Recently I was ask, as most of us have been from time to time, “what one sentence would you like to have written on your tombstone that would capture who you really were in your life?” A tricky question. First, the word “like” is of utmost importance. It is a very different reflection to wonder what inscription might most accurately describe how I have actually lived in this world so far, vs. reflecting on how I would like to have lived by the end of my life. The first reflection haunts me with regret, while the second one invites me to be inspired and to live differently.
The question reminded me of a short poem about this topic by Robert Frost:
“And were an epitaph to be my story, I’d have a short one ready for my own. I would have written on my stone: I had a lover’s quarrel with the world”
I’ve always liked Frost’s poetry for reasons I know and some I think I don’t know. One I know is that, at least with his shorter poems, I can at least pretend I know what he’s talking about, whereas, if I read, say, T.S. Eliot, I can’t even pretend very well that I have any idea what he’s talking about! As tried to write about what I would want to be written on my tombstone, I came up with things like “ Monte was a great lover of beauty, strength, wisdom, humor, and drew others to be the same.” But then I remembered Frost’s little cryptic poem on the subject, and wondered if an adaptation might be more appropriate: “He had a series of lover’s quarrel’s with God, and happily lost every one of them”.
Of course, in the middle of a lover’s quarrel, it’s hard to imagine the happy outcome. I have found myself recently in another one of those internal quarrel’s with God. I truly feel like I don’t know how it will end… but I have my suspicions.
I admit it. I teared up at the end of the movie Draft day? Why? I’m a sports addict so of course I’m a sucker for the subject matter of the movie, but I don’t think that’s what moved me. The movie revolves around the fictional general manager of the Cleveland Browns (Sonny Weaver) deciding what to do with the #1 pick in the 2014 draft. In the tension-filled climactic scene, Sonny shrewdly and deftly negotiates a complicated series of trades that land his team the players they want and a number of future #1 draft picks. Nice Hollywood scene.
But I think what stirred deep emotion in me goes beyond the protagonist winning against all odds. Weaver is clearly a less-than-comic-book-hero character– a flawed, real kind of character with a couple of virtues that win the day in the end: conviction and courage. He has a kind of calm conviction about who he is, what he believes and what he is about, and with those things in place he faces controversy and criticism (even from the man who could fire him on the spot) and presses forward with steady courage toward what he wants to accomplish. In the Hollywood version, this kind of conviction and courage is rewarded with timely success. In real life, the outcomes are not so predictable.
As I work with professionals to deepen their personal relationships, concepts like this are in the forefront of my mind. Unless an individual clearly knows who he is and what he believes, or is at least in an intentional process of clarifying those things, and wants to find the courage to live out who he really is, it is impossible to offer who he deeply is in a relationship.
The author Po Bronson, in his book, What Should I Do with My Life?, observed that he had met many people who had tried to live their lives by this equation:
Dream… Lock Box… F&%k-You Money… Lock Box… Dream.
He observed a number of problems with this formula. First, most people never actually get to the FY money, and so arrive at the later stage of life having neither lived in connection to their dreams or finding the freedom they thought would come through financial success. Second, the process of living life that way changes a person, so that usually they became so distanced from their core desires that they couldn’t really go back there even if they were one of the few who made the fortune they envisioned. Furthermore, going “back” to one’s dream later is an entirely different experience than living that dream, pursuing what feels most central to one’s core sense of purpose and struggling through all the bumps, bruises, breakthroughs and victorious arrivals along the way. It turns out that the journey itself is as much a part of someone “living their dream” as the goal that is usually identified as the “dream”.
Add to this reality the fact that the almost universal death-bed testimony of “successful” people is that if they could change one thing it would be that they would not have let the pursuit of their career get in the way of cultivating important personal relationships, especially family.
The answer to the question “Why should I prioritize personal relationships over my career?” may seems obvious when time is taken to actually reflect about these matters: a satisfactory life will be largely determined by the quality of one’s relationships. But the fact is a great many of us simply feel too busy, distracted, and overwhelmed with the pressures of life to make cultivating personal relationships our priority. We also might feel more competent in our work than in the messy business of growing and attending to the unpredictable nature of deep, involved relationships. In my next blog I will begin to explore some strategies to help transition our focus to set the table for a more satisfying set of priorities.
So much will be written on the life and now death of Robin Williams. Those of us who are old enough to have witnessed his manic and wildly entertaining character from Mork and Mindy are still trying to take in the fact that this artistic genius is suddenly gone from the planet. Facebook is inundated with quotes and clips from movies and stand-up routines (I have re-posted my share). When a great creative genius dies before it seems his/her time, I’m always struck by the weird sensation of wondering what art is not in the world that would have been if they had more time.
I remember wondering, when Jim Croce died in the middle of his most prolific songwriting stage, “what songs would we all know by heart by now that didn’t get written, recorded, and played millions of time on the radio”. I have similar feelings about the music of Jim Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn and what highlight clips might be in the consciousness of sports fanatics like myself of Len Bias and others who didn’t get to put their art on canvas.
Robin had enough time to give us an amazing amount of laughter and poignant reflection about life in his dramatic roles as an actor. The mixture of sadness and admiration for this man in the aftermath of his death is striking. One thinks of the famous line from the movie Braveheart, “Every man dies, not every man truly lives”. Has anyone’s life in our time demonstrated that truth more profoundly than Robin Williams’? Or from his own movie, Dead Poet’s Society, “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” Many of us are unspeakably grateful for Robin’s verse; the world just seemed a little more alive and colorful with him in it. We are also inspired. Thank you, Robin, for living you the way each of us hopes we could more fully live ourselves. Assaulted by depression, you found a way to not be locked up in it, but to give your gift to all of us despite the demons you fought. Bravo.
I have written about self-esteem on this blog before (http://wp.me/p2iGWm-H). Not very popularly, I’m afraid. The following thoughts on self-hatred will perhaps be even less popular. I share them because I think the path they invite us to has the potential to lead us to a deeper kind of freedom than we normally dare to hope for. Allow me to quote from a favorite author, Jerome Miller. Speaking of the person filled with self-hatred, Miller says, “He acts as judge; the accused is only the passive sufferer of his violences…. This is why self-hatred always harbors within it a profound arrogance that goes undetected because what the person sees is the debasement he inflicts on himself, not the pride which enables him to do so”.
How can this way of thinking lead to a profound freedom? Because if we ever relinquish the role of judge through a humble embracing of ourselves as undeserving recipients of divine favor (our very existence is pure gift), the door is thrown open to an experience of life that ceases to be about holding onto any view of self–positive or negative. Hidden within the confession of ontological insignificance is the serendipitous treasure of freedom to be, and therefore to give, receive, love, suffer, and even to die taking ourselves less seriously in one sense (because there is no pressure to create significance), and appropriately serious in another (because we have been bestowed with derivative significance beyond imagination). Okay, I’ll come up for air now.