Accept people in different seasons of their lives

You’re a different person at different stages of your life.

Ten years ago, when I started working at my current church, I met a man named Bob (I’ll use that name because that was his name). He was a delightful man. He arrived early on Sunday mornings to help prepare the sanctuary for worship; he was friendly and engaging; he had a positive attitude. We had lunch together about every six months and developed a friendship. 

Several years ago Bob was diagnosed with a fast-growing brain tumor and died within four months. 

At his funeral, his brother, who was a pastor, spoke. I was shocked to hear him describe Bob as a difficult person to be around; he even said that family members might have had a hard time attending his funeral. 

After the funeral I emailed the brother and shared my dismay at how he had spoken poorly about Bob. After all, it was the man’s funeral. I’ll never forget his long and thorough reply. It taught me a valuable life-lesson. 

In his early years, Bob was, indeed, a very difficult person to be around. Through the years he had abused his family relationships; some of them were irreparably damaged. In his speech at the funeral, his brother was trying to help family members understand the complexities of the relationships and encourage them to forgive Bob, for their own peace of mind. 

His carefully worded email made sense. It helped me understand what he was trying to do at the funeral. He also affirmed my love and appreciation for Bob and taught me an important life-lesson by saying, “Don we all go through seasons of life. You met Bob later in life; he was different then. But don’t judge others who knew him in a different season.”

In a similar scenario, I once became friends with a man who had made major mistakes in the early days of his profession. Someone who was hurt by his mistakes derided me for starting a friendship with him and suggested that I disavow him and distance myself from him. Was I wrong in pursuing this relationship?

Here’s what I’ve learned. 

  • When we meet someone, accept him as he is at his current stage in life; don’t discount his life because of past mistakes. Hopefully, we’re all progressing and improving throughout our lives. We need acceptance and grace in every season.
  • Don’t judge someone who has disengaged from a relationship that was abusive or unhealthy because sometimes it’s best to sever an abusive relationship and cease all ties. (Though all of us should forgive our offenders, that doesn’t mean we must remain friends with them.) 

Here’s a parting thought: we all have a best friend during each stage of our lives; blessed is the person who has the same friend throughout all stages of life.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay?  You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Explore the universe without leaving your home

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space. Hamlet

Stephen Hawking is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. At age 21 he was  diagnosed with ALS, a type of motor neuron disease. His illness progressed rapidly and ultimately he was confined to a wheelchair, completely paralyzed, only able to communicate by raising his eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card. 

The disease paralyzed his body, but not his mind. For the next 55 years he worked on unifying general relativity with quantum theory. He also made the startling discovery that black holes should not be completely black but rather emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear. For 30 years he was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge (the same position held by Isaac Newton in 1669).  Hawking died on March 14, 2018, age 76, and was buried in Westminster Abbey’s Scientists’ Corner between Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. 

Hawking personified what Shakespeare proffered: I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space. 

Though Hawking lived confined in a wheelchair, he said, “I have lived an extraordinary life on this planet, while at the same time traveling across the universe by using my mind and the laws of physics. I have been to the furthest reaches of our galaxy, travelled into a black hole and gone back to the beginning of time.”

Hawking’s life teaches us that though our bodies are geographically confined, our minds can roam the universe. If only we will let them.

I know a lady who was raised in Farmington, New Mexico which is about 40 miles from the Four Corners area of the United States (the quadripoint in the Southwest where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet). From Farmington, one can visit the other three states in a convenient 100-mile drive. But she had never been outside her home state. Oh my…

Many people have never “traveled very far” in their minds; they are content to stay in Farmington. 

That’s why I’m a huge advocate of reading. There’s no place you can’t “go” and nothing you can’t learn if you will simply read broadly and consistently.

This journey into unchartered realms is initiated and sustained by curiosity.  If you’re not curious about what you don’t know and where you haven’t been, you’ll stay at home. Don’t do that.

See below for a video of Stephen Hawkins’ last public appearance.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

The curse of knowledge, part 2 – control how much knowledge you share

I recently returned from leading a group of 36 friends on a European tour. We visited seven countries in 15 days. It was among the best trips I have ever experienced. Every day was full of memorable moments. 

We did have one regrettable moment in Rome.

Our tour guide in Rome had an encyclopedic knowledge of Rome. Her recall of dates, history, people, and events was amazing. And she spoke passionately. But she talked too much. She gave too much detail about each sight. People can only digest a limited amount of information at a time. Her commentary was so dense, and delivered so quickly, that we couldn’t process it. 

Mid-day I realized that her unreasonably long commentaries were throwing us off schedule. We had only one day to see the Roman ruins (Colosseum, Forum) and the Vatican (Museum, Sistine Chapel, Basilica) and we were running out of time.

My favorite building in the world is St. Peter’s Basilica. It is immense, beautiful, inspiring, and astonishing. Seeing it was to be the climax of our trip. But when we finally stood in front of the church our tour guide said, “Be back here in five minutes.”

Five minutes? Are you kidding? We had been victimized by our tour guide’s curse of knowledge.

Previously I wrote a post—The curse of knowledge—in which I suggested that one type of “curse of knowledge” occurs when a person has such mature and advanced knowledge in a specific area that he cannot remember what it’s like to not have this knowledge. This makes it harder to identify with people who don’t have this knowledge base. It also inhibits our ability to explain things in a manner that is easily understandable to someone who is a novice.

In this post I’m suggesting that our knowledge can also be a stumbling block (curse may be too strong a word) when we’re insensitive about how much knowledge is appropriate to share at a particular time. 

While in Rome, I admired the tour guide’s immense knowledge, but she grossly misjudged how much we were interested in hearing, how much we could digest at one time, and how her excessive commentary would affect our schedule.

This social faux pas is more common than we think.

    • Have you ever asked someone a question, desiring a simple, short answer, but you get a long, complicated one? The person drones on and on, getting stuck in unnecessary minutia. 
    • Have you ever read a book that is just too detailed? For instance, I love New York City so when I heard that David McCullough wrote a book about the Brooklyn Bridge I bought it. But after reading only 25 out of 608 pages I abandoned the effort; I don’t want to know that much about the bridge. 
    • Did you ever have a teacher that knew his subject well but delivered too much information too quickly? In college I took a math class that was advertised as a course for non-math majors, but the professor went so fast that most of us were lost 10 minutes into the first lesson. Bad teacher. I dropped the course.   

Often, we’re the victims of this particular expression of the curse of knowledge, but sometimes we’re the perpetuators. 

Back to the trip. After we finished that day’s tour of Rome we shared a delightful meal together at an open-air restaurant on Piazza Navona. My table shared a nice bottle of Chianti Classico red wine. Knowing that I’m a wine expert, someone casually asked me, “Don, what do you think of the wine?” I proceeded to give a three-minute lecture on the Sangiovese grape, unique aging requirements, etc. I soon realized I was sharing too much knowledge; a simple “This is a terrific wine; the grapes are grown locally” would have sufficed. 

Let’s be more self-aware of how much information is desirable and needed in conversations.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Don’t be shackled by stuff

Plus: Bill Gates likes this book so much, he's giving a copy to every college graduate

If someone had given you a horse in 1915 you would have been ecstatic. Horses were the primary means of transportation and were used extensively in agriculture. There were 26 million horses in America; one horse to every four people. The average annual salary was $680; horses sold for around $100. No wonder there were severe penalties for stealing horses. 

Before the mechanization of agriculture and transportation, horses were indispensable. 

But if someone tried to give you a horse today, you’d graciously decline. Because, what would you do with a horse? Where would you put it? How much would it cost to feed it? Who would take care of it? Why bother? 

But let’s not just talk about horses. Let’s talk about furniture, clothes, cars, and other stuff. Most items depreciate in value as soon as they are purchased. When they become unnecessary, outdated, or broken they become a burden. 

Do we really need so much stuff?

I once read of a nomadic tribe in Africa whose members refuse to accept gifts because if they accept a gift they’ll have to carry it wherever they go for the rest of their lives. That might be a good standard by which we should judge the wisdom of buying something: Do I really want to be responsible for this thing for the rest of my life? 

Before you buy something, ask yourself “Two years from now, will I be glad I bought this item? How about 10 years from now?” Also ask, “Will I have to paint it? Change the oil in it? Find space for it? Worry about it? Will it be used? Is it merely a status symbol? Who initiated this conversation? Have I seriously considered the pros and cons of owning this thing? Am I yielding to consumerism, materialism, or vanity? Will this object distract me from more important life-issues?”

Many years ago I committed to live with 100 or fewer possessions. The decision has simplified my life and allowed me to focus on more important issues. 

The artist and philanthropist John Ruskin once said, “Every increased possession loads us with a new weariness.” Let’s get rid of the horses.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Bill Gates calls Hans Rosling’s bestseller, Factfulness, “one of the most important books I’ve ever read–an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” Gates is so impressed with the book that he is giving an online copy to every college graduate in the United States.

I read the book last week and I’m equally impressed. Rosling discusses eight fallacies that lead us to misinterpret the world. Here are three of the eight:

  • The gap instinct: we tend to focus on extremes rather than on the large majority in the middle.
  • The negativity instinct: information about bad events is far more likely to reach us than good news.
  • The straight-line instinct: we tend to assume that current trends will continue as they are.

Get a daily DOSE of these four “happy” chemicals

There are four major chemicals in your brain that influence how happy you are. Our bodies produce these chemicals naturally, but in some people, the body doesn’t produce enough. This deficiency can make us sad, anxious, negative, hopeless, and depressed.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to increase these chemicals. 

Use the acrostic DOSE to remember these four hormones. 

Dopamine motivates us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. Procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine. 

Oxytocin both motivates us to establish intimate relationships and helps us sustain them. It is the “cuddle hormone” responsible for humans being social creatures.

Serotonin flows when you feel significant or important. Loneliness and depression appear when serotonin is absent. It helps regulate mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. 

Endorphins are released in response to pain and stress and help to alleviate anxiety and depression. The surging “second wind” and euphoric “runner’s high” during and after a vigorous run are a result of endorphins.

If your body is not producing enough of these four chemicals, don’t be passive about it. Take the initiative in three areas.

  1. Prescription drugs can help. For instance, most antidepressants are designed to increase oxytocin and serotonin levels.
  2. Natural products can help. For instance, L-tyrosine, Rhodiola, Mucuna, and L-theanine (available as over-the-counter supplements) can boost dopamine levels. 
  3. Engaging in some simple, daily functions can increase levels of the four chemicals. 

I’ll focus on the third area. I’ll identify the key need that is associated with each chemical, give some practical steps we can take to increase them, and make suggestions on how we can help others.

Dopamine

    • Need – that our lives have meaning; we are not sleep-walking through life; we are making progress toward meaningful goals.
    • Solutions – Set goals and diligently pursue them. When you achieve a goal, celebrate-literally—pop open a bottle of champagne or treat yourself to a personal splurge. Break down big goals into smaller ones and celebrate when you achieve each step. Dopamine is also produced as we anticipate meaningful activities, so always have something you’re looking forward to.
    • We can help others by encouraging them to set goals and celebrating their achievements. 

Oxytocin

    • Need – emotional and physical intimacy and trust in relationships.
    • Solution – Develop close, intimate relationships. In a survey that has been taken annually for many years, Americans are asked, “How many close friends do you have?” As recently as ten years ago the average answer was, five. In a recent survey the average answer was, none. No wonder depression and anxiety are rampant in our society.
    • Here’s a short-term solution: oxytocin is nicknamed the “cuddle hormone”; a simple way to keep oxytocin flowing is to give someone a hug. Psychologists suggest that eight hugs a day will make a big difference. 
    • We can help others by committing to be a close friend.

Serotonin 

    • Need – This need is summed up in Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl taught that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
    • Solution – discover what “makes your boat float.” What energizes your core? Also, good diet and exposure to sunlight will help. As much as 95 percent of the serotonin in your body is produced in your gut so proper diet is important.
    • Help others by coaching them toward meaningful activity.

Endorphins

    • Stress and pain are the two most common factors leading to the release of endorphins. Endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine.
    • Solution – Don’t avoid stress and pain; in moderation, they are good for you so don’t pursue a stress-free, pain-free life. Exercise is the main thing way to produce endorphins.
    • Help others maintain a proper balance of stress in their lives: not too much or too little. I recently led a group of friends on a vigorous tour through Europe. Our pace was unrelenting; we walked at least six miles a day, so at the end of each day we were exhausted but somewhat euphoric. Laughter also helps release endorphins.

This post is a brief attempt by a non-scientist to help us understand how certain brain chemicals affect how happy we are. The bottom line for me is: 

  1. If you’re consistently unhappy:
    • Exercise, eat a balanced diet, spend time outside. 
    • Develop deep friendships.
    • Engage in meaningful work.
    • Set goals and measure your progress.
    • Take natural supplements
  1. If you’re still unhappy, talk to your physician about taking medication.

I get impatient with people who complain of being unhappy but they don’t take the initiative to do what they can to improve. Get out of the passenger seat and into the drivers’s seat; there are steps you can take to feel happier.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

 

Three phrases that will greatly enhance your relationships

Plus - AI is getting out of control

We are reluctant to say them, but when spoken honestly and appropriately, three simple phrases can help maintain our personal integrity and sustain peace in relationships.

“I don’t know.”

Often, when we don’t know something, we make stuff up. When we don’t know the answer to a question, we attempt to answer it anyway. Instead, we should just say, “I don’t know.”

In his must-read-book, In The Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides writes that in the late 1800s no one knew what the North Pole was like because no one had ever been there. The most famous cartographer of the day was a German professor named August Petermann. He was, supposedly, the world’s foremost authority on world geography. The world wanted to know what the Arctic was like, so Petermann wrote, “It is a well-known fact that there exists to the north of the Siberian coast, and, at a comparatively short distance from it, a sea open at all seasons.” He firmly believed that when a team of explorers finally reached the North Pole, they would find a tropical environment, complete with palm trees and perhaps a new race of humans.

Huh? Why didn’t he just say, “I don’t know”?

When was the last time you said, “I don’t know.”? I admire people who use the phrase; I have little regard for people who should but don’t. There’s no shame in admitting that you simply don’t know.

“I made a mistake.”

When I hear someone say, “I made a mistake,” my admiration for that person escalates. My regard is diminished when there is stubborn refusal to admit the obvious. Politicians and leaders, in particular, are reluctant to admit mistakes, but it’s nearly impossible not to make mistakes when you’re leading aggressively and making a lot of decisions. To err is human.

Even when we do admit that a mistake was made, we have a hard time using the personal pronoun “I.” When Richard Nixon commented on Watergate, when Ronald Reagan talked about the Iran-Contra affair, and when Hillary Clinton spoke about Whitewater, they used the phrase, “Mistakes were made.” That doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, does it?

Compare these responses to the most famous unsent message in history. General Eisenhower penned the following memo before the Normandy Invasion. Fortunately, it was never posted because the invasion was successful. 

“Our landings…have failed..and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” 

When was the last time you said, “I made a mistake”?

“I was wrong; please forgive me.”

Only an infallible person can avoid saying this phrase, and you and I don’t qualify. Speaking this phrase doesn’t make you a bad person; it simply means that you messed up and want to make it right.

I once counseled a couple struggling in their marriage. In one of the sessions I asked the husband, “How long has it been since you’ve spoken these words to your wife: ‘I was wrong; please forgive me.’” Awkward silence ensued. At least he was honest when he replied, “Never.” They had been married 22 years.

I appealed to his logic: “What is the probability that in 22 years of marriage, you have never hurt or offended your wife?” Again, he was honest in saying, “The chances are slim.” Their homework assignment was rather obvious: identify ways in which you have hurt your spouse; admit it; and ask forgiveness.

When was the last time you said, “I was wrong; please forgive me.”?

In this coming year, make a goal of speaking one of these three phrases at least once a week. Okay…how about once a month?

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Last year I wrote a post titled I’m worried about Artificial Intelligence.  Here’s an article about Facebook shutting off one of their AI projects because their AI computers developed their own language.

List your regrets

At the beginning of each new year we’re encouraged to set goals for the coming year. I’m a big fan of that. It might also be beneficial to periodically list regrets: things we regret about the previous year and even regrets from the distant past that have come into focus. 

Here’s my truncated list of regrets from the past. 

  • Not learning a second language. In high school I studied Spanish for three years; to get my PhD I learned German, but neither language “took”; I viewed both pursuits as “got to” instead of “get to.” My four-year-old grandson, Benjamin, attends a Spanish immersion school where only Spanish is spoken. I hope he keeps it up. 
  • All three of my college degrees are in music. I should have pursued a broader education.
  • I didn’t understand until later in life, the impact my dysfunctional family had on my life. 
  • I didn’t understand the value of reading books until later in life. For the first 55 years of my life I only read books under compulsion. I didn’t understand that “reading allows us the benefit and pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts” (Harris).
  • I didn’t drink wine until I was 40 years old. My conservative, Protestant upbringing taught that drinking wine is sin. It isn’t. (I need to write a blog post on this topic.)
  • I haven’t loved my wife as I should. 
  • I didn’t understand the joy and wonder of “prefer one another.” For most of my life I have focused on me—my interests and well-being. Two thousand years ago the apostle Paul encouraged us to focus on others (Philippians 2:4). Adam Grant recently wrote a book on the topic—Give and Take. 

…and the list goes on

Some regrets are fixed and the loss unrecoverable. Name them and learn from them, but then drop them—there’s no value in crying over spilt milk. But most of our regrets can be minimized through change. In a wonderful, redemptive manner, naming a regret and then vowing to make things different, works. Of the seven regrets I listed above, none are immutable.

The word “regret” normally carries a negative, fatalistic meaning. Why not reimagine the term to mean “catalyst for course correction”?

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Don’s “best of 2018”

Here are some highlights of my life in 2018 A.D.

BookLost Connections – Johann Hari – This book will only benefit individuals who have or are suffering from depression and/or anxiety, know of someone who is struggling with depression and/or anxiety, and those who want to adopt a healthy lifestyle and help other people do the same. In other words, everyone should read this book. Very accessible; hard to put down; very informative; potentially life-changing. One sentence summarizes the book: “An antidepressant isn’t just a pill. It’s anything that lifts your depression.”

Meal – On the Tale of Three Cities trip I hosted in October, one night we ate at Giovanni’s restaurant in the theater district of London. The place only seats about 35 so we were in tight quarters. A family from Sicily has run the restaurant for decades. The two hour meal was delicious and the conversation was memorable. I was reminded of the wonderful things that can happen around a meal.

Concert – On the Tale of Three Cities trip, I wanted to end the trip with a memorable moment that no one would ever forget, so I hired an Italian opera singer to present a concert just for our group, in the chapel in Santa Brigida. We thought we had died and gone to heaven.

Person of the yearJason Webb. Jason is the director of media at SCC. He is competent, multi-talented (professional trumpet player, mathematician), hard worker, low-maintenance, great emotional and social skills. Clone Jason and the world will be a better place.

Travel experience – In July Mary and I went to Peru to visit the Sacred Valley. The highlight of the trip was Machu Picchu. It was one of the most enjoyable trips we have ever taken. I encourage you to travel extensively. I’ll probably host a trip to Peru for friends in 2020.  

Best friend – Here’s a picture of my best friend (my granddaughter, Marin, is also in the picture). All joking aside, I’ve had Buddy for 14 months and he has become my therapy dog-we visit about important and trivial issues every night before I go to bed.

Bottle of wine – Instead of highlighting the best wine I had this year (Hentley Farms, The Beast, 2012 Shiraz) I want to recommend two satisfactory table wines. Chateau St. Michelle Riesling is made in Washington and sells for around $8; Alamos is a Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina that sells for around $9. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a decent wine for every day consumption.  

New space in my mind – I enjoy learning things that I have never thought of before. In November I started studying the four “happy chemicals” (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins) and the ways we can increase these chemicals in our brains other than by taking prescription drugs. I’ll post an essay on this topic next year.

Hobby – I love working in my vineyard. It’s therapeutic to get dirt under my fingernails; I often work myself to exhaustion; I have a new appreciation for the cycle of life. I planted in March; here’s a picture of the vineyard in November.