Focusing on the Present

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I was recently talking to a friend about relationships.

Yeah, I know, I really need another topic.  Basketball season starts in a month though, so either the posts will start to drop off a bit or they will start to have more references to the NBA.  But I digress…

In any case, this friend made an interesting comment.  She said that sometimes “we are in relationships to get the result we want, instead of just enjoying the person in the relationship.

This really struck me.

 

Initially when I heard this I kind of went, yeah – so?  I mean, you obviously need to be enjoying the person in the relationship or you wouldn’t be there.  But at the same time, don’t you have to have a goal in mind?  Don’t you need to see yourself as working towards the goal you want?  And don’t you need to have a vision of what “success” looks like in order for you to know if you are there?

I’ve often heard that people who are successful (in various aspects of life) are ones who often have spent time imagining and visualizing situations.  They *know* what they want, and can picture it in their heads.  It’s clear to them, and because of this they are able to look at where they are at any point in time and make decisions based on whether or not they believe those decisions will get them closer to that goal.

 

This approach has always made sense to me.

I think a reasonably clear vision of what you are striving towards combined with a “belief” that you can achieve that vision is key to almost anything in life.  I’ve writen about belief in the past, and just a few weeks ago wrote the following (for part of my site synopsis):

I believe in the power of positive thinking.  I’m not suggesting anyone can just “wish” something to happen, because life doesn’t work that way.  But positive thinking IS important, because you need to believe in something in order to put in effort.  Believing in something may not mean you will succeed, but it will give you the best chance.  A negative mindset makes you unable to facilitate positive change in your life, because when you don’t believe you can change, you have already failed.

 

Looking at those words, they still feel right to me.  And I do think they fit, even in the case of relationships.  However, maybe there is a degree of caution required here.

Let’s take this back to basketball for a moment (because really, EVERYTHING goes back to basketball).

I would love to play in the NBA.

Yeah, I suppose there may be a limited market for 6’2” inside players in their 40’s who have lost much of their athleticism.  Still, it *could* happen.  The upcoming mens league season could start, and it’s possible that I would see NBA scouts in the bleachers who are there to see me.

No?

Fine.  Crush my dreams then.

Success in basketball is relatively easy to measure.  You have two opposing teams, and at the end of a game the team with the most points has won.  Over the course of a season you have a win/loss record that shows how you have done during the year, and at the end of the season one team walks away with the title.

However that’s only one way to measure success.

There’s also another way to measure success, and it has nothing to do with the numbers, wins or losses.

How well do you play together?  How well do the people on the team get along?  How well do you handle losing together (because you aren’t going to win all the time)?  Are these people you are happy hanging out with after the game?

That’s a very different measure of success, and I would argue it’s the more important one.

 

Obviously relationships are different from basketball.  But if I go back to that opening line “we are in relationships to get the result we want, instead of just enjoying the person in the relationship” I think maybe a lot of the same concepts apply.

Yes, it’s still important to have goals.  It’s still important to have a vision of what you ultimately want, and what success looks like to you.  But ultimately the most important thing is probably how well do you get along?  How much do you enjoy being around each other, spending time together and sharing experiences?  Do you think about that other person, and look forward to seeing them?

The longer term vision is still important to understand, because you get into trouble if one person ultimately looking for marriage and the other person isn’t.  However once that’s been discussed, maybe it’s best to leave that in the future and just try to enjoy the present.  In fact, if you don’t it’s entirely possible that thinking too much about the future can damage the present.

Which would be a shame.  Because although we all presumably want a future, the present is all we really have.

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A Beautiful Love Story

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A few days ago I was talking to my sister.  Among the many topics we discussed was the death of my Grandmother; how near the end she thought my father was her husband (who had been gone for over 20 years), and how she told him she was glad to see him because she believed that he had come to take her with him.

Honestly, in some ways that doesn’t even seem real.  It seems like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel or something.

But it happened.

That moment was at once sad and beautiful for me; the thought that near the end, someone’s thoughts would be with their husband/wife, and that they would find peace in the prospect of being reunited with that person.   To me it spoke of a love and a bond that has survived for over 70 years.

And for many, that sort of love seems to be reserved for Hollywood movies and romance novels.

 

It got me wondering what their relationship was like when they were alive.

The truth is I have no idea.

My Grandfather has been gone for over 20 years; passing away while I was in university.  I didn’t really see them interact much, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I didn’t really pay attention to their interactions at the time.  This may sound terrible, but back then I’m not sure if I really saw my grandparents (or parents for that matter) as real people, I saw them primarily through the roles they played in my life.

However although they were my grandparents they were also real people, and real people have problems.

They have highs, and lows.  They have successes, and suffer disappointments.  Real people tend to get short with each other when they are feeling stressed, and will sometimes say things they later regret.

So I’ll guess they had problems, both individually and as a couple.  I’ll guess they had moments where they didn’t like each other very much.  They may even have had moments where they wondered if they made a mistake, and if there was something different, and better out there.

I don’t really know though.

All I know is, a few days before my grandfather died I sat at the table with them in their kitchen, and they talked about their life together.  I also know my grandmother was in pain when my grandfather passed away.  And I know she seemed happy at the prospect of being reunited with him when she was dying.

 

What is a beautiful love story?

What does it look like to you?

 

It is about meeting your prince/princess charming, who will “complete you”, always love you, never hurt you, and will make your life wonderful?

That isn’t real.  And is more about looking for someone to fill a hole inside you than it is about love.

Is it about meeting someone who will make your heart beat faster, where you can’t stop thinking about them and you want to be with them every waking moment?

That’s something that’s not sustainable, and is more about hormones and infatuation than it is about love.

Is it about traveling the world with someone, and having them shower you with gifts?

That’s about lifestyle, and money, and has little to do with love.

 

No, to me a beautiful love story looks a bit different from what you see in the movies.

To me a beautiful love story is about two people who share values and have a shared vision of the type of relationship they are looking for.  And as they learn each other, they realize that they want share that vision with each other.

It’s about two people who meet and (over time) are willing to let their defenses down with each other; and to be authentic and vulnerable with each other.  People who may still want the other person to like them, but see no need to pretend to be something they are not in order to achieve that.  People who are willing to share their insecurities with each other, and know that although their partner may always push them to try to improve and be the best version of themselves, they are also able to accept them for who they are.

It’s about two people who have individual hopes and dreams, but also have shared goals.  So they share the things they can while also supporting each other for the things they can’t share.  Where one person gets joy not just from having their own needs and wants met, but also by being there to support their partner.

 

Real life isn’t like the movies.  It’s often mundane, and day to day life is often routine.  It can also be messy, as sickness and tragedy can strike at any time.

So in my love story people aren’t always happy, and they understand they don’t need to be.  There are moments of joy, happiness, pain, disappointment, anger and sadness.  There are times when one person will have to support the other, times where a couple will disagree, and times when they aren’t sure if they are going to make it.

But in my love story, people realize love doesn’t just happen.  They realize it can be lost if it’s not nurtured.  They realize that not only are we responsible for making love and affection a part of our everyday interactions, but we are also responsible for maintaining our feelings of love towards our partner.

In my love story each person focuses on who their partner is, instead of worrying about who they aren’t.  And each person continues to choose the other, and continues to reach out to each other with love, each and ever day.

 

That’s my love story.

It may not be the stuff of Hollywood movies or romance novels.

But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

 

And if I can find that?

Then maybe I will have found someone who (hopefully a long time from now) will miss me when I am gone, and will find peace in the prospect of one day being reunited with me.

Because that type of love is a love that endures.

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Ruled By Fear

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When I was younger I wanted to be a physiotherapist.  Actually, before that I wanted to be a comic book artist, and before that I wanted to be an animal trainer (come on, you KNOW that would be awesome).  But in late high school I started thinking seriously about a career, and physio was what I wanted.

I was serious about it too.  In grade 12 I volunteered at a physio clinic in order to better understand what was involved, and as I saw it in action I knew it was something I would not only enjoy, but would also be good at.

So off I went to university, and in my first year I took all the prerequisites for Physiotherapy.  To get into Physio you need to apply to the faculty, and due to a limited number of spots available every year there was an interview process to get in.  I was confident I had a shot if I could get to the interview stage; but only the applicants with the top marks received interviews.

My marks were good, but not good enough.  And I tried for two years before coming to accept maybe physio wasn’t going to happen for me.

One day I was talking to someone about it, and they suggested I apply at different schools (out of town) as I would have a much better chance to get in.  That idea had never occurred to me, but even after hearing about it I never even tried.  I DID want to get into physio, but I was also an 18-19 year old kid who had never been away from home.  The reality was, I didn’t even consider trying to get into school somewhere else.  That wasn’t an option to me at the time.

Although I didn’t see it, my fear of being away from home, my friends and my family was greater than my desire to get into Physiotherapy school.

And so I didn’t even try.

I didn’t think of it as fear, but at some level that’s what it was.  I wanted something – I really did.  But I didn’t want it enough to make the take a chance, and to do what needed to be done to pursue that dream.

 

In life, we are often ruled by our fears.  We fear failure, and we fear rejection.  And these fears often end up shaping our behaviors and decisions.

 

Fear of Failure

When we fear failure, there are a few different ways it can manifest.

The most obvious one is removing ourselves from a situation, and not even trying.  When you don’t even try, it may be because you’ve convinced yourself in advance that you were going to fail – so why bother when you know how it will end up.

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Not trying may also be so you can convince yourself you didn’t fail.  I’m sure we’ve all seen and heard people say something like “I would have done X, if not for Y”.  Things like I would have been a professional musician if not for my mom and dad needing my help, or I would have been a doctor if I didn’t have kids, or any number of things.

When you don’t try it’s easy to lie to yourself and tell yourself these things.

Maybe it’s true and you would have been X; then again, maybe not.

You’ll never know.

The “what if” game is a wasted exercise, because no matter what you think may have happened – it didn’t.  You made the choices you made.  And life worked out the way it worked out.

 

Sometimes people do put in some effort, but fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  They don’t believe they can succeed, so they sabotage themselves by putting in minimal effort.

Then, when things don’t work out they tell themselves “see, I knew it wasn’t going to work out.”  Not accepting that the way they approached it was a significant contributor to how things ended up.

 

When this happens, one of the lies people tell themselves is if it didn’t work out it wasn’t meant to be.

Meant to be.

Fate.

To me that’s a cop out.  “It wasn’t meant to be” turns us into victims, and absolves us of any responsibility for the course of our life.

Things work out sometimes, and other times they don’t.  But if it’s all about “meant to be” then why are we here?  “Meant to be” turns us into nothing more than observers, it means we are passive participants in our own lives; and I can’t accept that.

Rather, I think life presents us with opportunities, and it’s up to us to determine what we want to do them.

Sometimes we pass those opportunities by, maybe because we are scared we will fail or we feel we aren’t ready.

Life doesn’t care if we’re scared – it doesn’t care if we think we’re ready.  Opportunities arise, and we need to decide what to do with them.

Sometimes we embrace those opportunities and give them our all.  And sometimes we still fail.

When that happens it can hurt like hell.  But if it’s something that mattered to us and something we believed in, at least we know that we’ve tried.

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Fear of Rejection

I’ve written a lot about authenticity in relationships, and about how important it is to just “be yourself”, whoever that is.  And I DO believe that being authentic and vulnerable in a relationship is key to both happiness and long term success.

But one thing I tend to gloss over when writing about authenticity is how hard that is to do sometimes.

See, we all have egos and want to be liked and accepted.  And rejection hurts.

 

Fear of rejection can lead us to hide parts of ourselves, or even to pretend to be something we are not.

We probably all do this to a degree, because we want to impress and we want to be accepted.  And in the early days of a relationship it’s somewhat understandable.

It’s a paradox, where we need to feel accepted in order to feel emotionally safe with the other person.  At the same time, we need to be vulnerable and let our partners in in order to feel accepted and safe.

So usually in the early days it can be a gradual process of sharing and revealing ourselves.  Ultimately we need to let the other person in though, as much as we can.

Similar to how not trying out of fear of failure can CAUSE us to fail, holding back out of fear of rejection will limit the closeness in our relationships and ensure we will never be accepted for who we are.  After all, our partner can’t ever fully accept us if we won’t let them truly see us.

When that happens, that’s not a failure of the relationship.  That’s a failure within ourselves.  Because often, when a fear of rejection is causing us to hold back (or try to be someone we’re not), it’s because we have not accepted ourselves.

 

Accepting ourselves can be very, very hard.

We all have damage.

We all have insecurities.

We’ve all been hurt.

When that happens it’s very easy to build walls around ourselves in order to “protect” ourselves from further hurt.  It doesn’t work though, because our fears just hold us back from the life we really want.

 

Facing our fears is hard.

Letting go is hard.

Embracing life and opportunities is hard.

And being vulnerable and authentic is hard.

Each of these things comes at a cost, but the cost of not doing so is even higher.

 

We all have fears, of failure and of rejection.  You have them, and I have them.  And we all need to address them in the way that seems right for us.

For me, I don’t want to let fear hold me back.  When life presents me with opportunities, I don’t want my fears to cause me to pass them by.  If it’s something I believe in, I want to embrace it.  I want to be the authentic me, and take a chance.

I may be hurt.

I may fail.

But whether I succeed or fail at something, for the things that matter I want to be able to face the mirror at the end of the day and tell myself I gave it my all.

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How The Primal Brain Damages Relationships

Before I became a parent, I had a vision of the type of parent I wanted to be.

I thought I would be someone who would talk “to” his kids –not down to them.

I would treat them like “people”, with kindness and respect.  They were small people, sure; but they were still people.

Because of this I figured I wouldn’t need to raise my voice or yell, and I definitely wouldn’t ever do anything like spank them.  Instead, I would be patient.  I would explain things to them, and use reason when dealing with them.

Ha.

Man was I ever naive.

Nice idea in theory, but in practice?  It doesn’t necessarily work.

 

See, kids are still learning how to interact with the world around them, and they are just learning about their own emotions.

Sometimes kids (mine included) will have tantrums.  And experience has shown me that during time of high emotion (such as during the heat of a tantrum) there is no reasoning.  There is no logic.

In those moments, they are simply REACTING, and are completely out of control.

After the moment has passed and they have calmed down, THEN I can talk to them.  That is when they will be able to actually hear me, and reason will kinda/sorta/maybe work.

In a heightened emotional state though, reason has no chance.

 

 

I see this a lot in life.

Times where people do things and make choices that leave me dumbfounded.  Often I’m left wondering “what the hell are they thinking?”

And that’s just it.

Sometimes people aren’t thinking.

Sometimes people WILL made decisions that are absolutely TERRIBLE, and have long term ramifications that seem so obvious I can’t understand HOW people could possibly make the decisions they do.

But maybe in those moments people aren’t actually thinking.  Maybe in those moments they are just reacting, and aren’t actually CAPABLE of understanding the implications of their choices.

 

The Primal Brain

Now, a bit of a disclaimer here.  Usually my posts have a fair bit of research to them, and I have facts to support what I’m saying.

For this one, I’m kinda flying by the seat of my pants and throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.  So hopefully this makes sense to someone other than me.  Maybe there is data to back it up, maybe not; but it still “feels” right to me.

I first started thinking about this stuff when reading up on anxiety, and the fight or flight response.

The fight or flight response is something we’ve all probably experienced at one point in time or another.  It occurs when you are in a situation that you feel threatened, or uneasy, and it’s largely a physiological response.  Biology takes over, and (as the name implies) a person gets ready to either stand and fight or run away.  It’s a survival mechanism that is built into our DNA.

I’ve seen this described as being part of the primal, lizard, or reptilian brain.  And it’s described as follows (from brainupfl.org):

Our most primitive piece of brain anatomy is responsible for basic functions (i.e. breathing, heatbeat) and primal instincts (i.e. survival, dominance, mating).

 

Think about this for a moment:

Survival, dominance, mating.

All of these things are kind of important, and they are also things that often get people in a TON of trouble!!!

In each of these areas, you hear stories where people sometimes do things that they never believed they were capable of – sometimes for good, but usually for bad.  And when these things happen, those who know them look at these people and struggle with reconciling the action with the person.

Abuse, affairs, murder even.  The term “crimes of passion” is used to describe actions someone took because of a strong sudden impulse, but was not premeditated.

In these cases, I think the primal brain is at work.

To be clear, I don’t think the idea of people reacting to the primal brain means they aren’t responsible for their choices.  They still are – ALWAYS.

But this does highlight the importance of people being more responsible for their own emotional state (more on this below…).

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I think this idea of the primal brain and certain instinctual behaviors being able to override logic and reason (and the ability to think through consequences) is supported by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy is an idea about human motivation and personal growth.  In it he breaks down different levels of needs, with the fundamental ones at the bottom and the “higher level” needs at the top.  One of the primary ideas is that we need to be in a position where our lower level needs are being met before we can move up the hierarchy to the higher level needs.

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Taking a look at the bottom level (or basic needs) you have things needed for survival, followed by a need for safety and security.  And although it’s not depicted on the chart I have here, often sexual instinct is seen as a need that sits at the level of basic needs.

Psychological needs such as love and intimacy are next, which means they can’t be met until our physiological and safety needs are met.

This makes a ton of sense.

Love and intimacy is based on trust, and when issues occur in relationships that break down trust usually the sense of intimacy soon breaks down as well.

 

Coping Mechanisms

Any regular readers will know that I talk a lot about coping mechanisms.

Over the past few years I’ve come to believe that the coping mechanisms each individual brings to the table are probably the most important things that contribute to the success and longevity of the relationship.

So what are coping mechanisms?

Well, here’s my take on it…

Our coping mechanisms are the default behaviors we exhibit when confronted with threat or conflict.  These behaviors are our automatic responses, and are probably a combination of nature and nurture.  Although there may be an inherent component to them, they are also learned behaviors.

Going back the Fight or Flight response, I think everyone’s coping mechanisms fall someone on a spectrum, where we have aggression and anger (fight) on one side of the scale, and we have withdrawing or shutting down (flight) on the other end of the spectrum.

BOTH of these approaches are TERRIBLE for both individual health and for relationships.

The way I see it, both extremes of fight and flight are responses of the primal brain.  In both scenarios, someone is simply reacting to a situation, and during those moments they are incapable of reason, logic, or thinking of consequences.

But these responses aren’t either/or, they sit on a spectrum.

So a goal we should ALL have is to work on our coping mechanisms.  We should work on regaining control, and not letting our primal brain take over.

If we are someone who reacts with anger when things go wrong, we need to learn to control that.  If we are someone who shuts down and withdraws when times are hard, we need to learn to work with other people and stop retreating into ourselves.

 

As kids, we are learning the world around us and learning to manage our feelings and emotions.  And sadly, some of us don’t really learn that very well.

But the key word here is learn.

Shutting down and withdrawing, or becoming aggressive and angry in the face of perceived threat or challenge is never the answer.  We should always strive to find a way to push back the primal brain and respond with reason.  Because caring, compassion and empathy are all higher level functions; and they require us to be able to stay in control

Our coping mechanisms, no matter how broken, can always be improved.

And in many cases our very relationships depend on it.

The Identity Gap

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Identity is a big topic for me in my writing.  Who are you?  Who am I?  How well do we really understand ourselves as a person, and perhaps more importantly, how well do we accept ourselves?

Along this lines, one idea I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while is the idea of an “identity gap”.

To me, an identity gap is the gap between who we ARE and who we WANT TO BE.

 

Related to my post on fantasy, we all have an idealized version of self; this picture of who we wish we were, and how we wish our life looked.  This ideal is related to our dreams, and may be influenced by the things we see around us or the expectations that were placed on us growing up.

 

However this is just an ideal, and I don’t think ANYONE is their idealized version of “self”.  And for that matter, I don’t think anyone ever achieves it.

This concept of an identity gap has huge implications for the level of happiness a person has in their life.  And I think this happiness is directly related to three questions:

  1. How big is the gap between who you want to be and who you are?
  2. Do you accept that your idealized version of self is simply an ideal, and not reality?
  3. What are you doing to improve yourself and close the gap between who you are and who you want to be?

 

What is your Ideal Self?

This is a tough question to answer.  But I guess another way of look at it is, when you were a teenager who did you think you would be?  What did you think it actually meant to be an adult?

This is an area where man oh man, I think a lot of us screw up something fierce.

On one hand, we have all these adults all around us modelling what life as an adult looks like.  So you would think we would actually learn something from that.

On the other hand, we have tv shows, and advertising telling us how amazing we are, and how special we are, and how we “deserve the best”.

I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that even when all the evidence around us is telling us life as an adult is pretty mundane, there’s also a part of that expects life to look like a beer commercial.

 

I don’t think many teenagers/college students take a look at their parents and say “yup, that’s who I’m going to be when I grow up”.

For some reason we think we are different, and special, so of course our life will be different.  We will set goals, and achieve all of our wildest dreams.

 

A few posts back used a line I found:

What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.

That line seems simple at first, but it’s also one of the most profound things I’ve ever read.

How things are “supposed to be”.

What life is “supposed” to look like.

What “love” is supposed to look like.

Who we are “supposed” to be.

 

I’m reminder of a scene from movie Boyhood.  It’s kind of a bizarre film, as it doesn’t really follow a traditional mold; but it’s also really powerful.  It was filmed over 12 years, and during the film you actually see the characters age and grow up.

In it Patricia Arquette starts out as a young mother with little education.  And during the 12 years of the film her children grow up, she is married and divorced twice, and gains an education and becomes a college professor (I think).

Late in the film there’s a scene where her son is leaving for college and she breaks down.  She reflects on all the things that have happened in her life, all the things she has done and accomplished.  And then she says:

I just thought there would be more.

 

I just thought there would be more.

Life hasn’t matched up to the picture she had in her head.  There was an identity gap, and when comparing reality to ideal, life ended up being a disappointment.

 

I think this happens often.

For some reason we expect “more”.  And real life isn’t able to measure up.

In our society right now, depression rates are up.  Anxiety rates are up.  People talk about happiness as if it’s this magical thing that they can achieve.  This goal in life that will make everything better.

So how do we make this better?

 

An Ideal is a Dream

I think one of the first things we need to do is accept that our ideal is simply something to strive towards, and not something we are likely to ever achieve.

And that’s alright.

We are all just “regular” people.  We aren’t any better than anyone else, and we do not deserve special treatment.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have goals – because we should.  We need them, as goals give us something to strive towards.

Instead of just looking at our imaginary end state, we need to be able to set small milestones or goals, and celebrate the little successes we have along the way.

Because sometimes our ideal isn’t actually realistic.

So we shouldn’t measure our success in life against it’s end state.  We need to be able to look at where we are now, and appreciate it each and every day.

 

How are you Trying to Improve?

Let’s say I want to make a fence.  What do I need to do?

Does it help me to wake up everyday, look in my yard and think “man, I wish I had a fence”?

Ummm, no so much.

How about if I buy some wood and some screws, and put them in my yard and just leave them there?

I suppose that gets me a bit closer, but again, it’s not very helpful.

 

Instead, a few things need to happen.

  • First I need to understand where I am today.
  • Next I need to understand where I want to be.
  • Then I need a plan to get from point A to point B.
  • Lastly (and perhaps most importantly) I need initiative. I need to be willing to do something about it.

 

So everything starts with accepting yourself for who you are TODAY.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, good sides and bad sides.  And until we accept ourselves for who we are today (warts and all), we can never move forward or improve.  We are never able to live in the present moment, and able to appreciate the life we DO have.

When people are focused on their identity gap, they are focused on who they are not instead of who they are. And when THAT is the focus?  If someone is focused on what they are missing or who they are not, I don’t think they will ever be happy.  Because it doesn’t matter how much you improve, you can always get better.  And people who are focused on what they are not are unable to live in the moment and appreciate the things they DO have.

So any improvements need to first start with self acceptance.

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Once you have accepted who you are today, you are now in a position to better understand the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Ironically, once you have accepted yourself it may not matter as much.

Because although we can always be “more”, when we have accepted ourselves we know we are “enough”.

When Roots Run Deep

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One of my earliest memories of moving out from my parents and into my own place is of buying a plant.

I’m not sure if it was actually my first plant (as people may have given me some previously), but it was the first one that I bought.  I had stopped at the mall on the way home from school, and there were some tables set up with a couple of old ladies selling things as part of some church fund raiser.

I was initially drawn to the table for the baking (because really, who doesn’t love cookies), but while there I also bought a small fig tree.

When I bought the plant, it was a twig with a few leaves on it.  I loved that little tree, and it came to represent a change in my apartment.  This little touch of green added some life to my apartment, and as I changed apartments a few times over the next few years it was one of my constants.  It continued to thrive and grow, eventually hitting around 4 or 5 feet tall.

Wherever I was, this tree helped me feel that my apartment wasn’t just a little concrete box that I rented.  Instead, it was my home.

 

 

I live in a diverse climate with four distinct seasons.  Our summers tend to be sunny and hot.  Our winters on the other hand, well, they’re pretty damned cold.

Unfortunately one of my many moves in those years happened during winter; and even the trip from apartment to moving vehicle back to new apartment is not kind on plants.

Over the next few days my fig tree dropped all of its leaves, until there was nothing left but branches.  And then, even they started to wither and die.

I was pretty upset.  Most things to me are just that – “things”, and easily replaceable.  But this tree had come to mean more.

My roommate told me it was dead and said I should just throw it out.  But for some reason I didn’t (I’m still not sure why, likely just stubbornness on my part).  I continued to water it, and as branches died I trimmed them down.

Then one day I saw green again.

The tree as it was had died.  It was gone, and wasn’t coming back.  But from the roots a small shoot had come up.

Above ground the tree had died.  But the roots were still alive, and were strong enough to support new life.

 

 

I believe this happens in relationships all the time.

Long term relationships are difficult for a number of reasons, but hedonic adaptation is probably the biggest killer of all.  It’s human nature for the good in our lives to become our new normal, and when this happens we start taking the good for granted and instead start seeing the flaws.

If you think of the relationship as a living entity (such as a tree), it’s very common for people to stop putting in the effort that nurtures growth.  We put all this effort into building the relationship, but once we actually have it we feel safe, and we stop putting the effort in.

Instead we neglect the relationship and put our energies into other things.  The kids, our jobs, our hobbies, our friends, maintaining a household.  All these things are important, and “have to be done”, and with a crunch on time our relationships are the most common casualty.

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We stop putting in effort.  Then one day we find ourselves both surprised and hurt to find that our relationship has “died”.

The passion is gone.

The love is gone.

The simple enjoyment of being around each other is gone.

We find ourselves asking, is this all there is?  Is this what marriage really looks like?

Some resign themselves to this, believing this is just what happens over time.  Others withdraw even further into individual pursuits, not realizing they are just making things worse and laying a foundation for potential affairs (on one or both sides).  Others accept that things the relationship has run its course, and split up.

 

I don’t believe any of those options ever has to be the outcome of a struggling relationship.  Loveless relationships aren’t just what happens over time.  You should always be able to find enjoyment and joy at continuing to build your relationship with your partner.  No matter how things are, they can always be improved.

 

 

My old fig tree IS dead.  It’s gone.

But I was able to bring it back to life (In fact, that’s a picture of it at the top).

Because under the surface the roots were still alive, and from those roots a new tree has grown.

This new tree is not the same as the old one, and that’s alright.

It may not be the same, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

It’s been over 15 years since my fig tree “died”, but the new one is vibrant and thriving.

 

 

When relationships “fail”, rebuilding it is often the hardest choice.

Because in order to rebuild, you need to believe that it can be beautiful again.  And depending on what you’ve been through, that can be very hard to do.  It becomes almost impossible however, if you are unable to let go of your visions of how it used to be.

Truly, it will never be the same.

But it doesn’t have to be.

The question is, is there still life in the roots of the relationship?  Do both people still care, and are they willing to put in effort?

If so, a new relationships can be built.

 

When a couple is able to put aside hurt, ego, and still choose each other, the new relationship they build can be even stronger than the one they had before.

 

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Doing the “Right Thing”

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A little while back someone at my work was fired for theft.  I’m sure this sort of thing happens all the time everywhere in the world, but I was still a bit shocked by it.  I work for a pretty good company (benefits, wages, environment), so I didn’t understand why someone would put their job at risk; especially when this guy lost his job over theft of an item worth around $25.  I mean, really?

I was talking this over with one of my co-workers, telling her I didn’t understand why someone would do it, especially when this will now be attached to his employment record and can impact his future.  My co-workers response was that this guy simply figured he wouldn’t get caught.

 

The Fable of Gyges Ring

This situation made me think of The Fable of Gyges Ring, from Plato’s Republic.  Just to be clear, I don’t normally go around reading things like Plato.  I HAD to read it for school years ago (but have to admit it was actually pretty good).  The Republic presents Plato’s ideas on justice and morality, and the part I remember the most is the fable of Gyges Ring.

In this story a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible and somehow this invisibility means the shepherd can take actions without consequences.  Ummm, invisibility means no consequences?  That seems like a bit of a stretch (and perhaps inspiration for Tolkien).  But hey, the story was written over 2000 years ago so I guess we’ll have to cut it some slack.

Anyhow, with his newfound power the shepherd seduces the queen, kills the king and takes over the kingdom (because of course, that’s what we would all do if there were no consequences, right?)

Now here’s the interesting part.  In discussing this tale, Plato theorized that if two of these rings existed, and one was found by a “just” man and the other by an unjust man, the ability to do what he wanted without consequence would cause the just man to become corrupted.

His suggestion was, it’s really only consequences that keep us in line and at our core we are all unjust.

 

What is Justice?

Are we inherently unjust?  And what exactly does that even mean?

Merriam Webster defines justice as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals”.

I’ll acknowledge that sometimes there is a disconnect between law and justice, but for the moment let’s accept that law is an attempt at placing rules around what is “right” or “moral”, and setting consequences for the violation of those rules.

Based on that, is Plato right?  Is it really only the threat of consequences that keeps us in line and makes us act in a moral way?

Without consequences will people really just do whatever they want?

 

Learning Right From Wrong

In some ways I think Plato was right.  After all, I do think we are born selfish.  If you think about it, as infants all we understand is our own needs and other people are basically vehicles for this need fulfillment.

As a parent, my experience has been that right and wrong needs to be taught.

Children initially don’t understand why they can’t just do what they want, or take something they want.  They need to learn about boundaries, and ownership.  They need to learn the concept of exchange.  Hell, even empathy seems to be something that is largely learned.

I may wish my children would just “understand” right and wrong, but they don’t.  And while learning this, consequences are a practical way of helping them understand why they need to do the right thing.

Eventually I think people have to get to a point where we are no longer doing something to avoid consequences.  Instead, they need to do something because they have come to believe it’s the right thing to do.

There’s a distinction between these two things (avoiding consequences vs. doing what we believe is right); and although it may seem subtle I believe it’s extremely important.

When we are doing something because we believe it’s the right thing to do, we have internalized that value.  It has become part of our belief set.

At that point, the consequences from other people for violating that value aren’t important anymore.  Because overriding any fear of what other people will think is the betrayal of our own core valuesThe disappointment in ourselves far outweighs any concern about being caught.

After all, we can hide things from others – but not from ourselves.

 

Integrity

Which brings me to one of my favorite topics – integrity.

Integrity is all about how we live our lives.  It’s about whether we actually live the values that we profess.

It’s really easy to SAY things.  But to walk the talk, and to do it consistently?  That’s a lot harder.

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Now, I’m not trying to push my sense of morality on anyone here.

I readily acknowledge no one is perfect.  We all have a darker side to us.  We all have moments that we do things we later regret.  We are all sometimes petty, selfish, stupid, ignorant – whatever.

Having integrity doesn’t mean you never do those things.  Instead, it’s about how frequently do we stick to our values, and how badly do we stray from them when we don’t.

And because we know we ARE going to screw up sometimes, an important element of integrity is accountability.  When we screw up (and yes, it’s a WHEN and not an IF) how do we handle it?  Do we try to hide it?  Do we blame?  Justify?  Or do we own it, accept any consequences from our actions and then try to use the moment as an opportunity for growth?

 

Shared Values

In relationships, it’s important to find someone with whom you share similar values.  And I think a mistake people often make is they don’t actually get to know who their partner really is.  Instead, they just assume their partner shares a lot of the same beliefs.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t black and white and right and wrong can at times be subjective.  So when it comes to core values, simply assuming someone shares them can often lead to disappointment.

Here’s a little rule of thumb I have.  If someone does something “bad”, and you are shocked because it seems so out of character for them – that’s probably a good thing.  It means they either don’t do things like that often or they just rarely get caught (I’m a glass is half full kind of guy, so I’ll take it to mean they don’t do things like that very often).

If they do something and you find yourself going “sigh, again?”, then maybe that’s just who they are (or more accurately who they CHOOSE to be).  And in that case, you’ve got to ask yourself if that’s a person you really want to be with.

Of course, WHAT they do is also pretty significant.

If someone is “mostly” awesome, but oh yeah they also happen to be a serial killer?  That MAY be a problem for you.

Or maybe not, after all different people have their own boundaries on what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Murderer/sex offender/drug dealer are fairly universally accepted as “deal breakers” for relationships.

For many, finding out their partner is an adulterer/cheater is also a deal breaker (though many who believe that find things are a bit more murky than expected when actually faced with that situation).

 

To me, affairs show a complete lack of integrity.  I see them as the ultimate selfish act, as they are all about choosing “me” at the expense of “we”.

I understand the conditions that lead to affairs.  I understand when a couple is struggling, when someone feels unhappy in their relationship and/or with themselves.  I understand that having other people show interest in you feels good, and when in a bad spot mentally/emotionally people want more of that feeling.  I understand the dopamine rush that comes with new relationships, and the sense of freedom that comes with being able to do what you want, and not have to worry about the restrictions that come with relationships.

When you hear stories of people who have affairs, there are a lot of things they are feeling and a lot of reasons they do what they do.  And I think I kinda/sorta get that.

Even still, I KNOW I would never have an affair (even if I had Gyges ring allowing me to escape consequences).

Because if you truly care about and respect the person you are with, an affair is completely disrespectful to that person.  So I would NEVER do that to someone else.

And beyond that what I would be doing to someone else, I simply think that it’s wrong.  And I know I could never live with ME if I were to do that.

 

Being You

I guess that’s the point of doing the right thing.  It’s not about someone else.  It’s not about consequences, and what other people would think if they found out.

It’s about you.

It’s about what you truly believe, and what beliefs you are willing to stand up for.

In the past while I’ve written about being authentic, and being true to yourself.  Well, integrity and doing the right thing is a huge part of that.

Not saying one thing, yet doing another.  Not hiding parts of yourself and presenting a different version of yourself to different audiences.  Not denying fault, blaming or rationalizing your actions when you screw up.

But knowing who you are, and owning your choices and actions.  Being who you are in all aspects of your life, and living a life you believe in.

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