Holding on to Hope in an Age of Distress

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As we approach the holiday season, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope.  For Christians, the season of Advent which commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (December 3 this year) is a season of expectant hope—hope for the coming of the Christ Child.

            I am basically an optimistic person with a hopeful nature, but I’ve had a hard time holding on to hope this year. I’ve enjoyed so many personal blessings, but when I see the state of the world around me, I have sometimes plunged into despair. The lives of people in our nation and around the world have been ripped apart by catastrophic hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Wars rage in the Middle East and Africa, and the people displaced by these wars struggle to find safe havens. Climate change is moving us toward a global ecological disaster even as many leaders refuse to acknowledge or address the threat it poses. Our political leaders seem bent on enriching the most privileged among us while taking away vital protections from our most vulnerable citizens. Our president recklessly spouts language of divisiveness every single day. And just a few weeks ago, a gunman mowed down 59 people and injured more than 500 others in a mass shooting that was surely much worse than it might otherwise have been because our nation lacks the will to enact reasonable gun regulation. It has truly been hard to hold on to hope.

            I know I’m not alone. When I get together with friends, we share our fear and despair. Clients tell me that they’ve felt paralyzed by the relentless bombardment of disturbing events they see in the news every day. Lots of us are finding it hard to hold on to hope, and we feel increasingly helpless to do anything positive to address things.

            Thinkers far wiser than me have grappled with the challenge of finding hope in our current world. I recently listened to journalist and theological thinker Krista Tippett interview Roshi Joan Halifax, a Zen Buddhist teacher and medical anthropologist. Speaking in 2012, Halifax noted that the 24-hour news cycle bombards us with bad news all the time. As we face this barrage of stories about injustice and violence, she said,

We enter into a state of moral distress and futility. . . . And yet, we can’t do anything about it, and we enter into a state either of moral outrage, or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just don’t want to deal with it, or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness, or into freeze. And I think that a lot of the world that is hooked up in the media right now. . . is going numb. I think what we’re seeing is . . . empathic distress, where there’s a resonance but we’re not able to stabilize ourselves when exposed to this type of suffering.

            Halifax suggests several antidotes to our problem of empathic distress. When we get to the edge of being overwhelmed, she encourages us to spend more time in nature and in places where “you can touch the stillness” and ground yourself. She also suggests joining with others in rituals—religious rituals or secular ones—where we can feel part of a larger community. She says, “Ritual evokes in us a sense of timelessness. It drops us into the past, it brings up the present. It also projects into the future. But it is also deeper than chronological time.” Ritual can remind us that suffering and the overcoming of suffering are both embedded in thousands of years of human history.

            As a historian, Halifax’s words resonated with me. This year, I’ve repeatedly had to remind myself (and friends have reminded me) that our nation has lived through dark times before. In my own childhood, the Vietnam War ripped deep tears in the fabric of our nation. And then there was the Civil War.  On Christmas Day 1863 as our nation tore itself apart in a war over slavery, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;

"For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

 

But Longfellow did not end the poem on a note of despair. He continued:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.

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            Longfellow’s words are familiar to most of us because in 1956, composer Johnny Marks set them to music. Dozens of artists from Bing Crosby to Johnny Cash have since recorded the song, and it has become part of our holiday musical canon. (Click here for one of my favorite versions by Harry Belafonte.) 150 years later, Longfellow’s words remind us to reach for hope in the darkness. 

            Hope in the Dark is the title of one of my favorite books this year. The book is a collection of essays first published in 2004 by gifted writer Rebecca Solnit and reissued in 2016. Looking at twentieth century environmental, cultural, and political history, Solnit shows us the ways that citizens have changed their worlds again and again, and she urges us to hold on to “hope in the dark.” She explains, “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable.” Solnit reminds us that “hope is an orientation of the spirit,” a way of approaching the world.

            Embracing uncertainty is a challenge for me, but this year I have tried to hold on to hope in the dark in ways large and small—by reaching out to loved ones, by reading deeply and widely, by spending time in nature, by participating in rituals in my own community—funerals and academic ceremonies and other rituals which remind me of my ties to my own community and to the people who came before me. I have tried to do things that make positive differences in my community. Sometimes I have despaired, but I remind myself as Solnit reminds us that I don’t know what will happen and that in that uncertainty lies possibility. In this season of expectant hope, I’ll cling to hope in an age of distress.

            What have you done to hold on to hope this year? Where do you find your hope? I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.

            And if you want to sample Rebecca Solnit’s writing on hope, check out this essay from The Guardian from July 2016.

 

           

 

Designing a Life

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A well-designed life is a marvelous portfolio of experiences, of adventures, of failures that taught you important lessons, of hardships that made you stronger and helped you know yourself better, and of achievements and satisfactions. 

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

            A lot of different thinkers and teachers have shaped my approach to coaching, but perhaps the most influential have been Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, professors at the Stanford University School of Design and authors of Designing Your Life:  How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life (Knopf, 2016). They argue that you can use some of the same principles that product designers use to design a good life for yourself.

            To design a product, you start with a problem to solve. For example, some of you remember the days when the only way to catch your favorite shows on television was to tune in at the hour the program aired. If you couldn’t sit down to watch “Happy Days” at 8 pm on Thursday night, you just had to wait for the re-runs. So designers started to think about ways to allow us to capture those television shows and watch them on our own schedules. Teams of engineers and designers brainstormed, experimented, improvised, and experimented some more. First, they developed the VCR then TIVO and the DVR. These innovations had the added bonus of allowing us to skip those annoying commercials. Eventually the digitization of video media and the development of high speed wireless capabilities gave rise to Netflix and all the other on streaming services we enjoy today.  In other words, the designers started with a problem—how to watch our favorite shows at times convenient to us—and they built their way forward, repeatedly innovating ever more functional products.

            I take a similar approach to coaching. I help clients identify and analyze the problem they want to solve, brainstorm possible solutions, and begin experimenting. It’s a constant process of innovating, tweaking, and innovating some more. A good life, a life full of joy and vitality, is a process, not a product. You’ll never be finished with your life, but you’ll always be engaged in a process of experimentation, reframing, improvisation, and more experimentation.

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The Challenges of Working From Home

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I’ve always done some of my work at home, but working primarily from home is a new experience for me. In my coaching practice, I’ve been amazed at the sheer number of my clients who are able to work remotely from home thanks to modern technology.

If you work from home, I don’t have to tell you about the pleasures including being able to work in my most comfortable clothes if I feel like it, choosing my own hours (at least some of the time), and working from my back porch when the weather is good.

Working from home comes with its challenges though. Some of those are familiar. Our homes are filled with temptations to procrastinate. Laundry or gardening or scrubbing the toilet can easily become a distraction from our work. When I’m struggling to write a blog post, I often give in to the temptation to water the plants or brush the cat. And working from home can be lonely and isolating.

Lately I’ve become acutely aware of one of the pitfalls of work-from-home isolation. A couple of my clients who have worked remotely for years have been struggling with job searches. One of the biggest reasons that both struggle is that they no longer have strong professional networks. Without these networks, it is harder for them to learn about potential career opportunities. One client explained that she didn’t even feel like she knew how her field—a technology-related job—had evolved because she had been so isolated from colleagues in her field for so long. Some of my work with these clients has been focused on developing strategies for them for rebuilding their professional networks.

Their experiences have been a cautionary tale for me, and I’m thinking mindfully and strategically about how to maintain and expand my circle of professional colleagues.

What about you? Do you have any strategies for maintaining professional contacts—whether you work from home or in an office?

Mindful Forgetting

"El Vertice" by Celaya. Photo courtesy of  LaLouver Gallery. 

"El Vertice" by Celaya. Photo courtesy of LaLouver Gallery. 

Not long ago, I was listening to journalist and thinker Krista Tippett interview Enrique Martinez Celaya, a visual artist who trained as a physicist. In a wide-ranging conversation that explored art, science, and what it means to be human, Celaya reflected on the role of memory in his work and in our lives.

I was struck by one point he made about memories from our personal pasts. Celaya noted that a person can easily become mired and stuck in the drag created by painful memories from the past. As he put it, “That’s the thing with memories. . . --that they are so vast that if you don’t keep swimming against that current, it will draw you back, and you will never recover.” Sometimes, he suggested, moving past a painful memory requires a mindful “forgetting.” Mindful forgetting is not a one-time act, but a choice that you have to make every day.

Probably most of us have had the experience of dwelling on painful memories that threaten to drown us. I like the way Celaya frames the process of putting those memories behind us as “mindful” forgetting—as an intentional action.

Part of forgetting the painful things that threaten to drown our sense of hopefulness and possibility is taking charge of our own stories. We have to take charge of the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and about those difficult moments. To paraphrase the motivational speaker Tony Robbins, it’s important to divorce your past story and marry your current truth if you want to live a life of joy and purpose. (I heard Robbins talk about divorcing your past story on a TED Radio Hour podcast entitled “Success.”)

What past stories do you need to divorce in order to build your most joyful life?

To view some of Enrique Martinez Celaya’s beautiful paintings, check out his web site.

Celaya working on "Primavera." Courtesy of University of Nebraska.

Celaya working on "Primavera." Courtesy of University of Nebraska.

Finding Focus in Frenetic Times

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how challenging it is to focus my attention these days. Like most of us, I’ve been sucked into the digital age, and I spend a lot of time at my screen flipping between my email and the latest piece I’m supposed to be writing, from Facebook to a news update, from my work to . . . . Well—you get the picture:  my attention span is rapidly devolving to that of a three-year-old.  That has been particularly true in the past frenetic month when recent national events left my mind reeling from a stream of tweets, Facebook posts, and news updates. 

    You know the old adage: “energy flows where attention goes.” In recent weeks, my energy has been flowing in thirty different directions. The result was that I was exhausted, and I couldn’t seem to focus on achieving my most important goals. 

    The other night in yoga class, the challenge of concentration came home to me in a new way. For the past several months, one of my yoga teachers has been focusing her Monday night class on the eight limbs of yoga. Although most people think of yoga as the postures that we do in yoga class, yoga as practiced by the ancients was actually a complex philosophy and set of practices meant to guide us in living a meaningful life. In yogic philosophy, this philosophy is known as ashtanga, and It includes eight limbs or parts. (If you’re curious, Yoga Journal has a good introduction.)

    Last week we were focusing on the sixth limb, Dharana. My teacher explained that dharana is a set of practices designed to help us calm the mind and free ourselves from external and internal distractions.  Dharana is a way to clear the mind in preparation for meditation.  

    She asked us to arrange ourselves in a circle around the studio, and she placed a lit candle in the center of our circle. We were going to practice a dharana exercise trataka or candle gazing, she explained. Focus on the candle, she said. “It’s not that you don’t think. It’s that you think about the candle. You focus on the way it flickers and moves, the way it looks. Don’t think about your to-do list or what you’re having for dinner. Just think about the candle. It won’t be easy, but when your attention wonders, just re-focus on the candle.”

    She was right. It wasn’t easy. I followed her instructions to soften my gaze, but I still had to refocus myself a dozen times in a matter of three or four minutes.  

    Next, she instructed us to close our eyes. “In your mind’s eye, see that flame. Sit with it. Visualize it.” We did for a couple of minutes, and then she asked us to open our eyes and look at the candle flame again.  We repeated the process a couple more times.

    As I sat in that circle, a funny thing happened. Last Monday was a damp and cold winter night—one of the first winter nights we’ve had here in South Carolina. To make matters worse, the heat in my building hadn’t been working all day, so I arrived to yoga class chilled to the bone.  I sat on my bolster in that circle still wearing my sweatshirt and my wooly socks. That’s not unusual for me; most of the time in the winter, I don’t begin to warm up and shed my layers in yoga class until we begin some strenuous movement. But sitting in that circle, practicing trataka, I suddenly realized that I was warm. In fact, I felt as if my cheeks were glowing. Focusing on that warm candle flame had focused my energy in such a way that I had actually warmed right up. 

    I was tickled by my a-ha insight, and I hoped I’d be able to maintain both my calm focus and that warm inner glow throughout class. But as my teacher said, concentration is never easy. She instructed us to move from our circle to our mats and to keep returning our attention to the mental image of the glowing candle throughout our practice. “When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the flame,” she said. “Close your eyes if you have to.” 

    Alas, my mind did wander. Over and over, I’d close my eyes and bring the image of the flame to mind.  And I was reminded anew that the act of concentrating—of focusing my energy—is not a skill I learn once and internalize. Instead it’s a discipline—a practice—a thing I have to rededicate myself to repeatedly throughout each and every day. 

    Throughout that winter night and throughout the week that has followed, I keep reminding myself to stop and close my eyes and breathe deeply and see the candle flame in my mind’s eye. I’ve been practicing my dharana so that I can direct my attention to the places that need my energy most.  And a couple of times, I’ve even felt my face grow warm and my toes unthaw, reinforcing the notion that energy flows where attention goes. 

    Where do you send your energy and how do you focus yourself these days?

To Change Your Life, Begin by Changing Your Habits: A review of Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Everyday Life

To Change Your Life, Begin by Changing Your Habits:  A review of Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Everyday Life

Rubin says, “Fostering good habits takes energy and that energy is in short supply.” Therefore, it makes sense to work with our own tendencies when we set out to change habits and to focus our energies on habits which will do the most good.

Crossroads: When Old Roles Pinch and Bind

Crossroads: When Old Roles Pinch and Bind

I found myself feeling the same vague feelings of discontent. Efforts to revitalize my interest by teaching new courses and taking on new quasi-administrative roles did not restore my spark for the work. I floundered for a couple of years. I plunged into soul-searching. I read books about finding life’s purpose. I read books about middle age. I talked to people about their work and their own life paths. I saw a therapist. I worked with a life coach. Mostly I remained curious. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert has said that “Curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a veryforgiving friend, and a very constant one.” 

“The hey-day of woman’s life”: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the journey toward your personal heyday

“The hey-day of woman’s life”: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the journey toward your personal heyday

Ever wonder why I call it Heyday Coaching. It comes from a quote from one of my heroes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who said, “Fifty, not fifteen, is the heyday of woman’s life, then the forces hitherto finding an outlet in flirtations, courtship, conjugal and maternal love, are garnered in the brain to find expression in intellectual achievements, in spiritual friendships and beautiful thoughts, in music, poetry, and art. It never is too late to try what we may do.”

Meeting Your Long-Term Goals

Meeting Your Long-Term Goals

If you’re like me, one of your biggest challenges is finding the time to work on our long-term goals even as we juggle the tasks that come our way on any given day. A few months ago, I listened to a podcast interview with Mark Goulston, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of the book Get Out of Your Own Way.  He offered a simple method to develop and organize your action steps toward the long-term goal. He called it the ICU method.