Most of the time, the world feels small. It’s the room you’re in. Familiar streets. Your neighborhood.
That’s the illusion though, right? Because we all know the world is … well, it’s really, really big.
You telescope out and it’s fucking big beyond all belief.
It’s a planet, a galaxy, a cosmos. You can’t even get it. Not really. The immensity of it is mostly abstract. Like when you look at a Hubble Space Telescope image that is mesmerizingly beautiful, but you don’t have any real understanding of what it is, not even after you read the description of it, which goes like this:
“The Crab Nebula, the result of a bright supernova explosion … is 6,500 light-years from Earth. At its center is a super-dense neutron star, rotating once every 33 milliseconds, shooting out rotating lighthouse-like beams of radio waves and light — a pulsar (the bright dot at image center). The nebula’s intricate shape is caused by a complex interplay of the pulsar, a fast-moving wind of particles coming from the pulsar, and material originally ejected by the supernova explosion and by the star itself before the explosion.” (https://hubblesite.org/image/4027/gallery/35-supernova-remnants)
I mean, if there’s a quiz you’re fucked. I am, anyway.
I’m a teensy-weensy living being with my teensy brain gazing at the indefinable, the unimaginable, the incomprehensible. Still, I reduce it all down to the Google pin I’ve plotted on the map where I am.
This is the truth to me. My spot on Earth. My field of vision.
I am one conscious being of nearly eight billion on the planet. One of 107 billion who have ever lived. (https://www.prb.org/howmanypeoplehaveeverlivedonearth/)
Yet, I am the center of my world, as you are yours.
My life is a momentary flicker that will wink out and be utterly forgotten in a generation or two. I am destined to be a worn, faded photo in a dusty box someone will look at one day and say to themselves, “I don’t know who this is.” The photo, then, is a thing to be thrown away because it no longer fits a narrative anyone is living.
I am nothing. I am everything. This is the irony, the paradox of being mortal.
Seize it. Love it, every little bit of it, while you can.
Love yourself, your body and soul. Love your family, friends, and tribe. Love strangers if you can. They’re amazing, all of them. Just like you. A flicker in time, occupying a pinpoint in space.
Part of the whole.
Dropped onto the playground of life from the hands of God.
(The “God part” is something I believe, but I don’t mind if you believe that you and I are merely astonishing biological accidents and the universe is simply “one of those things that happens from time to time.” I respect that conclusion and raise a beer to the audacity of my belief and your non-belief.)
Your life. The best gift ever. Can we agree on that?
Play on, brothers and sisters.
I grew up in a Christian church where there was a pretty significant emphasis on prayer. We prayed over everything: family meals, sick relatives, algebra tests, moral dilemmas … misplaced shoes. Seeking God’s blessing and help was an automatic response to the fraught drama of being human.
What did we think was going on in heaven? God was just lounging around, not sure what he ought to be paying attention to … then he heard us pray for Aunt Dorothy’s open-heart surgery to go well, so he sprang into action because we were so sincere? I mean, he was going to let her die, but since we prayed and all, God changed his mind and Dorothy came through with flying colors, going on to live another decade.
It would be pretty weird if God operated like that, arbitrarily intervening in human affairs: holding up airplanes through turbulence, guiding people home in blinding snowstorms, seeing to it that little Timmy survived brain cancer. Because the other side of that idea is that God is also allowing some planes to crash, letting some people freeze to death, and standing by while some children die of cancer.
Maybe I once believed something like that. I don’t anymore.
Yet I still pray. All the time, about all kinds of things.
My theology isn’t what it used to be. If you tried to pin me down about what I believe God is like, I’d struggle to sound coherent. Yet, I am a theist. And I don’t view God as an impersonal blob of energy.
I acknowledge that everything I believe may be wrong. It might just be the bullshit I tell myself so I can face life: this life that is full of wonder and terror, good and bad fortune, pleasure and pain, love and hate, joy and desperation and death. Maybe I’m not brave enough to handle all that without my “invisible friend.” I accept that possibility.
But my faith matters to me. God matters to me. Prayer matters to me.
So, when I pray for strength, for wisdom, for an extra dose of love and courage and faith to get me through something, or even for the welfare of others … what do I think God is doing in response?
I don’t know. It’s not my problem.
Everything is energy, right? We’re made of invisible spinning particles. We’re made of what the cosmos is made of. The universe made us. Our thoughts and emotions are energy. You can feel them move through you. When your heart breaks with love for someone who is suffering or in danger, that energy burns in you like an all-consuming fire. When you hope desperately on behalf of someone you love, that hope has weight and substance, it exists in the world as a measurable phenomenon.
My dear atheist friends, when you tell your loved one that you’ll be thinking of them while they’re having an operation … that’s your version of a prayer! When you wish someone “good luck” on their job interview or entrance exam … that’s you praying for them in your way. You are saying, “This is the intention of my heart for you. That you are well. That you are happy. That your life is good. That you find love and peace and purpose.” As an atheist, you see no divine agency moving in the background, still you are lobbing the energy of your positive intention into the universe, even if you believe at the end of the day that the universe is ultimately absolutely cold and indifferent to the desires of your heart.
Prayer is the energy of hope, lobbed into the universe.
Does prayer change how things turn out?
I don’t know. Maybe.
Prayer changes me. It alters my disposition. It softens me toward those I might perceive as enemies. Prayer reminds me that the sun is giving off light and warmth even when it is hidden behind clouds. It reminds me that I still feel the energy of love left behind by people who no longer walk among us. Prayer is the voice of human consciousness speaking to itself, connecting to a conscious universe that gave birth to mind and matter and love. Prayer (like faith) is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Prayer is a weird thing. But, it’s a weird thing in a pretty damn weird and mysterious universe. Life, it seems to me, frequently calls for silly things like faith, hope, and love, to get us through the challenges of the human drama. That’s my story. And I’m sticking with it.
1979. Hard to believe it’s really been 40 years since we walked out of Elgin High School for the last time as students.
In that time, we’ve seen 7 presidencies. We’ve witnessed U.S. military involvement in Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other places. We endured the tragedy of 9-11 and its social/political aftermath. We made our way through The Great Recession.
The Walkman became the Discman which became the iPod which became your cell phone.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was reborn. Van Halen broke up—over and over. Lennon, Marley, Harrison, Stevie Ray, Prince and Petty died. (Somehow, Ozzy and Keith Richards are still alive!)
A whole lot of stuff happened in four decades. Good, bad, and in-between.
In the meantime, we lived our lives.
And here we are.
Sadly, some of our friends and classmates didn’t live to see this day.
We did. Lucky us.
40 years out seems like a good point at which to contemplate Our Lives So Far.
Maybe your life has been (and is) largely very good: good health, a strong marriage, happy and healthy kids, career success, personal happiness, and financial stability. Maybe, as Jack Nicholson once put it in one of his famous roles, your life has been mostly “boat rides and noodle soup.” I hope so. If that’s you, I’m genuinely happy for you. You have much to be grateful for, and much to feel a sense of personal pride about. Kudos and a serious high-five to you!
That describes some of us, certainly. But … probably not most of us.
Where do you and I fit on the “It’s A Wonderful Life” continuum?
Well, we’re closing in on our sixth decade of life. That’s enough time to have assured that most of us have gotten our asses kicked somewhere along the way. Probably more than once.
A divorce we hadn’t planned on. An illness that scared the hell out of us. A prodigal child (or two). Unexpected loss of security. Deaths of people we loved very much.
Some bad stuff happened because we made poor choices. Some bad stuff just plain happened, regardless of how sensible our choices may have been. Same with good stuff.
I don’t really have any interest in comparing houses or cars.
Maybe that’s because it’s a comparison I wouldn’t come out looking too spectacular in. I’m honest enough to admit that. I haven’t reached a point where I’ve transcended all ego-driven thinking. Not by a long shot. I’d kinda like showing up in a pearl-white Escalade with my supermodel girlfriend. But, I’d have to rent both of those!
Really, I don’t care about your car or your house. I mean, if they’re super awesome? That’s great. It really is. It doesn’t make me resent you. It’s totally cool. You should appreciate and celebrate those kinds of things, enjoy them for all their worth.
“Happiness is fleeting. Grab it like a firefly and never let it go.” I love this quote. It’s both beautiful and true.
40 years out of high school, we are everywhere on the Happy and Secure continuum: from “Thriving Ridiculously” to “Almost Not Making It.”
We are each of infinite value, we each hold infinite promise, regardless of where we are on that imaginary line.
Our lives are always in flux. Blessings and hardships come and go. And they will just keep doing that. Until we breathe our last breath.
This breath, the one you’re pulling into your lungs right now, that’s the one real, tangible thing you and I have. Learning to see each one as an incredibly profound, magnificent, and mysterious gift … that’s our primary duty to ourselves and those we love … whether we live in a mansion with our lovely family, or are temporarily crashing on our cousin’s couch wondering if anyone in our family of origin has thought of us today.
I’d love to make myself the hero of this story, but that would be dishonest.
I’m just like you. I got some stuff right. I got some stuff terribly wrong. I’m a mixed bag. I’m still figuring it out.
I am, however, incredibly grateful. I was given so much. I still have so much. I am super fortunate and blessed in a thousand ways and I won’t allow myself to forget it.
I want to be a better person tomorrow than I was today. I want to grow as a person, in every way I can. I want to be less selfish and more loving. I want to hoard less, and give more.
I look forward to seeing Elgin High School’s Class of 1979 this weekend. If we can be open, warm, and kind towards each other, wouldn’t that be a great 40th anniversary gift to both give and receive?
That’s all I got.
Oh yeah … if we’re very fortunate indeed, we’ll see each other in 2029!
The tyranny of the necessary has a way of gobbling up our one true (and most fleeting) possession: time.
For this reason, and others, I haven’t made travel a priority in my life.
I did, however, commit this year to get up and go adventuring, at least a few times, beyond the borders of Illinois (my home state).
Early in 2019, I flew with a friend to San Diego for a few days. We casually biked and strolled along the ocean shoreline, walked in an exotic garden, dined and drank a little, shared some laughs, and just hung out.
This summer, I drove to Minnesota to meet up with a group of church friends for some pretty serious cycling on gorgeous trails that had once been railroad tracks. We pedaled, coasted, chatted, laughed, shared, philosophized, and encountered some lovely pies.
Just yesterday, I returned home from a visit with a friend in Denver. We hit a bike trail in the mountains, went hiking at Red Rocks in Morrison, saw Bruce Hornsby at a beautiful outdoor music venue, and enjoyed deep conversation and warm companionship.
Each of these small adventures was a nice break from the well-defined rituals and necessary chores of my daily life. I got to see new places, have some fun, and enjoy the company of people I like and admire.
But there’s something else about these travels that make them unique among human experiences.
The movement itself, the traversing of distance … watching mile after mile of American topography pass by … brought some things into sharper focus for me.
I’m on a planet.
Duh, right? Of course, this is something we all know; but, when you’re mostly occupying such a very small and familiar patch of ground, it can start to feel like this is it. Like, my reality is this fifty-sqaure-mile zone. We make the mistake of sensing that the truth is what we can see.
Ah, but no. The truth is bigger. So much bigger.
Vast, stretching plains, forests and farmland, rolling hills, creeks, lakes, rivers, mountains … it’s all out there under the sun, visited by wind and rain, beautiful and alive, teeming with every variety of plant and animal life, humming and thriving. Whether we see it or not, it’s there.
Our home isn’t just the structure over our heads or the geography of our hometown.
We live in a state, in a country, on a continent, within a hemisphere, on a planet with a total surface area of about 197 million square miles.
You feel that just a little more when you actually see a stretch of 1,000 miles—one moving image at a time—in a single day. I’ve been reminded of my world’s glorious expanse, and that reality hums in my head now like a newly discovered favorite song.
Telescope out, and we see that we’re in a solar system that’s in a galaxy that’s in a universe … and we start to feel pretty small.
Yet, here we are. Living, conscious beings, uniquely equipped to take in and translate all this natural wonder through the astonishing gift of sensory perception. Lucky us.
Truth is big.
The other thing that came home to me as I zipped through all that territory, is the subtle reality of impermanence.
There I was, moving on a highway at 70-80 miles per hour, across a planet that is spinning (if you’re on the equator) at 1,000 mph, as it hurtles through space at 66,667 mph. So, every micro-second my position in the universe is … well, radically shifting. I’m virtually never in the same space for any kind of measurable time. Which is much like the present moment. It comes and goes at lightning speed, already fading away as soon as it arrives. This is the impermanence of time and space.
The gift we get is now. Right now. This very second is the only opportunity we have to live on this spinning sphere. It isn’t when the workday is over, or when the weekend gets here, or when our vacation arrives, or when we find love, or when we retire. It’s NOW. Always now. Always fleeting, and always a gift beyond comprehension. This breath. This heartbeat. This step. Seize it, squeeze it for all it’s worth, baby … ‘cause it’s whizzing by faster than the speed of light!
We can convince ourselves that this material world is solid, because that’s how we experience it. Your body, a table, the ground under your feet, mountains … you can touch them, push against them, and feel their substance. You forget they’re composed of invisible particles in constant motion. Every visible thing is made up of madly-spinning invisible things. Crazy.
Your body loses and gains atoms, all day, every day. Ninety-eight percent of the atoms in your body are replaced yearly. You are literally, materially, a new person, every year. It’s an invisible truth, but truth nonetheless.
This is impermanence.
I want it to remind me of the stunning miracle of being alive. The incomprehensible gift that belongs to me every time I draw a breath. I want to see that there are no mundane moments. They’re all amazing. I want to feel that there’s no such thing as a wasted breath. Each one is an unrepeatable and miraculous occurrence. It’s mine. And it’s yours.
So often we seem to be seeking comfort in what we think we can know about our world, looking for “facts” to shape our reality, as if this were where comfort and safety might be found.
As if what our intellects can grasp, were the truth.
Ah, but no. The truth is bigger. So much bigger. In the realm of human experience, accurate data are very useful; but meaning is what we crave, not some sort of list of ingredients of which material reality is composed.
What does impermanence tell us about what life means?
What matters? What’s critical and what’s trivia?
A question for us all to ponder as we make plans on a world that spins at 1,000 mph, as it hurls through space at 66,667 mph, no two micro-seconds alike.
How, then, shall we live?
NOTE: The following applies to most ordinary bullshit. HUGE bullshit, like a terminal disease, or a loved one who is suffering profoundly … these are struggles of a different magnitude. Our discussion here pertains to regular old human suffering, so much of which has to do with the ego and its endless needs.
And so …
1. TAKE INVENTORY OF ALL THE THINGS YOU SEE AS YOUR DEFICITS.
This includes all perceived body flaws, personality flaws, financial situation, living situation, relationship issues, perceived state of success/failure, moral/spiritual failures, past choices you see as regrettable.
Go ahead and make that list. The whole enchilada. Leave nothing out. Write it down, if you like. Or just make a mental list. I’ll wait.
2. NOW, IMAGINE YOU ENCOUNTER YOUR PERFECT PARTNER AND THEY ACCEPT AND LOVE YOU EVEN THOUGH THEY KNOW ALL THAT STUFF YOU JUST LISTED IN THE ABOVE INVENTORY.
Think of what that would do to you. What a colossal relief, right? You can stop pretending you have it all together. You can quit “putting on a happy face.” You’re done with all that bullshit. You can just be who you are, and you’re absolutely accepted and loved. Imagine how you’d carry yourself with this person: no fear, no worry, no self-consciousness. You’ve won the Inner Peace Lottery, right?
3. NOW, FORGET THAT PERSON. YOU CAN’T BE SURE YOU’LL FIND THEM. IF YOU ALREADY HAVE FOUND THEM, QUIT YOUR WHINING AND GO GIVE THEM A HUG. IF YOU HAVEN’T (ON SECOND THOUGHT, EVEN IF YOU HAVE), THERE IS SOMEONE ELSE YOU KNOW WHO CAN ACCEPT AND LOVE YOU JUST AS YOU ARE, DESPITE ALL YOUR PERCEIVED ISSUES/PROBLEMS. AND THEIR OPINION OF YOU IS FAR MORE IMPORTANT THAN THAT OF YOUR FANTASY LOVER/FRIEND/PARTNER.
That person, of course, is YOU.
Can you do it? Can you look at that list and say, “I accept and love myself just as I am in this moment?” If you can, then you’re off the hook you’ve placed yourself on! You’re free!
This doesn’t mean you don’t try to improve yourself. If you are bothered by some aspect (or aspects) of your life that you have the ability to affect? Go ahead and make plans for improvements. But don’t wait until you’ve accomplished your plans to approve of yourself. If you do, you’ve placed unnecessary emotional tension in your way. You are in conflict with what IS. That’s a surefire setup for unhappiness. ACCEPT what is, even as you engage in a plan to improve what you can.
Easier said than done? Yes, it is.
The truth, though, is that MOST people are holding a lot of things against themselves. Their lists look much like yours (and mine). Maybe the details vary, but the general idea is the same: “I am unacceptable and unlovable for these reasons.” And we carry this in the form of many thoughts that build up into one helluva destructive emotional snowball … we’ve given that fast-rolling sonofabitch SO MUCH power! The power to sabotage our happiness in the here and now, and on through the rest of our lives, right to our graves if we let it! LET’S NOT LET IT!
Unless and until you accept and love yourself unconditionally, radically … you will be stuck in a bad place, somewhere between mere discontent and full-on depression.
The power is yours, and yours alone. What will it take for you to LET GO of all that bullshit you’ve been holding against yourself? When will you get around to unlocking the chains you’ve put on your soul?
Examine each item on your list. Say each one OUT LOUD and say you accept it, as it is in this moment.
“I accept how my body looks and feels right now in this moment. I am letting go of the desire for my body to look and feel any different than it does right now in this moment.”
“I accept my job situation as it is right now in this moment. I am letting of the desire for it to be any different than it is right now in this moment.”
Remember, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look to drop a few pounds or get a new job. If you deem those things important, start mapping your strategy RIGHT NOW, even as you accept things as they are, right now, in this moment.
Do this with every item on that list.
And mean it. In your heart. This is not just an intellectual thing, not just an acknowledgement thing. Maybe it starts as that. But it MUST BECOME something you believe and feel to be true in your heart.
IF you can do this, then you are free from your bullshit, it no longer has to be an impediment to your present happiness or future growth.
Congratulations on the first day of the rest of your life.
Now. Full disclosure.
I believe everything I’ve just written. The ideas aren’t mine, they are very old ideas. I’ve laid them out in my own way, but they’re in a million self-help books, spiritual and non-spiritual.
I wrote them down this way FOR ME.
Because I hold so many things against myself. I’ve given these things COLOSSAL life-killing power over decades. And I still struggle with them. Every day.
I feel I’ve made important steps forward. I have begun with the acknowledgement of the truth that my holding on to these things has been, and clearly is still, sabotaging my happiness. I have spoken this struggle out loud to others I trust, even disclosed some of it to my entire church community in a video sermon. I am actively engaged in a process of radical self-acceptance, even as I recognize that I have far to go.
So, I’m still working on it.
I hope you are too. If so, tell me how.
And, if you’ve conquered it, if you’re surfing the waves of radical self-acceptance right now in your life? I bow to you and congratulate you! Tell me what has been the most helpful insight for you. Together, we can lift each other up.
I’m pretty sure that’s the highest thing we can do as humans.
Love each other to wholeness.
May it be so. Peace to you.