Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Thankfulness Thing

(News-Herald, November 25) It is ironic that Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday, because we Americans do gratitude so very poorly.
We love the idea of being self-made, self-sufficient, self-supporting, even though there isn’t one American in a billion who actually is any of those things. But we get our big steely squint and grunt on and declare, hands clenched before us, “I’ve made this life for myself with these two hands.” We have trouble setting aside pride long enough to pick up gratitude.
When looking for ingrates, people of faith will note non-believers who fail to honor the Deity which gave life and breath to all that we experience, and they have a point. It’s an easy step for people to slip from believing in no God to believing in themselves as the micro-God of their own mini-universe.
But people of faith can also fail gratitude school. Since a Pharisee first said, “I thank Thee, God, that I am not like other men,” religious folks have fallen prey to the prayer, “Thank you, God, for giving me what I so richly deserve.”
“I thank You that I am so awesome,” does not qualify as gratefulness.
So it’s not faith (or lack thereof) that gets in our way when it comes to gratitude. The road black is our tendency to believe that our successes and failure prove something fundamental about who we are. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we want to believe that bad things happen to stinky people while the Good are justly rewarded. Even when we see living proof that life doesn’t always work that way, we see it as a violation of natural law, not evidence that our ideas about natural law are incorrect.
If something good happened to us, we reason that it must have happened because we deserve it. We look at our good fortune and think, “I must be awesome!”
But it’s not as if life is a random roll of the dice. Good choices tend to lead to better results than bad choices. Sitting on the porch and waiting for your ship to come in doesn’t work for much of anyone. Work hard, be smart, choose wisely, pay attention, keep trying, and maintain good character—these are all likely to be the part of any success story.
So if you’ve done all these things, if you’ve done most things right to bring you to that good place that you are today, what should you be thankful for? If you are a do-it-yourself success story, where should you direct your gratitude today?
The people who raised you: No three-year-old is a self-made man, and there’s no grown human who doesn’t have a personal three year old tucked inside. The folks who raised you, even if they did a lousy job, shaped you. Be grateful that they helped equip you for success.
Timing: So many choices only look smart after the fact, because they are only smart at that moment, and you can’t know if the time is right unless you take the jump. Some folks got rich buying and selling houses; some are going broke. No doubt someone with a natural aptitude for computer math was born in ancient Egypt. Fat lot of good it did him. Be grateful that you came along at the right time.
Lack of consequences: Nobody is perfect; everybody makes bad choices. Sometimes a bad choice ends the story, but sometimes the piper never shows up to demand his payment. Think of your bad choice and be grateful it didn’t derail your life.
Health: There are plenty of diseases that do not care whether you’ve chosen wisely or not. Be grateful no such disease ever chose you.
Other humans: Walt Disney had a vision and drive, but he ran out of money every other month. Had other people not backed him financially, he would have been a glorious short-lived failure. Had his wife and brother not backed him personally, he would have flamed out before he was thirty. There are people in your life you have helped carry you over one pit or another. Be grateful they were there to stand by you.
It’s good to be grateful. It reminds us not to get snotty and full of ourselves, reminds us to treat others well, and reminds us of the debt we owe the world around us. Enjoy your day, remember you’re fortunate to have it, and be grateful.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Life and Personal Heroes

(News-Herald, November 18) Every year at this time I invite you to recognize your own personal heroes.
We ought to do it more than once a year, and it’s hard to see why we don’t. We complain that the news is all bad, that we ought to look on the bright side, but we miss the chance help solve the problem even in a small way.
Our biggest problem is that we insist our heroes be perfect. We are so insistent that we often fall for people who give us a bright glossy lie and step right past people who present a messy truth.
Yet when someone dies, we can suddenly see right past the less admirable parts to praise those qualities that we always loved and which we now must ever after miss. So every year I come back here to suggest that tell your heroes how much you value them at some place better than their graveside. If you can do it then, you can do it now.
In the past few weeks, I’ve heard numerous versions of the old “Life is _____.” Life is teaching. Life is football. Life is Frisbee. Life is a good peanut butter sandwich.
Well, life isn’t any of those things. It’s human of us to think so. We see people whose life is in their great driving passion, be it rugby, rap or rapelling, and we decide that if we just followed that discipline, we would discover that same great passion for life.
This is backwards. Life is energy, excitement, passion, power, focus, love and endless growth. But not a one of those things can exist in itself.
Life is like a billow of smoke, without shape or direction unless contained and directed somehow. Our pursuits, sports, arts, and vocations are the vessels into which we pour all the heart and passion that is a life. Life is our breath; our pursuits are balloons.
Some lucky people find the container that fits them best. Some are more suited to one form than another (Few things give me the zing of fatherhood or making music). The biggest mistake is to assume that our own form is the only form (as in “The only way a person can feel truly alive is through basketweaving—everything is just a waste of time.”)
My heroes include people who have taken this to the next level, people who have figured out that they can inject that same fire and drive and life and growth into whatever they do.
Take Al Shilling for instance. I have to believe there aren’t many people whose resumes include wrestling coach, phys ed teacher, and a long stint in musical theater. But there’s Al, whose successes span all three arenas.
I’ve known Al for years, watched him as a teacher, a coach, an advisor, a director, a performer, a father/husband/grandfather, doing it all with a drive and energy that is always admirable. It’s a life that never stops to wave and call attention to itself, but which simply keeps moving forward.
I associate that same sort of energy with my own parents. My folks are many things, but probably not the people who light up the room when they walk in. Yet they have devoted themselves to numerous projects over the year, treating each one like an important labor of love.
These are people who inject life into all that they do. They treat each project like it matters and each commitment like one that they’re serious about. And for that reason, they are heroes of mine.
We all know people like this, people whose energy and devotion we admire, whose life displays great focus and intent. They do everything like they really mean it. They don’t wait for activities to inspire them; they bring their inspiration to all that they do. They aren’t trying to get a life; they’re making one.
These are easy people to take for granted, which brings us to your homework. Take out some paper and an envelope, then write and send a note to one of your heroes. Don’t hedge or waffle—simply write “You are my hero because…” and add a few lines. Then send it.
People who put so much devotion and energy out into the world deserve to get a little something back. Don’t wait until your heroes are perfect (it will never happen) or dead (it will happen all too soon). Write a letter to your hero this weekend.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Secrets, Commissioners and Veterans

(News-Herald, November 11) I’d like to be the first to announce that I am not one of the twenty-five secret candidates for County Commissioner.
Had I known someone could try for the job under cover of darkness, I might have. But I figured that being a candidate for a very public elected office involved the public knowing, publicly, what you were up to. Silly me.
This is a nifty new breakthrough in public (well, public-ish) service. I’m wondering if the new commissioner will remain secret, appearing at meetings with a bag over his/her head. Maybe this cone of secrecy will be extended to the new secret commissioner’s actions. I can see the headlines now: “Commissioner Baghead Votes To Do Something. Or Not.”
I understand the notion that, should the candidates’ names be known publicly, the people who have to make the selection will be subject to endless lobbying and pressure. After that decision is made, the unsuccessful applicants will be labeled “losers” and other children on the playground will mock them and steal their lunch money.
I agree that this would all be unpleasant. It would, in fact, be pretty much like the usual process of filling any other elective office.
I believe that some of the real journalists here at the News-Derrick have suggested that the process being used is illegal. As a fake journalist, I can go ahead and call it a less objective journalistic term like, say, dumb.
Nobody looks at this kind of secrecy and assumes that The Powers That Be are hiding something Really Good. The new commissioner, if he is not one of the people with the cojones to reveal himself in the newspaper, will start the job with baggage. The folks who want to do this selection in some smoke-filled back room are not doing Commissioner Baghead any favors.
The impulse to keep things secret is almost always a mistake, but the world is filled with managers, leaders, and politicians who are drawn to it like a moth to a blowtorch.
Some buckle when they make a mistake, like five year old hiding the pieces of the broken lamp. Trying to hide mistakes is, well, a mistake. You’ll still pay the price for the mistake, and the interest on that payment will be some not-too-flattering reflections on your character. People who try to hide their mistakes instead of dealing with them do not inspire trust or respect in others, ever.
Worse, some people will buckle before making a mistake. Faced with a decision, they will try to hide their choice or, worst yet, hide that there is even a choice to make. If they choose, someone may disagree or criticize, so they avoid any moment of decision at all. Faced with a situation that requires a response of any kind, they pretend that they see no such problem. To avoid the criticism or kibitzing of others, they try to keep even the need for a decision a secret.
It’s not so much cloak-and-dagger secrecy as it is the hope that we can get other people to ignore it until it goes away. And we all contribute because there are things that we often conspire to ignore. Take today, for example.
I am sure there are many practical reasons that we pay way more attention to Memorial Day than Veterans Day, but I tend to think our focus is backwards. The folks we honor on Memorial Day are gone. We can respect their sacrifice, but their troubles are over and we don’t have to think about them.
It’s easy to make noise about honoring the dead. Veterans are still here, and their problems still deserve attention. We are currently fighting the longest war in American history, but you would never know that to look at us.
When we think of returning soldiers, we like to think of the glorious parades of World War II, but that’s a glossy half-truth. WWI, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq—the story of our last several wars is the story of veterans who came home to a country that in many ways tried to make secrets out of them, to avoid noticing them, or their sacrifices, or the way in which their sacrifice for our country changed their lives.
When it comes to citizens, many, if not most, do our best to avoid thinking about veterans, allowing our treatment of them, both as individuals and as a society, to stay secret. Today, don’t ask if we should respect them—that’s a given. Ask yourself if veterans should respect the rest of us.

Friday, November 05, 2010

To Make a Difference

(News-Herald, November 4) I may have recently logged the one gazillionth time I’ve heard someone make the basic complaint about the allegedly tragic lack of things to do in Venangoland.
You know the drill: “Well, of course I’m going to go out and drink too much/eat too much/sit and be bored/jam a pencil up my nose/whack myself in the forehead with a ball peen hammer,” says the poor, disaffected soul. “There’s nothing else to do around here.”
I’m not going to get into the argument about what there is or isn’t to do around here. We can save that one for another day, and in the meantime I acknowledge that everybody has his own idea about what constitutes “something to do.”
But if your comment to me is, “This place/job/school/neighborhood/city/solar system stinks,” my response is, “Okay. What are you doing about it.”
That classic question, “What difference can one person make?” is not the real question. The real question is “What kind of difference do you intend to make?”
Every person makes a difference. In fact, no person can avoid making a difference. Every single time you simply walk through the same space as another human being, you make a difference. You might smile and say “Hi,” or you might grumble some obnoxious curse, or you might pass by as if the other person were non-existent. Whatever choice you make, it makes a difference.
Every circumstance presents us with choices, and every choice we make makes a difference.
Part of our problem is that we have confused “difference” with “earth-shattering changes that shift continents and throw a million lives into gyrating vortices of gasp-inducing drama.” People who suffer from this confusion should be encouraged to pay less attention to tv and more attention to the way actual humans live their lives.
Another part of our problem is that we forget how hard is to spot the choices that make the most long-lasting ripples in the lakes of our lives. My fifth grade music teacher Miss Gause chose to confront the boys in the back of the room and try to make them actually listen to musical pitches. When my father was younger, he decided to collect a few Glenn Miller albums. Neither was a large, dramatic choice, but together they influenced the trajectory of my entire life.
On the other hand, I watch plenty of teenagers get wrapped up in massive drama that, ten years later, has had less lasting importance than what color shirt they wore to the Homecoming dance.
So every single choice makes a difference. We just don’t get to know up front how much difference it will be.
The final fallacy that we fall for is the notion that since we can’t change everything, we can’t change anything.
When I step in a classroom, folks from the people in our central office through the suits in Harrisburg on to the bureaustocracy in DC back to my own students have made choices about my classroom that I have no power over. But I still get to—have to—make choices about how I will conduct myself, how I’ll treat my students, what kind of atmosphere I’ll try to create.
We live in a world where we have steadily decreasing power over our circumstances. But we always have choices. We always have the choice to treat other people well, or not. We always have the power to push for the things we want to see in the world, or to complain because they haven’t magically appeared on their own.
So don’t tell me “I did something stupid because that’s the only choice around here.” There are always other choices, and you are too old to play “Look what you made me do.” If you made the stupid choice, don’t try to blame it on your surroundings, because at the end of the day you are one of the co-creators of your circumstances. If you think your circumstances stink, check in the mirror to find one of the people responsible.
Certainly there are limits. You can only live the life you have, not the one you wish you had. And you will never have the power to create a world in which everyone else acts exactly the way you think people should act. On the other hand, you will always have all the power necessary to create a world in which you act exactly the way you think people should act. That’s a power that shouldn’t be wasted.

From my Flickr