Consider this- “Deaths of Despair”

iStock_000068724623_Medium

I believe that one of the true crisis of our time is the lack of reflection. For the first time in thousands of years, those who are in important roles of leadership are, for the most part, not spending time considering, in-depth, the social, technological and economic world we live in. They have fallen into the pattern of the day of quick sound bites and headlines.

What’s the risk? Reflection has three distinct values:

  • Deeper understanding of the fundamentals that are creating the circumstances we are experiencing
  • Multiple perspectives bringing out not-before considered options for solutions to challenges
  • Realization of the broad impact of decisions because of the interconnectedness of everything

Without reflection, we move to a transactional orientation to our lives. While we say relationships are important, the key indicators show isolationism of ourselves, our instigations and our county.  We end up with a world that is uncaring of others and the gap between those who have and those who don’t increases.

This is a continuation of a conversation I’ve had in this space many times and will. I chose to revisit this today because of news report summarizing a paper by two noted Princeton economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton.

In 2015, Case and Deaton wrote a paper bringing our attention to the surge in mortality rates of white middle-age non-Hispanic men without a college degree. Now, they are focusing on what they call the “deaths of despair” to this same group. They define deaths of despair as either quick deaths by suicide or slower self-inflicted deaths by alcohol or drug overuse.

Their assessment is that the primary issue isn’t economic. For if it was, African American and Hispanic men should have the same high rates of “deaths of despair” and they don’t. So, what’s going on? We know that research isn’t perfect so I’ll offer my assessments from reading report. I encourage you to do the same so you can draw your own conclusions.

There are several social factors, which I hadn’t thought about, they point to as having the potential to underlying causes for the increase in mortality rates and dramatic increase in “deaths of despair”. Before I give you the particulars, it’s important to remember one of the key components of our humanness. We want to belong. The socio-economic group we are referring to have seen their traditional support network for belonging collapsing.

In the past, those in manufacturing often belonged to unions. It was not uncommon for these workers to have multiple generations working in well-paying jobs at the same company. No more. Some of the fallouts of this shift are higher rates of divorce, at-risk health and loneliness.

Our religious institutions helped bolster the sense of belonging to this group. Over the past twenty years, while we haven’t seen a decline in participation rates at churches, we have seen change in their makeup. Legacy religious such as a Catholicism and main-stream Protestantism have declined. They have been supplanted by “seeking” churches. These churches fundamentals focus on the individual and their relationship with God than the community they are part of.

Divorce is also a critical issue with this age group. It is speculated that the lower income and pervious stress from jobs have contributed to an increasing divorce rate. This is coupled with declining health and well-being.

The report’s authors also noted that this trend appears to be a U.S. phenomenon. Mortality rates for this group to be declining by a significant rate in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan.

Why is this important to us to reflect upon? When you have a contrary social trend, it’s highly probable it will have a disproportionate impact. For instance, these underlying issues and the mood of this segment of the population may have been a contributing factor in the most recent presidential election.

I encourage you to take some time to read from multiple viewpoints about what’s happening in our society. Reflect on what you find and use this reflection to guide your decisions.

 

Featured

The Loneliness Epidemic

image-16

I was listening to a radio interview today of the former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murtny. He puts forth that we are in the moment of a national health crisis. This crisis is not from an airborne illness or some biological mess-up. It is because of our loneliness.

As soon as I heard this, I had an “AH-HA” moment. I like many others have a number of social media networks. I feed these networks so I can be connected and have relationships. The truth, though, is that through these networks i don’t feel really connected. What are we truly going to share about ourselves in a public forum? Recipes, photos, events we attend.

What about what makes our heart soar or ache. What about the struggles we are having the we are even a little afraid to mention out loud? What about a hug or a kind touch or maybe just a familiar smell?

None of this is possible through our online connections. I’m not being a luddite and suggesting these mediums are bad. What I am saying is they are not a substitute for in-person connection. We are becoming more isolated and this isolation has significant health and well-being impact. I don’t have solutions to offer today. I do recommend you read Dr. Murtny’s article in the Harvard Business Review: Work and the Loneliness Epidemic.

I’m moved by this challenge to our society. For millennia, we banded together for our safety. As we have “evolved” we feel we don’t need others to survive, perhaps we have misunderstood survival. You see, merely breathing and eating and going to work isn’t living. We have the potential for so much more as humans, why deprive ourselves of a full life for a life where we merely get by?

We don’t solve the problem by going alone to a place where there is a crowd. Go to a mall or airport and people watch for a while. Look at all the islands passing each other without any recognition or interaction. Most people are looking at the smart phones or listening to music or in some other form of self-imposed isolation. They could pass the most interesting person in the world and they would never know it.

What will you do today to connect more with people in person, share of yourself and allow yourself the opportunity to feel more alive?

It is What it is!

images

Acceptance is a challenge. So many things that I experience with myself and the world around me don’t fit what I want or like. My mother doesn’t love me the way I want. My boss doesn’t appreciate my work. The airline is unfair because they overbooked the flight I was on. The driver behind me is a jerk because they are following me too closely.

You know the litany of things that you don’t like and have judgements about. If you are like me, the dialogue is continuous and the outcome is mostly the same – you’re frustrated the other person / entity doesn’t really care about what matters to you!

I end up feeling everything from mild irritation to outright anger. The reaction is automatic and I really don’t want to continue down this road.
So what can I do? As I write this, I’m looking at a small block of wood that sits on my desk. Painted on this block are the words, “IT IS WHAT IT IS”. Simple and insightful, this sentence is key to untangling my long history of judgment and disappointment. At the bottom of my frustration is not accepting things are they truly are.

Not easy, I know. If a friend says they will do something for me and they don’t, I don’t like it. Part of my reaction is irritation with them for not doing what they say, and another part of the reaction is my frustration with myself for also exhibiting this behavior (sometimes I don’t want to see that!).

In the end, my reaction (not my actions, which I will talk about in a minute) isn’t at all helpful. My reaction blocks my ability to understand the situation clearly. Which means that whatever response I have will not be the best response. Also there is often a residue of the experience that resurfaces later, as if the situation happened just a few minutes before.

My reactions don’t change what has happened. The company I ordered a product from shipped it late. The restaurant I was at last night served food that wasn’t up to par. The company I want service from has a seemingly impossible “phone tree” making it damn near impossible to talk to a human.

Whatever I feel, these things happened. It’s more productive to remember, IT IS WHAT IT IS. In the simplicity of this understanding make a decision on what I deliberately choose to do now. Mostly my decision is, “there is nothing to do”.

There are times, though, when I might feel I should speak to someone about the impact their decision or actions has on me. Not because I’m angry, but because my relationship with that person is important enough for me to invest in the uncomfortable conversation we are likely to have.
At other times, I can take action that means I choose to not do business with a company or I choose to, as one of my teachers said, “Love from afar” a friend. When these choices are deliberate and without any judgement, they can be meaningful to me and sometimes to others.
How I know they are the right choice is that I feel at peace, and the reaction I had with the situation doesn’t arise again.
Life is filled with reactiveness. Seems like a good thing to whittle it away a bit at a time.

Priming the Pump for Inspiration

images-1.jpg

Over the past few months, I’ve felt frustrated. I love writing. It’s like dancing for my soul. Yet, when I sit to write only a stray sentence or two comes and nothing else.

I became interested in this phenomenon. What was the cause of what is commonly called “writer’s block”? As my frustration grew, I sat less often to write. I felt despair that I would be able to get back in the groove, so to speak.

I read my past writings. Some were good, and I wondered who wrote them and my frustration increased. I would sit quietly early in the morning and make sure I didn’t have distractions. Nothing changed. A few sentences came and that’s it.

One day I picked up a book of poetry by Billy Collins. I was grilling hamburgers and wanted to read between turning the burgers. As I read, my mind felt freed. Ideas came flowing and the apparent blockage was gone.

The next day, I continued the practice of reading what inspired me and left me with questions. Boom. Ideas flowed and the blockage wasn’t there. As I thought about this, I realized that my mind had gotten into a rut so to speak. Busy doing stuff and little or no time to disconnect and allow the creative flow.

I wondered if this isn’t at the root of all creative blockages. We get caught up in the rhythm of life. The getting up, going to work, coming home and going to bed routine that becomes all life is. This routine gets more and more entrenched, and creativity ebbs until it’s mostly gone.

The way out is to stop. Find out what inspires you. Could be seeing a movie; walking in the woods; gazing at a sunset; a fine meal. Whatever it is, approach it outside your routine. Make the time to fully enjoy the experience. I don’t claim that my realization is universal or will help you. What I do know is that it is right for me and may help someone else reading this. If it does, let me know.

What bugs you, may unburden your soul

download-1

If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?
– Rumi

One of my biggest challenges is a dance with anger or its father, irritation. When I look outside myself and see what I don’t like, I feel an irritation. When I ask someone to do something that I want and they don’t, I feel irritation that often bubbles quickly into anger. When something I expect to happen doesn’t. I am annoyed.

This morning, I was thinking about the limitation of irritation in my life. As I did, the Rumi saying above appeared. Reflecting, I realized irritation was a way for me to strike back at my discomfort. I want to bend whatever is bothering me to my will. This reaction has been part of my life experience so long it is automatic.

Rumi’s words remind me of a quality that I admire in others who plumb the depths of their fields of endeavor. I was reading a story about Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the math world’s most prestigious award, the Fields Medal. This story explored her life and passion for math. She approached each unknown as a world to be discovered. She entered these journeys of discovery knowing that when it was complete her understanding of the problem she was considering would be far different than when she began and it excited her.

The unbridled commitment to exploration without holding on a fixed outcome is my opportunity as well. I can enter a committed exploration of what is at the root of my irritation with a knowing that my discoveries will enlighten and perhaps surprise me. What is absolutely true is that my “status quo” will be disturbed and that is always uncomfortable and good.

So off I go.

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

images

There was a moment when I realized that the end of my life was getting closer. I’m not afraid of dying or that the time is shorter than I realized. It’s just sobering to know, with absolute certainty, the end of coming at full speed.

I look around and wonder, what would I be doing right now if say, I found out I have 3 months to live. Of course, I would be acting differently than I do today. I would make sure I said goodbye to my children and wife. I would seek out friends and teachers and thank them for all the gifts they shared.

Each morning would be a gift that I would appreciate for its preciousness. Each interaction would be treasured because it could be my last with that person.

An interesting question, I have is, “so what keeps me from having this experience of preciousness right now?” Is there some special signal I’m waiting for, like a doctor’s prognosis, before I treat my day as a gift?

The answer I have is hilarious. I’m afraid to change my status quo if I don’t have to. While I’m living without the fullness of being present in each moment, I’m choosing to be stuck until a stick of dynamite is lite and the fuse is burning quickly down.

I write this note because one of my great joys is writing. I love to write, as I am here, from my heart. Write because I feel alive when I do. Write, because it is who I am.

So without the death sentence being presented by someone else, I grasp this moment and write. Write for myself and if you find it valuable you as well. Write as if my life depends upon it, because a life of being present does.

I will continue to bring my heart and soul to these pages and share that with you.

What’s your limitation?

Images

A few years ago, I was approached by someone in my community with a familiar request. “My business isn’t what I want it to be,” he said. “I’m not making the money I want, and I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”

I thought about his request for a few days and said, I was available to see what I could do to help. He said he’d get back to me about a time to start. Two years passed and not another word.

A few weeks ago, he raised his hand, so to speak, and said he is now ready to do whatever it takes to get his business where he needs it. We met for coffee. I shared my observations of what was holding him back. He enthusiastically agreed that the observations were “right on” and said,  “Let’s get started”.

We set up a time to begin and some “homework” for him to do in the interim so our time together would be productive.

Today was the day of our first meeting. It didn’t happen. Other priorities arose and he has suggested we meet sometime later.

This story is like so many that I encounter. We all want the most out of our lives. We want the best relationships. The most fulfilling work. We desire absolute abundance. Then we experience something that’s less. Why?

At the heart of the matter are beliefs that confuse and obscure our way. We think we can’t or should have all we desire. We settle for something that we don’t really want. Then, maybe when the despair of some other pain is unbearable, we say, “Enough”. We are ready to do what it takes to change what we don’t like about our lives. We take a few steps and something distracts us and the cycle continues.

I’ve had this type of distraction too. I know what’s up. I have settled. Then there is a spark of difference. Something that appears IMPOSSIBLE happens. I’m reminded that the there are no limitations and I endeavor, right now, to remember that the seemingly impossible is possible and it can be true for everything else in my life.

Dissapointment and the Jack in the Box

Jack in the Box

I was watching a child crank the handle on a Jack in the Box. He was lost in the Pops go the Weasel music. At the point we all know, Jack erupts from the box and the child lets out an exclamation of surprise. The child immediately puts Jack back into the box and begins cranking again. This went on for almost a half hour.

It stuck me that this childhood experience is recreated day after day in most of our lives. I think of a particular situation in my life. I have a colleague who promises to support a project that is very important to me. Every time it’s time for this person to act they don’t do what they promise.

Their behavior is consistent and clear. Yet, I continue to want them to do something different. I want them to honor what they promises and every time they don’t I act surprised. So I’m not much different than the child with the Jack in the Box.

Simple, right? Yes and a life spent in being hopeful that others would do what they say, no matter what their actual behavior is, plays itself out once again. I am the person who is the author of my disappointment, not my colleague. They are as predictable as I am.

I can change my experience by accepting what’s true and acting from that reality. When I choose to do this, my disappointment disappears. The choice is now mine and not that of someone else and that’s real power.

What did You Say?

images-1

Do you have the tendency, when you hear someone telling you something they have already shared, to speak or at least think, “ You already told me that”? I do. Last Saturday afternoon, my wife and I were exploring the back roads of our area. She was telling me a story about someone we knew and my response to her was, “You already mentioned that to me.”

In a flash, I realized couple of things were happening. I mentally noted that I knew what she was going to say and I stopped listening to my wife about half way through her story. Not so good, if I’m committed to having a great relationship with her. In fact, this type of “checking out” isn’t a very useful approach whether the person I’m talking to is my wife, friend, co-worker or customer. In all cases, I am not “listening” to the person so I have disconnected from them. I’m sure they realize that I’m not present.

We are so polite in our culture that we don’t ask, “Were you thinking of something else?” when we sense someone we are talking to checks out. Without this feedback, we are often unaware of the impact of our habit of shutting down our listening.

We also deny ourselves a clearer understanding of what they are communicating. We have decided that hearing something one time is the same as full understanding. I know I feel this way at times, yet it can’t be true.

When I’m not fully listening to someone, I have a number of other things going on. I might be thinking about how to respond. I might be thinking what they are saying is either stupid or great and get lost in those assessments. I might just be thinking about dinner. Whatever is going on, it’s unlikely that I really heard everything they were saying.

Why not listen again? Maybe I’ll learn something that allows me to connect with them in a more meaningful way. Maybe I can find out how to be of true service to them, rather than wondering how this conversation is going to benefit me. Maybe I’ll just show them some respect.

So when you think that someone is about to repeat a story you believe you already know, consider how you can connect with them more sincerely and how you just might learn something of great value, both to you and them.

Thomas

Beware of leaping off the cliff

images

First, a reminder- I’m writing this blog for myself. I’m a continuous work in progress, and I use this blog as a place to help me sort things out. Even when I occasionally write in the third person, what I’m writing about is something that is in my face and calling for my attention.

Do you ever notice how quickly you leap into something with no consideration for the purpose of your engagement? You may say, “Not me, I’m very cautious”, but as I consider this phenomenon in me and those I know, I have the feeling it’s something that is part of all our lives.

Say I’m walking in the mountains and I’m in the midst of the most beautiful sights imaginable, I can be distracted by a passing thought that has no linkage to what I’m doing right now. More practically, I‘m writing at my computer and a random thought appears. Maybe I wonder about what’s happening with an old friend, or what the weather will be like tomorrow. Whatever the distraction, I immediately leave what I’m writing and Google the area of inquiry.

This non-deliberate distraction is what I’m calling jumping off the cliff. Instead of walking along the path that I’ve laid out for myself, I jump off the cliff into thoughts or activities that don’t have any purpose except to scratch the itch, so to speak, of a random thought.

A word of caution about what I mean by “walking along the path I’ve laid out for myself”. I’m not referring to blindly following a plan set down in the past. I’m talking about the deliberateness of this moment. It’s like deciding I’m going to walk from the living room to the kitchen so I can pour a glass of wine. Sometime after arising from the couch, and before I arrive at the refrigerator, I’ve forgotten why I’m in the kitchen. My attention was placed on random thoughts that arose, and by engaging them, I have now forgotten my path.

Today, I’m going to pay attention to the distractions that take me off the path. Each time I have chosen to focus, I have a calmer, more fulfilling day.

Thomas

P.S. I did not follow a few thoughts to find out what emails I have as I was writing this. You know what?  They are still there now, and the world didn’t dissolve because I chose to finishing writing rather than switch to my email. Imagine!!