The Key to Unhappiness

It is time to turn the tables. Typically, I focus on what works in life. But today I’m taking a new approach.

It hit me like a ton of sun-baked bricks this morning as I observed life and the people in it that there is one surefire way to ensure a consistent level of unhappiness. And as I scan the headlines and Facebook feeds and other news outlets, I see how easy it is to overlook how often we all do it.

That is to judge others. To wish they were different. To complain when they aren’t. To pick and criticize and throw major tantrums. To catapult oneself into a tirade about how very unjust everyone else is being.

2017-06-11 21.00.43If you have been there in the checkout line or the traffic lane or the dentist’s office or any other place where there are people other than just you, you may have experienced how you have looked at another person and judged him or her on the spot without any basis of understanding of who that person is. And subconsciously you may have waited to find evidence that your thoughts are somehow based in reality. So you wait, like a pounce-happy panther, until you prove yourself right.

And then you laugh or cry or rage about it with friends who think just like you do. And you feel, deep down, justified in your judgements.

Am I judging myself for admitting this?

Oh! To be human is to judge. And assess. And want to be right. About pretty much everything. On a personal level, it can lead to disharmony. On a global one, it can lead to war.

All the posturing and posing and presupposing can be quite exhausting. I’m wondering if we, for a moment, could pause from all the judgement to take a deep, long breath and remember how connected we all are. To exercise compassion even when we don’t feel like reminding ourselves that it is true. Because, whether we agree or not, we all share this planet. We all share the human experience.

And there I go again. Looking at what works. Because clearly what we are currently doing to each other doesn’t.

I’m wondering, even if it is hard, to admit we make unfair judgements sometimes. It is what we #ShareTogether. But that doesn’t mean it has to tear us apart. Does it?

Misery loves company. But so does something else.

One nation. Indivisible. For liberty and justice for all. And yet we’re pretty darn divided. In what we believe. In whom we support. We are so torn apart ideologically that many of us, including myself, have forgotten what we have in common. We have become married to our misery, seeking comfort in those who think like we do. And we are getting nowhere fast as we forge distances from those who do not.

And yet empathy, that great emotion of connectivity, is what helps us feel others’ pain. It is what helps us understand another person’s point of view. Compassion is a precious human characteristic, one that can help us find a way back to each other.

Lake Constance, 2017

Lake Constance, 2017

What we have in common is a lot more than you think. And as I got to thinking about it, I realized seeing common ground helps me see more possibilities. And seeing possibilities makes me hopeful. Which makes me grateful. And where there is gratitude, there is no fear, which is at the root of our collective problem. You see, we have a collective problem. You and I. That’s one of the things we #ShareTogether. Our problem is the separateness we feel about people who don’t think like we do.

So I’d like to do a little experiment. I’d like to come up with all the things we share together, not only as Americans, but as human beings. In order to do it, I need your input.

What is the thing that we all share? I’ve started a list that I will share in meme form on Facebook individually. But first, I’d love to hear yours, which I will happily share with name credit (and with your permission) to my social media network.

#ShareTogether

#WhatWeHaveInCommon

Oxygen. We all need it to survive. Every one of us uses it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A birthplace. Every one of us was born somewhere. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Skin. It’s the largest organ we have. Every one of us has skin. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A favorite song, book or movie. You don’t have to be an expert to hold a favorite song, book or movie close to your heart. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Time. Every one of us has time, even if we live like we don’t. Most of us measure it by the 24-hour clock, others by the rhythm of the Earth. Either way we measure it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The planet. Unless you’re an astronaut currently in space, you’re on it. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The sun’s movement. Many celebrated the solar eclipse in the United States yesterday. The sun’s movement is something every one of us experiences daily. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Technology. If you’re reading this, you have access to technology. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Death. You may have never experienced it, but you will one day. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

A belief system. Even if you don’t believe in a Higher Power, you believe in something, even if it is nothing. That’s a belief system too. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

Childhood. Every one of us has (had) one. Good, bad or indifferent. The fact is every one of us is a child at some point, typically chronologically from the start of life until the end of our teens. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The ability to cry. We have all done it at least once. There is salt in every one of our tears. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The need for sleep. While the amount can vary, every one of us requires sleep to survive. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

The need for drinking water. It is an essential life force. Without it, every one of us would perish. That’s something we #ShareTogether.

What are your thoughts? Today is a new day. Misery may love company, but gratitude sure does too. Let’s #ShareTogether.

 

The Backward and Hateful Mind

Nestled in the aggregate air of three countries rolled into one atmosphere, I lay awake one starry night to ponder the hating heart. We arrived to our campground on Lake Constance that borders Switzerland, Germany and Austria to the news of a gun shooting at a nearby club just miles from our site. We later ambled to a shopping centre, looking for a chaise lounge, only to see the yellow crime scene tape of the shut down club fluttering in the wind next to the store we intended to enter.

Death’s pallor held sway over us for the remainder of the day. We held our children a little tighter that night and into the following morning. Then news of the neo-Nazi pro-Robert E Lee monument rally in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, hit my Facebook news feed. Standing in our camper in 90 degree heat, I stood slack-jawed and sucker punched at the close proximity of such madness. Again.

In a recent Newsweek article, Deepak Chopra speaks of the hateful brain in which tribalism, our inherent need to belong to a group, can dull our ability for empathy. And as we are entrenched in our own belief systems, we grow farther apart from people who don’t think like we do.

By any measure, it is incomprehensible for me to accept a set of beliefs that excludes an entire race or ethnic group or a group of human beings who love differently than I do. And yet neo-Nazis and white supremacists truly believe they are better and hold the exclusive right to existence.

It’s ludicrous. It’s backward. And it appears to be as prevalent today as it was before the Civil Rights movement.

I have argued unsuccessfully with many a right-wing mind over the past nine months. It has not brought me any closer to understanding why they are so angry, why they feel disenfranchised, unheard, excluded. Like an angry child who didn’t get his way, they stew in their maladjusted righteousness. But about what?

The United States is in trouble. Its political leadership is (in) trouble. Civil society is facing challenges it hasn’t seen since the 1960s. And yet a crowd ten times as large as the rally last Saturday in Charlottesville convened on the UVA Lawn to take it back from the vacuous vitriol the alt-right had sprayed across the grounds just days before and chanted “Love wins.” To regain the dignity of the town in which I grew up. Where I first saw the movie Star Wars. Where I got my ears pierced at the mall. Where I bought my first Levis. Where my family resides to this day.

Hatred lives in the brains of those disconnected from the greater good. How can we draw them back into the fold to seek the light and the love that will overcome the deleterious acts of the uninformed and angered?

I am for the winning team. I am for love. Are you?

 

The Search for Simplicity

The sweet, satisfied sigh that ensues a Sudoku puzzle accomplished.

The chubby rolls of a baby’s leg.

The quickly abated tragedy put aside with ice cream and a game of catch.

The nightly news that speaks of a neighborhood robbery, not the salacious stealing of our souls.

Counting on the World Order.

Counting on World Leaders.

Counting our blessings.

These are the days I miss.

As I looked about the lush, green lawn on a self-imposed smartphone sabbatical amidst hundreds of fellow bathers today, I recognized how complicated our lives have become. Admittedly, everyone appears on the same level when they show up in bathing suits. Fat or thin, mal- or well-nourished, dark skinned or light skinned, freckled or frowning. Nothing smacks of grassroots democracy more than a day at the community pool.

My children are no longer small or even medium-sized kids. They are in their mid- and late-teens. The intricate web of complication called growing up has begun as they navigate this world under very different circumstances than I did at their age.

They have to battle the constant onslaught of (mis)information. Of competitive Instagram appearances. Of snap-chat that and oh, please this. We can never start a meal until someone has photographed it first to share with the universe.

Simply put: Life has gotten complicated.

So I recognized, even as I put away my phone last night with no excuse that I needed it on my nightstand to serve as an alarm clock, that I struggle with my habitual need to be needed. Or to be needy. Or to be — simply put — on.

On what? God knows. On much of social media, I’ve witnessed rampaging rants and rude thrusts of opinion; excusing misbehavior and playground bullying.

Only the world stage is not a playground. And it is hard with each passing day not to succumb to equally ruthless wickedness that has besieged us since November.

But the hopeful are the last to die. And I shall not perish without a good fight. It is time to find pockets of simplicity.

You can find it

  • in the dusty pages of that Sudoku puzzle book at the foot of your nightstand
  • in the gloriousness of homemade lemonade on a bright sunny summer morning
  • in the accomplishment you feel when you walk 10,000 daily steps (FitBit fans unite!)
  • in the sweet smell of your loved one’s neck that says “I am here for you. Because I am here.”
  • in re-watching that old movie from the late 1980s that reminds you of the times when you knew less and it didn’t matter
  • in the kindness you show every single day to those you know and to those you don’t simply because the world deserves your care
  • in the absence of malice when you could have chosen otherwise
  • in the words “I am thinking of you”.

The search for simplicity may never end as we combat the avalanche of our modern world. I vote for its pursuit anyway.

In my view it is a battle worth attempting. Yes, indeed. It’s that simple.

Truth downtrodden, not dead

If I were to look at the world from a teen’s perspective, life is pretty black and white. It’s either hot or it’s cold. It’s good or it’s bad. It is right or it is wrong. Despite the backdrop of this simplicity, life is pretty complicated as emotions swell beyond the youngster’s comprehension.

As we grow older and our emotions stabilize, truth takes on shade. Grey areas emerge. Shadows lurk behind the meaning of things. And we grow accustomed to truth’s dimming shine. Our indignation weakens as adult life distracts us. We are lulled into a quiet sleep, fact-checking less, digesting garbage without thought and passing on recycled beliefs we’ve stopped questioning.

During some moments in history, the light switches back on. Our eyelids peel back, our backs straighten. We start paying attention with an intensity long forgotten in those high school hallways of yesteryear.

Now is one of those moments. When truth is on the witness stand. When what is said is scrutinized more closely. When the litmus test of reality races to the forefront.

Bildschirmfoto 2017-03-25 um 11.47.02Time magazine put three words and a question mark on its front cover this week.

Is truth dead?

The very fact that the editors pose the question tells me it is not. If we truly lived in a post-fact world, we would have no mind to engage in the inquiry.

In Trump’s attempt at weakening what is real, at his outright inability to withstand truth’s might, at his blaming and slandering and pouting and thrashing comes truth’s ultimate power. He is inadvertently strengthening the very thing he cannot stand: groups who disagree with him.

You cannot fight against forces stronger than you. No tower so high, no wife so beautiful, no pocket so deep, no office so revered will ever make an honest man out of a liar. A cheater. A profane example of human impotence.

The truth may be downtrodden, but it lives on. We are ever vigilant now. The tempest is gathering its gale force winds. The greatest revenge is our own success.

The truth will prevail. And so will we.

 

How Great (Thou) Art

These are bewildering times. As I follow the growing dis-ease on the international political stage, I retreat to the theatrical one, from which I draw endless strength. In the shadows behind the curtains, I can smell the mystery and anticipation of that golden moment the performing arts can carry.

But it isn’t easy,” said Pooh. “Because poetry and hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

Indeed, the beauty of art is a magnificence to behold. After a week in the Swiss Alps near the Matterhorn, observing and interviewing over a dozen artists whose bodies are their art form, I have come to realize two things:

  1. Art is like air. We need it to breathe.
  2. Nature heals and holds us high.

Sometimes we forget in the rush of things how important the simple aspects of life are to nurture us and make us whole again. Then, with a gentle nudge from happenstance, we become transformed as we stumble upon a magical moment. Maybe we pay an unexpected visit to an art gallery or attend a performance that moves us so deeply as we witness the connection between artist on stage and the audience below.

In my case it was Viktor Kee, the world’s best juggler whose act has been featured in Cirque du Soleil numerousIMG_6290 times. He is a mild-mannered fellow who likes to laugh. He told me he is always nervous before every performance, which is a good thing. “The moment I am no longer nervous is the moment I must stop doing this.” Adrenaline gives you a laser-like focus. You can’t be distracted, thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner when you do circus arts. Keep your eye on the ball. At all times.

Elayne Kramer, a world-class contortionist and a sixth generation member of an Argentinian circus family, told me she has no regrets. “The road is my home. When I arrive to my house in Florida, I am IMG_6300on vacation. But I can’t stand it there for long. I was born to do what I do.” She has appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Good Morning America. Her charm, grace and balance will knock your socks off.

The commitment these acrobats have for their art is remarkable. A couple from Colombia told me when they perform time stands still. They lose all sense of pain and feel like they ‘are floating in the air. By the looks of their performance, they are!

And so, when poetry does not come to us, we must go to the place where it can find us again. Where we can put the pieces back together of our shattered hearts and remember that these times too shall pass.

And the show? Well, yes. The show will go on.

 

 

Slow Culture, Fast World

The honeymoon is over. The bubble has popped. Reality slammed me in the face at 6 am this morning.

That tender space of suspending thinking, in which you float between the time you return from vacation and the return to the day-to-day, is filled with wonder. Your brain has emptied. Your thoughts are fluid. Your consciousness is elevated. You are on a cloud, feet barely scraping the ground. You wonder how long you can keep up the feeling. You hope it lasts far longer than it will. But you hope nonetheless.

2017-02-23 13.49.05“Maybe it will be different. This time.”

And then Monday morning comes. You wake up before the alarm with a startled thought. It’s nothing really. You made a less than optimal decision about something so banal that it’s not even worth thinking about. But you do. And then you get mad that your bliss has been disrupted by something so meaningless.

Just yesterday I chat with my neighbor, revealing I had just returned from the most life-changing trip to Nepal and India. His eyes lit up and he began his tirade about what’s wrong with Western civilization.

“Why do we keep running? Toward what?”

He summed it up beautifully.

“We are distracting ourselves from the thought of death.”

Perhaps he is right, I thought. But I wasn’t ready to take on those thoughts just yet. I guarded my bubble carefully, going on to my yoga class for a moment of “Om”.

In the evening I wasn’t feeling particularly fearful or distracted or worried or annoyed. I drank lots of water and went to bed early. And then morning came with the reality that I had some even harder decisions to make that might rattle even the most Zen-like person. I watched my age-old fear awaken from its slumber, stilled only for the time it took me to realize it is alive and well.

Stay in your center, stay in your center, I told myself as I brushed my teeth, feeling like Julia Robert’s character, Elizabeth Gilbert, in Eat, Pray, Love.

Momentarily, I have regained ground on myself. Filled with Slow Culture, I cannot deny that it feels strange to be back in a fast, fast world.

The feeling is slipping slightly. I have lost a noticeable grip on the ephemeral sensation of alignment. But I know where to get it when I really need it.

Deep within in the archives of my memory of what has been, what is and what shall be.

 

Why I deleted Facebook

Sometimes self-control is not enough. Sometimes you have to carefully position your own roadblocks to force saner living.

With the press of an “x”, I dismissed the vitriol that had become my daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not only have I found myself pining for past Republic administrations that now don’t “seem that bad”, I have also started missing those adorable cat videos and those pumped-up versions of themselves that people like to have us believe is true about their fabulous Facebooked lives.

no facebookI miss the tinge of envy I’d feel at pictures of palm trees in places I definitely was not.

I miss the giggles elicited from videos of furry animals, preferably baby ones, tumbling on top of each other.

I miss hoping someone will “like” my post because they like me.

I miss the Facebook I used to know that I’d sometimes playfully call “Fakebook” because we often use it to look better than we are.

But we have entered a new era now. Many of us have become activists, something I truly applaud. And what better way to broadcast sensible causes than the world’s largest online platform?

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to it. Facebook, in my view, has turned into a shouting match, a place of posturing and yes, at times, a platform to share invaluable information. But the more I’ve tried to digest the unfathomable messages, especially from politicians vying for fame and glory, the less I began to trust it as a source for anything real or true or good about this world.

What motivated me to finally hit the delete button on my iPhone app came after reading a post by a Kentucky Senator who mocked the women’s march, calling women “cute” in the most patronizing way possible.

In his eagerness to earn likes and commentary (at any cost, I might add), he has joined the legions of people who will do and say anything to attract attention. It is so sad.

A like is even more short-lived than a soap bubble on a hot July afternoon. It is meaningless if there are only words without positive action behind them.

It broke my heart to see how broken our system truly is.

Fighting against virtual reality is like trying to capture wind in your hands.

What could I possible do then, in the face of such powerlessness, to make a difference?

Then it hit me. I have invested so much time in conversations with people I don’t even know. What if I were to start conversations with the ones I do know? What if I were to reach out to someone in need, right here, right now, in front of my very eyes? What if I were to dedicate all the time I have spent clucking at the injustice online to a cause in my very own town? Not only would I feel better, but that person would too.

So that decides it. Less Facebook. More face time. In real life.

Yes, a new era has dawned and I am ready to take on the challenge. Will you join me?

 

And you thought we weren’t listening

Be pretty. Be smart. Be strong. But please, please, please, won’t you be quiet too?

Hell no.

The slumbering beast has been stirred. In the foggy distance you hear a groan, a lurching movement, a rumbling that draws closer. Ever closer.

Sixty countries. 600 cities. Seven continents. Even Antarctica has stood up for human rights.

We are not alone.

(c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

(c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

This evening I attended my first French demonstration. In the rumbling of our rage, my tenth grade French was awakened. Suddenly, on the slippery wintery steps of Place Kléber in Strasbourg, I understood every word of French that was spoken.

On est là. On est toujours là. Notre diversité est notre force.

And as some people try to temper my anger with their stalwart online glances, I laugh in their faces. No longer pretty. But very smart. And no, no, no, not quiet.

For an hour I cheered with my mom on the phone who, by a force of synchronicity, marched simultaneously and across six time zones, for the very same purpose.

For those of you who are uncomfortable with my rage and for those of you who claim I spew hatred, I will tell you this: I stand for love. For understanding. For dialogue. For truth. I have learned ever so much on this journey. And will continue to do so. Thank you for those who have corrected me when I have been wrong. I appreciate your patience and your desire to make a difference. You have. And so will I.

I would rather risk failing in the name of humanity than grasping for the power you cannot attain. You will never, ever gain strength over me or my brethren. We are stronger than you could ever imagine.

Your money does not impress me. Neither does your attempt to control that which you cannot.

The world is watching. Your influence is shrinking. It might be time to think about Plan B. Which, under the scrutiny of a billion, will B ours.

 

Why I choose to march

It is time to put on those Big Girl pants and act. I have comfortably, and often not so quietly, lashed out at the state of the world. While it may have felt good for the moment, I knew my days as self-important, indignant complainer were numbered.

The moment we lose the will to do something about an issue is the moment we lose our right to complain about it. We need to take action now.

Remarkably, I have come to terms with the fate of our nation, at least for the moment. But that does not mean I have resigned myself to it. Like many of you, I experienced the five stages of grief as I realized how much power we were handing off to a man filled with vitriol, viciousness and vindictiveness. I oscillated between anger and despair, practicing the utmost restraint (and failing miserably) to not be swept up in the online venting we have witnessed since November 8th. Every day we were fed new fodder from well-meaning celebrities or Senators or reporters. It seems to fan the flame of hatred, catapulting so many of us into a new level of confusion.

Not all of my online interactions have been bad. Many of you have helped me see what I can do to make a difference. I have called my senator, signed numerous online petitions, voluntarily watched C-Span (!) and shared information with people far and wide. It may have budged the conversation only a millimeter for a nanosecond, but doing something felt like a better choice than doing nothing at all while saying even less with a ton of empty words.

It seemed, for a while, that if I fed facts to the faltering followers of the PEOTUS, I would gain new ground. I would, in some hapless way, save the world from its self-inflicted insanity.

It may appear arrogant, and perhaps you are right. I see now that I was wrong. We all have our entrenched ways of thinking. Words alone will not do it. For a writer, it is a hard pill to swallow. After all, don’t we shape the world with the words we share?

Talk without action, words without movement, will do little to sway the hearts we so desperately wish to reach.

And so I will march. On January 21, 2017 I will join the marching million on this planet who care deeply about the future of our world. Places as far as Tblisi, Georgia, Calcutta, India and Dublin, Ireland, Lima, Peru and Nairobi, Kenya are joining together to show their support. To show they care.

This is not just an American issue.

The nearest march to me is taking place in France. It seems appropriate — no essential — as an American living in Germany to participate in an act of peaceful demonstration in France to support all that I have said I care about. While it is easy to cackle at the mean memes circulating on Facebook, it will do nothing to solve the issues we face.

And so I will march.

My son, who is a budding photographer, will join me. My love and his kids will too. We will stand on an historic place in Strasbourg that has showcased many a demonstration in the city’s long history. We will unite to show that action can speak louder than words.

And so we will march.

We will build bridges, not walls, dialogue, not diatribe. We will stand up for what we believe in.

And that is saying a lot.