Isn’t it Just Ducky

duck“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

This, my friends, is called “the duck test” and it is one of the biggest pieces of crap advice in existence.

The duck test implies that anyone – you, me, that guy on the bench over there, that any of us can identify a heretofore unknown subject by observing that subject’s habitual characteristics; that by perceiving its form we can make an educated guess as to what it is; what it is for or (and this is the part that really ticks me off) its motives and thought process.

Now mind you, I won’t argue that a quacking, paddling, feather wrapped avian with a bill and webbed feet is probably a member of the Anatidae family, but I have just enough common sense to realize that it might be something else entirely, perhaps a species of bird I have never seen before, or even something totally non-duck, like a decoy, an animatronic creation or even a holographic image.  And I am certainly not going to assume that just because it registers with my brain as a “duck” that I know the first thing about WHY it is doing what it is doing, or what it plans on doing next.

It all comes down to the fact that when it comes to perception and understanding, most of us are lazy.  We would rather glance at the object, register it as a duck, then quickly tuck it into the pigeon hole in our brain labeled “ducks and duck-like behavior” and simply forget about it.  Not important.  We are now free to move along to more important things.  Like what we’re going to have for supper and the most recent celebrity drama.

While the duck test may be useful when it comes to sorting through not so important things, thus freeing up the brain for more important matters, it is far too often used by those of little understanding to explain why it is that an individual has chosen a particular course of action.

Instead of stopping to consider all of the possible reasons and giving the individual the benefit of the doubt, the duck test allows the one sitting in judgement of the person’s actions to make broad, sweeping assumptions based on that person’s past behavior or even assumptions of their past behaviors.  They use these assumptions to give their world definition; to make certain that everything inside of it is neat and tidy and precisely categorized.  The end result being that the person whose actions are being judged gets labeled a duck when really they are a wolf, or a dolphin, or even a lion.

Of course when the individual passing judgement is presented with the truth of the person or thing their preconceived ideas tend to get in the way and prevent them from seeing it (or them) as anything other than what they have convinced themselves it is.

Far far better to take the time initially to see a thing – an idea – a belief or even a person for exactly who and what they really are than to be rudely awakened latter on.  It will of course when you’ve convinced yourself that the lion penned up in your barnyard is really a duck it comes as a great shock when it suddenly shakes out its mane, lets out a roar and eats your ducks for lunch.

 

HALFWAY TO DEAD

“Most peoveilple die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.”  -Benjamin Franklin

It was the damndest thing.  I was at the mall, eeling my way through a school of teenagers when I heard a snatch of conversation between two boys that stopped me dead in the water:

“Dude, she’s like 40 years old!  That’s like halfway to dead!”

Mind you, they were talking about a pop singer, but for some reason his words resonated in my brain like John Donne’s proverbial bell.

To be perfectly honest, at first I couldn’t believe what I’d heard and my initial reaction was simply to brush aside the comment.  After all, what did it matter that a fifteen year old punk thought that a singer over forty wasn’t worth listening to because she was “halfway to dead?”

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that this one random piece of overheard conservation is indicative of everything that is wrong with our culture; of the prevailing attitude regarding anyone or anything that doesn’t provide instant satisfaction and gratification; of the tendency to view anyone over the age of forty (or anything that hasn’t been written, produced, published, aired, designed or conceptualized in the last 24 months) to be irrelevant; of the “me first!” mentality that has turned our society into a self-centered, ego-centric parody of itself.

We live in a take-out world of fast food, quick fixes, one minute makeovers; a world where if you either learn to adapt to the rapidly changing social structure or you get left in the dust; a world where old age is seen as a curse, education is seen as a joke and the answer to all of life’s problems lies in drinking from the fountain of youth and being able to fit into our skinny jeans even after we’ve had two children. And it is this youth-obsessed, egocentric culture that has generated the idea of the mid-life crises as joke; as a desperate bid by those past their prime to hold on to the glory of youth and try one last time to make their mark on the world.

Everyone has seen the characterization of the aging middle-aged man combing his hair over his bald spot, buying a sports car, and trading in his wife for a younger, perkier model.  For women this same time frame is portrayed as the 40-something year old woman or “cougar” getting plastic surgery and headed out on the prowl for a younger, virile man, because don’t you know, it’s all about the sex and, in a youth-obsessed culture – it is understandable (if laughable) that older men and women would be so scared of getting old that they would do whatever it takes to make themselves desirable once again.

The Mid-Life Re-Evaluation

You see, what it really comes down to is the mis-use of the term “crisis” for what happens to so many people at the mid-point of their lives is not so much about fearing death – about trying to regain their youth or proving their virility by taking on younger lovers as it is about the realization that they are at the half-point of their lives and have not yet begun to live.

Most people in western society settle down in their mid-twenties.  They acquire a full-time job, a spouse, and, over the years, children, a mortgage, credit card bills, social standing in the community and even positions of responsibility and respect in their churches.  But while for all intents and purposes they appear to have a “good life” too many are just going through the motions.  Far too many people are dying inside.

For their whole lives they have been living for the weekends, for vacations, intent on getting the next promotion, the bigger house, getting the kids out of school and into the right colleges, for retirement, convinced that eventually they will reach a plateau of happiness where they can finally draw a deep breath and where their lives will finally have meaning, where they can finally relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The only problem is, it never arrives.  There is always another bill, another event, another concern, another upcoming event; a web of responsibilities and obligations that keep them tethered to the soul-less job and the loveless marriage.  And so, many people “break out” of the mold in an act of almost teenage rebellion.  Having been immersed in a consumer society where the acquisition of things is equated with elevated happiness, most of those who hit this crises point do something stereotypical, like quitting their job, taking a younger lover, buying a flashy car thinking that these things will somehow give their lives meaning.

energy2And then there are those who instinctively understand that there is more going on than meets the eye; that this isn’t about things.  This isn’t even about reclaiming their youth.  This is about stripping away all of the layers of veneer and varnish that society insists that they wear in order to be considered acceptable.  This is learning how to reconnect with the authentic self.  This is about moving past what religions and governments and even friends or family expect from them.  This is about remembering who and what they really are while there is still enough time to experience life; while there is still enough time to appreciate the wonder and mystery that surround them.  This is nature’s wake up call.  This isn’t about being “halfway to dead.”  This is a clarion call to those who hear it and who have the wisdom to understand that it is time to stop going through the motions and truly start to live.

Toothpaste and Mud Puddles

puddles_380x220_1436058a[1]

Have you ever had a moment of such incredible happiness that you found yourself wondering “what did I do to deserve this?”  I have.  And that one question my friends, is a clear cut example of what a twisted culture we live in. You see, happiness is not something that you deserve.  It is not something that you can earn or that you acquire either by earning enough brownie points with a qualified deity or by collecting the appropriate number of box tops.  Happiness is something we are.  In fact, it is our default state.

Don’t believe me?  Spend some time around small children some time.  I’m not talking about school aged kids who are already knee deep in learning how to envy those around them for the things that they don’t have or for getting the ‘good’ seat on the bus.  I mean small children; babies and toddlers.

The average toddler has a better grasp on happiness than most adults on this planet.  Of course they haven’t yet developed reasoning or social skills and have more energy than the average power plant on a high production day and sometimes still have to wear diapers, but if you spend any length of time around them you will notice that when it comes to happiness, they’ve got it nailed down.  Their whole being radiates with happiness because they are entirely focused on whatever it is that they are doing; watching a caterpillar balance on a twig, jumping into mud puddles, watching a kitten play, squeezing all of the toothpaste out of the tube.

We have forgotten how to do this.  We have forgotten how to be happy.  We have forgotten how to radiate happiness with every particle of our being.  We have forgotten the joy of watching all that toothpaste curl out onto the counter.

We go along, day after day, year after year focused on our education, on our work, on providing for our families and on juggling bills.  And while that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, when we begin putting aside our own happiness in order to better focus on these “more important” things we lose the knowledge of what it means to be completely and blissfully happy.

Humans are social animals.  They want to fit in.  They want to belong.  For millennia like-minded individuals have created villages and towns and cities and religions. They have created clubs and teams and organizations so that they could come together and socialize; interact; share their experiences as humans.

In a world that is marked by suburban sprawl and almost wholly bereft of any sort of social or cultural opportunities that you used to find regularly wherever there were large groups of people. This is why the concept of social media is so very addictive; it allows individuals all over the world to “belong” and to interact with other individuals.

While the concepts of “belonging” and “fitting in” are natural and part of the nature of things, it comes at a price.  The price can be steep, for many times a group or religion or organization has strict rules and regulations, things that you have to or cannot do in order to belong.  And so, in order to be accepted we give up pieces of ourselves; our individuality; pieces of who and what we truly are in order to conform to the acceptable standards of the group or organization.  Many times we give up the things that made us happy in order to be accepted by others.  We then have to spend years – sometimes entire lifetimes attempting to understand why it is that we are so unhappy and attempting to find happiness again, albeit within the structures of our adopted social group, which of course means that many people have and will continue to die unhappy and unfulfilled.

So how can we be happy again?  How can we possibly regain that selfless joy, that innate wonder of the world around us; the supreme happiness of jumping in the mud puddles; the sheer bliss of watching that toothpaste curl out onto the bathroom counter?

The first order of business is to accept that happiness is not an “earned” condition.  You are happiness.1

The second order is to remember what it is that makes you happy and do it.  Have you always loved the color and texture of paintings?  Pick up some small canvases and paints at a craft shop and try your hand at putting images on paper.  Playing in the dirt?  Try digging up a small square of yard for a garden, or plant flowers or vegetables in a pot if you live in an apartment.  Playing in tidal pools?  Try setting up a small aquarium.  Rainbows?  Hang prisms in any window that gets direct sunlight.

Thirdly; don’t apologize for being yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up if others laugh at you for going out in the rain without an umbrella, for blowing bubbles on the bridge during rush hour, for dancing madly to your favorite song when it comes on the radio, or laying out on the hillside to see the shapes in the clouds.

And finally, if you find someone with whom you can be completely and totally yourself, who not only enjoys your myriad facets but is aware of their own and who is not afraid to be themselves, cherish them, they are a rare gift, and believe me, the happiness that you will take in seeing each other’s total authenticity will be so incandescent that whenever you are tempted to think “what did I do to deserve this” you will instead find yourself thinking “what on earth took me so long to realize the truth?”

Waiting for Home

images13N17I32Barefoot, she stands, waiting. A restless breeze tugs at her hair before moving on, leaving behind the faint scent of the ocean; a scent that fills her simultaneously with a soothing calm and an unquenchable restless.

Head thrown back, she stands, waiting. Her eyes search the evening sky, watching as the stars wink into existence, as the golds and plumbs of sunset fade into a black velvet background worthy of a sky full of glittering jewels.

As the light fades in the west a silence falls across the yard; a pregnant pause as if a cosmic conductor has raised his baton and all of his musicians have paused, instruments raised in anticipation of the downbeat. A moment later, with a single croak from a large frog of advanced years, the evening chorus begins; frogs from the riverbank, crickets from the meadow, a low throaty hoot from the owl that lives in the forest behind her house.

And still she waits.

As if on cue a crescent moon rises over the tree tops, casting faint shadows across the darkling yard and glimmering silver off of the tears that flow freely down her face, dribbling onto the ghostly white of her shirt dampening the grass at her toes.

She does not cry for the gloriousness of the vast array of glittering stars or the spectacular evening chorus or for the lingering scent of the restless sea. She cries for many reasons, few of which she can put into words and most of which she knows she will never understand. But mostly she cries because she waits.

She is not even sure what it is that she is waiting for. Perhaps it is love. Perhaps it is hope. Perhaps it is a sense of peace, of belonging. She does not know what she waits for, only that when it appears she will know that her waiting is over. She will know that finally, she is home.

She waits, barefoot, gazing at the stars, kissed by the moonlight, caressed by the whisper of an ocean breeze and serenaded by a chorus written expressly to touch her heart. And as she waits, slowly the tears dry and the competing peace and restlessness combine into an expansive duet whose rhythm counterpoints the beating of her heart. Slowly the stars expand until they fill not just her eyes, but her very soul. Slowly the sound of the nighttime creatures fill her head to bursting and it is then, only then, that she ceases to wait.

At last she has become.

Finally, inside of her own skin, she is home.

All Beginnings Are Hard

butterfly“All Beginnings are hard. . . . Especially a beginning that you make for yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.” ~Chiam Potok

 

It is not unusual at this time of the year to see dozens of posts touting an individual’s New Year’s Resolutions; posts about losing weight, finding love, getting their dream job.  The list is endless. And while I know plenty of people who scoff at the idea; people who say that making New Year’s Resolutions is pointless and meaningless, the concept behind it is really quite lovely; you are promising yourself a new beginning; choosing the turning of the New Year as a convenient marking point for tracking their progress.

The sad part of course is that most people renege on their promise to themselves fairly quickly.  In fact, the same people who will move heaven and earth to keep a promise to a spouse or a child; a parent, an employer or a friend will dismiss their promise to themselves with no more than a shrug and an amused chuckle.

Do we really have so little respect for ourselves that we can shrug away our chance to finally create the life we have always imagined?  Because when we fail to keep our promises to ourselves that is exactly what we are doing.  We are trading in those things we desire most in the whole world in exchange for convenience, or security or acceptance by those who don’t understand what achieving our goals would mean for our authentic selves.

I have no room to judge the person who gives in to those around them; who gives in to the demands of convention or of society and gives up their dream, for I am guilty of the same thing.  In fact, I am more guilty than most.  I gave up my dream.  I gave up my dreams willingly in the hopes that by doing so I could forget who I was; that I could bury my true self in normality and create a life for myself where I would not only not be hurt any more, but one where I would no longer hurt anyone else.

For a few precious years it seemed to work.  I was happy, or at the very least I was content.  But it didn’t last.

It was inevitable that one day I would wake up to the fact that burying my authentic self was the biggest mistake that I ever made.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret the life I lived; it gave me two beautiful daughters and hundreds of lovely memories that I will cherish forever.  What I do regret is that I gave up my true self for the illusion of security and belonging.

It has taken me a quarter of a century to come around to acknowledging my mistake and in taking steps to rectify it; to unearth the true me that has been buried for so very long.  Unfortunately she has been kept under wraps for so long that no one recognizes her.  Well, no one except those who knew me before I buried her alive.  Her resurrection has resulted in any number of problems as I try to explain to those around me that this is who I am.  That the person they thought I was all this time was nothing more than a façade; a mask worn to prevent those around me from see who and what I truly am; a choice I made because I was afraid of hurting or being hurt ever again.

Some have supported me in this excavation.  Others have fought it at every turn, trying their hardest to convince me that going back to the self they always knew is in everyone’s best interest; especially their own since that person was the one they were comfortable with.  But going back to the person I was pretending to be is something I will not do.  And if becoming myself means turning their world upside down, well then, so be it.  I have kept myself buried for far too long.  It is time.

And so it is that I make my own New Year’s Resolution.  This year I make a new beginning for myself – for my true self.  I will take the steps necessary to free myself from those people and situations that would keep me from being who and what I truly am.

Of course this means that there will be some tough decisions to be made over the next 12 months; some very difficult choices and overall upheaval for myself and those closest to me.  But like childbirth, once the process has begun, there really is no turning back.  I have made myself the promise of a new beginning, and it is a promise that I intend to keep.

Authentic Living 201: Living Intentionally

There is a difference between living and living an intentional life.

No, seriously, everybody lives.  Unless you’ve been in a serious accident and are fighting for every breath you take, living is not something you actually have to think about.  It simply happens, usually when you aren’t paying attention.  In fact, one day you look up and realize that half your life has gone by and wonder where the devil it’s gone.  It was just here for pity’s sakes.

Suddenly you realize that you’ve slipped so far into routine that you’re drowning in it.  For whatever reason your life has become mundane – each day just like the one before, and it doesn’t matter how good your life actually is.  It doesn’t matter how nice your house is, or your car.  It doesn’t matter how much (or how little) money you have in the bank – your life is being lived – you’re not living an intentional life.  So, what is the difference? What does it mean to live intentionally?

What is Intentional Living?

Intentional living is not about turning your life upside down.  It is not even about manifesting change in your life.  Intentional living is about being here – now; it is about doing everything you do with complete and total awareness of what it is that you are doing and why it is that you are doing it.

From eating your breakfast to sitting through that aptly named board meeting; from playing Frisbee with your kids to walking the dog; you need to pay attention to what it is that you are doing.  You need to use your mastery of everyday mindfulness to pay attention to what is happening in your life and to be totally in the moment as you do it; paying attention to all the details and being open to all the nuances.  And yes, I’ll tell you right now, it’s harder than it seems.

You see, we have this sense of urgency that surrounds everything that we do.  I’m sure you’ve noticed it.  When you are doing something mundane or boring your mind tends to either shut off or to race ahead to what needs to be done next or sometimes berate us over past mistakes and things that we could have done better.  Very rarely are we actually fully in the moment.  Well, it’s time to change all of that.

Living the Intentional Life

Using your mastery of mindfulness to pay attention to what is happening here and now, you’re going to make some interesting discoveries.  You are going to find that there are things that are a part of your life that no longer serve you.  You may have gone years – or even decades without realizing what you were doing; the time you were wasting on something that you really have absolutely no interest in whatsoever; things in your life that are just taking up space.

So, why are you still doing them?  Why have you kept them all these years?  What is keeping you from letting go of those things that no longer serve you so that you can make room in your life for something that actually makes a difference?  Yes, I’m sure that if you think hard enough you can find a reason to keep them in your life.  But is it worth it?  Is the time, effort and energy that you spend on them worth what is given back to you in the satisfaction of possession or in the completion of the action itself? If you were fully present every time you did this – used this – would you still want it in your life?

And it won’t just be physical objects or routines that you find cluttering up your life.  You’re going to run into friendships, acquaintances, even romantic relationships that are called into question, especially if – once you start actually paying attention to them – you find that neither of you is getting anything out of it; or if the relationship is unbalanced.  Just like physical objects and everyday routines, sometimes there are relationships that have run their course; that we hold onto out of habit, but that would serve everyone better if we simply let them go.

But it isn’t just about getting rid of the excess; of the mundane; of those things that no longer serve you or that have run their course.  Living intentionally is also about coming to a realization of those things that you are missing; those things that you really want to be a part of your life but didn’t realize were missing until you started paying attention to what you actually had.   Only once you realize what it is that you really want can you go about taking the necessary steps to bring it into your life.

So go ahead – start today!  Start paying attention to the life that you are living.  Start living your life intentionally.  Stop living on autopilot; never fully engaged in what it is that you are doing, and start putting a part of yourself; a part of your energy; into everything that you do.  Start being fully present in every relationship you are a part of and not just because you have to; not just because you feel obligated; but because you want to; because at that particular moment in time there is nothing you would rather be doing, for in the end that is the only way to really be alive.

 

 

What Waits in the Silence

We live in a very noisy culture.  No matter where we go we’re bombarded with noise from every angle.  Cities, with their continual traffic and sirens and construction; the voices of people every which way you turn; those are the worst. There’s no getting away from it.  But even those who live in the suburbs get treated to a continual bombardment of noise; trash trucks and mail trucks; delivery trucks and school busses, planes flying overhead.

In our homes too, we keep our televisions and radios playing continually both at home and in the car, and if we get stuck somewhere there isn’t music or movies, we have our Smartphones and our iPods to lend a soundtrack to our days.

Even when we turn all of these gadgets and gizmos off; even when the traffic stops, there is still the sounds of our plugged in electronics; the gurgle of the water in the pipes; the growl of the furnace as it kicks in; the hum of the refrigerator; the ticking of the wristwatch on your wrist.

Noise everywhere.

Most people don’t even notice the noise anymore; not unless it involves something unexpectedly sudden and loud, or unless they find themselves someplace where there isn’t any noise, or in a situation where all the noise suddenly stops.

My husband used to be active duty military, and for three years we were stationed on the Island of Puerto Rico.  I still remember the silence that descended on the town in the wake of the first hurricane we experienced; a hurricane that had completely disabled the power to our entire side of the Island.  It was silence; complete and total silence such as I’d never heard before.

The silence had a depth to it; a weight.  I could almost feel it like a living thing; waiting just beyond the range of my hearing, and I was suddenly (and forcibly) reminded of what it must have been like for the Spanish soldiers who were stationed there in 1508; thousands of miles from home and surrounded by jungle and with nothing but candles to push back the weight of the darkness.  It was breathtaking.

When a modern person is subjected to that sort of silence; to the solitude that comes from a total lack of connection with the outside world, they tend to get fidgety; nervous even.  Some even get downright angry and start showing all the classic signs of withdrawal.  When the power comes back on, they welcome it with open arms.

One woman I know nearly had a nervous breakdown being without her music and television and telephone for almost two weeks.  When I asked her, she told me that the silence frightened her because she was afraid of what it would tell her; of what she would hear; of the decisions it might ask her to make.  And that, you see, is the real problem.

Western society – for all its emphasis on progress and technology – has failed to provide one very important thing for its people; it has failed to give them a way to integrate their root spirituality with their everyday life.  In spite of the emphasis on religions and family values that you get in many industrialized societies, the mysteries of the world are kept at arm’s length and anything that can’t be proven by science is regarded with skepticism.

Deep in their hearts, however; deep in their hearts humanity knows that there is something more.  They know that they are not living authentically; that they have become disassociated with their true feelings; with their true selves.   They know this; they feel it in their bones; but they don’t know what to do about it.  They have no idea of how to integrate their spiritual self into their everyday life.  In fact, many have come to believe that this – what they can see and taste and touch and feel – that this is all there is because that is what science tells them is true.  But when the electricity stops they can actually hear their own soul voice, and it is telling them a different story.

It is telling them that what waits in the silence is their authentic self; the person that they were meant to be but never got around to becoming, and they are scared of how badly they want to get to know that person.  But most of all, they are scared of what getting to know them would mean; of the decisions it would require them to make and the changes it would entail.

And so when the power comes back on, they welcome it gladdly; relieved once again to have the noise that masks the truth that lies just beneath the surface of reality, if only they would stop long enough to see it; if only they could stay quiet long enough to listen.

 

©Stephanie S. Henry 2012