Seeing yourself through a different filter

A popular quotespirational phrase that people pass on to their daughters and loved ones goes something like this: “If you could see yourself through my eyes, you would know how special you are to me.” My first question is and always has been, why not our sons? Don’t they deserve to know how we see them? My second thought is that, while the sentiment is lovely, it’s still a little selfish. As in, you’re special to me … but you might not be special to that guy over there and definitely not to that other person over there. Wrong. Nope. Nuh-huh. Plain and simple, I will correct the other phrase for you and remind you of this simple fact: you are special.

You are present, powerful, awe-inspiring because you are you. Maybe you got distracted and forgot to pay attention to yourself. The other day you were quick to point out that you couldn’t bench press 200 pounds like some other person, totally ignoring the fact that your current bench press is up 20 pounds from when you first started. Another you was saddened by the fact that someone else got to be the keynote speaker at the event, while you got passed over; you didn’t know that this person has been trying for six years, while you’ve only tried this once. Give it time. Another you is jealous of how easy another person has it – they’re brilliant, stylish, popular, and you feel invisible. Do you see yourself? Or are you too busy looking at someone else?

Here’s the thing: I see you. I see you try, and I see you try again, and I see you smile, and I see you when you’re angry and frustrated. I’m not Santa Claus or the Ghost of Christmas stalker-land, I’m just reminding you that you’re pretty cool. No, I haven’t been watching too many Barney shows (is he even on TV anymore?) and singing “You are special” until my brain has become anesthetized; I just see how conflicted we are this time of year. Do we give a gift to the friend who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, do we share goodies, bake them/buy them, and oh my gosh can you believe that Suzee is going to France over the winter break? She’s so lucky.

That’s where we get off track. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to these other, more wondrously awesome-seeming people because we don’t know their whole context. We can’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (as a way to understand them) when we can barely make it a mile in our own shoes without taking a break to regroup. Like anyone, I tend to get distracted by what everyone else is doing, or at least what it seems like they’re doing, I lose focus on my own goals, my own sense of purpose, my commitment to myself and the people I love, and for what? So that I can compare myself to an idealized version of someone else? That’s not the recipe for contentment and well-being; that leads to envy over someone else’s presumed situation.

So, especially this time of year, please take a moment to look at yourself the way you would look at someone else you love. Do it often enough and you might even become a little more focused on all that is you, and less focused on whatever all those other people of awesomeness are doing. You have your own awesomeness to nurture.

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Look for the Helpers

Fred Rogers of the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood show from yesteryear, once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s an understatement to say that the news has been a wee bit scary this year, and particularly recently. I am certain that on other elections people have been where I was on November 9, staring stunned and horrified into my coffee. I don’t like that feeling.

I’m left with the question: What did America just do? This election has been like when a party breaks up too late and friends are left passed out on the sofa when the parents come home. We were only playing, we didn’t mean to do anything wrong, we’d apologize. Sorry we messed up the house.

But we’re the parents now, and our house has been messed up for a while. When we don’t take steps to understand each other, isolation and fear ensue. This is not a leap of logic, this is basic kindergarten manners. Go make friends with the new kid, my grandmother would tell me, they look like they could use someone to talk to.

I love my country and I know we can behave better than this. One of the aspects of my nation that I took for granted until recently was its can-do spirit, its celebration of the underdog who rises to the top. Ask anyone who saw the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908. In this election, though, there was no underdog, just candidates slinging mud that got splattered all on America’s face and there’s no one to wipe up the mess for us. That can-do spirit has taken a beating.

“This isn’t my mess, I didn’t do this,” I hear people saying. No, this isn’t any one person’s doing, but this is definitely a mess. We all live here, so we’ve got some work to do. If we are going to move forward we’re going to have to remember that it might not feel like it right now, but that America is a beautiful nation full of potential. We’re going to need to bridge the gap between what we have been doing and what we could be doing. However anyone voted in this election, and remember we have the right to disagree, we don’t have the right to hurt each other. To remix Mr. Rogers’ quote, there have indeed been scary things in the news, so we need to look for the helpers.

In fact, rather than looking for helpers, we need to be the helpers.

Just Checking In

In my previous post I mentioned that the death of a friend sent me into a bit of a mental fog so I needed to follow my routine in order to get myself through the grieving process. It has helped, and going to the funeral allowed me to celebrate her and thank the universe that she was in my life. The church was full – as in, standing room only. This was a quiet person who habitually checked in to see how people were doing. She wasn’t obtrusive, didn’t need to be the center of attention; she just cared about other people – and she let them know.

She called me once a year, usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to find out about the kids and tell me she loved me. She didn’t believe in social media, preferring a phone call or sitting around a coffee shop talking face to face to a post on a website. She made a difference by working hard and being kind.

In fact, she so fervently believed in working hard that, for reasons that are still unclear to me, she had me washing walls one day in the classroom we both served in. She told me there was nothing that a good bleaching couldn’t get rid of (this was in the days before we knew bleach was a problem) and that the classroom needed a good cleaning. She was also the boss of me in personality if not officially, so I swallowed my snark and got busy. While we washed walls, we chatted about the students, our own kids, the teacher we worked for and adored. When I left that classroom to teach in my own, she reminded me to keep the classrooms clean and bright. I know she meant that both metaphorically and literally. I have not washed walls since then, but I do believe in the joy of shared effort.

I looked forward to those annual calls, whether we’d seen each other the previous week or not for a few months. Sometimes I even called her first, but not often enough. “I love you, keep working hard,” she’d say before she hung up.

I love you too, my friend. I will.

Celebrate Yourself (and keep going)

My friends tease me that my catch-phrase is “I celebrate you.” I celebrate names on papers, first trips after getting a driver’s license, and winning Nobel prizes with equal amounts of congratulatory gusto. Yes, equal. I have noticed, however, that I’m doing much less external celebrating lately, and the reason is simple: I can’t celebrate for you or with you if your fervor in drawing attention to yourself far exceeds any measure of congratulations I could offer.

I’m not just talking about selfies. I think they’re fun, spiffy, and contain just the right blend of self-congratulation and attention seeking to be mildly annoying and occasionally excessive. What I am referencing is the attention seeking that validates one’s reason for the effort. Did you really just get an A in Chemistry so that I could celebrate you? I surely hope not.

I hope, for all our sakes, that our reasons for exerting extra effort don’t rely on someone else drawing attention to that effort. If you want to run a marathon, that is awesome, but your joy should come from the fact that you lived through the experience and not from the fact that I will hug your sweaty, electrolyte-depleted self and say congratulations.

People who succeed at whatever endeavor they undertake don’t attain their goals so that someone can shout hurray from the mountain tops or so that they can prove someone wrong. They may begin that way, but they succeed on blood, sweat, and grit because that journey becomes more about themselves and less about others. Their successes are mental, not public. Of course people like knowing their efforts are appreciated and will work harder in response to that recognition, but at some point don’t we have to put on the Adult Pants and celebrate our own selves without the validation from the multitudes?

I am reminded of a video clip I watched recently about a person who lost 70 pounds in her quest for a more healthy lifestyle. That’s awesome and I would hug and celebrate her if I knew her. The thing she mentioned having to come to terms with is how little people cared about her weight loss, and how sometimes people undermined her efforts or gave her negative attention for it. That made me sad at first, but then she pointed out that she began to understand that her healthy eating journey was hers. In other words, the things that are most important to you are most important to you, not necessarily anyone else.

We definitely need to do a better job of celebrating others, but we also need to do a better job of recognizing that our own efforts are ours, and not for someone else to celebrate. I am reminded of the phrase that “You have to toot your own horn.” Well, good, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else is obligated to sing along, or that you’re any less worthy if you don’t get a parade in your honor with confetti and balloon animals. It just means that we should all build some internal motivation to be a better version of ourselves each day without seeking permission or acknowledgement from others. It’s time to get out those Adult Pants, get to work on whatever thing of awesome we’re passionate about, and let the confetti fall where it may.

Brilliant Acts of Kindness

Kind people don’t get much attention. By its very nature kindness is other-focused in a way that avoids spotlights. Through the advent of social media, perhaps kind people are receiving more attention in viral videos and likes/shares, but kindness at its core doesn’t seek notice. It also doesn’t need it. Kindness goes along in its thoughtful way stopping long enough to add quality to someone else’s life. Kind people, then, are superninjas of awesome who have the strength to work magic for others without necessarily seeking anything for themselves.

I was perusing my newspaper and social media this morning and found two brilliant acts of kindness. First, a couple of retirees who love animals have created a retirement community for old cats that have been given up for adoption. I grinned as I read about how the couple built and ran their feline sanctuary. As a person with a mature cat, she’s 17 and still sassy, I gave a tip o’ the hat to their passion for caring for critters that others don’t want due to their age.

Kitty cat kindness was eclipsed by the case worker who surprised a little girl on her adoption day. The girl, a fan of Disney princesses, wore a princess costume to her adoption hearing. The case worker arranged for a host of people dressed in Disney princess attire to witness the event. Even the judge donned a Snow White costume. The viral video showed the girl waving to Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and their respective Prince Charmings, as she waited for the judge to render the court order. Once rendered, the little one skipped over to her princesses in waiting to receive their hugs and good wishes.

I am aware that people will find this a tear-jerky, naïve bit of attention paid to what else has been going on in America and around the world. However, and this is a pretty hefty however, it serves us well to be reminded that we can behave selflessly. Paying attention to those who live their lives with dignity and grace and striving to do so ourselves make sense. I don’t have a Snow White costume, and two cats is my limit, but seeing others take time from their days add value to someone else is inspiring. I’d rather be inspired to be kind than be inspired to fear. Just saying.

When I am Worried

Here are some essential truths: 1) I live in Florida. 2) I have family and friends. 3) I love my life. 4) I pay attention. These four things sometimes combine to create worry. I worry for my loved ones, climate change, equality for all people, my carbon footprint, whether the oven is on, whether I’ve locked the door. I worry for silly, mundane things and I worry for bigger, more serious issues. In light of recent events, I do not worry that our predisposition toward violence has become progressively worse over generations; I don’t think it has. Instead, I worry that our capacity to do damage unto each other has exceeded our ability to think about what we’re doing. In the good vs. evil scenario we try to place ourselves in, there are no winners and losers; there’s only devastation and heartbreak. I’ve had quite enough of that in my short lifespan. Having been raised all warm and cozy within the loving arms of my family, I realize that my experience of loss and devastation is limited. So I ask myself: what can I do about this?

Worry is a form of arrogance, I’ve read, and I agree. Who am I to think I can control anything except for myself? I can’t control the weather, unless you’re talking about the climate in my house when I’m happy, or angry, or tired. I can only control how I respond to situations, how I act, what I focus my energies on, what I pay attention to, and what I choose to do about what I experience. I am only one small, perpetually and annoyingly optimistic me who is not so blithely sitting in the midst of some pretty serious swamp muck-o-life. To paraphrase Voltaire really poorly, I tend my garden. The act of tending my garden doesn’t mean that I’m avoiding or ignoring what happens around me.

I can worry, or I can act. I choose to act every single time. My version of action isn’t yours and much of the time goes unnoticed. It is nevertheless action. I’ve already done enough laundry lists in the course of these couple paragraphs, but suffice to say my action revolves around kindness. I did some math because why not. I’m closer to 52 these days than 51, but for the sake of my calculator let’s pretend: If I’m 51 exactly, then I’ve been alive for 18,615 days, 446,760 hours, 26,805,600 minutes, and over 1.6 billion seconds (with an error code on my calculator). Many of those seconds were taken up with sleep, waiting in lines, and running errands. The good seconds were taken up with hugs and laughter, and the bad ones were taken up with pain and worry. They were all, however, imbued with my grateful presence on this planet. There’s no less flowery way to say it. I am grateful to be here every day, living with what I strive to be dignity and grace.

I don’t always have a clear-cut sense of purpose and my focus gets a little hazy in the grind of the seconds of my days, but I always come back to this: hate doesn’t work. That just creates a self-feeding system of more hate. And then still more. Indifference is like saying that we don’t care enough to even have an opinion, and whatever happens, happens. Love, though, is some pretty powerful energy. It doesn’t mean that everyone gets a hug and a cookie, but rather that taking care of each other means more than tearing each other apart. I’d kinda like to see that in the news. If we look, we will find it. Better yet, if we are the ones taking care of each other, we don’t have to look because we’ll be the ones solving problems, changing the course of our days, and making our seconds matter.