How to Be Outside

In 2014, a United Nations study revealed that for the first time more people live in cities than in the country. Humans have officially become an urban creature, with an increasing number living near city centers every day. Many of us are more familiar with sirens, subways, and smog than the deep woods, open plains, or desert.

Like anyone anywhere else, city-dwellers acclimate to their surroundings. The pace of life, the smells, the organization and interrelationship of streets and buildings, the sounds, the dialect, the level of optimism, and the rest. Much of it becomes so ingrained and habitual that it’s unconscious. This is the way things are. This is the way the world works. But the gradual fading of awareness to surroundings does not mean they don’t have a significant impact.

We’re only beginning to understand what things like traffic, pollution, and frenetic days of production and consumption do to us biologically. Sometimes, we’ll get a clear signal from our bodies that we need more rest, less stimulation, cleaner air, less noise, or other conditions that will allow us to return to homeostasis. We know that somewhere out there–5 miles or 500 miles–we could be in greener and freer places. In a bit of fresh air that might clear our minds and blow away the accumulation of stress and urban artifice. Not everyone is an outdoors person or longs to get away from the city. But the woods and plains and desert represent a kind of Eden that we could return to and find rejuvenation if we wanted.

The trouble is a lot of us don’t know how to be outside. Even if we choose to go there. The city clings onto us as we venture miles away, with smartphones acting as a tether and transporter no matter how far we travel. The forces of the city that have shaped urbanites often causes them to–at least initially–continue to act like they’re in the city when they’re in the midst of the outdoors. Anxious activity and reactivity, big speakers and constant out-loud commentary, and an expectation for comforting amenities of every kind. It overruns cabins, campsites, and hiking trails.

Unless you consciously try to let the outdoors act on you instead of you acting on it, there’s a good chance that most of the reason to get outside will be lost. You can even ruin the outdoors itself in the process. A littered plastic bottle in a random bush along a trail seems much more out of place than one on the sidewalk on Main St. We know in our bones that the outdoors is relatively pristine and elemental (without trash here and there), which should be a reminder that its benefits are available to us if we’re able to get out of our own way.

Even a short time in a natural setting can be incredibly invigorating and restorative. Better mood. Clearer vision. Easier breathing. Lower cortisol and overall stress. A more open and focused mind. A natural high (aerosols from forests of evergreens act as a mild sedative).

So let the outdoors tell you how to be there and do to you as it will. Do what you can to leave things as they are, rather than bringing in all kinds of gear and imposition. Let the outdoors make the sounds instead of your voice and streaming music, and let your ears tune into what’s there. Let your eyes relax and adjust so they can see things in ways other than what the pixelated light of a smartphone presents. And try to learn to be OK with the unexpected (while making sure you’re safe, obviously). An outdoor environment will present you with a whole variety of things you didn’t see coming, and it’s good to be reminded that we’re not always in control and able to predict what happens next. Something near a campsite or just around the corner of the trail may uplift you and stick with you for a long time.

It can be awkward and a little unsettling to be outside if you’re not doing it often. And it’s natural to carry with us what we’re used to–needing time and reminders to break out of it. Knowing that it’s restorative and rewarding to be outdoors, we can all learn how to do it a little better for the benefit of ourselves and the places we visit.

You Are Not Your Job

Work is the nexus of activity and identity for millions of people. The standard workweek in the United States is 40 hours—almost a fourth of the total time in a week—with many people exceeding 40 hours per week. And, however much we may try to avoid it, jobs bleed into the hours when we’re not on the clock, too. There are things to get done and commuting before work (with occasional time-stealing black holes of dread). Plans, commuting home, and various ways of unwinding and recuperating after work. And days off (from work) where we attempt to rest and play hard in the downtime before work starts again.

Time is frequently organized around jobs with periods of ramping up before and cooling down after. It can be difficult to start and stop work without any carryover. Especially at a time when work texts, emails, and phone calls can interrupt at any time. Thanks, smartphones.

We regularly describe ourselves in profiles and to other people as a teacher, a barista, a musician, a small-business owner, and so forth. Or if we don’t currently have a job, as unemployed, a freelancer, a job-seeker, or retired. We talk about who we are as the job we have, the work we used to do, or the job we wish we had.

The way we spend and organize much of our time, and how we view and describe our own identity, is in relation to work.

Work, of course, is the way people make money—the predominant way we conceive of and exchange value in the world. Few people are in a position to chose not to work. Homes, food, transportation, education, healthcare, and more, all require quite a bit of money. And so most of us are forced to sell a large chunk our time, energy, and talent as labor for someone else, with the result that a lot of what we do in a given week and how we think about our lives is centered around that work. It’s almost natural to identify who you are with your job—given how much time it entails and the value (income, primarily) you get from it.

A lucky few get value beyond income. Relationships that transcend co-worker, or character growth, or personal satisfaction. But the percentage of people who really like their job is very small. Most of us do not and will not work the job of our dreams. Instead, we sell ourselves to do some combination of tolerable tasks and sheer drudgery. If you define yourself by your work and you don’t find your job meaningful, think your company or job responsibilities are embarrassing or intolerable, or you don’t make enough money to actually live off, your sense of identity and self-worth are going to be pretty shitty.

If you are working your dream job—fantastic. You are indeed lucky. But even those who are could suddenly lose it. Strongly identifying with your job doesn’t leave anything else to define yourself by if things change. And we’re all familiar with real or fictional stories of the workaholic who ruins their life and the lives of others by doing nothing but work.

It’s as cliche as an inspirational quote book to recognize that life is much more than the money you make, the job title you have, or the business you work for. But the overwhelming obligation and influence of work make it difficult to keep perspective. We have to remind ourselves that there are other forms of value than money–forms that are rarely achieved in workplaces today. And remind ourselves that work is something we do rather than who we are. Life is not merely for laboring for pay until you retire or die—though it can definitely feel that way.

Life is for discovery and pushing the boundaries of who you are as a person. To do our best to live well in a holistic sense. We need to make our actual selves the center: our emotions, relationships, interests, and potentials. Not what we do to get paid. It can be difficult to do that, but not impossible.

Most of us need to get better at how we use what we call free time or leisure. The typical impulse when we have time to do whatever we want is to veg out. But leisure is not necessarily a lazy or unproductive thing (unproductive–there’s another work reference butting into the rest of our lives). Leisure, when it’s done well, has a self-enriching and value-creating result. Maybe you watch an hour or two of Netflix because you feel like you need it. But then you move on to messing around on an instrument for awhile. Or to baking or cooking. Hiking. Coloring. Reading. Building. Or some other activity that challenges you in healthy ways and gives you a rich sense of purpose and identity. The contrast between some repetitive drudgery you do at work and the deep flow and meaning you experience doing something like hiking or composing a song is striking. But the contrast doesn’t exist if you always choose to veg out instead of exploring your interests and potentials.

Free time is also for relationships. A crucial part of who you are is being a friend, a mother, a brother, a spouse. There can be a temptation to veg out when we spend time with others, too. Like going out to get mindlessly wasted together instead of doing something that actually deepens the bond you share. Maybe it’s a couple nice drinks in a place where you can have a long conversation. Or going to the gym together. Or cooking a multi-course feast and losing track of time enjoying it. Leisure is often better when it’s with others, and it can be a shared way of upholding and expanding identity and self-worth.

And leisure is also good for getting your emotional self and internal monologue on track. Much of it happens as a byproduct of doing the right kinds of activities with the right people. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to do some self-reflection or meditation. It allows you to process through emotions, anxiety, crazy thoughts and bad narratives running through your brain, and things in need of healing. For me, yoga is an important part of my free time. But if something like that is too much, maybe it’s as simple as sitting on the couch without any noise or distractions, breathing deep and slow, and paying attention to what comes to the surface. What kinds of emotions do you feel? What are your heart rate and stress levels like? What kinds of hurts do you notice? Meaningful free time includes healing and restoration.

As long as our economic and social structures remain as they are, most of us will have to continue to devote big pieces of our lives to jobs. But we shouldn’t define ourselves by them. While we keep a post-work future on the horizon, we can be more intentional with our free time. Then the right things are at the center of how we think about who we are and how we grow over time. You are not your job or the job you don’t have. You are a human being—more expansive and interesting than anything you do for a paycheck can contain.

Making Relationships Last

Around Valentine’s Day last year, I wrote about the need to go beyond showing love on just a couple big days with big gestures if you want to be truly romantic. A thoughtful gift or a meal shared at a trendy restaurant on February 14th can be a wonderful thing. But there are a lot of hours and days through the rest of the year when there isn’t a holiday to celebrate and you create (or don’t) the love in the air. Turning romantic sparks into long-burning flames is what makes a relationship a lasting one.

OK, great. Sparks into flames. What are some ways you can do that? As someone who has been married for 7 years–and together for 8 years prior to that–I’ve learned a thing or two about keeping a relationship strong, fun, and new. Not perfect (you can ask my wife about the boneheaded things I’ve done). But lasting and growing.

Be really, really good at talking and listening to each other. It’s nearly impossible to over-communicate and be too good of a listener. Work toward being able to talk openly about everything. Yup, even that. (What did you just think of? Have you talked about it?)

Be really good at talking about things that are going well, and things that aren’t. Every couple argues. You’re going to have competing goals and desires, misunderstandings, and silly skirmishes about things like figuring out what to eat (You pick! No you pick!). You have to learn how to argue well. How to disagree honestly and patiently. How to maintain your own dignity and point of view, while doing everything you can to respect and understand theirs. Figure out what the healthy, mutually beneficial resolution is, and how you can get there together. Arguing well is about finding your way back together when you got miles apart. Not who has the best one-liners and Exhibits entered into the court to prove a point.

The rest of the time–when you’re not arguing (which is hopefully most of the time)–you have to be forthcoming about how you feel, what you plan to do today, how you can get errands and chores done together, and everything else that’s happening in your lives. Keep the conversation going back and forth all the time. If you frequently find yourselves on the couch or in bed quietly immersed in each of your phones, you’ve got some work to do.

Don’t let things become predictable and routine. You shouldn’t be exactly the same person today as you were to your mate yesterday. Learn and grow. And encourage your significant other to learn and grow, too. Do things that enable you to learn and grow together. Classes, vacations, documentaries, hanging out with new people, and other things that will cause you to stretch what you think and what you do. Things should never stay the same between the two of you for very long. You both should know and feel that the relationship is going somewhere. That you’re growing in the ways you want to individually, and growing closer together.

Do surprising little things each day to show your mate how important they are and how much you care about them. Notes and doodles, an inexpensive gift on a random afternoon, home-cooked meals, massages and other loving touch. Sometimes small, unexpected things can change the course of a whole day and how good you feel about each other.

Make sure you have shared values. Sometimes opposites attract. They balance each other out in just the right ways. But if you have completely antithetical outlooks on life and core values, you’re very likely going to arrive at an impasse and part ways eventually. Incompatible religious or political beliefs. Whether or not to have kids or how to raise them. A generally hopeful and optimistic perspective versus a mostly cynical and nihilistic one. Some values and beliefs can change over time or be accommodated. Others are deal-breakers. You and your mate need to know that what matters to each of you most is at least complementary–if not very similar.

Don’t keep score. It doesn’t really matter how much or how little your significant other has done for you today or this week. If you truly love them, you should be more concerned about their well-being than your own. If they truly love you, they should be more concerned about your well-being than their own. You may do all the chores this week. They might surprise you by doing all the chores next week (because they know things shouldn’t be predictable and routine 😉 ).

Your relationship is probably not going to last if you’re doing exactly enough to keep things 50-50. They did ten points worth of good relationship stuff, so I guess I’ll do ten points worth of relationship stuff. It’s definitely not going to last if you’re angling for 40-60 or even less. It’s not a relationship if only one person is doing the majority of it.

True, lasting relationships become a virtuous cycle of enjoyment and fulfillment when you trust that being selfless with each other will meet each of your needs and desires. You give them your honesty, attention, time, patience, creativity, benefit of the doubt, generosity, faithfulness, and the rest of you, and trust that they’ll give you the same.

If you can talk and listen well; learn, grow, and surprise a little everyday; make sure you share what matters most; and don’t keep score; your relationship will burn with more and more heat. And you’ll know that your future together will be even brighter.

How Will You Grow From It?

It’s just days away from the end of the year. Lots of people are reflecting on what the last twelve months have given us. The movies, the music, the books. The pop culture moments. The politics and historical events. What stood out for you? How are you feeling about 2016?

I lost count of the posts, articles, and conversations I’ve seen talking about how terrible this year was. There’s a lot of pessimism and defeatism in the air.

Without a doubt, 2016 was challenging and disheartening in many ways. From the changing climate of our planet to political BS to deaths of cultural icons to rampant inequality and social friction, these have been some of the darkest months we’ve gone through in some time. I’ve heard more than a few people longing for 2017–as if January 1st will be some kind of reset button.

That New Year’s Day morning may feel a bit different when it comes (hopefully for reasons other than a hangover). But things won’t actually have changed much from the day before. Or from December 30th, or from today. A different year number may give us an important psychological fresh start (are you making resolutions?). In so many ways, though, we’re going to be in much the same place we are now.

And who’s to say what 2017 will be like. The future has a nebulous uncertainty. Not yet visible, not yet formed. It could be a good year. It could be another hard year. We won’t know until we live it.

When times are hard, does that mean it’s a waste? If you’re feeling down about 2016–ready for it be over with–would you rather have skipped right from 2015 to 2017? If 2017 is hard, too, is that then two years wasted? What if those are the last two you have?

Tomorrow is never guaranteed. Some people who are around now won’t see 2017. They’ve been through years of rollercoastering from high highs to low lows, and they’re coming to the end of their ride. If they could go back and do it again–even through the difficult and lame parts–would they? Would you?

As long as we’re still here, we’ve got all of our past behind us and today in front of us. Nothing need be a waste unless we choose to waste it. Whatever happened yesterday or this last year or 10 years ago is an opportunity to grow. To learn. To become stronger. To become more agile. More connected. More whole. More fully human.

No matter the situation, there’s always something to take away from it. A bad movie is a slog to watch, but it might have a great soundtrack you end up listening to over and over. A traffic-filled commute may be a pain in the ass, but perhaps it gives you time you needed to think through some things. A dysfunctional family can be incredibly painful and debilitating, but it can reveal to you all the things not to do in your relationships. An Office Space-like workplace is a dehumanizing struggle, but it may fuel you to give your all to your real passions. A broken political environment makes you wonder how society is going to get any better, and then you realize that it’s going to be largely up to you to make it better. What crack can you fix?

Our past–individually and collectively–is always an opportunity to grow. We break time up into cleanly separated days and years, but really it all flows together. There is everything that came before leading up to now. When you think about the chunk of time we call 2016, what can you take away from it that helps you be a better you? How did you grow in 2016 from 2015? That’s something worth celebrating, however else you feel about the last twelve months. It’s never all hardship.

We can declare yesterday or the last year tough or shitty or wearying, but it’s never a waste. Never something to just toss aside and try to forget about. It’s going to shape the present whether we want it to or not. And we never know how many days or years more we have ahead of us. So we might as well live deep and suck all the marrow out of life. Take everything we’ve experienced and use it to make today something more–for ourselves and the world we live in. Out of everything that has happened this last year–the amazing things, the depressing things, the boring things, and the agonizing things–how will you grow from it?

You Still Can

Do you ever feel defeated? When doors of opportunity are slammed shut in your face, others knock you down, or you try new things and fail over and over, it’s natural to feel that way. Perhaps even expected. Sure, life can be hard. But does it have to be this hard?

Why is it so difficult for me to lose the weight? Why did that person get the job and I didn’t? How did they catch a break when I’ve been hoping and trying for the same thing forever?

Life is full of whys. It often feels like whoever’s in the control room of the universe fell asleep. Surely things are not all as they are supposed to be. What are they doing up there when all of this stuff is so broken here? Why is this like this? Why does the rug get pulled out from underneath me when I’m trying to do all the right things?

We’ve been asking the whys for a long time, and we will surely continue to do so into the future. Our universe is nearly 14 billion years old and will go on for billions more. If we want big answers about why things are the way they are we’ll have to have big patience. The universe is headed somewhere. But it’s definitely not in a hurry.

In the meantime, I think there is a simple yet fundamental truth we all need to hear on a regular basis: you still can.

You still can.

That door may have been shut in your face. You may have lost 20 pounds and gained it back. You may not have worked your dream job yet. You may not be able to walk or think or carry things the way other people can or the way you used to. But it’s not over.

You still can lose the weight and keep it off. You still can find employment–in an existing business or one that you create–that makes you feel alive and allows you to utilize your abilities. You still can explore, and ask, and learn, and converse, and wonder, and teach, and share, and love…within the changing limitations of your mind and body.

Whatever has happened up to this point does not have to be the final word. Your best days are never only behind you. But until you know and believe that you still can, defeatism is a heavy cloud blocking out a brighter future for you to enjoy.

Believing that you still can is surely easier said than done. It starts with being yourself. In particular, owning who you are and letting go when things don’t go the way you wanted. So things didn’t turn out. Maybe it’s even because you colossally screwed up. How can you learn from that? How can you find the perspective to laugh instead of judging and belittling yourself? Human error can be hilarious. There’s a reason bloopers, outtakes, and funny home videos have been shared for as long as there have been ways to record. It’s not always easy to laugh at your own mistakes and struggles, though.

When you’re feeling defeated or powerless or incapable, you have to remind yourself of what you still can do right now. You may not have been hired for that job, but maybe one of these three others would be a good fit? You may have gained the weight back, but can you cook something more healthful tonight to get back on the right track? You have to start (again) somewhere.

Your body may not allow you to hike miles in mountainous backcountry, but can you take a stroll through the neighborhood or sweat it out on a cardio machine for a little bit? You may not have all the relationships you wish you did, but can you ask him to have coffee with you or cook dinner for her?

Without a doubt, resistance is going to try to trip you up whenever you start getting some traction. We don’t fully know why it’s there, but it definitely is. There will be more doors slammed shut. More setbacks. More false meritocracy that works out in someone else’s favor. More bodily wear and tear that makes it harder to move and think.

You have to show up over and over again. Be gracious to yourself. Get up. This is not the end. You still can.