Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Extended Thanks

Thanksgiving Day.  A holiday.  A gathering of friends and family, rarely spent alone.  Feasting on foods of all tastes and colors spread thickly across the table – yet always leaving room for the gluttony of desserts still to come.  The sights and sounds of football games either supplementing or distracting from the meal and the company.  The continuing sounds of conversations, reminiscing, catching up, reacquainting.  Or increasingly instead, people heading out the door for holiday Friday shopping now regrettably moved up into Thursday; buying toys for loved ones trumping time spent actually being with and connecting with those loved ones.

In some instances, a few people will pause to reflect on the bounty and blessings that this day, this meal, this gathering represent.  Thanksgiving has its spiritual component, but it is also a secular, very American, holiday open to all citizens regardless of their ancestral heritage or religious affiliation.  A cooked turkey knows no prejudice.  All of us were once outsiders, with recent or distant family who traveled to these shores for a multiplicity of reasons and ambitions.  We each continue those travels in a spiritual search for universal connection and personal fulfillment of our unique potential.  We thereby pause to express our thanks to those who make our travels possible.

It is perhaps easy to sit at dinner and give gratitude to those close to us gathered at our table.  Certainly we should give thanks to those who are near and dear to us.  It is perhaps more difficult to remember and acknowledge those many others who are not at our table, the forgotten ones who are nevertheless an important part of our life’s journey.  Instead of focusing on the usual smiling faces of our dinner companions, perhaps it is of the faces of those who are far removed from us that attention should be directed.

The farmers and grocers who labored to make available all the food that now sits before us on this Day.  The military and public service people who give us the ability to come together to eat safely in our homes – many of whom are thereby unable to share a table with their own loved ones.  All of the service providers and retailers who help us get through our day and accomplish our many required tasks.  The people who buy the goods and services that we create and thereby sustain us.  Our workmates – peers / subordinates / supervisors at many levels – with whom we are interdependent and labor together to fulfill our work within a Purpose.

The teachers who inspired and challenged us to do bigger things, think bigger thoughts.  The mentors who believed in us and took time to listen and give us worthwhile guidance.  The spiritual teachers, both long past and present, who help us find the real person that lives within, and assist in our connection to the greater Universe.  Our neighbors, far and wide, often faceless and voiceless, whose presence and great diversity keep our vision broad and our ego humbled.

On this Thanksgiving 2013, may we remember and give thanks to that extended family of humankind of which we are most fortunate to be a small part.

© 2013  Randy Bell


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Worrying About Worrying

“I have had many problems in my life – most of which have never happened.”  So said that great observer and commentator on the human condition, Mark Twain.  With spot-on accuracy.

Like many other human traits, worrying in moderation can be a helpful human exercise.  A small dose of worry can cause us to pause and consider the many potential outcomes of our actions or the events that affect us.  It can give us time to properly strategize our actions, and have alternative plans on the ready should problems arise.  But when worry crosses a very real boundary, when we spend too much time worrying about too many potential negative circumstances, when worry prevents us from moving forward with the business of our lives and our own fulfillment, then our worry has become unhealthy for us.

Everything we do in life carries unforeseen risks.  Using a little bit of worry to identify and reduce the number of those unknowns can give us forward-moving confidence.  But when excessive worry morphs dreams into “that’s impractical” and therefore are not pursued, our worry has exceeded its benefit and needs to be suspended to another time.

We worry about our children and whether they will be safe.  Our country and whether it will survive the tensions within.  The health of our family and friends and whether they will avoid sickness or death.  Losing our job, or our house being damaged by a storm, or our car going kaput one dark night on a lonely stretch of highway.  Whether gremlins lie in wait for us underneath our beds.

Worry is simply another manifestation of our fears.  Fear is a difficult emotion for most of us to admit – to ourselves and to others.  So we give our fear the more acceptable label of “worry.”  And if we so choose, we can martyr ourselves by spinning our worry all the way around to be a supposed testament to our strength of character, not a flaw of our weakness.

We call our fear the more socially-acceptable action of “worrying.”  Thereby, we disguise and paper over that underlying fear.  And we claim for ourselves an undue moral superiority that our worry about others supposedly demonstrates our concern for the welfare of humanity.  But what the worry in fact exemplifies is a lack of Faith, an absence of Trust.  We lack Faith that there is a greater Universal force surrounding ourselves that is consistently leading us to that other place where we need to be – leading us through recurring bouts of upheaval by bouncing us off the bumper guards of Life.  We lack Trust that most of what we fear will in fact not happen to us; the sky is really not preparing to fall upon us.  And if it should, that in the broader scheme of things we will ultimately wind up in a far better place, however difficult may be the journey to that place.  A place which our worst-case worry will never envision or take us to.

When our worry arises, we need to ask ourselves five questions: What is my underlying fear from which this worry comes?  What is the realistic probability that it will actually happen?  What is the worst real permanent damage that could befall me that I cannot handle?  What would be the potential good to me should this actually happen (and there is always a potential good!)?  Therefore, in which right place should I put my constructive energy?

As the Serenity Prayer says, change what you can, accept what you cannot, and know which is which.  In the face of Faith and Trust, worry dissolves into confidence about our future within Life’s Purpose.  And what I do know in my heart is that while some outcomes of our worry may prove difficult, those outcomes are always within our capacity to manage.  Of that, I have no serious worry.

©2013   Randy Bell

Monday, November 4, 2013

Death And Renewal

In late October, we had an atypically early blast of cold winter weather with a dusting of snow.  24 hours later, the large, beautiful hydrangea flowers were no more, their leaves now a sad, wilted green.  The leaves on the trees had turned brown and were quickly falling to the ground – the denuded trees now showing only the skeleton of their trunk and branches.  Yet as I saw this recurring cycle of nature’s dying, I also remembered that next spring those hydrangeas will be back, as colorful as ever.  The stumps of the trees I had to cut down this summer will sprout new shoots of saplings to replace the majestic trees that are no longer as they were.  And all the grass and brush that I spent hours mowing will reappear, awaiting their next round of required landscape maintenance.

In all of nature, “life” blooms, and then expires – whether by damage or by just plain aging.  It is then renewed into a more highly developed form of its old self, or instead into yet another incarnation altogether.  Where there is not renewal of that original life, there is likely a renewal of a life that is adjacent to that death.  As when a leaf disintegrates into the dirt as fertilizer for the tree.  Or ground up cornstalks become food for cattle.  Nothing truly ends; but every thing changes.

My mind turns to reflections on death as I pass through certain milestones of my aging.  50 years ago on a hot summer evening in May, my classmates and I graduated from high school.  We were now ready to go out, face the world, and live the expected vision of our lives.  Just six months later, I was a typically confused college freshman eating lunch in the dining room of my fraternity house, when the news came that President John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.  An hour later, sitting in my Freshman English class on that Friday afternoon, together we heard the shocking confirmation of his untimely death.

The memory of that moment, and all of the subsequent moments that followed over that long weekend, are deeply etched into my conscious memory.  They are always with me to this day, recalled with little effort.  Just as my father remembered sitting in a restaurant eating lunch when the news came over the radio of the death of Will Rogers in an Alaskan plane crash.  Or as my two now-grown children likely remember their very personal day on 9-11.  Kennedy’s death, and the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy five years later, irrevocably changed me.  Their deaths were also my death – the death of my innocence, the death of the protective cocoon of my small-city southern upbringing.  But those deaths in turn served as a rebirth for me - a new person of different beliefs and a broader understanding of human reality.  Just as I would be renewed (“born again”) and recast numerous times over the course of my ensuing life.

Death is not a singular event at a singular moment in time.  Death is a series of events occurring at irregular points in time that lead to constant change and renewal.  Just as Buddhist enlightenment or Christian encounters with God is not just one moment of instantaneous transformation, but a constant sequence of smaller insights and shifts that collectively take us to a new place, continually becoming yet another version of our prior selves.

Regardless of our age, we have already been through death many times over.  It is the separation that occurs when our grown children leave home.  When we leave our colleagues at an old job that no longer fits us.  When we move ourselves to an unfamiliar locale, away from all that we have known before.  When we necessarily discard a previously held idea or belief that is proven to be invalid.  When we surrender yet another self-illusion and its resulting arrogance.  When we enter a new stage of our chronological life.  When close friends and family leave their current existence and “pass on.”  Each of these transformative events, however sad in the moment, concurrently renews us for our next phase of life.

Nothing in nature stands still.  Life is always moving to “the next.”  But it is a physical law that nothing can move forward until it turns loose of where it is, what it is holding on to.  This is a spiritual truth also.  If all of the death that we see in nature is simply a stage in transition to something new, why would we presume that human life has been created any differently?  In truth, “death” means simply that what was no longer exists; what will be is just beginning.  As unknowing as we may be about what our next renewal will be, we can be confident that we are in fact being renewed into that which is most appropriate for us.  Just as in all of Creation.

© 2013  Randy Bell