Connections

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…to leave the world a better place…to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yesterday, the world was shaken as we lost someone who, even at 5’7″ tall, was larger than life. On August 11, Robin Williams took his own life. A permanent solution to a temporary problem, but at the time, he saw no alternative.

Countless people have wondered how a man who was able to bring so much joy to so many people, could be so miserable. Cracked has published a piece in which they explain how alone even the funniest people can feel, and how their personal issues can sometimes manifest in an extraordinary gift to make others laugh, even leading to their own demise. I’m not unique, in that I wondered how, exactly, that was possible. I battle with ennui, but typically that’s about as far as I get into the cycle of depression. I feel a bit of midlife crisis, pondering how exactly I could make more of a difference with my life. How could I achieve success, in the words of Mr. Emerson?

Interestingly, I think those two streams of thought may be intertwined a bit. In the case of Robin Williams, I’m fully certain that everybody who met him was thrilled to make his acquaintance. But, whereas everybody was thrilled to meet him, how many were genuinely interested in him, and not just a character? How many of those interactions amounted to more than the shallow , “I love your work”?

As a society, we’ve become increasingly disinterested in others. Of course, we like to pretend that we’re interested. When I met a new friend in June, he was telling me about a social experiment he’s been working on. Stunningly simple, yet meaningful. What was this mad social experiment?

Listening.

Yes, listening. How many people do you walk past on the street, that you may catch their eye, and say something canned, such as “How you doin’?” with absolutely no intention of even taking your ear buds out, let alone stopping? At every turn, with our body language, words, and actions, we demonstrate our disinterest. If we’re cognizant of the fact that it’s socially unacceptable to meet someone’s gaze and not address them, how is it possible that it’s better to address them without ever giving a thought to listening to their response?

Today, I’ve crossed paths with many whose fortunes could have been similar to Mr. Williams’. I’ve learned about people who have seen their fortunes turn around. I’ve learned about people whose family and friends simply don’t understand depression. As if they may catch it, like the chicken pox. Sometimes, you come across people who continue to struggle, and people who just started struggling, and wondering what is wrong? The American diet is deplorable, and has led to magnesium deficiencies. We’ve been decreasing our social interaction, as struggle to interact without the assistance of a web server. But, more than that, even the small interactions that we DO have daily, we don’t take advantage of.

Love, in itself, isn’t enough. You can have a beautiful wife and children, and still feel inexplicably alone. But. what if upon Robin’s imaginary trip for coffee yesterday morning, someone actually stopped and listened after asking how he was doing? So, in my quest to make a difference, I’m going to try to do so by listening. Connecting.

Connections.

Are you there God?

No, it’s not Margaret.
It’s Eric. Long time no speak, eh?

How you doing? Family doing well?

Things are alright around here. I’m a lucky guy. I have four beautiful girls. One, I chose. The rest chose me. I’ve got a pretty good job, working with people I like for the most part. They treat me well, and though we’re not wealthy, we don’t want for much. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for, as I work from home every day, watching these girls with pride, wondering who they’ll turn into as they grow up. We’re getting a pretty good idea of the first one, and even the second. We really like what we see! Thanks for asking!

You’re right. I guess I do have something on my mind.

It’s kind of an uncomfortable subject to approach, though. You see, it occurred to me a couple weeks ago, that your name has a negative connotation for me. In some contexts, it bothers me more than others. For instance, “In God We Trust” doesn’t bother me. At least not in appropriate contexts. The phrase “God Bless America” irritates the bejesus out of me, though. Partially because of Lee Greenwood’s song. Partially because I think it’s awfully presumptive that you’ve not got something else going on of a higher priority, and partially because I’m not sure that we give you much reason to be proud these days.

To be fair, my irritation with the very mention of your name isn’t your fault. It’s guilt by association. You don’t have to look very far to see people doing things in your name that I think that you would find not only disappointing, but downright distressing. When was the last time someone was put over God’s knee? 😉 So far, I’m impressed by Pope Francis. He really seems to be trying to get people’s heads on straighter. Getting people to pay attention to things that matter. Loving your neighbor. Taking care of those less fortunate. I certainly don’t agree with him on everything, but still…great choice. He’s really got his work cut out for him, though. And that’s just with the Catholic Church.

Many of the other denominations seem to be experiencing a similar identity crisis. I’m sure you’re aware, but we have groups (I won’t mention them by name, as I don’t want to send anybody there that doesn’t know about them) that actually picket funerals! Can you believe that? Scourge of humanity, really. How can you look yourself in the eye when you knowingly go out to cause people further anguish in some of their times of deepest pain? Or, the churches that actually coordinate Quran burnings, antagonizing millions, knowing just how incensed they would be if it was the Muslims burning the Bible.

Somehow, as a people, we’ve forgotten that Jesus was a brown skinned socialist. We seem to have overthrown his ideals in favor of the Church of Me. More people are worried about their brother’s speck than their own log, y’know? We condemn your children who are wired just a little bit differently, and prefer the same sex, even though it’s not unique to humans, but have no similar condemnation for those who demonstrate gluttony and greed at every turn.

So, unfortunately, I think your image is being degraded by who you’re being associated with. That’s the best reason I can come up with that I actually have an unpleasant reaction to reading your name. Many years ago, I was raised Catholic, all the way through Confirmation. But, if I’m being honest, the church turned me off. I’ve never been certain about what I think, but I was pretty sure that you and I would be alright, as long as I am treating people we respect, and living my life in a fashion that I can be proud of. So, while some would call this a crisis of faith, I’m pretty comfortable with where I am.

I’m pretty damn proud of who I’ve become. I’m proud of who my girls are becoming. I’ve been blessed, over and over again, even as an agnostic. But, I plead with you, please do something about your followers. It’s disheartening, because I’m pretty sure that a hefty percentage of them would step over their brother on the way to the bank.

Your good name, sadly, depends on it.

Throwback Entry: How Do YOU See The World?

I originally published this entry in December 2007. I’ve been thinking about some of this again, and might just have to post an update.

They say that Wayne Gretzky just saw the game differently. Jamie and I were talking about this some time ago, and I found it very interesting. It all started during a discussion about which viewpoint would make me more of an Arrogant Bastard.

Option 1)Nearly anybody can do what I have done.
Option 2)Not everybody can do what I have done.

For the record, I’ve been wildly successful, particularly for someone with no edumacation. Raised in suburbia with reasonable schools from third grade on, I was a perpetually unchallenged, academically lazy kid that really had no interest in continuing my education. But, if you listen to the “people that matter” these days, they seem to fill the kids with fear that if you don’t get a bachelor’s or master’s degree, you’re going to be flipping burgers (and that’s only because the drive through order taker is going to be at a call center in Malaysia).

But, I challenge anybody to tell me why most people couldn’t have done what I’ve done. I consider myself an intelligent guy, but I’ve had no formal education. I’m firmly of the belief that it’s more important to understand how you look at the world (or how you WANT to look at the world).

Try to figure out WHY

This basic intellectual exercise helps you understand the purpose of this particular piece in the larger picture. A basic part of troubleshooting, you need to understand the process.

You can use this exercise for almost everything you encounter.

When I was 7 years old or so, I told my dad that the turn signal should be pushed down for left turns, and up for right turns, because of the direction that the wheel is going to be turned.
When I go to a fast food restaurant with slow service or cold food, I think about a mechanism that could help them improve their data modeling to better understand what kind of demand they have for their food.
When my in laws purchased a small town hardware store, I thought about a solution to help them manage their inventory, so that they would be able to assign a dollar figure to the item as “shelf rent”, if you will. There are some things that a hardware store needs to have on hand to maintain credibility, but you don’t want to stock much inventory that you’re not going to be able to rapidly turn. This system will help ensure that the pricing is set appropriately for every item, helping to ensure that the organization doesn’t lose money as a result of poor inventory practices.
I knew that system would never be used. Really now…a hardware store in a town 300 is going to need that kind of sophistication? Wal-Mart may have something that ultimately delivers similar results. Maybe I should’ve talked to Meijer. Large enough to recognize the problem but maybe not so large that they have the technology resources at hand to develop something in house.

But that kind of attention to process is what I’ve found has empowered my potential. Think about the desired result. Think about the trigger. And think about how to get there from here.

Why can’t that kind of attention to process be taught? I’ve talked to a number of people that think that think that it can’t be taught. Why? I’m an intelligent guy, but not superlatively so. Education people think about the learning process all the time, so why can’t we teach people to understand the process of process?

Sea legs of life…

This weekend, we had some company in from out of town. Someone that I know, love, and was fortunate enough to see grow up is going through an important transition in life. From that of a broke college student to that of a graduate who is simply out living. In celebration, I prepared her favorite, brisket. And she stopped in for the weekend to visit as she leaves the only home she’s ever known, and heads out for a new adventure with the gentleman that she loves.

She’s not my daughter, though I’d happily protect her as my own. But, I’m proud of her. Though she’s been dealt a blow or two, she refused to be knocked down. She set high expectations for herself, choosing to pursue her degree in psychology. Though she’s very happy with change being at a minimum, she identified that her home state may or may not have much to offer her, and decided to embark on, quite literally, the journey of a lifetime with someone she loves. Her Coastie. A life of love, adventure, and some uncertainty. She identified just how great things could be, and is putting herself out there a bit to take a risk. Staring life down, and refusing to be intimidated into inaction.

My daughter, you’re not. But, I hope that my girls can find some inspiration in your confidence. Sufficient confidence in their ability to take what life has to throw at it, and enjoy the journey itself. Life isn’t a game that should be lived on the sidelines, as it’s hard to actually play if you’re too risk averse to step onto the field. A life without risks, at the end of the day, will be a life filled with “what if’s”. And each of those “what if’s” contain some regret.

From Odes 1.11

Don’t ask (it’s forbidden to know) what end
the gods have granted to me or you, Leuconoe. Don’t play with Babylonian
fortune-telling either. How much better it is to endure whatever will be!
Whether Jupiter has allotted to sink you many more winters or this final one
which even now wears out the Tyrrhenian sea on the rocks placed opposite
— be wise, be truthful, strain the wine, and scale back your long hopes
to a short period. While we speak, envious time will have {already} fled:
seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next day.

I’m proud of you, and hope that your journey will bring you near us again. The journey itself is to be relished. Even if it is to New Jersey.

The world you want to live in.

It’s pretty easy to be pessimistic. There are a long list of things that make me grievously unhappy. In fact, I read an interesting quote today.

“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” –Ernest Hemingway

The resultant level of misery can certainly be difficult to overcome. But, if the way the world is makes you unhappy, you must have an idea of what you’d do differently, right? So, what would you do if you were given the opportunity to help make the world you want to live in? Once you ponder that for a moment, consider this.

You DO have the ability to help make the world you want to live in.

Myself? I wish that people were more thoughtful. More kind. More respectful. Admittedly, I’m a space cadet, so the thoughtful thing can be a bit difficult at times for me. But, I learned late last year just how therapeutic for the soul it can be to step up your game on making the world you want to live in. See, I’ve always enjoyed doing little stuff. For instance, shoveling for my neighbor. I used to do that sometimes even for our neighbors in Illinois. I’ve always thought that it was important to treat people with respect. But, I’ve learned that with just a little bit of money, you can change people.

After participating in the “secret Santa” initiative last year, I had a woman tell me that her teenage daughter felt so blessed to have been there when I went in to the local grocery store, that she cried all evening.

Last Mothers’ Day, again, I anonymously bought groceries for a woman at that same grocery store. No particular reason, just wanted to do so. It seems I need to work on my anonymity. About a week and a half later, Betty told me that there was a card at the service desk for me. The card made it clear that I’d touched the woman very deeply. She threw around terms and compliments that I was not comfortable with, but the fact of the matter is, me and my $25 made a DIFFERENCE for her. I improved her spirit. I lifted her up. I can’t express how that made me feel.

Since that date, I haven’t had any shenanigans at the local grocery store…yet. Well, except for purchasing three or four full Thanksgiving Dinners for families that need a little bit of hope right here in town. But, I’ve become a bit addicted to buying breakfast for older people. You know the guys, the ones that are at your local diner, eating by themselves. They never order anything extravagant It’s just part of what they do. And part of what *I* love to do is anonymously pay for their breakfast. But, I think that I’m going to change up my routine a little bit. I think one of these days, I’m going to ask them to join us. I not only want them to discover that someone is thinking about them, but I want them to know that I’m interested in what they have to say. They have a lifetime of stories to share. It’d be a shame not to share them.

And at the end of the day, I assure you. You feel better about the world you live in. And YOU helped to create it.