughly buying into the notion of his greatness. I wasn’t the only person to have felt this way about the Macedonian. His achievements have inspired other famous world leaders including Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte to name a couple, with the former reportedly breaking into tears at one point for not yet having reached the same level of accomplishment as Alexander. 

This post is not intended to be a celebration of the life or a discussion of the greatness of Alexander. Instead, it is going to be a scathing criticism of both the man and of a society that tells us that he is great. If we consider a life dedicated to conquest, murder, subjugation, and narcissism, then yes, Alexander was great. The only way that the moniker of “Great” should rightfully be applied to Alexander III of Macedon is if we are to admit that greatness has absolutely nothing to do with values, ethics, morals, or compassion and only deals with infamy. That is not my opinion of greatness. I would say that Alexander is perhaps one of the poorest examples of Greatness in recorded history and is a perfect example of how not to live a life. 

To understand my sentiment, let me first discuss at a very superficial level what Alexander did that history tells us to consider as greatness. Alexander was 17 when he became the King of Macedonia in northern Greece following the assassination of his father, Philip II. Upon his ascension to the throne, Alexander quickly quelled rebellions at home, uniting all of Greece under his banners before marching east towards Persia to avenge the destruction wrought on Greece several decades earlier by the Emperor Xerxes. Thus began several decades of constant conquest that would see Alexander expand the reaches of his kingdom across the known world, conquering the Persians, Egyptians, Bactrians, Scythians, and pushing his borders all the way to what is now India. Alexander’s Empire was the largest empire the world had ever seen to that date. Following his death at the age of 33, the empire quickly crumbled without its leader and the great empire descended into a mess of warring kingdoms. Alexander is remembered as someone who won great battles, founded cities, and established the largest empire to date. 

Now, lets take a deeper look at what those accomplishments actually entail, while also more closely examining the man himself. To establish the largest empire ever is impressive I will say. I would not say that it is great, however, because in so doing he staged numerous battles of great size which led directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, if the records are to be believed, on both the side of his enemies and his own forces. I cannot look at a decision that directly leads to the death of hundreds of thousands if not millions as greatness. It would be one thing if these were battles fought against subjugated and repressed individuals such as the allied forces liberating Europe from the grasp of the Nazis. But these were, for the most part, perfectly happy lands that had lived in peace for generations until Alexander and his army marched in. Instead of living their lives in peace and prosperity, millions of lives were impacted by Alexander’s invasions directly through those who lost their lives or were injured in battle, or indirectly as they sought to deal with the fallout of war that included homelessness, starvation, and more. 

All of this death and destruction was wrought through the decision of one man, Alexander, who decided that his own fame and glory were worth more than the lives of those who had to die in his realization of his vanities. The average person probably cannot name anyone from Alexander’s army other than the conquering King himself. Anyone else who fought alongside Alexander was forced to give up their lives and die in battle or dedicate themselves to a life of conquering in destruction, all in return for a life lived in anonymity, and that is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands from the other sides, who became mere statistics of the vanquished enemy in Alexander’s selfish quest for glory. Not that the achievement of posthumous fame would matter anything to the dead. 

The conquest of the world is impressive, but it is not admirable, and it certainly is not great. As a man, Alexander was deeply flawed. He was hopelessly incapable of controlling his temper or his impulses, as he repeatedly drank to excess, and on one such occasion killed his best friend and rumored lover, Hephaestion. Looking back to the inception of Alexander’s quest for conquest, we see a young man completely engulfed in an inferiority complex, desperately struggling to step out of his father’s shadow. He was ultimately successful in this aim but the expense was the loss of uncountable lives while he himself developed paranoia and stress that ultimately contributed his early demise. In his latter years he became extremely mistrusting of anyone and everyone, isolating himself from his oldest and closest confidants, and spending his final months obsessing over the fact that he might one day lose his power. It would be wrong to say that he successfully managed this great empire of his, as it quickly dissolved into several smaller empires taken over by his remaining generals, demonstrating a complete selfishness on the part of Alexander who couldn’t even be bothered to plan for a future in which he himself would cease to exist. 

I believe that the significance of Alexander’s life is worthy of discussion in the history books, but I would not use the word great unless we are comfortable attributing the same title to other dictators who ruled with an iron fist and conquered vast empires at the expense of anyone who stood in their way. If I were a teacher and taught about Alexander, I would use him as an example of unchecked ego, insecurity, and a complete lack of empathy. There is a passage from a book called “The Virtues of War” by Steven Pressfield that accurately depicts the troubled figure of Alexander. The situation is that Alexander and his generals are crossing a river, but their path is blocked by an old wise man. One of Alexander’s generals shouts at the old man, insisting that he move out of the way of this great man, Alexander. The general says: “this man has conquered the world, what have you done?” The old man responded: “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.” This book is a work of fiction, but I believe the sentiment accurately portrays the type of egomaniac that was Alexander and how a true great man would be content to live a life of peace and anonymity rather than dedicate his life to the pursuit of fame. Years later, the great stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a man whom I believe would be far more deserving of the title “Great”, would say this: “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.” Yes, we still talk about Alexander, while nobody knows his mule driver, but what comfort is that to him now that he is dissolved to atoms. He died afraid, alone, and young, with nobody paying him any attention other than what might they take from him after his passing. I would say that tragic is a far greater description of Alexander’s life than Great. The only reason that I would think to mention him on this blog of happiness is that he is the perfect example of how to live the opposite of a happy life. 


Friday, May 21, 2021

Shift Your Perspective to Find Happiness


 


I was recently reading a passage from the Book of Joy and came across a meditation practice that was introduced by the Dalai Lama. The particular part of the book was about cultivating a mindset that puts us at ease. In today’s world there are a number of things that can make us feel sad, angry, hurt, or more. Keep in mind the teachings of the Stoics who teach us not to stress over that which is outside of our control. Through this particular type of meditation, the Dalai Lama Lama takes it a step further than the stoics and takes that which is outside of our control, urging us not just to not be bothered, but to alter our perspective of such an event and search for the positive outcomes. The practice was exactly that: think of an event in your life that seemed objectively bad. Remember that moment and think hard about what good may have somehow come from that. It can sometimes take months or even years before we can begin to glean any good out of some of life’s hardest moments. In order to cultivate a healthy perspective and see something bad as something good, we must first focus our mind on the bad. People often avoid this as it can be a painful experience to focus on a past trauma. Through this intentional thought exercise, we may be able to connect some of the dots of our past and obtain a greater sense of joy and happiness by finding the good in some of our darkest moments.

I want to share a few of my experiences where I applied this very sort of mindfulness and how it was helpful to me. I believe that these scenarios will be easily relatable to anyone who reads this as they include common tropes of human existence such as love, loss and more.

The first such example I want to discuss is my last breakup, something that I am sure most of us have experienced at least once. I won’t go into the details of the relationship but suffice it so say, I thought and even hoped at the time that it would last a lifetime. It didn’t. When she broke up with me I was devastated. I lost interest in so many things that normally brought me joy. I stopped exercising, I stopped eating, I stopped socializing, I had essentially lost my joy in living. I had put so much love and attentiveness into this relationship and when it fell apart I felt as if I had lost everything that mattered in my life. Overtime though I began to see things differently. Among other things, I was given the opportunity to learn more about myself and grow as a person. Most importantly though, if I had not been through that painful break-up I would not have ended up with the wonderful person I am with today. I don’t intend to bash my ex-girlfriend but through the lenses of my current relationship I am able to see aspects of the previous relationship that had been hidden. I realized that I had allowed myself to be emotionally and mentally abused, I realized that I wasn’t standing up for myself, and I learned valuable lessons about what love and a healthy relationship are supposed to look like. If I had never had that breakup, I would not have had these revelations and I would currently find myself in an extremely unhealthy relationship leading an unhappy existence. Instead, I am a better and stronger individual with a greater sense of self, and I am with someone who both receives my love and gives love back in a healthy way. By changing my perspective on that breakup and thinking of it not as a painful heartbreak, but instead as a necessary learning experience, and an important step in my growth, I turned what was a painful memory into a happier one. I find it highly likely that many of my readers will have similar experiences, and if you haven’t I encourage you to look on past relationships and find the good that came out of them, even if the relationship itself wasn’t good.

Another such experience where I was able to alter my perspective to improve my narrative was when I was fired from a job I really loved. This stung me on many levels. First, I loved my colleagues and the children I worked with. It wasn’t the greatest paying job in the world but I am not sure I ever enjoyed myself more. The atmosphere was productive but relaxed and helping kids break out of their shells and achieve their potential was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. The pain of losing the job was compounded because of the fact that while I had only made a little money at this job, I was now making none and had large amount of bills due very shortly. I was scared for my future and whether or not I would be able to keep a roof over my head or feed myself and I was angry because I felt I had been treated wrong by an administration that chose to sever ties with me, removing me from doing something I loved. What came out of this was something beautiful. One, I was quickly able to find new employment from a good friend who was looking to expand his small private business. This quickly gave me the opportunity to start providing financial security for myself again. It also helped me build a number of close friendships. I became closer than ever with my friend who hired me, someone whom I still speak with often even though I have sense left his employ, this time on mutually good terms. Through this job I met a number of other amazing people, many of whom I consider close friends. I used the pain of loss from the job I lost and turned it into productive energy, allowing me to take my career to new highs. During this process I would come to know and befriend the man who is today the Vice President of the company I work for. On paper, I am probably still unqualified for that job but he saw potential in me and gave me the opportunity to succeed. I don’t work at my dream job but it allows me to comfortably provide for myself and those who depend on me, but more importantly it gives me the healthiest work-life balance I have ever enjoyed, thus giving me the opportunity to write this blog and pursue other hobbies as well. If I had never had that painful experience of being fired then I would be at least ten good friendships fewer today, and I likely would not have the job I have today and would not be writing this blog this very second.

The last example I will give of where altering my perspective gave me a greater sense of happiness is something we are all familiar with: Covid. The Covid19 disrupted our lives and shredded the fabric of our society in so many ways that I wont even begin to enumerate. I am keenly aware of the fact that I suffered a great deal less than so many and I don’t mean to be insensitive of that fact, but I do want to discuss how my perspective on how I myself dealt with the issue helped me, and how it might help you do the same. The lockdowns that followed the start of the pandemic were hard for me, as they were for all of us. I lived alone and was completely cut off from any and all social interaction. Luckily for me, my parents invited me home to spend time with them for a few weeks until the pandemic ended, which then turned into about 6 months when the pandemic never did end. For weeks at mom and dads house I had some of the worst bouts of anxiety I had ever experienced. I asked myself the same questions that many of you probably asked yourselves and nobody knew the answer: how long will this last, will this ever end, are we all going to die, will there ever be a normal world again? It is easy to look at Covid19 as both objectively and subjectively bad, but the reality of the situation is that it did happen. Covid doesn’t care what I or anyone else think about it and so, I decided to see if I couldn’t assuage my anxiety by shifting my perspective. The greatest realization that came from this was in realizing how much extra time I got to spend with my parents. In a normal year I would probably see my parents for 15-20 days at the most. In 2020 I got to see them for over 150 days. Not every second was bliss but I am truly grateful for that opportunity. I feel closer to them now than I ever have and I love my time I get to spend with them and I believe they feel the same way. I could focus on the bad that Covid brought and there is a lot, but in switching my perspective off of the bad and onto the good, I wont go so far as to say I am grateful for covid, but I am grateful for the opportunities it brought me.

Getting dumped, getting fired, dealing with a pandemic, these are all things that we can relate to. They are just a few examples of what most of us what categorize as undeniably bad experiences. Of course, if you go looking for something bad you will find it, and if you go looking for something good you will find it too. So instead of focusing on the bad, shift your perspective onto the good. It can be excruciatingly difficult, and I know there are many experiences that are far worse than those examples I gave. Nevertheless, if we follow the advice of the Buddhists and shift our perspective, we will often find that we can find joy and happiness where previously there was only sorrow and grief. It may take time, but if you are currently struggling with a  difficult experience, hang in there. In time, you will find something positive. As Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots moving backwards.



The book of Joy can be found in the "Books" section of my blog. 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Coping with Isolation and Loneliness


 


Today I want to discuss a few helpful strategies that can help as you cope with anxiety and depression, specifically when the reason is because we feel alone or isolated. The first step to any problem is recognizing the problem. It can take some time to recognize that the way we are feeling isn’t just feeling bad for no reason, but that what we are experiencing is anxiety or depression. Once we have identified that we do have a problem, and that that problem is anxiety and or depression onset by feeling alone, then we get to solving it. I am certainly not qualified to make any sort of clinical diagnosis or offer any medical advice. However, as someone who has at various moments dealt with the struggles of anxiety and depression, dug my way-out numerous times, and tried to understand these feelings, I would like to share some strategies that helped me feel less alone and isolated.

Feelings of isolation are at the core of why most people feel depressed or anxious. It can seem at times as if you are the only person in the world or that the world is moving on and taking no notice of you. Incidences of depression have been more prevalent than ever over the past 15 months as people the world over struggled with the emotional and psychological toll of the Covid19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns enhancing feelings of loneliness in many of us. Human beings evolved to thrive in group settings. Our lack of true physical prowess relative to other species left us as vulnerable targets in the struggle for survival. Humankind’s solution for this problem was to evolve into a species with close bonds to one another, forming herds or tribes wherein we would rely on each other for safety, security, and shelter. The formation into herds or tribes for safety also meant that human brains became wired to desire and thrive in close contact with other humans. Our minds work their best and feel best when we have close contact and relationships with others. Modern life in general has made this type of closeness rarer: as we retreat to the comforts of our own living room and dive into the world of mindless stimulation, we get from tv or social media rather than spend time with our friends and neighbors. This isolation was compounded when the worldwide health crisis necessitated the need to eliminate interactions to stop the spread of Covid. I won’t argue whether isolation and lockdowns were the best way to stop the spread. The fact is though that self reported levels of anxiety and depression were significantly higher in 2020, the year of the lockdown, than previous years as reported in the UN’s World Happiness Report.

All this is to say that if you recognize that the cause of your anxiety or depression may be feelings of aloneness, there is a good reason for that, and the answer is to simply attempt to interact more. The extent to which even the most minor of interactions can have is pleasantly surprising. I can recall a period in my life in my early 20s where I felt detached and removed from any sort of connection. I was living in a foreign country at the time, all my friends were back home in the States and I felt completely isolated. While there were larger issues at play that needed addressing, sometimes something even as minor as a casual exchange of pleasantries with a cashier at a grocery store could bring me out of my pit of despair. Sitting in my hotel room feeling sorry for myself only dug me deeper into depression but getting out and interacting with other people was my lifeline. I would go on walks just to be around other humans and realize that the world was still spinning, there was still a whole world here filled with people and that I was not alone. Another example is when I first started working from home for my current job. At first, I loved the fact that I no longer had to wake up early for my commute and that I could work at my own pace. I quickly started to feel sad as I missed the face-to-face interactions with other people, even angry customers if you could imagine. Emails and phone calls were a poor substitute for that social interaction my mind needed just as direct messages and snapchats are a poor substitute for real socializing.

What I did then that helped me out was to start leaving the isolation of my dark one-bedroom apartment and either go for walks, or go set up shop someplace where I wouldn’t be alone. If I went on walks I would make an effort to smile and say hello to anyone I passed. I would get my fair share of strange looks and cold shoulders but more often than not I would get a smile and hello in response if not a brief conversation. I would feel an instant sense of joy, relief, and happiness following such an encounter, with even just a smile from a fellow human being enough to make me feel re-connected to the world.

I also started visiting a local coffee shop where I would set up my laptop and work for a few hours of every day. Other than placing my order with the baristas, with whom I would exchange mild pleasantries, I didn’t interact much with other patrons, but simply being around other people who were trying to navigate their way through life the same way I was, was a meaningful encounter for me as it made me feel like I was part of the tribe of humanity again, and not a lonely soul who spent his time locked in his apartment. I didn’t even need to truly interact with anyone else, it was enough just to be out in public, to remind myself I wasn’t the only soul on this rock flying through space. It sounds simple but the impact was profound. My advice if you feel alone would be to leave your room and just go out and be yourself in public.

Sometimes it is not enough just to be in public around strangers. Often what we need are real relationships and connections. A random encounter with a stranger on the subway can assuage our feelings of isolation but it is important to have real, deep, and close connections with at least a small handful of other people as well. As we get older, we often find it more and more difficult to meet new people and make friends. School and organized afterschool activities provide the opportunity to establish friendships when we are young, but when those institutions are removed, we struggle to replace them. One of the best fixes for this is to involve yourself with groups of people who share the same interests as you. You can find a chess club or a cooking club if those are your interests. If you like sports you can see if there is a rec league with a team in the neighborhood.

Be mindful of the fact that the world is full of people just like you who are very well struggling with the same problems. A major cause of depression and anxiety is the perception that we are the only person who feels such a way. Understanding that other people feel the same way we do, that we are not alone, and have the same struggles, is a transformative realization that opens up the door for connection and empathy with others. I hope that you got something out of this passage. If you struggle with feelings of isolation, risk being just a tad bit vulnerable, put yourself in the arena of the public and do your best to just smile and say hello to a stranger, or seek out those who share your interests and see if you can’t build a connection. Even the attempt will make you feel more connected to the world around you.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Be SMART with your Goals



The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said that “a goal without a plan is just a dream.” To understand that sentiment we need to recognize the difference between a goal and a dream. A dream is a fantasy, something we want that we believe will make us feel happy or fulfilled. A dream however never manifests itself in any sort of real fashion, existing only in our thoughts. A dream is just a vision of what could be, but to which we take no steps toward realizing. To paraphrase Saint-Exupery, a goal is a dream with a plan. A goal is a concept that we achieve by taking the necessary steps to accomplish. None of your dreams will ever come to fruition, save by chance alone. A goal is something towards which you actively work, and although you may fail, you at least control the factors over which you have any sort of influence.

Have you ever had a dream, and then written down that dream and set yourself a goal of realizing that dream? Most of us have but very often we fall short of that goal for one reason or other and as a result we feel dejected. This post is aimed at providing helpful advice on achieving goals. Following this plan will not allow you to achieve all of your goals, but it will dramatically increase your odds of success.

In order to achieve our goals, we must have SMART goals. As you may have guessed by the all-caps, SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relatable, and Time-bound. I first heard about SMART goals when I was training to become a strength coach, but since then I have realized that this is a common trope used by Human Resources, motivators, and more. Nevertheless, I hope that by walking you through the process of SMART goal setting, that you can apply these principles towards your own goals and get busy achieving whatever it is that might help you feel happy.


Since I first learned of this concept while training to be a strength coach, my examples will largely focus on athletic or health related goals, but it should not be difficult to apply the same principles elsewhere in your life. We begin with Specific. Specific goals are important because they define exactly what it is that we are trying to achieve. When I was a coach, one of the first things I would ask my new clients was: “why are you here?” Their answer without fail was always: “to get in better shape.” Well, duh. Everybody is at the gym to get in better shape but there are thousands of different permutations of what exactly “better shape” looks like. Better shape can mean losing 20 pounds, being able to do a chin up, increasing your bench press by 50lbs, improving mile time, and so on. After that I would always pry a little bit more and ask the clients to be more specific. I would always give them examples to force them to think, but ultimately what “better shape” would be was completely up to them. It is possible and probable that the specific idea of “better shape” would morph over time, but it is important to have a specific landing place. When we set our goals, we need to know exactly what it is that we are aiming for, otherwise how will we know when we arrive. If your goal is to become a better writer, make it specific and say: I want to publish a novel. That is the specific goal you are working towards. If you want to start a private business, begin with the specific goal of registering your LLC and securing your funding. There, that is the specific goal that you are aiming for. The target will shift as your priorities change and as you hopefully achieve your goals and then set more, but without specificity we are aimless.


Measurability is the next component of effective goal setting. If we do not have a way of measuring our goal, how do we know we have achieved it. It is poor practice to simply say that we want to get better at something as part of our goal. Of course, you want to get better, but by what standard or metric is “better” measured? For example, in the gym there were many ways that progress could be measured. The most common goal was that clients wanted to lose weight. The obvious and easy way to measure our progress on that goal was by measuring pounds. If your goal is to run a faster mile, we measure that in minutes and seconds. If your goal is to become better at sales, we can measure that in deals closed or dollars booked. Even if your goal is more abstract, like to be a better parent, you can still find creative ways of measuring that. An example would be measure, the number of nights in a week that you read to your kids before bed. Compare that to what it was before you set this goal and you have a measurable to ascertain your progress with your goal. Whatever your goal is, find a way of measuring your performance and more importantly your progress.


We often run into issues when we set goals that are excessively lofty, unfeasible, or sometimes even impossible to attain. An important factor in setting goals is to make sure that our goal is attainable. This will directly influence our self-esteem, our pride, and our feeling of accomplishment. This may seem counter to what most motivational speakers would say. They might encourage you to set the absolute highest of goals, saying that if your goals don’t scare you then they aren’t lofty enough. They will tell you that to set the bar below everything, but the absolute highest form of attainment means that you are a loser and a wimp. That is patently false and realistically speaking it only sets you up for disappointment. If a college sophomore basketball player came to me and told me that his goal was to play in the NBA, I wouldn’t laugh at him, but I would make an accurate assessment of that induvial, their athletic gift, work ethic, physical measurements etc. It is entirely possible that that individual might have pro potential, but the vast majority will not. Across all sports the NCAA reports that only 2% go pro. That means obviously that 98% of them do not make it to that league. I am sure at one point they all dreamed of playing pro sports, as did many of us who didn’t even make the cut as NCAA athletes. As time moves on however, one begins to realize that those dreams are probably not going to happen. If their end all be all goal was to go pro, chances are they will be disappointed and crushed with the disappointment. If however they reprioritize and do a deep analysis of self, they may realize other goals. Maybe they won’t go pro, especially if they have ridden the bench. But maybe they can work their ass off in practice and set the goal of getting more minutes off of the bench. That would be an example of an attainable goal. It is a goal that encourages and motivates them, will bring them joy upon accomplishment, but is not so far out of reach such that they are setting themselves up for failure.


The statement that goals should be relatable might sound obvious but shouldn’t be overlooked. What does your goal mean to you? How is achieving this goal going to improve your happiness, your well-being, your life, or the lives of those you care about? I could set myself a goal of becoming a certified skydiver. That sounds like something that might be a lot of fun but is honestly not terribly important to me, nor can I see it having any true meaning to my life. If we are going to take the trouble of setting a goal, of searching within to discover exactly who or what we want to be, measuring that goal and constantly working towards it, then it had better be worth our time. If a goal is random or unrelatable it adds no real sense of happiness or improvement into our life. Ergo, the two most likely outcomes are that we will fail to accomplish said goal or, that we will achieve the goal but be no better for it. Make sure your goals are relatable, that they align with the values of who you are and who you want to become or what you want to do.

Finally, a goal must be time bound. This ensures that we hold ourselves accountable. If I say that I want to add 5 extra chin-ups to my total but fail to specify a date in time to complete this goal, then I could just flounder around for years, never coming closer, but still be in no rush as I have no time constraints. One must be realistic in setting establishing a timeline for their goals. If you have spent the last 5 years doing no exercise at all and have found yourself getting considerably overweight, it is unrealistic to set a time goal of running a marathon in 6 weeks. That can still be the ultimate goal, but consult with a professional who can give you an honest assessment of your current state and help you figure out when a reasonable accomplishment of that goal could be set. Instead, maybe start with the goal of walking a 5k in 6 weeks. I might break it down smaller still into week by week goals. Begin by simply trying to walk, however long or fast you feel you are able, for 5 days in that first week. Try to go just a little faster or a little farther the following, and so on. I want to add to the understanding that goals should be time bound by reiterating that there should be micro goals along the process that help you move closer to your ultimate goal. People are often dissuaded by setting a lofty goal that might seem far off. To set a goal of running a marathon in 6 months is not unrealistic, but it can be daunting. Again, don’t think about that marathon, think about your day to day and week to week progress, and over time you will find that your improvements have compounded and you have arrived at your final goal. 


I hope you find this information helpful. We often discuss the importance of gratitude for what we have, and being content in ourselves on this blog. With that said, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look for areas that we can grow and improve as people and members of society. Love yourself for who you are right now, but challenge yourself to grow and set a goal that can make you better in any way.  

Happy International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia


 


Today, May 17 is the annual International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. This is an event that was first held in 2005 and currently is observed by over 130 nations. The purpose of this date is to raise awareness of the violence, repression, and discrimination that affects the homosexual, transexual, and bisexual communities worldwide. In 69 countries it is still illegal for homosexual companies to become married while transexual people are subjected to legal forms of punishment simply for their existence in 26 counties.

This post is simply to announce my solidarity with LGBTQ community and to speak out for the rights and freedoms of homosexuals, transexuals, and bisexuals. I will never know the struggle that such people face but I will make it my mission to do whatever I can to speak up and stand up for your rights and freedoms. Every person has the right to feel safe and secure in who they are, every person has the right to feel comfortable being themselves, and every person has the right to happiness. Here’s to hoping that this movement gains more traction and that we can take steps towards inclusion and compassion of all humankind.

In addition to making a donation, I will be making an effort to improve my support of the LGBTQ community by reading literature and reflecting how I can reduce any inherent bias that I may subconsciously carry in myself. I urge you to do the same. 

If you wish to become involved, below is a list of organizations that you can support with your time, effort, or money to help make a difference in the LGBTQ communities.

Support the LGBTQ Community

Friday, May 14, 2021

Why Mentorship Matters


 I was recently thinking about how lucky I am to have so many friends and role models. I arrived at this thought while practicing giving gratitude while trying to work myself out of some bad head-space on a day where the whole universe seemed determined to test me. I ended up thinking about less fortunate individuals and in particular how many people struggle in life because they don’t have good role models, people who offer security, affection, leadership, guidance, expertise, or live as a good example of how one ought to be. Mentors come in the form of many different forms from parents to teachers plain old good friends. A mentor is often but not always older, someone who has achieved success in some fashion or other, whether it be in business, work, art, sport, or leadership; someone who instills in us good values and someone whom we want to emulate. I am fortunate enough to have many including my mother and father. I have written about what my mother means to me in my recent Mother’s Day post and intend to do the same for my father when we celebrate Father’s Day in a few weeks. This post is going to focus on a number of mentors I have had besides my parents. One of the best parts about having a mentor that isn’t a parent is it allows a completely different type of relationship to form. Particularly for me, in my never-ending quest to please my parents, it was important to have someone to instruct me in the ways of life with whom I could have a different type of relationship, without simply behaving in order to make that person happy. 

The first mentor that I want to speak about is named Dencho Vassilev. I met Dencho when he became the coach of my youth soccer team at roughly the age of 10. Dencho was brought on to coach the Raptors because the coaches, my father and another teammate’s father, recognized that for us to continue to grow as players, we needed someone with greater expertise. This is a perfect example of good mentorship on my father’s part in recognizing his own limitations and having the humility to hand over responsibility of that arena to another man. Dencho had immigrated to the United States from Bulgaria, shortly after the fall of communism. He had been a professional soccer player in Europe and played for a very minor league team in Savannah Georgia while working in a factory trying to provide for his family. Dencho was tough. This was not a man who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth like most of the team and I had, and he did not tolerate excuses. He instilled in us the importance of respect: if we talked when he was talking, refused to respond yes sir or no sir, refused to greet him upon his arrival at practice, showed up late, or refused to demonstrate sportsmanship to our teammates and opponents, then we would run laps. Lots of them.  And when I say we, I mean all of us. If one player acted out of line, we all ran. At first this seemed draconian but before long we realized his intent was not to be an ass, though when running our fourth mile of the day, it often felt that way, but because he wanted us to understand the importance of teamwork. We win as a team, we lose as a team, and maybe you don’t care about acting out yourself, but you damn sure better care about your actions when your teammates pay the consequences and you damn sure better show up for those who depend on you.

 

Even years after he stopped coaching us, Dencho (Jeans and seater) still showed
up to watch his former players. I am immediately on his left (photo right)

He taught us to work hard and always give 100%. We weren’t perfect. We won many games and we lost many games, but Dencho’s post game speeches were always meaningful. He never cared whether we won or lost. He cared how hard we played and whether we showed sportsmanship. We could win handily and be scolded mightily for it if we had failed to play our best or if we had failed to show respect to the other team. Of course we lost many games as well and sometimes we lost by a wide margin, but would be praised if coach had believed we gave it our best effort and showed sportsmanship, and he was always correct when assessing our effort. Dencho inherited us as a ragtag mob of little boys with no discipline and little skill and turned us into respectful, hard-working, selfless men, who had been able to realize a considerable amount of success through discipline and hard work. I am forever grateful to him for that. 

Just as Dencho’s role as an active mentor in my life was coming to a close, I met Ousmane. Ousmane Diarha was the fastest 100m runner in all of Africa at one point, a 3-time Olympian, and when I met him as a 15 year old was working as a personal trainer and coach at a gym in Savannah where he had settled after having decided to emigrate from his home country of Mali. Ousmane came into my time at a critical point in my life. I had just entered highschool, a time that was very rough for me because I struggled mightily with self-esteem. My self-esteem was so bad that I would avoid trying my best at anything because I was scared of the vulnerability I would have to display in trying my best and was terrified of being seen and risking failing in the process, believing this would crush me. I had quit soccer, Dencho having recently retired from coaching to focus on his children and me not getting along with our next coach. I had been cut from the school teams or simply given up and was generally apathetic about everything. I hated the person I saw in the mirror and truth be told, I hated myself at this point. Ousmane changed all of that for me. 

Again, my parents came to my rescue, refusing to let me be a bum and do nothing but play video games and waste my life away. They decided to introduce me to their trainer, Ousmane, hoping that he could get me into better physical shape. He did far more than that. I was, I think, receptive to the idea of working with a trainer, having always admired the physiques of professional wrestlers or the athletic prowess of my favorite football players. Though intrigued, I was probably scared at the prospect, as my lack of athletic talent would be on full display for this man and the entire gym to see. Whatever fear I had upon entering quickly vanished as I was met with a huge smile and a loud greeting from Ousmane, whom I would learn had a great gift for being genuine, friendly, and making everyone feel like they mattered. He was also a damn good coach and after a few months I saw results in my athletic performance and in my appearance. For the first time in my life I liked the reflection in the mirror, for the first time since some of my classmates entered puberty while I lagged behind in childhood, I felt like I was possessed of athletic talent, and for the first time in my life I was working hard and dedicating myself towards something and seeing results. I would go on to run on the cross-country team and become a starter at defense for the soccer team. I had the confidence to stand up for myself when being picked on and the confidence to actually initiate conversation with girls (gasp). I loved working with Ousmane so much that when I got my driver’s license, the first place I drove myself was to the gym just to tell him, and I would visit the weight-room 5 or 6 times a week I was so in love with the challenge. I even had my first true career in personal training not just because I loved the work, but because I wanted to be for others what Ousmane had been for me. His work ethic was beyond impressive and every morning when my alarm would go off before 5am, I would think: what would Ousmane do, and I would get my ass out of bed, greet everyone with a smile, and love what I was doing. 

I could probably mention more mentors as I have been lucky but these are the two that meant the most to me. A number of wonderful teachers that I had such as Ken Hincker, Cecil Hickam, Kevin Gavin, Ron Onorato, Cheryl Calahan, and Brian Riemann are equally deserving of mention as they helped me to work hard in the classroom and taught me not what to think, but how to think for myself, one of the greatest gifts of all. I have every intention of honoring them with a teacher appreciation post at another time. 

My father, Ousmane, and myself

In writing this post I am reminded how great I am to have had these two men as mentors. I am increasingly grateful as I recognize that both of these men were brought into my life by my parents, recognizing that though they are both wonderful and talented people, that they could only help me so much. I am blessed beyond doubt to have such mentors and I hope that after reading this post, that you will stop and think about the mentors of your life. Who do you know, or who did you know who helped make you the person you are today? Who taught you how to be yourself? Who had your back when no one else did and always wanted the best for you? Who pushed you to dare greatly? Think about those people and be happy. Not everyone has such role models. If I would wish for one thing in my life it is that I could mean as much to anybody as Ousmane and Dencho meant to me. 



Wednesday, May 12, 2021

What Really Matters in Life?


 


Seneca once said: “It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.” Make the most of your days, because none of us knows which day will be our last one. To this point, life has proven to be fatal, with death perhaps being the only certainty any of us ever have in a life full of uncertainty. Should we find ourselves fortunate enough to die peacefully at an old age, what sort of life do you want to remember as you sit back and reflect on your existence? Really, sit and think about it. Think about your final days, as you prepare to leave this world and enter the afterlife, enter paradise, become reincarnated, or simply cease to be, depending on your belief. What do you want to have accomplished? What things can you do that will make you proud of the life you lived. 

For me some of the things that first come to mind are that I would like to learn a foreign language or two. I would like to travel extensively and meet many interesting people, and see beautiful places. I would like to win a major athletic competition, maybe even learn to fly a plane. These are fun things and I am sure a lot of us can come up with a plethora of skills we want to learn, places we want to go, or hobbies to try. Essentially these are all just check marks on a bucket list that we want to try before our time expires. 

Are these any of these truly meaningful? They are certainly fun and will give us a good time while we spend our existence here. But to what extent do they actually going to matter? Would you be sad if you sat on your deathbed because you never did go to flight school and learn to become a pilot? Maybe. But what if your reason for skipping flight school was because it required too much time and so instead you spent it as an assistant coach for your daughter’s swimming team, an experience that brought the two of you close together and was a tremendous bonding experience. Are you going to lament that you never learned to speak Mandarin? Maybe, but what if the reason you missed it was because the only available course was at night and on those nights you wanted instead to be home for a family dinner to talk to your wife about her day, and be involved in the lives of your children. Sure, it would have been cool to learn Mandarin and maybe visit China a few times, ordering a meal or giving directions in the native tongue. But would it have been worth the loss of time with your family? 

These are all just hypotheticals but the reason I believe them up is to demonstrate that the types of achievements I listed above are really just hobbies, pass-times, or extraneous activities. They bring us joy and introduce pleasure and excitement into our lives. They are fun and enjoyable ways to spend our time on earth. If you have the time and the ability to pursue such passions then by all means, go for it. To me however they are not the ultimate source of happiness nor do they determine our meaning or give purpose to our existence. What really gives meaning and purpose to our lives I think are virtues such as kindness, love, compassion, and empathy. To live with these virtues is to establish meaningful relationships with other living beings. To embody these virtues is to ease the suffering of others, creating greater happiness in their lives. To live this way creates a ripple of positivity that will outlast our time on earth as those to whom we show kindness to will likely go on to live their lives in such ways themselves. 

To live with such virtues is by no means mutually exclusive of having hobbies, of enjoying simple pleasures in life, or simply learning new skills. But the latter examples only give excitement and pleasure to our existence, without necessarily giving meaning. You may desire build a successful business. Suppose you are successful and you found a company that grows and grows, building more revenue, hiring thousands of employees, with offices all across the world. That company is so strong it will last for generations. Yes this is something that you can be proud of and something that people will remember you by. Ultimately it does not define you as a person. The real value in your life would come from how you treated your customers and your employees. Whether you treated people with kindness, whether you were trustworthy and honest. That is the true legacy that you leave behind to the world. 

Or you could be a world traveler. Maybe you visited over 100 countries in your life time and have thousands of good stories to tell. Yes that is fascinating and you would make for great company at a dinner party, but would it truly make your life meaningful. What if you were lonely for the entirety of your travels, never able to make true and lasting friendships because of the transient nature of your lifestyle, would it be worth it. 

To reiterate, none of this is to say that you can’t live a life of kindness, compassion, love, and happiness unless you sacrifice hobbies, projects, learning opportunities and more. These things greatly enrich our lives. But do not spend your whole life learning a new craft and becoming the best at something if it means you are neglecting the opportunity to spread happiness and joy, to connect with others and live harmoniously. I am not telling you that there is a right way or a wrong way to live, just something to think about as you contemplate the type of life you want to live. For me, the best life would be one filled with love, friendship, and service of others, while also taking time to work on things that interest and excite me like travel, history, sports and more. Think about it, and try to see what sort of life you want to live, such that when your last day approaches you can greet it welcomingly and without regret. Remember the words of Seneca, it isn’t that we don’t have enough time on this earth to do something meaningful, its just that we waste so much time. Get busy living the life you want. What matters most is not what we do but how we live. What matters is that you live well, treating others with love, courtesy, kindness, and warmth, which in terms creates a ripple of positivity that will become your legacy. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Avoiding Anger through Compassion, Patience and Strength



 I begin today with another meditation from the Dalai Lama. This one is a way to deal with anger, the topic I want to discuss in this post. The meditation practice is as follows:

“Let us imagine a scenario in which someone who you know very well, someone who is close or dear to you, is in a situation in which he or she loses his or her temper. You can imagine this occurring either in a very acrimonious relationship or in a situation in which something personally upsetting is happening. The person is so angry that he or she has lost all his or her mental composure, creating very negative vibrations, even going to the extent of beating himself or herself up or breaking things. “Then, reflect upon the immediate effects of the person’s rage. You’ll see a physical transformation happening to that person. This person whom you feel close to, whom you like, the very sight of whom gave you pleasure in the past, now turns into this ugly person, even physically speaking.”

What the Dalai Lama asks us to do next is to visualize ourselves as that person. Remember a time in our life when be became irrationally angry, so angry that we behaved in a way that we were embarrassed. Every person has done this. It is so much easier for us to see the ridiculousness of such fits of anger when it happens to someone else, especially someone close to us. We have all acted this way and we need to be mindful of the fact that this is what it looks like when you let rage take over. I did this practice on myself when I first read it and I blushed in embarrassment, thinking how easy it was to avoid a friend or loved in in such a state, only to realize I have behaved similarly more times than I can count. 

The Dalai Lama’s suggestion for getting past this sort of anger is to practice patience and compassion. Think back to Jefferson’s rules for life, where he urged us to first count to ten when angry, and if we were still angry to count to 100. The whole intent here is that time allows us to act rationally rather than emotionally. Most of the instances of losing our tempers is because we have exaggerated emotional reactions to situations that are often overblown. Think back to an example in your own life when you allowed yourself to have an emotional reaction and lost control. In hindsight you may have realized that your whole basis for anger was a misunderstanding, that you had an emotional reaction to something you misunderstood. By practicing patience in such situations we can avoid blowing them out of proportion into negative events.  We don’t just want to practice patience with ourselves but also with others. Be patient with your fellow humans, as we are all trying to live our life with as much happiness and little suffering as possible. Understand that we are all on this journey together and that it is a struggle, don’t expect perfection from others. This leads into compassion.

Feeling compassion for others helps us avoid damaging anger. If someone offends you, consider exactly what it is you are upset about. First of all, remember that much of our suffering only exists because we perceive ourselves to suffer or to be wronged, but that events are objective. If someone harms you or insults you, practice compassion for that person, maybe they were having a bad day, maybe they had a traumatic experience in their youth that influenced their actions to you. Does this excuse being unkind or harming others? No, but it can help explain it. By thinking deeply about the suffering of others, you may find it more difficult to be roused to anger by others.

Remember that anger is harmful to us. Studies have shown that people who harbor resentment, hold grudges, and constantly lose their temper are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, heart issues, and suffer earlier deaths. There is a prevailing notion in Western culture that certain levels of anger are not just normal but valued. We tend to promote instances of anger and outrage as examples of manliness, of toughness, and of confidence. In Eastern cultures this isn’t the case, as anger is seen instead as a sign of weakness, of a lack of self-control, and indicatory of selfishness. In Stoicism too they would have considered anger to be a lack of mental power, of the inability to maintain control of one’s power of reason. Getting angry and breaking things, hurting people, or making a scene isn’t manly and it isn’t strength, it is the absence of strength. Having control over your anger, or better yet, building the compassion and patience to avoid anger altogether, that is strength. By arriving at this state you have mastered control over yourself  and will project kindness and compassion for others instead of animosity and conflict.

 

Sunday, May 9, 2021

In Honor of Mother's Day


 


Everyone has a mom, somebody who carries us and gives birth to us, but not everyone has a mother, a woman who nurtures us, cares for us, loves us, and raises us to be a good human. Today, May 9, is Mother’s Day in the United States, a day when those of us who are lucky enough to have a mother honor and appreciate the impact of our mothers. A mother doesn’t have to be a biological relative, it can be any woman who is a strong female presence in our lives. I am one of those lucky enough to have a mother, who also happens to be my mom, the woman who carried me and birthed me, an experience that nearly killed us both, and raised me, an experience that probably led to her first gray hair. This post is an appreciation of my mother and all mothers in the world, for all that they do. 

I am not writing this only because I know that my mother will see this, being one of my few if not only dedicated readers. I am writing this because my mother’s impact on my life deserves to be stated and declared, though she would never ask for it. My mother was an elite level distance runner, with a Georgia state record in the marathon and perhaps a shot at international level competitions. The day after she found out she was pregnant with me she went for a walk instead of her usual run, because at that time it was thought that running while pregnant was bad for a child’s health. Not even born and my mother was making sacrifices for me. 

Among the earliest feelings I can recall in my time on this earth are of affection for my mother. She made me feel safe and secure when the world seemed scary and dangerous, and I felt my best around her. I can recall driving past a cemetery one day and asking her about death. The concept was frightening especially as to me the impression was that you just have to hang out in your coffin and sit there for all eternity. I told my mom that when it was my turn to die and be buried I wanted to be buried in her coffin so that we could spend forever together, that way it wouldn’t be so bad.  


Throughout childhood she pushed me hard in sports and academics, a push that I often didn’t want or didn’t appreciate. From her it wasn’t anger, maliciousness, or that I wasn’t good enough, it was that she saw the best in me even when I didn’t see it in myself. At times I would feel let down having not done well enough, but what hurt the most in those moments wasn’t her words but my own realization that she was often right, that I hadn’t done my best. Do do your best at anything is a form of vulnerability. To do your very best and still fall short of your goal means you have truly failed and that that failure is seen. Not doing my best at anything was sometimes my way of hiding, of avoiding vulnerability. To fall short of the goal having not done my best was a way of security, being able to remind myself silently that I didn’t truly fail because I never did try. My mother was one of the people who saw the best in me and dared me to be courageous enough to actually try my best at anything, something that I still work at, but believe I am capable of thanks to her. 


I could write a whole book about what she means to me but I will instead add just one more anecdotal story. The setting was that I had returned home to visit her during the fourth of July holiday,  several months after having started my first job after my graduate school education. I was working as part of a Collegiate Athletic program in Miami. Without going into too much detail, it was nothing like what I thought it would be and I found myself depressed in an unrewarding work environment and lonely in a place where I knew nobody and lacked the time to make social connections. I lamented my despair to my mom, that same feeling of comfort and security still being intact 25 years after my birth, and I broke down into tears as I described the feeling that I would soon have to go back down to Miami, to the place where I was miserable. By the time I had landed I had no less than 25 different job applications emailed to my inbox, every single one of them from my mother, who had clearly spent hours researching jobs I would enjoy in locations that would bring me comfort, all to help me feel better. I ended up taking one of those jobs which brought me to Atlanta, a place that feels like home and where I have begun to make my life. All thanks to her dedication to me. 

I have always loved and appreciated my mother, and what she has meant to my life. That feeling only intensifies as I grow older and realize how lucky I am. There were times where we butted heads sometimes because we saw things completely differently, at others because we were so exactly the same that the presence of two such individuals could only end in an explosion. This is only natural and I wouldn’t trade her for the world. My experience in life has shown me just how fortunate I am to have a mother, a strong and nurturing female presence that doesn’t hinge on blood-relation, and not just a mother but my mother. I see those who lack such a presence and my heart aches for them. It fills me with gratitude that I have the mother I have, and while I may only remember to say it today on mother’s day, she should know that I feel this way every day. She has always put me first and is a huge part of the reason why I live the happy life that I live today.