It’s Not Too Late

When I was eighteen, I did (arguably) a very silly thing. I went to college.

All I really knew of life at that point was school. How could I possibly even come close to taking full advantage of what a university as large as the one I went to (Penn State) had to offer?

Sure, I inevitably got some things out of my four years there. I was exposed to new ideas and people. I had a handful of wonderful professors and matured maybe a smidge. But college (for me) was more or less a holding period before entering the so-called “real world” (where I would do significantly more learning and growing, and at a much more rapid pace).

The opportunities were there for me, as an undergrad, to explore all kinds of interests. I could have, for instance:

• Taken a Basic Film Production class
• Hiked Mt. Nittany
• Auditioned for a play
• Applied to be a columnist for The Daily Collegian (the student-run newspaper)
• Joined (or started) a club
• Joined (or started) a band
• Played an intramural sport
• Studied abroad for a semester (that’s “abroad” – one word)

I was interested in all of these things; I did none of them.

Looking back, I think there is one simple, overarching explanation for this: I didn’t yet have the necessary life skills. I wasn’t ready. Wasn’t personally developed enough. (In defense of my younger self: how many people are at that age?)

Kind of sad, huh?

But here’s the good news. Those interests you had when you were younger, but never pursued? There’s no reason you can’t do so now. You’re older, sure. You have more responsibilities, no doubt. But in almost every way, you’re better equipped now. You know yourself better. You’re not as insecure. You have life experience to bring to the table. You’ve seen a commitment or two through, and know how that’s done.

Though I did none of the things I listed above as an undergrad, I am proud to say that I didn’t bury all of those interests permanently:

•  I may not have hiked to the top of Mt. Nittany, but I have hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney.
•  I may not have auditioned for a play back then, but I’ve done some community theater since.
•  I may not have had my own newspaper column, but I now have this blog.
•  I may not have joined any clubs, but I’ve since joined – and had rich, rewarding experiences with – the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Sierra Club.
•  I may not have played an intramural sport, but I did take a volleyball class through an adult education program.
•  I may not have studied abroad, but I’ve since traveled to other countries.

And it’s still not too late for me to do some version of any of a host of other things I was once interested in, should I still wish to.

Maybe…one day…I’ll even get around to…choosing a major.  🙂

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The Bite Takes Hold…

Spideric

Four months ago I wrote a post about feeling like a kid again, entitled Bitten by a Radioactive Spider. It was about how I stumbled onto the “Traveling Rings” at Santa Monica Beach, and how the many athletic feats performed there on a daily basis by everyday people filled me with excitement and awe.

To me, it’s a very encouraging sign that I can still be captivated by new things and develop new interests, hobbies, and even passions well into adulthood – that this experience is not exclusively the domain of the young. (After all, in geologic time, we’re all young, right?)

Still, one of the advantages that kids generally have over “grown-ups” is they tend to have a much higher tolerance for being a beginner at something. And, of course, if you’re not willing to try something new – and to be terrible at it initially – then the possibility of getting good, or even just enjoying it, completely disappears.

For whatever reason, I was so intrigued with what I saw people doing on the rings that it infected me with the desire to do it, too. And I was perfectly okay with being a clumsy beginner.

Fortunately for me, there is a wonderful sense of camaraderie down at the original home of “Muscle Beach” – it’s an incredibly positive atmosphere where people stretch themselves (both literally and figuratively), welcome and encourage newbies, freely share what they know, and are in it (from what I’ve seen) just for the sheer joy of it. People connect over a shared love of physical challenge, regardless of their skill level, and they help each other out instinctively.

Imagine if the whole world operated that way.

The other point worth noting is that the rings are FUN! Remember playing outside and making friends with whoever else was out there playing, too? It’s like that, except – at age 42 – I don’t have to go back inside at my mom’s beck and call.

Adulthood rules.

I’ve got a long way to go on the rings: much still to learn, and much fun still to have. But I’ve made a lot of progress since my first go at it. My childhood dream of being like Spider-Man just may come true, after all…

(The below video was recorded this morning by my devoted wife and videographer, Samantha):

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Winning the Lottery

I would guess that it is a vast minority of people who haven’t fantasized about winning the lottery. (And I’d further speculate that this would consist mainly of those who, somehow or other, had never heard of it to begin with.) After all, what would (seemingly) be a more sure-fire, effort-free, way to solve your biggest problems in an instant? Winning the lottery could mean, for instance, never having to work at some job you hate, or even moderately dislike, ever again.

That’s worth repeating:

NO STUPID JOB.  EVER AGAIN.

I’d be willing to wager the price of one SuperLotto or MegaMillions ticket that that thought alone is enough to elicit a huge smile on your face (if not fill you with tears of unmitigated joy).

And yet – on a deeper level we (sort of) understand that winning the lottery wouldn’t really be the panacea we imagine it would. Perhaps we have read about those studies that conclude that, after six months or so, lottery winners return to right around the same levels of happiness they had before winning. We may even have heard tales of people who squandered all of their winnings (and then some), or otherwise ended up much worse off than they were prior to winning – that winning the lottery had, in fact, ruined their lives.

Even so, we’re quite sure that such a fate would not befall us in the same situation. We would be far more sensible, far more responsible, far more intelligent and judicious with our winnings. We wouldn’t blow them or waste them. We would be so grateful to have won, we would even be sure to use some of our prize to perform good deeds as well as take care of our own creature comforts and the people closest to us.

Right?

***

Well…what if it turned out you already have won the lottery? And you are as happy in your lottery-winning reality as you were when you first woke up this morning, or as you are now, reading this. Perhaps – though you are to some extent aware of your incredible good fortune – you have come, over time, to simply take it for granted.

It’s not so far-fetched, is it?

Given that one very particular sperm cell, among some hundreds of millions of its comrades, had to be the one to fertilize the egg that became YOU in all of your unique (even if you’re a twin) chromosomal glory, it would reasonably follow that you have, in a very real sense, already won the lottery just by virtue of being born. The lottery of life, as it were.

And just as winning the dollar-jackpot lottery does not guarantee you freedom from countless potential sufferings (such as physical pain, illness, anxiety, loss of loved ones, loneliness, and purposelessness, to name an outstanding few), so, too, winning the lottery of life does not grant you immunity from any of these things. In fact, it all but guarantees them.

However, this does not take away your status as a winner and overcomer of truly incredible odds. You, if you’re reading this, have hit the jackpot!

So, seeing as how you are a lottery winner, I have a few questions:

•   Are you putting your winnings to use wisely, or are you spending them more frivolously/mindlessly than you thought you would?

•   Are you as philanthropic with your winnings as you imagined you’d be, or are you mostly hoarding them?

•   Do you fully appreciate your good fortune (even with its accompanying, inevitable difficulties) or have you come to take it for granted?

Life is difficult, even in best-case scenarios. Even for lottery winners. Difficulty just comes with the territory. Yet, most would agree it is a privilege to be here. And most would tell you that a lottery winner is a lucky person indeed.

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You Are Protected. No Problems Detected.

Recently, I had Internet security software installed on my phone. Ever since, each and every time I press the button to activate my home screen, I am greeted with the following message (next to the green icon):

You are protected

What an interesting couple of lines to take in numerous times a day! Knowing the power of advertising (and suggestion), I can’t help but wonder if, through enough repeated exposure, these words might infiltrate my subconscious to the point where I truly and unequivocally believed them.

Imagine! All of this time, I’ve been operating under the presumption that I am prone to an endless variety of potential illnesses, injuries, infringements, slights, accidents, insults, heartbreaks, disasters, travesties, and tragedies, when, all along, it turns out I have always and actually been completely protected. And those things I’ve considered to be “problems” have also been illusory, a mere matter of my own misperceptions, misinterpretations, and misjudgments. After all, from the perspective of Absolute Objectivity/Ultimate Reality, no problems can be detected.

Maybe life is just a simulation, a sort of high-tech virtual reality game. We believe our afflictions are real, and that danger (with death being the most extreme form of this) must be avoided at all costs. So we spend our time dodging as many bullets as we can, and clinging to as much “security” as possible, to prolong the length of a game that has to (by virtue of its program) end at one point or another. We strive to acquire as many points as we can while we’re playing, even though it’s pretty apparent they won’t mean anything once the game is done. When our avatar bites the dust the game, in fact, ends, but we (aside from maybe a blister or two, and/or some wounded pride) are fine. We are “protected”.

But what would be the point of such a virtual reality game? And why must we suffer so, believing that all of the sorrows and strife within it are truly problematic, if they really are not?

Well, what kind of game (worth playing) would not have obstacles, limitations, difficulties, and challenges to overcome? How engaging could it possibly be? And if you, the player, completely understood how the game worked, and knew exactly what to do in any one of a nearly unlimited number of scenarios, how much fun would it be? If you knew that it wasn’t “real” (and therefore, didn’t “matter”), how seriously would you take it? Would you give it your best?

Maybe better to ask yourself: how do I, as a player, approach this game? Do I enjoy it only if I “win”? Can I have fun while I’m learning how to play, even if I initially suck at it? Can I enjoy the process of fumbling through it, of learning as I go, of having an experience for its own sake?

Maybe a game such as this has no purpose other than to choose your own adventures and to connect with other players and the virtual world itself. Maybe the only real point is to, in the course of the game’s multitudinous challenges, develop certain character traits: patience, determination, wonder, courage, compassion, grit, appreciativeness, resilience, acceptance, creativity, generosity, and trust, for instance. And to have fun. A game should be fun.

When the game is over, maybe you get to play again. Maybe not. But, since it’s a game, and one that doesn’t last long at all in the scheme of things, maybe none of its dangers or problems are significant (at least not by the standards of Ultimate Reality). Maybe, as compellingly real as these dangers and problems seem while you are playing, they were all just built into the game to make it engaging, challenging, thrilling, and an experience worth having.

Maybe, if you stepped outside of the game long enough and looked at the program, you would find a message encoded within that reassured you:

“You are protected. No problems detected.”

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On Progress and Process

One of the greatest joys in life – in my experience and opinion – is the feeling of making progress, of getting better at something. Of being able to do something you, only a short while before, could not do (or could not do as well).

Examples are endless. A few that come to mind:

  • Practicing a musical instrument. Sometimes you can have the experience of being able to play something you previously could not (or play it significantly better) after only a single session of sitting down with your instrument. Certainly, regular practice only makes the experience of progress quicker and more frequent.
  • Building physical endurance or strength. Running, or weight lifting, for example. You gradually/systematically push your body slightly beyond what it has previously done. Then, after internalizing the gain through rest and recovery, you’re able to do even more the next time.
  • Overcoming a fear. Through repeated exposure, you lessen your anxiety about doing something you want to do (say, public speaking, or giving blood), and then feel good about yourself afterwards for having done it.

These are positively reinforcing experiences. They make you want to keep going. To continue making even more progress!

Now, of course, progress isn’t always linear. You are likely to have “good days” and “bad days”. You don’t always improve each time you do an activity. Sometimes, you even have the experience of feeling as if you’re backsliding. That’s normal. That is part of the process.

Progress and process are intertwined. In order to make progress at something, you have to surrender to the process. If you can learn to enjoy the process (and not just the tangible, verifiable progress you’ve made), you’ve won. The irony is that once you let go of your attachment to progress at something, you are actually increasing the likelihood of achieving it.

Whenever possible, and whatever the activity, my “goal” is to get better at enjoying the process, and not just my progress. After all, most (if not all) of life is process. Therefore, the best progress I can make at living is to increasingly enjoy – or at the very least, make friends with – the process of it.

Or, as Harry Chapin once put it in song: “It’s got be the going, not the getting there, that’s good.”

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Bitten by a Radioactive Spider

My current job – a “temporary” job (as if there were any other kind) – is situated blocks from the beach in Santa Monica, and I often take advantage of this with a lunchtime stroll to enjoy the sun, sand, ocean, and people-watching.

Not long ago on just such an outing, I witnessed something that stopped me in my tracks…and rekindled a childhood fantasy.

Imagine seeing Spider-Man (sans costume) shooting webs from one outstretched arm and then the other to maneuver his way mid-air from building to building, swinging gleefully all the while. But instead of swinging through the air by way of (not-yet-available-in-real-life) humanized-spider webbing, he is propelling himself by clutching the next in a series of gymnastic rings, which hang from a metallic construction secured to the ground on Santa Monica Beach.

“Whooooooooaaaaaa!” I said, probably out loud.

And thus began my regular stops to watch real-life superheroes in action just south of the Santa Monica Pier. (There is a whole outdoor “gym” in this area, free to the public, and people use it to perform a wide variety of stunts and acrobatic displays worthy of any number of Marvel or DC characters.)

Spidey sighting

Spidey sighting

I want to be Spider-Man!” I thought. And, really, after watching a number of people have a go at it, it didn’t look all that difficult to swing from ring to ring (though some certainly did it more theatrically than others).

So, one day I finally decided to transition from observer to participant, from mere mortal to would-be-superhero. I took my shoes off, stepped onto the beach, and mustered up the nerve to approach the rings myself and give it a whirl.

And you know what?

It was hard!

Waaaaaay harder than it looked.

Most of the people I had been watching would sail through all ten rings, and then maneuver their way back in the same manner. I, however, reached the second ring and then, after hanging for a few moments like dead weight, promptly dropped to the ground.

***

Fortunately, I keep Eleanor Roosevelt’s maxim close to my heart: “You cannot be embarrassed without your consent.”

And, so, the injury to my pride was minuscule. In fact, it wasn’t humiliation that came over me upon having my inadequate upper body strength (not to mention lack of grace and technique) so matter-of-factly pointed out.

I became filled, instead, with a sense of mission. I had stumbled upon nothing short of a new life purpose: I was going to learn how to do this!!!

And having a life purpose that you are actively pursuing – however trivial, silly, impractical, insignificant, childish, unimportant, or ridiculous it might seem to others – is (you’ll pardon the term) the shit!

Why? Because it means you’re engaged. And being engaged means being alive (something merely having a pulse does not guarantee).

***

This story is still in progress. I haven’t (yet) become like Spider-Man. But I have been bitten by a radioactive spider, so to speak. And so my (super)hero’s journey has begun…

warning

To get a better idea of exactly what I’m talking about, check out the “Amazing” Spider-Men and Spider-Woman who use these rings with real finesse in the YouTube video (that I did not create) below:

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What If…?

What if:

  • You sent someone a random message, card, or e-mail of sincere appreciation/acknowledgment, and it reached her just as she was having an especially difficult day and was feeling really down on herself?
  • You came up with your own personal menu of ways to put small pockets of free time (5 minutes here, 10 minutes there) to some positive use, and started implementing these on a daily basis?
  • You simply decided to do the thing you’re afraid to do?
  • Today ended up being the last day of your life?
  • You paused right before you were about to react out of anger, and waited until you were in a better frame of mind to respond?
  • You made taking care of yourself a priority?
  • It turns out it was much easier than you thought to do something you wanted to do?
  • All you had to do was ask?
  • You stopped worrying about doing something perfectly, and did it anyway so that others might still benefit?
  • You started paying attention to every good thing that happens to you, and wrote these down in a notebook each day?
  • It turns out you were wrong?
  • It turns out you were right?
  • You have other options?
  • You already have everything you need?
  • You have the power to affect and influence people to a much greater degree than you ever imagined?
  • You really showed up for each day?
  • You substituted water for soda every day for the rest of your life?
  • Taking the risk paid off?
  • You didn’t get what you thought you wanted, but you still want what you ended up getting?
  • One person’s life was made easier by something you did today?
  • You don’t need 50% of the things you spend money on, and could be just as happy without them?
  • You started a blog?
  • You didn’t watch TV for a month, and ended up not missing it?
  • You stopped caring what other people might think?
  • You did something you previously thought you could never do?
  • You took the first step?
  • When in doubt, you erred on the side of communication/clarification?
  • You took one less thing for granted?
  • You got a better night’s sleep?
  • You could learn to be content regardless of external factors?
  • You learned that person’s name you see every day and started addressing him by it?
  • You disrupted a social norm?
  • You smiled more often?
  • You experimented more?
  • You already beat lottery-winning odds just by being alive?
  • Opportunities abound, and it’s just a matter of tuning in to them?
  • You don’t have to do anything to prove your inherent worth?
  • Here is just as good as there?
  • This is as ready as you’ll ever be?
  • The person you are envious of isn’t actually all that happy?
  • All is forgiven?
  • The worst actually happens?
  • You can still become passionately interested in something new?
  • You matter?
  • There is life after heartbreak?
  • That fortune cookie was right that said: “Nature, time, and patience are the three great physicians”?
  • The experts are wrong?
  • You could be anywhere in the world tomorrow?
  • There’s hope?
  • You added something to this list in the “comments” section below?
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