Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Meaning of Life...

When I am out hiking in the woods, I often ponder life's many mysteries. There are those who say I think too much, and even though I try to stay in the moment and just enjoy the nature around me, I will admit that my mind does wonder about the meaning of it all.

As a kid in school, and throughout my time spent in theater and dance, the teachers, directors and choreographers would often ask the inevitable question near the end of class or rehearsal: "Are there any questions?" Now maybe it's just the wise guy in me, or maybe I have always had a desire to know the truth, so I would raise my hand and ask my question. "What is the meaning of life?"

Well I have to say that I never got a good answer to that question, so I have spent the better part of my life trying to figure it out for myself.

I think our search really does start at a young age. We begin by trying to figure out all of our toys and games and books. We even try to figure out our friends and family. And what to do with all of our "stuff."

You can pick anything... a toy or a game or anything, the process is always the same.

The more we learn about it, and practice it, the better we get at it. The better we take care of it... the longer it lasts (and therefore the longer we get to enjoy it)!

Conversely, if we are careless with it break it, abuse it, etc., it will fall apart, break down, not work to it's full potential and so we won't be able to enjoy it the way we could have or would have, had we done things differently.

As with all things in life, it starts off being about Me, Me, Me... When you are a baby you are not concerned at all about world peace or who is president. You don't worry yourself with how to pay for bills. You don't care if you are running late to see your pediatrician.

All you care about is getting someone to feed you when you are hungry, change you when you are wet (or worse), and there is a distinct baby cry that means something like "is it too much to ask to get a little attention? Can you just hold me for a minute? I miss hearing that heartbeat up close!"

As we get older we move to another level of awareness. There is more to life than just Me. Maybe our parents read books to us or teach us to play games.

So we hear fun, interesting stories from Dr. Seuss. When we learn to play baseball or Monopoly we learn that there are rules that must be followed. And we learn the concept of winning and losing.

And as we grow up a little more we become intellectually aware of the concepts of teamwork and strategy. We no longer leave winning and losing to chance. We also learn to read for ourselves. At this point we can start to take control over what we learn.

And the more we mature, the more responsibility is involved in our decision making. Hopefully by the time we are old enough to get a driver's license, we have learned right from wrong. And that it's good to have fun... but not at the expense of others.

Hopefully at this point we realize that our decisions have a "ripple effect" and touch the lives of others, not just ourselves. Speeding and drunk driving can have fatal consequences. These are lessons to be learned from watching the news--- not to be experienced first hand.

We also know that driving gives us freedom. Freedom to explore. Freedom to share new experiences with friends. But again that freedom comes with a price. If you stop adding gas to the tank, the car will stop running. If you don't change the oil, it will get gunky and sluggish, and eventually the engine will seize and the car will become a worthless hunk of metal.

And so we learn the lesson of preventive maintenance. Now we start to focus on the art of thinking ahead. Not just making decisions that are reactive... but really thinking ahead to anticipate the future. Weighing pro's and con's.

This is a most valuable lesson on many levels. Learning to play chess is a great way to practice this skill.

When playing games like chess or monopoly, sports such as football, or even in the military, it is important to learn strategy. It is the art of anticipating the needs and desires of others.

Notice I didn't say, "anticipating the needs and desires of your opponent." That is because a truly successful strategist will anticipate the needs and desires of everyone; their teammates, friends, customers and even themselves.

Anyone who has ever waited tables knows that when you bring the customer's burger and fries to the table-- you always bring the ketchup. If you don't, they will just send you back to get it, so you may as well be prepared.

If you work in sales, anticipating the needs and desires of your customers and potential customers can help you overcome objections and help you sell your product.

Even in your relationships... the better you know your friends, family, spouse, neighbors, co-workers, etc., the easier it will be to get along with them. Chances are, if you don't get along with someone, you probably don't understand them very well.

This is very likely why world affairs are in the state that they are. The internet has made the world much smaller than it once was. And we get our news in "sound bites" from the TV and radio. It is very difficult to understand a whole culture from a "sound bite" without doing a little more research.

In the "old days" everyone was too concerned with their own lives to be thinking about what is going on "over there." Now everyone wants to be in everyone else's business. And to make matters worse they want "over there" to change. And to make it worse still, they want to force change.

Anyone who has ever worked in sales can tell you that you can't force someone to buy something. OK, yes you can... but then they get buyer's remorse and cancel within three days. And if they miss the three day deadline, they resent you and do everything they can to make your life miserable and make you wish you never tried to force them to buy.

No, the better way to do it, is to learn as much as you can about the potential customer or the people "over there." Try to understand what they want. And then with all the skills you have acquired since childhood, finesse the situation through reason and education (and yes, maybe a little flair) to help them understand why your product, service or way of doing things is better. But the decision to buy your product or to buy into your way of doing things has to be their own choice.

I once saw a ten year old convince her mother to buy a magazine in a grocery checkout line. After 3 or 4 versions of "no, put it back" this sweet, innocent (persistent) little girl finally tried a different approach. She reminded her mother that she still hadn't found a story for the current events board in her classroom, and that one of the articles in the magazine would be appropriate. It's called "Art of Presentation." Looking at things from a different perspective.

And speaking of looking at things from a different point of view...

That is our next level of awareness. When we become parents we begin to see things differently. Being the parent of a new born we are on the other side of the Me, Me, Me situation. We try to anticipate the needs and desires of the baby, often at the risk of neglecting our own needs.

We try to decipher the meaning of each cry. Is the baby hungry? Need a diaper change? Need to be held?

As we sit and read to our children we find out that Dr. Seuss doesn't just write fun children's books. There is a deeper meaning for the grown up reader as well.

Some books need to be read more than once. This is true of most Dr. Seuss books. It is also true of "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" by Dan Millman and "Illusions" by Richard Bach. Books like these are multi-layered but specifically written to be easy to read, so that we will read them again. And with each reading, and each new understanding we will learn new lessons.

And when we give children a game and teach them to play, we make sure they understand that, yes there are rules, but the point of the game is to have fun. Enjoy it. And who knows, maybe even learn something from it.

And so this brings us to the point...

We give our children toys and games. Why?
--To play. To enjoy them. Maybe even to learn from them.

And books? What is the point of this?
--To read them. To enjoy them. Maybe even to learn from them. To read new books, old books and even previously read books over and over until we understand them, and absorb the many lessons within.

When we think they are ready, we give our kids access to cars. What is the meaning of this?
--To drive them. To enjoy them. Maybe even to learn responsibility and preventive maintenance. To take personal responsibility not just for our "things" but also for ourselves, our actions, our choices, and to be aware of the "ripple effect" that is made by the actions we take.

This line of questioning can of course go on forever... but ultimately it brings us to this question:

What is the meaning of life?
--To live it. To enjoy it. Maybe even to learn from it. To share it with others. Not just to teach others, but really to lead by example. Let others see how you live your life. You won't need to "force" anyone to change their ways.

No, when they see a life well lived they will likely want to live that way as well! If I remember correctly, there is even a bible story touting this lesson. "Don't hide your light under a bushel." Yes, the bible is another one of those books with layers of lessons to learn...

I think it is important to set goals for yourself. They may be small, medium or large tasks to accomplish. A "bucket list" of sorts. And I think it's good to set short-term, medium range and long-term goals. It gives us direction and motivation.

But keep in mind that these are goals-- not ultimatums. They are guidelines. They keep us on the track of what is true for us. But things change. We learn new things and adjust our goals accordingly.

Just as in a good game of chess or football, if we come to an obstacle or if our strategy isn't working... it's OK to change it.

In life there is no Ultimate Goal to achieve, just a bunch of goals and accomplishments that make life worth living.

Can you imagine if there was an Ultimate Goal? In chess, the ultimate goal is to capture your opponents king. When you capture your opponents king--game over. How ridiculous would that be in real life? Who would want to "capture the king"? To what end? To die?

I believe it is more important to enjoy the journey of life, rather than to meet some Ultimate Goal.

In fact, it makes me sad that most people are like gerbils on the running wheel. Just doing the same thing over and over and over again. Clearly not enjoying what they do. They are born like everyone else and eventually they die (as we all eventually do), but in between they run on the gerbil wheel. Sadly, they have not LIVED at all.

"What is the trick to enjoying life?" you ask. That's the best part... There is no trick. Just be happy. You don't need a reason to be happy, you just do it.

I remember an old Peanuts comic strip where Charlie Brown is standing hunched over with his head hung down. Linus asks, "What's wrong Charlie Brown?" And Charlie Brown's response is something like, "This is my depressed stance. I'm just practicing, because it's hard to feel bad about yourself if you stand up straight with your head held high."

And I always loved that song, "Don't Worry, Be Happy!" We may not have control over the things that happen to us in life, but we certainly have control over how we react to what happens to us in life. Never let anyone take that control away from you.

And yes, sometimes we make mistakes. We do stupid things. We make bad choices. Give yourself a break. Get over it. Move on.

Yes, sometimes we actually bring misery on ourselves. Well if it makes you feel any better, you are not the first... and won't be the last.

There is an old Buddhist saying: Whenever you sit, sit. Whenever you stand, stand. Whatever you do, don't wobble.

This is a reminder to us that it is better to make a mistake with the full force of your whole being, than to be half-assed about anything.

Of course, you will use the same gusto in your corrective action after you realize the error of your ways.

The important thing is that you learn the lesson and move on. What is the point of wallowing in sadness or despair? Does it help your situation? Of course not.

So, what is it that we are supposed to do between the time that we are born and the time that we die?

LIVE. Live the fullest life you can. Be happy. Enjoy the journey. Carve out some time in your life for yourself, but also time to share with others.

Live. Laugh. Learn. Enjoy. Experience. Share.

But above all: love, Love, LOVE! Love your family. Love your friends. Love your enemies if you still have any (in which case they won't be enemies for much longer). But most importantly love yourself.

Until you learn to love yourself, I don't think it is truly possible to love anyone else.

Somewhere along the line, I think the "Golden Rule" got misinterpreted. "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Really? I know too many people in this world who don't love themselves at all. In fact, some of them barely even like themselves. I don't think I want them to love me the way they love themselves!

If you haven't made a New Year's Resolution, I encourage you to do a little self reflection. Ask yourself some important questions. What do I really want out of life? Am I doing what I love to do? Does all my "stuff" make me happy?

Then set some goals for yourself. Both large and small. Make them attainable and set a deadline. Be sure to write them down. And just to make sure you don't give up too easily, tell someone close to you who will help keep you accountable and keep you motivated to accomplish your goals.

This year make it a point to learn something new. Read more. Watch TV less. Enjoy experiences more. Acquire less "stuff."

Set a goal to do something new once a month (or every other month... it doesn't matter). Read poetry, learn a foreign language, learn a musical instrument, travel to another country (or even another state), go camping in the great outdoors, volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, volunteer to work an event with the Boys or Girls Club of America, participate in your local community theater (on stage or backstage building sets), join a book club....

There are a million opportunities. Find some that have meaning for you. If you like it, continue on. If not, move on to something else. Either way, you will have learned something. Enjoy it for the experience that it was. Even if it was a bad experience for you... you can take great pleasure in telling the story about the time you...

I think the folks who run the "Life is Good" product line got it right with their tag line: "Do what you like, like what you do." I would even take it one step further. "Do what you love, love what you do!"

That pretty much sums it up.

I hope you all have a safe, fun and interesting 2010.

Peace and Love,

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