In 2012 a musician Joshua Hyslop released an album, Where The Mountain Meets The Valley. Track 6 is “The Mountain.” It contains a lyric that serves as the title of today’s episode.
When I first heard it I wrote that phrase down. Often I’d remember it.
I’d consider the long list of things I set out to do as a young man. And those things I’d still like to get done now that I’m old. It’s different now. Not at all like it was when I was 20 and my ambitions seemed more fantastic.
When Joshua’s latest record was released, on September 11, 2020, I went back to listen to other music he’d produced, including this song, The Mountain. I hadn’t thought of the phrase in a long while, but there it was marching its way to the front of my mind. Especially during early morning walks, I’d think about it.
Then, a few days ago, on September 29th my father turned 97. I thought about his life and the years he’s experienced since 1923, the year he was born. For his birthday I decided to record a sort of year-by-year historical commentary from 1923 up to the present. It wound up being almost an hour-long, but the last few minutes being a son’s message to his dad. I’m blessed that both my parents are still alive and doing well, living in a house by themselves. My mom is 88.
My folks have enjoyed long lives. They’re still enjoying life. They’re blessed. They won’t likely reach the end before they’re done – the blessing of living a long life. But you can never be sure. Time – our time – is tenuous at best. Which is why the admonition “make the most of it” is so common. But also why it’s become so trite and ignored.
2 Peter 3:4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.”
It’s the trap we all step into. The trap of thinking we’ll have tomorrow. Or this afternoon. Or tonight. Why? Because that’s how it’s always been for us. We had yesterday. Now we have today. So we’re fooled into thinking – believing – we’ll have tomorrow.
I’m not trying to be a downer or be morose.
Today’s show focuses on 5 words:
Also, here’s an old episode you may have missed that speaks to one aspect of today’s topic: the process.
It’s a few minutes past 5 o’clock. In the morning.
The sky is light thanks to an almost full moon. The city lights help, too. When you live in the city the sky isn’t nearly as dark as it is out in the country.
I walk. Quite a lot.
You’d think I’d look like it, but you’d be wrong.
No matter. I walk 4 to 6 miles every morning. Often before the sun is up. But not as often as I did before this pandemic. 3 am and 4 am were favorite times back before life was disrupted by COVID 19. I’m not sure why that changed my readiness to hit the streets in the middle of the night, but it did. I suppose I figured people were more uneasy so I just haven’t wanted to risk it.
Part of my walking routine involves traipsing through a field near a densely wooded stretch filled with all sorts of critters. I’ve seen a coyote-type creature a few times. And a cat of some sort. Not the domestic kind either. But I’m not a wildlife expert. You won’t ever see my on reality TV…especially one of those survivor type shows. Unless somebody produces one of those as a comedy where morons are dropped into the middle of nowhere so the audience can laugh maniacally at them.
Mostly, in this stretch of trees are cottontail rabbits. I attribute this to the reproductive reputations earned by rabbits. But I’m not complaining ’cause I rather love them. I just wish they’d stick around a bit longer.
The path I walk is about 15 to 20 yards from the tree line of the wooded area. By the time I get within 30 yards or so of them, they quickly scamper into the woods. You can see a handful of little holes that serve as their escape routes. Each hole has a nicely worn pathway as proof that they frequent these routes to dart in and out of the woods. I bent down and took the picture shown below. To give you some scale, that opening is about 10 inches wide. It’s not very big. What you don’t see is the density of the wall of growth where this opening exists.
On a typical morning, I’ll spot 6 to 10 rabbits out foraging for food outside the woods, within 5 to 10 feet of their wooded home. They don’t venture out too far. I’m supposing it’s because of that coyote-type creature and the cat. But I’m sure there are other predators who’d love nothing more than a rabbit for breakfast, lunch or supper.
That’s why there is no rabbit in that photograph. The little buggers are really camera shy. They’re the perfect creature for zoom lens photography, but all I have is my phone.
In 1925 Hugh Harman drew a mouse around a photograph taken by Walt Disney. Walt was inspired by this tame mouse near his desk at Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City, Missouri. Mortimer Mouse was the name Disney gave the mouse until his wife, Lillian, talked him into changing it to the name we all know. Mickey Mouse.
From that cartoon began the modern small animal stories told in moving pictures. But the stories existed long before that.
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. Like rabbits. Or other animals.
Enter Aesop, a Greek storyteller credited with a number of fables. The timeframe? Around 564 BC is the date ascribed to his death. It’s up for dispute whether there was a real person Aesop behind the fables. Somebody crafted the stories though. He was reputed to be a slave who passed from various owners until he was eventually freed. History or legend has it that he was executed by being thrown from a cliff after false charges were leveled against him because he had insulted powerful people.
No matter. Attributing human-like qualities to animals in his fables happened long before Walt ever imagined a mouse.
Frogs. Turtles. Birds. Foxes. I suppose somebody has anthropomorphized just about everything. Especially by Hollywood. I’m thinking of Ice Age, Bugs, The Secret Life of Pets and Toy Story. In Toy Story you don’t even need a living creature. Toys will do. No big shock, Frosty The Snowman is a longtime favorite of mine!
I love the modern animated movies produced by Pixar and Illumination Entertainment (they did the Despicable Me series and The Secret Life of Pets). The voice acting is great. And the music is, too. I mean when Bill Withers start singing, A Lovely Day, at the end of The Secret Life of Pets – you know these folks know their stuff. And when Randy Newman starts to sing during the many animated films he’s produced music for…well, it’s hard to imagine it getting any better.
Growing up, the Warner Brothers’ cartoons with Bugs Bunny were my favorites. I’m not happy that the violence in those is being criticized by the current ninnie culture.
Yosemite Sam with the stupid dragon is another favorite.
Today’s title is a quote from Piglet of Winnie The Pooh fame. ” I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?”
I think of that quote whenever I encounter some hidden habitat of critters. Like the little escape path in the photo. It’s easy to imagine these animals as they encounter humans pretty regularly. I mean, there are houses all along the backside of these woods. There’s an open pasture on the other side where people walk. Some with their pet dogs.
I’d imagine these rabbits encounter lots of people every single day. Is it exciting every single time? Would seem so. Exciting enough that they run away, fearful we’ll do them harm. That seems like too much excitement in the wrong direction though. But maybe not. I’m reminded of a passage written by the late Hunter S. Thompson.
“People who claim to know jackrabbits will tell you they are primarily motivated by Fear, Stupidity, and Craziness. But I have spent enough time in jack rabbit country to know that most of them lead pretty dull lives; they are bored with their daily routines: eat, (a’hem, reproduce), sleep, hop around a bush now and then….No wonder some of them drift over the line into cheap thrills once in a while; there has to be a powerful adrenalin rush in crouching by the side of a road, waiting for the next set of headlights to come along, then streaking out of the bushes with split-second timing and making it across to the other side just inches in front of the speeding front wheels.” ― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
I’m no rabbit expert. I don’t know how many different breeds of rabbits there are. These rabbits I encounter every day are brown with whitetails – cottontails. I won’t insult them by saying they’re primarily motivated by fear, stupidity, and craziness. Fear? Sure. Aren’t we all? Well, come to think of it, Hunter could have easily been writing about people. Stupidity and craziness seem to be the order of the day during this pandemic of 2020. Likely all other times, too.
If you’ve driven in the country much you’ve experienced what Hunter wrote about. When I first read it – more than a century ago – I laughed out loud because of how true it seemed. I had always wondered why – on a lonely dirt road where probably no more than six times a truck or car would pass – I’d always encounter some darting rabbit crossing the road right in front of me. Hunter gave me the answer. Excitement.
“I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?”
I find myself getting excited in the morning to spot the rabbits, if only for moments. Catching them outside their micro-forest is a pretty good way to start a day. By the time I arrive near their home I’ve been walking 30 minutes or more. I’m only disappointed if somebody – usually somebody with dogs – has already passed by coming from the other direction. I know the rabbits won’t be out. They’ll have already scampered back into the brush for safety. I hate it when that happens. Thankfully, due to my early morning schedule, it doesn’t happen often, but once is too much. My disappointment is palatable when it does. It ruins the entire walk for me. Well, that an not finding any baseballs. But I love the rabbits way more than the baseballs.
For new listeners, part of my walking route involves two baseball fields. As I walk the perimeter of the fields I find baseballs. Some days I don’t find any. On my record-setting day, I found 18. I now have a pretty big bag of them. Guestimation? Around 300.
Pretty exciting stuff, huh? 😀
My morning rabbits are likely pretty excited to find enough food for the morning. When I get too wrapped up worrying about the future I think about them…living in the moment. Every morning when I encounter them I sorta hope that I’m the most exciting thing that happens to them because I’m not a threat to them. But rabbits are skittish for good reason. They have plenty of enemies. Predators. They have no way of knowing if I mean them harm or not. Sometimes I’m saddened by that, but I realize as critters of the field and woods, it’s necessary. Their very lives depend on it.
I surmise that the rabbits don’t spend any time thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” If anything, I’d imagine them thinking, “I sure hope nothing exciting happens today.” But what do I know? Maybe rabbits are like us. Maybe some of them are thrill-seekers while others are contented to sit still as often and as long as possible.
We’re now into August. This begins month 6 of this global pandemic if you figure it began at the start of March. That’s part of the context of this episode and the question, “I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?”
It’s common for any of us to lose track of the day of the week during this pandemic. Practically everybody I know admits to having some Groundhog Day (the movie) moments where we feel like every day is identical to the prior day. As for excitement, I recall getting excited in month one or this ordeal when I found toilet paper and power towels. And even more excited when I found Clorox Wipes! I’ve still yet to score hand sanitizer. That might just be too much excitement for me.
I started thinking of some exciting moments I’ve had in the last 5 months. The list will likely be depressing, but I’m betting you can relate.
• I watched the entire series, from beginning to end, of Boston Legal. I was excited to begin it. Sad when it ended.
• I get excited to run the dishwasher, do laundry and vacuum. An empty sink provides me a moment of euphoria.
• Keep the pool clear is exciting. Especially after a night wind has blow leaves into it.
• I bought a $7 knife at Walmart to cut vegetables with. Very exciting!
• Finding a new recipe for ground beef, or potatoes, or sausage, or pasta – that’ll elevate my heart-rate.
• Discovering new music, or getting a new release from a favorite artist.
• Scoring Zatarain’s New Orleans Style Original Red Beans and Rice in the grocery store always feels like I’ve found a hidden treasure.
• During one 3-week period when pasta was impossible to find, I scored some whole wheat pasta buried back in a shelf and felt like I had stumbled onto something illegal.
• Finding at least 1 baseball on my morning walk. Finding more adds to the thrill.
• Seeing the rabbits every morning may be as good as it gets for me these days. I’m horribly disappointed if somebody or something has scared them before I get there. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen very often. I make sure I’m early.
Back some time ago I did an episode where I talked about simple things. It was episode 5045 entitled, Many Thieves. I mentioned how much I loved one bowl, one fork and one cup. Three items that wouldn’t likely cost more than $15 total. But they bring me joy. Sure, I could lean toward excitement about them because if I didn’t have them, life wouldn’t be quite the same.
Right about now you’re thinking, “How pathetic!” 😀
But no matter, I was excited about that episode – recorded October 19, 2019. I’m still sorta excited about it, but we’ve proven I’m fairly easily excited. 😉
the state of being emotionally aroused and worked up
the feeling of lively and cheerful joy
something that agitates and arouses
disturbance usually in protest
No, I don’t mean excitement like that last definition – disturbance usually in protest. We’ve seen lots of that in the past few months. I’m not saying it’s not properly founded or directed. It’s just not what I’m talking about today.
I’m not terribly excitable. Never have been.
When I was growing up people accused me of being stoic. Sober. Serious. I guess mostly I was. And still am.
I don’t remember getting excited too often. Truth is, I don’t recall ever being as excited as lots of the kids around me. So I’m the worst person I know to ask such a question as I’m asking today.
“I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?”
But I’m not the worst person to ask such a question if we broaden our definition of the term “exciting.” In fact, let’s stick with that first definition and go no further – the state of being emotionally aroused. It’s not cheerful or joyful. The rabbits aren’t excited in a good way by my presence. I wish they were, but they’re afraid.
Emotional arousal can include lots of things. Like crying. Or sadness. Or sympathy.
July was bad month for lots of people. Every month is, I suppose. But I knew too many people who lost family members in July. A young man killed in a tragic car accident. A husband. A father. An older man. Suddenly stricken by a heart attack. A husband. A father. A grandfather. A 40-something man. A husband, father and son. As I was preparing today’s show I realized the list of people who died last month was a long list. Longer than usual.
I was emotionally aroused by too many deaths in July. Too many children lost a parent. Too many parents lost a child. Too many spouses lost their mates. Too many siblings lost a brother or sister. Death often creates that kind of excitement, but we don’t use that language to describe it. Even though few things arouse our emotions like losing somebody we love.
“If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day…you do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
Those are all things I’d categorize as excitement. It’s not the stuff of The Secret Life of Pets. Or Ice Age. Or even the short burst of excitement I provide the cottontails every day. But it’s human. Remarkably human. And real.
I’m fairly certain that I’ve done what Jimmy V urged people to do. Maybe not every single day, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of a day where I didn’t do all 3. They’re not hard and they constitute all the excitement I could ever want.
Have you seen that video of the firemen who take the grate off the drainage ditch to rescue the little ducklings who fell in? Mom and one lucky duckling that didn’t fall into the drain are anxiously watching as the firemen rescue the others. Mom isn’t going to leave until they’re all safely back beside her. I watch wondering what she’s feeling. Wondering if there might be something more than animal instincts happening. Wondering if she knows how many there are. I suspect I’d like to think she’s got more human qualities than she truly does. But even if she doesn’t – she knows her young are in danger and she’s going to wait to retrieve them. I watch them scamper to get as close to her as possible it’s evident they know she’s there to protect them. That’s enough excitement I suppose. Falling into a drainage ditch is the kind of excitement they could all do without. Especially momma duck.
Nobody craves the kind of excitement that buckles your knees. That’s too much sorrow and sadness. Too much loss. Too much crying.
I’m sitting here inside The Yellow Studio late one night – wide awake, as I am wont to be around 3 am or so – and I’m thinking of the TV commercials that have peppered us during this pandemic. Sure, every major advertiser – and even minor ones – have modified their commercials to not show hoards of people. But have you noticed how basic commercials have become over the past months? Far fewer spots depict people doing thrilling things or going to thrilling places. Or so it seems to me. What I’ve noticed more and more are families eating a meal together. Kids playing in the sprinkler. Old folks being visited by children. People with their pets. Hardly the things that would get a thrill-seeker’s adrenaline going.
Then there are the movies. Most have an over-emphasized element of excitement. Like Smokey & The Bandit. 😀 I can’t help it. It was on the other night. I’ve only seen it a couple hundred thousand times. (I was in the consumer electronics business during the CB radio craze when that movie was made. It’s super corny, but back in the day it was another Burt Reynold’s hit.) What’s one more time gonna hurt? A constant thrill-a-second kind of a show. A stunt man’s delight! I’ve done tons of driving throughout the Deep South. Admittedly, I’ve never hauled a tractor-trailer load full of illegal cargo, but even so, I can’t imagine going from Atlanta to Texarkana and back with anywhere near that kind of excitement. Of course, I never did travel with Burt Reynolds or Jackie Gleason either. 😉
Highs and lows.
Ups and downs.
The roller coaster of life is spent with both, but mostly it’s spent going up or coming down.
Some of us might be more attracted to the climbs and the descents than the actual highs and lows. For myself, I feel pretty equally attracted to all of it. It was a late-night epiphany. A moment where it dawned on me I am likely “in the moment” much more than I thought. Like those rabbits. Kinda sorta.
Except I live much better. And don’t have to forage for my food. Well, I do forage, but I just walk into the kitchen to do it. And nobody walks near me, threatening my safety while I eat. I sometimes wish they would. I could likely lose that 30 pounds or so that I desperately need to lose.
“I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” Maybe it’s the question of a naive Piglet, but if we would embrace the broader notion of excitement, then we might find some deeper experiences in our daily lives.
Homeostasis helps animals maintain stable internal and external environments with the best conditions for it to operate. It is a dynamic process that requires constant monitoring of all systems in the body to detect changes and mechanisms that react to those changes and restore stability.
The cottontails, like most animals, are constantly monitoring the environment, scanning for potential threats. They’re wired to notice movements. Things that are out of the ordinary. Enter an old galoot walking by and homeostasis has been disturbed, causing the rabbits to scurry back into the brush for cover. And safety.
Comfort zones are part – a big part – of homeostasis. We’ve demonized “comfort zones,” making it seem that they’re our enemy when the reality is we need them. Desperately. The excitement caused by possible threats, making us uncomfortable, indicates we should react to protect ourselves. My presence in the morning routine of the cottontails isn’t some thrill they’re looking for. I just happen to make it my business to catch them out feeding because I’m selfish like that. I really want to see them. But even in my intentional disturbance, I take care to show the rabbits I don’t intend to harm them. Some days they scamper away quickly. Other times they seem to sense that I’m the guy they saw yesterday without incident, so they keep their eye on me but continue to forage out in the open. Some days it makes me wonder if they’re being unintentionally conditioned to not see people as a threat. They shouldn’t trust everybody though. It’s likely best for them to trust no one, keeping homeostasis as it was…but that adjustment in their comfort zone may not be safe.
Ordinary. Routine. Comfortable.
These are vital to our survival. And our daily existence. The cottontails have a routine. I only know what a small portion of their early morning is like. And I only see them when they emerge from the woods to forage. Do they spend all day every day looking for food? Do they nap? I don’t know. I didn’t even Google it. Partly because I’d rather imagine them in the woods conducting business, having conversations, solving the problems of the woods, discussing the morons they’ve seen walk by that day. Google isn’t going to rob me of those imaginations with mundane truths about how cottontails live.
What about learning, improvement, and growth?
Those moments of excitement can help. Those extraordinary events, circumstances, and instances serve us – if we use them properly.
My daily presence conditions the rabbits to remain wary of me, but they also learn that I’m not there to hurt them. They’re not going to abandon their foraging nearly as quickly as they once did. They usually still leave once I get within 10 feet or so, but not always. Maybe they’re onto something too tasty to leave so soon. Maybe I catch them in a moment of laziness where they figure the food their on is worth the risk. At least, right now.
Which makes me wonder about the different excitements that come our way. I know they’re not all created equally. For instance, to the rabbits…my presence isn’t equal to the presence of a wolf or coyote. I’m betting they know that, too. I’m also betting they have holes in those woods where they can quickly scurry to avoid being eaten. With me, I watch them go into those little pathways into the woods, but they know with me, they don’t have to go deep into the woods. They can keep their eyes on me, and return to their foraging when I pass. Not so with another beast ready to make them a meal.
Balance is the trick. And it ain’t easy.
Without change (aka excitement) we don’t learn.
Too much change (aka excitement) we risk desensitization, which hampers our learning. It can make us reckless.
We need enough change (aka excitement) to provoke us to learn, improve, and grow. This is why I’m using the terms “excite” and “excitement” in the broadest way possible to include those things Jimmy V talked about: crying, thinking, and laughing.
Too much crying and we grow depressed, desperate, and despondent. Too little, and we lack empathy.
Too much thinking and we neglect to act. Too little and we’re impulsive.
Too much laughing and we fail to take serious things seriously enough. Too little laughing and we’re unpleasant, lacking joy.
There’s no recipe I know of. We take each day as it comes, like the rabbits. Whatever life presents, we hopefully approach it with optimism instead of panic or dread. I imagine the rabbits are excited about breakfast. Once they settle down from the excitement created by my passing, I’m confident they return to their breakfast.
When is the last time you went into the kitchen and got excited ’cause you found food? (No, finding some stash of chocolate you forgot you had doesn’t count!)
I envy the rabbits. Each morning they begin with excitement – finding food.
But then again, I’m pretty blessed myself. Because each morning I begin with the excitement of greeting the rabbits.
Together, we’re maintaining the cycle of excitement.
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My pondering began with Bible study. Not a big shock since you already know how important Faith is in my life. I’d heard the story my entire life, sitting in the pew as a little boy listening to old preachers tell the story recorded in Luke 15. The story of the prodigal son.
As a little kid I sat there wondering why this son got a wild hair to confront his dad and make such a bold request, but mostly I wondered why the father gave him what he wanted. The adults in my life wouldn’t have so indulged me, I thought.
He takes the money and whatever else he got and left home. That baffled me, too. I’d never had the urge to run away from home. Well, not for long, any way. There were days, you know? But I figured I had it pretty well. And that’s where it started for me. Wondering why this son didn’t realize how good things were. Of course, I knew the end of the story. I know in advance how bad his life got. Mostly I wondered how long he was in that far country doing whatever he was big enough to do. I wondered why he had to lose everything before he gained clarity that things back home were really great.
That was likely my first serious pondering about delusion and my introduction to the fact – yes, FACT – that every human being is capable of self-deception. Seeing things inaccurately. Believing things that aren’t true.
Some months I put my own sermon about this story online, but I approached it from the perspective of the father, not the son. The father, by the way, did not deceive himself. He was seeing clearly the entire time. And thankfully, his clarity served both his sons.
Self-deception and delusion is an everyday conversation in my work. Twenty years ago I bought and read a book, captivated by the joining of 2 topics I was interested in, leadership and self-deception. “Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box” by The Arbinger Institute.
Leaders of every ilk can be prone to self-deception. But leaders aren’t unique. It’s a complex issue and our quest to simplify things likely contributes to our delusion or false assumptions. We like neat and tidy things and most things aren’t neat or tidy.
Fast forward and the topic of delusion and self-deception intersect with another conversation point, addiction. In my executive and leadership coaching work, I often have conversations with clients whose families and lives have been horribly impacted by addiction. From people abusing prescription medications, to people not abusing – but people taking prescribed medications that have completely altered their personality, to people abusing alcohol and even people consumed by gambling or other addictions.
Almost weekly I have a conversation with people whose family is struggling to help a member of their clan get out of the pit. They tell stories of how the person just can’t seem to think or see things accurately. Fogged over with chemicals that have impaired their ability, I’ll often listen as they recite how smart, funny, and engaging the person was before they surrendered to some form of chemical dependency. Once in a while I hear about recovery. Like the prodigal son, it never happens quickly. In most cases, many years have elapsed before the self-deception and addiction are overcome.
Success stories are both rare and lengthy. I’ve yet to encounter a story of somebody who recovered quickly. The downward spiral is long and destructive. It seems it must get very bad before there’s even hope of it getting better. I never understood it. I still don’t.
The title of today’s show is a quote from an interview with a person who recovered from addiction. For over a decade she took anything and everything she could get. If it had any numbing or mind-altering capability, she grabbed it.
Once sober she realized she was colluding with her own death. Repeatedly she talked of how deluded she had become because of the drugs. Opioids had thrust her into a fog where she had no idea how unclear her vision had become. She just knew she wanted the feeling she had chased since she took her first drink of alcohol as a young teen.
Today, she’s able to talk about how alcohol and opioids damage brain chemistry and other physical cells. And how they also negatively impact our mental health. Craving the pleasure they can provide, no matter how destructive or temporary it may be, threatened her life and is threatening the lives of millions.
When I heard her say, “You collude in your own death,” I instantly felt a sadness – the same sadness I feel every time I hear a story or personally encounter somebody who has been touched by opioids or any other addiction. Collude defined is “cooperate in a secret or unlawful way in order to deceive or gain an advantage over others.” In this sense, she meant, you’re doing this to yourself. You’re taking advantage of yourself. You’re deceiving yourself. You’re willingly contributing to your own demise. Your death.
This woman made up her mind that she would fix her addiction so she could continue to use and abuse drugs. A novel thought.
She figured if her addiction was a “disease” then she’d cure herself so she could pick up where she left off. She said she never turned down any drug, but with addiction – “if you can manage it, then it’s really bad news.” Meaning, it’s detrimental to every addict if they’re not able to suffer badly enough for their addiction. It was the first time I’d heard somebody articulate that. “Addicts who can manage their addiction are the most hopeless because they’re not going to change.”
“I gave up everything I had so I could have a relationship with the drugs,” she said. “Thankfully, it got really bad. Bad enough I had to do something.”
“I was goal-oriented. That’s why I was able to sacrifice anything and anybody for the drugs,” she reflected.
Looking back now she realizes that she wasn’t able to channel that trait – being goal-oriented – into something productive. Instead, she gave herself over to the pursuit of the feeling she got when she was medicating. It trumped everything else in her life. She never saw it for what it was at the time. Only after she was sober for an extended time was she able to see her addiction for what it was. “I was not going to be stopped,” she confesses. “I was colluding in my own death and hurting a lot of people all along the way. Taking a good honest look at myself I had to take responsibility for myself.”
“I had to be willing to change. What made me willing to change was the realization that I was never going to get enough drugs.”
Neuroscience tells us that the brain adapts to any drug you take regularly by producing the exact opposite effect of that drug. So you can’t get enough of the drug to escape.
Judith’s statement not only captivated me, but it troubled me. Made me wonder about the ways we’re all capable of colluding in our own death. While I’m interested in the opioid crisis, addiction and brain chemistry, particularly how brain chemistry is altered by chemicals – I’m also interested in the main topic of this podcast, WISDOM. I continue to define wisdom as getting it right in real-time. It’s making up our mind to do the correct thing at the moment. It’s demonstrated in the choices we make, the words we use to convey meaning, the way we interact with others, the beliefs we embrace, the self-control we exercise, and everything else that determines WHO we are.
I suppose part of my quest to learn more about these things is my lifelong commitment to sobriety. I come by it honestly. I’m pretty hardwired to be sober. But I was also trained inside a Christian home where drugs and alcohol didn’t exist. I endured high school in the 70s without ever having taken a drink or a drag from a marijuana cigarette. I’ve been around more drugs that I care to confess, but I’ve never partaken. Mostly, because it would violate my conscience and beliefs, but truly, even if that weren’t the case, I still think I’d refrain because having command of my faculties is just too important. Since high school, I’ve joked, “I have a hard enough time sober. The last thing I need to be is drunk.”
So it’s not my thing and never has been. In that regard, I can’t possibly relate to the person convinced they cannot live without it. I’ve still never had a drink or taken an illicit drug. As for pain medications, doctors have always struggled to appropriately dose me. One bout with suspected gall stones required 4 morphine shots before I stopped “shuffling” my legs, writhing in pain. Asked by a nurse to put a number on the pain, I think I said, “Six or seven.” It just didn’t seem that bad.
For me, the interest isn’t in the substances themselves, but the influence they have on the human brain. How they’re able to completely change our minds and our personalities.
Alcohol is commonly seen as a drug that can provide courage. Courage that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Inhibitions that fade away after a few drinks. Judgment that is impaired, but without us sensing it. People declare they’re fine. No idea how out of control they are. They’re colluding in their own death without even knowing it. Which makes sense because if they realized what they were doing – they might make a different decision.
A Path To The Grave
After discovering Judith Grisel I invested the 7 plus hours to listen to her read the book, Never Enough. Today’s show is my attempt to share with you what she’s taught me, coupled with some observations along the way.
There will never be enough drugs because the brain has an extraordinary capacity to adapt. Hence, her title, Never Enough.
“Most addicts die trying to satisfy an insatiable drive,” she says.
“Alcohol makes you feel like you’re supposed to feel when you’re not drinking alcohol.”
That was a sign Judith saw hanging behind a bar and she admits it accurately said what she felt when she first started to drink. Any modification in life, produced by alcohol (at first), beat facing her life of rules and tedium. But in time she discovered that the substance betrayed her.
“I sought any opportunity to use mind-altering drugs…and at any cost,” she admits. She traded herself away a piece at a time to alcohol, cocaine, meth, and whatever else she could use. Looking back, almost all the memories were bad.
Judith believes that the opposite of addiction is choice, not sobriety. Addiction robs you of freedom. Drugs obscure freedom.
Recovery is birth at the bottom.
I’ve read that before. Mostly in a Bible story I’ve known since I was a small boy. The parable of the prodigal’s son in Luke 15:11-32.
A selfish, rebellious younger son tells his dad to give him his inheritance. Get it now. He wants what he’ll get when dad dies, but dad isn’t dead. Yet. Shockingly, the father gives him his inheritance. He also gives the older brother his, too. But the older brother stays home.
Armed with newfound riches, the younger son leaves home and goes to a far country where he lives it up. He indulges in every vice and sin he wants. He’s the life of the party as long as he’s paying the bill. But then the money runs out. Along with the friends.
Now he’s destitute. He finds himself feeding pigs and wanting what they’re eating.
Recovery is birth at the bottom.
There, in the pigpen, he comes to himself and realizes that the servants in his father’s house have it far better than he does. He makes up his mind he’ll go back home and beg his father to just let him be like a servant because he no longer deserves to be a son.
The only way for an addict to feel normal is the take the drug, but it’s always a short-lived outcome. So the brain works hard to return to a homeostatic state…and now more drugs are required for the feeling. There is no free lunch, says Judith.
Changes to brain chemistry brought about by addiction are always in the wrong direction. Addiction never benefits a person in the long haul.
As I listened and read Ms. Grisel’s work, as a Christian I thought addiction sounded a lot like sin. Temporary pleasure. There’s never enough to make one full. And the longterm cost is extremely high.
Another idea kept pushing to the forefront of my thoughts.
Our choosing. Our behavior. Our responsibility.
The evidence compels me to understand that people are different in how we react and respond to stimuli – like drugs or alcohol. I grew up hearing adults talk about the potential negative impacts of that “first drink.” My Christian upbringing notwithstanding, it seemed apparent to me that the wisest option was to simply avoid it altogether, which is what I did. To this day I have avoided taking my “first drink.” That has been my choice. I could have made a different choice. I’ll never know what might have been because I only know the result of the choice I made.
Leaning toward wisdom has the aim of helping us get it right in real-time. That means, our choices – decisions we make in real time – need to be the ones that serve us best over time. Choices that benefit us immediately have to be contextualized. What is the benefit? Is the benefit moral or immoral? Does it build or erode our character? Does it benefit us while harming others? After the immediate benefit, then what? Our brain wrestles, or not, with a variety of questions. We think it through or we don’t. We consider carefully or we act impulsively.
These choices – especially these first ones – are on us.
Recovering addicts universally also talk about the importance of getting out of the context of their substance abuse. Namely, they confess that if they were not removed from the people who surrounded them, they’d never climbed out of the pit. Fantastically, they also admit that if they remain away from those people and places where their addiction happened for long periods of time…if they were to go back they’d instantly be triggered with memories and urges to use again. So many report having experienced that exact thing.
More choices. In the people we allow to surround us. The influences we permit to impact us.
Consequences. Issac Newton determined that what goes up must come down. There are always consequences. Wise decisions benefit us. Foolish ones hurt us. And not just us, but others, too.
Addiction has a few insidious components. Tolerance is up near the top. It’s why the alcoholic has to drink more and more. The first experience with alcohol, however great it made you feel, can’t be replicated with the same amount. Maybe it’ll never be replicated, but people will still try. Addiction knows nothing of moderation because it alters your brain chemistry. Addiction always asks for more.
Addiction to drugs and alcohol also results in increasing the very things most addicts are working to escape or avoid. It produces the exact opposite of what we’re going for. Dependance destroys us because when we stop taking the substances we feel worse than we did before we ever started taking them. It’s like we only lowered the quality of our feelings, thoughts, and emotions from the already bad place from which they started. It’s homeostasis – that balanced normal state we each have. Substance addiction gives us big ups and downs. Those swings grow increasingly impossible to manage.
A Life Of False Fixes
I don’t remember if Dr. Judith said that or if medical Dr. Pamela Peele said it. I’ve consumed substantial content from both of them…and many others. But it was one of the two who said it. I wrote it down because it seemed so congruent with everything I’ve read and studied about the influence opioids have on the brain. And addiction in general. It reminded me of that ancient Jewish boy who grabbed his inheritance and left home. His life fits that bill – a life of false fixes. We’re left to wonder what he was fixing, but it was clearly a life of utter selfishness. He wanted what he wanted and I suppose most all our foolish choices stem from that same urge.
Google the phrase “cycle of addiction” and here’s what you get (click here). Tons of illustrations like the one below.
This one starts with emotional trigger, followed by craving, then ritual, then using, then guilt, then back to emotional trigger. But every illustration seems to display “a life of false fixes” because they’re all cycles. They don’t end. They just perpetuate themselves, which seems to be the way self-deception works, too.
What are we trying to fix?
Many things I suspect, but at the heart of every problem seeking a fix seems to be one central thing – to feel better about oneself.
I’ve spent way-yonder-too-much-time pondering this dilemma, the reason people want to feel better about themselves. What I’ve seen is the easy tendency we all have to look outside of ourselves for solutions to the problem of fixing how we feel about ourselves. A person doesn’t need an addiction to surrender to that urge. We just need to be willing to look at ourselves as victims and sadly, that road is smooth and easy. Almost all of us can hit that onramp at highway speeds.
It seems chemical ingestion and the repeated act of ingesting chemicals (addiction) change not just how we feel, but how we act. At some point, likely very early, as Dr. Judith’s story clearly shows about her getting drunk for the first time at 13, it feels pretty terrific. As great as it feels, it’s equally fleeting. And for her, and millions of others who may be so predisposed genetically or emotionally (or both), the cycle began. And continued for a decade. A ten-year run of chasing something you’ll never catch, but you don’t know it. Until you do.
“Everything is hard until it’s easy.”
It remains my all-time favorite quote even though I’ve yet to discover who to credit with saying it. Or writing it. I’d bet I’ve written it down more than anybody alive. 😉
Dr. Judith spent a decade destroying her life until it dawned on her the truth of what a drug buddy said, “There’s never enough cocaine.” By then she had spent years chasing false fixes when the problem was staring back at her every time she looked in a mirror. And I wonder what she saw. Did she see herself as a homeless, drug addict? Did she see herself as a victim? Did she see herself as broken and unfixable?
This much is clear. She did not see herself as she really was. Nor did she see her problems or fixes as they really were. It’s like looking in a math book for the answer to a history question. Everything about it is just wrong. And confusing. Because clear thinking has left the building replaced with self-pity and self-loathing.
Every story I’ve ever heard about such things involves hatred, anger, resentment and bitterness. The chemicals do that, but not before selfishness kicks in.
I started reviewing all the stories I’ve listened to through the years. Parents. Grand parents. Children. Mothers. Fathers. Brothers. Sisters. Aunts. Uncles. Friends. Some of them stories about others. Some of them stories about themselves. Stories of people who went looking to fix a problem with a substance.
Without exception, they all began with a choice to please themselves. Each person – each story – centers on a person who reached a point where they made up their mind they didn’t care about anybody more than they cared about themselves. The irony is, that’s the moment each person lost themselves. Funny. Not in a ha-ha way, but funny in how colossally backwards that is. But I find that’s true with or without substance abuse.
The more we focus on ourselves in a self-centered way, the more broken we become. And the more we look at external excuses and blame others. We’d be happy if not for them and how poorly they treat us. Never realizing the carnage we’re causing.
A middle-aged man told me of his struggles to hang onto a woman he loved passionately since they were young. Her battles with substances of all kinds had wrecked her life and taken a heavy toll on his, if only because he refused to walk away. Her infidelity was extensive. He’d lost count. He described his own life – his own cycle of pursuing a life of false fixes. It sounded every bit as bad as hers. And I was just sad hearing it all. “Does she realize the pain she’s causing?” I asked. “Not in the moment,” he said. “But yes, she eventually figures it out and that just makes it worse because then she falls off the ledge and behaves even worse.” Everything is hard for them. And it’s gonna remain hard until something tragic happens to one or both of them. She can’t let go of drugs and alcohol. He can’t let go of her. They’re both lost. And you just can’t help but think it could be SO MUCH BETTER. But each of them is devoted to their own delusion. She’s looking in all the wrong places for answers and he’s fooled into thinking he’ll change her.
There are too many such stories in every naked city and town.
Coming Face-To-Face With Truth
For those who find a way out, their stories are equally universal. And they fascinate me the most. I remain puzzled that boys, girls, men and women. Old, young and in between. Educated. Uneducated. Town folks. City folks. People from backgrounds that couldn’t be more different. But they all behave exactly the same way under the influence. And those who climb out of the pit do so with help. Lots of help. But first, they had to make a different choice by coming face-to-face with the truth.
For the prodigal son in Luke 15, the Bible says…”But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17)
Coming to his senses meant he finally saw clearly. At that moment, self-deception left him. His mind was clear and accurate. For the first time in who knows how long, he was thinking wisely.
Every person I’ve ever talked with who recovered or has a person close to them who did talks of such a moment. A moment of truth.
There are so many common denominators in all this and I continue to be intrigued by them all. At just how universal the stories are. You hear one and it’s just like the other dozen you heard. You hear another two dozen and they seem eerily like the prior dozens. That’s because these substances affect the brain the same way. Further proof that we’re not so different. Any of us. We’ve got far more in common than we realize.
So strong is the attachment to the substance and the pursuit of the feeling that few things, if any, can detach a person from it. Scientists often talk of lab rat experiments where the rats will literally kill themselves for a moment of pleasure. We’re no different. A moment of relief. A respite from whatever pain we’re enduring, self-made or otherwise. Freedom from guilt and shame. Craving the very thing that’s causing all the damage. Craving to satisfy self, which is at the heart of all the problems.
We have met the enemy and he is us.
But we don’t know that until we know it. We can’t see it until we do. Like those hidden images in a print hanging on a wall, we stare until our eyes cross, struggling to see what others claim they see. We think they’re lying to us. There’s nothing there, we think. They tell us to step back a bit. Squint your eyes, they say. Nothing seems to work. Increasingly frustrated we reckon they’re messing with us. Until we see it. Plain as day. It’s a smack your forehead moment. Now, step away and don’t come back for a month. The minute we see the print on the wall we spot the hidden image with ease. Why was it so hard earlier?
Every story of recovery I’ve ever heard has a similar feel and tone. But unlike the exercise of peering into a print, these people had to endure some pain that was greater than the pain they were medicating. Without that none would have looked into the face of the truth. So they say.
“Nobody could say anything to me,” they now report. They use words like “stupid” and “ignorant” to describe themselves then. But they didn’t see themselves that way in real-time.
“Cloudy” may be among the most common terms they use to describe themselves then. “Foggy” is another.
These are not terms that express clarity, purity, or accuracy.
The bigger term comes to the forefront when they speak of facing the truth.
“I was just miserable,” is the common refrain of every single one of them. But having the ability to recognize that misery often required some jolt – some external force or influence. Often it was law enforcement. Many of them got arrested. Others suffered violence (beaten up, shot). Something happened that grabbed them by the lapels and shook them as they’d never been shaken before. And in a moment or in a series of moments they realized they were miserable. “I hated my life,” they reflect.
It was, for each of them, their moment of coming to their senses. All those abilities to sense the accuracy and truth of themselves and lives which had been lost along the way began to return. That hidden image in the print became clear. They saw themselves and their situation for what they truly were – horrible ways to live.
The suffering they were attempting to escape was growing. Until it got so large it got them in trouble. Or until they figured out they no longer wanted to endure the misery they found themselves in.
“The more you try to fill it with substances, the bigger it gets,” says Dr. Judith.
Where do you go for the answers?
Where do you go to fill whatever you sense may be missing?
But there’s another aspect to those questions that feels important.
Do the places you go help you in colluding in your own death? Or, do the places you go help you in colluding in your own life?
Those seem central to this whole thing. As I listen to experts and first-hand accounts I realize the management of our feelings and thoughts is central to our well-being. Substances help us avoid managing them making it even harder to figure out what we’re feeling and why.
This sends me down the path of trying to learn more about fear because it seems to me that so many of us are afraid of what we feel or think. But why? And what is that fear?
As I often do, let me pick on myself to illustrate. Again, this is only because I’d rather pick on myself than anybody else.
I manage my own thoughts and feelings with Faith, reading, writing, and music. None of these collude in my own death. Each of them, especially that first one – faith – contribute mightily to life. Not just any kind of life, but a good life. A life guided by principles, morality, integrity, character, and truth.
Alienation is often a subject whenever conversations turn toward addiction. Experts tell us opioids are especially effective at helping people battle suffering. And there’s high or strong suspicion that alienation is at the heart of suffering for many people. A challenge with alienation may be in the language itself. It can depict something that is done TO us as opposed to something we feel ourselves.
Maybe a more accurate term is emptiness. That’s something we can all own. On our own. And it doesn’t imply something done TO us. I suspect it’s also an experience common to all of us, if only for moments at a time. It also explains that language I commonly hear and that quote Dr. Judith uttered, “The more you try to fill it with substances, the bigger it gets.” What are trying to fill, if not emptiness?
“It took me 15 years after getting sober to sit still,” admits Dr. Judith Grisel. She described herself as being in constant motion. Impulsive. Compulsive. Always darting from one thing to another.
Yet, many addiction experts talk about how alienation and emptiness go hand in hand. Or at least how they CAN go hand in hand.
We want to find causes. Reasons. For every story of a person from a broken, troubled home are others with a close-knit family and a strong community.
I listen to the words people use. Pronouns are particularly important. The personal pronoun “I” is always at the forefront. Self-centeredness is fundamentally at the heart of it, but I’d argue that’s at the heart of all our foolishness. And that feeds into the next observation.
The words missing. The feelings that aren’t expressed by addicts. Thanks. Gratitude.
Those who have and are recovering admit it’s the way forward, but you can’t get there when you’re fixated on yourself.
I’ve heard too many stories of people who abandoned a community that served them or was trying to. The prodigal son left home where his dad and brother were. Perhaps there were other unnamed family members. There were servants to be sure. It was home. Nobody kicked him out. Nobody pushed him away. He wanted to leave because he no longer wanted the constraints. He wanted to be free. And in searching for freedom he enslaved himself in a prison of his own making. He neglected to be thankful for what he had. He wasn’t deluded after he left home. He became deluded and that caused him to leave a place where he should have remained all along.
How does it end?
For too many, not well.
Most people – 70-80% of people – drop out of rehabilitation programs within 6 months according to American Addiction Centers. Medscape reports that over 44,000 people in America die each year due to drug overdose. The Centers For Disease Control estimates that daily 114 people die due to drugs. The cost in human lives is high even if you just focus on the users. But when you compute the people in their families, those friends in their lives and the folks who surround them (or once did), then it’s a staggering number.
Permit me to share the summary of all – and I mean 100% of the people who admit they found their way out of the pit.
“I can’t believe that was me.” Every single person looks back, now in a sober-minded state where clear thinking prevails, and they cannot believe their behavior while taking the substances. Both men and women can’t believe their lies, cheating and shameful choices and behaviors. Each of them admit that prior to their substance use and abuse they would have never considered doing such things. And now, in hindsight, they still find it tough to believe they did.
It began with lying. Maybe first to others, but for certain, to themselves. “She loved me and didn’t deserve what I did to her,” he says. He cheated on her repeatedly, but she didn’t know. He lied to her daily. Many times a day. He convinced himself he deserved to behave the way he chose. “I betrayed her in every way,” he continues. He blew up the marriage and the family even though his belief when he married her is that they’d grow old together. Until he was sober, he hated her for it. All of it. Even though he betrayed her.
Guilt and shame were common for each person. “I would never admit it,” she says. “But I was so ashamed I couldn’t stand it…until I drank more to took more pills.”
Using anger and hatred to deal with guilt and shame. “I burned everybody who loved me,” say all of them, in one way or the other. The people they turned on the most? Those they had been closest to before they entered the fog. Once in the abyss, those with whom they were closest became public enemy number one. Now, with clear hindsight vision they all readily admit that the people who most tried to help them get straight were the ones they hated the most when they were using. “I didn’t want to hear anything he had to say,” says one person.
“I hated everything and everybody,” reports one recovered addict. “Mostly, I hated myself, but I kept that as quiet as possible.”
Paying the piper can be expensive. Every sober person needs more than a brief chat to reveal the vastness of the damage they caused. While many will mention some financial or material related loss, that’s not where the focus is. Rather, each of them begins and ends and spends most of their time talking about the relationships they destroyed or damaged. For most, there were some critical relationships that got restored. In fact, they tell me that without those, they’d still be in the abyss. But each of them reports relationships that will never be repaired or restored. Lost spouses. Lost kids. Lost parents. Lost friends. Some damage is so great that no matter how badly we want it or how hard we work at it – restoration just isn’t possible.
Regret. Enormous doses of regret are always part of the conversation. You can’t help but listen and hear the regret that will always follow these people. “What might have been,” seems at the forefront of their lives now. And I’m saddened to wonder if such a weight might compel some to go back into the pit feeling that’s where they deserve to be, even though that is yet another lie and unclear thought.
A father grows older. No relationship with his now-grown kids who remember the man who sank into alcohol and treated their mother so poorly until she was forced to kick him out. He’s not the same man today, but in their minds, he’s frozen as he was. And so are they. They’re still kids who were sticking by their mom. He wonders what might have been.
A son grows lonelier. He splintered his family. The strain on his parents took a toll on their marriage. They still love each other, but they couldn’t find a path forward together because his mother obsessed about his drug abuse while his father wanted to let him go so he could continue building a life with his wife. Today, an adult son wonders about the love he broke apart.
A wife grows greyer. Youth is long gone. Replaced with wrinkles, crinkles, and popping joints. She’s no longer a wife, but she once was. He was her best friend, but her drinking and over-medicating drove him away. Coupled with her repeated infidelities. She remembers a time when she couldn’t have imagined life without him, but today she realizes she’s been apart from him longer than they were together. She too wonders what might have been.
I’m left thinking that the whole reason for the choice was to get away from pain. But the result was the compounding of pain. Many times over!
There is no greater pain than the pain of watching somebody you love…love their addiction more than they love you.
The prodigal son returned home to an elated father who didn’t even let him finish the speech he had rehearsed. He was prepared to just beg to be like a servant because even his father’s servants had a better life than he did while way from home. But dad didn’t listen to the entire speech. He was too busy being happy. Too busy putting a ring on his hand, shoes on his feet and nice clothing over his shoulders. Too busy telling the servants to prepare a banquet to celebrate the fact that his lost son was now home. To the older son, dad said this…
But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found. -Luke 15:32
I hope and pray that more people who use Fentanyl and other opioids — and people who abuse prescription drugs as well as illicit ones — and people who use alcohol — will come to their senses as this son did. There are too many celebrations just waiting for the opportunity.
She was in the midst of a struggle. It was fresh though, which is never the best time to do much more than encourage. We reviewed the facts – the things she knew to be true as opposed to the things she could be assuming. At some point I said it.
“I’m sure there’s a way forward.”
Just because it’s not apparent right now doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Figuring out ways to escape isn’t often apparent. You’ve got to search high and low, devoting yourself to figuring it out. I’m thinking of that classic film, The Great Escape. Those prisoners of war had to consider a variety of paths forward in their attempt to escape. It required lots of thinking, pondering, planning, debating, and figuring it out. It also involved many setbacks and high risks.
Nobody said the path forward would be apparent or easy. Besides all that, sometimes endurance is the path forward. Not overcoming.
I’ve lost some friends – close friends – to fatal health issues. There was no overcoming of their illness. But each of them had to find a path forward so they could more successfully endure their eventuality.
Pain. Sorrow. Sadness. Disappointment.
EVERYBODY has experienced plenty of it. EVERYBODY has plenty of things they could dwell on to serve as excuses. EVERYBODY has lots of circumstances – some beyond their control and some not – that might compel them to embrace being “victims.” NONE of us are immune.
A few years ago I suffered a personal setback. One I’ve alluded to in the past. It prompted me to surround myself with older men – each one a gospel preacher who I’d known all my life. I figured these were the guys who could help me find a way forward. And sure enough, they did.
I’m unsure of how timing works. I’m very sure about God’s providence though – meaning God’s ability to work through the natural courses of life. We all make up our own mind. We make choices and behave in ways we choose. The Bible pretty clearly teaches us that God can and does use the natural events and circumstances of life for his Will. If I choose to behave poorly, it’s not God’s fault. He’s not behind it. It’s my own free will in motion. But my poor choice can still be leveraged by God to serve some purpose that may not be clear for a long time – if ever.
One by one these 3 older sages in my life passed on…leaving me alone and pretty much without any more older men in my life who had served me as they had all my life. I’m not bringing it up to lament my plight, but to illustrate how urgent it is for all of us – no matter what we’re facing – to find a way forward. My confession is that when I lost the first one I took great comfort that I had him for as long as I did. I was especially thankful to have had him over the course of the previous year plus. His wisdom was unparalleled. But I was also very grateful I still had the other two even though both had serious health issues (one more so than the other).
Curveballs enter everybody’s life. Mine came when the seemingly healthier of the two was suddenly gone. Even though he was the oldest of the 3 – the youngest was the first to pass – none of us were expecting it. The suddenness of death is always a jolt.
Within a short time, the 3rd and final old man left the planet and entered Eternity. It was expected, but that didn’t make it any easier. Now there were none and my path forward was not apparent. During dark days of sadness and sorrow, it’s hard to find enough light with which to see any path or way. I’m a lifelong insomniac. Inside the Yellow Studio is a red light bulb I burn at night – like an old photographer’s darkroom. It provides enough light to see without illuminating the house and waking up Rhonda. But I’ll often traipse into the kitchen from my studio and without any lights on…and my eyes adjusted to the red glow…and I’ll struggle to barely make out where furniture and walls are so I can make my way. If I wait just a bit and employ my memory of where things are, I can make my way safely. But sometimes I rush it and bump into things. Life seems to work the same way. At least for me.
Give it time.
We’ve all been given that admonition when something difficult is happening to us.
Time doesn’t suddenly make something better. It gives us time to make adjustments though. To let our vision adjust to these new surroundings. To grow our confidence and belief. To hopefully become more sure there’s a way forward – we just to have to find it. Figure it out.
On Friday morning – July 10, 2020 – news arrived of some church friends who suffered a tragic death in their family. A son-in-law. Killed in a traffic accident. A young family is now completely torn up. Devastated. Parents. Inlaws. Grandparents. A wife. Five children. At this moment, none of them know the way forward. They only know God will be included and at the forefront because they’re Christians. They know the Faith will remain, but in this moment the sadness and sorrow are overwhelming. Yet, deep down inside the adults are sure there’s a way forward. It’s not important for them to see it right now. The grief and sorrow are too intense in this moment.
Give it time.
The quandary of the path forward is universal.
Followed perhaps by…
Human brainpower is amazing. In many ways. We’re especially adept at coming to terms with things – even sudden tragic events. While we’re often crippled at the moment, we rise to our feet sooner than maybe we expect. Figuring out ways to cope, manage, and find the path forward.
Something else happened on Friday, July 10th…thankfully something far more positive than the tragedy I just told you about. Dan Miller released a new podcast episode – 48 Days To The Work You Love. “Can Your Beliefs Take You This Far?” is the title. I only read the short show notes (so far) to the episode. Dan got my attention with the copy.
This week I received the most amazing testimonial story I’ve ever received. A teenage girl who has been in a wheelchair for four years read 48 Days to the Work You Love, got inspired, hopeful, and began walking with the aid of only a walker. The power of belief opens our eyes, ears, minds, and spirits to a bigger future.
Talk about the power of a mind made up. Dan inserted another headline – The Power Of Belief.
There are so many daily illustrations of the power of belief – a mind made up to find a path forward.
ABC News (this also happened on the same Friday as the other 2 things) ended their newscast talking about a young man who couldn’t get into any college so in his desperation he took a job as a trash man. Going to work every morning at 4 am he found himself surrounded by people who saw something in him. They encouraged him to find the way forward toward his dreams. He found his way into college while continuing to work double shifts on the garbage truck. His GPA? 4.0
The story ended with him sitting with friends as he opened an email to find out whether or not he’d be accepted into Harvard Law School. He opened the email and the celebration began. A young man goes from having no prospects to being admitted to the most prestigious law school in America. More evidence of the power of a mind made up. Proof that we can decide to believe as fact…
I’m sure there’s a way forward.
We’re just not sure what that way is.
Or when we’ll find it.
Which really means one BIG thing. It’s an endurance test. A test of wills that leaves us with a challenge – how committed are we to endure whatever challenges we face? It’ll take however long it takes for us to a) make up our mind that we’re going to find a path forward and b) figure out the way.
Springtime In 2020 (Is this pandemic teaching us anything?)
Yes, it is. Of course, much of it isn’t very good. But we’re still learning ’cause this thing isn’t over.
Is there a way forward past this pandemic?
Just about everybody says they think so, but that’s about the only common ground you can hear. Otherwise, it’s a sea of conflicting opinions where half-truths, lies, conspiracy theories, scientific evidence, medical experience/expertise, and every other form of insight serves to make the noise floor so loud you can’t think. Any of them – or any group of them – could be right, so far as I know. But logic tells me they can’t all be right. And I lack the mental horsepower to know very much. I admit that not only am I NOT the smartest guy in the room when it comes to COVID 19 discussions, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to even be in the room when it’s being talked about.
This much I have learned though, thanks to the pandemic.
The highly opinionated have become more so.
The moderately opinioned have become highly opinionated.
Those falling below the “moderately opinionated” line have become increasingly quiet.
Oh, I forgot one other area of common ground – frustration! All of the above, and those I failed to identify, are all frustrated almost the point of losing their minds.
Google is your friend they say. Just do a search they tell us. Well, that’s not helping. You can find somebody – likely many somebodies – who will support whatever lame-brained notion you hold. Type “I think the earth is flat” into Google and here’s what you’ll find: About 185,000,000 results (0.46 seconds). Just sayin’
The point isn’t to challenge whatever you think about the pandemic – or anything else – but to demonstrate why believing in and finding a path forward is so hard these days. We’re often too busy shouting at each other. Calling each other names (yes, I’m VERY guilty because I’ve personally come to know many “nannies”). Seriously, we just don’t give hardly anybody much consideration these days. Unless they agree with us.
The path forward is rarely smooth, flat and high speed.
It’s less like a nice manicured track and more like mountain terrain.
I can prove it. But you need to join me in looking at your own life. Think of a time when you were at a loss about moving forward. A time when you leaned on somebody who was safe for you. I’m defining safety as somebody who you knew would not use anything against you. They were simply there to help you without regard to any other outcome.
Go ahead. Get that in your mind. Hold it there and let’s think more deeply about what happened for you.
I’m thinking of my own times when I was facing a challenge that tested my belief in being able to move forward. I suppose I knew I could move forward, but I was uncertain how. There have been times when I didn’t even know what my next step should be. When you can’t figure out the next step to take you sure aren’t able to figure out the path.
I’m thinking of my three older mentors – those who have died. They were my first phone calls many times. A couple of years ago I was facing a big dilemma and one by one, I contacted them. I told each of them what happened, how I felt, and what I was thinking of doing. Separate and independent of each other, they each challenged me by disagreeing with me. “You could do that,” said one of them, “but I think it would be a mistake.”
For months and months, they challenged me by disagreeing with me. They pushed me with their knowledge, insights, and experience…peppering me with questions to help me think through my problem. Repeated phone calls seemed to blend into one long, extended conversation designed to push me forward into thinking more clearly. I spent the better part of a year daily studying, reading, thinking, and rehearsing what they were telling me. Frequently, I respectfully pushed back telling them why I felt or believed as I did. Each time, they listened but offered counter-arguments that I wasn’t able to refute. And I tried to refute them, especially early on.
Does any of that resonate with you? Have you ever experienced anything similar? A time when somebody safe challenged you by disagreeing with you?
I’ve described a challenge that was a big problem, but the more I’ve thought about it, even lesser challenges have produced great growth because safe people didn’t agree with me. And I’ve been on the other end with some who find me safe. That is, I’ve been able to serve them by disagreeing with them.
Nothing in these safe conversations is confrontational. Nothing in them is the pushing of an opinion or agenda. Nothing in these conversations was about anything other than wanting my best.
There it is.
“I’m sure there’s a way forward.” For myself. For people I care about. For people I may not care about.
The way forward doesn’t depend on my view of anybody. It doesn’t depend on your view either. But here’s what does matter – your way forward hinges on how YOU view yourself. And it’s dramatically impacted by how well the safe people around you serve you. Part of that is on you and your openness to let them help you. Part of that is on them and their ability to put your best interests first.
Peernovation is the name of a podcast I produce with partner Leo Bottary. Leo also has a book coming out by the same title. Leo’s tagline for the podcast is, “The power of WE begins with YOU.” So let’s start there. With YOU. With Me. With each of us as individuals.
This focus on self isn’t selfish. It’s necessary because our path forward is OUR path. It belongs to us. Nobody else.
It’s personal responsibility and accountability. This is about each of us accepting responsibility for ourselves. For our thoughts, beliefs, choices, and behaviors. While we’re influenced by others, we have our own lives to live and for good or bad or indifferent – we live the way we choose.
For too many, the path forward is hidden by self-pity and other poor choices. Victim thinking is so insidious because it robs people of the power necessary to move forward. We can’t move forward and remain stuck in the past. They’re incongruent. We have to pick one or the other. Not both.
Forgiveness is a subject that leaps to my mind. Our willingness – not our ability because forgiveness is within our power, but it may not be part of our willingness – to forgive helps us move forward or it cements us in our past.
Our moving forward is like that. It depends on us making up our mind that we’re going to do it even though we may have no idea how. Until or unless we do that, nothing else matters. We can be surrounded by the safest people on the planet. People can encircle us who love us, care about us, and are doing everything in their power to just help us. But if we don’t make up our mind to move forward, all that help is for nothing.
Once we make up our mind that we’re going to do everything in our power to move forward others can be of tremendous service in helping us find the way.
Keep one small, but important thing in mind – others, those people with whom we feel safest, can influence and persuade us to make up our minds. We don’t do that in spite of ourselves, but we do it because these safe people can help us see things more clearly. That clarity can be useful so we can make up our minds – or change our minds.
I’d never discount the power other people can have to help us. Or to hurt us. Sadly, the opposite of those safe people are unsafe people. They’re the people who will intentionally use anything and everything against you. The way forward requires us to ditch the unsafe people and embrace the safe folks. It’s like the oath doctors take to first “do no harm.” Each of us is responsible to stop doing harm. To ourselves and to others. We have to accept personal responsibility for our own lives, including how our lives impact others.
Let’s concentrate for a minute on the first part of the statement, “I’m sure…”
Confidence and belief are important.
They deserve to be rooted in truth and wisdom.
Those folks who believe the earth is flat are deluded. They’re not seeing clearly. They’re confident outside of truth and wisdom.
Isaiah 40:22 “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in…”
Job 26:7 “He stretches out the north over the void and hangs the earth on nothing.”
Proverbs 8:27 “When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep…”
Job 26:10 “He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness.”
But there are photos from space that clearly show the earth is a globe, a ball. Round.
I could choose to deny these simple, straightforward facts, but it only proves I’m not thinking clearly. Humans have the ability to feel, think, and believe whatever they choose. It doesn’t make it real. Or true. Or wise.
The same goes for our view of a forward path. I can choose to think there is no path forward. I can close my mind to the prospect that I can get past some hurdle or challenge. I can choose to avoid looking at an opportunity as an opportunity. The world is completely open to me to view it anyway I choose. My certainty about a thing influences my commitment to that thing – regardless of how accurate or true it may be.
When it comes to moving forward the question must be asked…
Is this certainty in my best interest?
Does this certainty serve me? If so, how?
My heart aches for people stuck in some past prison of their own making, unable or unwilling to move forward. Their certainty shackles them in ways no prison ever could. It traps them into being victims their entire lives. In their mind, it’s an absolute truth. Nobody is able to help them see more clearly because they won’t open their eyes. They choose to see their life as they want, making their life the reality they always believed it to be. Not realizing that they created it. First in their mind, then by their choices.
On the flip side are those of us who – with the help of close, safe advisors – do battle with ourselves and our circumstances to find the way forward. We resist the wisdom of others who seek to help us without any agenda other than our best. But if we can’t see it, we can’t see it. Delusion has many causes. Medications. Illicit drugs. Alcohol. Mental illness. Selfishness. Hardheadedness. Rebellion. Immaturity. It’s an endless list I suppose.
It’s the only group for whom I’m NOT sure if there is a way forward.
People committed to their delusion or to their potential – a very important term, POTENTIAL – wrong view. People who refuse to consider the possibility – no matter how remote – that they could be wrong. We like to think we’re rational. By the way, that doesn’t mean devoid of emotions. Only robots or machines are capable of that. It means we prefer to think we’re reasonable – that others can reason with us and that we’re capable of reasoning with ourselves. That we can listen, understand, and figure out when or if we’ve got something wrong. If we’re highly opinionated it means we’re very committed to our viewpoint, likely to the exclusion of contrary opinions. That’s why highly opinionated folks don’t tend toward being open-minded. And many are completely closed to the prospect that their opinion might be misinformed or incorrect.
Who among us is incapable of being helped? Those who refuse to be helped.
For all the rest of us, we are sure there’s a way forward – because there is.
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
― Henry Ford
Let’s start winding this down with a focus on YOU and helping you finding confidence in finding a way forward.
Allow me to give you a few suggestions (and that’s all they are).
Don’t be afraid of having your thoughts, beliefs, assumptions or opinions tested. The truth will hold up. So unless you’re fearful of the truth, there’s nothing to fear. Don’t be committed to delusion. It’s not the way forward.
Enlist safe people. Again, these are people you’re confident will not use anything against you. They want only your best. It doesn’t mean you’ll agree with them. Nor does it mean you have to.
Listen. Do it with the intention of hearing and understanding. Firstly, to better understand where you might not be seeing things as clearly as you could. Secondly, to allow your safe inner circle to help you question things so you can figure out the truth.
Resist the urge to hold onto the past. That includes the things that don’t withstand the wise challenges. This may be harder than you first think because it includes pet things, which can include anything…especially things that can blind us to the truth or what’s real. It happens with substances, sins, relationships, and anything we just refuse to give up even though it’s destructive.
Commit to act on what you’ve learned. Listening, understanding and learning do you no good until you put it into meaningful action.
Lean into making positive changes. Do it with confidence that you’ll figure it out even though you’re unsure of every step along the way. Based on your learning, you’ll have some solid ideas on how to begin. So begin.
Make adjustments along the way by being committed to your growth. Continue to lean on those safe people who helped you get this far. Keep questioning things. Keep pressure-testing everything.
All along the way, stop judging yourself and others. That doesn’t mean you fail to make some discernments. It means you avoid harsh judgment. Don’t put people in dog houses from which they can never escape. It won’t make you better.
I hope you’re pushing forward to find your way forward. During this pandemic I understand it may be harder, but what’s our better option? I don’t see that we have one. If you’ve got one, I’m ready to hear it.
Jason Wilber was John Prine’s longtime lead guitarist and musical director. John died during this pandemic. Jason released a new album after John passed. It’s entitled, Time Traveler and contains a song, Poet’s Life. Today’s show title is a lyric from that song.
How do you measure a pleasure or an itch?
I don’t know. But I don’t know how you measure sadness, sorrow or disappointment either? So my inability to measure such things runs in every direction.
I’ve been sharing way too much Billy Strings with the private Facebook group lately. Billy Strings is William Apostol. He’s a 27 year old guitar whiz kid who combines heavy metal with bluegrass. Yeah, I know. Sounds nuts, right? Well, it’s not nuts. It’s brilliant.
Billy is one of those artists that I’ll binge on a few times a year. I’ll just listen and watch everything I can for 2 weeks straight. Mostly in complete amazement at how somebody can be so proficient at something at such a young age. I look over in the corner at my encased acoustic guitar, which I’m unable to play – and I think of measuring the value of a guitar in Billy’s hands versus a guitar in my hands. At least you could kinda sorta measure that by looking at how much income Billy earns playing the guitar versus the zero dollars I’ll ever earn with a guitar. My only chance of making money on a guitar is if I sell mine!
I grew up hearing preachers deliver sermons about the powerful impact of godly women. Much of the time they’d speak of how priceless a godly wife, mother or grandmother was. And since I had all three, I can attest to the high value they deliver. But I’m not able to measure it.
Proverbs 31:10 “Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.”
I can’t play the guitar, but I sure do enjoy watching and listening to Billy Strings perform. In the last 2 weeks, I’ve likely spent over 50 hours listening to my Billy Strings’ records (okay, they’re digital) and watching his YouTube concerts. I love watching the guy perform. Many nights in the last 2 weeks his songs have been earworms.
Many things are hard to measure.
But maybe it’s worth asking, “Why measure them anyway?”
The square, super-logical among us would say, “Because you can’t make progress unless you can measure it.” Check out The Squircle Academy if you want to investigate circles and squares.
Ridiculous. Of course, you can make progress in something that can’t be measured.
Some aspects of love may be measurable, but it’s pretty hard.
John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”
So there’s the pinnacle, right? Hatred is at the opposing extreme I reckon. But what about all that space in between?
I fell in love with my wife in the summer of 1975. After 42 years of marriage, I love her more now than then. I don’t have any paperwork to prove it. Nor do I have any assessment I can show off to her. I just know how I feel and what I think. I can measure it intuitively. By how important she is to me. By how devastated I’d be if something bad were to happen to her. By how lonely I’d be without her. By the value she provides to my life.
Those moments are what I cherish the absolute most. For instance, when I was six or seven years old, I was learning “Beaumont Rag,” and I just played the rhythm, but I kept messing it up in this one part. Right in the middle of the song, I said, “Stop. Dad, why don’t you play it and let me listen?” I listened to what he was trying to say with the guitar, and I go, “Now, let me try it again,” and I nailed it. He started laughing. He reached over his guitar and squeezed my little hand. He called my grandmother and said, “Listen to your grandson right now!” I was a little kid, but I’ll never forget that moment. Now there have been several moments since then, like when I got to introduce my dad to David Grisman in real life because my dad introduced me to David Grisman when I was seven years old. We got to sing songs all night.
Let me play a little audio snippet of an evening where Billy Strings and Brian Sutton were playing together. Billy starts the conversation.
Now listen to an onstage interview Billy gave during one of his band’s live shows. Here he talks about the influence of his father.
Ask Billy to measure the gift his dad gave him. I’m pretty sure he’ll tell you there’s no way he can measure it.
That’s why years ago MasterCard developed that advertising strategy with a single punchline, “priceless.” Some things can’t be measured with dollars. Truth is, some things can’t be measured with anything.
Well, back to the lyric of Jason Wilber’s song – It’s Hard To Measure A Pleasure Or An Itch
Measuring some things is difficult. Especially things such as what we find joyous or pleasurable. Or pursuits that drive us (aka, itches we have that we just must scratch).
The implication is that we’re attempting to measure our own pleasure or itch. You may think, “Well, who else would measure it?” Oh, plenty of people are willing to judge our every move. Surely they’d be willing to take a crack at measuring our pleasure or itch.
Is it hard? Is it impossible? Maybe not.
We invest more of ourselves in things that matter to us. But it’s not always an accurate measurement of pleasure or an itch.
For example, I know some people who invest quite a lot in caring for a family member desperate for their help. It’s not pleasure or an itch. Doesn’t mean they hate it or resent it, but they’re not doing it for themselves. They spend quite a lot of time in the pursuit because the person matters that much to them. Self-sacrifice may be tougher to measure than our own pleasure or itches. Or maybe it’s easier for those fixated on what they’re giving up. That’s why you often hear folks prone to feeling victimized complain of what they could be, or what they could be doing “if only.” Sometimes, those measurements aren’t terribly accurate though. People often enjoy imaging loftier outcomes than are realistic. “If only I could devote myself to my own pursuits, then I’d be world-class.” Maybe. But not likely! 😉
Why does my mind go to illicit pursuits or selfish behavior? I wish it didn’t, but it often does because of the nature of my work. Coaching and supporting people means helping them through difficult times. There’s lots more of that than helping people jump on obvious – or not so obvious – opportunities. We all have tough times that require more than we may think we have to give. And in so many cases, I find myself talking with somebody about betrayal, pain, sorrow, suffering. Often caused by the selfish pursuits of others.
We jump on a Zoom call for a scheduled session. He’s off. Something is clearly preoccupying him today. I inquire.
He breaks down and tells me of a teenage son who is pursuing drugs and alcohol. How do you measure that kind of pleasure or itch on the part of his son? A broken life. A broken father. A family turned upside down. The damage is immeasurable. We both realize the cost of this ordeal will likely last for a long time. Perhaps lifetimes.
So let’s restrict the conversation to honorable, not-quite-so-selfish, and moral pursuits or pleasures.
I’m tired of all the time Adversity requires of each of us. I’m exhausted thinking and talking about hatred, betrayal, and all the other ways we’re able to impose harm on others. The unkindness and other foul behavior in the name of our selfish pursuits of happiness. “I deserve to be happy!” That sound you hear is me retching over in the corner. You hear it when a husband cheats on his wife. Or a wife cheats on her husband. We can justify violating our marriage vows…proving we can justify almost anything. Including a teenage boy willing to throw his life away to get high – and the lives of his family who love him and are desperate to save him.
“The business of life is the acquisition of memories,” said Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey fame. I loved that show. Some great quotes in every episode.
What memories are we acquiring? What memories are we helping others acquire? It may be among the ways we can manage a pleasure or an itch. By gauging our memories and the memories others around us report.
You heard now 27-year-old Billy Strings talk about events that happened in his life when he was just a child. Seven-year-old children know little about a pleasure or an itch. Mostly, the 7-year-olds who have and do occupy my life just want to play and have fun. But they’ll grow up and remember things. Little Billy has turned into one of the planet’s very best guitar players. His pleasure playing the guitar and his itch to use it as his voice first set sail when he was just a little boy surrounded by family who loved music. Particularly a father who loved it so that he passed it onto his son forming a bond that seems to only grow stronger over time.
There’s a great video of Billy presenting his dad with a custom made guitar from Preston Thompson Guitars, a Billy Strings Signature model – specifically #1 of 33.
There’s a great story Billy shared on Thompson Guitars’ YouTube channel about his dad’s original Martin D-93.
He’s 17 when he buys the guitar back. Which means he was about 11 when his dad had to sell it. That’s a pretty big impact on an 11-year-old boy to scrape together $700 for three months in a row. Not to mention the letter-writing campaign and salesmanship to get the seller to cooperate. That’s how you measure a pleasure or an itch. By the sacrifice and action taken.
There’s our answer.
That’s how you measure a pleasure or an itch.
There are at least a gazillion examples. Since I’ve been on a Billy Strings binge I was thinking of a documentary I saw years ago on Chet Atkins. He grew up in extreme poverty. Introverted by nature, Chet found it easy to sit alone with a guitar in his hands. He confessed he could sit and play for hours. Spending time with the guitar was an accurate measure of the pleasure and the itch Chet had to play the guitar.
The documentary ended with Chet saying this…
“If you’re lucky in this world, you’ll be born in the country, and at an early age somebody will give you a guitar and you’ll play it with your fingers. That’s what it’s all about.”
Who knows how many kids are born in the country, given a guitar at an early age, but don’t end up being very good at playing the guitar. Much less, how few are talented enough and dedicated enough to earn a living at it. Never mind being good enough to become like Chet Atkins. But those are measurements of success, not measurements of a pleasure or an itch. Or are they?
Effort versus success is a long-standing debate. I don’t claim to have superior insight, but it seems evident that success requires a degree of effort, but effort won’t guarantee success.
Barry Sanders is in the NFL Hall of Fame. He was a running back for the woeful Detroit Lions, after playing college ball for Oklahoma State University. He walked away from the game in the prime of his professional life. Partly because football wasn’t much of a pleasure or an itch. Seems improbable given his success, but his talent was exceptional. Sometimes we see people who are extremely good at something whose pleasure doesn’t match the success.
I’m thinking of all those people – from ex-Presidents to famous Hollywood actors – who enjoy painting and spend lots of time at it. Their success isn’t in painting, but that’s their itch. That’s what gives them pleasure. They don’t do it for success.
I could argue that their success in whatever they’re known for (from politics to sports to acting) affords them to luxury of spending time doing something purely for the enjoyment. Unleashed from having to earn their income from it, they can dive in just because they love it so.
It’s a complicated thing trying to measure things that aren’t so easily measured.
Sacifice and action work…until you insert outcomes. That sparks further debate. Why must we pin outcomes on all this? Because it’s what we do. It’s how we gauge most things. Maybe that’s worth rethinking. Perhaps we ought to challenge that.
Is it because we live in a capitalistic society here in America? Is it because we’re so competitive? Is it because we love to compare ourselves against others? Is it because we love to keep score?
Yes, yes, yes and yes. Likely.
True confession: One of the things that prompted today’s episode was my realization that I love to do a number of things that have no real outcome other than I love them. And I won’t dive too deeply into things like appreciating things such as great cartoons or music. You might argue those aren’t requiring any action on my part. Some would say they’re passive. I’m not so sure about that, but I think I understand the point. I’m not drawing the cartoons. I’m not creating the music. So how profitable could it be? Well, thankfully profitable isn’t the barometer. Pleasure or an itch…those are the things that matter in today’s conversation.
I can’t truly measure the pleasure I get or the itch I have to listen to music. But I can measure my sacrifice and action in time spent doing it. It’s a lot. Sometimes I’m doing nothing nothing else, but that’s not the norm. Mostly I’m doing something else with the headphones on. But sometimes I’m walking. Other times I’m sitting and doing nothing else. Still, there are hours and hours spent listening to songs. So it’s important.
Because I could be doing something else.
My wife listens to audiobooks. I’ve not listened to more than 10 audiobooks in my entire life. I love to read and I’ll spend hours doing that, too. But I don’t listen to audiobooks.
I love to podcast, but I’ll really blow your mind. I can’t tell you the last podcast I listened to. That’s right. Especially since this pandemic hit, I don’t think I’ve listened to a single podcast. Maybe snippets of some here and there, but barely even that. I love this communication though.
I love music, but I don’t love creating it because I haven’t a clue how. Plus I lack the talent. Fact is, I have a lifelong habit of failing to make the sacrifices or take the action necessary to learn. It’s clearly not important to me. Not like listening is.
I once spent a lot of time drawing, but I’ve not done that since college. I love Ballard Street cartoons though. I’ve spent time and money (sacrifice and action) proving how enjoyable Ballard Street is to me. I’ve spent no time in the last 45 years improving my ability to create cartoons.
I’ve spent years and countless hours behind the mic podcasting but I’ve spent very little time with headphones on listening to podcasts. I much prefer music over podcasts when it comes to consumption, but not when it comes to creation.
These aren’t up for argument in my life any more than they are in your life. We like what we like. We loath what we loath. Why? Sometimes we know. Sometimes we don’t.
I’m unable to measure it.
Take that Chet Atkins quote. He was born in poverty in eastern Tennessee. I wasn’t.
He picked up a guitar that belonged to a brother who played. The brother was 14 years older.
I don’t even have a brother. Much less an older brother who knew how to play.
Like Billy Strings, Chet’s family played music. My family only played records.
Would I behave differently if my circumstances had been different? We’ll never know. This is where the measuring thing really challenges us. Our imaginations go to work on what might have been.
Late in high school and in early college I could see myself writing for a living. But I remember telling friends, “I don’t know any writers. They all live up in the northeast.” Well, that wasn’t true, but it was indicative of how we can perceive things and how those perceptions can fuel our choices. I knew of great southern writers. And of others from the northwest. But my generalization was merely the statement of a younger man who just couldn’t see himself in a role because I knew nobody personally who did it.
So did the itch or pleasure leave? No. It morphed. Into podcasting. Blogging. Creating tons of notebooks. Never mind that I wasn’t able to make a living doing the things. I made sure I did them anyway.
It doesn’t make them more or less valuable. It just makes them part of our lives. We trade things. Sacrifice.
Rather than play music I listened to it.
Rather than listen to podcasts, I create them.
Rather than listen to books, I read them.
Those are personal choices I make. That’s how I’m able to measure my own pleasure and itches.
There was once a man who said to me constantly, “I’ve scratched every itch I ever had.” I haven’t. Because many of them were pretty fleeting itches. Or the pleasures weren’t strong enough 0r valuable enough to give something up instead.
Life is a constant calculation – whether on the fly or with long-term planning. Is it worth it?
Is it worth putting headphones on while clicking play to another Billy Strings’ concert? For you, maybe not. For me? At 3am when I’m not able to sleep. You bet. All night long. In fact, while I’m writing this I’m watching – for the umpteenth time – his concert in 2019 at Red Rocks.
“I used my only phone call to contact my daddy…I got 20 long years for some dust in a baggie.” 😀
By the time I was 20 I had learned a very hard truth. Many of us are in love with being able to do something, but we’re not in love with the process of actually doing it. My love of guitar taught me that. I was a slow learner. 😉
In 1974 I bought a brand new book by Tom Wheeler. Tom was a writer for Guitar Player magazine, eventually became the chief editor in 1981. A corporate takeover of the magazine caused him to jump ship to become a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. He died in 2018 when he was 70. I share that because it was his book that occupied me for 3 years before I concluded the truth of my life. I was more in love with being able to play the guitar than I was actually spending time learning to play. In my mind, I can imagine what it might be like to play like Billy Strings. What I’m unable to imagine is the countless hours spent figuring out how to play, which is exactly why Billy Strings is Billy Strings and I’m not. Well, that and the big talent gap between us. 😀
That’s how you measure a pleasure or an itch.
What are you willing to give up so you can have something?
Chet was playing in the boy’s restroom of the little country school because the acoustics were so good in there. What were the other boys doing? Chet says the ones who had any money were rolling dice in that same bathroom in an opposite corner from where he sat playing his guitar. Had I been at that school, I’d have likely been outside with a football. It still wouldn’t have resulted in an NFL career though!
The process is almost always unpleasant and ugly for those of us who aren’t doing it. It can even be unpleasant for us sometimes.
Did Billy Strings ever suck at the guitar? Of course. Probably not for long, but I’m only guessing. Only his family likely knows or remembers.
First efforts are sparked more by itch than pleasure. I’m willing to speculate based largely on what I know of Billy that he wanted to be able to play like his dad, who is a really good picker. The pleasure of practice was the sacrifice and action sparked because the itch was so strong. In time, the practice became increasingly more pleasurable. Soon enough, it was what Chet experienced. It was simply playing because he loved it so. Talent kicked in catapulting him past his peers.
My itch wasn’t strong enough to be scratched. When it came to the guitar, I had a very minor mosquito bite. Billy had full blow poison ivy.
That measurement was key for me.
You can’t have everything. Nobody can. It’s a fool’s errand to think otherwise.
Billy Strings has a celebrity net worth (you know you check out that website) of $5 million. His dad has the chops to have played music for a living, but he never did. What he did do is teach a little boy, his stepson. A little boy he clearly loves every bit as much as if he were his own biological offspring.
Billy is now 27. When I was 27 I didn’t have a net worth (celebrity or otherwise) of $5 million. But I had a little boy and a little girl. I had a wife I’d been married to almost 7 years. I had a fairly successful business career. I had a mentor who was helping me learn more about the Bible. I was very active at church, which was the priority. I gave up some things so I could grab other things that mattered more. So did my wife. And together, as a couple, we gave us some things together so we could have other things we felt were more important. More valuable to us.
“I made different choices.”
We can all say that when we compare our lives to others. Or to some ideal we have of what our life may have been like.
You measure a pleasure or an itch by the choices you made – and are making. Not by the choices you failed to make. Even if they’re choices you wish you would have made.
Maybe that’s why the process has to matter more than the outcome. It’s why Billy Strings loves playing the guitar and I enjoy listening to guys and gals like him play. He admits he knows he’s blessed to play for a living, but acknowledges he’d be playing any way. And I believe him. I know I’d be listening no matter what.
We love to fascinate our imaginations with what might have been – mostly fixating on the most positive outcomes. In bedrooms and small spaces all over the world are children with guitars in hand dreaming of being Billy Strings or their favorite guitarist. Some are putting in the work. Others, not so much. But they’re all dreaming. Time will tell perhaps – perhaps not – if some have a strong enough itch or pleasure coupled with talent to make the dream a reality.
Billy Strings is having success, but he’s not likely ever going to displace Taylor Swift. She’s worth an estimated $360 million. To be fair, she’s 3 years older than Billy though so she’s got a head start.
You know how I know he loves it. Watch his face when he’s playing (the way he looks while playing in the summer of 2014 above is how he still looks). Except for this pandemic he’s playing 200 shows a year and has been doing for the past few years. He earning fans the hard way – playing live. You don’t hear his stuff on radio or TV. He loves playing. He loves performing. And he’s playing bluegrass coupled with a heavy metal vibe. Pop music is way more profitable. Another reason I know he loves it. He’s devoted to the genre, not because there’s money in it, but because it’s who he is and what he loves. His itch IS his pleasure.
Pursuit is worth the action and sacrifice.
Do you measure a pleasure or an itch by whether or not you can succeed at it?
Some do. And I get it.
I’m often said, “If it’s worth fighting for, then it’s worth winning.” And I’ve often asked, “Why fight unless there’s hope of victory?”
But I’m not sure that’s correct. Sometimes the fight is worth fighting just because you enjoy the fight.
I used to box with my next-door neighbor, Ray. I loved boxing. Ray knew what he was doing. I had no clue. Ray got in fights at school. I never have been in a fistfight. Ever. But I loved the process. Boxing was fun. Even if I did get punched in the nose by Ray time and time again. Until I learned how to hit him in the nose, which was way yonder more fun! But still, I just enjoyed boxing. Even if I lost, it was fun because the process was pleasurable.
Does the itch compel you to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do?
Do you enjoy doing it? Enough that you’ll forego doing something else?
Many nights I’d just soon have on headphones and have Billy Strings – or somebody else – playing in my ears than sleep. And I rather love sleep, but evidently I love listening to music more. Other nights, like now, I’ll add one more action to the equation. Writing. The itch is thinking about all this stuff and trying to figure out ways to communicate it to you. I don’t claim to be good at it, but I absolutely do love it. If not, then I wouldn’t do it. I’d do something else. Find another itch to scratch.
Have you ever tried to manage such things? For instance, have you ever tried to increase your passion for something because you know you’re not pursuing it? I’m curious how that worked out for you because I’ve never been able to fabricate it myself. Maybe I’m just inept at it. For me, it’s every bit like having a preference for one flavor of milkshake over another. It just is what it is and I have no real understanding of why. But if I were to try to make strawberry milkshakes be my favorite I’d still likely fail, even though I love strawberry flavor. I’m more likely to pick vanilla even over the chocolate and I love chocolate, too. I don’t know why. I can’t influence it to be something it’s not though.
Maybe you can. I’d love to hear about it if you’ve been able to influence your itches like that. I’d imagine it’s quite powerful if you can make yourself have an itch where one didn’t exist, or if you can intensify an itch where one wasn’t strong enough to fuel you to take some real action.
Let me give one final thought a go. I wonder if this resonates with you. I often get way too fascinated with wondering what itch I might be able to take better advantage of, but I just don’t have the itch. Mostly, I wonder about unrealized talent. I wonder what I might be very good at, but I’ve never tried it because I just lack the itch. Do you ever wonder that about yourself?
I’m pretty sure all of us have talents we’ll never know about. There’s no evidence that I’m right, of course. It’s just intuition. But it seems logical given how many things a human could pursue. I would have made different choices perhaps if I had the insight into such things. By the 7th grade, I knew math wasn’t likely going to be a dominant player in my future. I knew words and speech likely were. From an early age, I sorta figured communication would be in my wheelhouse and science would not be.
Maybe we just enjoy imagining what it might be like to be world-class at something because most of us aren’t world-class at anything. I’m not naive enough to think that’s possible, but I am mature enough to know it doesn’t matter. We can provide big value without being world-class. Still, it’s nice to imagine what it might be like to be top-notch at something. That’s why Billy Strings and other proficient musicians capture my imagination so. To pick up a guitar and be able to play with other musicians and follow them wherever they go musically is just something beyond my ability to comprehend, but I’ve seen Billy and other musicians do it.
Don’t get me wrong. Again, I don’t think we have to be that exceptional to be super valuable to the world, but wouldn’t it be nice? I’m not that good at anything. Certainly not something that could be performed so others might notice. Which is another aspect of all this that fascinates me. I can look at Billy’s face and body when he’s playing and know how deep the pleasure goes and how big of an itch he’s got when it comes to making music on a guitar. Performance.
Most of my biggest moments have been done when nobody was looking. Business decisions. One-on-one coaching.
That suits me fine, but sometimes…wouldn’t it be nice if at least your family could see you at your best instead of your worst?
Well, it speaks to the notion that you can’t improve anything if you can’t measure it. Maybe whoever said that was onto something. If we could accurately measure a pleasure or an itch then maybe we could improve it, although it completely escapes me how!
Then again, there are some itches that shouldn’t be scratched, but that’s a whole ‘nother episode. All those selfish mongrels who chase whatever they please without any consideration to who they hurt. Which is why I began the show talking about us pursuing honorable, moral things.
Lately, I’m having a harder time identifying a pleasure or an itch – a passion, if you please. Nevermind measuring the stupid things. Perhaps I’m nearing the end of the line because I don’t much think in terms of pleasures or itches. I think more in terms of figuring out if tonight I’ll be sleeping or watching more Billy Strings. The odds are heavy in Billy’s favor!