Sunday, February 28, 2010

Nothing Less

As a political science and philosophy major in college, I read more commentary on the human condition than anyone probably needs in a lifetime. But one observation, made by Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan, has always stayed with me. In his discourse on humanity and war, he penned a phrase that has been repeated often throughout history: "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

Now, nearly 400 years after Hobbes wrote these words and his name is more associated with a cartoon tiger, our world is radically different. We are no longer solitary. The standard of living of most of the world's citizens is at or near its highest point in history. There are certainly pockets -- sometimes large -- of  "solitary, poor, nasty and brutish," but in a global sense, we no longer live in Hobbes' world.

What about "short" you may ask? Why did I leave that off the list? Short can't be eliminated from the general list describing life, because that remains the one descriptor over which we have the least control. As much a modern medicine has extended our average life expectancy, our power as individuals over the random events that affect our longevity is minimal at best.

Over the past 24 hours, I've been consumed in thought about the fragility and potential brevity of our lives. A fellow writer, Katie, who I've "met" through Twitter but never in person, was suddenly struck by meningitis, a unrelenting disease that can ravage even a healthy body with little warning. Earlier this week she felt fine. Today, she lies in hospital bed, 28 years old, with doctors aggressively treating her to save her life.

Just seven weeks ago, she wrote in her blog "My new personal maxim is 'nothing less.' That is, nothing less than the best for myself, my friends, my relationships, and my life." Her writings give a window into a person who had finally felt on course and determined to take control over her own pursuit of life -- a life now in jeopardy of ending far too soon.

Although I don't have a truly personal connection with Katie, I have been following the updates on her condition like she was a good friend or family member. I can't explain why, except for simple reason that it seems cosmically unjust that someone who has so recently found a direction in their life would be interrupted so abruptly. Some might say that there is a reason for everything, but I don't buy into such easy comfort.

I keep returning to Katie's words...nothing less than the best for myself, my friends, my relationships, and my life. It is my deepest hope that Katie fights harder than she ever has to beat this illness and she can return to her quest, reinvigorated and more determined to find the best. It is my deepest conviction to never forget the inspiration in Katie's words.

Nothing less.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Singular Moment of Revelation

Last night was Cub Scout night. Each Thursday, the first through fourth graders that make up my son's scout pack gather at 7pm in the lobby of their elementary school to open the week's activities. Each week, the Cubmaster will choose one or two boys to lead the others in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Scout Promise. Last night, when the Cubmaster asked for a volunteer, my son's hand shot up and I instantly knew this would be his chance to lead the pack. I could barely contain my pride and emotion as he walked to stand next to the flag, raising his fingers to his forehead in the scout salute.

Just a few months ago when my son first expressed interest in joining the scout pack at his school, I wrote a post highly critical of the Boy Scouts and what I perceived as their organizational culture of discrimination. Based on media stories and policy documents, I concluded that Boy Scouts was an organization to avoid. My son's enthusiasm to be a part of the pack, combined with some very heartfelt testimonials by people I trust, helped me to overcome this conclusion and allow him to join. As I wrote last August, I was hesitantly willing to give "the local scout pack a chance to prove that it stands separate from the discriminatory policies of its bureaucratic parent."

As I began to attend the scout activities with my son (first graders are required to have an adult partner at all meetings), I was on high alert for anything that might prove my misgivings correct and give me a reason to say, "See, I told you this wasn't something we wanted him to be a part of." The skeptic in me was at full attention, looking for the slightest evidence to support my concern.

I found none. From the first day, the pack leadership and other parents have been nothing but caring, supportive individuals whose only visible goals is for their sons to learn how to be responsible citizens, environmental stewards, and healthy individuals. My son looks forward to Thursday nights more than any activity of the week -- a chance to be among his peers, learning and cooperating with them. We've met police officers and firefighters, visited a radio station, attending local sporting events, and played countless games where the boys learn teamwork and leadership. But most satisfying of all, the boys are enjoying themselves as they share the experience and accomplishments of scouting.

But the skeptic in me would not let go. Even as I attended parent leader trainings, I was still waiting for scouting to reveal its true colors -- as I had defined them last summer. Even as I spent a beautiful weekend in October camping with the pack, I wanted to find that justification for my aforementioned conclusion. Even as my son walked across the stage to receive his Tiger badge last week at the annual Blue and Gold banquet, I still held some hesitancy in my heart.

Last night was weigh-in night for the Pinewood Derby, a long-standing scout tradition where the boys make a small car out of a block of pine, four wheels and four nails -- and various accessories of their own design. Each scout had to present his car for weighing, measuring and a test run down the sloping metal track. In my role as pack photographer, I was sitting in a chair at the end of the track, taking each scout's photo with his car after it passed inspection. Of all the parents and pack leaders, I had the best seat in the house. I could see the expression on each scout's face as the track gate released their car, sending it down the track. Each and every one of the boys had the expression of accomplishment as their car sped to the bottom.

But the expression that I will never forget was the one plastered on my son's face, as his car flashed from the top to the bottom. It was pure pride in his creation. He ran directly to me, excitement boiling over, knowing he had done well. He had accomplished something.

There are some things in life of which we are so certain that it is nearly impossible to let them go, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Sometimes it is not until that singular moment of revelation is served to us on a silver platter that we are willing to smile with black crow feathers stuck in between our teeth. 

My singular moment of revelation came as his car crossed the red finish line and he ran towards me. My pride was coupled with a humility that I will never forget. It was a humility that knew I was wrong about scouting, wrong in every way. It was a humility that kicked the last hesitancy out of my heart.

At that moment, I knew that the decision to be a part of scouting would be my son's to make from this day forward. He may decide at the end of this year that he's had enough. Someday he may be an Eagle Scout, or maybe the Cubmaster of his son's pack. But that will be his path to travel, one where I will be his partner and biggest supporter as long as he needs me.

There are countless instances throughout my life where I've been proven wrong and been forced - sometimes kicking and screaming - to swallow the jagged proof of my fallibility. But, last night, after seeing the pure joy of accomplishment in my son's face, I've never tasted a slice of humble pie quite so nourishing and delicious.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Authentic Time Off

When it was first announced that University of Illinois academic employees would be put on involuntary furlough for four days this spring, I think it struck most of us as bad news. No one wanted a salary reduction at a time when personal economic pressures already stressed many households. Even the prospect of an extra four days off didn't temper the sting, as most of us have more vacation time than we can take due to the demands of our jobs. The furlough program may have been necessary to address major cash flow shortfalls, but it was bad news, plain and simple.

Normally when I take vacation leave, I'll check my work email a couple of times a day. I may not act on the email immediately, but I'll forward it on to someone else in our office if it needs immediate attention. The furlough policy, however, prohibits us from conducting any university business on an official furlough day. In those moments when being uncompensated for my work isn't enough of a deterrent, the furlough policy is an official reminder that I can't participate in work activities.

As a result of the furlough -- for the first time in my career -- I've truly had free time, where I can set my own agenda.without feelings of obligation or worry leaking into my thoughts and activities. They are a time for me to forget about the stresses of my job and focus on those activities and people that truly fulfill me. I've come to view these furlough days as a gift of authentic time off.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Recycling Our Boxes

A few weeks ago, I made a trip to the city recycling center. We've never been pleased with the quality of our trash hauler's recycling efforts, so we collect our cans, bottles, cardboard and newspapers in the garage. When we can't stack one more item on the growing pile of consumption, I'll load up the truck and head up to the north side of town. It is usually the cardboard boxes that are the earliest to teeter in a threatening pose of imminent revolt.

An urban recycling center in its utilitarian starkness may not be the most suitable place to wax philosophical. But as I tossed box after box through the open door of the large roll-off container marked CARBOARD ONLY, I began to think about the purpose and significance of boxes in our lives. Each and every box that I was recycling was a container of some sort, meant to protect a product from the time it is produced, through the transit, storage and marketing process. Once it has arrived in our homes, the box has served its purpose and can be recycled. While there are likely a thousand ways we could be more environmentally-friendly with our product packaging, the box has proudly earned its place next to the wheel and sliced bread in the annals of human invention.

If the box is such a grand example of human ingenuity, how have the metaphorical boxes in our lives earned such a negative reputation? Somewhere in the second half of the 20th Century, the phrase "thinking outside the box" was spawned in corporate culture to signify creativity and unconventional thinking. If the box is such a wonderful invention, why would we want to crawl out of ours, much less think outside of it? Because we've forgotten to recycle them once they've served their purpose.

Any of the limitations or conditions we face in life can define the walls and shape of our metaphorical boxes. Sometimes we build our boxes for ourselves. Nearly every decision and certainly every commitment and contract we make adds definition and thickness to our box. Other times we agree to live inside someone else's box, for want of trying to satisfy their needs and expectations or as attempt for self-preservation. Even more often, we create neat little boxes in which we expect others to obediently reside.

Not all the boxes we create for ourselves and others are bad. The boxes that we create for our children as they learn and explore are there to protect them from true harm and help them discover themselves within the boundaries of the box. Our most successful and satisfying relationships are those where there is a mutual understanding of trust and boundaries -- where the box doesn't limit one or the other, but allows both to stand on top of the box and reach higher than either could by themselves.

When we hear dissatisfaction from our family, friends and acquaintances, they often describe feelings of being trapped and limited. Of not being able to reach their full potential. Of someone or something holding them back. Each and every one of these people is trapped in a box. It may be a box that they thought would protect and support them in their lives. The problem is that a lot of boxes look quite different from the inside.

Perhaps we need to start looking at our metaphorical boxes like the cardboard boxes at the recycling center. Many of our lives' boxes will fulfill their purpose or outgrow their usefulness. When our boxes become more of a prison than a protective container or a foundation on which to stand, it is time to find a box cutter, slice the box down the side, and fill our truck for a trip to the recycling center.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Return on Investment

Just a few days ago, I wrote about the concept of transience, or temporal scarcity, and how it creates value in our lives. Since that post, I've been thinking a lot about how principles and concepts of economics have relevance not only in financial affairs, but in my emotional and spiritual life as well. There's a part of me -- the idealist -- that doesn't want to admit that our motivations and desires can be broken down into something that can be easily explained in a few paragraphs of a freshman college textbook. But the more I think about the why questions, whose answers might explain the reasons behind our actions or the secret to finding meaning and satisfaction in life, the more I return to the concept of return on investment.

Return on investment, in economic terms, is quite simply the ratio between the amount of money gained or lost as the result of an investment and the amount of the investment itself. It is a measure of how much a business gained or lost as a result of a certain investment of resources. In most cases, the return on investment in a business situation is definite and quantifiable.

When this concept is applied to non-business situations, however, return on investment treads into murky waters. The quantitative nature of business -- the bottom line -- blurs into the myriad of emotions that populate the human condition. We can't even rely on qualitative criteria, for some life scenarios just defy analysis.

Can we use the economic rationale of return on investment to analyze the decisions and actions of our daily lives? Perhaps our most limited -- and thus valuable -- resource as humans is our time. From the day we are born, we are spending our allotment of time with each second that passes. We don't know exactly how much time we have, but it is most certainly limited in nature. Looking at it somewhat crudely, we can break our lives down into units of time. Our minutes and seconds become our investment currency.

If our time is the investment, what can we count as the return?

One type of return might be more time. If we spend some of our time eating healthy foods, exercising and treating our bodies well, we have a higher probability of living a longer life. So, we might invest some of our life currency hoping to create more of the same currency. In a limited fashion, this type of time investment may even be quantifiably sound. However, this makes sense only if we are using this extra currency to invest in some other type of return. Creating more life capital -- in the form of increased longevity -- only holds value if those extra minutes are put to use in some other investment. Just as creating money from money holds no value unless the money can be converted to something more substantial, living for the sake of living is cyclically pointless.

So how do we measure the true returns for our investments of time? Is there an algebra to help us determine which of our pursuits is worthwhile? What is the unit of return? As humans, our returns come in the form of emotions, both positive and negative. Our gains are described in the emotions of satisfaction, happiness, or euphoria; our losses wrapped in sadness and despair. Scientists may attempt to measure the levels of serotonin released during our happiest moments, but these emotions resist precise measurement. We may try to quantify, but the way we describe our return on investment takes on particularly qualitative characteristic. Does it feel like we're getting something back for the time we've invested?

Years ago in college, I would occasionally throw out the assertion that pure altruism cannot exist in humans because we are perfectly selfish by nature -- that an altruistic human being is an oxymoron of the highest order. I would argue until my fellow debaters would simply tell me I was playing semantic games, breaking each and every example of altruism they proposed down to a basic selfish motive. Twenty years later, I still cannot find an example of human behavior that can't be reduced to a person doing something they think will bring them a positive return on their investment of time, labor or emotion.

Looking at our decision-making through the simplified lens of return on investment is fraught with complication. We make hundreds of decisions each day, an overlapping network of choices whose impact (the return) is not always clear. Often we take actions that provide instant gratification, but have long-term negative returns. Frequently, we are misinformed or predict the wrong outcome and our actions have absolutely no positive returns. Sometimes, we know an action will have immediate negative returns, but take it because of a potential long-term benefit. Just as businesses cannot always predict a return on investment, the calculus of investment and return in our personal lives is far from simple.

I have always been someone who invests myself deeply in the people and activities in my life. Once I have made a decision to start a relationship or pursue a project, I give myself with great intensity. I don't make half-hearted investments -- as long as I am met with returns that match my intensity. It is simply the way I am wired, and despite my best efforts to counter my instinct with logic and reason, I cannot continue to invest myself without a corresponding return. It is most certainly the reason I have a very difficult time finding enduring satisfaction, suffer an almost constant craving for change, and walk on an unending search for something more.

In accordance with my personal spirituality and faith, I cannot seek these returns past the end of my time on this earth. For me, there is no ultimate or eternal return on investment. My returns must be found along the way.

It may sound harsh and calculating, but I cannot afford to invest myself in people or activities that take from me with nothing in return. The return is what gives my investment power. The return is what gives my  investment meaning. The return is what gives my investment purpose.

I will never be satisfied until I know in my mind and heart that I have found my return on investment.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Finding a Snowy Lining

My alarm went off this morning at 6:45am, the same time it usually does on a Monday morning. But as I rolled over to turn it off, I remembered that this wasn't an ordinary Monday. It was the first Monday in more than a decade that I wouldn't be earning any money.

Due to the budget crisis at the university where I'm employed, all faculty and academic staff are mandated to take four unpaid furlough days, one each month from February  through May. It's a strategy that many universities and other organizations have taken across the nation to deal with staggering shortfalls of revenue. None of us particularly likes losing about four percent of our salary each month this spring, but if it can help the university stay operational and avoid widespread layoffs, I haven't met a person who isn't willing to take their fair share of the financial pain.

The spacing of the furlough periods has synchronized rather well for me, as I already had four days this semester (one in each furlough period) where I needed to cover when my son was out of school and my wife had work responsibilities. Today was the first of my furlough days, on a day where my son was off school for President's Day.

I'd decided when the furloughs were first announced that I wanted to spend the days doing things I normally don't have the opportunity to do during the work week -- concentrate on my writing and photography and spend more time outdoors with my son. As the hours quickly ticked past this morning after we all rolled out of bed around 8am, I saw my first furlough day disappearing into the familiar cadence of a lazy Saturday at home. I was buried in my laptop, checking the news, Facebook and Twitter. My son feverishly worked on his own computer. As 11:30am came and went, I knew the window of opportunity to make something of the day was narrowing.

Fortunately it didn't take a whole lot of arm bending to convince my son that it would be fun to get outside for a while and go for a hike. After running down the list of our favorite hiking places, I threw out a new locale -- a park on the northeast side of town that we'd never explored before. He was game, and we were off.

Our town was covered by a couple of fresh inches of wet snow late last night. We arrived at the park, my camera in hand, and a determination in his devilish smile to have some fun. The park's 90 acres surround a lake created in the late 1800s by the damming the Saline Branch. Today, the frozen lake was nearly invisible, blending almost seamlessly with the surrounding woods under a carpet of snow. After a quick lesson on how to identify the water's edge, we started out on our hike.

A blanket of overcast covered us today, but there was evidence everywhere of the yesterday's sun. The main bridge crossing the lake was lined with an army of icicles, which the kid gladly dispatched as he ran across the span. Although the snow near the parking lot was powdery and hard to pack, across the bridge we found a couple of acres of fresh snow, ready to easily form into the most perfect snowballs. Hanging up my camera on a nearby sign, we commenced a small pitched battle of frozen zeal.

Throughout the park, there were official warnings to stay off the frozen lake and river. On this grey day, the red danger signs caught your attention at every turn. Judging by the human footprints across the center of the lake, not everyone had heeded the message. So we decided to build a snow sentry to provide further guidance to the foolish souls who were venturing out onto the ice.

On the west side of the park, the river's water ran free, an almost pitch black against the snowy banks. At this point in our hike, the wind had started to pick up and the snow in my son's boots had saturated and frozen his feet to the point where cold trumped fun. Near the main road through the park, we decided to follow its path back to the parking lot.

Along the way, we heard the first animal noise of the day. Coming from a towering oak tree was the familiar tap, tap, tap of a woodpecker. It took us a few minutes to locate his red head moving with each hammer, as his plumage blended perfectly with the shaggy bark of the tree.

We arrived back at the parking lot, cold and wet but refreshed from our short hike along the lake and river that was full of smiles and laughter. It may have been hard to find the silver in an overcast day, but we certainly found a beautiful snowy lining in a day we'll never forget. I may not have earned a dime while on furlough, but I can't imagine a more valuable use of my time.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Live Like They're Melting

Earlier this week, while the Mid-Atlantic states were getting dumped with record-breaking snow, the deep south was treated to an unusual amount of the white stuff as well. Late Monday night, a friend of mine who lives in central Arkansas related a story (via Facebook) that as she was driving home from the store at 1:30am, a large crowd of kids was still playing at the golf course, building snowmen and snow forts, sledding and sliding, and bringing the mayhem that often results from the combination children and snow. In a part of the country where a few snow flakes can evoke a temporary hysteria, a few inches of snow was manna from heaven for children and adults alike.

The picture she painted stood in contrast to storm that dropped six inches of snow on us in central Illinois the following morning, during which we stayed bottled up inside the house, my son glued to his PlayStation for most of the day. It was just another matter of course in the Midwest, a staple of winter that sometimes cancels school, but doesn't stir the same excitement as it does in warmer climes.

The snow that fell in the south has already started to melt, and children across the region have returned to school. Our streets are nearly clear, but the snow is destined to stay for a while, and may get deeper in the coming days. As I think about the how the snow was celebrated down south, but simply tolerated here, 500 miles north, I am reminded of the strength of transience in the creation of perceived value. Because of its infrequency and lack of permanence, snow in the south is treated as a gift rather than a hindrance.

The difference in the perception of snow is simply laws of economics applied to precipitation. Supply and demand. When something is in short supply, the demand for it -- and its perceived value -- goes up. Scarcity creates value. Transience is simply scarcity wearing the colors of time.

If scarcity and transience create value, what of abundance and permanence? Do they have the opposite effect? Are those things that are plentiful and unwavering in our lives devalued just because of their stable, predictable nature? I think often they are. We somehow grow to expect certain people, things, and occurrences to always be in adequate supply.

When we take the stalwarts of our lives as given, and fail to celebrate and savor their presence in our daily lives, we lower their value. As we look down on what is, and dream of what could be, we devalue the present. When we assume that our loved ones will be there tomorrow, we reduce their importance today.

I found an important message written in the Arkansas snow, a message that forced me look around at all those people, things and events in my life -- especially those that I take for granted. It's made me think that, perhaps, I need to start enjoying them with the vitality of a child sledding on a golf course in the middle of the night, as if I could hear the thermometer rise, each degree one step closer to their demise.

It's made me think that maybe, just maybe, I should start to live like they're melting.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Because I Do

As far back as I can remember, the logical side of my personality has enjoyed taking my own beliefs, putting them under the critical microscope of analysis, and determining whether they can survive a conversation with the voice of reason. My rationale is simple: If a belief can't stand on its own merits against formal questioning, it likely is flawed in some fundamental way and should be discarded. If my belief cannot be proven, with a rigor that is demanded of scientific hypothesis, how can I justify it a place in my personal foundation?

With a scalpel sharpened by this rationale in hand, I have gone through life cutting deeply into each of my beliefs. I wanted to ensure that each belief is based on provable knowledge. I wanted to be able to answer anyone who challenged me to explain the why behind my belief. I never wanted to be cornered by a question whose only answer was "because I do." I've always wondered why I studied political science and philosophy in college, rather than following my natural aptitude for math and science. Perhaps the liberal arts provided me with a more plentiful playground of beliefs to dissect and reassemble.

This practice of testing my beliefs has seemed rather innocuous over the years -- good fodder for late-night college conversations, but without a great deal of bearing on how I actually live my life. Last year around this time, I saw a book on our public library shelf titled This I Believe: The Personal Philsophies of Remarkable Men and Women. The book includes a series of essay written by people of all walks of life, from real estate attorneys to airport maintenance workers, from famous politicians to advertising salespeople. The idea is borrowed from a 1950s NPR show of the same title. The premise is simple: Write an essay of a few hundred words that describes one of your beliefs.

In his introduction, editor Jay Allison explains what they ask of the authors:
"We make the same requests of essayists that [the original radio show] did: Frame your beliefs in positive terms. Refrain from dwelling on what you do not believe. Avoid restatement of doctrine. Focus on the personal, the 'I' of the title, not the subtly sermonizing 'We.' While you may hold many beliefs, write mainly of one. Aim for truth without accusation, patriotism without political cant, and faith beyond religious doctrine."
The book is a wonderful, insightful read -- but, for me, the take away was the challenge to write my own This I Believe essay. Instead of using the logic scalpel to dissect and dismiss, I was confronted with the challenge to decide and describe in the positive. I no longer could just throw out what I didn't believe. My scalpel was suddenly rendered as effective as a butter knife.

So what do I believe? I obviously had to believe something. Aside from some actions that are simply involuntary reactions, our beliefs are the basis for our decision making. When confronted with a choice, the path we choose in inevitably influenced by how we understand -- what we believe about -- the world around us.

The logician in me, the man with the scalpel at the ready, claims that these beliefs are based on repeatable observation. The sun rises. Living things evolve. If the scientific community has settled on something as fact, through the rigors of scientific inquiry, then it becomes a belief in my foundation.

But these facts, as solid as they may be, cannot comprise the entirety of my decision-making foundation. In reality, they are just the things I take as granted. That I know the sun is going to come up tomorrow doesn't help me decide how to resolve a conflict with a friend. The details of evolution don't give me any reason to trust the people I love. They really just explain how the world works on both a macro and micro level. The trouble is that we live most of our lives as individuals somewhere in between. None of the physical or biological facts discovered by science have ever answered the question, "What will human X do in situation Y?"

So what is it that I believe that helps me as human X to respond the way I do in situation Y?

As much as my logical side fights the notion and craves proof for everything, the answer I have come back to repeatedly over the past year is the concept of faith. I don't speak of faith in a broad religious sense, for the idea of subscribing to a faith that someone else has defined for me is antithetical to my every fiber. Faith is how I deal with the presently unknown -- and the unknowable. It is a faith that I have in the universe. It is a faith that I have in those I love and trust. But most of all, it is a faith that I have in myself, that I will somehow navigate the intricacies of life in a way that gives my existence meaning and worth.

Years ago, as I sat in a high school religion class, I read a single sentence that resonates with me today. My textbook defined religion as "an individual's response to the mysteries of life." As a 15-year-old student, the definition struck me as odd. I'd spent my entire life being taught that there was one faith, yet this book was telling me that I could have an individual response. I think the book was wrong. It is not religion that is an individual's response to the mysteries of life. Religion is humanity's way of attempting to define faith for the masses.

An individual's response to the mysteries of life is faith. Faith is what allows us to get up in the morning. Faith is what allows us to open ourselves up to those we love. Faith is what helps us to make difficult decisions each and every day. Faith is what fills in the gaps between knowledge. Faith is what allows us to simultaneously live with confidence while admitting our ignorance.

As I write this, the man with the scalpel is screaming that my acceptance of faith is an unacceptable concession of colossal proportions. He demands an explanation based in fact. I can't give it to him.

Why do I believe in faith? Because I do.
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