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.

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.

Endurance

If you are a breathing, sentient adult-type person, life will occasionally whoop your ass. I don’t swear in print often, but when I do, please know it’s not for extravagant effect; it’s because no other word will suffice. We all get our asses kicked, by situations within or outside of our control, by events, by illness, by the death of loved ones, by financial stress, by whatever Life with a capital L decides to throw at us. I don’t care if the Good Luck Charm o’ Life has been hanging around you like a happy monkey of joy feels, there will come a time when that charm gets ripped off your neck. Not my usual lighthearted introduction, I know, but take heart: there’s a reason for this.

One of the most harmful phrases in the human language is “I should.” I should be doing this thing, feeling that thing, living that life, having these types of people around me, and so on. The only “I should” that we should be should-ing is “I should be giving myself permission to be a human person.” My heart breaks and then heals again on a pretty regular basis, but never moreso than when someone I love is hanging around in the land of “I Should” or the flipside, “I should not.” It’s not that I don’t think we need to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, it’s that we deserve to treat ourselves with at least the same attempt to understand that we treat others. For example, after a fantastic conversation with one of my favorite people today, I was struck with how my perception of him is so vastly different from his perception of himself. I see him as powerful, awe-inspiring, brilliant, loving, passionate – he sees none of these qualities in himself.

I hate it that I’m reminded of an internet quotespiration at this moment, but here it is anyway: I wish we could see ourselves the way others see us. Self-concept gets distorted over time, particularly in times of stress, when we’re most likely to isolate ourselves at a time when we would least benefit from doing so. Stress, my good friends, is no stranger to any of us. In fact, with each passing year of my life, I am increasingly convinced that the Bogeyman living under the bed and hiding in the closet, lurking around the finish line of every goal we achieve, every obstacle we overcome, is Stress. My stress looks different from your stress, but it’s still an ugly beast. Do we tame it? Do we fight it? Do we ignore it? I don’t know about the last one; ignoring stress is rather like pretending that everything’s okay when it isn’t. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires. Just saying.

Back to my lovely conversation and “I should.” My favorite person felt like he should be climbing his mountain of stressors more victoriously, a Rocky Balboa of life endurance. With all due respect, no. Absolutely not. When life has broken out a can of whoop ass so severe that there are no lemons to make lemonade with because the lemons have rotted, what do you do then? Some people pray, some meditate, some gather their loved ones around, and that’s all great, but in the quest to climb that particular mountain, sometimes the mountain itself is too high. What then?

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe. Having faith that everything will all work out with cookies and back slaps for all is too high an aspiration for the types of life-altering stress that I’m referring to. Instead, step, breathe, step, breathe. There’s a rhythm in that, a cadence. In a quote usually attributed to Martin Luther King, the phrasing goes, “If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But keep going.” My friend was ruminating on how to overcome all these stressors, and was looking for faith in the fact that the answer would be found. It would be vapid for me to suggest that of course he’ll find the answer, even when the question itself is elusive.

I suggest most humbly, most excruciatingly, lovingly humbly, that this wasn’t the question he was trying to answer. The question, as I see it, is “Is all this trouble worth it? Am I worth it?” I happen to have the answer to that. You are emphatically worth it. You are essential, necessary. I have faith that there is a time where you will see yourself the way I see you. Until then, breathe and step; breathe and step.

Self-Reflection and the Allegory of the Cave

I picture self-awareness as a series of funhouse mirrors, in which the perception of self is distorted by our experiences and what we like to think of as knowledge. The goal of self-awareness, then, might be to choose the mirror of self-reflection wisely. Way back in long, long ago time, I took a philosophy class in which we read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. His theory was that knowledge gained through the senses is no more than opinion (thanks, web person Amy on Philosophyser, for your lovely summary). I thought the cave allegory was abundantly cool, and also abundantly scary. I think I know a thing, but I don’t really know it. As time has passed, I am reminded daily of how true that is.

In addition to being a kind of self-reflective human person anyway, I was recently obliged to complete a self-evaluation for my job. For someone who finds giving myself an A+ and a smiley face on anything difficult, this is a painful process. It’s not that I don’t think I have exemplary skills in a certain category, it’s that I know there is always room for me to do better, to be better, to learn more, and to share more. For me to suggest to my peer evaluator that I’m super stupendous awesome is an untruth. The only thing I can claim to be super stupendous awesome at is in being willing to improve. Anything we’re passionate about is both the greatest source of joy and its greatest pain. I am a practitioner who will never perfect my craft. I’m not sure that perfection is the correct goal anyway, just innovation. Oh, yeah, only that.

Of course, I know the paperwork process of self-reflection. I use evidence to support why I check a certain thing, swear internally, and then choose a particular skill to focus on for improvement. Since I can’t choose “everything” (there’s no box for that), I choose my area of personal primary concern and detail what I would do to improve upon that. It was then that I remembered the Allegory of the Cave, all the Marianne Williamson books I’ve ever read, and my tendency to laugh at myself. I am not afraid of my inadequacy, but if I am powerful beyond measure, I haven’t been using my cajones very productively. Or, if I have, I was looking at a reflection in the cave, and not at its reality.

My aunt used to refer to certain outfits she wore as a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. I tend to think of self-reflection in the same way. I’m a human: flawed, biased, abundantly excited about, oh, pretty much everything, and always willing to learn. How this translates into my daily life remains a happy mystery. I just cover the bases of perception, remembering that the energy I toss out impacts other people, and that they react to that.

People are wonderfully complicated, and yet we’re essentially just carbon-based life forms (thank you Star Trek for that). Yep, I’m alluding to fashion, science fiction, other bloggers, and the Allegory of the Cave all in a few hundred words. These are not mutually exclusive. They all just serve to remind me that, no matter how well I know myself, and regardless of how I actually performed on the day of my observation, I am a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. I wore my favorite Friday outfit (fashion), included music and metacognition (sublime), and told really bad jokes (ridiculous). All things considered, that’s not bad for a day in the life of human person perceiving myself using only the senses and reasoning to guide the way.

 

What I’ve learned about the aging process so far

  1. You are not brave if you go grey, you are smart. Rather than hide behind the apron of your hair colorist or the aisles of hair color in a box at the store, step boldly into the light, my aging friend, and let that silvery, opalescent, salt-and-pepper glory sparkle in the sunshine. Yes, you have to switch up or opt out of certain makeup products because they clash with silvery goodness, but that is your reward for being on this planet for a certain amount of time, not a punishment. I am reminded about a cosmetics commercial that tells me to defy my age, but I’d rather defy the notion that I have to look like I’m 20. I love 20-year-old people, but I don’t want to be stuck in some time warp and pretend to fit in.
  2. Humility is a great quality and aging teaches a good bit of that. You can think you are the fanciest, most knowledgeable, awesome person on the planet, but eventually you realize there will always be someone more superlative than you. Maybe you mask that behind braggadocio, or maybe that causes you to live in fear of being discovered for the human that you actually are. Either way, eventually you start toning that down a bit and understanding that the more you know, the more you don’t know, ya know? I may or may not be an expert in my field, but there is always, always room for improvement. The same is true for everyone, so I’m not sharing any epiphany, just a reminder.
  3. Aches and pains. I won’t bore you with the details of my age-related creaks and rust if you don’t bore me with the details of yours. Aging causes certain body systems to run less efficiently, which is why that whole eating right and exercising gig kicks us in the behind as we age. We realize it’s true with a capital T and how come I ate all those cookies instead of fruits and veggies in my wild, wild youth. We actually start paying attention to what we ingest and whether we spend time in the sun unprotected. Life is real, and the aging process is about the truest reminder that we’re mortal.
  4. We’re mortal. You aren’t likely to get bitten by a vampire or a radioactive spider (sorry), so grappling with our own mortality is a tricky prospect. I am going to avoid talking about loved ones dying, but I will tell you on any given day, someone dies, someone is born, people grieve, and people rejoice; sometimes one person goes through all these things in the same day. Just in case you haven’t already received the memo, life isn’t easy. It’s messy and complicated. What we decide to make of it is what determines who we are. There is choice in this, my friends: sometimes I live life fullest by lying down on the couch and taking a nap; sometimes I’m the one leading the charge; more often, I’m the one standing behind the scenes making sure everyone else has enough snacks and beverages.
  5. Nobody has time for hate. I realize I am posting this after the horror in Paris yesterday, and after the horror of other yesterdays before that. Aging has taught me that a) because I am mortal and b) because so is everyone else, we don’t have a whole lot of time to get messed up in hate. We’re only here for a blip of time. There’s one of me and seven-odd billion of everyone else. I don’t have time for hate, and neither does anyone else.
  6. Dance. Laugh. Make love. Sing too loud and talk too much. Stay out late or go to bed early because you can. Read a book. Write a book. Use the book as a high chair. Getting older has taught me that it is absolutely fine to be me. Maybe I could have learned that lesson in my 20s, but I doubt it.
  7. I love being my age. I am not defiant about being me, not trying to convince anyone of anything. Well, except that kindness matters. There is freedom in understanding that I messed up some choices and I made some good choices too. I hope that I’m still sassy and opinionated at 90 so I can laugh at my 51-year-old self and how silly I was. Today is full of promise and I’m glad to be here.
  8. We all matter. We spend too much time worrying about inconsequential things when we could focus on what’s actually important. What does matter? We do, no matter our age, no matter our belief set, gender, etc. We matter, and we could do well to live as such.

 

 

Doing It Anyway

Much of life consists of defiance: rather than take that nap, a toddler plays – and falls asleep, usually on top of the Legos, leaving that telltale sign of product placement, forgive the pun. The child who feels the oppression of rules, skips out of the house at midnight – and either gets away with it temporarily, or falls face-first onto the ground. The adults who open their own business do so in the face of statistics that indicate it’s probably not a good idea right now to invest money in a small business. They do it anyway. Rather than a discussion about choices and negative consequences, this is an acknowledgement that much of what is good about our lives as adults is what we do in spite of the odds.

My perspective is admittedly skewed, because as a basically law-abiding human person, I don’t really consider drugs or Ashley Madison accounts or theft as reasonable ways to spend my time — not because of some high and mighty belief set, but because I don’t like the idea of hurting myself or others. Kind of a simple life philosophy, but it works for me.

What I’m thinking about are the chances we take even when we don’t have the world’s greatest evidence that the chances will work out well. I married a guy, even though the odds were 50/50 at best that we’d get divorced. I married him anyway and smushily and embarrassingly love him all the more now that we’ve got some bumps and bruises from living life together. I switched careers at a time when the education profession had a surplus of teachers. I did it anyway, and have been happily engaging in that learning and teaching cycle for 13ish years.

I wanted to write more often and realized this morning as I was huffing it out at the gympeople place that my contributions to the internet have dwindled from twice a week, to once a week, to once a month kinda. Part of the reason had to do with my basic couch potato tendencies; mostly it had to do with self-doubt. Self-doubt is nothing more than stopping myself from doing something I love. I notice that I miss my time spent with imaginary friends around a philosophical roundtable, and that I’ve been denying myself a place at that table simply because my id and ego have been battling it out lately. Since I’m the boss of my prefrontal cortex, I’m writing anyway.

 

 

Everything I am Not

I am back from an extended blogging break in which I did a whole bunch of nothing that felt like everything to me. I still measure out my life in school years and now that mine is back in session I can write again. During my summer, I had one goal: to determine what I wanted from this school year. In an earlier blog, I wrote about why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions – in short, it’s because I start a new year every day. (See the February archives. I’d link that for you, but I don’t know how.) That doesn’t stop me from planning ahead — I just tend to do the planning right around the start of a school year. This falls, by happy coincidence, right about the same time as my birthday.

I love my birthday: I treat each anniversary of my arrival on the planet with an exclamation point. I am 20! 30! 40! 50! I do not defy my age, nor do I care whether people know how old I am. I chortle, somewhat snarkily I admit, at my friends who treat the aging process like the enemy. I have no doubt that time is chipping away at my essence. I see proof of that in the laugh lines around my eyes and my sparkly, silver hair. But I also see great value in aging, beyond the obvious fact that my aging means that I am still here to think about how old I am.

I may be 51 now, but I’m quite literally a miniblip in the solar system’s timeline. Rather than being depressed by this notion of my own insignificance, I take heart in it. I am astounded with the contributions to humanity that people make. I might like to be as dedicated to my profession as Jane Goodall or as brilliant as Oliver Sacks (I had a serious fangirl crush on him, rest in peace) – but the reality is that I am not. I haven’t dedicated my life to the sole pursuit of my profession, even though it’s one I love. I am not an innovator or a visionary, unless you call my near-perfect ability to intuit when someone needs a hug or a cookie as remarkable.

I am not ultra-anything. Because I fit so many norms I haven’t had to struggle with being outside of them, but that is not the point, either. The point is that, in pondering everything I am not, I always arrive at the same place of who and what I am. I am a superninjawonderwoman at being myself. I am pretty geeked about the process of knowing, of understanding, and of sharing that understanding. Of course, my understanding changes, which is why I like getting older. I was absolutely certain when I was 20 that I was going to be living in Europe at 50. I am not living in Europe and I am grateful that life took me in this direction – or that I took myself here. I am the embodiment of all the good and poor choices I’ve made, a walking, talking map of what happens when you love these certain people and live in these places and take vacations here and read these books, and have these conversations, and so on. That’s what makes me remarkable. To allude to Voltaire poorly, I tend to my little garden and I am grateful to be able to do so.

For this next school year, I plan to laugh often, learn more, be kind, and drink more water. I wish I wanted to become more tech-savvy; I always hope for that, but I don’t actually mean it or I would be able to link between this blog and February, 2015 (ahem). I hope that when I turn 52, I will look at all the predictions and hopes I had at 51 and smile at how far off course I managed to get before making it back to the place where everything I am made a difference to the people I care about most. I hope the same for you.

 

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