I probably bit off more than I can chew, but let’s see where this goes…

I have been on a history kick recently—everything from American history to early human civilizations to the history of the cosmos in general. Like most behaviors, it is hard to determine exactly why I’ve been on this kick, but I think it’s fair to say that this is the current manifestation of my all-too-human quest to understand how the hell I got here.

When considering the vastness of the past, it’s common for people to get a strange, disorienting feeling in their mind. Trust me, been there, done that. Our brains aren’t fully equipped to conceptualize time on a scale larger than our lifetime. However, it can surely be humbling to try, which may not be a bad thing. Luckily, we don’t have to stay in that feeling for too long though because learning about the past offers additional perspectives that are not only interesting, but are also applicable to how we approach life.

For example, consider the numerous phases Earth has gone through throughout its history. This might sound obvious to some, but modern humans tend to take the (relatively) stable state of our planet for granted. Think about 4.5 billion years ago during the Hadean Eon where Earth consisted of magmatic seas and was relentlessly bombarded with meteorites. For hundreds of millions of years, Earth was so unstable that single-celled life couldn’t even get started long enough for evolution to take place, which meant these basic lifeforms would briefly pop into existence before being destroyed, then briefly pop into existence again before being destroyed… again. This went on and on until finally things settled down. And thankfully, things settled down.

It’s an honor to be a part of this process called life. I know each of us in isolation is itty bitty and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time, we are all connected to a massive, cosmic process that has allowed the universe to become conscious of itself. I mean, really think about that. We aren’t just in the universe; we are of the universe. Us humans are a biproduct of an evolutionary history that began with those resilient single-celled organisms, which eventually evolved into more complex life and, ultimately, conscious life. Come on, that is pretty cool. Just a casual consideration of the history of our planet, solar system, and the universe as a whole can lead to a deeper appreciation for life, and through that appreciation, perhaps we can live more intentionally. Afterall, this is our only shot, and the likelihood that all the happenings that needed to actually happen in order for you and I to exist right now is virtually zero percent.

It’s almost like a miracle.

Anyway, here’s the perspective: A stable planet, the natural resiliency of life, and the development of consciousness itself is worth our acknowledgement and appreciation. It also may not be a bad idea to regularly call this perspective to mind. The impact could be profound.   

Alright. How about we consider another example? Let’s fast forward a several billion years to the latter half of the 1700s. Think about the complexity of events that were happening during the Revolutionary War and then roughly a hundred years later during the Civil War. Not to mention the Reconstruction Era, Westward Expansion, World Wars, Civil Rights Movement, etc. And that’s just the United States. Only ONE country’s history out of 195. Mind boggling, isn’t it?

Sure, the humans that came before us didn’t exactly stick the landing on every challenge, but they found a way to push the needle towards progress in most cases. That deserves our respect and maybe, just maybe, having some faith in humanity—at least a little bit longer. I know it’s tough with everything going on in the world. Hey, my faith waivers too, but even when certain obstacles seem insurmountable, it’s helpful to think about those who came before us and the challenges they faced. This isn’t the first time that our species has been pushed to the brink.  

But faith in humanity doesn’t need to be derived solely from a macro-historical perspective. We can look at personal histories too. People are overcoming trauma, poverty, heartbreak, and setbacks every damn day. As a therapist, I have grown to have a deep respect for this dimension of our collective human history. Truly, there is inspiration everywhere.

Sometimes we might have to force ourselves to see it because it’s all too easy to indulge in our cynicism. But as Marsha Linehan (one of the great pioneers of psychotherapy) says, “you have to believe even when you don’t believe” (AKA faith). Maybe that’s the secret psychological weapon our ancestors used to persevere, and maybe faith, in its proper place, is a necessary ingredient for us to live to see a better day.

So, here’s the perspective to keep in mind: Humans, with virtually identical DNA to you and me, have managed to endure and overcome seemingly impossible hardships time and time again—one day, one year, one generation at a time. We too can be a part of this story. Keep the faith.

One more concluding thought and I’ll let you go…

A basic decision we have as human beings is to decide whether or not to go on. No other species has to wake up every morning and, in one way or another, make this choice in the way that we do; it’s just us. So here’s my choice: I choose to go on, man. With the wisdom of history at my back, I believe it’s worth it. Do you?

What are you doing with your life?

This is a question worth asking yourself. It’s also worth asking who is asking this internal question? Is it really you, or does it seem like someone else—an authority figure perhaps? It’s also worth considering the tone in which the question is being asked. Does it feel like WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE!!!? Or is it more like hey friend, just curious, what are you doing with your life? Pondering these questions will tell you something.

If you are alive, you are doing something with your life. Maybe it lacks intentionality or maybe you have strayed away from your values, but you’re doing something. That is a fact. How you feel about what you’re doing will tell you a lot, though. So, whether there are feelings of overwhelm, meaninglessness, uncertainty, fulfillment, accomplishment, or whatever else there is to feel, this is key information that will help you determine if you are on the right track. At times, it might take a little bit of courage, but we must turn towards those feelings in order to see what’s truly there.

Now, I don’t know what you should be doing with your life, but I am quite confident that your current life falls into one of these three categories: 1. Too difficult; 2. Too easy; or 3. About right. Of course, this is all relative to some extent, but let’s not fool ourselves just because there is an element of subjectivity here. Evaluating your life requires serious attention and honest self-reflection, so you should give yourself adequate time to come to a conclusion about where you stand. It’s also important to remember that sometimes “too easy” feels like “too difficult” because the feelings associated with “too easy” may be unpleasant and, therefore, can make life seem “too difficult.” So beware of the mind’s tricks.

A relevant concept to reflect on is responsibility. I’ve been following psychologist and bestselling author Jordan Peterson’s work for several years now, and although I don’t agree with everything he says, I think Dr. Peterson is right when he talks about how “shouldering responsibility” is what gives life meaning. Think about it: what else sustains one’s sense of meaning and purpose more than responsibility?

It seems reasonable to say that the “too easy” life lacks responsibility, which is often associated with feelings of worthlessness, poor self-esteem, and a nihilistic attitude.  Again, these are undoubtedly difficult symptoms to deal with, so it might sound counterintuitive to intentionally pursue something inherently difficult like responsibility. But that is precisely what a “too easy” life needs. However, please remember that although it is wise to start with rather simple challenges and gradually move towards greater complexity, don’t sell yourself too short. You are capable of much more than you think.

So what about the “too difficult” life? I know there are some of those out there, for sure. If you have come to this conclusion honestly, you might feel chronically stressed, overwhelmed, and at your wit’s end. For these folks, it is important to consider this fundamental question: What are my options? It could be the case that you need to reel in the ego and ask for help. If help is realistically available, you should not be doing it all on your own. Further, it also could be the case that you need to quit something. Yes, it is okay to be a quitter when necessary. This is your life, and it is your job to advocate for it, which sometimes means telling someone you quit. Lastly, if there truly are no other options (beware: this can be another one of the mind’s tricks), choose your perspective. For example, the principle of impermanence could be a helpful perspective-taking concept. It could be the case that “too difficult” is the biproduct of you entering into a new life phase. So, it might be grounding to remind yourself that this too shall pass, and eventually what was once “too difficult” can become “about right” with experience. The bottom line is this: choosing your perspective will give you options again, and options will give you power.

The final category is the “about right” life. If this is your life, you have it good. You have enough responsibility to give you meaning and purpose, but not so much that you are chronically overwhelmed. Of course, circumstances can and will change, but with proper self-care and clear awareness, you can usually sense when your life is beginning to slip into one of the other categories. I must also note here that “about right” might look different for you compared to others. This point may seem obvious, but we don’t have to look far to realize how easy it is for people to engage in toxic and often cherry-picked comparisons. It’s true. Common wisdom can be so difficult to live by, so please take these famous words (often falsely attributed to Oscar Wilde) to heart: “Just be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

Another walk in the Cold

Another lesson learned

Once again

The brisk-winded professor

Gifts a wordless lecture

Unlike human constructed curriculum

A teaching

In the form of a full breath

Of cool, crisp air

Seemingly

 Mine for a moment

Then seemingly

 Returned for eternity

A simple letting go

The only way it can be

I could have just said, “I like walks in the cold, maybe you should give it a try.” But I thought a small poem might send a stronger message.

Poems are strange things. Sometimes, they come across as corny as hell. Other times, they seem profound. Usually this is dictated by a mind state. So, don’t read poetry when you’re hungover!

I digress, back to walks in the cold. For better or for worse, this “dark winter” (as Joe Biden often says) has limited our options for leisure, which has meant that a lot of people FEEL stuck at home working, eating, drinking, smoking, parenting, sitting, ordering stuff, watching TV, scrolling through their phones, etc. It’s like, everything at home all the time. Home, home, home, and more… home.

On a positive note, you’re getting your money’s worth. That mortgage or rent is not cheap. On a negative note, you might be wondering if the couch is made of superglue. I hope the finish line is near with this pandemic. I really do. But there still might be additional opportunities for us to learn a bit more from this weird time—like the value of taking walks in the cold, perhaps.

It’s February, which means it can be frigidly cold in the Midwest. Don’t let that be a deterrent to getting outside, though. The mind is environment-driven in many respects, so being indoors surrounded by walls can lead to a sense that your life has become restricted against your will. In some ways, maybe it has (damn COVID), but mostly, this is an illusion.

The good news is that there are actually many things you can do to break this illusory spell. That’s reality. When was the last time you climbed a tree, threw a football around, called an old friend, jumped rope, danced to a song, or yes, took a walk in the cold? Life activities don’t have to serve a grand purpose in order for them to add value. And strangely, the most obvious pattern breakers can be the most difficult to see.

If you’re in a committed relationship, you might wonder from time to time why you can’t get through to your partner or why you struggle so much to get on the same page. I should say, like most everything in life, there is not a perfect algorithm to resolve this challenge. However, in a couples counseling setting, I often observe a common tendency– the failure to consider emotional context.

It might help to discuss what I mean by “emotional context.” In basic terms, I’m referring to how you AND your partner feel. Emotions can be like one of those photo filters on Snap Chat or Instagram. They have a tendency to distort reality, sometimes making things seem much better or worse than what they actually are.

The problem is if we are not in a mindset conducive to dealing with reality, then we probably aren’t dealing with reality. And if we aren’t dealing with reality when attempting to solve complicated relationship problems, then our problem solving won’t be very effective.

So here is a general rule of thumb. When possible, work through and de-escalate emotions first. This may take 30 minutes, a few days, weeks, or longer depending on the severity of the emotions involved. The key is to remove the filter of emotion as much as reasonably possible before engaging in the problem-solving process.

Now, you might say, “but dealing with feelings isn’t my strong suit.” Or, “dealing with feelings isn’t [insert partner’s name]’s strong suit.” I understand that. The good news is that people can get better at this skill set. I see it happen all the time in session. You may not be a believer now, but you can and will get there if you’re willing to do the work.

I should note that this may take professional help, so consider seeking couples counseling if needed. The job of a couples therapist is to be an advocate for the conversation, not to pick sides. But if you are looking for a place to start, here are a few strategies:

  1. Distinguish between emotion-focused and solution-focused discussions: It’s helpful to clearly define the goal of communication. Are we processing emotions? Or are we problem solving? Some people can walk and chew gum at the same time, but it’s harder than it sounds. If the goal isn’t clear, premature problem solving can come across as dismissive of feelings, while emotional expression can come across as self-centered. This disconnect will lead to bigger blow ups. So ask yourselves: what are we trying to accomplish here?
  2. If needed, tap out: This is one of the most effective strategies when learning to consider emotional context. Tapping out of a conversation when emotions get too heightened can break maladaptive communication patterns. It also can improve self-discipline and the ability to observe emotional cues in oneself and others. Tapping out works best if it is coupled with a statement of commitment to resume the conversation when BOTH partners are ready. In fact, this extra step helps prevent avoidance and power imbalances.
  3. Reflective listening: So you say you’re listening, but how does your partner know that? Facial expressions and head nods can be faked, but accurate verbal reflections of your partner’s statements cannot. Reflective listening is more than just regurgitating what has been said, and to be effective, it must be done without engaging in “straw man” arguments (making your partner’s point of view seem as weak as possible). The key is to summarize your partner’s feelings in your own words and when you’re finished, calmly ask, “did I get that right or did I miss something?” This is not easy to do, but it will force your mind into a state of understanding rather than a state of competition or debate.

Difficult feelings and problems in relationships are not going anywhere. They are inherent to being with someone that is different from yourself, which is everyone. That said, the strategies above have the potential to be a game changer for your relationship, leading to more fulfilling emotional experiences and more effective problem solving with your partner. Yes, it will take practice, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Appreciating Moments

I was watching a Royals game recently and thought to myself, “This is nice. I love baseball.” Such a simple thing, yet totally worth my conscious appreciation. By acknowledging the moment in this way, I felt a bit more connected, as if I was wrapping my arms around the experience.

Perhaps it sounds trite, but I live for moments like this. Yeah, yeah, many things are more important than baseball, but that’s precisely the mentality that keeps us from embracing moments of joy.

I think many of us are married to stress. After all, it’s connected to our productivity, our alertness as a parent, our ability to form intelligent opinions, our motivation to exercise and/or eat healthy, our compulsive urges to “get ahead” and “to stay on top of everything”– the list could go on and on.

For those reasons, stress might deserve our thanks. So thank you, stress. Perhaps we can be friends, but I don’t want to marry you.

Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in our analytical minds. This is what allows us to solve problems. It’s good to solve problems. The shot of dopamine once the task is complete is energizing, keeping us coming back for more. But, if we aren’t careful, this can lead us to an all work, no play life. What’s that line in the The Shining? “All work, no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I agree.

I had a drama history teacher back in college who made a great point. He said that most of our schooling is geared around developing skills associated with critical thinking, while the skill of appreciation goes to the wayside. I think he hit the nail on the head. To learn how to appreciate a piece of art, or even just a simple and sweet moment, are lessons we often don’t get enough of. That’s a real shame.

Let’s change that, and do life a little different. How about today? How about right now? Literally, take some time to smell the roses. Move away from your analytical mind. Punctuate the moment by consciously acknowledging your appreciation. Turn off the news. Watch a baseball game.

Small moments of appreciation can get us through the day. They can lift our spirits when we are down. Sure, this alone is not a psychological cure-all. But appreciation can make our lives a little bit better, a little more tolerable, and, who knows, maybe a little more joyous too.

At minimum, we owe it to ourselves to appreciate the little gifts of life wherever we may find them.