Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

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Meaning in an Indifferent Universe

“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent.” –Stanley Kubrick

Man is the only species, on Earth at least, that seeks meaning in life. Once food, clothing, and shelter are secured, Man then turns his attention both inward and outward, in the quest for for some understanding of why we exist, a quest to make our existence meaningful. Alone among all creatures, we do not subsist (I eat, therefor I am) so much as insist (I think, therefore I am).

The great Religions of the Near East and Near West define a meaningful life in terms of fealty to a deity and His edicts. Further East and meaning is acquired by coming ever closer to enlightenment. New World religions assign meaning to the achievement of harmony among all life forms. But what of the emerging worlds in which the great Religions hold little sway?

Death is immutable, and it is death against which all meaning is measured. What came before can be ever and always dismissed as abstract, but what comes after is inextricably tied to what constitutes a meaningful life. Again, Kubrick: “If we can accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death–however mutable man may be able to make them–our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment.”

How is this necessarily so? Why would it be so? Is it because Man as a species can and does sit down to think? If the universe is indeed indifferent and it is Man who introduces meaning, must it not be that our universe is man-made? Whether through acts of omission or commission, consequences intended or unintended, it’s hard to escape this conclusion. Herein lies the essential challenge of seeking meaning in life: meaningful for whom?

Adherents to the great Religions are set here. Meaning is parsed by some higher being. For the rest of us an epic societal tug-of-war exists externally. The furthest to one side posits that meaning ends at the tip of a nose, while the other extreme holds that it knows better and will tell you what you should find meaningful. The truth, at least the actionable truth, lies as always somewhere in between.

Once more, to Kubrick: “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” Herein, I believe, lies the lesson. Meaning, writ small or large, can only be created within. The light of meaning is self-generated, but like all light it can be shared. Must be shared. It is in sharing whatever light we might have or create, however dim we might find it, that makes a meaningful life. What light we create is what separates us from all other life, for Man is alone in his ability to shine that light for others, then see and act upon that which is illuminated.

In the end, the Universe may very well be indifferent, but we need not be. Meaning, in life, may be as simple as the absence of indifference.

Let’s Drop the Hyphen

Have you dipped a toe into the whole 23 and Me world? You know, the company that will analyze your DNA and tell you about your heritage. What percentage you are of this or that. Think for a moment about how your answer the question “what are your?” when someone is asking about your nationality. How do you respond? It’s a terrifically important question, more precisely your answer is terrifically important, especially in these fraught times of machine gun-toting police officers in airports.

How do you respond?

Confession time first, or course. Up until yesterday I typically answered with something along the lines of “I’m a mutt, but I’m mostly Irish.” Accurate enough, at least in terms of heritage back some long time ago, if just the tiniest bit dismissive of my maternal grandfather who was a first generation American of 100% German lineage. And there, in that last word–lineage–we find the linguistic accuracy necessary for each of us to begin to structure a better answer. Better for us, and better for everyone who shares a country to begin to think about how we answer the “what are you?” question.

Henceforth I shall interpret that as a question about my nationality and my answer shall be “I am an American*.” Full stop.

To be sure I will be happy to engage in a conversation about lineage because there are some pretty neat stories about my grandparents and their parents to be told. But me? It’s been many, many generations and much more than 100 years since my ancestors left whatever shores and became Americans. As soon as they married outside of their ancestral tribe they became, and more importantly identified, as American. Isn’t it time the rest of us follows suit?

Put me down as a vote to drop the hyphen. You know, the ( – ) between “X” and “American” we so often hear when “what are you, what nationality are you?” is floated. Wether born here or bourn and chosen, you are an American. This is not a “my country right or wrong” or “love it or leave it” kind of thing. Not one bit. It’s about how you identify, and then by extension how you support. I am an American. I live here, work here, vote here, and pay taxes here (boy, do I pay taxes). Sure, it’s a big country, and the experience of being an American is certainly different in NYC where I am sitting, Cleveland where God willing I will dine at home tonight, or in LA. But Americans we are, one and all. I hope for and will work for a better America, as I hope you will, too. We can keep the entire spirits and coffee industries afloat discussing what “better” means.

As Americans.

*Or Irishman, or Pakistanis, or Canadiens if the shoe (or skate) fits. Rejoice in what is good about your country. One need not disavow one’s lineage to embrace one’s nationality.

The Solo System: Friendship and their Orbits

Friend: a person who has a strong liking for and trust in a another person. –Miriam-Webster’s

This weekend my wife and I will visit my closest (non-family) friend. Friendship has been on my mind of late. Truth be told, some version of that sentence accurately describes some part of my day pretty much every day, just a bit more so of late. You can never have enough friends and all. True enough that, but one should reflect a bit on what it is that constitutes friendship, and what it means to be a friend.

Once upon a time in college I embarked on an adventure, a hitchhiking journey to meet up with mates from college, eventually landing on the beach in North Carolina. My Dad was dead set against it. It was time for me to go to work for the summer, and quite honestly the itinerary was more than a little “skinny” on details.

Me: “But Dad, these guys are my friends!”

Dad: “Probably not. In 10 years you may not even know a single phone number for one person who was there. You are lucky if you have a single friend in the world.”

Man, I hated him for that. I left angry and returned triumphant (God watches over fools and Irishmen). Sure enough, only one among that group remains, and he only a warm afterthought. My Dad, of course, was spot on.

Each of us lives in a galaxy of people who swirl around us as if we were a pre-Galilean Earth. Think Brian Regan’s famous “Science Fair” bit: “The big yellow one is [me].” This very center of this solo system is made up of our friends, however few. They are close enough to touch, always in view. Surrounding this inner circle is a slightly larger one filled with friendly acquaintances, people who may once have been friends or may yet become friends, but at present a group of people we are genuinely happy to see but don’t necessarily go out of our way to do so. Next is that mass of people we’ve met, a group not notable for anything; we don’t think of them at all. There are enemies, too, but for now let’s leave them be. All of this floats in a universe of beings we’ve yet to, or will never meet.

What is it that moves one from the orbit of friendly acquaintances into that innermost sphere of friends? The mechanics of it are really quite banal: shared experiences, a kind of proximity (geographic or in our modern world electronic), enough values held in common that you can forgive those that are different. It’s subtle, the difference between a friendly acquaintance and a friend. Heck, you may have some friendly acquaintances who like you, like who you are just as much as your friend. Maybe more. The difference, I think, is not so much in the liking as it is in the trusting and the caring.

Your friend cares about you. Cares what you think. He pauses before he acts or speaks and takes a moment to think about you before he does either. Someone with whom you are friendly might meet you halfway on something, but your friend will go way beyond that toward you because he cares a bit more about what you think than maybe even what he might. While your friendly acquaintance will likely never hurt you your friend will protect you from hurt. Might even take the hit for you and suffer so that you might not.

Because of this you trust your friend in a way that you trust no one other than your closest family. In a sense you’ve pre-forgiven him because you know…you just know…that he not only will he not hurt you, but he will be ever vigilant against doing so even by accident. My Dad was right. You don’t get very many of these. Indeed, most are fortunate to get one at a time.

Your little solo system is ever-changing; people move in and out of orbits, sometimes inward and sadly occasionally out. People grow differently. They change or they move. The work of friendship is hard because it requires looking outward at the same time you allow another to look in. It’s a high wire/high risk enterprise, being someone’s friend. In many ways it’s as if your very soul is in the harness, and your friend is on belay. And in your hand you hold the rope that allow’s YOUR friend’s soul to soar.

Right beside yours.

Yours ever in friendship,

Tone Across the Service Line

Ever listen to how people address folks on the providing side of the customer service continuum? Do you ever stop to listen to yourself, or think about how you will sound before you speak? Fascinating. In North America we are moving ever more swiftly to an economy that is majority a service economy; we don’t really make stuff so much anymore, we help people use stuff someone else made, or provide assistance based on a knowledge base or skill set. Listening to people on the receive side of the equation is fascinating.

We have been forced to change our EMR at SkyVision. Our office is running behind schedule because of this. My ears are on high alert for how our patients are reacting. I’m prompted to this line of thought by three interactions in the office that happened while I was loitering at the reception desk. Three individuals not so much requesting a service but demanding it, doing so with a tone that implies not only a deep sense of entitlement but also a deeper lack of regard for the individual who will provide that service. Both in tone and content the to-be-served make it clear to the service provider that he or she is there to serve only them. In fact, the servers only reason to exist is to serve, as if the to-be-served were some kind of different, superior version of the species. It’s loathsome, actually.

I spend every waking moment of each working day on the “serve” side of the equation, whether I am a SkyVision plying my profession or CFB coaching. Having achieved some measure of expertise in both it’s very rare that I am on the receiving end of this type of behavior, but it does happen. More often is the case that it is someone lower on the org chart who gets this. The receptionist, phone operator, or check-out person who gets this “lower life-form” treatment, not the doctor or business owner.

Life can be hard for these front line people in a service business. There’s not only a “customer is always right” mentality on the other side of the interaction but also a sense that being a customer who will get what they want is as much as human right as Life or Liberty. That’s what it sounds like, anyway, if you are off to the side listening. No matter how frustrated one might become from a service situation gone wrong it’s important to remember that there is no continuum in the relationship when it comes to the inalienable rights, nor is there any evolutionary hierarchy across that desk or over that phone line.

Danny Meyer, the great NYC restauranteur, is probably closest to correct when he says “the customer is not right all of the time, but mostly right most of the time. A customer [only] has the right to be heard.” How you express yourself when you are on the “receive” side of the customer service experience is not only an important measurement of how you value the person across from you providing the service, but frankly is probably also a predictor for how likely you are to be successful in being heard. It’s instructive that none of the three SkyVision clients who made difficult (bordering on unreasonable) requests in an unpleasant manner were accommodated because doing so would have required an extraordinary effort which may not have been successful in any event.

Sorry, no pithy statement to wrap it up this week. In the end we all want what we want, and we all need to be heard. It helps to look at the person on the other end of the service divide as if you were looking in a mirror. Would you say that, like that, to the person in the reflection?

Someone Is Keeping Your Receipts

Once upon a time records were kept prospectively in order to support some sort of existence. Transactions of some sort or another would be the most common example. Of course, if one wished to avoid or deny the existence of some sort of transaction, or indeed to deny the existence of some event, one simply had to avoid the creation of a “paper trail” which documented some part of that event. Receipts involved commerce, and if you spent just the tiniest bit of time thinking about it you could limit the number of receipts that were out there.

Now? Not so much. A “receipt” is now any type of irrefutable documentation of some event. Sure, that credit card receipt puts you in that Uber at 0200 in SoHo, but so does the Tweet that mentioned you in passing. Or the pic your companion SnapChatted and was saved as a screenshot. The ultimate, all-time greatest receipt was a certain dress that never made it to the dry cleaners, but nowadays scandals as great or orders of magnitude tinier are rendered factual by the seemingly banal.

Thinking back it’s funny, how I got to be “bingo” here and elsewhere. In those early days of online communication one gave reasonable thought as to whether it was prudent to use your own name online. Heck, my prenup consists of a single line: “Darrell will not run for elected office” so that the family would be spared the scrutiny of an election. To be anonymous in today’s world it takes either herculean effort (try to find something about the family that owns Perdue Pharma, for example), or a complete indifference to that which seems to drive western societies (think bridge troll). What was once the “paper trail” became the “digital footprint” and is now a ubiquitous “universal map” of your life. Does it even matter? One wonders in this day of Alexa and Siri and paying for the privilege of placing the equivalent of Big Brother v1.0 in your own home.

I have endeavored, here and elsewhere, to make kindness the currency of my transactions. Indeed, CrossFit.com (and my blog) have been little “behavioral gyms”, if you will, where I have practiced making kindness the irreducible movement in my interactions. The on-line world in its earlier days was kind of a mulligan for folks of my generation. Not a day goes by that one or another of us sighs in relief that cellphone cameras and social media had yet to be invented when we were young. Now? Now it’s a running tab, a veritable windfall for the social accountants who tally up the score. They are everywhere, and it matters not how many degrees of separation they are from you and Kevin Bacon.

Someone always keeps the receipts.

 

Pygmalion

In the big city, in a big meeting, both teeming with swarms of humanity, in the same location but not necessarily in the same space…

‘Twas a time not so very long ago when phrases such as “proper” and “polite company” had very specific and essentially universally understood definitions. Forming a foundation for this proper behavior were equally well-understood, nearly universal concepts like “private” and “reserved”.

Neither “proper” nor “polite company” was confined to a specific economic stratum or other social circumstance, although both had a certain aspirational aspect. Whether “low born” or “high born”, one was taught the meaning of each. Both were considered essential elements for a functioning society. One needn’t have a mentor or sponsor to behave in a proper manner so that one could travel in polite company, one only needed to have a grandmother.

The concepts of “proper”, “polite company”, “private” and “reserved” have no less a place in a society dominated by social media and cell phones than they once did in one of salons and stationary. I could certainly provide you with examples and definitions, but that seems to smack too much of what it is I protest. You should know this, no matter how old you are, without either me or Buzzfeed offering you a link to the Top 10 Lessons from “My Fair Lady”.

If you need a refresher course remember this: it’s not proper to text or to PM your elders on Facebook or Twitter to talk about it.

Succeeding Through Effective Failure

The secret to success just might be failure. Not abject failure, of course (although it’s always cool to use the word ‘abject’), nor consistent failure. But failure while pushing one’s limits or while exploring the new and the unknown might be the magic ingredient in the success recipe.

Why? Success is not simply the absence of failure, it is the defeat of failure. Success is over-coming failure. Indeed, without having failed at something some time, how do you know what success is? How do you know what it’s supposed to feel like?

Neither success nor failure need be any particular size. Small successes build confidence, and smallish failures teach. It’s important to qualify acceptable failures, though. Failure caused by sloppiness or laziness is ALWAYS bad. On the other hand, failure encountered while stretching beyond one’s limits, while reaching for something new, large, important…well…that’s the type of failure from which lessons are learned.

It takes a certain chutzpa to put one’s self at risk to fail while in the act of reaching further. I like Churchill’s take on it: “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

Be a little brave while failing.

Sunday Protests

One of my all-time, never fails thrills is a pre-game flyover. I get serious chills and a full coat of goosebumps every single time. Doesn’t matter what event follows, or why I’m watching. Unexpected, surprise fly-overs are an even more special treat, that “oh, you’re kidding…I get to see this even AND I get a fly-over?” It’s like getting dessert first at a Michelin starred restaurant. Never having served in any of the branches of our military I have no special call to feel this way. Yet goosebumps arrive on cue whenever a particularly moving rendition of our National Anthem is played, or if I hear Kate Smith or Ray Charles singing one of our other patriotic anthems.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I am quite completely conflicted about the recent protesting of professional athletes done during these tiny interludes of observing our shared nation. I do get, as should all thinking individuals, that the protests themselves are not directed at either the anthem or the flag, and certainly not toward the men and women who have served in the defense of the historical values that these symbols represent. I truly love these tiny moments of patriotic sentimentality. They are, for me, similar to saying “Grace” before our evening meal: a tiny vestige of a once much larger experience.

Sporting events of all kinds used to be a much bigger presence in my life than they are today. Whether playing or watching, it was weird to not have some sort of game front and center. Once I hung up my various sporting implements, and even when I moved away both literally and figuratively from the teams of my youth, I could usually find some sort of sporting event to have on as background noise on a given day. The fact that I watch fewer games, and almost no football, at a time of unprecedented activism on the field is therefore purely coincidental.

Still, I do think about sports, and major sporting events are still a rallying point (or at least a conversation starter) in most walks of my life. To say that this next statement has me conflicted doesn’t really measure up to the truth: the on the field activism of athletes makes me avoid the discussion of sports entirely. It’s not that I feel the athletes have no place expressing their opinions, nor that I necessarily disagree with the opinions they are expressing. The heartfelt conviction that a particular group has been singled out for mistreatment is a righteous cause to which very public individuals could lend their support. By choosing the venue of a sporting event they have removed my ability to choose whether or when I will engage the topic.

By choosing to do it in the manner that they have chosen prevents me from experiencing a tiny thrill that used to at least feel like it was free.

So what? Isn’t that the point of protest, to make the safe and the secure a little bit uncomfortable? Sure, I get that. I really do. It makes little difference to those protesting to learn that people like me really do set aside time to consider the merits of their grievance; creating discomfort is part of the point. Having twice scrubbed my own workplace of all political activity, making it clear that our team is to avoid the creation of similar discomfort in our clients, I sort of feel like my patronage is being abused I guess. Kind of like that old joke “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out”, except it’s a political expression upending my expectation. Certain jobs just don’t mesh with political action in the workplace. Who wants to see their local police officers in uniform and protesting anything at all? Can you imagine listening to your surgeon expound on some controversial topic just as you slip under anesthesia?

You could very well read this and say that my bleating is nothing but one more example of “White privilege” (funny, given my name), the smug mutterings of someone safe and secure and as close to immune from the dangers being discussed. I would understand your position. I would disagree, but I would understand, and more than that I would inherently realize that no amount of discussion on our mutual parts would change your mind. All good. I’m uncomfortable, and a little bit unhappy, and maybe that was always the point.

The risk is that my discomfort may make me stop listening. That’s probably not what the protesters are aiming for.

Careless Joy

Quiet house. Quiet lake. Quiet mind? Not so much.

When you are riding high, hitting all of your numbers, looking out over a quiet lake as far as the eye can see and embarking on another stretch of smooth sailing, are you the type that rides the crest of that wave with the carefree joy it deserves? Or are you rather the sort that cannot shake the awareness that below your tranquil waters there lies a hidden reef that portends despair should you happen upon it? The question is more than just the old “are you an optimist or a pessimist” saw, I think. At its core lies one of the keys to happiness: can you live in a happy moment without simultaneously giving space to another darker, sadder moment?

During the dance are you always on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop?

None among us lives a life filled with only joy and happiness. Indeed, there are those whose lives are a proverbial slog from one tragic moment to another. Blessedly, in our developed world, these “treadmills of tragedy” are actually quite rare. Likely as rare as the Unicorn lives filled with nothing but rainbows and Skittles. No, for most of us it’s simply a question of degree leavened by, I dunno, attitude I guess. Do we approach the smorgasbord of our lives as ones of “quiet desperation” as so many novelists propose, or do we rather travel in a state of “careless joy”?

Beth and I are hosted friends this weekend at Casa Blanco, the invitation having come spontaneously months prior and quite amazingly accepted and consummated. The one, a classmate from college, I’ve known for 40 years. The other is my classmate’s relatively new love. How they’ve arrived together at Casa Blanco is quite fascinating. One has lived a life which from the outside seems to have been charmed beyond belief, while the other has struggled mightily to overcome significant childhood traumas. One looks back and muses on choices made and how things might have turned out if present day insights might have been available when earlier crossroads were encountered, while the other has doggedly worked through each treacherous road into and out of those crossroads.

What they have in common, at least this weekend, is the apparent ability to live fully within the joy of whatever moment they are experiencing right now, without allowing the intrusion of the “other shoe”. I am quite sure that each has some something that weighs on the balance toward the negative side of the ledger, but for the life of me I haven’t seen it. Pollyanna or a gift? I’m going with “gift” and furthermore I’m going with being able to watch this couple give themselves completely to each moment we’ve shared as one of the most meaningful “hostess” gifts Beth and I have ever received.

Those couple of things in my life (or yours, or my friends’) that are sitting there ruining your winning streak? That other shoe you just know will drop at an inopportune moment? Meh, they aren’t going away regardless of how you decide to engage with the joyful steps in your life, on your journey. Right now there’s a workout to plan and a lake to jump into. Bacon’s on the griddle while I watch the chickadees eat breakfast. Tapping or shuffling, the sound of the shoes is that of happy dancing, and I am taking my cue from our guests and simply listening.

That other shoe will drop whenever but I’ll likely not notice.  I’ll be too busy dancing to worry about it.

Of Tradewinds and Science

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.” –Max Planck

So very much of what we encounter as we seek any kind of guiding truth is not science at all, but strongly held opinion forcefully presented. Think about it for a moment. Think about a few of the really big issues orbiting the intellectuosphere. Climate change. Health. Fitness. The search for the cure for cancer. Heck, the decision on what to have for lunch. So many opinions…so much money…so little true science.

Even more than that, scientific truth is continually bludgeoned by the one-two punch of politics and commerce. True science has always been held hostage by those who have vested interests in what constitutes the prevailing truth at any given time. How many promising avenues of inquiry have been blocked, and how much time has been lost because of the failure to pursue additional lines of inquiry that ran counter to “consensus”? One need only think of inflammation in vascular disease or alternatives to “fat in the diet is unhealthy”, both squelched along with the careers and reputations of their proponents while the single consensus theory was pursued. Why? Alternate theories or parallel theories would siphon the spoils from those who fed at the consensus trough.

It’s quite tempting to hold that this is all relatively new, that it is a function of our highly developed Western societies. Tempting, but ultimately false. Has there ever been a time in recorded history when a new scientific truth has upended orthodoxy and there has NOT been an attempt by the entrenched to not only stop an new line of inquiry but also destroy those inquiring? Think Galileo. From where I sit it seems as if a substantial majority of truly disruptive new scientific truth has arisen from the ranks of those who stood aside the prevailing winds and charted their own course.

What does this mean for each of us as we sit in our own little boats and sail along? The trade winds of consensus are strong, and it seems the weaker the science behind them the stronger they blow. It’s fine to allow these to fill your sails, of course, for the majority of them do in fact propel us along a true course. The best course, however, may lie in the breezes that cross the trade winds. Those tiny little gusts that represent the true essence of real science–skepticism accompanied by inquiry, followed by proof–will ultimately propel us to the proper destination despite the power of the commerce attached to the trade winds.

Every now and again the Newport to Bermuda race is won by a rebel who went off alone and discovered a new truth about sailing. We should be open to the possibility of a new scientific truth in all parts of our lives, lest we find ourselves far behind, capsized in its wake.

Or worse yet gone, as Planck suggests, long before we ever had a chance to benefit.

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