Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Mental Health Weekend

I haven't had more than one or two days off from work since before the holiday season so I decided to take this past Friday off and have an extended weekend. I decided on Thursday night that I would get up at my usual time on Friday morning, take my wife to work, and then drive to the home of my friend, Father Dennis, who lives a solitary life as a hermit not too far from the Abbey of Gethsemani. I was happy to awaken on on Friday morning with no new snow on the ground or highway. As I sit here now on this very sunny day it's difficult to believe that this has been one of the snowiest winters in years. This weekend has given us beautiful, if cool, springlike weather but I am getting ahead of myself....

The roads to Bardstown were clear and dry on Friday. I was listening to a mix of my all time favorite songs and I was totally one with the beauty of the countryside. I was also trying out my new GPS. We had some disagreements and when it didn't tell me to get off at the exit where I usually get off, I choked and did it my way. I've decided that next time I will be more trusting, follow it's lead, and stray from my usual path. I rarely leave my comfort zone and I should.

When I finally arrived at the home of my friend, Father Dennis, I was so happy to see him. We've known one another for forty years and he is now like a big brother to me. For most of the last year I've had no official business at the monastery so I haven't been going there as much. In the past I always combined business at the monastery with a visit to Father Dennis. After a brief chat we decided to go out for breakfast at a small country restaurant called "Tom Pig's". We shared our meal as two old friends who could have easily been mistaken for two local farmers. Sometimes people do think we are brothers. It must be the beards! After breakfast we went to the monastery gift shop. I overcame my addiction for more books but I was seduced by the Trappist jelly and coffee. All it all it was a wonderful day. When I finally decided to head for home Dennis gave me a big hug and said, "This has been a great day. It's been like a Day of Recollection"! Dennis is one of the few people in my life with whom I can have serious and deep conversations about life and spirituality and who I can be completely open and honest with about whatever is on my mind.

When I got back to Louisville I picked my wife up and we headed to a restaurant to meet my youngest son for dinner. He is a 2nd year theology student at St. Meinrad School of Theology and was home for the weekend. If all continues going well he will be a priest in a couple of years. Dinner was filled with discussion of his recent trip to Washington, D.C. for the annual Right to Life gathering.

The biggest chunk of my weekend was taken up with my role of being Paw Paw to my six year old granddaughter. I was awakened at 7:30 AM when she appeared in my bed. Her Dad was dropping her off on his way to work. The weather has been so nice this weekend that we were able to spend a good deal of time outside where we fixed my bird feeder and put out birdseed and food for the squirrels. At times, we simply sat side by side in my swing and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on our faces. Between the silence and the Zen moments we had those wonderful conversations that only a grandparent and grandchild can have.

It was a great long weekend. Unfortunately tomorrow is a return to the madness and drama of the workplace. Unlike my friend, Father Dennis, my life is not quite at the point where "everyday is Saturday morning".

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XVI

I was well into an afternoon nap last Saturday when I was awakened by a little girl with a big smile. It was my granddaughter, Chloe, who had arrived at my home for an overnight visit. There would be no more rest for Paw Paw. For the next 24 hours I would transform back and forth from a 59 year old Paw Paw to a six year old child. The Paw Paw part is easy for me. I look the part and I enjoy the role. I like holding Chloe in my lap while we watch movies. This week we watched "Alpha and Omega". I'm also very good at preparing cereal, especially Lucky Charms, and telling stories. When I have to be a six year old it gets a little tougher. My tired mind has a difficult time keeping up with Chloe's imagination. My aching body has a difficult time sitting on the floor and playing make believe. Sunday morning I woke up tired because most of Saturday night I was clinging to the edge of my bed. Chloe was next to me the entire night. Meanwhile my wife enjoyed 3/4th of the bed all to herself. All of this, even the difficult parts, are a joy for me. My granddaughter has been a true blessing in my life and I would not trade anything for the time I have with her.

Yesterday I was learning something new and until it finally clicked for me I was very frustrated. It drives me crazy when I don't know how to do something. When I am comfortable with what I am doing I generally enjoy it. I have what some people call a "gut personality". There are also "head personalities" and "heart personalities". People with gut personalities tend to react, and often overreact, from their gut. This means they usually react strongly to whatever the situation is. In my case, depending on what is happening, I may get very angry or even hostile, while at times I am "surprised by joy" or overwhelmed by the beauty of a moment. Whenever I react negatively to something, later, after I have thought it out, I will usually be more reasonable and accepting. The calmness that many of you think radiates from my being is the result of many years of effort on my part to be calm. When I was learning a new skill I was angry with myself for not immediately catching on to what someone was trying to teach me. Later in the day when I was calmer it all clicked for me and then I actually enjoyed doing it.

As I indicated above, I am a "gut type" personality. People like me tend to react before they think. After reacting...or overreacting....they will process their response in their heads and usually re-think their response and adjust as needed. Now I will briefly describe "head type" personalities. You have probably guessed that these types of people tend to think before they act. The danger for them is over thinking and never acting. An additional danger relates to fear. Most fear originates in our minds. "Head type" personalities tend to be fearful types because they can't get out of their heads.

"Gut" types tend to react first, think later, and "head" types tend to think first, act later. We also have "heart" types. "Heart" types are not necessarily the most loving people. Heart types are people who are very concerned with how they are perceived by other people. Do other people think I am caring and kind? Do other people see me as successful? Do other people think I'm special? Of course, all of us want to be seen in a positive light by others but "heart" types are more concerned about it than gut types or head types.

Of course within these three types of personalities are many variations and nuances. Human personality is very complex. Similar personalities will have subtle differences. One important thing to remember is this. We are not our personalities. Our personalities are really defense mechanisms we have unknowingly created as our way to protect ourselves from life. Our childhoods, good or bad, have been the biggest influence on the personality that we have. A big part of the spiritual journey is to get past our personality, or outer shell, to find our true self. Many spiritual writers, especially Thomas Merton, speak of the true self and the false self. The false self is what most of us present to the world around us and it's what most other people see when they look at us. Our true self is who we really are. It may take our an entire lifetime to peel the onion of who we appear to be in order to discover who we really are.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XV

I have returned to my old job after a three month sojourn in another department. It was a good experience and I am glad I had the opportunity. Admittedly I was apprehension when I went there but it turned out well. I learned some new things, worked with some new people, and realized that I have skills that can be used anywhere. I think in the future I will be more open to change and more willing to leave my comfort zone.

Over the weekend I found myself asking the question "When do you know when you have become who you are"? The journey of life is basically to become who you are. We are born pure and innocent and then we acquire our personalities and other defense mechanisms to shield us from life. The second half of our journey is spent attempting to take off our masks and to remove the armor we have acquired in order to rediscover our purity and innocence. The Buddhists call this "discovering the face we had before we were born". When I look in the mirror, and during moments of introspection, I wonder how far along I am on this journey of re-discovering who I am. What is my true essence? It is nearly impossible to know this when you are young. In our youth it is far more important for us to fit in, be like others, and find acceptance from others. This is considerably less important when you get older. I am still trying to get behind the masks and break through the armor to find the real me. I don't think I know who I am yet but I'm pretty sure I know who I'm not.

Yesterday it was hot in the office and I was having a hot flash so I decided to go outside for some fresh air. It was raining but I took a walk anyway. I was reminded of a quote that goes, "Some people walk in the rain and other people just get wet". Personally, I love walking in the rain. I never get wet because I walk between the rain drops. It's a Zen thing. I think the author of the quote was telling us that with the right attitude even a rainy day is a joy. Everyone knows I love snow but it was time for nature to give us a rain shower to wash away the dirt and the salt. We needed to clean everything up to prepare for the new snow we received last night.

Yesterday someone asked me if I was happy to be back in my old area in the office. I replied, "I'm happy wherever I am". OK, that's a little bit of a lie but not too far from the truth. I think a lot of happiness is attitude. In my mind, and the minds of many philosophers, happiness is a choice. Even though I am sometimes sad, in general I choose to be happy. Most of the time I am, especially when I am walking in the rain.

The following is a quote from the Tao. The Tao is a collection of daily thoughts rooted in Chinese philosophy. Here's today's quote with some commentary from Deng Ming-Dao and me.

Let us not follow vulgar leaders who exploit the fear of death, and promise the bliss of salvation. If we are truly happy they will have nothing to offer.

The commentary on today's quote says that some leaders use threats to win followers. Others woo with grand promises. If you have no satisfaction they offer bliss. If you feel inadequate they offer success. If you are lonely they offer acceptance.

When I read these thoughts it reminded me how many of our leaders prey on our fears and insecurities. You see it everyday in the media. True leaders set us free, they don't enslave us. True leaders give us hope, they don't fill us with fear. True leaders call us to greatness, they don't make us feel inadequate. True leaders give, they don't take. True leaders aren't perfect but they lead us to more perfect versions of ourselves. True leaders don't expect everyone to serve them, they serve everyone else.

Yesterday I received the following email from a lady friend, who is a yoga teacher, about my writing.

You have caused quite a stir among my friends. Several of them have checked out your blog and they are enthralled with your wisdom and wit. You may have groupies in the making. Seriously, isn't it wonderful there are so many other like minded people out there? So at those times you wonder if taking the time to write them is worth it, it is.

Darn! Where were all these women when I was young and single? Actually, at this point in my life it is difficult to even remember being young and single. I have always kept diaries and journals about what was going on in my life. It wasn't until about six or seven years ago, when my granddaughter was born, that I started writing publicly. No one was more surprised than me when people started reading my stuff and actually liking it. If I truly have a talent for writing then it is a gift. I would have preferred having a musical gift and being a guitar playing rock star but I do like to write. Other than some good English teachers I have never had any special training in writing. All I have ever done is write about what's going on in my life as honestly as possible. Fortunately I have the ability to do it using proper English and correct grammar. If I have "wisdom and wit" I don't know where that comes from. I usually just start typing and whatever comes out, comes out. 99% of what I write is completely spontaneous and I can't explain it's source. If you like it and it sometimes speaks to you, I am happy. Maybe my ability to touch people with my writing is my reason for being here. We all have a gift and we all have a reason for being where we are. It took me 50 years to learn this basic truth.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XIV

Even though I had last weekend off from my workplace obligations I did not have a weekend off from my "Honeydew" list. I worked most of last Saturday carrying boxes and crates full of Christmas decorations out to my storage shed. Part of the day I had help from my granddaughter who came over to spend the night. Sunday night, after my work was done, and my granddaughter had gone home, I watched the movie called "Eat, Pray, and Love". The part of the movie centered on eating took place in Italy. In one scene an Italian man says to the Julia Roberts character, "You Americans are workaholics. You don't understand the 'sweetness of doing nothing'". It's really difficult to do nothing. There is always a "Honeydew" list, a goal, or someone's agenda that needs to be met. Even when I am not at work I feel like I always have things that need to be done. Part of the problem is the real or imagined lack of time to keep up with things. Most people cram their personal life and needs into the weekend because workplace demands consume most of your time during the week. The eight hour workday is a myth. The process of getting ready for work, commuting to work, actually working, and then commuting back home is approximately twelve hours most days. Most Americans only get an average of six hours of sleep a day so that leaves you with six hours a day to fit in the rest of your life.

Yesterday a friend sent me some thoughts about something called the "fear of not measuring up". In a competitive and driven society such as ours, we all suffer from this fear to some degree. There's a million ways for it to manifest itself. It's the fear that you aren't smart enough or aren't pretty enough or aren't successful enough. It's the fear of not being able to "keep up with the Joneses", that you don't drive the right kind of car or don't live in the right neighborhood, that you didn't go to the right school or you're not a supermom and on and on and on. It's the fear of being inadequate. Let's be honest. Some people are smarter, more successful, and better looking than the rest of us. That's called "Life's Not Fair". However, the rest of us are not doomed. I think we all have unlimited potential if we have the drive and initiative to take advantage of the opportunities given us. On the other hand I am someone who believes in the idea of contentment. I always want to be the best possible version of myself but, quite frankly, sometimes I am too tired to be. I have more stuff than many people but much less than many others. I can honestly say that I am very content with my standard of living. I have everything I need to live comfortably and to be happy. At this point in my life I think more about how I can do with less than with always wanting more. I'm not a genius but I am far from stupid. I am happy with who I am and I don't feel inferior to anyone. I am not perfect but I know I am a good person. I don't have to beat everyone else in order to feel like I am successful. It really all boils down to these few questions. Are you happy? Is there love in your life? Are there things you care about and other people who care about you?

Have you ever been lost in beauty? It happens to me. What makes it happen? It could be my granddaughter's face and smile, a painting that moves me, being in nature, or a beautifully written piece of music. Yesterday it happened again when I decided to take a walk in the snow. I went to the Great Lawn across from my office. Snow fairies had cleared a path on the sidewalk and along the river so it was easy to walk although most of the snowfall was undisturbed. Everything was pristine white as only new fallen snow can be. There was no other person there except me. At one point I walked past some very colorful, somewhat whimsical, sculptures of farm animals. When I got closer to the river I was suddenly in the presence of several hundred geese who looked quite regal as they marched across the lawn. Of course, the presence of so many geese created a need for me to walk slowly and carefully since they had done a great job fertilizing the lawn and sidewalk. I had such a pleasant and peaceful time on my walk that I wished I could just sit on a bench and watch the river flow by. The coolness of the air and the falling snow was refreshing. As I headed back into my office I decided to treat myself to a sugar free vanilla latte. Going into our lobby shop cafeteria during the height of the lunch hour was a bit jolting after my solitary walk in the park. It was loud, crowded, and people were moving in every direction. I paid for my latte as quickly as possible so I could make my escape back to my secluded work area. A walk in the snow, lost in beauty, alone with your thoughts, is good for the soul. During my walk I was reminded of the lyrics to a favorite song by Neil Young. They go like this, "I'm thankful for my country home, it gives me peace of mind, somewhere I can walk alone, and leave myself behind".

I have often heard that when one door closes, another opens. This has often been true for me. I have known many people who worry about everything. The Dalai Lama says, "Worry is a waste of energy. Nothing is solved by worry. The energy spent on worry would be better used solving the problem you are worrying about". I have never been a worrier. I have never needed to worry because I have a wife who worries enough for ten people. Now just because I don't worry doesn't mean I walk around in a state of ignorant bliss. I have concerns and challenges in my life but I also strive to live in such a way as to minimize the stress in my life. Many of you are people of faith. I am also a person of faith. I have always believed my needs would be taken care of and somehow I would receive whatever I need. However, along with this belief I have always acted as though everything I need depends on me taking care of myself. I don't sit around assuming everyone else will take care of me. I am also a person who believes in Karma. There's a saying that goes "What goes around, comes around". Karma is the believe that you get what you give. If you're putting good vibes into the world around you, good things will come back to you. Likewise, if you spend all your time being negative, critical, hostile, or unforgiving, don't be surprised when that comes back to you. Be a good, loving person and life will take care of you. Sometimes doors will close but others will open. Never slam a door, burn a bridge, or close your heart.

Sometimes I get very nice compliments at work. Last year a young co-worker said I was "the youngest 58 year old that she had ever met". Recently another young co-worker told me I was like "his own Dalai Lama". I admit I liked these compliments because I try to be young at heart and the Dalai Lama is someone I truly admire. When we are admired or complimented it feels good. If it happens on a regular basis we may start to believe we are as great as some people think we are. So how does one maintain their humility? I have found the most effective way is to go home to your family. Family will put you in your place. I don't mean in a nasty way. It's just that family will call you out if your head gets too big. I may be the office Dalai Lama but at home I am just Dad. I may be young at heart but my son's affectionally (I think!) call me the "old man". Once I almost started a riot in my granddaughter's day-care. All the little kids thought I was Santa Claus. I guess that can happen when you have a long beard and you are wearing a red coat and hat and it's December. Later when I asked my granddaughter if she thought I was Santa Claus she replied, "You're not Santa Claus. You're Paw Paw"! One of my son's is studying to be a priest. In a few years he will be Father Nick and the old ladies in his church will bake him cakes. Now, however, and in the future, he's my son, and not my pastor, so I will still ask him to take out the trash and run some errands for my wife and me whenever he's home. The bottom line is that families keep us in line and discourage us from taking ourselves too seriously. Don't be surprised if your families don't acknowledge your greatness. Even if they think you are great and wise, they may not tell you.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XIII

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die. So...let us all be thankful.
-The Buddha

Looking back at 2010, these words of the Buddha probably do a good job of summing up the past year as well as remind us to always be thankful. Of course, every year when we look back we can remember reasons to be happy and reasons to be sad. Ever year we experience new births, rebirths, conversions, transformations, and new ways of seeing things. Most of us also experience some type of loss. Relationships can change and sometimes fall apart. People we care about leave our lives or sometimes die. Some of us are better off materially and financially and some of us are worse off. Some of us are in the spring or summer of our lives and others are in the autumn or winter of their lives. Some of us are gathering in the harvest of our lives while others are letting go and simplifying their life. Doors close and windows open. The unfolding of life, year by year, is the great mystery in which we all live. Now we are on the threshold of a new year with new possibilities and, if last year wasn't so great for you, this year can be a year of new hope. A few years ago I saw the Rolling Stones perform at Churchill Downs. Keith Richards, a member of the band and a guy who should have died ten times by now, looked out on the crowd and said, "It's really nice to be here. It's really nice to be anywhere"! I share his sentiments. I'm really happy to still be here and I look forward to starting my sixth decade in a few months. 2011 is the year that the Baby Boomers officially start becoming senior citizens. Approximately 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 years old everyday for the next 19 years. Here's hoping for a great year! Start it now by seizing the day and living well with a grateful heart.

The build-up till Christmas is long and it's intensity increases the closer you get to it. One thing I find a bit jarring is that when Christmas is over, it's over. There's a real anti-climax. We are quickly thrown back into the reality of our lives. I know that this weekend my wife will be cracking the whip so all our Christmas decorations are taken down and packed away. I will be treated like a pack mule as I haul all the boxes and crates outside to our storage shed. This, of course, will be followed by mandatory cleaning and getting our house back in order. When all of this is done there is a sigh of relief. Although January can be a brutal month in terms of the weather I love it's nothingness. After the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, and it's aftermath of packing everything away and cleaning up the mess, it's good to slow down and withdraw a little bit. Dark and cold winter nights are times to be home with a good book or movie and hot soup or chili in the crock pot. I've always thought a perfect day is a day at home when it's snowing, you went to the grocery the night before, and you have no where you need to be. If I could I would take off the entire month of January so everyday had the possibility of being such a day. Of course, by spring all of us will have had enough of our hibernation and we will be more than ready for blooming flowers, blue skies, and warm temperatures. One thing I really like about living in this part of the world is that we have seasons. Each one has it's beauty, even winter.

Earlier this week I was sitting in my car outside of Kroger waiting for my wife to pick up a prescription from their pharmacy. The Kroger parking lot is like a demolition derby with people and cars going in every direction, seemingly with little regard for one another. On the inside Kroger is always a zoo, especially if there is any chance that a snowflake may fall from the sky. While sitting in my car I found myself thinking that the world seems to have changed so much in my lifetime. It's more crowded, more hostile, often makes no sense to me, and it's definitely faster. It also never stops. We live in a 24 hour a day culture. The more I age the more alien the world seems to me. The "Leave it to Beaver" world I grew up in no longer exists. Along with lifestyle changes, I think it's normal for an older generation to look at a younger generation and wonder, "What happened"? I'm sure my parents used to look at my friends and me and think "I fear for the future". Yesterday I read that many baby boomers live in despair and they have lost their optimism and hope. I have not reached that point although I sometimes feel a certain world weariness that is probably normal for anyone who is over 50 and has been "out there" for a while. This is usually cured by a good nap, some great music, a visit by my granddaughter, or all of the above. I admit I don't always understand my own children, or young people in general, but I don't worry about them. Every generation finds it's way while making their own mistakes. I have spent most of my working life being around people younger than me and, in some cases, younger than my children. I like it because it keeps me young and it makes it harder for me to be a grumpy old man. The young can learn from the old and the old should listen to the young. Of course, some things in life can only be learned by experience. My parents used to call that the "School of Hard Knocks".

Many people start off a new year by making New Year's resolutions. They usually involve dieting, efforts to stop smoking, or exercising more. More often than not they are attempts to improve ourselves as though we are completely inadequate as we are. One of my favorite writers, the monk Thomas Merton, had an epiphany while standing on the corner of 4th and Muhammad Ali here in Louisville in 1958. As a man who entered the monastery to escape the world, he had a sudden moment of clarity in which he realized that he was just like every other member of the human race and he wondered if people realized that they were all "walking around shining like the sun". As this new year unfolds, instead of thinking that you are inadequate and need improvement, tell yourself that you, too, are "walking around shining like the sun". If you want to make some New Year's resolutions, let them be to utilize your strengths and gifts for the enrichment of those around you. Be who you are and recognize your own potential. Focus on that and don't get hung up on your weaknesses. We all have some inadequacy or dysfunction that we struggle with. Even the great St. Paul lamented his "thorn in the flesh". We are never told what that weakness was but we do know it didn't keep him from doing great things. Nelson Mandela has some great words about how we see ourselves.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, or fabulous"?
-Nelson Mandela

There is an historical marker over on the corner of 4th and Muhammad Ali commemorating Merton's experience. Our new mayor referenced this event in his inauguration speech earlier this week.