simplicity

I have chosen three intentions to honor in 2017:  creativity, lightheartedness and simplicity.  They are all interrelated, and when I am living well within one, I am generally living well within the other two as well.  The opposite of honoring these three things in my life looks like this:  taking myself and my activities very seriously, stressing about our family schedule and how to make all of the pieces and overlaps work, not finding the humor in some of the ridiculous situations our family schedule causes, feeling disconnected from myself and others, and the ubiquitous “overwhelm.”   However, as much as I am drawn to its premise like a moth to a light in the darkness, simplicity does not come naturally to me.  Much like the moth, I flitter around it, admiring it, wanting it, but can’t quite find my way into it.  Because, hey, life is complicated, is it not?  And maybe that assumption is exactly the problem; maybe life is only complicated because I allow and expect it to be, and because everyone around me is confirming that their lives are also complicated. 

Part of finding simplicity in my life involves a paring down process.  Paring down all the new ideas I’d like to try out, paring down the long list of intentions that I’d like to honor in my life at every moment, paring down the “shoulds” that come from outside myself that impact me, and paring down the commitments that I make to myself and others.  In paring down, I create space in my life for those things that really matter.  It also sometimes means temporarily neglecting one part of my life to fully show up for another, and giving myself permission to do so.    

Someone told me when my kids were young and I was struggling with balancing their needs, with the needs of my marriage, with the needs of my career and with (usually not) finding anytime for myself and my own needs and friendships, that “you can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.”  I think it’s tempting look around and see how people are really succeeding in one area of their lives, and use that one success as a yardstick for how we should be doing in all areas of our own lives.  Part of simplicity for me is recognizing that by honoring and committing to a few intentions, other areas necessarily fall by the wayside, at least temporarily. 

As a coach, I’ve done a lot of work with my clients and for myself around honoring our unique values.  I define values as those things that without which our lives feel incomplete; things that are essential to who we uniquely are and our being happy in the world.  I had a list of 25 values that were essential to me, and each of those 25 words had a string of related words behind them that comprised that value.  I fooled myself into believing that I should be able to honor each of those values on a weekly, if not daily basis.  And it was too much, and too confusing: if asked, I couldn’t have even listed off half of the 25 off the top of my head, so there was no way that I was remembering to honor them all.  I told myself that I was a complex and curious person, with a lot of varied interests and talents, and I’d already spent painful hours narrowing down my list to 25, and that was the best I could do.  And then my own coach one day challenged me to narrow down my list of 25 to three!  I (literally) gasped, and immediately stated that that would be impossible (after all I was a complicated person with a lot of varied interests and talents).  And she asked if would commit to doing it none-the-less, and also suggested that I could consider the viewpoint that having a list of three values might provide freedom rather than constriction.  I tentatively agreed, while laughing that I’d never get the list down anywhere near to only three values.  And so, I started the process again, I whittled and added back and looked up definitions of words and grouped like themed words together.  It was like a new scrabble vocabulary game.  I bartered with myself trading out certain values while promising myself I would keep others.  To narrow it down I had to get to the point of taking a hard look at those values that were essential to my being, those without which I would feel empty and lost.  And I got to a list of four words, which felt like a huge victory, rather than a defeat for not getting to three!  My top four values, the ones that I hope to honor every day of  my life, are connection, authenticity, wisdom and groundedness.  There is complexity within each of those words, and words that underly each of them (for example curiosity plays a part in each ), but having a simple four-word guidepost is much more liberating (and authentic for me) than a half-forgotten list of 25.  And from there it’s easy to incorporate my list of intentions for each year, to layer those over my unchanging core values.

On a regular basis we fool ourselves into believing that important things have to be complicated.  We can mistakenly tell ourselves that for our children to feel well-loved we have to do and buy numerous things, when maybe all it takes is a five-minute conversation with them, fully present, fully listening without an agenda.    We fool ourselves into thinking that our values lists have to be long to fully honor our uniqueness in the world.  We think we have to fully consider every option rather than just going with the one that felt right all along.  There are so many ways that we make things more complicated than they need to be, when choosing simplicity would be both easier and more impactful.  There is simplicity and beauty in living a value driven life, and from my own experience, especially when there are only a few values and intentions to track to.     

the fault in our stars

Of course I should have foreseen that it would take someone else’s writing to make me write again, as I am that type of writer.  A word, a phrase, an idea and metaphor and an entire body of work of someone else’s helps me to rediscover my own genius (I use this term loosely).

And so it was, or is, with The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.   The book is technically in the “teen” genre (or so says the baby blue sticker imposed on it by our town’s library) and was apropos recommended to me by my teenaged daughter #1.  This book is teen literature in the same way that the Harry Potter series is kid’s literature, meaning that it is and it isn’t only for the targeted younger reader, as its messages and themes are perhaps equally relatable when taken beyond face value as an adult.  And that is part of the insidious beauty of this book;  as an adult reader you have little expectation of greatness when picking up a teen book.  The main character is a funny, intelligent and irreverent teen, who happens to have a terminal illness, which she has thus far managed to dodge with one  miracle fictitious drug intervention.  The irony is that as adult readers, we can be unarmed by the insight into life and life’s mysteries offered by a teenage girl, who by identity and number of years walking the earth, has experienced so much less life than you, but also so much more given her inevitable (like us all) but accelerated (unlike most of us) march to the end of life.

The main character’s star-crossed lover has also looked death in the eye, but has beaten his cancer, at least for now.  He understands the tenuous dance between life and death, fear and love and all the lies between, and they become each others confidants in a world that is so real yet unreal for them.

There are so many single words, short phrases, clever literal and liturgical references in this book that make the writing brief, yet beautiful and poignant.  Some of the lines that struck me the most:

-A fear of oblivion and a recommendation to ignore it

-the late afternoon light heavenly in its hurtfulness

-there was no through (as in friends helping me through my cancer)

-incessantly reminding your lungs to be lungs (and at one point reminding them “to get their shit together”)

– the only solution was to unmake the world to make it black and silent and uninhabited again, in the beginning when there was the Word.

-the world went on as it does, without my full participation.

-some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom.  And in freedom, most people find sin.

-that feeling of excitement and gratitude about just being able to marvel at it all

-if only my memory would compromise

-some infinities are bigger than other infinities

-I thought being an adult meant knowing what you believe, but that has not been my experience.

-I  believe the universe wants to be noticed.  I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed.

-so much depends on this observer of the universe {my side note, which quantum physics has proven at a sub-atomic level}

-I owed a debt to the universe that only my attention could repay, and also that I owed a debt to everybody who didn’t get to be a person anymore and everyone who hadn’t gotten to be a person yet.

 

I was unarmed by the voice of a teenager inflicted with a terminal cancer, who can not breathe- the one vital life force we can most easily take for granted.  We can all take in her sermon-of-sorts because we aren’t expecting it, and we haven’t already steeled ourselves to the fact that it’s coming.

The book was made into a movie.  Who should play the lead male character was decided by a social media vote.  This is where I start to lose my visceral connection to this book.

My daughter asked if I wanted to see the trailer when I was about 1/5 of the way through the book.  “Absolutely not,” I said, “I want to picture the characters as I picture them, not by how and who they were cast.”  “Yah,” she said “I kind of wish I’d finished the book before I saw the trailer.”

I’m struck by the vast expanse between the star-crossed lovers with the remitted cancer and slow terminal illness, while my own teenaged daughter’s greatest current medical malady is acne, which I am gently reminded of while crying through the conclusion of the book, when her dermatologist’s office calls me to refill her prescription. And I thank my lucky stars that that’s the extent of her needed medical intervention.

The Authenticity of Vulnerability

The Authenticity of Vulnerability

It’s hard to have a conversation about vulnerability these days without mentioning Brene Brown and her work.   She deserves a lot of the credit for bringing the discussion about vulnerability into the forefront of the American consciousness with her popular TED talks and books on the subject. For people like me, who are trying to live as a more authentic version of themselves, vulnerability lies at the core of what we’re attempting to do.

In my journey to live my life more authentically it was inevitable that I would stumble upon vulnerability.  And boy did I stumble, much like Brene Brown herself did. Even when the obvious truth presented that living my life from an authentic place demanded that I show up in vulnerability, I still fought it. The realization that tipped me onto the other side of my struggle with vulnerability was that people don’t share their souls with those who project perfection and those who seem to be untouched by the struggles of life.  And their soul was what I was looking for: I wanted to touch that depth of realness in a person.  I wanted to hear what inspired them, the turning points in their lives, the beliefs that shaped them and who was meaningful in their life.  I also wanted to hear their substance, their struggles.  I realized that if I wanted to hear those stories from other people, I had to share my own stories like that, and many times I had to go first.  But to go first is to risk rejection and to risk someone looking at you like they can’t believe you just said what you said.  The sensitive introvert in me would much rather let the other person reach out to me first, to put themselves in the vulnerable position, because at that point I can choose to say yes to their offer, while already knowing that they want to connect with me.

Many of us struggle with vulnerability as it can go against the very core of some of our strongly held beliefs, namely that vulnerability is weakness.  I know that I oscillate between wanting to share my vulnerability with others and not sharing it because it’s scary.  Sometimes it feels like being vulnerable is the exact opposite of what we feel we should be doing- we should be bolstering ourselves up, looking more powerful, more perfect, more invincible.  That’s how we impress people, get more friends, clients, connections, whatever it is we’re looking for, right?  But I’ve found the exact opposite to be true.  It’s very difficult to connect with people in any sort of meaningful fashion unless you’re willing to risk vulnerability.  What if in our vulnerability we really are more beautiful?  What if in that flash of uncertainty, flow of emotion, or struggle, we are more human and more whole, and more connected to others?  What does that mean for our lives?

Here’s what I do know about vulnerability, from personal experience.   When we show up as our vulnerable selves, and are honest about our struggles and our imperfections, we inspire others to do the same.  Public speaking is not a comfortable arena for me, but I recently signed up for a public speaking workshop.  At the end of the day we were invited up to speak in front of the group: we could tell some basic generic facts about our lives or we could tell a story.  I was one of the first to speak.  I opened with the revelation that I generally only speak from a script, but I’d decided to “wing it” and tell a bit of the story of my journey of losing myself and then finding myself again.  It was raw and vulnerable for me, both the subject matter and the unscriptedness of it.  When each subsequent person got up, they also told a raw and vulnerable personal story.  The experience was very powerful and we were all transfixed. The feedback that I got from another speaker was that because I had gotten up and shared in such a personal way, it had given her the courage to do it as well.

So what is it to show up and be vulnerable, to risk connection and rejection, to truly see someone and be seen?  We don’t just wake up one day and decide to be vulnerable.  Vulnerability is a moment to moment choice.  It takes practice.   There is a paradox to be held here, and that is to be strong in ourselves we can be vulnerable.  I think about the people that I really admire.  And it’s those who choose to show up fully, to share themselves.  Those who share their truth, even when it’s not pretty, or popular.  And it’s a truth shared not for attention, not for pity, but for the sheer beauty of showing up and living a whole, authentic life and inspiring others to do the same.