Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Beauty that Remains...

Anne Frank famously wrote: "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."

I used to believe that.  I'm sad to say that I no longer do.  I do believe firmly that most people are born good, and it is only after going through heartbreak or suffering or the steady chipping away of their self-esteems, that goodness gets either beaten out of them or buried deep inside them where it's barely accessible anymore.

Anne Frank started writing in her diary at age 13.  The quote above was written when she was 15 and had been in hiding for more than 2 years.  She was brilliant beyond her years and her dream of living beyond her death has blessedly come true.  She died at 16, getting to live and breathe for only around 5,700 days (roughly 750 of those days spent completely indoors and in fear).  I am very grateful for her words that continue to live on and inspire others when they are going through difficult times.

I wonder though, would she still have felt that people were truly good at heart had she witnessed the unspeakable horrors that were going on nearby?  She writes with the optimism of a young heart, who while in her prison had also been sheltered from the heinous acts that human beings were inflicting upon other human beings. It's understandable that she would have this view because thankfully she did not see the truth of what was going on until she herself was shipped away to witness it, her unfinished diary left behind.

Obviously I am not comparing anything in my life to her life.  That is not my intention at all because, quite simply, that is absurd.  But I am taking that phrase that she wrote, and trying to attach it to my older, scarred, oft-wounded heart.

I can't do it.

I sincerely wish I could.  The truth is, I know a lot of very good people. They have good hearts and good souls and they don't try to make the world more difficult for other people.

But the truth also is, I know a lot of people who were probably once good, but who have allowed the cruelty and injustices of the world around them penetrate their hearts and replace the good intentions and feelings with ones of resentment, anger, and frustration.  These people's goodness is buried so deeply inside of them that I don't think they can even find it anymore, much less those of us who are outside of their damaged souls.

It seems that most people are looking out for themselves first, and consideration toward others isn't even on their radar most of the time. I believe that, ideally, acts of kindness like helping someone on the side of the road, rescuing someone from a flood, or paying for someone's meal anonymously shouldn't be so rare that they make news headlines.  Instead, shouldn't this behavior be the norm?  We are all on this Earth together so it seems to me that we should be seeking out ways to help one another and lift each other up, instead of taking every opportunity to get in the way or bring each other down.

It's gotten to the point where my family and I are genuinely surprised when we have a pleasant, no-strings attached conversation with a salesperson or acquaintance.  It also makes us think, "Wouldn't it be nice if most people acted like that on a regular basis?"

But everyone has their own demons and issues that they are carrying around and often times spewing them about onto others.  And while I believe that everyone views themselves as nice and caring and kind, nine times out of ten a person will throw their fellow human being under a proverbial bus if it will save him/herself from blame or misery or unpleasant consequences.

Nine times out of ten.  Yep, that's what I said.  Why do I say that?  Because I've seen it. I've experienced it in every job I have had, and also with people who had claimed to be my friends. I've seen it happen to family members, I've read about it in history books, and I've seen it countless times on television and social media.  It seems that no matter how good we try to be as people ourselves, we still have to face the people who are far from good at heart.

But enough of that cynicism. Let's try to figure out a way to deal with the fact that the majority of people we come in contact with every day are not whom we would consider to be good at heart, even though they may truly want to be.

I turn to Anne for another quote: "I don't think of all of the misery, but of the beauty that still remains."

Ah yes. Thank you Anne, for these amazing words of wisdom, and ones that I can actually get on board with.

It's true that people will be unkind no matter what you do. It's true that people will try to sabotage your good work and bad-mouth you to others for the purpose of making themselves feel better. People will insult you to your face, make rude, unnecessary comments about aspects of how you live, they will degrade, demean, and belittle you without giving it a second thought, and yes, sometimes people will also betray you and lie and take advantage of you and your relationship.  It happens, and it hurts every time.

But thankfully, we have a way out of this mess, and we must get ourselves out of it or we're in danger of becoming like the people who have wronged us.  And that way is, to see the beauty that still remains. Yes, this person who said they were a friend stabbed us in the back and made us doubt our ability to connect with and trust others.  But, this OTHER person remembered our birthday and dropped off soup when we were sick.  A-ha! We can choose to focus our attention on the first person or the second person.  We can fill our mind with how badly we feel and how wrong it was for us to be treated that way, or we can change our thoughts to appreciate the good things, and the good people in our lives.

This is not easy to do. For some reason it is always easier to focus on the misery rather than the beauty.  Maybe if we plan for the misery and stay prepared in our headspace for it, then that will help us deal with it when it comes. Well guess what? It doesn't work that way! Misery comes to all of us at one point or another, and staying miserable doesn't prevent it from happening nor does it make it easier to deal with when it's there.  It's coming whether we think about it or not, I so think it makes sense to spend our precious time here on Earth focusing on the good things, the joyful things, and the things that make us happy.

I've said it before: Happiness is a choice.  We can choose to look at every situation positively or negatively and it's all going on inside our heads.  Some people curse the rain because it means they have to stay inside while others praise the rain for it helping to make their gardens grow.  It's all in how you look at it.

So where does that leave us?  Well, it leaves me still believing that most people are not good at heart, but I'm making the choice to focus on the people and things that I know ARE good - good for me and good for the world around me - and keep my eyes on the beauty that remains.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Pain is a great equalizer

So I've been in varying amounts of physical pain for the past 3 1/2 years.  Over the course of my life I  have also had times when I have been in severe emotional pain.  Just 2 hours ago I woke up from a horrible nightmare that left me filled with intense, agonizing, and all-too-familiar inner pain.  The kind of deep, throbbing pain that makes you desperate to do anything to just make it go away and leave you with some remnants of peace.

Pain is an extremely powerful and motivating thing.  And it can actually be beneficial at times. More than that, it's an essential tool for survival for every living thing on the planet.  When you are in physical pain it's telling the brain that a part of your body is broken or in distress and the body goes into immediate earnest action to heal that part.  It sends a signal to your synapses to take your hand off of the hot stove burner so you don't do damage to your skin and nerves.  It helps cuts and bruises get better and hopefully reminds us to walk around the coffee table instead of into it next time.  Physical pain, while painful, is usually temporary, and at some point our neurochemical analgesics hopefully kick in to help relieve us of the pain while our bodies try to fix the problem.

Emotional pain however, is different. It's not caused by a one-time action like a fall or an accident. No, emotional pain is caused by unseen injuries and torments, often inflicted by people we have loved and trusted.  Years of abuse, loneliness, grief, disappointment, despair, frustration, and neglect can result in overwhelming, long-lasting, and often perpetual emotional pain.  It can be worse than physical pain because for some people, it never goes away.

Here's the thing about pain:  It has a mind of its own and no one is safe from it.  It doesn't care about how much money you have, where you went to college, how big your house is, or the height of your position on the org chart at work.  It also has no interest in your goals and aspirations.  Even if you are living your life to the best of your ability, doing what you believe to be right each day and making a positive contribution to the world around you, pain can come at any time and smack you upside the head (sometimes literally) and leave you gasping for breath and searching your soul (and medicine cabinet) for the slightest amount of possible relief.

Everyone, at any time, is at risk, and everyone knows what it feels like.  And from what I've learned, nearly everyone around us is in some kind of pain at any given time.

We're all the same when it comes to pain.  We don't want to feel it, and some of us will go to great lengths to prevent ourselves from experiencing it at all costs. And while this may sound strange, I finally understand why some people participate in destructive behavior.  I am not doing this myself, nor am I condoning it by any means...but at this point, after all that I've been through and continue to go through, I can understand why people turn to certain things to numb or dull their pain.

Why do people get addicted to painkillers?

That's an easy one, because they are in pain.

Why do people get addicted to things like sugar, sex, shopping, gambling, and other activities that release endorphins in the brain and therefore make themselves feel good, even briefly, on a chemically physiological level?

It's actually very simple. They are in pain.

On a  deeper level, why do spouses beat their loved ones?


Why are some people mean-spirited, verbally abusive, vindictive, and take great pleasure in the anguish of others?

One word: Pain.

I knew someone in a loveless marriage who smacked her children, insulted her friends regularly, and was $30,000 in debt from buying shoes and purses at an alarmingly high rate.  I used to think she was just foolish and angry and "didn't have her act together," but now I can see that the main motivator for her actions was pain. Pure and simple. Instead of dismissing her and her behaviors with scorn and disdain, I can now feel empathy for her and the pain she is clearly feeling every moment of every day.

That's the other thing about pain: It's the same for all of us.  If a human being breaks a femur bone, that body will feel acute, excruciating, phenomenally intense pain.  It doesn't matter what color skin covers that body, how many pounds that body weighs, or what special or distinctive abilities that body has.  If the femur bone breaks, in any body, it hurts like hell.

On any given day, in any given moment, probably every single person we come across is in some kind of pain. It might be physical - his back went out earlier from shoveling snow, she has achy calves from overdoing her workout the day before, he or she has an ingrown toenail, or a cavity, or a headache from not getting enough sleep...the list goes on and on and on.  Or, possibly more likely, they are walking around in emotional pain - from deep personal injuries inflicted upon them years ago that they are still carrying around despite their best efforts to get rid of them. The truth is, we all bleed when we're cut, we all know how difficult it is to think clearly when we have a sore mouth, and we all know the debilitating grief and despair that comes from losing someone we have loved.

So what does this mean? Well I believe, on a fundamental level, that we should be kinder to one another.  It doesn't mean that we have to approve of everyone's behavior or accept people's actions when they are wrong and hurtful to others.  Absolutely not.  But maybe realizing the egalitarian nature of pain can make us a little more patient with our fellow human beings when it's clear they are suffering.  Maybe we can all try to cut each other some slack and give people the benefit of the doubt when they are act or react in ways that we might not agree with.

Pain can be a terrible, awful, exhausting and isolating thing to deal with.  And yes, pain thresholds vary so it's difficult sometimes to sympathize with the pain of others.  But from the very first time we fall down as babies we know what pain feels like, and we should remember that every single human being on the Earth knows it too.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Facebook - A Cautionary Tale

Ah Facebook. Some people love it, some people hate it, very few are indifferent about it.  It is an incredibly influential entity of our current time, which is fascinating because it's only been a part of the public consciousness for fewer than 10 years.

As I've said before, I am not wholly anti-Facebook. I think Facebook can be great when used healthily and in moderation. (Kind of like sugar.) For myself personally, Facebook has been a great asset in promoting my music and performances and for staying in touch with people whom I was sorry I lost touch with years ago.  I haven't been on much since my last post about it, but I did recently check out the tributes to Carrie Fisher and some of the "In Memoriam" compilations from the end of the year.  As usual however, along with those touching and uplifting posts, there were the all-too-typical vitriolic rants about politics, religion, conspiracy theories, and the generally dismal opinion of the current state of things.  I also was privy to many shiny happy holiday highlight reels posted by people I know, many of whom are living vastly different lives from the ones they are projecting into the world.

This last jaunt made me realize 2 things: 1. Sharing the good stuff in spite of the difficulties is probably a coping mechanism for these people.  They are putting the positive out there in the hopes that their real lives will eventually mirror their shared ones.  Not a bad idea. Of course, this is also a mode of escapism, but maybe that's what these people need right now.  2. The people who post every meal, every Christmas gift received, and selfies everywhere they go must have a pathological need for attention and approval.  Which is kind of a shame.

For example, I know someone who posts A LOT.  A photo and description of her breakfast, followed by a selfie on the way to the gym, followed by something funny she saw at the grocery store, followed by the book she's currently reading, followed by something inspirational she saw online, followed by the pile of onions she's chopped for dinner, followed by her son's soccer game after school, followed by her glass of wine and Netflix selection for the's several personal posts nearly every day.  And on every single post many of her Facebook friends post positive responses and comments. All of those posts encourages her to post more and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.  I totally get it - I mean, who doesn't want immediate gratification and approval from our own personal cheerleaders because we went to the gym or made a nice dinner? But I think a person can become dependent on those responses, so therefore her trip to the gym doesn't "count" if no one else knows about it and gives her a virtual thumbs up for going.  It's not enough to simply share her expert dicing skills in the dish she prepares for her family, she has to get kudos from people outside of her house to reassure her that she's skilled and admired and worthy of the accolades.

What is that?

I read a study that measured people's happiness after quitting FB and the researchers found that after only 7 days, the quitters were 88% happier than the non-quitters.  Are you kidding me? Those are some mighty significant results I think.  Not only did so many of these people feel happier overall, but they also felt less angry, less alone, less depressed, more decisive, more enthusiastic, and enjoyed their lives more.  Makes sense - if you're living your life according to your terms without having to worry about posting your actions; and then seeing the reactions you might get as a result, it takes a lot of pressure off of yourself and opens up a world of freedom to do what you want no matter what anyone else thinks.

No. Matter. What. Anyone. Else. Thinks.

Facebook is designed to be all about putting yourself out there and therefore opening yourself up to feedback.  And for some people, getting no feedback is worse than receiving negative feedback. No feedback means that people may not have even bothered to look at their posts! And if they didn't have their post looked at, and/or they didn't receive comments on it, then it might as well not have even happened.  It wasn't validated in any way, so the person posting isn't validated either.

Why do some people seek this day to day, seemingly minute to minute approval from others?

Again, I'm not talking about sharing photos of proud moments or family reunions or special occasions or trip slide shows.  These keep people updated and tend to bring a sense of joy and inspiration to others when they see them. (i.e. "The Smith family went to Australia! We're going there next year so let's call them for travel tips." Or "Do you remember Jenny from Nevada? Her mother has cancer, let's be sure to send her a card." Etc.) I do not have any problem with using FB that way, in fact, I welcome the opportunity to find out about these things. Used in this way I think can be beneficial.

But another problem that I have with Facebook, and I know I'm not alone in this, is that it can be a huge time sucker.  I was talking with an acquaintance who said to me recently, "The kids were with my ex over vacation and I was so bored that I ended up going on Facebook for 2 hours!"

She was bored, so instead of doing something fun or productive with her time, she spent that time sitting all alone, staring at her computer screen, watching what other people were doing.  (And this, by the way, is from the woman who is always too busy to read the books for book club!)  This made me think, how many books have gone unread, or unwritten for that matter, because people were squandering their precious free time by gaping at other people's lives?  How many pictures have gone unpainted, how many songs have gone unwritten, how much fashion has gone have gone unsewn, how many museums have remained empty, the list of creative and inspiring things people could be doing with their time is endless.

Not to mention, what is so wrong with being a little bit bored from time to time?  Think about it: If we're not constantly rushing around, hurrying from one thing to another to make sure we're never bored, then we may actually get an opportunity to figure out what we'd rather be doing and assess what our true passions are.  It's only when we have nothing else to do that we can realize what it is we'd LIKE to be doing instead.

My friends and I never complained about being bored to our parents because that would have inevitably resulted in us being assigned something productive to do around the house.  So how did we occupy ourselves and procrastinate without social media? In other words, what were the time suckers of our childhoods?  I was a reader, some kids spent hours on the phone, some hung out at the mall, and some played sports with the neighborhood kids.  While these activities definitely kept us from doing things like our chores and homework, we always managed to take care of our responsibilities anyway.  Why? Partly because parenting was different back then and there were serious consequences when our household chores went undone.  But even more than that aspect, I believe that the biggest reason we didn't get completely immersed in our distractions was because they all had definite ending times.  The book eventually ended so I could put it down and attend to my obligations.  The mall eventually closed, or we had a set pick up time so we couldn't stay there forever. Stickball games ended when the street lights came on so everyone could go home and eat dinner.  We didn't expect to do any of these things without a defined completion time.

But Facebook isn't like that.  Nor is YouTube or Twitter or other social media sharing sites.  Because the internet has billions and billions of data items on it, and that number is growing every single day.  This means that even a casual user can literally never be done with it. (As of September 8, 2016, there were 4.3 billion Facebook messages posted every day and 5.75 billion Facebook likes posted each day as well.)  Once you click on one video to watch, another one pops up that's similar, and then there's another followed by another followed by another ad infinitum. So it's very easy to see why people end up spending so much time on Facebook (and other sites too) - with a book you can put it down when it ends but with the internet, there's never an end.

I am by no means longing for the simplicity of my youth when books and 3 television channels were our main sources of entertainment.  Not at all!  But I do think it's worth remembering the time before social media sharing when we did things that we enjoyed without constantly thinking about showing them to everyone we knew. There wasn't pressure to keep our hair perfectly done at the pool because there was no danger of someone snapping a photo and sharing with with the world.  We could go to a restaurant and simply enjoy a meal without feeling the need to take a perfectly framed picture of it to prove to others that we know good cuisine.  There wasn't the stress in the back (or front) of our minds that we had to do certain things or go to certain places to make sure we were keeping up with everyone else's accomplishments that we were hearing about multiple times during each day.

Facebook can be a wonderful tool of support when people need it. I personally received a lot of loving messages of encouragement from dozens of people when I was going through my failed back surgery and complications.  And I think if someone wants to go on it every few weeks to catch up on people or news that's perfectly fine.  But when people focus all of their energies on doing things just so they can post them, or when they spend copious amounts of time watching and envying other people instead of concentrating on their own lives, or when hard-hearted souls decide to broadcast their prejudices to demean and belittle others, then I think it's a detriment to our psyches.  Children have committed suicide, marriages have broken apart, and life-long friendships have ended due to people placing excessive meaning on what they see on Facebook.  I'm assuming that Facebook wasn't the only reason these tragedies occurred, but it certainly seems to have played a tremendous part.

One more time, I'm not scorning Facebook as an entity. It is the best way we currently have to find and keep in touch with people we'd previously lost touch with.  It's a fun, efficient, and no-cost way to get the word out about life events like new jobs, new homes, new family members, and birthday milestones.  It helps artists publicize their gigs, business owners to drum up new customers, and a great way to solicit advice from a vast cross-section of the virtual population. But when it becomes the barometer by which you measure your self-worth, your main motivation for what you do, or an endless black hole into which your real life goals and dreams disappear,  I believe it can be dangerous.  I encourage you to find another way to fill your leisure time with something that is REAL, that satisfies and sustains you, and that is creative, invigorating, relaxing, and truly fulfilling. Volunteer at a community garden, knit scarves for your grandparents, paint the walls of your bedroom a new color - whatever makes you happy and fills you up while remembering that the activity is just for YOU. There's no need to post the results because it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about it. If those things are too strenuous, then find something to do that's pleasurable but has a definite ending point. Watching Netflix, reading comic books, baking cupcakes, whatever - but they should be things that you enjoy that don't have the potential to go on forever.

Life is short.  It's up to you how you want to spend the time that you've been given. Do you think anyone's final thoughts on his or her deathbed are "I wish I'd spent more time on Facebook?"