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Monday, November 30, 2015

Why It's a Wonderful Life (Revisited)

As far as holiday traditions go, spending time with family and watching the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” have got to be fairly ubiquitous; there’s nothing like kin in close quarters to inspire in us a need to be uplifted!  Ha.  My family, like many others I know, boasts a wide variety of political views, which makes for spicy conversation.  Personally, I think a wide variety of political views is a hallmark of great parenting; if all the kids grow up to have the exact same belief system, I think that’s something called “brainwashing”, right?  Anyhow, this Thanksgiving the “spicy” topic of Donald Trump came up, no surprise as there is no escaping the man, even at your own kitchen table. 

Turns out, the view that Donald Trump is nuts was the consensus from both sides of the aisle.  The possibility that it is actually his intention to undermine the Republican Party by making them look like a bunch of intolerant extremists was floated without argument.  The only point of contention that arose, in fact, was when the opinion that Bernie Sanders is also “crazy” was introduced.  My reaction was: when did having high-minded ideals and dreams of a strong and thriving middle class become a “pie-in-the-sky” proposition in this country?  With Donald Trump doing well in the polls, I have to ask:  when did the paradigm shift happen that allowed so many people to start rooting for Mr. Potter instead of George Bailey?

For those of you unfamiliar with the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” (????) George Bailey is the hero, a man who sacrifices his dreams to run a family building and loan company, the only thing standing between the middle class families of his town and a selfish, greedy miser named Mr. Potter.  Because Bailey Building & Loan is cutting into his bottom line, Mr. Potter tries to lure George away from his humble life with grandiose promises of wealth and freedom from the weight of what George sees as his moral responsibility to his fellow man. 

He tells George, “We’ll have so much winning, you’ll get bored with winning!”  Oh wait, no…Donald Trump said that.  What Mr. Potter said was, “You wouldn't mind living in the nicest house in town. Buying your wife a lot of fine clothes, going to New York on a business trip a couple of times a year. ..”  George’s response to this offer is unselfish and wise: “You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money.  Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter!”  Donald Trump has said, “I’m really rich. And by the way, I’m not saying that in a bragging way, that’s the kind of mindset you need for this country.”  Lionel Barrymore, who plays Mr. Potter, even scrunches up his face into the same weird scowl Trump does.  Role model alert!
The crux of the conflict between Mr. Potter and George is that Mr. Potter believes that giving the middle class a break will result in “a discontented, lazy rabble”.  Donald Trump has said, “If you're interested in 'balancing' work and pleasure, stop trying to balance them. Instead make your work more pleasurable.”  But Americans work longer hours for lower wages, take less vacations and retire later than the citizens of any other developed country on earth.  Do you supposed the burn-out and discouragement the middle class is feeling right now might best be solved by “whistling while we work”?  Bernie Sanders thinks that raising the minimum wage might actually be somewhat more helpful.  He has said, “In the year 2015, no one who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.” 

Does that really seem like a crazy ideal?  In the movie, the first time Mr. Potter tries to shut down Bailey Building & Loan, George is incredulous that the man is actually against his Father’s goal of helping middle class families realize their dream of home ownership:  “Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers?” he asks.  Donald Trump says “having a low minimum wage is not a bad thing for this country” and has no plans to raise it.  Do you want to know who having a low minimum wage is great for?  Corporations and businesspeople like Trump that can increase their wealth on the backs of men and women living in poverty.  Is this the wonderful life we dreamed of as Americans?

The climax of the clash between George’s high ideals and Mr. Potter’s self-interest comes when George’s forgetful Uncle Billy loses an $8,000 bank deposit, effectively destroying the business that both George and his Father fought so long and hard to maintain.  When Mr. Potter swoops in like the vulture that he is, the people of the community rally behind George; everyone contributes as they can to save the day.  Oooh, that sounds a little socialist, doesn’t it?  Bernie Sanders calls himself a “Democratic Socialist” saying that it means “We must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy”.  He proposes universal healthcare and free college tuition, things that are working in other thriving societies like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. 

Here’s the question we should be asking ourselves:  if we have successful working models in wealthy countries of Democratic Socialism, what exactly is our objection to it?  Are we afraid we’ll have so much winning we’ll get bored with winning?  Why are we so moved when everyone contributes what they can to save George (and their town, btw) but so offended by the idea that the rich can afford to pitch in more to save their fellow citizens (and country, btw).  Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “Well, that is just a movie and this is real life!”  And I will say to you, why can’t real life be wonderful too?  Not just for those from privileged backgrounds, but for all of us?  Why is a man who keeps the $8,000 he doesn’t need that would save his neighbor a villain in a movie, but a contending Presidential candidate in real life? 

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why You Need to Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First

I took a plane trip with my son earlier this year and had to listen to the steward(ess) spiel like 14,000 times (4) about how we need to put our own oxygen mask on before helping others, even our children.  I’m not the first person to recognize this as profound life advice, even if I don’t always take it.  I, like a lot of people, often find myself rushing about in a literally breathless way; heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through my body…and this is at the grocery store. 

Some days I feel like I have that hour glass from The Wizard of Oz running in my head; like Dorothy, I’m not 100% sure what is going to happen when the sand runs out, but I sure as hell know it’s nothing good.  When I lived in L.A., I started thinking of this internal pressure as “the fake deadline” (L.A., the official home of the fake deadline!)… and I recognized my belief that if I completed everything in accordance with the fake deadline I had myself imposed, people would love and appreciate me for it. 

Only it turned out, not so much.  People can hardly feel appreciation for a standard they were unaware of; and more importantly, people rarely love you because of what you do.  They almost always love you for who you are.

This is why it is so critical that you know who that is…all of it, the beautiful and the mundane, the sacred and the profane.  We are all a crazy mixed up stew of every imaginable thing, and all of it is incredibly important and all of it should be honored.  A true friend is like an oxygen mask for your soul.  The powerful experience of mutual selection—I dig you, you dig me—is alchemy.  We are transformed by the acceptance and support of our friends, and the oxygen flows freely.  But how many circumstances do we allow in our lives that pinch us off from that vital current? 

And how many situations do we create where we are so busy tending to the needs of others that our needs get forgotten entirely?  So often our work, our commitments, even our families keep us from nurturing ourselves, from stopping to take a breath.  We forget to put on our own oxygen mask first; then, we blame our circumstances and relationships for not giving us room to breathe.  It is easy to forget that give and take is the nature of any healthy relationship, personal or professional. When we are so driven by our deadlines, fake and otherwise, that we deprive others of their opportunity to express themselves generously to us, we are pinching off oxygen to that connection.  We are disallowing the flow.
In great relationships, we meet others exactly where they are and that favor is returned.  We meet in despair, joy, silliness, anger; we bring our gifts to the table and accept and allow others to do the same.  We need not sacrifice our morals or beliefs or eccentricities or sense of humor or insecurities or vulnerability because they are met with understanding and compassion.   Whenever I am in a situation with true connection, my heart stops racing, the adrenaline stops coursing, my breathing is regular; I am allowed to just be myself. 

Unfortunately, most of us are taught from an early age that obedience is more important than self-expression, and this becomes our way of life.  Whenever I have a friend who describes one of their children as “willful” or “sassy” or “headstrong” I say GOOD.  I don’t consider “compliant” to be much of a compliment.  Too many of us were squashed for being outspoken, “inappropriately” curious, even for being creative.  We forget who we are and only remember who we are "supposed" to be.  Our friends provide us with the gentle and continual reminder that we are okay AS IS.  Our friends remind us to breathe.

Now the challenge I face (and I have a sneaking suspicion I am not the only one) is can I cultivate daily this same kind of relationship with myself?  There is a famous quote that reminds us “Well-behaved women seldom make history”; it makes me wonder if we can successfully learn to live without our “shoulds”?  Can we live unapologetically and without regrets?  When we find ourselves in a situation or relationship that pinches us off from our flow, will we be brave enough to take a stand, make a change, risk disapproval for our “disobedience”? 

One thing I have come to understand quite plainly is that NO MATTER WHAT I DO, there are always going to be some people who love me, some people who hate me, some people who simply feel irritated by me and some people who DO NOT EVEN NOTICE ME.  I love that!  I am the burr under one guy’s saddle and as invisible as a ghost to the next.  I don’t get to pick and choose; I just express myself and let the chips fall.  I have learned to trust rejection, even though it rarely feels good; as André Gide wrote, “It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.” 

When we choose to be true to ourselves, life never ceases to be interesting; it never ceases to be vibrant.  Make sure your own needs are met so you can fully attend to the people you care about without gasping for breath.  Always remember to put on your own oxygen mask first; it can save your life.



Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

When my husband and I lived in New York, the little boy across the street from us often played alone in his yard.  Because of a hedgerow, he could not see when I had come out my front door, so I frequently had the pleasure of observing him while he thought he was alone.  I got to witness him saving the world on more than one occasion; but more often than not he was simply making the winning play for his team.  Any time he became aware of me he would immediately freeze and wait until he was sure I was out of earshot to resume his play. 

You know what?  I think most of us are a lot like that little boy—we hide our heroics from the world because we are afraid they will not be taken seriously; or worse yet, they will be ridiculed.  We are afraid the world will not reflect back our magnificence, so rather than take that chance we hide it, minimize it, or worst of all stop believing in it ourselves.  But because it is still inside of us and yearning to break out, we start noticing OTHER people’s magnificence…and perhaps resent it. 

Why do THEY get to shine while I have to hide my light?  Why do they have so much when I have so little?  Instead of rejoicing at the success and beauty and talent and power of others, we belittle it.  Because we don’t realize that we can only see what is already inside of us, we disown these parts of ourselves.

William Makepeace Thackeray once wrote, “Life is a mirror: if you frown at it, it frowns back; if you smile, it returns the greeting.”   Over the course of my life, I have heard many versions of this same sentiment, but none as clear and direct as that.  Yet as many times as I have heard it, it is sometimes very difficult to remember on days when life is not smiling back at me; the cause-and-effect relationship somehow gets muddled in my mind.  The mirror of life is not unlike our vanity mirrors:  when we don’t like the reflection we see, it is hard to take responsibility for it. 

Whenever I am going through a tough time and feel that life is frowning at me, it is very tempting to claim to be a victim of my circumstances.  But as the late Wayne Dyer once brilliantly put it, when you squeeze an orange you are always going to get orange juice because that is what’s inside…so when life squeezes you, what comes out is always what you have got on the inside as well.  Life is a mirror, reflecting back to us our beliefs and current internal state…the good news and the bad news is that what this means is that objects in the mirror are always closer than they appear.
Do you remember the old Peanuts cartoon where Linus lamented “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand”?  I have always said that I am the opposite:  I LOVE people, it’s mankind that gets me down.  As a species, humans have done some incredibly despicable things; however as individuals, I find most people to be essentially good at heart and deserving of love.  I make a concerted effort not to vilify people for being “wrong”, because “wrong” and “bad” are two different things. 

I have often been called naïve for my belief in our intrinsic goodness.  Years ago I was working at a job where another employee was let go for some kind of misconduct; we were all called into a meeting and told to avoid contact with this person due to the perceived severity of the breach.  At the end of the session one of my co-workers taunted me: “But she was such a NICE person, right, Kara?  Such a good person?” 

Until that moment, I didn’t really know that I was regarded as a Pollyanna.  But I wasn’t hurt by teasing; as Frederic Brown wrote, “When you look at anything, you know what you're seeing? Yourself. A thing can only look beautiful or romantic or inspiring if the beauty or romance or inspiration is inside you.”  We see ourselves in the mirror.  I thought it was a very encouraging sign that what I saw in others was largely decency.

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.  When you look at the world, you are not seeing something separate and disconnected from who you are; we are combined with what we notice.  Our beliefs serve as a filter through which everything gets sorted; this is why the expression “the rich get richer” and others like it are so steadfastly true.  When you look at someone rich, beautiful, talented, successful and say “I could never be those things” you are forgetting the essential truth that you cannot recognize what you are not.  

When you look at something and name it bad, you are not understanding that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.  If you can see it, you can be it:  good, bad and indifferent.  Whenever someone is pushing my buttons and I am wanting to lay the blame on them for what is coming out of me as a result, I sort through all the labels I want to call them…selfish…apathetic…thoughtless…cruel…and then I lay claim to those labels myself. 

If I see it in the other person, I must have it in me.  And this is true of the good I see in other people as well.  If I see it “out there”, then I have to recognize that I’m “all that” too; I take responsibility for the mirror and the reflection starts to shift.  When I accept the truth that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, I can forgive others for their missteps, because I need to be forgiven for mine.   The mirror shows you only what you want to see; so look for love and tolerance, and that is what you will reflect back to the world.