The Real Lights of LIFE

I’ve confessed.  Yes, I am a recovering Grinch.  Where holiday hoopla is concerned, no, thanks – I’d just rather not.  But, as far as the meanings – the heart of the holidays – I do get that part.  And, I have my fellow members of the Life University (LU) community to thank for reinforcing the heart of what I’m going to call the “winter holidays” last December, also demonstrating they “got” the Happy LIFE, even before it became a “thing.”

 In the workplace, it’s especially important to recognize that not everyone comes from the same tradition.  The winter holiday, for the majority of Americans, is of course Christmas.  Other Americans and international residents of America honor traditions that include other winter holidays like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Eid-el-Adha, and Bodhi Day (and all the others that I don’t even know enough to know that I don’t know about them).  And, pretty universally regardless of one’s holiday traditions, the end of the year is also a time for celebrating the completion of another year and reflecting on its events and how we lived them. 

 So, when we (the LU Staff Council) instituted a “Departmental Holiday Decorating Contest” (SUCH as catchy name, right?), the elements on which entries were judged were festiveness, inclusiveness, University exemplification (using LIFE and/or its values as a thematic element) and accomplishments (celebrating the departments’ top 1-3 accomplishments as another thematic element).  The contest, even though it was introduced on very short notice, turned out to be a big hit.  It also proved to be a real team building experience for the departments that were able to take up the challenge on such short notice.  This year, with more notice, the competition (and celebration) could be fierce (in a very good natured, Happy LIFE way, of course).

 But, we have to do something about that name!

 And, of course, I have a suggestion.  Here’s some background.  At Life University, we have a long-standing and pretty magnificent drive-through display of holiday decorations that is called, not surprisingly, “The Lights of LIFE.”  People from all over the Metro Atlanta region have been visiting the Lights of LIFE each winter holiday/Christmas season for decades now.  Even people (including me) who think they’re all Grinchy, are pretty impressed by it and, if visitors we’ve taken through it are any indication, will often laugh out loud at the fun they have driving through it. 

So, we already have a huge holiday decoration event going on each winter that is so cool  it has a “brand identity.”  Pretty much everyone in the area knows about the Lights of LIFE.  Still, even as impressively cool and fun as it is, the Lights of LIFE display is holiday hoopla.  More and more, I’m getting that the hoopla happens for very good reasons.  But, the REAL lights of LIFE are the people who make everything at the University happen, day in and day out.  They’re the people who care about each other, our students and our mission of preparing our graduates to create for themselves lives of success and significance – to be transformational leaders in a world desperately in need of change.  And, they’re the people who come to us as students, committed to becoming the change they want to see in the world.

 All of these people are the real Lights of LIFE – the Inner Lights of LIFE.*

 

* and that’s my suggestion for the departmental holiday decorating contest – other suggestions are welcome in the comments section.   

Hallmark Moments

The Happy LIFE is trying to teach me a lot of lessons – and I think I’ve got some work to do, becoming open enough to learn a couple of them. 

Even though I’ve been learning about celebrating and how important it is, I’d be forced to admit having become an old curmudgeon about holidays.  Oh, in my younger years, I did go through a spell of investing much time and talent into very tasteful and, dare I say, elegant Christmas decorations.  I’m kind of over it, though, partly because I’m all old and partly because, let’s face facts here, Christmas decorations are a pain in the buhdunkadunk.  This is tragically true when your family subscribes to the theory that, when it comes to Christmas decorations, too much is too much, but WAY too much is just right. 

And, it’s not Christmas that I have a hard time with.  It’s all the hoopla surrounding Christmas.  You know, for unto us this day a child is given, cut down a tree and get me an Xbox.  Sorry, Lord.  I hope you know what I mean.

And, as long as I’m ‘fessing up, I might as well admit that I’m especially curmudgeonly about holidays that seem to be pure inventions of the greeting card industry.  But, you know, even if it’s the most artificial and manufactured “holiday” or celebration ever in the annals of consumerism, it’s meaningful to someone and for good reason.

I need to learn to recognize that fact and here’s why.  First, some people are just so sweet they genuinely enjoy greeting card opportunities, both giving and receiving.  Second, others of us are not so sweet and could use reminders to express our gratitude.  Third, still others of us are very sweet and could use reminders to accept expression of gratitude.  And, lastly, there are others (thankfully few) who just want to hold it against someone because they didn’t get a card. 

 Fortunately, though, the first three are basically positive and only the last one is clearly negative.  So, numbers work out if that 3-to-1 positivity ratio that Dr. Barbara Fredrickson has researched holds up.  According to Dr. Fredrickson, in order for us to have a sense of happiness and perhaps even flourish, we need three positive experiences for every negative one.  Now, in no way am I implying this as a literal application of Dr. Fredrickson’s ratio, but I think it conveys the principle.  To “counteract” anything negative I put in the world, I have to put at least three times that in positives.  Here’s what I’m saying: Ain’t nobody got time for all that.  Act right in the first place, save lots of time.

As for celebrations, if it came printed or as a default holiday on the calendar, it’s important to someone.  If I can’t celebrate it, I can at least respect it. 

Setting Our Angels Free

If you had to pick one, would you say that human beings are inherently good or inherently evil?

You’ll be relieved to know this timeless question, asked by the greatest minds that ever lived, has been answered by Homer Simpson (and countless cartoon characters before him) who, like each of us, is the object of eternal warfare between an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  And, even as bumbling and self-absorbed as Homer (like the rest of us) is, in the end, I like to believe the good usually wins out.

Image

As a recovering Southern Baptist who was regularly threatened with hellfire and brimstone, perhaps it has been my training to think of myself as inherently evil that makes it so difficult for me to recognize my good qualities – or even acknowledge them when others point them out.  On the other hand, maybe that (and my mother’s oft-applied hickory switch) is what has kept me out of jail all these years. 

Comedian Patton Oswalt, in a powerful post about the Boston Marathon bombing, said that human beings must be inherently good or else we would have eaten ourselves alive a long time ago.  Despite continual outbreaks of doing just that in a variety of formerly unspeakable ways, I agree with him.  It’s also possible that we’re inherently evil and we’re merely in the process of heating up the already hot water we’re all stewing in so that we’ll feel more civilized by cooking ourselves first before devouring ourselves.

If we have to choose – and I think it needs to be a conscious choice – we can choose to assume that either we are born evil or that we are born good.  If we assume we’re born evil, we might also then assume that we must continually suppress our true nature by forcing ourselves to do enough good things, think enough good thoughts and/or believe we have no choice about the one true divinely ordained path to ultimate fulfillment.  If, on the other hand, we assume that we are born good, we might also then assume that we must continually reveal our true nature by reminding ourselves that we are made to do good things, think good thoughts and/or believe that we are each empowered to make our own choices along our own divinely inspired path to ultimate fulfillment. 

For myself, I’m coming to appreciate intersection between two philosophies and one science:

  • Modern vitalistic philosophy’s assumption of innate health,
  • Life coaching philosophy’s assumption that people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole
  • Positive psychology’s scientific research that supports the idea that we have far more control over our minds and the physical structures that house them than ever previously realized.

Both of these “positive philosophies” and positive psychology mirror Michelangelo’s poetic description of his art when he said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

Perhaps we find grace – and the Happy LIFE – in choosing to believe angels dwell within us and the experiences of our lives form the chisel the Creator uses to set them free.

Perfection

Would you say God is perfect?

 I’d guess that most people would say, “Yes” and I’d have to agree. 

 Dictionary.com gives us these definitions of “perfect:”

 1. Conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type: a perfect sphere; a perfect gentleman.

2. Excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement: There is no perfect legal code. The proportions of this temple are almost perfect.

3. Exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose: a perfect actor to play Mr. Micawber; a perfect saw for cutting out keyholes.

4. Entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings: a perfect apple; the perfect crime.

5. Accurate, exact, or correct in every detail: a perfect copy.

 We also describe events like Hurricane Sandy as “an act of God.”

 As an act of God, was Sandy perfect?

 As creations of God, are we perfect?

 There’s an interesting concept I’m learning in what’s called “Life Coaching” classes.  It’s the idea that we can benefit and perhaps learn to live most fully when we learn to try and see the perfection in everything and every situation. 

 That idea might also express the very essence of faith.

 Especially when we have to believe that 9/11 – or a family lost in a drunken driving accident – or a lunatic’s bomb – all have perfection in them.  Yet, it’s not hard to believe that the love of a mother for a child has perfection in it – or that a beautifully billowy Spring day has perfection in it – or that a multitude of wondrous things that make us weep with awe have perfection in them. 

 We believe we want our lives and our work to be “perfect,” but had we better be careful what we ask for?  Or should we pray to be able to accept that God is perfect and there is perfection in everything, even if it is beyond our capacity to fathom it?  Might that be the true secret of grace?

 I don’t know, you understand.  I’m just asking.

PS – For a good idea of how one family learned to see the perfection in their son’s physically debilitating illness and nurture a powerful spirit, see Shane Burcaw’s story here.

Boston

An act of insanity – whether it was the insanity of hatred, zealotry or neurochemistry – can rob us of the sense that there is still an abundance of loving kindness in the world.  We send our thoughts and prayers to the people of Boston who, for well over a century, have opened their city to runners from all over the world to express their personal best or to dedicate their effort to someone who has touched their lives or simply to be part of an iconic experience.  Today, let us open our hearts to honor the people of Boston and everyone touched by yesterday’s act of insanity in the way we were called to do by Dr. Martin Luther King when he said, ““Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Ongoing Creation

Bear with me a minute.  This one’s going to take a circuitous path to the Positively Happy part.

 I saw a man today who made me think of serial killers or child molesters – or maybe someone just very, very introverted.  Broken, somehow.  And, yes, creepy.

 He walked with an oddly stiff posture, rigidly upright and yet somehow slinking.  His face was frozen almost straight ahead yet turned ever so slightly away, which exaggerated even further his  completely averted eyes.  This was a man whose facial expression screamed “No eye contact! Don’t look at me!”  As he came closer, I couldn’t help but take in the oddness of his square, shiny bald head over which he had combed a scant few strands of hair which, most oddly of all, he appeared to have dyed a fairly bright shade of red.  His attire, while in and of itself was not odd (he wore a short-sleeved, white dress-type shirt, gray slacks, which he had cinched tight, geek-style, with a belt and what we used to call “hard shoes”), it was certainly out of place on a beautiful Spring Saturday morning on a wooded walking trail.

 So much did I get a creepy feeling that, because we were outdoors doing a little volunteer maintenance on the trails, I called out for my friend, J., who was out of sight, checking on another part of the trail.  I didn’t think we’d been out of one another’s sight long enough for anything to happen to her, but I sure felt like I’d better make sure. 

 She was fine, thank God; it’s not that kind of story.

 Still, though, because I am curious by nature I find myself drawn, hours later, to the sense of creepiness I felt – and how I just can’t help but wonder what kind of depravity he might do, have done or have been contemplating and planning in those woods that would account for the high creep factor he exuded.

 But then, and only with a bit of conscious effort, I manage to eke out a bit of compassion and a little more curiosity.  What else could explain his creepily odd behavior?  Perhaps he was just a lonely man who had from childhood been bullied and cowed into complete avoidance of other people and he was just hoping to get away to a quiet place in nature, away from all the people who treat him like he’s creepy.  Perhaps he’s never had a friend in his whole life or perhaps he’s just lost his only friend, the only other person on the planet quirky enough or loving enough to be his friend and he is suddenly utterly alone on a world that has been very unkind to him. 

It’s a struggle, I think, to know the difference between intuition and what is simply a bias against anything unusual.   We have only recently, given the entire course of our ongoing creation, exploded into consciousness.  By ongoing creation, I mean to convey a concept similar to evolution but different enough that it includes the idea that God was the creator who set it all in motion, unless you believe that Genesis is referring to literal twenty-four-hour days in which case, um, no.  We’re probably not going to be able to connect on the rest of this. 

Anyway, we don’t seem to be that good at tolerating differences much less fully exploring and then embracing them.  Perhaps we humans are evolved enough – but only just barely – to be able to tolerate the occasional mutation, the very odd duck.  After all, most social animals insist on conformity.  By way of illustration, we had a Golden Retriever who was prone to occasional seizures during which the two other Retrievers would attack her.  It was clear they were startled and, not to over-anthropomorphize, taken aback by her sudden change in behavior, by her sudden and very marked difference from the behavioral norm.  Most animals that look a lot like one another and hang out together in packs or flocks will attack another one of their own that is different in some marked way.  I suspect the idea of treating a perfectly legitimate child as a “redheaded stepchild” describes exactly the treatment many poor recessive redheads received when they happened to pop up out of a long line of dominant brunettes. 

Back to the creepy guy:  Maybe he was OK and in no way a deserving of the judgmental feelings I had about him.  But – what about intuition?  What about that “still small voice”?  That sense that is telling us that something is or isn’t right.  How do we learn to listen to   – and act on – what the angel on our shoulder is telling us? 

Perhaps quiet solitude and inward reflection – getting perfectly still – helps us be better able to hear that still small voice.  Perhaps prayer is a better way to describe meditation that focuses on the scriptural word of God.  Either way, whichever practice you follow, isn’t directing our thoughts in a way that relieves us of petty irritations and grudges, to focus us on physical, emotional and spiritual healing better than the alternatives of rumination and obsession with our wounds and weaknesses?  Without doubt, we can’t avoid or gloss over our suffering – especially the self-inflicted kind.  We have to face it to discover the depth of understanding it has to offer us.

 The only thing I’m pretty sure about is this:  If the earth and the sun, the moon and the stars, and the universe and everything in it are all part of an ongoing creation that is renewing itself every moment, then I have to also assume that each of us is an ongoing creation, too.  Each of us is responding and adapting to the course of our lives, capable of learning, growing and changing, if needed, to make the best of the talents we’ve been given.

I say all of this to say that I’m puzzled and sad at the reactions some people – and thankfully, they are very few – who have expressed that meditation is a threat or counter to their religion.  Obviously, it’s not up to me to make that call for anyone else but I’d have to ask if they might consider that, maybe, meditation is not a threat at all; maybe it’s just different and outside their experience.  I’d add that, if it’s not something you’d find benefit in – or if it’s just so different that you think there’s something creepy about it – that’s OK.  Don’t meditate.  It’s not for you. 

 It seems to me that most of the prayers I’ve heard are more about us talking to God, thanking Him for some things and asking him for others.  Meditation can work that way as well; we contemplate what life (or God) has given us and we offer gratitude for it and ask for a sense of good will toward all others with whom we share Creation. 

 Here’s the bottom line:  Meditation and prayer may be mutually exclusive to some but, to me, they’re both God’s way of saying, “Please, be quiet and listen.  I’m speaking to you.”

 

 

Savoring Life – The Deep Dive

Have you ever heard of a marine biologist who was afraid of scuba diving?  Wouldn’t that be a shame?  How much of the wonder of the ocean’s life would she be able to experience from only swimming on the surface?  What if you decided to do a deep dive into everything you do?  To fully immerse yourself in the small, daily experiences that make up your life?  Could you make your life happier by deciding ahead of time to fully immerse yourself in its experiences?

 Here’s the backstory.  As a result of this positivity path I’m taking, I’m saying “yes” a lot more often.  I’ve been doing this online thing called Happify.  I got an invitation to be a “Pioneer” and I signed up and just did it.  Despite all the online wariness I have felt in the past, I somehow felt positive it would be OK.  Now, for all I know, it’s possible that I just inadvertently signed up to be part of the experiments that will eventually lead to the zombie apocalypse.  Or, for the identity theft that will lead to my change of address from suburbia to a cardboard box.  Casting caution to the pollen-filled wind, I forged ahead with Happify.  One of the assignments was to “savor.”  I liked the idea and decided to try it on. 

 As it happened, I liked savoring so much that I’ve been too busy savoring stuff to write about it.  First, let me say that deciding ahead of time that you’re not only going to enjoy an event but jump in feet first  and relish every minute brings a remarkable aura to the experience.  Duh, right?  We see it all the time, in reverse, don’t we?  We see people decide that an event is stupid or silly or embarrassing or just new, and they decide, I’m not doing that or I’m not going to go along and take a chance I might look silly or that’s new and different so it’s dumb.   Been there, done that, got the memory to prove it. 

 But, now, I have the conscious experience (and memory) of what happened when I picked an activity (in this case, my community’s first Art Walk of the season) and decided beforehand that I would fully savor it and all it had to offer.  It was amazing.  I always have a good time at Art Walk but this time was so wonderful it almost glows in my memory.  I spoke – at length – with the artist of a painting we had bought last year, which is unusual because I usually don’t like to take up the artists’ time when they’re busy meeting and greeting at an opening (this is leftover behavior resulting from hearing “Don’t wear out your welcome” a godzillian times growing up).  On this occasion, however, I just went for it and had a great conversation.  Thanks to the artist’s graciousness, we even ended up talking about my own painting and how I might take it to the next level (thank you, Marissa Vogl and dk Gallery).  

 We walked the Square and saw all sorts of people we know and savored our brief chats with them  We savored the budding green trees and flowering azaleas in the park.  We savored the perfect, cool, first true Spring evening.  We decided to give one of the restaurants another try, despite not having been too impressed with it on the first occasion.  And it was absolutely wonderful!  Even the cheap house wine was delicious (and had legs!).  

 Best of all, deciding to savor our Friday night set the stage for savoring the weekend, too.   We had more fun, did more fun things and I got more work done to boot than I would ever have dreamed possible.  It was positively chockablock with things to savor and accomplish. 

 And all because I decided to make it so.*

 

 

*So here comes the Star Trek geek in me, as I say: perhaps Captain Jean-Luc Picard was really onto something with that “make it so” command.  

Good Gracious

I saw a great quote pop up on Facebook today.  It said:

Be pretty if you can,

be witty if you must,

but be gracious if it kills you.     ~Elsie De Wolfe

My first thought was:

Oh, lord.  Can a lack of graciousness really be fatal?

My next thought was:

If I somehow wipe out spectacularly while on this journey to “accentuate the positive” as part of the Happy LIFE, and then somehow manage to die in a fit of temper or indignation, please be sure to start a foundation in my memory.  I want my unseemly death to mean something.

Here’s my fear:

First the headline:

Georgia woman dies of graciousness deficiency. 

Then my obituary:

It is with sadness but no great surprise that our friend and coworker, the frequently late (but usually not by much!) R. K., who through the willful application of “happy habits,” managed to achieve marked growth and improvement that allowed her – for a short time – to slip the surly bonds of her pettiness and pique, before finally succumbing to them.  It was a mercifully quick, though bizarre, end.  The coroner has determined that Ms. K gritted her teeth so hard she spontaneously combusted, turning to a pile of smoldering ash.  No one who knew her could escape the irony of Ms. K dying of ungraciousness yet somehow managing to be gracious enough to arrange for her own cremation. 

A close friend (who, thankfully, was only slightly singed by the combustion) said, “R. K did have occasional bouts of thoughtfulness; I guess some just slipped out at the end.”

Following a private interment of the ashes in an old Mason jar, the family will probably eat a lot because that’s just what we do in the South.  In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Society for the Preservation of Graciousness.

Temper

Yes, I have a temper.  I’m not proud – just honest.  I like to pass off my temper on the hordes of fiery Scots-Irish ancestors whose culture of honor is still clinging to my every gene, demanding satisfaction for centuries of slights they’ve suffered at the hands of, well, everyone but mostly the English, who make up the other end of my pasty white gene pool.  Let’s just say it’s a lot of work maintaining a state of internal détente. 

 I’m self-conscious about my temper, as I am about all too many things, and I try to keep it under wraps.  It’s too bad that self-consciousness isn’t the same thing as self-awareness.  If it were, I might be the most enlightened being on the planet.  Since I could definitely benefit from a greater level of self-awareness, I’ve begun the practice of mediation a little ahead of the Happy LIFE schedule.  So far, so good in terms of making it happen. 

 I do have enough self-awareness to be uncomfortably (and, thanks to this path of positivity I’m pursuing, increasingly) aware of one thing:  meditation and rumination might be close enough to one another in effect to be the same thing.  Why does that make me uncomfortable?  Because what I ruminate on – the thoughts I churn over and over again in my head – usually isn’t all that positive.  In fact, if I’m honest with myself (and with you), I’d have to say the things I’m becoming aware that I ruminate on are mostly irritations and things that just really hack me off. 

 I call it the “cavity theory of negativity.”  You know when you have a chip in a filling or you’ve bitten your cheek?  And you just can’t keep your tongue from checking it out, over and over again?  I think cognitive irritations are like that, too.  We (because I don’t think I’m alone in this) almost can’t help returning to things that bother us over and over again – ruminating on them.  It seems like it’s just human nature.  But, like most things, it also seems like it’s un-self-aware human nature, an artifact of our unconsciousness.  That means that once we become more self-aware and conscious of our internal thoughts and motivations, we can learn to interrupt negative rumination and perhaps even replace it with good will.  Perhaps I will even learn to assume the best, rather than the worst, about behavior and events that I find particularly irksome.

 Temper is a fit of anger, which gets a bit of bad rap in my view.  I think anger can drive justice.  In fact, someone once said (and I’m paraphrasing), “The person who doesn’t know anger has no sense of justice.”  Still, it’s our response, or rather our reaction, to anger that makes all the difference between a constructive outcome and a destructive one.  That’s where meditation comes in.  In learning to observe our thoughts rather than be caught up in them, we can learn to master them.  I’m looking forward to that – and so is anyone who has ever been the object of my temper.

I’m not sure who Bill Chickering is but he illustrates the concept of learning to control anger so that it is only the truth – and not the anger – that speaks to the injustice:  “Anger is a very appropriate and necessary response to an injustice. But stand back now; the truth, clearly spoken, is always your best weapon. Calmly spoken, it can burn a hole through the hardest heart.”