Friday, February 24, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

How Are You?

Pay Attention. Sometimes people are going through things they can't explain, and need things they can't express.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Living With Depression

Let me tell you a little about living with a major depressive disorder. You might notice, first of all, that I tend to avoid word like “battling,” “struggling,” or “suffering” in this context. Yes, I do battle and struggle and sometimes even suffer, but, through it all, I live, and I think that is the more important part. I live. That wasn’t always as obvious as it might seem.

Even today, it is not unusual for me to have thoughts along the lines of, “Why am I here? I don’t belong here. No one wants me here. They would all be better off if I wasn’t here.” These days, such thoughts are usually fleeting, with minimal impact on my daily life - often even with minimal awareness they have even happened - but they still do happen. There is almost no threat to them anymore because I have learned to better navigate that obstacle course, but they can be a nuisance, and they can be tiring. If I am already tired, they are, of course, more stressful, and more stress means more tired means more stress means … You get the idea. I’m better. I’m far better than I once was, but it’s never easy.

Don’t get me wrong. No one has an easy life. That isn’t what I mean, and besides, still waters do not make an experienced sailor. The rough spots in life are what teach us how to be better, and we all need those lessons from time to time, but there are rough spots and then there are rough spots. When your alarm goes off and you stare at the ceiling, reciting the reasons you really do need to get out of bed … When you’re standing in the shower and suddenly realize you’ve forgotten how long you have been standing there … When you are sitting in the parking lot still trying to talk yourself into going into work long after you were scheduled to begin … I could go on, but there are rough times and then there are rough times. I would never ask for an easy life, but there is a level and a type of tired that I could do without.

On the other hand, since people are used to my being tired, it’s an easy escape route. For an honest person, I lie about my condition all the time. “I’m just tired. I didn’t sleep well. I’m just a bit under the weather.” Before anyone who has had one of those conversations with me gets any funny ideas, I’m not lying every time. There really are any number of totally mundane reasons why I might not have slept well the night before, so I didn’t just let you in on some big secret, but sometimes it is easier. Sometimes I don’t really want to talk about what’s going on in my head, so “I’m just tired” is a convenient dodge. It gets me out of trying to explain things I often don’t really understand, myself.

How do you explain, to someone who has never experienced it, being on-the-edge-of-tears sad for no discernable reason? Even better, try explaining when there is a discernable reason, but you’re fighting to get your miswired brain to understand that it’s an ant-sized reason rather than a herd-of-elephants-sized reason? That can be the hardest part, and it’s often the hardest part to get other people to understand.

You see, we know. Most of us do, anyway, most of the time. When I’m sitting in the dark, rocking back and forth, trying not to scream, I almost always know there’s no real reason for it. When the “nobody wants you here” thoughts are pounding inside my head, I know they’re not true. When the dark is closing in, I know it won’t last. I know, and most of the time knowing helps. Learning the truth of these things is a large part of how I have gotten to where I am. Knowing these things plays a big role in keeping the bad thoughts from having a more negative impact on my life. I know these things aren’t real, and knowing has made my life so much better, when it works.

When it doesn’t work, though, knowing might actually be worse. I know there is nothing wrong, or I know that what is wrong isn’t really that big of a deal, so why am I falling apart? What is so wrong with me that I can’t keep it together even knowing the truth? Now, imagine being a naturally logic-oriented person, and think about how far around the bend that internal conversation might drive you. If I’m not careful, it can spiral into a full moral failure, and the most fiery brimstone preacher cannot be harder on me about my morality than I am. Once we step through that door, all bets are off. It’s going to be a Bad Day, and I just have to hope that no one gets caught in the crossfire.

I spend a lot of time trying to make sure no one gets caught in the crossfire. I feel very strongly about owning my own issues, which can make it more difficult sometimes, but I also think that adds to the strength of my recovery. This is mine and it’s something I can be proud of, and that’s more precious than gold or water on days when you’re sure the world doesn’t want you. I have done this, I did well, and I didn’t hurt anyone in the process. That’s my gold medal. Sometimes that’s my lifeline.

What’s it like living with depression? I suspect that most of the time it’s a lot like living without depression. That’s not really a comparison I can make on anything more than an observational level, since I don’t have more than an intellectual understanding of what it’s like to live without depression, but I like to think I’m an expert observer and there do appear to be quite a few similarities. We do many of the same things in many of the same ways for many of the same reasons. I do have a condition, though, and that means there are some things I have to do differently, or that are more difficult to do. It’s a condition that I can manage, but it is a condition that I do have to manage. Much like diabetes or a heart condition, there are things that I can’t do and things that I need to do if I am going to properly manage my condition. Sometimes these things are more difficult than others, and sometimes we forget to do them. Sometimes we just don’t want to do them, but it’s a decision we have to make. Will I manage my condition, or will I let it manage me?

I’m pretty stubborn. That can be both my bane and my salvation, but it usually ends up meaning I’m not letting something else manage me. If you’re like me, if you’re living with depression or anxiety or anything of that sort, you have to find that lever, that first tool you can use to get a handle on your condition. You’ll gain more tools as you go, but, if you have to start with a hammer, start with a hammer. Take whatever first step you have to take to begin the journey of moving from suffering with depression to living with depression. They won’t all be easy, and some of them will hurt like hell, but they’ll take you to a better place. You’ll get there, along the way. You probably won’t see it happen, but you’ll look back and you’ll realize that it’s happened.

When I was a teenager, there was some genuine doubt over whether or not I would see twenty. I don’t know how many people knew about that doubt, but it was real, and it was not teen angst. I am now forty five, and I fully expect to see a few more decades, at least. You live and you learn. I have the same condition I had then, but I have learned how to live with it. It can be done, you are not alone, and there is help.

If you need help, please get it. Take that first step. I promise you won’t regret it. If you know someone who needs help, please be understanding. You can’t do it for them, you can’t even always make it easier for them to do it, but you can avoid making it worse. Be a friend. I can’t express strongly enough how important that is. Be a friend, be understanding, and be patient. No one knows more than we do how difficult we can be sometimes. We hate it more than you do. That’s part of the problem. We’ll get there, though. We’ll get there even easier if we all work together. Together, we can all make life better.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Friday, February 17, 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Everything Changes

Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. The only thing constant in this world is the constancy of change. Learning this lesson from more than one angle might be the single biggest secret to living a more peaceful, mindful, and simply full life. Everything changes.

There is an obvious application of this principle when times are hard. This too shall pass. When you’re struggling to just stay afloat, the struggle is often made worse by the irrational belief that this is the new normal. Negativity is the fabled perpetual motion device, and it is difficult to stop that motion once you get it going. The key to shutting off that infernal machine is change. Change is inevitable, and that is just as true for the hard times as for anything else.

A somewhat less obvious, though still very real application is for when times are easy. Look ahead. I don’t mean to obsess over the future - that is unhealthy - but be mindful that the future will come, and it may not be the same as today. It is the story of the grasshopper and the ant. Don’t let the ease of spring lull you into laziness so that you become ill-prepared for the difficulties of winter. It was no secret that spring would not stay. Everything changes.

According to the Pali canon, the Buddha once said, “upadhi dukkhassa mÅ«lanti”, which can be roughly translated as “attachment is the root of suffering.” We tend to cling, and that tendency to cling is the leading cause of our own pain. We want things to be a certain way, or to not be a certain way, and we either hold on tightly when we have what we want, or we become convinced that what we don’t want is holding tightly to us when it is happening. We forget that these things change and, in forgetting, we are either ill-prepared for the change when it occurs or we become convinced that change will not occur and we are stuck.

Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. If we learn nothing else, learning that will help us move toward the right direction.

That is not to say that change will always go in the direction we desire. It often will not, but even the worst change will inevitably lead to yet more changes, and we can work to help the process. It would be foolish to believe that we could govern all changes, but we can guide the process, and we can prepare for those times when things will not go our way. Most of all, we can cherish this moment, completely mindful of life right now so that we do not waste it and regret when it is gone.

I am reminded of the constancy of change as we begin the tedious process of house hunting and gathering boxes. We are renting our current home, and the owners have decided to sell. I’m not exactly surprised, though we were hoping to get a little more time out of it before we crossed this particular change. They offered us the possibility of buying, but I’m afraid I understand all too well why they are selling. It has become abundantly clear in recent months that this house needs more work than I am willing to put into it, and I am certain that the owners have arrived at the same conclusion.

So we prepare to move, and we are strongly leaning toward making this one a fairly large change. We will probably leave Phoenix completely and go to one of the surrounding towns. To be honest, neither of us works in Phoenix anyway, so it’s really about time that we made that change. It will be interesting learning new neighborhoods, not to mention learning new routes to get anywhere, but this is what living is all about.

These practical applications are the reason for what we learn. Everything we do in life is an opportunity to learn, but if we’re not using what we learn then what is the point? We could sit on the side of a mountain and contemplate the universe, or we could go out into life and learn new roads. Both can be teaching moments, and both have their value, but I believe that more people will get more out of the latter. There have been some great teachers who have provided valuable knowledge gained from universal contemplation, but the value of that knowledge would be severely limited if there were not people in the world living and acting upon it.

So we go into the world and we live. We go through changes, and we change as a result. We may or may not know that there have been thinkers and dreamers, philosophers and preachers who have taught us about change, its inevitability, and what we can do with it, but we know all about change because we live with it. From the marvelous to the mundane, change is the engine of life, moving everything forward from moment to moment.

Know that change is coming, and live your life with that understanding. You’ll find that change can be easier to work with if you do work with it. Learning with a true understanding that everything changes is the first step toward inner peace, and inner peace is the first step toward everything else. Everything changes, nothing stays the same, and that is how life happens.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Confession Time

I have told you that it has been crazy busy for me lately, and I have said this is why I have been less attentive to Frequently Interrupted. That is not entirely true. More accurately, that is entirely true, but it is not the entire truth. My schedule did go off the rails, and I had to do some hard paddling just to keep from drowning. Some serious adjustments were made in order to get everything to fit, and this did cause some significant interference in my writing schedule. I’m fairly certain, though, that I could have made a few more adjustments a bit earlier in the process to prevent things here from being quite so suspended, or at least for quite so long.

The truth of the matter is that I have been hiding. While I was aiming all of that effort at coping with changes in the office, I have not been coping so well with things outside of the office, and I have chosen to say nothing rather than risk saying the wrong things. Even here, today, I will probably not say as much as I might like, because it is a very difficult tightrope walk, over a pit of razors, with a biting crossdraft, and no safety net. It is not a very fun place to be, but no one ever promised that life would be fun, did they? We do what we can, we do what we must, and we make our own fun in between.

Let me set the stage a bit.

First of all, some people may not know or realize this, but there is not a day goes by that I don’t consider the question, “Would they be better off without me?” at least once. At this stage in my life, I am happy to report that most of the time it is merely a passing question. It comes and it goes and it has no great impact on my life. It’s always there, but no more than a faint itch, a minor nuisance. It is simply part of the background noise that I have learned to ignore as I go on about my day.

There was a time, though, when this question was the driving force of my life. It was a repeat performer, many times a day, and it often came in with a megaphone. Sometimes tap shoes. Just occasionally, it brought dynamite. Would they be better off without me? Can I ever get this right? Is it worth the effort? Am I worth the effort? Can I find a place in this world?

There are some of you reading this who are all too familiar with those questions. If you battle with depression and suicide, you know the litany. Most of it is in your head - I hope you know that too - but that doesn’t make it less dangerous. “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (J.K. Rowling, Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Inside our head can be where we do the most damage, if we are not careful, but there is plenty of damage to be done outside as well. When you struggle with these issues, it is just that much easier for outside concerns to push you over the edge.

There is an abundance of pain in the world right now. There has never been a shortage of pain, but history moves in cycles, and there are cycles when that pain is closer to the surface and making itself more clearly know. It seems that we are in one of those cycles right now, and many people are reacting poorly to the pain and making things worse.

Some people are intending to make things worse. That is not a very pleasant thought, and one we would prefer to not think, but it is real, and we cannot make the world better by closing our eyes to things that are real. There are people who revel in the pain of others. There are people who don’t believe that the pain of others is valid, or that it doesn’t matter. There are people who will gladly (or at least without difficulty) inflict pain because they believe that it promotes some interest of their own. We could do entire books on these people, and probably without making a dent, so we won’t go into great detail here. They are real, and we must acknowledge that they are real if we are to have any chance of counteracting their unpleasant impact on the world.

Quite a few of the people spreading the pain, though, aren’t doing it on purpose. Some of them accidentally fall into that last category mentioned above, of believing that what they are doing is promoting an interest of their own, but they are often people who would be horrified if they actually saw the pain they were causing. They are sometimes people who have been conned by the more deliberate types, or perhaps have not been able to think things all the way through, or possibly have just never learned how to see the larger picture. This is neither a sin nor a crime. Many of us live in our one little place in the world, never straying far from the familiar, doing more good than harm, but never having a reason to go or see beyond the immediate village, so to speak. Unfortunately, in the modern world, even the village has wifi and social media, and suddenly what wasn’t harmful on a small scale can become harmful on a bigger stage we did not even realize we were upon.

People are afraid, and there is reason to be afraid. It’s a dangerous world, and it seems to be getting more dangerous every day. We don’t make it less dangerous, though, by retreating into tribalism, by exaggerating and exasperating the Us vs. Them mentality. We live on a fragile blue dot, and, like it or not, believe it or not, today, we have the power to destroy that blue dot. If we don’t learn how to be just Us, the consequences could be dire, indeed.

There is very little that I, as an individual, can do about deliberate evil, and yes, I do count those who are going around inflicting pain on purpose as evil. The deliberate infliction of unnecessary pain is one of the few things I recognize as truly evil in this world, and there is far more of it today than I am comfortable admitting. Evil is thick upon the earth, and it is very loud. It was that volume, more than anything else, that caused me to go into hiding. I was feeling overwhelmed, and there was no place I could look in the world around me without seeing it, so I retreated from looking at the world around me. There seemed to be nothing I could do, so I chose to do nothing.

Remember that stage we set back at the beginning? The voices that have always told me I wasn’t good enough had found a new way in. That is the truth of the matter. I had gone back to the question of my having a place in this world being a daily, driving force in my life, and it had happened in so insidious a manner that I hadn’t even realized it.

Well, here is the answer. I do have a place in this world, and part of that place is to remind people that we can be better. We can do better. We can stand up to evil without being evil. We can fight evil, when necessary, without being evil. There may be little I can do, as an individual, about deliberate evil, but I had forgotten that deliberate evil is the minority. Just as most of the good in this world is done by small, every day deeds, so too are most of the evils of the world done.

The Hitlers and the Mao Tse Tungs are large evil, and they are fought in large ways on a large stage, but I can fight small evils by being kind. I can fight small evils by treating people as individuals, and remembering that they are people, with real thoughts, feelings, and concerns, just as I have. I can fight small evils by reacting less, and thinking things through before I do them, before I say them, and before I respond. My actions are as a stone upon the water, and I can see the ripples, I can see the results. If the results are not as I intended then I can change, and if I don’t change then I am responsible for the small evils that pile up and lead to worse. The larger evils cannot so easily gain traction in the world if the smaller evils are not paving the way.

I will do what I can to remember that I can do what I can. I hope you will join me. I hope that you will think about your actions and ask yourself if they are being truly helpful or harmful. Are you letting fear cloud your judgment? Are you being more hurtful than is necessary to achieve your purpose? Are you adding more peace or more conflict to the world around you, and to the world at large? These are all things we need to consider, and no one is perfect, but no one needs to be perfect to make the world a better place. We just need to be willing and able to consider and adjust as needed.

I will try to do better. In the end, that is the best that any of us can do.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

We Are Nature

We are nature. We are natural. We are a part of it all. It is when we forget that, for any reason, that things usually go wrong.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My Secret Weakness

I’m not a very nice person. I keep telling people this, and I keep being surprised by how often people don’t believe me, but it’s the truth. I don’t even think that I pretend all that well, though I do try. It’s just that being nice is not something that comes naturally to me.

I’m not saying that I don’t want to be nice, or that I don’t do nice things. I’m saying that my nice things are often more calculated than I would like to admit. When I started writing about making a better world by being a better person, I meant every word of it, but I also meant it when I said that you have to start on yourself if you want to get anything done. If you improve yourself, you are more likely to improve the world around you. It has to be real improvement, though, not some glossy, technicolor version you might buy over the counter or find in a How To Improve Your Productivity “self help” book. It has to come from somewhere deep inside or it’s not likely to do much improving.

This presents a problem for some of us. There is no shortage of stuff deep inside of me, but most of it isn’t all that positive. Some of it is downright nasty. My first instinct is often a sneer, and sarcasm is my native tongue. If words were truly classified as weapons, I’d have a rap sheet longer than most hardened criminals. As I said, I’m not a very nice person.

In truth, I’m being rather generous in my descriptions here because this is incredibly difficult to write. It’s easier to make light of it, to wrap it up in witty wording, and maybe hope that you won’t take it all that seriously, but it is serious. I am being serious, or as serious as I know how to be (not very good at that, either, to be honest).

It’s not that I don’t want to look at these issues. It’s possible that I look at them too much. I saw a quote recently that said, “I’m well-acquainted with my flaws. You cannot shock me by pointing them out.” Yep, it would be very unusual for someone else to know my flaws more than I do. I know them; I just don’t express them (which, when you think about it, is actually one of those flaws). That’s the hard part.

If you know the things that I see wrong with me, you will think less of me. Right or wrong, that is the natural thought process, and it is nearly impossible to be immune. Most of the time, the ones who swear up and down that they don’t care what anyone else thinks are the ones who secretly care the most. The attitude is the armor they wear to keep from being hurt by what hurts them the most.

When I was in school, I was the kid who got his books knocked on the floor. Some guy ran across the playground to punch me in the face for reasons I never did learn. Some girl came up behind me in the hallway, grabbed my hips, and made them swing back and forth in an exaggerated fashion, to make fun of how I walked. I got notes left in lockers. I got nasty nicknames. I got people talking about me in front of me, forget about behind my back. I was roundly mocked at church socials. For most of those years, I didn’t know what to do about any of it, who I could talk to, or even what I might say if I even got that far. I did not grow up seeing much of the goodness in people.

I’d love to say it got better, but it didn’t. I got better at coping with it, but there are bullies in nearly every social group at nearly every age. Some of the individuals get better, and, if you’re lucky, you gain more control over your environment, so gain more ability to just not be around those people, but it doesn’t really get better. There is so much pain in the world, and so many people respond to that pain in the worst ways possible. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

These people didn’t teach me the value of being nice, but they gave me a focus, a hook to hang my hat on. From a certain perspective, you could almost thank them for saving my life, if you could ignore the fact that they were the ones who nearly killed me in the first place. When I didn’t know any other way to keep going, when my mind cracked so deeply that I lost most of a day and got more than a little fuzzy on the surrounding months, when I was standing on the edge with one foot already flung out over the abyss, it was anger that drove me forward. It was a furious, arrogant, stubborn denial that those people would win that saved my life. It was the realization that I had something better to offer, and I would be damned if I let those horrible people snuff it out. I was going to live to spite them, and to prove them wrong. I was going to be better than them by being better than them.

Not the most noble of places from which to begin a journey of self improvement.

I would like to think that I have moved forward from that starting point, and in some ways I have, but in so many other ways I haven’t. Not really. I have found more individuals who are good people, and I am so very grateful for that. They make it easier to learn how to be nice. I’m still pretty convinced that they’re the minority, though. I still have a visceral, almost explosive reaction to bullies of any sort. I don’t think that’s ever going to change, though I do try to channel it in less destructive directions these days. I’m trying to learn how to not engage with things that make me angry unless I need to, unless doing so can realistically achieve something positive. That’s not easy. That’s really hard, actually.

I’ve been putting in tons of hours on the day job for several weeks now. It’s been hectic, like pull your hair out (if I had any) hectic often. I have no idea what time I’m going to leave the office most days and, if I tell Heather I expect to leave “on time,” she laughs at me. She has reason to laugh since I couldn’t tell you the last time I was right with that expectation. With all of that going on, I was asked three times in one week (by three different people, about three different situations), “How do you stay so calm?” It was my turn to laugh.

I am better at real calm today than I have ever been in my life, but my secret is that I have been so far out over the edge for so long that I am the Heavyweight Champion of the World at appearing to be calm when everything inside is trying to fly apart in a billion different directions. Heather knows this, and doesn’t buy my act for a second when I start doing that. There are a few other people I know who probably have that insight, but you’d be amazed at some of the people I have fooled. There was a time when it was usually fear. Now it’s usually anger. They’re not really all that dissimilar, and neither are anything a sensible person wants to advertise.

We all know that I’m a comic book geek, and it’s no secret that Superman is my ideal, what I think of when I am trying to define Good, but I have way too much self-honesty to not realize that it’s an entirely different character with whom I have more in common. I may not grow giant and green (though there were many times when I fervently wished that I could), but, if I have a spirit animals in comics, it’s The Hulk. I understand that anger waiting to break free all too well. When I watched The Avengers, and we got that scene where Banner turns back and says, “That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry,” that was an epiphany moment. That was, someone gets it. Someone understands.

I discovered a piece of fan art the other day that depicts The Hulk sitting in meditation. There was a thought bubble that said, “Hulk no smash. Hulk no smash. Hulk … maybe smash a little.” I haven’t laughed so hard in ages. That’s right, Hulk. We can do this. Maybe we’ll smash a little, but we can do this.

If we can, so can you. Something to think about.

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Friday, February 3, 2017

Small Every Day Deeds

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. The small things add up. Always.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017