Driving in heavy traffic brings out the worst in me. Normally a positive, happy individual, when I’m behind the steering wheel, encountering drivers who impede my progress, I’m anything but happy and positive. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago, in the last two hours of a 500-mile drive. Though I wasn’t at my best, I developed a coping mechanism that I’m trying to use in other aspects of my life.
When I’m driving, I instinctively define other motorists by their driving styles. The Mazda compact with Iowa plates who hung out in the passing lane and drove at a fluctuating pace was an inconsiderate moron. The pick-up truck with a Skutt sticker who raced past me, before turning abruptly into my lane just ahead of me and then slowing, was a dangerous jackass. I described others with even more colorful language, yet none of it improved my situation or made me feel any better.
I only started to feel better when I used my imagination to envision good people who were having bad days as drivers. It wasn’t easy, but I tried to create sympathetic situations and forgivable characters that would make me feel better about the strangers around me. The Mazda-driving Iowan became a college student who was driving home to visit a gravely ill family member. She was too distracted by her thoughts to worry about maintaining a consistent pace. The pick-up driver was inexperienced at interstate driving, and was doing his best not to get run over. It took some effort, but after a while, I began to see drivers as more than drivers. Their driving styles were only a small part of who they were.
Thinking about people as more than one-dimensional made me far less agitated and much happier. Back at home, I considered how this way of thinking could apply to other facets of life.
The current socio-political atmosphere has negatively affected my ability to stay positive and spiritual, and I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. Ingesting mainstream and social media has become like driving in intense traffic. I notice myself making similar assessments of strangers, based on what I am seeing and hearing in the media, because I’m thinking of them in one dimension.
When someone posts something on social media that seems non-sensical and opposes my values, instead of firing off a snarky retort, I consider that their perspective comes from experiences unfamiliar to me, and that if given the opportunity to sit down and talk, we could find some common ground. When politicians prioritize legislation that seems misguided, instead of giving in to agitation, I think of them as people who care about the future for their families and mine. Instead of grumbling in frustration, like I did in traffic, I try to see others as multi-dimensional, and to believe that they have goodness that I just haven’t seen yet.
We’re often misled into thinking that the world is filled with adversaries who deserve our disdain. When we think like that, we’re tempted to lash out, which only serves to increase animosity. The civil unrest that we’re witnessing across the country is a good example of that negative impact.
Instead, I believe that it’s better to think that most people are good, despite what we’re led to believe. Even the simple task of looking for the good in people, especially when it’s not obvious, is calming. I know that can sound naïve, but I really don’t care what it sounds like. It helps me find peace and happiness. Try it. Maybe it will work for you too.
With hope and trepidation, I recently got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Hope came from taking a major step toward escaping the limiting shadow that the pandemic has cast over my life for the past year. Trepidation stemmed from my complicated history with vaccines.
Like everyone in my generation, I was given a polio vaccine as a child. Unlike nearly everyone who got that vaccine, I had an adverse reaction that left me with permanent polio-like symptoms. Back then, many of the vaccines contained a live virus which negatively affected very few. I was one of those very few. Unfortunately, since very few were affected, and testing was limited, no one knew what happened for several years after. While most benefited from the vaccine by not contracting polio, my life was forever changed.
Despite that experience, I have had every vaccination since. In fact, in past year, I have had the double-dose shingles vaccine, in addition to the annual flu shot. Throw in the pandemic and a welcome-to-50 colonoscopy, and my 50th year has been a year I won’t soon forget.
It was hard not to think about my experience with the polio vaccine, as I drove the vaccination center. While I certainly understand the hesitation and what-could-go-wrong thinking associated with a quickly approved vaccine for a virus we’ve only recently come to know, I choose to live my life with an opposite mindset. I approach uncertain situations with a what-can-go-right mindset.
Peril, loss and disappointment are potential outcomes of nearly everything we do. Even the simplest things, like going to the grocery store, involve risk. We can have a car accident, fall in the parking lot or expose ourselves to people with ill intent any time we leave our houses. Most of us don’t even think about negative outcomes during our routines, and that’s a good thing. If we did, we’d be afraid to do almost everything.
We do think about negative outcomes when doing something out of the ordinary, like going on a trip. That’s a good thing too, if we balance caution with optimism. My family and I did that when we traveled to Cabo San Lucas in January. Though COVID-19 complicated a trip out of the country, we know how valuable family vacations are, so we used a what-could-go-right mindset, and decided that the rewards outweighed the risks. No one got sick, and the trip was a success. We were glad that we didn’t let fear keep us from living.
When it came time to consider being vaccinated for COVID-19, I thought about how fear has become a greater presence in my thinking during the pandemic. At the gym, for instance, I stay far away from panting strangers. Not that I really want to get close to panting strangers, but it would be nice not to fear such situations. I also don’t want to consider potential exposure to the virus every time I plan an outing or to worry that I could be in that very small percentage of people who suffer lasting effects after contracting the virus. Likewise, I also don’t want people to be afraid of living or of me, if I happen to cough in public. For these reasons and many more, I decided to be vaccinated.
As someone who has spent most of his life dealing with the side-effects of a vaccine that was largely successful for most, that decision was complicated. Ultimately, like I do with most major decisions in my life, I rolled the dice and focused my thinking on what can go right. Instead of thinking about possible complications, I think about traveling without a mask and making people smile. Rather than buying into fear, conspiracy theories and all that can go wrong, I’m focused on what can go right. Life is so much better lived this way.
For those wondering: I received the Moderna vaccine, and experienced no negative reaction, other than a little soreness at the injection site.
The weather last month was brutal where I live. In fact, it was brutal almost everywhere. With temperatures struggling to get above zero and snow piling on top of snow, it was even worse for people like me who struggle with mobility problems. When winter weather is at its worst, we can barely leave our homes. Even when the weather breaks, the aftermath continues to limit our outings. Sand, salt, gravel and semi-frozen precipitation are just as likely to cause a fall, as snow and ice. Going anywhere in conditions like that is a calculated gamble.
The older I get, the less I want to gamble. I don’t want to break a hip, my one good arm or my semi-functional leg. Plus, the prospect of going to an emergency room during a pandemic is even more daunting than usual. Because of this, I spent most of this winter hiding in my house and slowly turning calendar pages while waiting for spring to arrive. As much as winter weather limits me, my pride can be just as limiting.
Last month, on a sunny day when the temperature hit 50 degrees, and the snow was quickly melting, my monthly lunch meeting with a friend and mentor appeared on my calendar. Because of the weather, we had missed our last two meetings. Though the weather was perfect for an outing that day, I knew that going out for lunch would entail facing the surface obstacles I just mentioned. I also knew that I could probably pull it off, if I pushed my pride aside and asked my friends for help.
Most people don’t have the mobility problems that I have, but many of us let pride get in the way of asking for help. We want the world to see us as able to handle anything that comes our way, and we don’t want to inconvenience anyone by asking for help. Though independence and consideration of others are admirable traits, they can also be limiting, if we resist asking for help when we need it and when others are so willing.
We’re all going to need to ask for help at some point, if we’re blessed to live long enough to experience the natural physical challenges of aging. It’s hard for most of us to imagine, and it’s even more difficult to accept, but there will be a day that we can’t do things that we used to do without thinking, like going out on a wintery day. Because of the physical disability that I was blessed with, I experienced that about thirty years ahead of schedule.
A funny thing happens when we’re forced to ask our friends for help: we get to see just how much they care for us and how helpful they’re willing to be. That’s tremendously reassuring, and it reminds us just how valuable friends can be.
On that sunny Tuesday, I shared my concerns with my lunch companion who told me to wait in my vehicle if I arrived before he did, so that he could ensure that I made it into the restaurant safely. I also messaged the owner of the restaurant with whom I have been friends for a long time, and I asked him if he could sweep away the debris in front of the restaurant. I didn’t want to burden anyone, but I also didn’t want to miss a lunch that I had been looking forward to, especially on a nice February day. Both of my friends stepped up, and I was able to enjoy a lunch without anxiety. That wouldn’t have been possible, if I hadn’t been honest and had the courage to ask for the help that I needed.
The next time you need help, don’t hesitate to ask for it, especially from your friends. You might be surprised how much people care for you, and after a while, you won’t be surprised at all. You will just be grateful, and being grateful is a good way to live.
While an admirer of Tiger Woods’ golfing prowess, I was never a fan of the man. I obviously didn’t know him, so my judgment was based on the standoffish way that I thought he interacted with fans and fellow competitors. Additionally, I felt that the media fawned over him while ignoring other golfers. Subconsciously, I was probably jealous that everything he touched seemed to turn into gold.
Those opinions were challenged when my wife and I recently watched the HBO documentary “Tiger,” which examines the life and career of one of the all-time best PGA golfers. The documentary told the story of a relentless competitor who meticulously prepared himself for a legendary career, while living a flawed double life which cost him his marriage and put him through a personal nightmare.
I remember when Tiger crashed his vehicle on the night of Thanksgiving 2009, and the public learned of his double life. In the media frenzy that followed, his rampant adultery became headline news for weeks, and was fodder of many comedians and talk-show hosts. We couldn’t get enough of the downfall of a champion who many of us praised and supported on his way up. The media knew this, and they fed our appetite.
I cringed while watching the documentary examine the public’s obsession with Tiger’s comeuppance, because I was part of it. I smugly consumed the media surrounding the story, enjoying seeing someone who appeared super-human suddenly become human.
Tiger’s personal life should be of little interest to me or any other casual sports fan, and if he experiences a personal crisis, I surely shouldn’t delight in watching his struggle, but I did, and I wasn’t alone.
Unless you are a saint, you have probably enjoyed watching someone stumble and fall. Maybe a casual acquaintance who once made more money than you has fallen on hard times or the popular kid in high school now seems to be professionally and personally adrift. Perhaps someone from a family who seems squeaky clean runs into legal trouble or the kid who plays in front of your kid has a bad game.
Likewise, unless you haven’t accomplished anything, it’s likely that someone is jealous of you and secretly snickered when you experienced difficult times. It’s a phenomenon so common that it seems like human nature, but why?
I hit the internet to learn a little bit more about this phenomenon, and learned that there is actually a term for it, schadenfreude, and that it is indeed very common. (Why We Enjoy Seeing Other People Fail)
To summarize my brief research: unless we are completely comfortable with who and where we are in life, the success of others can make us feel inferior. When we feel inferior, watching successful people struggle can temporarily assuage our fragile egos, but that’s a terrible way to make ourselves feel better. What’s more, the instant remedy that schadenfreude offers is dependent on the failures of others, instead of our own successes and optimism.
It’s much better to have compassion for others, even when we might be jealous of their success. Like Tiger, most successful people have worked hard and sacrificed for their achievements. Rather than resenting their success, we should be celebrating, admiring it and even trying to emulate it.
Toward the end of 2020, I saw and heard many people eager to leave 2020 behind, and given the ugliness and frustration that happened last year, it’s easy to understand why. What wasn’t easy to understand though was the fantasy that we would awake on January 1, and everything would be OK. Things are only OK when we decide that they’re OK.
We lose control of our destinies when we tie hope and happiness to turning the calendar page, the election of our preferred candidate or something else over which we have no control.
To control our destinies, we must make ourselves happy and hopeful, and that requires constant attention and effort. To do that, these are the things I remind myself daily.
You are not responsible for, and in most cases, not affected by, the world’s problems. I know that can sound ignorant and naïve, but I see a lot of people walking around thinking that the world is ending. Yes, we have seen better days, but we have also seen darker days. We can’t be happy if we internalize problems that are beyond our control or those that don’t directly affect us. To determine if you’re unintentionally doing this, consider what is bothering you and if you can do anything about it. If you can’t do anything about the problem, move on.
Leave negativity behind. This includes negative influences, thoughts and even people. You can’t live a long and healthy life while consuming a toxic diet. When you’re feeling negative, look at what is happening around you. Is your social media jammed with negative news and snarky comments? If that’s the case, take a break or prune the negative content from your feeds. Are there people around you who spend most of their time and energy spreading negative ideas? If you can’t redirect them, move away from them.
Exude positivity. Positivity, like negativity, often ricochets and comes right back at you even faster. It’s a lot more pleasant to be hit with a smile and kind words than with a scowl and bitter complaining. Positive people stand out. Greet those around with a smile and encouraging words. When someone casually and instinctually asks you how you’re doing, use that opportunity to exude positivity. Instead of a blah response like “fine” or “good,” respond with something memorable, like “awesome,” “incredible,” or “blessed,” and say it with energy and a smile. No one is really expecting an honest response, so don’t feel guilty if you overstate your mood. You’re looking for that positive ricochet, not a medal for honesty.
Focus your thoughts on your blessings, not on your problems. I just spent the last three days trapped in my house, because the world outside is covered in a wintery mess that would likely drop me in my tracks if I dared to take a step outside. I was frustrated that I couldn’t go to the gym or anywhere else, but rather than focusing on that, I thought about all that I could enjoy and accomplish within my four walls, and I reminded myself that the situation was temporary. That made being shut in a lot easier to accept.
Lastly, control what you can control, and accept that you can’t control everything. You can’t control the weather, the economy or the politics of the world, but you can always control your effort and your attitude, and in most cases, that’s enough.
As you know by now, January 1 wasn’t much different than December 31. In fact, the first couple of weeks of 2021 looked a lot like the most challenging weeks of 2020. Shrug that off, and remind yourself that you survived the adversity that last year presented, so you have a history of success when facing trying times. If you do that and take a proactive approach to your happiness and hopefulness, 2021 can be your best year yet.
Like many of you, I occasionally struggle to remain positive, and when that happens, it’s usually because I’m focusing on the wrong things. I’m looking down when I should be looking up or I’m looking for affirmation to feed the negative thoughts in my head.
That was the case in 1994, on a steamy summer morning in Washington, DC. I was walking to the Metro station to catch a train to my job downtown, and though we lived on Capitol Hill that summer, the novelty of living in such a fascinating place had worn off weeks earlier.
A couple of blocks into our six-block walk, my wife suddenly said, “I just love mornings in the city. Everyone seems so happy and eager to get to work.” That stopped me in my tracks, because I saw exactly the opposite. My mind was fixed on the dead rats I saw in the gutter and the stressed, absent looks I saw in the faces of strangers who seemed to be going in all different directions, everyone rushing to keep up with their individual agendas.
“What the <heck> are you looking at?” I asked in exasperation. We both saw the same things, but Lynda was able to filter out the negative while I was fixated on it.
I thought of that scene this week, as I looked back at the past year. While, it’s tempting to look at 2020 and focus on the negatives, like I did back in DC 26 years ago, it’s much healthier and more productive to look away from the dead rats in the gutter and look for the smiling faces in the crowd.
When we let negative circumstances fill our heads, they crowd out optimism, hope and gratitude. When optimism, hope and gratitude are pushed aside, we lose our perspective. When we lose our perspective, we let outside forces determine our happiness.
Obviously, it has been unusually difficult to maintain proper perspective in 2020, as media, both traditional and social, has repeatedly led us to believe that pandemics and politicians control our fates. They don’t. While we can’t escape the influence of both in our lives, we control much more of our destiny when we control our perspectives.
Lynda’s observation was a wake-up call for me that day in DC. I had lost my perspective. My trips to and from the office that summer had become merely something that I had to endure, like much of 2020 has been, when they should have been stimulating. Rather than looking up at the US Capitol and Supreme Court building, and appreciating where I was in the world, I was counting dead rats in the gutter. Instead of looking for positives in the people I encountered, I was looking for ways to discount them.
It’s not that the rats and loneliness of a city crowd weren’t there, but they weren’t alone. I just needed to look up and have the proper perspective.
If we’re looking for reasons to be hopeless and frustrated, we can find them much more easily these days; however, with so much negativity around, like flowers in a feedlot, positives should be easier to distinguish too. We just need to train our eyes to use the 2020 vision that this unique year has given us.
I had owned my new truck for more than four months, and the odometer showed just 1280 miles, when I went to the gym for the first time in 53 days, back in May. Due to COVID19, I hadn’t driven in nearly seven weeks, and it felt good to be behind the wheel.
Shortly into the trip, I got caught at a railroad crossing that rarely sees trains. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I typically curse aloud and ponder taking a side street, when a train interrupts my trip. That day, I did neither. Instead, I rolled to a stop and looked around at surroundings I hadn’t seen in weeks.
Gratitude overwhelmed frustration, as I took a moment to enjoy the new car smell and luxury surrounding me, and to appreciate the beauty of that May day. I noticed houses, landscaping and fences that were probably there months ago, but that I had previously driven by, too preoccupied to notice. Once the train passed, a slow driver led me over the tracks and his pace caused me to miss a green light. Normally, I’m frustrated when this happens, but I was oddly calm this time.
I felt like a triumphant general entering the gym. The front desk staff checked my temperature and briefed me on the new procedures designed to make exercising as safe as it could be. That was awkward, but I didn’t care. I was finally able to exercise in a familiar setting in a familiar manner. My workout regimen was more difficult than I remembered, and I struggled with weight that moved easily just a couple of months earlier, but again, I didn’t react negatively. Gratitude overwhelmed frustration.
Back home, I discussed my workout with my son who COVID19 forced home from college weeks earlier. The novelty of “being back” had worn off for him weeks before, but he didn’t react negatively. He was thankful to have a comfortable and familiar spot to live during this weird time, and we were all thankful for the unplanned extra time we were able to spend together as a family. Gratitude overwhelmed frustration.
Frustration is something that nearly everyone, regardless of their station in life, has felt in the past few months, and I’m no different. My business has slowed. Travel and other recreation that I had eagerly anticipated have been put into question. I scrutinize family spending more than I have in a long time.
I also scrutinize my blessings more than I have in a long time. Though I am, by nature, a grateful person, small blessings, like driving, still often take a backseat to a hectic day’s activities and obligations. Now, I lean on those blessings to focus my mind in the right direction.
If our minds focus on frustration, our thoughts, words and actions follow. If we don’t consciously disrupt that cycle, frustration begins to overwhelm gratitude, when exactly the opposite should occur. Instead of fretting over cancelled plans, we should breathe in the air and look for beauty around us. Rather than grumbling about new, temporary ways of doing our favorite things, we should be grateful to be out and about. Use gratitude to overwhelm frustration.
I’ve been back to the gym many times since that first voyage back in May. With my routine re-established, it’s tempting to overlook the blessings around me. Unfortunately, frustration persists, and it doesn’t appear that it will go away quickly. Fortunately, I have gratitude to help me though, and I hope that it will do the same for you.
My long jump career ended as quickly as it began, at a church camp that my parents made me go to when I was 16. We were in the woods in Western Nebraska, and we needed to cross a creek for dinner that night. The safe play was a bridge, but several of the guys decided instead to jump the creek, so I followed suit, until gravity and a lack of momentum stole the moment. Near enough to the opposite edge to grab some weeds, I was able to pull myself up, but only after plunging my lower half in the rushing water.
Like many of you, I had been subject to the “if everyone was jumping off a bridge” peer-pressure parable, but I was never much good at listening and even worse at being scared. I learned at an early age that, if f I let fear be a barrier to living, I wasn’t going to do much living.
I thought about my long jumping experience recently when watching President Trump talk about his experience with COVID-19. Unless you have been living in a hole, you know that the President largely shrugged off his brush with the virus, much to the consternation of the mainstream media. They wanted him to frighten people, in order to save people.
I’m not going to opine on what President Trump should or should not say or how you should approach COVID-19 – it seems like that’s been done ad nauseum – but I do want to share some thoughts on living with fear.
Because of the disability I’ve been blessed with, for much of my life, I’ve been told that I should be afraid of doing things that able-bodied people do with minimal concern. Riding a motorcycle is dangerous enough, why risk it? You probably shouldn’t go out in this weather. What if that bear you’re hunting decides to hunt you?
That concern almost always comes from people who care about me and don’t want me to put myself in jeopardy. (It must be extremely frustrating to care for me!) I hear these concerns, but I weigh following them against what I would have to sacrifice to do so. If the threat is manageable, and it doesn’t affect anyone else, and my desire is strong enough, I put living my vision ahead of living in fear.
COVID-19 has definitely tested that mantra. In the early days, when fear and precaution were nearly universally accepted, I played along. I avoided socializing. I minimized trips away from home. I nearly washed the prints off of my hands. It felt uncomfortable, but necessary and responsible. As time passed, however, it started to feel like fear had become a barrier to living. I needed to regain my active lifestyle, and all of the gym and socializing time that fed my soul.
I still worry about what an infection could do to a guy like me whose legs barely get him around, but those legs need time in the gym, and the guy that they carry around needs time with his family and friends.
Again, I’m not trying to tell you how to protect yourself from getting infected. That’s a personal decision that only you can make. However, COVID-19 isn’t the only threat we face. While we’re hiding from each other, bigger problems could be brewing. Don’t let fear be a barrier to the life you want to live, because we never know how much of that we have left.
Though my long jump attempt back in 1986 was probably ill-advised, I’m glad that I did it. Walking across a bridge isn’t really living when jumping the creek is an option.
When my gym closed a couple of months ago, I was forced to change, and like many of you, I don’t like change. I had been going to the same gym, using the same equipment around the same people since 2003, and though it might not have been perfect, I was perfectly content to stay in my routine. That just wasn’t an option.
When they closed the former location, the owners bought another facility, and transferred memberships there, but my new trip was considerably farther than I wanted to drive, and except for a few familiar faces, the new gym was almost completely foreign to me. I didn’t know how to use some of the machines, and even when I figured out how to use the equipment properly, I didn’t know how much weight to load. Because I had spent so much time at my old gym, I even knew how to structure my workout to minimize time between stations, but I struggled to do that at the new gym. Nothing seemed right or comfortable.
I grumbled about a lot of things during my first few trips to the new facility, but the grumbling was misplaced. There was nothing wrong with the new gym; it just wasn’t the old gym, and that’s why I was frustrated. I didn’t want to change.
It’s ironic that someone like me, who works as a recruiter and encourages people to consider professional changes, is so resistant to change himself, but I also think that it’s human nature to cling to familiarity and the security and predictability it provides. It’s why we don’t take chances on new careers, relationships or changes in lifestyle. Resistance to change can stifle us this way, if we’re not careful.
Strength training is a perfect example of how resistance to change can stifle growth. If you routinely perform the same exercise with the same weight, you can get really good at lifting that weight and building the affected muscles, but only to that point. To lift more weight and build more muscle, you have to change up your workout routine with new weights and new exercises – exactly what I was resisting doing.
The same holds true in our careers, relationships and lifestyles. If we don’t step out of our comfort zones, at least occasionally, we get stuck in a rut that keeps us from reaching our true potential.
I had done that with the old gym to which I clung stubbornly for more than 17 years. When they closed the doors there for the final time, that gym was nowhere near optimal. Both the members and the employees were great, but the equipment and facility had fallen into disrepair. Still, I drove past nicer and newer facilities on my way there, because I didn’t want to change.
Finally, forced to change, I tried to adapt to the new facility, its equipment and the drive it required for me to get there. Ultimately though, I learned that the drive was unsustainable, and I realized that the parking situation would likely be troublesome during winter weather, so I decided to check out a newer gym that required less than half the travel time and had parking right by the front door.
My new gym is smaller and less crowded than the other two gyms, but I still find myself wishing that I was back in my old routine. At the same time, I also realize that I’m training my muscles in ways that they haven’t been trained in 17 years, and I’m beginning to see the results. I’m stronger than I was when I left the old gym, and those gains have made me more eager for my workouts.
Change is an important part of life; it helps us learn new things about ourselves, and it helps us grow. Change often comes with challenges, and those challenges can seem greater when we didn’t choose to change. When we’re forced to change, it’s natural to resist, but after a while, it’s much more helpful to find the bright side and focus there.
I encourage you to pay attention to the voice in your head that tells you that you need to change, and not to wait until you are forced to change. Something better can be just around the corner, and the longer you wait to change, the longer you’ll need to wait to enjoy the results.