Schrödinger’s Box

Most of us, at one time or another, have reminisced about our childhood and said something similar to:  It was a simpler time “back then;”  People got along better “back then;”  Life was easier “back then;”  People were safer “back then;”  And a countless number of other “back then” memories that are, I’m sure, crystal clear for each and every one of us.  But, to slightly twist a philosophical paradigm (that many Big Bang Theory fans will likely recognize), perhaps we’re all dealing with Schrödinger’s Box.

As we get older and begin dealing with the complexities of “real life”, the memories of our youth are silently encased in a box that we pull out from time to time to reassure ourselves that “It wasn’t always ‘this way'”, and “All we have to do is get ‘it’ back to the ‘way it was’.”  Right now, that’s the song that Republicans are singing to anyone willing to listen, and one that Donald Trump is regularly shouting at the top of his lungs.  They urge you to recollect a simpler time, a safer time, a better time, and they promise that they will help our country become what it ‘used to be.”  And when they do, they say, “Everything will be okay again.”

But is this true?  Let’s first examine “The Box”.

Our memories are selective – they are often rose-colored – and they nearly always omit the actual truth of the state of the world during those times.  For example:  History assures us that the diseases and poverty and racism that our country had to deal with “back then” was significant and turbulent and often deadly.  We lived in an “Us and Them” society that segregated our population on many levels (race, gender, income) and often violently opposed any deviation from that “Norm”.  While we were living our simple lives and blissfully placing our snapshot memories into our personal “Box”, others around us were constantly being persecuted and demeaned and threatened by sections of our government and our society.

Even at my age, yes – I still have my “Box” that I pull out from time to time to remember a simpler existence and to fondly recall a less stressful time ‘for me’, but I no longer believe the false narrative that the time of my youth was the Best of Times or the Perfect Era or a desirable place that our country needs to return to.

I was a Republican for most of my adult life because of the allure of “The Box” and the constant drumbeat of Republican barkers who urged me to join the rally for a return to yesteryear.  But along with the era of Trump came the realization of Schrödinger’s Box.  And not just from Republicans, but from all political parties.  Play back ANY video tape (yes, that’s what they used to call it) from your youth, no matter how old you are, of ANY political campaign speech during that time, and ask yourself: Do they sound familiar?  Haven’t we – for decades – listened to an endless parade of politicians constantly and repeatedly promising us – the citizens of America – a Living Wage?  To get rid of corruption from government?  To provide affordable Health Care?  To ensure affordable Education?  To protect us from the enemies of Democracy?

It’s my sincere belief that Trump won the presidential election in 2016 NOT because he was the best candidate, but rather, because he was NOT an establishment politician.  I know of many who saw his racism and his white privilege point-of-view and misogyny and voted for him anyway solely because the idea of voting for Hilary Clinton was even more repellent.  To them, Hilary Clinton represented the Political Status Quo.  She represented everything we hate about our government and our political system and our country and, quite plainly, millions were simply unable to vote for ‘that’ again.

Personally, even though I truly believe Trump to be an amoral person, a racist, a habitual liar, and an overall sleaze-bag, I also truly believe that he has been good for the country.   Why?   Because he’s completely incapable of doing the normal “Politician Move” of keeping his dirty dealings and corruption behind the thick screen of secrecy that Washington has so carefully and consistently built and maintained for so long.  The mountain of faults he possesses are on display each and every day.  He constantly reminds us of “The Swamp” of current government and constantly reinforces the truth that it still solidly exists.

He reveals to the nation exactly what We – ALL of Us – do NOT want.

True, he has many slavish followers who either can’t or won’t see who he really is, but when you speak with some of these blind disciples and ask them what they really want, the answer is nearly always the same:  They want Schrödinger’s Box.  They want a simple life where their paycheck is regular and enough; they want to live in a safe neighborhood; they want a fair justice system; they want a life free of racial fear;  and most important of all, they want a better world for their children.

And, although Schrödinger’s Box is really a product of our past, perhaps the best thing we can do as a nation is to open The Box, carefully take out all of those cherished memories, and use them to build a vision for a future that we’ve truly never experienced before.  We need to clean out our government of all of the yesteryear politicians and fill those seats with dreamers.  We need to create laws that punish politicians who lie, not reward them.  We need to divorce Big Business from our political system completely because they do not have the Country’s best interest in mind.

And we need to paint visions of our future that every American can believe in: Clean air and water – happy homes – safe neighborhoods – laws and law enforcement that protect everyone equally – a living wage that allows us to actually work to live, not live to work – and a government that deserves our trust and respect and support.

Let’s all open The Box together, shall we?

 

The Weight

It is an all-too-common temptation and practice to remanufacture our personal history.  Some will add clay to their history to make it more challenging or more diverse than it actually was so that they can feel justified to speak with authority on topics of race and diversity and hardship.  Vanilla Ice felt he needed to twist the history of his youth in order to legitimize being a rapper.  In his mind, a white guy from a Caucasian-typical or even privileged background couldn’t possibly be taken seriously as a rapper in the late-80’s, early 90’s.  The truth of that perception is irrelevant; it’s how he chose to respond to that perception that eventually defined his career and – some would say – sunk it.  It didn’t help that he blatantly stole a hook-bass-line from Queen’s/Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and lied about it repeatedly on national TV.

Then, even more common is the practice of editing our history; removing clay, hiding pages, editing video from the home-movie of our life.

In my youth, my mother was my hero.  Without the presence of a father in my life (he was constantly on the road, sleeping, or otherwise ‘absent’ as he did the then-typical “Father Thing” of earning a living to feed and clothe his 9 kids.  Different story), I regularly turned to my mother for guidance on how to act, on the meaning of integrity and stalwartness, and how to handle the ever-changing challenges and pressures of my life.  During those formative years, my mother could do no wrong.  Everything she said was gospel, and every rule she set was golden.

But over the decades since, I’ve learned to view those years as they truly were, for her – and for me.

My mother was truly, in most meanings of the phrase, a single-mother.  Every single day for many years, she was left alone to deal with 9 constantly changing human-beings who regularly tested her, challenged her, demanded from her, shunned her, held her, competed for her, and – I’m certain – repeatedly overwhelmed her.  At that time, the only chink in my mother’s armor was her (perceived) periodic health issues.  Every now and then, she’d send one of us running to the local store – about 6 blocks away – to get her a candy bar because, she said, her sugar was a “…little low”.  We had no reason to doubt her.  She never looked sick or tired or without her ever-present energy.  She was “Mom”.  She said she needed a candy bar, we sprinted the one-mile round trip to get it for her, and then we went back to our normal selfish lives.

But as time passed, my memory of those times slowly began to fill-in with more details.

Most notably…

There was a cupboard that we kids rarely, if ever, opened.  It was just to the right of the stove.  When open, it contained kitchen odds-and-ends that we never needed or searched for.  There were no cups or bowls in that cupboard.  When it was open, there were no shiny or curious things there that would draw the attention or curiosity of a child.  And, in hindsight, I’m sure that this was exactly as my mother intended.

But eventually, I began to remember – to see in my mind very clearly – the top shelf of that cupboard.  There were two things on that top shelf that I’m surprised I never remembered before, or asked about when I was young.  Perhaps because they were forbidden things; things that kids don’t use, so kids don’t inquire about.

There were several bottles of liquor, and a large number of medicine bottles of varying width and height.  Remembering back, I now clearly recall that the bottles were sometimes full, but often were not; that the color of the bottles and the design of the labels on these bottles would often change.  In my child’s mind, this made no sense.  But to my adult-self, this clearly told me that these bottles were being regularly consumed and replaced.

I have no memory of watching my mother take any pills, not even an aspirin, but those pill bottles – perhaps 15 or 20 of them at any given time – were in constant motion.  Always changing places like chess pieces, always emptying and filling, regularly being replaced or joined by other pill bottles.

In her late-40s, my mother’s health problems became more known to me, and more serious.  The short version is: She had a quack doctor who regularly over-prescribed her with conflicting medicines.  These medicines were for stress and pain and to sleep and to wake-up and for symptoms caused by other medicines.  Over the course of about 15 years, my mother incrementally had pieces of her removed because of the damage caused by the alcohol and medicines.  During a visit home (from my military base and separate life), I was dumbstruck when my mom jokingly showed me how she could press a finger into her stomach and literally touch her spine because there was nothing in-between to stop it.  She made me poke her tummy to prove it.

The last 8-10 years of her life, she simply existed in a haze, never quite the mom of my youth ever again.  She still lived with her alcohol and medicines, but now, there were no kids around to hide the activity from.  Her once extremely sharp mind and wit were progressively dulled and numbed, with only occasional flashes of the mom I used to know.  I’d get periodic phone calls from her, angry, resentful, scared, paranoid, incoherent, sad, and crying.  I never knew what to say or do during those phone calls, and they nearly always concluded by her hanging up unexpectedly; sometimes in mid-sentence/rant.

At the end of her life – at 58 – she was simply a shell.  She was never a tall woman, proudly “Five-foot-minus” she used to say, but she had always been firm and strong.  Never fat, but never skinny.  But laying motionless on her couch when I last saw her, my baby sister told me she weighed only 74 lbs.   She didn’t die during that last visit; I got a call early in the morning about 2 months later.

Again, in my youth, my mother was my hero.  She was the oracle of all truth and the center of my world.  But when I got that early morning phone call in early December, I was 36 – and didn’t know how to react.  I shed no tears.  I felt no pain.  I told my wife exactly what I had been told, and then I calmly rolled over and went back to sleep.

It was almost 10 years later when her death finally hit me.  Or, more accurately, crashed over me like a tsunami.

In June of 2006, I was on my lunch-break at work.  It was (and is) my normal practice to drive my car to a spacious parking lot, open the windows (during non-Winter months), and read a book during lunch.  While reading, my phone rang.  When I looked down to see who was calling, quite suddenly… I couldn’t breathe.  It felt like a thousand pounds were pressing directly onto my chest, keeping me from taking-in air.  Panic overtook me – the fear that I might suffocate because I couldn’t breathe-in.  After what seemed like an eternity, I was able to finally gulp in air… and so I greedily took long, deep breathes for fear that the weight might return any moment.  After uncounted minutes, I eventually began consciously slowing my breathing down, but the fear of The Weight was still strongly present.  What if it came back?  Would I die?  Should I go to the Emergency Room?  What if it came back while I was driving?  The pulse in my neck and wrists were easily felt, and the whooshing sound of my blood was loud in my ears.  I would later recognize this as a panic attack, but since I’d never felt this before, it frightened me to my core.  Then, just as I felt I was getting control of my breathing, a wave of sadness washed over me that was so intense, so unexpected, that it scared me even more than not being able to breathe.  I started to cry.  Not a simple or whimpering cry.  No.  I started to ball: Mouth open, sobbing loudly, snotty-nosed, rivers flowing from my eyes, drooling, occasional hiccupping, and moans of pain escaping between breathes.  This felt like a Weight too, but of a different type.  It was as if I was releasing something that had been bottled-up in me forever and it had finally decided to erupt out of me all at the same time.  I possessed no strength or wisdom or means to make it stop.  I had to let it all flow out until it was done on its own, and that didn’t happen for nearly an hour.

There were other people in that parking lot with their books or their music or their neck pillows, sitting in that lot for the exact same reason I had originally come there for.  Part of me thought I should feel shame or embarrassment at my childish outpour – but I didn’t.  I came back to work extremely late, eyes swollen, face flushed, nose and throat raw.  Perhaps I should have felt the need to manufacture some sort of reason or lie for my tardiness, but I didn’t.  My boss saw me come in late and something in my look seemed to almost scare her.  She didn’t ask for an explanation, and I felt no need to offer one.

It wasn’t until later that night, wide awake in my bed, that I finally realized the trigger for my – episode.  It gradually became obvious that when I had looked down at my phone to check the in-coming caller’s identity, part of me had noticed the date stamped at the top of the phone’s caller ID screen.  It had said “June 5th” – my mother’s birthday – and ‘something’ in me had finally decided that it was time for me to mourn.   And I did — all at once.

I guess you could have categorized that ‘episode’ as a Panic Attack.  Technically, it would fit.  But I think it was more than that.

After that day, I began to Remember.  My memories of my youth became less and less rose-colored, especially the memories involving my mother.  I remembered the cupboard with the bottles of alcohol and pills.  I remembered the many times of hearing sobbing coming from behind my mother’s bedroom door.  I remembered a conversation my mother had with me after my father left home for good.  I knew he was leaving because she had told him to go, but she had later taken me aside to offer a different narrative, blaming my father.  She asked me if I hated her.  Of course, I had told her, “No”.  I remembered several instances of coming home from school to find her slouched in my father’s chair, ‘sleeping’, but actually unconscious.  Waking groggily when nudged, her moving quickly to her bedroom – and then later coming out as if nothing had happened and fixing dinner.

From that incident in 2006, going forward, I learned what a very common thing it is for people to remanufacture their history, whether intentionally or instinctively, as a means of survival or mental preservation.  But every day we live with that false history, a brick is added to the Weight on our chests.  And, over time, that Weight will grow until it is unbearable.  Then – either sooner or later – it will either crush us completely, or it will roll off suddenly, causing the substantial Weight of truth to come flooding back in to fill the void.

I’ve seen my mother and several of my siblings deal with emotional challenges.  Their lives were filled with panic attacks, medicinal numbing, and periods of their lives overwhelmed by fear and mired in motionless existence.  This ‘condition’ killed my mother far too soon.  It also regularly whispered into one of my sister’s ears, constantly prodding her to try to kill herself until, in 2012, she was finally successful.

I am told that it is genetic, and yes – I have heard the echoes of it occasionally in my own life.  To deny it now would be to give it more power, and I refuse to do that.  Alcohol and food and self-inflicted pain were my reaction.  One day, I will write about those echoes.

I married a woman who has experienced a lifetime of her own echoes, felt her own individual Weight, and over the years, she has told me stories of her family members who have done the same.

Are our families unique?  Or do all families have a seed – some seeds – of the same tree?  Do these seeds automatically clone themselves onto our children?  And their children? And…so on?

I’m fast approaching 60 and only now do I begin to feel a semblance of control over my own internal Self.  At my age, there are very few things that bother me or frustrate me because I’ve learned to recognize that very few things are truly within my control and that sincere recognition makes it much easier to forego ownership of the 98% of life that is outside of my control.  However, there is still one single thing that unfailingly causes me concern and anxiety and frustration, and that is the welfare and well-being of those I love: quite notably, my children.  My son and daughter are THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT beings to me on this planet, and when they hurt, I hurt.  Distance between us does nothing to lessen that hurt.

I constantly feel the Weight of self-expectation to know how to help them when they hurt… that something in my history or my experience should produce a magic answer.  Of course, this is not true, but I’m sure every loving parent feels the same Weight of responsibility.  He is my son – She is my daughter.  They always will be.  I am their parent.  I always will be.  And the knowledge that I have nothing to offer but love and time and the ability to listen and empathize is, in many ways, the worst Weight of all.

But, unlike the other Weights I have carried in my lifetime, that is one Weight I bear willingly – and eternally.

Crack the Spine

I am a logophile – a lover of words.  More specifically, I Love Books.  Physical books.

Since my earliest memory, I have loved the feel, the smell, and the weight of a real book.  They were instantly precious things to me, worthy of awe and reverence, and demanding of protection and collection.

The 21st Century logophile in me appreciates digital media and will regularly read articles, short stories, and even novels with my phone and my notepad.  But those experiences are nowhere close to the joy and satisfaction I feel when I read an actual physical book.   And, of even greater joy is the knowledge that my children possess that same gene.

Being younger, they are regular consumers of digital media – and much better at it than I am, might I add.  But I have never had to explain to them the specialness, the uniqueness, the ineffableness of a bound book.  Over the years, I have seen them mindlessly, automatically, caress and squeeze and smell and simply hold books.  We each have our favorites, some we share, but many we do not, and that’s okay.  It’s the love and joy of the art form that we share.

For most of my life, I consumed books more quickly than I could purchase them; regularly reading 10-15 books simultaneously, having them strategically placed in key places along the path of my normal routine: some in my car, at my bedside, near my regular chair in the living room, at my work, and yes – in the bathroom.  I could seamlessly pick-up where I left off in a book that I may have not touched in 2 weeks, instantly tumbling back into the emotion and mindset of my bookmark.

But, over the last 10 or-so years, I have fallen into the inverse pattern of buying more books than I regularly read; a rabbit hole that is, I have found, extremely common amongst aging logophiles.   Life’s demands insidiously sneak up on us and incrementally, imperceptibly consume us – our time – until the stack of unread books grows so high that they tumble over on their own.  Then comes the internal promises and pledges of reading more, or – almost heretically – buying less.

In the first half of my life, I always found the idea of a library filled with unread books as pompous and artificial.  These are obviously people who buy books and fill their shelves with un-cracked spines as a means to appear well-read and intelligent.  But life has finally taught me that some of these virgin libraries are perhaps people who, like me, have allowed life’s rushing river to push them away from the true course.

So, as of now, it is time again for me to begin cracking spines, smelling pages, and consuming paper.

Onward.

Life Balance

For most of my life, people I considered wiser than me kept coaching me to find “Life Balance”.  This advice was regularly being offered by well-meaning family, friends and mentors who knew me well enough to know that I’m the type of person who throws myself completely into things, whether it be work, hobbies, or whatever.  Through our discussions, I took “Life Balance” to mean a fair and clear separation between my personal life and my work life.  They obviously felt (feel?) that work and non-work time should not intrude on each other, and that such an intrusion somehow diminishes the quality of each…or both.

But wait!  These same people would also espouse the belief that “You should try to find a job that brings you joy.”

In my lifetime, I’ve definitely done my fair share of jobs that I disliked simply as a means of paying the bills and being “The Provider” for the family — my Duty.  Whether it was my military work, telemarketing, shoe salesman, cleaning warehouses, street repair, dishwasher-busboy-cook, dispatcher, and many others, none of these jobs were Dream Job.  They did, however, allow me to feed my family, keep a roof over our heads, and so on.   But did any of these jobs cause or contribute to a Life Imbalance?  Did they somehow detract from my personal life?

The short answer is – Yes AND No.

In my youth, for many years, I waited for a father who rarely came home. He was constantly on-the-road, a short- and long-haul truck driver, earning a living to put a roof over our heads and regularly feed a family of eleven (12, if you include the dog).  However, later conversations with my father revealed that although he hated that “cost” of his job, he also loved the work.  He was a creature of The Road.  He thoroughly enjoyed driving, seeing the countryside, his CB conversations with his often faceless friends, and all of the challenges that came with this job (including the dangers of driving as a scab during Teamster strikes).  To this day, he feels he had life balance and that he was a terrific dad. He enjoyed his job AND his duty as a father, husband and provider.  He wasn’t the one-on-one “Let’s go outside and throw the ball around, son” kind of father; definitely not his natural tendency. He was a “Provider Dad”, and in the the context of keep his significant brood clothed and fed, I have to admit he was successful.

My parents got divorced in my teens, and I spent my teens, 20’s and 30’s pissed-off at my father for being a crappy Dad, vowing that I would do better. I would be more than just a Provider Dad.

So, in short >> My father felt he had Life Balance, and most of his children felt he did not.

But is it that simple?

As parents, there is this overwhelming internal drive to sacrifice anything and everything we have, including much of who we are (if necessary), in order to provide for our children.  The children eat before we do.  Parents sometimes go hungry.  Parents wear the same cloths for many years so that their kids have new (newer) clothes.  We want to give our children a life that is better than the one we had, and in today’s America, that regularly involves prioritizing our children’s needs and wants far above and ahead of our own, including above our own health and well-being.  Parent’s backs begin to bow slightly, they feel older than they really are, they reminisce about the dreams they used to have – daily choosing to kick those dreams further down the road in order to provide for their children.

I’ve heard it called a Mid-Life Crisis when fathers buy that sports car at 50, or when parents wear clothes that are perceived as “Too young” for them.  How about the skills they had in their youth — artist, musician, mechanic, athlete, etc. — that aren’t realized until AFTER the children are out of the house?

Of course, these sacrifices and black & white choices are not the scenario for all American parents, but I feel safe to say that it’s definitely the road for most.  But do these families lack Life Balance?

Yes, I still bring my work home, whether it’s in the form of doing work on my laptop over the weekend, or simply daydreaming in the evening about the current work challenge as I chew my dinner (supper?).  Yes, these days there seems to be a clearer separation between my Work Life and my Home Life, but does that mean that I have a better Life Balance than I did when I was younger and the kids were still home?

I want to offer advice to my 2 children – each now married with lives of their own – but I struggle with telling them emphatically that work detracts from Life Balance.  Yes, I do believe that work CAN detract from home life quality — I would’ve much “preferred” that my dad was home every night, throwing the ball around with me, teaching me and laughing with me and being the TV dad I thought he was supposed to be.  But for him, Life Balance required him to make a large number of personal sacrifices, including those father/son interactions, in favor of ensuring I had clothes on my back and food in my stomach (the same goes for my mother and 8 siblings… and don’t forget our dog).

In his mind (still), he had Life Balance back then.   In my mind (then), he did not.  In my mind (now), I’m starting to see things differently.

This story doesn’t have a clear-cut, black & white solution.  There’s no solid and definitive answer or definition for Life Balance.  There are costs – sometimes overwhelming costs – to being a parent.  It cost my mother her life.  She died in her late-50’s from the stress of providing Life Balance for her children, while my dad will soon be celebrating his 85th birthday.

Life Balance is – by definition – an extremely selfish thing, but from my experience, there’s nothing selfish about it at all.  It’s a Perception Thing.  It’s a Fluid Thing – constantly changing.   I’m sure my kids had opinions about it when they were younger, and I’m equally certain that their opinions have changed (even slightly) over time.

Hmm.  Something to meditate on, I think.

Just Begin… Again

There is never (and I DO mean NEVER!) an uninterrupted path to a goal.  Along the way, there will always be false starts, failures, obstacles, justifications, pain, weakness, mistakes, ego, shifts in priorities, selfishness (or lack, thereof), poor judgment, insufficient skill, injuries, temporary personal limits, lack of focus, exhaustion, poor planning, and a myriad of other boulders that will fall in your path to success.

For many – for MOST – one or more of these will serve to justify abandoning that goal.  They will be the convenient excuse to avoid the pain, discomfort, effort, and sacrifices that come with the achievement of most goals.  They can tell themselves, “I tried, but…” <insert reason>.  But the truth is, as long as you’re breathing, there is no real excuse to abandon a goal except “I quit!”  The term “I quit” is clearly a choice – a personal choice – to give up on your goal.  It’s no one else’s fault but yours.  You CHOSE to abandon your goal.  Now, if you can live with that, and live with it honestly, fine.

But the cold, honest truth of life is: to achieve goals, to realize dreams, you have to be able to tell yourself that you failed, but you DID NOT QUIT!  With every failure, you simply Begin Again.  Every obstacle that causes you to stop, to pause, to take a step backwards, are all entities that will add to the eventual value of achieving your goal.  Obstacles strengthen you, they make you wiser, and they teach you about yourself in ways that success NEVER will.

So, when you set a goal in front of you, KNOW that you will likely fail over and over again between start and finish.  Just remember that the most valuable key to attaining any goal is to constantly and repeatedly…

BEGIN AGAIN.

Seek Discomfort

It amazes me every time I realize (over and over) how many lessons I learned in my teens, 20’s and 30’s, but I’m only now – in reflection – finally getting the point.  A great example has to do with the toxicity of “comfort”.

Very few things came easy to me as I was growing up and growing older.  Even music, the one thing I truly have a natural affinity for and ability in, even this was rarely comfortable.  All of the skills I’ve learned were earned with countless hours of pain and sweat and frustration and disappointment, with an occasional sprinkle of success and satisfaction and revelation.

Back then, I didn’t consciously seek discomfort – or avoid comfort, for that matter – I simply did whatever was necessary to eek, inch by painful inch, toward my goal.  And if that meant the periodic spilling of my own blood (whether from my fingers during guitar practice, or from wounds received during martial arts practice), then that was the acceptable cost.

Only now, at the age of 58, am I consciously pushing myself to learn what I used to naturally “know”.  Somewhere in my 40’s and 50’s, I forgot the cost of success.  I somehow, in imperceptive increments, let go of my focused search for perfection and began to wrap my arms around “comfort”.  Eventually, my arms were wrapped so tightly around comfort that I couldn’t see what I was doing.  I had been doing it long enough that I couldn’t feel the difference.

Only when I started learning and studying Stoicism could I finally put words to the echoes of feelings that were reminding me of my lost Self.  The Self that didn’t overthink the process of success.  My old Self would simply “Just Begin” toward the dim light of my goals, and would tackle each and every obstacle that slowed me down – or even stopped me for a time – and wouldn’t care at all about the cost of blood and pain and time that were demanded.

Then I saw the words “Voluntary Discomfort” during my Stoic readings.  I loved the concept, but that phrase didn’t quite capture what I KNOW I needed to do to reclaim my old Self.  Eventually, the phrase morphed in my head to “Seek Discomfort”.

That was it!

It expressed an action that needed to be done.  Voluntary Discomfort can often be viewed as allowing discomfort to happen to you.  but “Seek Discomfort” is a forward moving action.  I am actively seeking that which is uncomfortable – just like I used to when I was younger… back when I actually achieved my goals.

In the last year, or so, I’ve gathered a handful of terms that speak to the deepest part of my True Self.  They demand attention.  They demand action.  And “Seek Discomfort” is definitely one of the ones I say to myself daily – repeatedly.

Please believe me, kids.  Life happens To You constantly, and – if you let it – it will sweep you along like a powerful current.  And before you know it, years – sometimes decades – will pass before you realize that you somehow lost control of your course.  The goals that constantly stack themselves like cordwood in the back of your mind will gather dust, even as you continue to build upon it.

Seek Discomfort – now!  Don’t wait for the right day or time or conditions or money or circumstances or… anything else that throws a shadow on your forward path.

Remember the Joy

In my early life – from my youth through my mid-30’s – I clung tightly to those things that meant the most to me.  The list of “Those Things” is pretty short, mostly because the fight required to keep them actively in my life always came at a cost.  When each item on your “List” elicits arguments, lost sleep or even blood, you choose the items on your List very carefully.  At that time, the Items were:

Martial Arts training.  Military life and married life and parental life and church life and just-plain-life normally leaves very few spare minutes each day (if any at all) that I can use for Lee Stuff, and quality Martial training takes serious time.  Back then, I trained 2 to 3 times a week, a minimum of 2 hours per session.  These sessions kept me in shape, they were extremely meditative, and they nurtured my soul.  They also allowed me a means of pushing my personal abilities to new limits, a vital component of any life of quality.

Music.  I’ve held a deep, powerful love for music from my earliest memory, and I have been a musician ever since the age of 8.  Playing the guitar is by far my greatest expression of that love because it provides a direct conduit from my heart to the air – through my fingers.  If I am playing music that I deeply connect with – or, more intensely, music I have written – that expression is multiplied 10x.

Reading.  As a poor child, I used to steal books from the library at school so that I could read and re-read and re-re-read stories that lifted my spirits, caused me to dream, and simply made me happy.  When I finally had the means to purchase books, it didn’t take long for my library to become massive.  At it’s largest, my physical library filled four 6-foot bookcases, stacked two books deep, wedged in sideways, and overflowed onto the floor.  I would regularly be reading 7 to 10 books simultaneously, stashing them in every common pocket and place, and would quickly replace every finished book with a fresh one.  SciFi, historical, instructional, philosophical… there were few genres I wouldn’t gobble up.

There are many things I love to do, but those three things were activities I HAD TO DO!  They were vital to my well-being, and it didn’t matter to me who got pissed-off at me for carving out time to do them.  Period!

But the unrelenting pounding of hurt feelings, of work demands, and the weight of mounting guilt eventually chipped away at my resolve…  and my Must Do 3 Things eventually, silently, went away.

In my teens, 20’s and 30’s, these three things were synonymous with my name; and the people who were attracted to me – wanted to be around me, speak with me, engage with me – did so primarily because of one or more of those three things.  Over time (unbeknownst to me) they served as major factors in defining who I was as a person.  So, unsurprisingly in hindsight, when The 3 went away, so did much of my self-worth, my identity, and my joy.

Oh, I still smiled.  I still laughed.  And there were other things that brought me joy (my children being the most prominent).  But as an individual, I no longer had any of those three things to nurture “Me”.   No stories to absorb.  No notes to carry my inner feelings.  No movement to expel my pain.

It’s been nearly 20 years since I lost my Top 3 and if I take the time to examine those 20 years, I can easily see how I’ve pretended to still possess them.  I have bought dozens of books that I have never read.  I move my guitar from place to place, always keeping it visible, but never using it like I used to.  And I write endless martial training plans and constantly tell myself that “I’m getting ready”… but never actually train – not like I used to.

How did I let 20 years go by without missing the joy of my music and art and literature?  Did I cover the joy with lies and rationalizations and false promises of tomorrow?

I don’t know.  It’s amazing how easily, seamlessly we can justify such things to ourselves and blanket them with the rationale of selflessness.  But at what cost?

It wasn’t until 2016 that I could finally see the vacancy in my eyes… and recognize it in pictures taken over the last 20 years.  And it wasn’t until this year that I could finally understand the cause of that vacancy.  Only now can I remember – faintly, but firmly – the joy I used to feel.  Only now has the desire for my Top 3 returned.

History teaches us to learn from the mistakes of others.  But this lesson is useless without the action of actually looking and listening to those mistakes.

My children, please NEVER allow life or love or work or any other demand of existence cause you to let go of any activity that defines you, nourishes you, and allows your soul to soar.   Decades slip by all too quickly, and the lack of your Top 3 will drain you in ways you cannot imagine.

I don’t know how much more life God will grant me, but I feel blessed that He has allowed my eyes to see again.  He has gifted me with the ability to ache again for the things that He bestowed me with in my youth.  And most important of all, He has allowed me to…

Remember the Joy.