Hmm. Maybe I’m the problem?

For much of my life when things didn’t go my way my default mechanism was to find someone to blame. Sometimes I was aware of what was happening. But mostly it was a subtle reaction, a reflex that came from a lifetime of largely unconscious habituation.

It didn’t help that I was raised by someone who lived her life as a victim. As the saying goes, “if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.”

To be sure, there were very real and painful reasons for her to feel victimized, but there were many others that were simply the by-product of mental illness. Either way, I didn’t have the best role model.

Yet regardless of whether we were parented well, had good teachers or benefitted from strong mentoring, playing the victim card is often the easy way out because it absolves us of accountability. I don’t have to actually confront my pain, shame or fear if I can shift attention to others.

I didn’t get that promotion because of office politics.

That teacher is picking on me.

I couldn’t close that deal because they didn’t give us a fair chance.

My family always treats my brother better.

I have to drink, don’t you understand how much stress I’m under?

We broke up because she didn’t really understand me or is just kind of crazy.

The election is rigged.

Well, maybe.

Certainly there are times when we are needlessly attacked or just flat out treated unfairly. But far more common are those times when we failed to look deeply at ourselves and our actions. Where we neglected to stay on our side of the street and understand our contribution to the outcome.

Stephen Karpman’s work on his eponymous drama triangle illustrates how this dynamic plays out for many of us. We bounce between victim, rescuer and persecutor (of ourselves and others), all the while failing to see our role in perpetuating the dysfunction, telling ourselves “if only they would change” everything would be fine.

It’s a con.

It would be far easier if I could avoid being the one to change. But the ONLY thing I can do is take responsibility for my stuff, share my truth, accept reality and do my work.

It’s been very humbling for me to become aware of and accept my role in creating or enabling so many problems over so many years.

It’s been harder still to admit that maybe I’m actually the problem.

But first comes awareness and then comes acceptance. Then it’s time for me to choose a different way to be in the world.

I wish there were an easier, softer way. But I got here as fast as I could.

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What’s worth fighting for?

Unless we live in certain parts of the world we get to pick most of our battles.

So it’s probably a good idea to decide what’s worth fighting for?

On my best days, I realize my list is pretty short:

  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Generosity
  • Connection
  • Justice
  • Confronting my pain, fear and shame
  • Acceptance of reality
  • Living in the present moment.

Of course, despite knowing this, I often convince myself that other things are important. I strap on my emotional armor and fight the useless fight.

The battles with our egos are ultimately both the most seductive and most destructive. We fight to be right, to win, to avoid our failings, to medicate our feelings, to control uncontrollable outcomes, to protect us from getting hurt. And to what end?

Our desire can betray us. Merely knowing our vulnerabilities is not enough.

We need to understand there is a profound difference between a reaction and a choice.

And if we decide that something–or someone–is truly worth fighting for, we go for it. We make mistakes, we embarrass ourselves (full disclosure: as I’ve already done this morning) and sometimes we’re going fall flat on our face.

But if we’re truly fulfilling our heart’s desire, then we pick ourselves up, recalibrate and just keep doing the work–smiling at our fears and our imperfect humanity.

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The minor fall, the major lift

“It is not the weight you carry but how you carry it.”  – Mary Oliver

Somewhere along our path things aren’t going to go our way. And when the inevitable happens the effect can be anywhere from mere annoyance to outright devastation.

As we encounter a loss of any consequence–death, loss of physical or mental capacities, a job, our home, even a highly anticipated and hoped for future–grieving comes into play. And while we all experience grief differently, there is no going around it. We must go through it.

When we are early in a setback, big or small, if often seems like there is no way out. That all hope is lost.That no light can make it through the cracks.

If you are anything like I am it’s easy to minimize the pain and suffering that so many of us have endured or had thrust upon us. Often avoidance and denial can seem like the smartest way forward. That is, of course, until we turn to drinking or drugs or sex or shopping, or other forms of numbing, to escape from our harsh reality. It turns out that only makes things worse.

If I’ve learned anything from my sometimes torturous journey it’s that things are never as bad as they seem. Most falls, taken in the long view, are in fact minor. And it’s how we respond to them, carry them, how we lift ourselves and allow ourselves to be lifted by others, that ultimately makes the difference.

If you are reading this, the fact is you’ve survived everyone of your worst days and your worst moments.

This, too, shall pass.

We all have a lot of work to do.

Let’s get started.

 

 

Seeing around the corner

If very recent events tell us anything, polls, elaborate analyses and unbridled prognostication from “experts” only goes so far. Your best friend could be Nate Silver and you are still going to get a lot of stuff wrong.

It turns out nobody has a crystal ball or the perfect predictive model. We may have a pretty educated guess about what’s around the corner, but we are bound to be surprised–or even shocked–a fair amount of the time.

The truth is expectations so often suck the joy out of us.

Our fantasy of being in control undermines our happiness time and time again.

Fear of the future keeps us stuck.

Yet we shouldn’t conclude that we must gird ourselves for relentless disappointment or simply throw our hands up in despair as we are cast between the waves of the world’s events.

We only live in this present moment.

And as Shakespeare reminds us “there is nothing either good or bad, only thinking makes it so.”

Ultimately being on the path is to accept the things we cannot change, set our intention towards the things we can and, most importantly, find beauty in the unpredictability of this one precious life we’ve been given.

 

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Just because you killed Jesse James . . .

“Just because you killed Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.”

– Mike Ehrmantraut to Walter White, Episode 3, Season 5 of Breaking Bad.

Just because you’ve attacked my idea doesn’t mean yours is better. Defending the status quo can be necessary, but mostly it’s an excuse to stay trapped in our fear.

Just because you sit in judgment of all the “idiot” drivers and “slothful” welfare recipients and “feckless” politicians, doesn’t actually do anything. Though your fragile ego may get a hit for a few seconds, putting others down isn’t a solution. And it certainly adds nothing to the level of discourse.

Shooting down something else isn’t remotely equivalent to creating something worthy or interesting. So instead of merely pontificating, let’s see your plan.

Being the critic is mostly a place to hide from the hard work of leading us to something new and meaningful. So instead of judging, let’s hear your ideas.

As Van Jones reminds us, Dr. King isn’t famous for saying “I have a complaint.”

It’s time to stop tearing down and to start building.

The universe is listening. And waiting.

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A version of this post originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

Where have all the blacksmiths gone?

For quite a long time being a blacksmith was a pretty good gig. Creating tools and other items from metal, as well as repairing them, was in solid demand for centuries. And, as it turns out, learning to forge, draw and bend wrought iron, bronze or steel is no easy task.

As we moved through the 20th century being a blacksmith didn’t get much easier. Sure, there were some technological advances but, by and large, it was a craft that required considerable skill and perseverance.

You might have noticed that aren’t many blacksmiths around these days. In fact, my guess is you’ve never even seen a working blacksmith shop (though you might know a hipster or two who have taken it up as a hobby).

Of course, the blacksmiths didn’t disappear all at once. But as new technology and substitutable products emerged–and began to achieve widespread adoption–the demand for blacksmiths waned. Eventually, the once common vocation became an anachronism.

I’m left to wonder how many blacksmiths saw it coming? How many realized they were doomed to extinction? And if they had that foresight, how many had the fortitude to let go of their once tried and true identity to forge (heh, heh) a new path?

I also wonder who are today’s blacksmiths? Could it be me? Could it be you?

And if it were, do we have the courage to leap into something new?

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The amount of work is the same

“We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” —Carlos Castaneda

Of course this is true of many things . . .

Encountering the world from the wound of hate or from the warmth of love.

Furiously protecting our ego or opening to connection.

Lamenting the past, worrying about the future or living in the present moment.

Fighting reality or choosing acceptance.

Constraining ourselves to the known or widening to an infinite field of possibilities.

Living in fear or cultivating peace.

Perpetuating the cycle of revenge or engaging in forgiveness.

Anytime we tell ourselves we don’t have a choice, we are lying.

Choose wisely. It matters.

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The exits are clearly marked

Maybe we’re in a relationship, romantic or otherwise, that has become highly dysfunctional but we’re too afraid to leave for fear of being alone or hurting the other person’s feelings.

Maybe we’re in a job where personal growth has long since ceased or our contributions are not well appreciated, yet the thought of making a major career shift virtually paralyzes us.

Maybe we’re a long-time member of a group that has drifted from its original purpose or lost its ability to make things happen, but we feel an obligation to try to fix it even when we know it’s neither possible, nor the best use of our scarce time and energy.

Maybe we get behind a leader “for the good of the cause” but come to see that the behaviors that rub us the wrong way–or we feel compelled to disavow completely–are revealed to be his deeply held beliefs and character defects.

Our heart usually tell us it’s time to get out way before our brain does its more careful and deliberate work.

When we let go of the past, the need to be right, the worry about what others might think –and the somewhat pathological urge to fix everything–our burden is lightened and our path becomes far more clear.

The exits are clearly marked.

The challenge is to muster up the courage to walk out the door.

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Learning to surf

There are a few different ways people approach the ocean.

Some dive right in.

Others inch in slowly, testing the temperature of the water until they feel comfortable to wade in all the way.

A few like to stand there and get pummeled by the water’s force.

And of course there are those that avoid going to the beach entirely.

The most daring and remarkable of all are the surfers.

The surfer harnesses the ocean’s power, gliding above the surface, zigzagging their way to the shore. Of course, sometimes they fall off their board. But the good ones understand this is just part of the process and hop right back on. They know that through practice they will navigate the inevitable ebbs and flows, the unexpected surge, the occasional fellow competitor that gets too close. Over time, they spend more time up on the board, reaching the shore faster with far more grace and power then when they started.

They understand and accept a few things we all should.

Avoiding turbulent water is impossible.

Fighting the power of the ocean is an exercise in futility.

Waves are inevitable.

We’re going to have to learn how to surf.

And the hardest part is paddling out in the first place.

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It’s almost always easier to do nothing

Let’s face it, there are days when getting up off the sofa and heading out the door feels like a big deal.

But finishing that draft, shipping your project, abandoning the usual in favor of the innovative, exposing a new concept to the world? Well, that requires fortitude, vulnerability, risk, the willingness to smile at fear.

I’ve been part of management teams that observed, studied and endlessly re-worked their plans while the competition sped past them.

I’ve become stuck in a swamp of procrastination, worried about abject failure or even the chance that people might see the (many) chinks in my armor.

I’ve sat at the bedside of a dying parent, afraid to tell them what I really felt for fear that I couldn’t handle the overwhelming emotions.

It’s almost always easier to do nothing.

Until it isn’t.

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