12 March 2010

Lesson #28: I will be learning for the rest of my life.

We've made it through twenty-seven lessons, which means now... here's one to grow on.

This isn't the lesson I thought I would end this project with, when I started.  I really thought I was going to end with forgiveness, or one of the lessons that's been a part of my more recent struggles.  But something changed as I was writing all of these entries -- which I guess was the purpose of this blog, a sort of therapy.  Blogapy.  Whatever.

I realized, as I was writing, that I wasn't summarizing everything I've learned over the last twenty-seven years.  I was writing about things I needed to write about.  I was reminding myself of things I needed to remember.

And I realized that, at one time, I used to know a lot of this.   Or I thought I did.

I've read that life is a series of lessons.  Each problem is really a lesson, an opportunity to learn something.  If we get it, we can move on.  And if we don't, the lesson will reappear.  Sometimes it will get harder.  This concept has really hit home for me in the last few days, as I'm going back and reading books I'd read ten or twelve years ago, or thinking over concepts I'd considered in the past.  When I was younger... fifteen, sixteen, eighteenish... I thought I'd had life figured out.  There was a way you acted, and that was it.  There was a standard of behavior.  Life was this way, and that was all.  I truly didn't understand what was so hard.

Well, I do now.

Because I thought I had a good handle on things, I thought I knew a lot.  And, to follow some old wisdom, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.  It made me feel pretty confident, cocky, assured that I wouldn't make the same mistakes as the average person.  I felt like I'd just pick the right path, and things would happen.  But I hadn't really learned anything, because when challenges arose later, sometimes I failed.  The lessons hadn't stuck, but I thought they had, so I kept going until I got stuck in a place I didn't want to be.  There was the illusion of knowledge.

I know I've made a lot of references in this blog to mistakes or bad decisions, and I've made my part.  But now, I know that because I made them, now I have a better idea of what was lacking before, of why I made them.  I've learned the lessons I've needed to learn, I'm still learning them.  I'm glad, in a way, to have had that experience, because I truly wasn't aware of the problems before.  And I feel lucky that I have so much in my life to be thankful for, and to appreciate.

And I think the learning will continue.  I'll be tested again, on the same problems, and new ones.  I may forget every one of the lessons I've written out here, and more, but I can remember them again when I need them.  I hope the learning continues, because that's how I know I'm alive.  I'm not just breathing in and out, sitting on a rock as it rotates around a star.  I'm actively living, changing, growing every day -- hopefully into a better person, or into the person I want to become; hopefully creating some happiness in the world; and hopefully leaving things a little better than they were before I got there.

Cheers to learning.  Even after I finally get out of grad school.

11 March 2010

Lesson #27: Nothing is Unforgivable.

I need to start this post by saying this is a lesson I have learned, and am still learning, through the example of others.  There are special, amazing people in my life who are teaching me how to let go of past hurt or anger, practice forgiveness, and move on into a more fulfilling life.

I have yet to get there.  But I know it's reachable.

There's the idea of forgiveness, which is not the same as forgetting.  I'd agree with that.  It's important to remember what's happened in the past, to the extent required to learn from it.  But I haven't always done that.  Under the guise of 'not forgetting', I've carried around past grudges, which have then come out in other areas of my life - damaging the relationship I have with my oldest brother, for example.

I didn't realize how bad it was until I realized I had some things I had to forgive myself for, and I didn't know how to do it.  Myself.  That one should have been easier, because who else knows me better?  Hm.

I got a book.

And I can't say it hasn't helped.  I've learned how to focus on the positive that's come out of the negative.  I think I have about fifty-one more chapters to go, but I decided midway through this post that I don't really want to even talk about that.

Insert draft edit fail here.

I want to go back to the idea that nothing is unforgivable.  I've learned this from seeing the ability of others - people I know, and people I don't - to forgive.  I also feel like this is something I know, deep down.  That kind of Knowing that just is, like gravity or Six's TARDIS+Delorean shirt.

And I just want to say that I'm learning that forgiveness is an action, deliberate, and real, just like drinking a glass of water or saying I love you.  It involves feeling, sure, but when we can't forgive, we're hanging on to negative feelings or thoughts that belong in the past.  Letting them go should make it easier.  When I let go of those thoughts or feelings, I can perform forgiveness as an action, something which is well within my ability to give, because I dictate my actions.  I choose to forgive, which means that the bounds of forgiveness can be infinite.

Forgiveness is also a way to free us from the burdens of the past.  No one should have to carry around the weight that is anger, or injury, or resentment.  It turns people old, stretches them into thin shadows of the people they could be.  And no wonder - they're living days upon days of their lives over and over again.  If I'm pissed at Susie-Q for stealing my Hostess Cupcake, and I think on that every day for a year, I've spent a whole year living the same day over again, in addition to my actual movement through time and space (another debate).  If I let go of the Cupcake incident, I can focus on living just one life, one that is entirely mine.

Forgiveness keeps us whole.  It unites all the little pieces that break when someone hurts us.  It's like duct-tape, which is pretty cool in and of itself.  And because forgiveness makes us whole again, we can become better people for those we love.  We can do good in the world, and spread joy.

That's what I've figured out about forgiveness.  It's not an instant process.  There's no switch.  But it will happen, because I want it to and I'm willing to work at it.

Maybe I won't even need to read the rest of that book.

Lesson #26: Morality might be relative. Ethics are not.

Most people have their own set of beliefs that dictate some behaviors are good, some are bad, etc.  This might be influenced by religion, family, friends, or personal preferences.  But moral relativity is not what occupies my mind when I think about how I want to live my life.

Ethics is.

Are they so different?  Let's consult Wikipedia:
  • Morality -- a system of conduct and ethics that is virtuous
  • Ethics -- Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is a branch of philosophy which seeks to address questions about morality; that is, about concepts like good and bad, right and wrong, justice, virtue, etc.

Interestingly, the Wiki entry for Morality goes on to describe three 'meanings' for morality - one that's synonymous with ethics, one that's 'descriptive' in that it delineates right and wrong in the context of human society, and 'normative', which focuses on absolute right and wrong, no matter what people think.  This three part definition is enough of a reason to stay away from a word like 'Morality'.  Based on the definitions, 'ethics' seems to be the most active - it doesn't rely on absolutes, or on the majority rule.  It also isn't quite as loaded with religious connotation.

And that might be the biggest difference for me.  It might have been the intense Catholic school education (which has served me well, don't get me wrong), but I seem to tie morals to religion in my head.  A set of rules I follow because that's the way it is.  Whereas ethics, to me, seem like a code to which you adhere because it's your choice.  It's how you have to live in order to live with yourself and others.  

These sound like the same thing, but what about when someone loses their religion?  Or their faith?  Do their morals change then?  As my religious and political views have changed, as my awareness of the world has increased, moral stances I took in my teens have changed also.  So I think about ethics, when I think about how I need to live my life.  

The rules that I try to call my 'ethics' focus more on how I treat and interact with other people.  This, I think, should not be relative.  So maybe Ethics are the constant that lies between many relative sets of morals... you know, the basic truth(s) that keep people sane and happy and not killing each other in most parts of the world.  I think some of this is instinctive, and some of it is not.  It could be what separates us from 'animals' -- an interesting conversation I had a while back that I'm not really coherent enough to repeat here.  (Long day).

Here are the ones I've been thinking of most recently.  It's a short list, and I can't even say I've always lived up to them.  But I do know that every one is there because I found myself breaking it, and realized what it was doing to me, and that I couldn't continue that way.  So... here we go.  

1.  Create happiness.
"I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out." --Roger Ebert
 I love this quote, from the article linked above.  I like the idea of creating happiness where I go - whether it's giving someone a reason to smile or laugh, listening when they need it, or doing something that needs to be done.  And this works for me, based on my experience.

2.  Do no harm.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor.  The real, medical kind, not the Sciency Kind I'm trying to be now.  And I remember learning about the Hippocratic Oath.  While this phrase isn't actually part of the oath, I did read about it, and it struck a chord with me.  I still like it, because it seems to run counter to the conventional wisdom of 'there's a pill for that.'
It's important to me, to avoid doing harm to others - directly or indirectly.  There have been times when I've ignored this, and acted selfishly in a way that didn't account for others' feelings.  And I've really felt that violation of ethics acutely, enough to know I can't live my life that way.  I also know that there are plenty of opportunities for this statement to fall into contention... issues of self-defense, or war, for example.  Maybe a better way to state it is 'Protect others'.

3.  Be mindful.

Honesty with myself, awareness of my surroundings, the ability to see the actions of others, staying in the present, letting go of burdens I don't need to carry... all of these things will help enhance my life.  They'll also help me become a better person, better at interacting with others and helping those that need it.

4.  Act out of love.

This was a line from The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman.  The author was talking about freedom from illusion, stepping into consciousness and awareness, and how at that point, it was only possible to act out of love.  And from love comes respect, mercy, empathy, compassion, understanding... a whole host of things that are so important to offer other people, and ourselves.
Or, as Anne Lamott says a little more directly... "Don't be an asshole."

What are the critical ethics or morals on which you base your actions?

10 March 2010

Lesson #25: Let go once in a while. Laugh. Be silly.

This past weekend, I saw a great PostSecret. The secret was written in blue ink on a plain white postcard: "Laughing is the most important part of sex."

Don't worry, this post isn't about sex.  Not really.  That's my other blog.

I love this secret.

I love it because it reminds me the importance of humor, and joy, and that we can't take ourselves too seriously. If you think about something like sex... (I'll wait)  ...it's a very personal, very intimate act.  Some people struggle with sex, be it process, identity, etc., their whole lives.  So this secret makes me wonder... does the writer laugh during sex because sometimes it requires a sense of humor?  From pleasure?  From sheer joy?

This question doesn't really require an answer.

Some people hide their feelings well.  I don't think I do.  When I'm thinking about something that makes me happy, I smile.  I know, because people call me out on it.  When something's on my mind, I think it shows, that it weighs me down.  But sometimes, when some nice stranger has told me to smile because I look down.. and I am... I smile, and then I feel just a little bit better.  It's as if, by acting the way I want to feel, I get closer to being that way.

If I look for a little bit of beauty in the world, I can find that sense of joy and wonder that gives life more meaning than hours in a lab, or a commute, or a racing/training goal I haven't achieved.  If I look for the ridiculous, in others, or more often in myself, I can find a reason to laugh.  I'd much rather laugh than be pissed off.

One of my favorite things to do, when it's been a hard day, has been to come home and cook.  I like to make soup, if the weather's right.  There's something about the repetitive chopping that does it, helps me quiet my mind and calm down.  But whatever I'm making, I like to crank up the radio.  I dance around the kitchen, tossing ingredients around, flailing about with whatever's in my hands... wooden spoon... measuring cups... Henckle knife... whatever.  I dance.  I even sing.  It relaxes me.

I don't worry about how I look, or how I sound.  I don't stress if I'm off beat.  I just try to find joy, and I guess distraction, in the music, and the process.  I "be silly".

Life should be about playing.  It's too short to stress through, whether I make mistakes or do everything right. It should be about running and chasing, about tickling, about funny faces and 'poke-I-Win' games that have lasted for years.  It should be about Monkey Bites and stupid jokes and shoe wedgies and laughing so hard that my face hurts.  So every once in a while, I've learned to let go.  Laugh.  And be silly.

Lesson #24: Handwrite letters once in a while.

We've hit some heavy topics recently: communication, love and trust, secrets... so now, we're going to talk about penmanship.  Yeah.  Handwriting.  I'm not even sure they teach it any more.  Remember the fat pencils and the hugely wide lines?  Remember tracing letters, then repeating them for rows and rows?  Soooo many Gs.  And damn that cursive Q.  Handwriting was annoying.

And it obviously didn't stick, if you've ever seen me write a note.


There's always a however.

I say this, typing across my laptop, into the intertubes: hand-writing is very important.  Specifically, handwriting a note or letter.  Yes.  A legible one.  And I mean, more than signing my name above a hallmark logo.

Why do this, you ask, when email might suffice?  Or a phone call?  An IM?  A gChat?  Simple, dear Watson.  I resort to this 'lost art' because...

...it takes time to handwrite a note.  For me, much more time than it does to type out the same.  It requires me to organize my thoughts ahead of time, since there's no hand cut/paste/delete function.  I have to think about spelling, because no squiggly red lines will appear to tell me when I've messed up.  Though, now that I think about it, the absence of auto-correct for a handwritten note is nice (stupid Word), but I digress.

Handwriting a note or letter takes time.  And planning.  And, while I write that note, I'm thinking, the whole time, of the person to which I'm writing, and what I want to say to them.  This is pretty powerful.  How often do we give that much attention to what we're doing?  It's a very mindful process.

So every so often, when I'm putting together a gift or trying to let someone know how much they mean to me, I write it out.  I use nice crisp stationary.  I usually do two drafts, the first to get out what I want to say, the second to make sure it's legible.  And then I fold it, oh so neatly, put their name on the front, and hand it over.  Hopefully, it's just one more way I can show the recipient how special he or she is.

09 March 2010

Lesson #23: Know when to talk, and when to listen.

...AKA.... the fine art of asking for help.  Although that's a narrow focus.  Let's go with communication in general.

Knock knock.  Who's there?  Interrupting cow.  Interr-- MOO!

Get it?

Yeah, that's me.  The interrupting [NOT a cow].  Thoughts come out, and jump right over the barrier and into conversation, often when it's not my turn.  Which is just rude.  And not ok, because then I miss things, either because the conversation changes, or I'm not able to listen.  So I'm working on that one.  

That's just one aspect of communication that's hard for me.  It takes me a while, to organize my thoughts and ideas.  That's why I prefer writing, though this blog, made up of first-drafts, is probably not the best example.  If I know I need to talk to someone about something, particularly if it's difficult, I go over what I want to say a few times before I say it.  Spur of the moment things?  Sometimes.  But not too often.  And let's not even get started on talking about feelings, or admitting I'm angry or unhappy.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that rocking the boat wasn't good.  This isn't a conscious thought.  I wasn't even aware of this habit until the last few months.  It's sneaky.  I realize the problem.  I decide to confront it.  I get into the ring... and then I take a pass.  Decide it's a by week.  Decide to deal with it later, because it's hard or I don't want to deal with it.

This is a problem of not knowing when to talk.  That first feeling that things aren't right should be a red flag.  More will probably come. And when they do, I've learned I need to say something, because silence isn't going to make it better -- the situation won't change, or I won't remove myself from the situation.  It's a vicious cycle to get stuck in.  When I do talk, it's fine to talk to friends, vent, use that time to sort my thoughts out... but then, in the end, I need to make sure I'm also talking to the people involved in the problem, too.

However, once I talk, there's another trap.  I have to listen.  Really listen, not just hear the words coming out of someone else's mouth.  If I ask for help, I need to be receptive to the answer.  If I ask for advice, I should be prepared to consider it.  If I bring up a problem, listening will help me figure out if the situation will be saved, compromised, or scrapped.  But without the listening part, I'm just making noise.

Communication.  I can has it.

08 March 2010

Lesson #22: The only person you can trust in a relationship is yourself.

I know this sounds paranoid and somewhat sociopathic, but hear this one out. It follows a similar vein as the thread on Follow Through, love as an action, and the idea that I can dictate who I am and how I look at the world.

Two people choose to enter a relationship - romantic, platonic, it doesn't really matter - which involves a certain degree of intimacy.  At any level, there's an exchange.  An investment.  People become connected.  Expectations are set up.  Trust is established.

And I believe trust is one of the most important foundations of a relationship.

But, as we've already explored, people are human.  They might fail.  So how can you base a relationship on trust, when it may be broken?

To some degree, it takes belief, or faith.

But really, the only person you should be trusting in the relationship is yourself.  This trust focuses on two things:
  1. trust in your own integrity to make the right decisions for your relationship; and
  2. trust in your ability to choose and surround yourself with people of the same integrity.

So the idea of trusting only yourself takes on a new, non-paranoid meaning.  They focus on things that you can control

I can't control the decisions, actions, or feelings of another person, no matter how close I am to them, no matter how much I love them or want them to love me.  People have free will.  And a good chunk of the time, people are going to do what they're going to do.  I can only control myself, by exercising that free will to make decisions that maintain my integrity and personal ethics (post coming up).  I can only control my circumstances in so far as my actions reflect those same values.  With me?  Let's go deeper.

Not long ago, a friend pointed out to me that the one thing a person can't afford to surrender in a relationship is their integrity.  This was extremely profound, though it's taken me a while to really learn it.  But now, what it means to me, is that I need to recognize that I have a responsibility to adhere to my moral code, the way I want to live my life, and the things I say I'm going to do.  Put another way, I must be able to trust myself.  I cannot betray myself with actions that go against the values I hold close

And he was right.  Losing trust in myself was probably one of the worst things I've done in my life, because it changed everything.  I questioned every direction, and everything I thought I knew.  I felt lost.  I made bad decisions thinking they were good, because I didn't know which instincts or rules to obey.  It was very lonely. Now, I truly don't believe that integrity is a thing that, once lost, will never return.  But I see myself differently, and consider my actions differently, because I don't want to be in that place again.  It's like pulling a baking sheet out of the oven with my bare hands: I'll probably continue to bake (once the burns have healed up and the skin grafts are done) but I'm going to look for the oven mitt every time.

So I need to trust myself, and prove it, to keep my peace of mind.  But what about the relationship?

Well, if I trust myself, and my integrity, I will be able to trust my ability to seek out people of the same trustworthiness and integrity.  I'll be less likely write off or rationalize behavior that clearly runs counter to what I believe.I'll minimize influences that could sway me at points of hardship or decision, where I don't have a fancy pink blog that pretends I have all of the answers (or at least 28 of them).

I'll know that they will also be making decisions that are healthy and right for themselves and for our relationship, based on ethics and integrity.

If I can trust in myself, and in my ability to see other people clearly, then I won't have to worry about the actions of others (which I cannot control).  I can focus on my own.  And on our relationship, and on enjoying the time I have and the things I share with that friend.  And my friend will know that she or he can trust me to do the same.

Makes everything seem simple, huh?

This is one I'm still working on, every day, and I'm sure I didn't hash it out as well as I could if I worked on this post for a week or two.  So if you have thoughts, leave 'em.  Otherwise, see you at #23.