Seasonal Sensitivity

winter

I can remember a time when, at about 12 years of age, I walked through the snow in bare feet. For fun. I loved the feeling of the crisp white flakes beneath me. I can also remember loving hot summer days and coming home a hot dirty mess after playing outside all day long and feeling perfectly content and fully alive.

I must be getting old (and you need not remind me that I celebrated a big birthday just two weeks ago), because I no longer enjoy the extremes of the seasons. I function best when it is about 50 to 85 degrees. When it is colder or warmer than this range, I find myself feeling uncentered and longing for those perfect weather days that seem to be becoming more and more rare. So I find myself spending way too much time indoors, protecting myself from the both the blistering heat and the chill of cold winter days.

We find ourselves in patters such as these throughout life. We become trapped in our comfort zones, avoiding things we dislike and becoming somehow disengaged when forced to deal with undesirable circumstances.

What alarms me most is that my comfort zone seems to be getting smaller and smaller. While I once enjoyed the extremes of weather, and not all that long ago, I now only feel my best when the weather happens to be within a range of just 35 degrees. Perhaps this is because more life experience results in a stronger sense of what I most appreciate and desire. Or perhaps this is because I am stuck and clinging to something that arbitrarily brings me comfort in a world where so many things seem to be out of my control.

Either way, immersion in a variety of experiences, especially those which seem challenging to us, make us stronger, more compassionate, and more interesting human beings. So while I really don’t like it when it is hot and humid outside, I am going to do make the most of what is magically presented to me every day and look for the enjoyable excitement, rather than the distraction of discomfort, which that brings. Such is life.

A Day in Bed

a day in bed

I sometimes have days where I feel like I just don’t want to get out of bed. How nice it would be to have the time to just think and reflect, maybe read good books, write poetry, and drink tea, without any expectation of productivity. But I never do. While a day resting at the beach seems to be a perfectly acceptable means of relaxation, a day in bed comes across as somehow slovenly and pathetic.

Although I intellectually realize how important rest is to physical and emotional health, often leading to improved productivity in the end, I have a difficult time allowing myself this indulgence. So even on those days when the bed and the precious gift of time for me is calling my name, I wake up no later than 6:30 a.m. (weekends included) and pack my day with sensibly constructive activities—many of which I enjoy, and others which merely feel obligatory.

I do allow myself the occasional nap, though I find it difficult to wind down and relax. I’m always on edge, always thinking about what I ought to be doing, always considerate of the great need in the world and how I can in some small way be making a difference. Naps can be refreshing, but they can also provoke unnecessary anxiety when they detract from fulfillment of my purpose. Or so it seems.

A few years ago, I created a t-shirt that simply stated ‘my dharma is to breathe and to be.’ While I sincerely believe this mantra in my heart of hearts, I so often have a difficult time embodying this fundamental belief through my daily actions. My purpose is complex and intertwined with commitments to myself and others.

But if only I would focus on the breathing and the being, I believe I would be a better servant. A more fulfilled human being. I would contribute more in the end.

So while a day in bed may seem, at first, to be a totally unproductive waste of time, I think it can instead be a form of radical resistance to the chaotic monotony of always doing, striving, and pushing forward. It is a way to be still with myself, restore my spirit, enjoy life and the moment at hand, and appreciate connection to life through the simple beauty of my breath. Perhaps I will try it one day.

Delighting in Disappointment

My life has been filled with disappointment. I’m sure that you have experienced a lot of disappointment as well. We all experience times when things don’t work out quite the way we expect or would like them to happen, like relationships that end unexpectedly, project proposals that are unfunded, job opportunities that are offered to another candidate, and betrayals of our trust. There are many, many more things that can potentially cause us disappointment in any given day.

Disappointment usually occurs when we give our power away to other people and plan our lives around an outcome over which we have little to no control. This is something we do because it makes intuitive sense to expect the best, or at least for things to continue as they always have. Disappointment is a part of life. If we fail to experience disappointment, we have probably also failed to push ourselves hard enough to explore new opportunities that could potentially infuse our lives with more meaning and joy.

Disappointment is an opportunity for learning and growth in disguise. But too often we react to disappointment with self-indulgent reeling rather than radical self-healing. Dismissal by others can be interpreted as rejection of our ideas, our projects, our work, or even the core of who we are. It hurts our feelings, and makes us question our value. Maybe we think that we are all that when we really just plain old suck.

But maybe other people are not yet ready to cross the boundaries that we find beautifully exhilarating. Maybe the world needs what we have to offer, but not the whole entire world and everyone in it. Maybe there are better opportunities waiting for us. Maybe there are people counting on us to continue on and come forward with whatever it is that we have to offer that could dramatically improve their lives. Disappointment reminds us that we have the freedom to organize our lives around those things that are most closely aligned with our hearts’ desire. One no means one million possible yeses.

The Meaning of Happiness

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Happiness is something we all seem to want more of in our lives, but what exactly do we mean when we say that we want to be happy? The way each person interprets the meaning of happiness is as unique as every manifestation of life on the planet. When you think about the word ‘happy,’ it likely invokes a certain emotional response which I can assure you is quite different from what your neighbor might be feeling when this particular word is used. It might make you think of other words such as joy, peace, contentment, pleasure, bliss, or amusement. Perhaps it provokes pleasant memories or inspiration for a better tomorrow. The definition of happiness is complex, dynamic, and even nebulous. While there are many ways of defining and understanding the meaning of happiness, all of them are valid and complementary. Together, they create a full picture of something which all of us want more of in our lives in one way or another.

Happiness is sometimes thought of as a trait. A trait is something with which we are born; in other words, some people have a lot of it and other people don’t have very much at all. We don’t have a lot of choice or control over our traits because they are gifted at birth. We can make the most of what we have, but the traits that have been entrusted to us are for the most part fixed and can’t be further developed over time. While situations and our behavior may influence our traits, ultimately they are automatic set points to which we return after these stimuli end.

Conversely, happiness can be understood as a part of our personality. Our personality emerges from within but can evolve over time. It is shaped by relationships, circumstances, and choices. When our personality reflects an intrinsic sense of happiness, it shows through our word choice, tone of voice, body language, and ways of connecting with others. A person who has a cheerful disposition or a positive attitude is emanating her or his happy personality. Thinking of happiness as a component of our personality rather than as a trait offers two advantages: it connects this aspect of ourselves to the whole of our character, and it offers us some degree of flexibility and control over how we adapt to, and function in, the world.

Happiness can also be identified as an object, or a thing that exists outside of ourselves. According to this view, happiness is something we chase and try to both acquire and achieve. It becomes a possession, or something we grasp and claim as a part of our personal identity. Because it is an object, happiness can be accumulated, hoarded, and leveraged. The more happiness we have, the more power we possess. Unfortunately, when we chase after things they typically evade us and when we hold on too tight we can suffocate them. If happiness is a thing, then it is one which should be appreciated and savored rather than pursued and used.

Happiness is also a feeling or emotion. As a feeling, it is something we experience in the moment while as an emotion it is something felt on a much deeper, more sustained, level. Either way, like all feelings and emotions, it can be difficult to understand and to describe to others. Although much of our emotional response to the world is innate, it is heavily influenced by our circumstances, choices, behavior, and relationships. Our emotional framework can shift and expand over time by intentionally becoming more aware of our feelings and making ongoing choices that redirect our emotional response in a way that creates more happiness, or less, in our lives.

Happiness can also be a skill, or something we learn to do through repeated practice. Writing, for me and most others, is a skill. I may have been born with a flavor for words, but my ability to write well has been developed throughout my life by continually practicing and expanding outside of my comfort zone by trying new topics and styles of writing. Similarly, we can develop our capacity to experience happiness through practice and application in different situations. The more we practice applying happiness in moments of difficulty, the more consistently we will feel a sense of contentment and inner peace regardless of the circumstances in my life. Happiness is a muscle that grows when it is used. The more we feel a sense of happiness, the more we will want to experience it rather than something that causes us repeated pain and anguish.

Similarly, happiness can also be a repeated pattern of behavior. It is not just something we think or feel, but something we actively do in the world. Being happy means to act happy; not in a phony way, but in a sincere way that connects our innermost desires with what we do in our daily lives. When we allow our passions the freedom to grow by taking steps to share and nurture them, we become happier both in the moment and in general. People who are happy consistently act in ways that perpetuate a sense of happiness. When our actions result in more love and peace in the world, we are creating happiness not just within ourselves but for all others to enjoy as well. We are choosing to live in a happier and more loving world, and those behavioral choices are contagious.

In contrast to thinking of happiness as an object, or as something that can be acquired, happiness can alternatively be thought of as a process. It is something that emerges from moment to moment in our life journey. We experience happiness as we go about our daily lives; it ebbs and flows with our attention and intention. Happiness cannot be defined because it is always evolving, growing, and transforming. It is always with us as we search for meaning and for love. The happiness journey is traveled throughout life, until we completely give up or die.

Finally, happiness can be thought of as a sense of connection — to ourselves, others, the planet, and spirituality. It is knowing deep within that all of our thoughts, feelings, and actions have a magnificent consequence because everything is interconnected. When we are happy, we are connected to our planetary purpose and are able to discover and create abundant opportunities to share our special gifts with the world. Happiness revels in the curious joy of relationships, risking security to reveal the prosperity of love. We trust that we are loved, appreciated, and understood, and we easily love, appreciate, and understand others. Restoring internal and external connections and developing nurturing relationships feeds the happiness in our souls.

40 for 40 #6: Sourdough

I have always been curious about sourdough, but when I recently read that it both had a lower glycemic index than other breads and offered beneficial bacteria I decided to give it a try. I promptly ordered a starter that originated in the 1700s and a nice airy jar in which my starter would reside.

If you haven’t worked with sourdough before, it requires a bit of TLC. If it is kept on the counter, it needs to be fed with water and flour every day. If it is kept in the refrigerator, which is what I do, it only needs to be fed once a week. Each time it is fed, half of the starter needs to be used or thrown away. As a Pennsylvania Dutch person raised with the motto of “waste not, want not,” I of course need to fund a use for my starter each week. I have been eating a lot of blueberry pancakes.

I’m one of those people who tends to go overboard as soon as I latch on to sometime. I had an idea about how I could travel throughout the world with my sourdough starter — incorporating bacteria from every state, and finally every country, so that I could bake peace bread to provided sustenance to people in need. While I haven’t yet started this project, I am tempted to put my starter in the backseat of my car, neatly tucked in a seatbelt with a pillow for support, the next time I cross over into the nearby New Jersey border.

40 for 40 #5: Hat’s On

I bought myself my first big fancy hat. Not only is it de rigueur for the Devon Horse Show, the event at which I first wore it, it protected me from the lobster-like sunburn which I involuntarily acquired while sitting and walking out in the sun for hours on end at last year’s show. Hat shopping wasn’t fun; after more than six months of searching I finally found something that looked fabulous in a sea of mediocrity. I felt very self-conscious while wearing the hat at the show since it is not something I have ever done before. But I did receive two unsolicited compliments, and I think it put me among the better, though not necessarily the best, dressed ladies at the event.

I almost bought a hat at last year’s show. It was very pretty, but a hairy black spider took up residence inside and I decided not to disturb her habitat. At this year’s show, the usual array of hats were available for sale, but prices tripled since last year. And that does not include the big fancy hat shop, where I didn’t even look at the prices lest I drop over dead from not shock but sheer jealousy over the fact that what is to some a casual hat purchase is to me a mortgage payment (or two).

This is just be beginning of my big fancy hat odyssey. Perhaps I will purchase one new hat every year, to mark the occasion of my birthday — or to wear to a horse show.

Who Am I To Save The World?

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As a naive young college graduate in the late 1990s, I can remember actually telling people who interviewed me as I embarked upon a career in the nonprofit sector that I wanted to help save the world, or something like that. Nearly 20 years later, I look back on my career in human services and wonder if I have actually made any difference at all, let alone save the world. Yes, I have touched thousands of lives, listened and offered understanding, created opportunities, made visible and tangible positive changes, and stuck my neck out to get a result that would otherwise be impossible given the intricacies and bureaucracies of nonprofit and government systems. But during that time, is the world really any better off? And if it is, can I really claim to have had any influence at all?

Who am I to save the world? And who am I to determine that the world is in need of saving in the first place?

I wonder what the world would be like today if I had chosen a career in banking, or real estate, or hospitality, or marine biology instead. Would the world be any different? Would the lives of those thousands of people be the same, or even better off that they are as a result of my intervention?

We can never truly know what the impact of our actions will be. We can only act with a hopeful heart filled with love. If we all did that, all of the time, imagine how beautiful the world might be.