The Hard Thing About Easy Things

The Hard Thing About Easy Things

In a time of “life hacks” and all the alluring conveniences we see cropping up in every corner of our lives, it becomes ever more important to step back and reflect on what we’re doing and why. To put it simply, we want to ask ourselves, in reaching for convenience, what is it that we actually get?

Does the convenience give us more time for the important things in life?

Or does it allow us to ignore or side-step important opportunities for growth?

The truth is that a lot of opportunities for growth are not packaged in a neat, happy package. Much of growth is wrapped in things that we do not want – many times, pain can be a precursor to growth, choose to make it as such.

We can see in the age-old wisdom of the sages, there is a certain caution against the easy things in life. In the Christian scriptures, Romans 5:3-5 extolls the virtues of suffering and the potential it carries in making us better through the hardships:

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.

Similarly, in the Dhammapada of the Buddhist tradition, we see the comparison of becoming a person of character as a process that might be like that of tempering metal: 

By degrees, little by little, from time to time, a wise person should remove his own impurities as a smith removes the dross from silver.

While most people are probably unfamiliar with the process of producing fine metals, it is the most intense heat that produces the best silver and gold. When we consider this, we might want to ask if the price of convenience – the automated teller machines, the opt-out button for anything and everything, the “set it and forget it” mentality – might be costing us more than we bargained for.

In fact, the Quran of the Islamic faith extolls the beauty that awaits one behind the pain of growth in that it brings one closer to God:

O man! Verily you are ever toiling on towards your Lord – painfully toiling – but you shall meet Him…

And in the Jewish Talmud we see the benefits of the struggle that comes with the inconvenience of something that we moderns might deem inconvenient or incompatible with our daily, busy lifestyle: the continual effort to refine one’s character:

The study of Torah leads to precision, precision to zeal, zeal to cleanliness, cleanliness to restraint, restraint to purity, purity to holiness, holiness to meekness, meekness to fear of sin, fear of sin to saintliness, saintliness to the holy spirit, and the holy spirit to life eternal.

From Hinduism, there is the caution against turning a blind eye from the challenges that life will inevitably come our way. By accepting my own personal responsibility to make the tough choices in life to grow and become the people we are meant to be, we become our best friend instead of our own worst enemy:

Man should discover his own reality and not thwart himself.
For he has his self as his only friend, or as his only enemy.
A person has the self as a friend
When he conquered himself
but if he rejects his own reality,
the self will war against him. Bhagavad Gita 6.5-6 (Hinduism

And last but not least, Confucius reflected on the process of learning through his own life as one of training in order to become truly free:

The Master said, “At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty I had planted my feet upon firm ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with a docile ear. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.”

All of these passages from the different wisdom traditions point to this truth about our human potential as rooted in the Divine. From this, we can deduce that the pivotal role personal growth – of our hearts, character, maturity, habits whatever pain that might come with it – helps us in fulfilling our divine potential. 

So in the many different choices, decisions that we come up against in our everyday lives, let’s begin to acquire the habit of asking: which are the choices that make us become better, help us to bring out the best in ourselves and which are the easy outs?

Take action

To put this lesson into practice today follow these steps:

  1. Start thinking about lifestyle habits, daily practices that you know will help you to better connect, align with God, the divine and energy of the universe. Properly done, any practice that helps you do that, were you to do them every single day it would make you better and your life better.
  2. Thought of a few or even many? Great, write those down. Keep this list.
  3. Pick out one habit, perhaps the smallest, easiest one that you know you can do without any problems, starting today.
  4. Commit to making that a habit in your life – start with trying to keep it for one week (perhaps mark your calendar with a star on the days you were able to keep it.
  5. This small promise to yourself helps you to build the relationship and alignment with God that we all need to sustain us and keep us focused and doing the kinds of things we need to be doing to reach our fullest potential. 

Once you’re able to master that first habit, you might begin to build confidence and trust in yourself. And then you might start to think “what else can I do?” Go back to the list you made in step 2, add to it as you go along, it’s meant to guide you in the long haul journey of growth and spiritual development.

This could be the first step in a personal transformation that can impact not only your own life but that of your family, community, nation, and world. Take it seriously, but take it slowly – one day at a time!

Raising a Gentleman: Helping Boys Transition into Adulthood

Raising a Gentleman: Helping Boys Transition into Adulthood

Helping your son, nephew, or younger brother transition into adulthood is actually not a process that starts at puberty. The reality is, bodies change but values do not. Parents have a HUGE job to educate children at different levels as they age, but basic principles and values do not change, they become a deeper part of who the child is.

It’s like my father said when I was a young boy, “Should I prepare you for marriage now or the day before you get married?” Of course, by then it is too late! Education starts from infancy.

Becoming an adult man that is a gentleman is a process that starts before “the talk” when bodies, hormones, and emotions go through any kind of drastic development on the road to adulthood. And it’s not just about firm handshakes and holding doors for others, although both make good habits. 

But don’t panic if your child is on the cusp of that plunge into his teenage years and beyond. We are all on the road to develop ourselves and there is no surefire formula to make anyone perfect overnight. However, there are some tips that can help you and your family support each other in becoming more courteous, honorable, and considerate towards others.

Many boys may not be eager for a sit down with their parents for a heart-to-heart, but consider that they do need to feel your support in other ways.

1. Make a habit of acknowledging the good things he does on a regular basis. Praise him when he helps out around the house or takes care of his siblings.

2. Know who his friends are. You can’t entirely control who your child becomes friends with, but it is important from a young age to develop trust between you and your son and his friends by getting to know them from time to time. Ask about how they are doing and show interest in and support for the healthy activities they participate in. 

3. Have a good role model that isn’t a parent around. Your son may not find out how cool you parents are until he’s full-grown, so it’s helpful to have a slightly older male role model around for him to emulate. Young boys (and girls) look up to older kids and having someone around that treats him with respect and who models good behavior will naturally encourage him to emulate the same behavior. It’s called peer pressure and, in this case, it can be a beautiful thing.

Remember, change happens over time and with consistency. As most children will notice as they age, as I have, we get to know our parents better because we start to see their reflection in ourselves. I quoted my father earlier, something I find myself doing more often now. What we will learn in time is that it’s not just words that are quoted, but actions, a far more telling indication of how my father raised me.

Storytelling Brings the Family Together

Storytelling Brings the Family Together

Parents and elders have been storytellers since the dawn of humankind, passing on wisdom, knowledge, caution, or simply entertainment. And what is amazing is that we cannot grow out of being the listener. There is always something we can learn from in the words and stories of others.

Have you ever watched your younger sibling, maybe your students, niece or nephew, or even your own child as they were discovering that those beautiful depictions of their hero or heroine on epic adventures were not always fantasies woven in their storyteller’s mind, but rather the ability to interpret scribbles on a page? In wonder, they grasp the book in their own hands, squinting and proudly declaring, “Now I will tell the story to you!” Made all the more adorable when the entire book is upside down.

Children are drawn to the sound of language, learning to love being read to before even noticing the existence of printed words. Reading books out loud to children is essential to stimulating imagination, creativity, and comprehension skills in preparation to become the storytellers themselves.

Reading with others is a great bonding activity. It’s a chance to bring up topics in the story and hear how the child is doing, how she interprets the world, her dreams, and aspirations. Children (and adults!) automatically find the commonality and differences between themselves and characters in a story. It helps to ask questions and engage with your young listener when you can or just relax and enjoy the reading session because even the act of reading together will benefit everyone involved. 

It is also an opportunity to create a family ritual. Intentionally spending time to read and learn together feeds into our personal excellence both inside and outside the home while building a common language, so to speak, and points of reference between family members.

So, go ahead, read together and share stories, from books on science and history to tales about dragons and lands far away. Incorporate diversity and listen to what that special child in your life is interested in reading about as they grow because whatever the topic, they are bonding, expanding their knowledge and vocabulary, enhancing concentration skills, and learning to love learning!

People We Don’t Like

People We Don’t Like

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

—Abraham Lincoln

 

Missing the village 

As families have become smaller and the circle of the family has become less inclusive, relationships in the community, society and the nation have also changed. In ways small and large, significant shifts in the family inevitably have a powerful impact on the way society at large conducts itself. Whereas families used to be large and closely-knit, with aunts, uncles, grandparents, in-laws, children, parents, grandchildren, cousins and everything in-between including the friends and neighbors who essentially became a part of the family, today there is a sad and lonely call, a gap of family and community that we instinctively feel to be missing.

A 2014 blogpost that went viral lamented the loss of “the village” that she never had, describes this ache, this feeling that we shouldn’t have to go it alone, articulates the feeling that the experience of raising a family and children is supposed to be a communal one. She writes:

I miss the village I never had. The one with mothers doing the washing side by side, clucking and laughing hysterically, tired in body but quick in spirit. We’d know each other so well: annoying one another from time to time, but never staying mad long because the truth is, we need each other.

It’s no wonder that this blogpost had gone viral – as it touches on a certain something that we all collectively seem to be feeling. The post even points to the importance of even the annoyances and irritations of having “a village”—the everyday irritations and frictions that inevitably happen in living, working and loving in close and constant relationship with others. We could say that the village is a thing of the past, something that we used to traditionally naturally have living as part of a large, extended family. Yet, without casting back and trying to force back ourselves into a golden age that may not have necessarily even existed, we want to question different aspects of living in a closer relationship with people – including people that we now more commonly avoid: people we don’t like.

The fraying of the ties that bind

We might say this is something we do as a luxury of modern life. As families and communities have frayed in the last generation, it is not unusual to notice that relationships and connections – in general – have also frayed.

Recently, the Prime Minister of Britain appointed a “minister of loneliness” to take on the issue of loneliness by teaching students “relationship education” in schools. This was initiated to combat the rising numbers of people, particularly youth, who report feelings of loneliness.

This is not a phenomenon limited to Great Britain as it appears to be a rising trend around the world.

 And along with loneliness, there has also been a correlated rise in problems such as difficulties having and maintaining relationships. Dr. Gabor Mate, one of the foremost researchers on addiction, might even argue that it is the difficulty of having healthy relationships that cause things such as addictive behavior. He asserts the idea that “that addiction—all addiction—is, in fact, a case of human development gone askew.” Even while he defines trauma in very broad terms, his examples point largely to traumatic experiences in relation with others—usually our families and when we are very young—that have the biggest impact on how we perceive ourselves and how we then learn to cope with this trauma. 

These both point to something that we should find alarming and yet expected, with the disruption of the most fundamental institution of human society throughout all of human history: the family. And we don’t mean the family as the more recent understanding of a two-generation, nuclear family but rather the family as it was always intended and designed throughout human history: the extended, multi-generational family.

People we don’t like

In the opening quote, Abraham Lincoln expresses something that some of us might find amusing—as usually, we would avoid those that we dislike. Yet there is deep and simple wisdom in listening to the part of us that would challenge us to look at those that irritate us in a different way. Perhaps it is in recognizing that our dislike is not about that person but about ourselves or in recognizing the growth opportunities that come along with challenging ourselves to put ourselves into uncomfortable situations and relationships.

In a world of endless options and so many different forms of escape, we need to begin to turn around and face ourselves. And to face one’s self means, in many ways, to also face one another. There is value in relating with people that don’t necessarily always make us feel wonderful or perfect. There is value in hearing hard truths from people or from forcing ourselves to have the discipline to be kind to those that frustrate us. There is value in each and every one of us and when we start to treat others with respect, with kindness, with intention—regardless of how we might feel about them—we also begin to change ourselves and our relationships. We might even find ourselves appreciating even those we thought we didn’t like! 

So, the next time someone makes you cringe or brings up feelings of frustration or annoyance, think about Abraham Lincoln’s words of wisdom. Even if you don’t immediately change your attitudes and behavior, slow down. Stop and consider what might change if you were, perhaps to take a different view of that person.

Some questions to help you do this might be:

  1. How would you treat that person if he or she was your brother or sister, aunt or uncle, cousin, etc.?
  2. Imagine what that person may have been like as a child.
  3. How do you think his or her parents might feel about him or her?
  4. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do?
  5. How might this person fit into your “village”?

Either way, these small tactics can help you to build new mental resources for change and personal growth.

Reflective Leaders Raise the Bar and Achieve Goals

Reflective Leaders Raise the Bar and Achieve Goals

The process of learning from our mistakes is an essential part of growth and development. This applies no matter what age you are and whatever career you pursue. Whether a student or follower and especially as a teacher or leader, self-reflection is a process that nurtures us to grow mentally and spiritually.

But how many people actually want to set aside time for reflection? The process is not an easy one. For some people, they don’t like what they may view as a slow, time-consuming process. Some just don’t like what they see. It is far easier to acknowledge our strengths than address our weaknesses. Instead of becoming too defensive, we can acknowledge our weaknesses, bring a positive attitude to the table, and understand the lessons to be learned. This is how change and growth happens. We have the power to reframe a mindset of being judged for our weakness into a positive mindset of growth and the opportunity to be better.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan in July 1888

Teachers especially can attest to the importance of reflection in order to address the needs of their students. Good teachers are good at reflecting; they are good learners. Anne Sullivan was a young but bright and ambitious teacher. At only twenty years of age, she would become the teacher of the famous Helen Keller, a deaf and blind child who would go on to be the first deaf-blind person to receive a bachelor of arts degree, becoming an author, world-famous speaker, and political activist. Helen was a stubborn and difficult child but the reflective process of her teacher would prove to be an essential part of her achievements later in life.

Sullivan herself was visually impaired, but her determination and ability to reflect on her methods meant that she would be able to make significant breakthroughs with the confused and frustrated child. She described a pivotal moment in her teaching experience and sent her reflection to a friend in the form of a letter.

Sullivan had been working to find a solution to a frustrating problem for Helen who was struggling to understand the words “mug” and “milk,” often confusing it with the verb “drink.” Helen didn’t even know the word for “drink,” but motioned the act of drinking when she spelled “mug” or “milk.”

One day it dawned on Sullivan to connect the concept of sign language with the physical objects around Helen by having her touch the items with one hand as Sullivan spelled the name of the object in her other hand.

Photo of Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller in the broadway play The Miracle Worker. In this scene, Miss Sullivan tries to teach Helen the meaning of “water”.

We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face.

From that point on, Sullivan and her pupil progressed leaps and bounds in teaching the girl how to use Braille and communicate with the world around her. It wasn’t easy. Both student and teacher faced many challenges and frustrations along the way. However, taking that time to reflect instead of constantly, stubbornly pushing in one direction or just giving up, was the conscious, decisive action that made learning possible. It may seem to “slow things down” but looking forward, it actually allowed progress to be made faster, more efficiently, and with fewer tears down the road.

An article by Harvard Business Review said employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting performed 23% better after 10 days than those who did not reflect. Similarly, a study of commuters in the UK found that those who were prompted to use their commute to think about and plan for their day were “happier, more productive, and less burned out than people who didn’t.”

Put simply, reflection is that pause we take in the chaos of our everyday lives to sort through, acknowledge, and find meaning in our experiences. The time and place we choose to do this may look different for each person but the good news is that there are many ways to make reflection a part of your lifestyle, whether it is in a journal, thinking in the car during your commute, or going out into the best classroom there is: nature.

Do you reflect? If not, how can you start making time for reflection today?

On the Path to Spiritual Growth: Understanding Our Negative Emotions

On the Path to Spiritual Growth: Understanding Our Negative Emotions

The critical and commercial success of the 2015 Pixar movie, Inside Out, was especially notable given its subject matter. While Pixar was known for its signature 3-D animations and heart-warming storylines, it was both unusual and impressive in its ability to convey in a children’s movie the importance of negative emotions in one’s development and growth.

In an age of pop psychology, negative emotions have often become easy scapegoats. Negative emotions are also what’s to blame for what ails you as well as what ails you. Experts seem to advise positive thoughts and positive thinking will get you out of your rut. While the field of positive psychology has helped us in a myriad of ways, by identifying positive thoughts as, well, positive, this identification has also led to a downside. This is to say: if positive emotions are good, it would be natural to assume that negative emotions are bad.

And this view is hard to deny as studies have shown that positive thinkers are more successful in life, with healthier personal and emotional lives and relationships.

Yet, we need to take a second look at the negative emotions for what they are.

If we parallel negative emotions with that of physical pain in the body, we can take an important lesson for its function in our lives and personal growth. We might even do this by observing those who are unable to feel physical pain. Called Anhidrosis, or CIPA, it is a disorder experienced only by an extremely small percentage people. A description of it by a mother whose daughter suffers from the rare genetic disorder gives us food for thought:

“Pain’s there for a reason. It lets your body know something’s wrong and it needs to be fixed. I’d give anything for her to feel pain.”

Just like physical pain, emotional pain has an important function and that we need to pay attention to. Just as we look at physical pain as signals, we can see emotional pain as important calls for attention to specific needs.

With this in mind, it is worth taking the time to “unpack” the experiences that give rise to our negative emotions. In doing so, we can come to understand what it is that we need to do or be aware of in all areas of our lives whether it is in school, work, or business, and especially in our personal relationships and families.

In our journey to have healthy, happy families, we need to have a growth mentality – to grow our knowledge of ourselves, to cultivate our character and find new ways to develop.  Along with this willingness and mentality to always grow and become better, we need tools along the way. Understanding that, in fact, negative emotions can become part of our toolkit for understanding ourselves and others can also be liberating in that we no longer need to hide from or ignore or erase negative emotions, but embrace them as indicators of our opportunities for growth.