Monday, December 31, 2018

#6 A Matter Of Perspective

One day when I was about fourteen, I sat in the woods behind my house with nothing but a pocketknife and my fears of the world for company. In hindsight, my fears were not really any bigger or more substantial than those woods (I grew up in south Texas and would not see real woods until I left home for the army after high school), but they both seemed all-encompassing at the time. Funny how perspective works, isn’t it? I grew up thinking of the overgrown creek bed and the vacant lot behind my house as “the woods,” and then I went and spent time in and around Mark Twain National Forest. I remember looking up and up and up, and thinking, “So that’s what a forest looks like.” Perspective can make such an incredible difference.

During the time when my perspective was so still based on so much less experience, there was me, a knife, and some much smaller trees. I spent some time just staring at that knife, thinking about it, thinking about what it could do, and thinking about what that could mean. I placed it against my wrist and I drew blood. To this day, I couldn’t honestly tell you whether or not I had anything further in mind. It seems unlikely, looking back, that I had anything at all concrete in mind. I did consider ending everything. I know I got that far, but it was more like I was watching to see what would happen, rather than actively deciding one way or the other.

Obviously nothing further did happen. I threw away the knife, cleaned up the blood and hid the cut as well as I could (not a difficult task for someone who received cuts from playing outdoors rather often), and I never mentioned it again. Until now. I’m certain I didn’t make any brave decision to go on. I just didn’t make any decision to stop going on. Who I was that day was not very good at making decisions, but who I am today is grateful for the results, regardless.

People tend to believe that the truly suicidal want to end their lives, but this is not true. (I use the phrase “truly suicidal” because many people also believe that the suicidal are usually just looking for attention. This is also not true, but I want to be clear here that I am speaking of people for whom this isn’t even a question.) Generally speaking, suicidal people do not want to stop living any more than anyone else. Given a choice between living or dying, most people who are suicidal for emotional reasons would choose living every time, if they could only figure out how. That’s the problem. They don’t want to stop living. They want to stop living in pain, but have lost sight of how to do that.

Perspective.

People who commit suicide don’t want to stop living. They want to stop hurting. The distinction means everything, and understanding the distinction is the first step toward helping someone down from that ledge. If you approach such a situation believing that someone wants to die, you have very few options. How do you convince someone who prefers red over blue to instead choose blue over red? Most of the time you don’t, and the same principle applies. Changing someone’s preference is difficult under ideal circumstances, and there is nothing ideal about working through a suicidal situation. Helping someone to achieve their preference, though, is something that people do every day. That is an attainable goal, and choosing attainable goals is one of the secret weapons in working through a suicidal fixation. The trick then becomes not a matter of changing someone’s mind but, instead, a matter of changing someone’s perspective.

Even better, changing perspective doesn’t require a complete and total change. If you look slightly to the left or right, instead of straight ahead, you have changed your perspective. Whether or not that is enough change to make the difference you need depends on the situation, but you would be amazed how often small changes can lead to large results. I don’t believe that I experienced any major shift in perspective that day in the woods - that would be many years in the future yet - but I did experience enough of a shift to make the difference I needed at the time. I gained the breathing room which ultimately led us here.

If you or someone you know is struggling, see what you can do about adjusting the view. Sometimes changing your perspective can change the world, but, at the very least, you can usually put some distance between you and a decision you might not be in the right place emotionally to be making. Small steps can be perfect steps if they are moving in the right direction. For someone staring down that final decision, moving at all is often moving in the right direction.

It is not even necessary to end the pain to achieve this change in perspective. That would be fantastic, but it is not always realistic. There are many sources of pain that cannot be simply turned off like a switch. Most pain isn’t that easy, to be honest, and some of it can’t be simply turned off even with considerably more effort. No, don’t promise or expect an end to pain - Never promise a person in emotional distress anything you can’t absolutely guarantee you can deliver! - but instead find a way to achieve a new perspective about the pain. That way will be different for every situation, so it is difficult to offer any solid advice, but do understand that the way is almost always there. Identify solutions instead of problems. Address the finite duration of the source of the pain. Take comfort in a shared burden, knowing that other people have succeeded, and so knowing that success is possible. Sometimes just making the effort to look is enough. Movement. Activity. Small steps can be perfect steps.

According to the CDC, there are more than 40,000 deaths attributed to suicide in this country every year. That number is staggering. To put it into some perspective, the CDC gives the number of deaths attributed to suicide in 2011 as 41,149. For that same year, the number of deaths attributed to homicide was 16,121. Let the vast gulf between those two numbers sink in for a moment, while you consider how much public attention goes toward the American epidemic of homicide. As horrible as murder is, more than twice as many people die every year from suicide than from homicide.

The causes of suicide are diverse and complex, and there is no easy solution. There are, however, some relatively easy things that you can do to help.

If you are feeling suicidal, tell someone. Get help. That is the simplest step, and the one most often overlooked. If, for any reason at all, you don’t believe that there is someone you can talk to about this, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and someone will be there to talk with you. No pressure. No strings. Just talk. If you know that you struggle with suicidal issues and don’t believe that you have someone to call, put that number in your wallet or purse. Keep it with you. Someone is always available.

Take steps that will point you in the right direction. Be ready to talk. Set goals that you can achieve and at least temporarily avoid goals with a high chance of failure. The idea here is to reinforce success with the aim of changing perspective. The suicidal tend to believe that everything is hopeless, and nothing overcomes hopelessness better than success. Contrariwise, nothing reinforces hopelessness quite like continuing to fail, which is why attainable goals are so important to this strategy.

Don’t make things worse. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Avoid people who are not helpful. Avoid activities that are likely to fail. Avoid things that can be used for suicide. Avoid things that reinforce the negative.

Do make things better. Get exercise and plenty of sun. Be with people who will help you. Do things you can succeed at or that make you feel better in a healthy way. Do things that reinforce the positive.

If you know someone, or think you might know someone who is struggling with suicide, be kind. That is the single most helpful thing that you can ever do in such a situation. Don’t try to solve their problems. You can’t. Don’t try to change their mind. You can’t. Don’t try to take away their pain. You can’t. Just be kind.

Be present. Be attentive. Be aware. People who are suicidal often feel alone, even in a crowd. Knowing that you are there and that you care can mean more than any words you might say.

Listen way more than you speak. If the person you are trying to help isn’t saying anything, listen to that too. Silence can speak volumes if you pay attention.

Paying attention is critical to this situation. The suicidal person usually believes that no one is paying attention to him or her while, at the same time, the suicidal person is usually not paying attention to the things that could help.

Perspective.

So much of life is a matter of perspective. A person who is suicidal has often lost perspective on life, while the person who wants to help often lacks the perspective to do so effectively. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to change the way we view the world. That may seem terribly difficult, but it’s not. Not really. Turn your head to the left or right to see what is going past. Kneel down to smell a flower or play with a child. Look up and feel the sun on your face. Simple acts can change the world. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

To close out 2018, and to welcome 2019, we are going to spend the week highlighting the 7 most popular posts ever on Frequently Interrupted. Follow along all week until Saturday, January 5, 2019 to find out what our most popular post to date is. Thank you for the support over the years, and we look forward to what the new years has to show.

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

#7 Finding My Zen

One day, when I was about twenty, I found myself in a field with no memory of how I had come to be there. I was about thirty miles from town and thirty miles from the last place I remembered being. It was an unpleasant experience, filled with unpleasant realizations, to say the least.

For the record, there were no drugs or alcohol involved in this story. I had experienced what is sometimes called a fugue state, a temporary loss of identity and memory that usually involves going somewhere, or, more accurately, going away from something. (Disclaimer: aside from a medical diagnosis of depression – more on that to follow – I have had almost no interaction with medical professionals concerning any of this. As such, I will try to avoid using official medical terms, though that will not always be possible or practical.) In colloquial terms, I had experienced a nervous breakdown, and my life took a very distinct left turn.

I was found by friends, taken to a doctor, and diagnosed with depression. That last part was not a surprise to anyone, since I had struggled with issues of severe depression for as long as I could remember, but this was the first time that it was formally diagnosed, and it was the first time that medication was prescribed. I have never been a fan of medication, and this did not change that perspective. In fact, I am probably even more hesitant to use medications today as a direct result of my experience twenty-odd years ago.

If you are surprised by the late diagnosis, do please keep in mind that I grew up in a small town in rural south Texas, a child of the 70’s and 80’s. Things were different, and one of those differences was that most people never spoke about depression. It was not an issue or condition, it was a weakness, and you didn’t admit to weakness, especially if you were male. That was just The Rules, and you broke The Rules at great personal peril. Never mind the fact that you followed The Rules at great personal peril. It took us a while to figure that part out. We are getting there, and things are much better today (though there will probably always be room for improvement) but, at that time and in that place, if it were discovered that you were receiving treatment for depression … Well, you would probably end up with more reasons to be depressed.

So there I was, twenty years old, freshly diagnosed with depression and taking pills that had a terrifyingly long list of possible side effects and warnings. That list was so long that it seemed the only people who might be safe taking this pill were people who couldn’t possibly have any use for it. There was a potential reaction to almost every condition you cared to name, and some of them were so counterintuitive, it didn’t seem possible. This medicine could cause depressive episodes and could potentially trigger suicidal ideations in the suicidal, and this was an antidepressant, being prescribed for depression! I have since learned that this is the nature of mental/emotional conditions, due largely to the fact that we still understand so little of what causes these problems, and that most of these warnings were for potential reactions that were so rare as to be almost impossible, as long as things were taken appropriately and with proper care. At the time, though, it was terrifying.

No, that is not entirely correct. It seemed like it should be terrifying. On an intellectual level, that list of warnings did make me question whether or not it was worth the risk, and I knew – again, on an intellectual level – that this should frighten me. On an emotional level, however, I had nothing. No alarm, no fear, no real gut-level awareness of anything at all. I was living in a cocoon of thick spongey cotton that blocked direct contact with almost everything. None of the more alarming side effects seemed to present in my case, but there was one that was never explicitly spelled out in any of the documentation: This medication might transform you into a glassy-eyed zombie. That one I got, in abundance.

My life had changed and, while it was supposed to be a helpful change, it did not take long for me to begin to wonder whether or not it was worth the cost. I spent some time trying to adjust, but the question occurred to me, did I want to adjust? Did I want to learn to live my life through a filter?

It took me some time to reach an answer through the cocoon, but that answer was ultimately obvious. I am a very This Is Me kind of person, and changing that through artificial means will never be an idea that sits well with me. For good or ill, it is very important to me to face reality without a mediator. Living in a haze was not a long term solution. That bottle of pills went into the trash, and I began the search for what I would recognize as a better way.

I don’t necessarily recommend this course of action. I am not a doctor, and cannot give advice on quitting medication, but they tell me that going cold turkey is usually a bad idea. It worked for me, but a sample of one is almost worse than useless. Do your own research, consult with a trusted physician, and make your own decision.

My decision did work for me, though. That much I can say. Here I am, more than twenty years later, fairly well adjusted without medication, and living a life that I really wouldn’t trade. I would tweak it here and there, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure we could all find little improvements that we would like to make, but that is actually one of the tricks, and one of the ways I know that I am now better adjusted. I can look at something that bothers me, and see it as something to improve, rather than as something overwhelming.

You can’t cure depression. If you suffer from depressive episodes then you probably already know that. If you suffer and haven’t learned that yet, I’m sorry. There is no cure. Maybe there will be, some day, but that will involve medical science that is not even currently on the horizon. There is no cure for depression. Have I beat that horse enough yet? It’s pretty important to this entire project.

You can’t cure depression, but you can learn to live with it. Remembering to keep things in perspective – in fact, remembering to actively look for the perspective – is one of the techniques that I used to learn how to live with it. There were many more. It was a long process that I eventually came to think of as Finding My Zen. As anyone who knows anything about the subject will tell you, Zen is not a destination. It’s a journey, and that journey can sometimes be rocky. Learning to live with depression is a continual process, and a continual reaffirmation of the process. Sometimes, even after decades on the road, you may feel like you have to begin again. You can, though, because the steps will be familiar, even if the terrain has changed.

I’ve reached a point where I feel like a reaffirmation is necessary. I’m 43-years-old, and feeling my years. I’ve encountered a number of changes recently that have rocked my equilibrium, and regaining my balance is taking a bit longer with each upset these days. I do regain my balance - and my confidence in that fact is, itself, a testimony to how far I’ve come - but I’ve had more episodes in the past six months than I’ve had in the past six years. That is concerning, but not alarming. I know the cause, and that gives me a place to start.

This time I thought I would try something different. This time I thought I would invite you to come along with me. It is a somewhat scary thought, because it does involve opening up and sharing some things I’ve never shared with more than one or two people, face to face, but I also think it would be helpful. I am a writer by nature, but I have not, lately, been a writer by habit. I have not been writing. Part of that is the depression. It gets in the way and makes finding the words more difficult than it should be. I start a project, get frustrated because my brain won’t click correctly, and end up abandoning the project. This, of course, just leads to more frustration because a writer who doesn’t write isn’t really a writer, and we who see ourselves as writers tend to wrap a very large portion of our identity around that label. A writer who isn’t a writer quickly begins to question his value in other areas as well. We can’t have that, so we address that part of the problem at the source. We write.

In this series I will be writing about my own experiences with depression as well as my own experiences with overcoming depression. It will often be very personal, but I hope that it will also be in terms that can have a more broad application. Knowing what has worked for me may or may not help you, but it almost certainly will not hurt you, and it might at least give you some beneficial ideas. That is another one of the tricks, by the way. When you suffer from depression, helping others can sometimes be an amazing way to help yourself, as long as you also maintain perspective. That means that I will be helping myself in three ways: I will be writing, I will be reaffirming my processes for coping with depression, and I will – hopefully, at least – be helping someone else who may find themselves at a rough spot on the road.

Finding my Zen has been a long road that I don’t expect to end any time soon. I won’t lie. It does involve a great deal of work, but it’s been loads of fun as well. I’m nervous about it, but I look forward to sharing this experience. I hope we have fun together, and maybe we can lean on each other, from time to time, when that becomes useful as well. The first step is the hardest, and that one is now behind us. Let’s see where this road may lead.

To close out 2018, and to welcome 2019, we are going to spend the week highlighting the 7 most popular posts ever on Frequently Interrupted. Follow along all week until Saturday, January 5, 2019 to find out what our most popular post to date is. Thank you for the support over the years, and we look forward to what the new years has to show.

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Friday, December 21, 2018

Looking Forward To A New Year 2018

I made a resolution many years ago to no longer make New Year’s resolutions, and I’m fairly certain that’s the only resolution I’ve ever managed to keep. I’m not really a resolutions kind of person. I prefer to just do things and, like so many people, when I do state in advance what I am going to do, I tend to bite off more than I can chew and then get frustrated when it doesn’t work out. This can end up making things worse rather than better, so I just opted out of the whole system.

If it works for you, use it. It can be a good tool, and some people work better when they have that plan laid out in front of them. There is no One Size Fits All solution. I don’t think I can ever say that often enough. I do not tell you what works for me so that you will do what works for me. I tell you what works for me so that you can see that things work, see ideas for how they work, and adapt those ideas to what will work for you. If what works for me does work for you, great! Use that. If not, though, just adapt to fit. Variety is part of what makes life magical, but it can also make functioning in life difficult.

What works for me is light planning and then jumping in. I do the same thing with most of my activities. When I am writing, I am often as surprised by the ending as anyone. Even when I have a grand plan for what is going to happen, that is rarely what ends up happening. As short as these articles are, there have been a couple times now when I had to change the title after I was done because what got written was not what I had sat down to write. It seems to work though.

I do need that light planning, though, or I might go off on a random tangent, and that doesn’t always have the best results. One of the tricks I use for that is simple notes. Rather than plan out or even outline what I am going to do, I will make a small list of, for example, five things I want to cover. I will put them in an order that seems to flow smoothly and then I will write a paragraph or two about the first one. Write a paragraph or two about the second one, and see if they flow as smoothly as I had thought. Adjust as needed, and keep going.

You should know by now that the last part there is pretty much the theme of my life. Adjust as needed, and keep going. No matter how well planned you make it, life is going to throw you surprises. If you can’t adjust, those surprises may break you, but if you can keep it light and make changes as you need them, you can then weave the changes into the tapestry that is your life and make something new come out of the process.

If you need a plan, plan. Use the tools you need when you have them available. Just make sure your tools aren’t using you. Don’t get so hung up on the plan that you can’t adjust to life’s surprises. Spending too much time looking ahead can be just as bad as spending too much time in the past. The point of living is to live, and to do that you must be in the present. You are living right now. What you did yesterday is gone, and what you may do tomorrow you also may not do. Right now is the only thing you have for certain, so make sure that you are making the most of it. Use the past and the future as the tools you need when you need those tools, but live now.

One of the best things about the New Year’s celebration, and the tradition of resolutions that goes with it, is the symbolism of ending something old and beginning something new. Have you had a difficult year? It’s over now, and here’s a new one that you can build to your liking. Have you had a good year? Use it as a foundation as you begin to build this new story. Everything gets to be new now, and that includes you. The new year is a great time to look at making a new you. Turn the page, close the last chapter, and start writing this new one knowing that you can do anything with it. You will be building from the past, because your past has led you to this point, but where you go from here is up to you. You can stay the course or change direction, as you need and as you choose.

Don’t be afraid to make a mess while you’re doing it. If you’ve had a difficult time and need to make some changes, you’re probably going to get dirty. Making life changes can be rough work, but the results can be amazing. I’ve been listing to “Cut the Cord” from Shinedown, and that is basically what it’s about. As vocalist Brent Smith explained in an interview with Billboard:

"'Cut The Cord' is a wake up call reminding us all that we can control our own destiny by finding the courage and tenacity to destroy whatever it is that's holding us back. The process may not be pretty or perfect or even easy, but absolutely necessary. The song is brutally honest and unapologetic, which is what Shinedown has always been."

Sometimes you have to be brutally honest and unapologetic, and that includes being so with yourself. When it comes time to change, the hardest person to convince can often be yourself. Don’t believe what’s holding you down. Cut the cord and fly.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, but I can acknowledge a few things that are going to happen. I will continue to work on being healthier, and that includes physical, mental, and emotional health. I will spend a little more time exercising and a little more time meditating, and a little less time worrying and stressing. It won’t be a perfect balance, but I’ll keep working toward making it better, and that is really all we can do. I’ll keep writing because I have remembered that’s what I do. I have definitely found that it helps, and I will continue to hope that it helps you as well. I will continue to be a father, a husband, and a friend, and hope that I can be the best of those that I am able to be. I will continue to be obsessed with music. When I die, eventually, it will be the loudest memorial service you’ve ever heard, with a wildly eclectic combination of musical farewells. I will continue to be me, and I will continue to invite you to join me on this journey of discovering exactly what that means.

Happy New Year to each and everyone of you. I look forward to seeing what it brings, and I intend to bring all my best to it. I hope you will do the same. If we all make such a resolution, the new year can’t help but be great. Peace be with you, and let’s keep moving forward.

Check out the video for "Cut the Cord" below and, as always, all copyright belongs to the artists.

We are revisiting some holiday posts from the past this week, and we will be on vacation next week. Happy Holidays to you and yours, however you may celebrate, and best wishes for the coming New Year.

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Thursday, December 20, 2018

Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus 2018

One of my favorite Christmas stories of all time is not really a story. It's a letter, written in answer to a Letter to the Editor in the New York Sun in 1897. It was written by Francis Pharcellus Church, and has become the definitive answer for those who would doubt the spirit of Christmas. Most of us are familiar with it, in concept, but I believe that more people would benefit from being familiar with it, in truth. There is magic in the world because we believe, and because we believe the world can be magical. We could all use a little more magic.

***

(From the New York Sun 1897)

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

Dear Editor— I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus? Virginia O'Hanlon 115 West Ninety Fifth Street

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

***

From our family to yours, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a most joyful holiday season. However you celebrate, celebrate. Hug your loved ones, enjoy your friends and family, and thank you for being part of our family.

We are revisiting some holiday posts from the past this week, and we will be on vacation next week. Happy Holidays to you and yours, however you may celebrate, and best wishes for the coming New Year.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Holidays and Social Media 2018

Those who know me individually on social media know that I tend to post quite a few more pictures and status updates around holidays, with a big push around Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. To some people, this may seem like a bit much, maybe even oversharing. I want to spend a few minutes with today's Friday spotlight to address that, and maybe offer a different perspective. If nothing else, it gives me an excuse to do another holiday post, and I rather enjoy holiday posts.

When I was a child, the whole family would gather for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My grandmother kept a stack of folding chairs in the spare bedroom, and we would bring those out, spread them around the house, and still not have nearly enough seating space. The house would be wall-to-wall children. Because I grew up in south Texas, this was handled fairly easily by tossing the children outside when their presence was not actually needed inside. That meant that we children got to file through the meal line first, so that we could get our food and get outside, out of the way. There are always benefits, if you know how to look for them.

As we got older, people moved away and the gatherings got smaller. My generation of cousins is rather large (I honestly couldn't give you a count - we collect cousins like some people collect coins), but my generation has also had far fewer children than our parents did. More of us also "left home" than was done by the previous generations, and both of these factors are generally true nationally. Family sizes have been steadily shrinking for generations now, more people live their adult lives some place far removed from where they lived their childhood than ever before. I think most of us know this, but it can lead to side effects that may go overlooked.

When I lived in south Texas and wanted to share something with my Mom, I just drove down the street. That street might be as much as thirty minutes or even an hour long - we didn't always live in the same town - but we could drive it without issue. When I wanted to share the decorations with the family, I just invited them over for barbecue, and vice versa. Obviously, things aren't so simple when you live more spread out.

If "what I want" were the only consideration, we would be back home in south Texas, and things would be easier. They still wouldn't be easy, though. Being closer to my family means being further from heather's family. Life is not always easy, and "what I want" is nowhere near the only consideration. All things taken together at the moment equals us continuing to live rather far removed from people we would rather have just down the street.

Enter social media. It isn't perfect, by any means, but social media has allowed us to share with distant people more easily than ever before. When I post those pictures of our decorations, I am sharing with the people I wish could see them in person. When they post their pictures, that is my way of staying in touch with family I can't see every day.

Try to keep this in mind when you see someone taking a picture or sharing on Facebook. It isn't always what you think. There has been a movement lately, judging people for their posts and reminding people to put down the camera and experience the moment but, for some people, that camera is part of the experience. If you have the people you want to share with right there so you can share, or perhaps if you are the type who doesn't like to share as much anyway, try to remember that not everyone has the same or is the same. Take a moment to step outside of yourself and try to be more understanding. The people around you may have experiences and needs you know nothing about. Go easy on the judgment if there isn't some kind of life-threatening need.

Happy Friday, have a great weekend, and enjoy this holiday season. Love the ones you love, and share some love with the people around you. Remember that love actually increases by being shared.

We are revisiting some holiday posts from the past this week, and we will be on vacation next week. Happy Holidays to you and yours, however you may celebrate, and best wishes for the coming New Year.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Sun Returns 2018

We are quickly approaching the longest night of the year. For the northern hemisphere, the Winter Solstice this year will be on December 22. There may be earlier sunsets or later sunrises as the Earth’s elliptical orbit marches the seasons through their patterns, but the time between the sunrise and sunset is the shortest on the Solstice, with the “day” lasting only single-digit hours in some places. It’s dark and it’s cold, and it could even be scary if you don’t understand what is happening. It is not terribly surprising that there are more overlapping cultural holidays during this time of year than at any other point on the calendar.

The Yule celebrations are among the oldest recorded holiday traditions in European history. While it is nearly impossible to put anything like exact dates to such things, we have Germanic month names going back at least to the 4th Century, and Nordic deity names going back into antiquity. Though the Prose Edda, which includes names like “Yule Father” and Yule Beings” for Odin and the gods in general, is believed to have been compiled in the 13th Century, it references tales and traditions that predate the arrival of Christianity to that part of the world, and the Midwinter celebration is common to those tales. The exact origins and traditions are lost in time - and attempting to research the subject will lead you to dozens of conflicting experts, but we know that many of our modern customs originated with these older activities, and we can surmise some of the meaning from other festivals and from contest.

Among the items that we know were carried over are the decorated Christmas trees. While it is unlikely that the earlier celebrants actually chopped down a tree and carried it indoors for decorating - the actual cutting tradition is believed to have begun in 16th Century Germany - streamers and other decorations may have been hung from living trees, and the limbs of firs and other evergreens were used as decorations for good luck and as reminders of the renewal that would soon be more evident as the days began to grow longer and the sun returned to its glory. In places where evergreens would be less common, other “magical trees” like the hawthorne or cherry tree may have been used instead. These trees symbolized renewal and rebirth, and it was a time to recognize that what was ending would begin again.

The Yule Log was an ancient tradition that probably centered around the same ideas. Again, we have to rely on commentary written in the Middle Ages discussing older customs, so the details are fuzzy, but there seems to have been communal bonfires that were part of the seasonal celebrations. Logs from these fires would be taken into the homes and burned on the hearth as a continuation of the communal event. These logs would have provided much needed light and warmth on these darkest days, and were likely the central focus of the family celebrations. It is unclear whether the bonfires were intended as an inducement for the returning sun or a celebration of its victory (or, as seems even more likely, some combination of the two), but they were almost certainly connected with the sun and its cyclical journey in some fashion.

A third custom that has fallen out of favor somewhat in modern households but still holds sway among traditionalists is the Christmas or Yule Candle. The exact origins of the connection between winter celebrations (and this includes just about all of them) and candles is unknown, but we are familiar with two specific candle traditions. The first and most well-known is the tradition of using candles to light up the trees. This custom is, of course, still in wide use, though the candles have been replaced in most cases with safer electric lighting. The other tradition involves lighting a single large candle on the eve of the solstice (or on Christmas Eve, depending on your tradition) and allowing it to burn through the night. Sometimes this candle is placed in a window to act as a beacon, and it is thought to represent faith or hope in the returning sun. It is considered to be bad luck to blow out this candle, and a piece of the candle stub is often kept to be used for lighting the candle the following year. Again, this is tied the idea of renewal, and especially of new life arising from the old.

It is significant that one of the happiest holidays on the modern calendar is anchored around the shortest day and takes place during the season that is most commonly thought of as dead. The chill winds of winter bury everything in a cold embrace and yet, in our earliest cultural memories, we looked upon this time of year as the time to celebrate the renewal of life. The human spirit is amazingly resilient, and hope is the defining element of our species. Take away the sun, and we will light the very sky on fire to bring it back.

This can be a difficult time for some people. Sunlight and physical activity are very important to good health, both physical and mental, but sunlight and physical activity can both be difficult to come by during this time of year. The days are getting shorter and colder so that, even when the sun is out, we are often huddled inside trying to stay out of the weather. We get less sunlight and physical activity, so our health tends to respond accordingly. This can be even worse if you are someone who is prone to such ailments, so it is an important time to remember that the sun does return.

Traditions serve as reminders, of history, of meaning, of what’s important. Often the things we see as just fun and games began with very serious reasons. Many modern sports were originally war or work exercises, and most holidays were established to commemorate specific events. We sing songs and celebrate, but the original cause was probably to remind us why we needed to sing songs and celebrate. That was probably easy to forget if you were huddled around a dying fire on the shortest day of the year.

This is a good time to remember that we can experience short days of the spirit as well. There may be times when you can’t feel the sun no matter how brightly it shines. You may experience an emotional solstice, so to speak, but remember, this too shall pass. The sun will return. Celebrating life under the summer sun may be easier, but celebrating life during the dead of winter is more important. That is when we need the reminder, and when it will do the most good.

Whatever your traditions, celebrate the season, and celebrate life. It may seem dark sometimes, but you know what they say about the dark and the dawn. Light a candle and see how fragile the darkness really is. The darkest night is just a reminder that tomorrow is a new day. Celebrate it. Enjoy it. Live it.

We are revisiting some holiday posts from the past this week, and we will be on vacation next week. Happy Holidays to you and yours, however you may celebrate, and best wishes for the coming New Year.

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Monday, December 17, 2018

The Spirit of Giving 2018

For the Germanic peoples (which description covers most of northern and western Europe, parts of what is now the United Kingdom, and the Scandinavian countries), the midwinter season around the Winter Solstice was marked by the Yule celebration. Aside from a few traditions that almost everyone knows (the tree, the log, etc.) very little direct knowledge of that celebration has made it down to us today, but one thing that we do know is that part of the celebration included a belief that Odin (or his local variation), known during this season as Giftbringer or the Yule Father was believed to travel around and deliver gifts to his people. He was generally seen as wearing heavy fur-lined robes and with a long, flowing white beard. Sound familiar?

Saint Nicholas of Myra was a Greek Christian bishop in 4th Century Turkey, who was famous for his generous gifts to the poor. His Saint's Day was celebrated on December 6, and traditionally included giving small gifts to children in his honor. After Pope Julius I established the date for Christmas as December 25, the two celebrations quickly overlapped, and St. Nick's tradition of gift giving was soon an integral part of the holiday season. During the Reformation, the veneration of saints fell out of favor with the Protestant churches, and the idea of the Christkind (literally, "Christ child") was introduced to take the place of St. Nicholas as the gift bringer for the Christmas season. The Christkind would later become re-integrated with the idea of St. Nick, and would become the name Kris Kringle.

One of the reasons that the removal of St. Nicholas from the Christmas season did not fully take even among Protestants was because the Dutch would not let him go. Though I haven't been able to find any reliable information on why the Dutch were so stubborn (if anyone knows, I would be fascinated - I love good history stories), St. Nick remained a part of their traditions and was brought to the Americas with the waves of Dutch immigrants, where Sinterklaas (his Dutch name) would evolve to the now more familiar Santa Claus.

At around this same time, the English were importing Father Christmas, and the French were importing Papa Noel, two very similar figures who were usually portrayed as bearded men in red robes trimmed with white fur who traveled around delivering presents to children who had been good throughout the previous year. These presents were usually left in shoes or stocking that had been left out for that purpose, which is the origin of our modern custom of the Christmas stocking. Both figures were seen as great jovial men known for good cheer, whose arrival was anxiously awaited each year by expectant children.

St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Papa Noel, and even Odin Giftbringer all figure together to form the modern idea of Santa Claus, the jolly bearded man who slides down chimneys to bring presents to good boys and girls around the world. All of these and so many more make up our cultural idea of the Christmas season. There are various differences and similarities, but they all share the idea of gift giving. There is even a list of “Christmas gift-bringers by country” on Wikipedia, which is rather long and still listed as “incomplete”. There are people who will argue endlessly over the meaning of Christmas, but one thing that is almost universally agreed upon is the idea that you cannot have Christmas without giving.

I don’t claim to have The Answers, ever - I believe a large part of the point of life is to ask the questions, one leading to another, revising the answers as new answers are discovered, which makes having any one right Answer somewhat difficult, to say the least - but this, to me, has always been the “reason for the season,” so to speak. The point is not why we give, or even necessarily what we give, but that we give. Through giving, we make the world better for someone, which usually has the net result of making the world better for all. If it’s done right, that is. If giving is truly giving, and not the false ideas that often go around disguised as giving but really have more to do with taking, then the giver and receiver both benefit, and the world improves.

It is possible that I have a perspective which offers some unique insight into this season. Though raised in a Christian church, I was raised in a church that did not recognize religious holidays, but did not go so far as to prohibit holidays. It was a culture that split the difference in a way I have not seen among most others where such holidays are usually either all religious or entirely banned. We celebrated things like Halloween and Christmas, but without the slightest hint of theology, so we always and only focused on the secular elements of family, giving, and universal goodwill. As such, I don’t share the modern confusion when I see families celebrating Christmas in different manners. I just see families celebrating together, and I believe this is a good thing. If more families celebrated together, more children might grow up learning the value of family and, though that, the value of love and the value of life. To me, that sounds like just about the greatest gift we could offer to the modern world.

We live in difficult times, but we live in amazing times. We have so many options available to us today, it is discouraging that so many people so often choose the negative options. Still, if more of us keep choosing the positive, we can continue to push the world toward the better, and it isn’t really a choice if the alternative isn’t available.

The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving, and the spirit of giving is always at odds with the spirit of taking. We have no shortage of such open conflict in the world right now, but this is a good time to take stock, a good time to re-evaluate whether one is giving or taking. Are we lifting the world up, so that we all can see from a higher perspective, or are we driving the world down so that we can only see over the heads of the oppressed? It makes a difference. One improves the whole, and helps everyone to see further. The other might let the individual see further, but not as far, only over the heads and backs of the whole, and only temporarily. When you stamp down on one surface so that you can see past it, that ledge tends to collapse over time. Then everything falls, and we certainly don’t get to see further.

This year, gather your family close to you and celebrate the spirit of giving. Give the gifts of love, togetherness, and universal goodwill. There are more than seven billion people on this planet. Can you imagine what we could do if we were all giving, what that combined effort could accomplish? Isn’t it about time we find out? Merry Christmas to all, and to all, Good Night.

We are revisiting some holiday posts from the past this week, and we will be on vacation next week. Happy Holidays to you and yours, however you may celebrate, and best wishes for the coming New Year.

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Friday, December 14, 2018

Lift Them Up

Tearing people down is often the easiest thing in the world. We do it on the playground, instinctively and without thought. It requires strength and character to build people up. It takes thought and consideration to invest in helping people be better. It is only through our combined efforts of being better, though, that we can hope to make the world better. It is through building that we create a better world, and that starts with building each other up.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

For Every Action

Everything you do creates echoes in the universe. Nothing goes unnoticed or untouched. Sometimes we are not aware of the response, but there is a response. It may be quiet and subtle, but it is there. Consider that before you put something out there. Will this engender a response you will want to experience? Will this help you make a better world?

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

For Our Children

"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." What we leave behind, they have to fix. It is imperative that we remember this in our day to day lives. Everything is transitory, and we will be gone before long. It is the unfortunate truth that those who create the problem rarely have to live with the consequences. It's easy to say, "I don't see a problem," and so not worry about the considerations. It requires more effort, and more conscience, to consider how something might be a problem after I am gone. We are stewards of our children's future. Have we been good stewards?

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Against My Nature

I am not bashful about the struggles I face. I give you examples often. What I have not expressed as completely is how much worse it was when I tried to be someone else. Whenever I have tried to live by rules that others sought to impose, whenever I have tried to be someone other than who I am, those are the times when I have been closest to self destruction. In order to be your best, you must first learn to understand who you are. Begin from the truth and you may build something great.

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Monday, December 10, 2018

Appreciate The Change

The butterfly did not begin as the butterfly. The rose did not begin as the rose. The mighty oak did not begin as the mighty oak. All things change, and things tend to go through a great deal of change before achieving those states which we often prefer. Never forget that the same is true of you. You are a work in progress, and your best is yet to come.

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Friday, December 7, 2018

Appreciate Your Strength

It is easy to forget sometimes, but your track record for getting through the tough times so far is 100%. Think about that for a minute. How many times have you been certain that you couldn't make it one more day? Yet here you are, reading these words. Appreciate that, hold onto that, and believe that you can keep doing it. Keep going.

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Thursday, December 6, 2018

Life Time

All time is life time, and a lifetime is all you have. You can't recycle it, and you can't buy more. Spend what you have wisely, and make sure you are putting your time where you will most appreciate it. You don't want to look back at the end and say, "Wish I had." It's your life. Make sure you are living it.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Things To Appreciate

If we ever made the effort to truly appreciate all that we have to appreciate, most of us wouldn't have much time left over for the grumbling and complaining. That isn't entirely realistic of course - not appreciating things can lead to improving things - but it's should help to bring a moment of perspective. Don't let the negative overwhelm you. Take the time to appreciate what you have.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Walk In Peace

Life can come at you pretty fast, but you're missing some pretty important parts if you don't slow down occasionally and enjoy the view. There is always something amazing to see, if you can find it. Sometimes it's hidden, and you have to go searching for it, but it's worth the effort. There is beauty all around you. Take the time to enjoy it.

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Monday, December 3, 2018

Everything That Shines

It is from the difficult times that we learn the most. It is when we struggle that we develop our strength. Those who have been through struggle and difficulty have developed skills that cannot be developed any other way. Embrace what you have learned, and use it to be a better person.

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