Some Order in the Chaos

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I sense that many people think the world works something like this:

If you do good, good things will happen to you.

If you do bad, bad things will happen to you.

The way that you act and the kind of person you are will determine how well or arduously your life goes.

In other words, people reap what they sow. If good things are happening to you, it’s because you did good things. If something bad happened to you, it’s a result of something bad you did. Powerful people are powerful because of the good that they do. Poor people are poor because of the bad decisions they’ve made. Etcetera, etcetera.

But in reality, things frequently go like this:

Bad things happen to people who do good.

Good things happen to people who do bad.

The way that you act and the kind of person you are seems to have little bearing on the enjoyment or difficulties that come your way.

A power-hungry asshole gets the job instead of you–the more intelligent, empathetic person. A benevolent doctor has a career-ending stroke. The corrupt businessman gets a bonus larger than you and fifteen other people will make in your combined lifetimes. You give everything to your significant other, and they leave you for someone else. Things that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy–injury, illness, loss–strike all kinds of people around you.

The only discernible law about how things work is that no matter what kind of person you are, a number of good and bad things will happen to you without much rhyme or reason. Life is frequently unfair. The world is not perfectly karmic. Beautiful, awesome, rewarding things happen. But so do tragic, painful, gut-wrenching things. Sometimes, it’s because of your choices and actions. Other times, it’s pure happenstance. A meaningful and enjoyable life has a lot of luck involved.

So does that mean we should all give up on trying to be better people? If so much is coincidental, shouldn’t we just take as much as we can for ourselves and let other people fend for themselves?

I think it’s actually the opposite. With so much of what makes our lives enjoyable or difficult outside of our control, what we should do is collectively try to bring a little bit of order to the chaos.

We should think about what we can do…

To create support structures that alleviate each other’s suffering and misfortune.

To establish more accountability and transparency–especially with institutions and positions of power.

To ensure that the most vulnerable people have the same basic standard of living as everyone else.

To take care of our mental and physical health so we’re more resilient in the face of adversity.

To be more kind and patient with one another–knowing that each of us is probably struggling through something we didn’t ask for.

How the world works isn’t regularly what we expect or want. It’s up to us to come together and do what we can to make things more just, humane, and enjoyable for everyone.

Boundaries and Spaces

Some of the things you can’t control…

How long you have to wait at the DMV. The weather. Where Earth is in the universe. If your favorite team wins the championship this year. Sunday night is the end of the weekend. Getting laid off. Who your parents and siblings are. Heartache is painful. Some drunks decide to drive. Humans can’t spread their arms and fly. Meritocracy is mostly a fiction. People need oxygen, water, and food (and many other things) to survive. You have to actually do the chores for things to be clean. Time travel is probably impossible. Others misunderstand and judge you. The typical lifespan is 71 years.

These are the boundaries of life. The things that are out of your hands and constrain who you are and what you can do. You might wish things were different. Or that you could have superpowers to overcome limits. But there’s little, if anything, you can do to change and control these things.

Some of the things you can control…

What food you eat. Who you ask out on a date. Where and when you take vacations. How you exercise. What time you go to sleep. How much of your income you save. If you play it safe or take a risk. Your outlook for the future. The city you make your home. Being better informed. Caring about what other people think of you. Your attachment to your phone. Learning new things. How you treat strangers and vulnerable human beings. The time you spend with the people you love.

These are the spaces. The undetermined, pliable things you can largely build and shape as you want. To do like this or like that. To prioritize or ignore. To do the same way for a while, or evaluate and change as you go.

A lot of being able to live well comes down to understanding the things you can’t control and the things you can. The things that guide and limit our path, and the things that we can do the way we want.

We don’t have superpowers. We’re not powerless. We are people. We are both limited and full of potential. Understand, explore, try. Know what shapes you and what you can shape.

Find your place in the boundaries and spaces.

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.

This Week in Upgrades: July 5

A very pleasant Tuesday to you. Still have fireworks exploding around you? Our neighborhood was plenty raucous. I hope you had a safe and enjoyable holiday weekend.

If you weren’t celebrating July 4th, maybe you celebrated NASA successfully placing Juno in orbit with Jupiter? Can’t wait until we start getting images and data back.

Lots of other interesting and important things this week. Like…

Don’t go crazy with it, but we don’t need to demonize butter anymore.

We get new cells all the time. So how old is your body, really?

Will this legislation help save the bees?

We now know how dogs sniff out diabetes. Definitely humankind’s best friend.

Bluefin tuna will probably be fished to extinction if we don’t do more to protect them.

Researchers believe air pollution is responsible for 6.5 million deaths per year.

Speaking of manmade environmental change, it looks like we’ve passed a crucial threshold. This is not good.

It would help if the American government actually addressed the dire state of the climate. The Democratic Party platform wasn’t particularly aspirational.

An important essay on how slavery was fundamental to modern economics.

More than anything, a universal basic income would mean the end of BS jobs. All part of that new American Dream.

Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time looks stunning. Sometimes we lose perspective on how astounding it is that we’re here now in the midst of all this.

This Week in Upgrades: June 20

Hello, friend. Are you enduring a heat wave? 2016 is well on its way to being the hottest year on record, and the 108° forecasted high for today where I live is definitely confirming that. Stay cool, stay safe, stay woke.

So many great Upgrades this week. At least we have that going for us.

Ever wonder how big the universe is? We seem to have figured it out.

NASA is looking for explorers for Mars, and they’ve made some sweet posters for the campaign.

In other NASA news, they’re developing an all-electric plane–possibly paving the way for a cleaner era of air travel.

Similarly, Harley-Davidson is apparently going to launch an all-electric motorcycle in the next few years. Nice.

These are 2016’s 50 best restaurants in the world. Congrats to Massimo Bottura on #1. His Chef’s Table episode is delightful.

Speaking of restaurants: for the first time, Americans are spending more eating out than on groceries for home.

Do you know how far your food traveled?

The latest in a long line of studies suggests coffee does not cause cancer. This coffee-drinker is relieved (until the next study comes out).

Popular foods renamed as their calorie count will probably make you think twice about eating them.

What makes for great dialogue in a film?

If you want to be a good boss, choose philosophy over a business degree.

What will self-driving trucks do to the trucking industry? Another reason young Americans are giving up on modern capitalism, and why we need a new American Dream.

A reminder that self-driving public transportation will also soon change the way people and goods travel.

Snapchat is launching an online magazine about device culture. Interested to see how this turns out.

Emojis are becoming crucial for text message communication.

Have a fantastic week! 🎉

 

 

 

 

 

 

People Change

When my wife and I got married, she and I decided we would both have her last name as our shared surname. I’ve written more about that elsewhere, and you’re welcome to read some of that here if you’d like. When people found out, the reactions were many and varied. You’re joking, right? You’re upending tradition! That’s odd. That’s so cool! I’ve never heard of that before, but now that I think about it I wonder why more people don’t talk about that when they get married.

I can’t recall a single person who was totally neutral or disinterested–everyone had an opinion of some sort. Though some of the opinions were shocking to us, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s a very rare human being that goes through life without ever judging, critiquing, or stereotyping everyone else around them. As soon as you meet someone new, you begin to form an opinion and an impression of them. That impression doesn’t change much after the first few encounters.

Because most people want the impression to stick. When you can put other human beings in neat little boxes that you made, you feel a sense of control and understanding. The world is complex, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes confusing. If you can condense the people in your life into impressions that fit in manageable little boxes, then they will be one less thing that can change and surprise you in ways that make you feel uncomfortable.

But the reality is that people will always change. Change is one of the most constant, real features of the universe we live in. It’s the reason we all need to find our lifeline: the thing or things that give us grounding and perspective no matter what’s going on or how chaotic it feels. Permanently packaging other people into oversimplified boxes should never be one of the ways you try to handle and minimize the ever-present change you’ll encounter.

People will change names. Change hairstyles. Change hometowns. Change career aspirations. Change hobbies. Change worldviews. Change their attitude and emotional style. Change their fashion. And a million other things. Other people’s change will constantly blow up your boxes. If you don’t acknowledge and accept it, you’ll be working with a stale and distorted version of them. That’s not healthy for you or them.

Sometimes people change for the worse; sometimes for the better. That’s not really for you to judge. If you’re close to them, and they’ve told you they trust your perspective and input, maybe the time will come when you two dialogue about how life is going and what you think about how it might go differently. Even then, it’s ultimately their life to live as they see fit, and you have to be OK with that.

More often than not, it won’t be your place to give any commentary at all. You should simply affirm their exploration of who they are in whatever way they are trying to realize their potential and happiness. We all should be exploring, trying, failing, learning. It’s deeply hypocritical if you allow yourself to do so but come down hard on others for changing and growing.

Celebrate your friend’s new hairstyle. What is it to you if it’s a color or cut you feel uncomfortable with? Celebrate your relative’s decision to strive for a career as an artist instead of a career as a scientist. Celebrate your neighbor feeling more confident as they exercise more, eat better, and improve their health.

Perhaps sometimes you feel unsettled by others’ change because it reminds you of the change you haven’t made. Instead of trying to cram people back into the box you made for them, welcome their change and use it as inspiration to finally do what you keep telling yourself you’ll do. Change is not a zero-sum game with all the other human beings on this planet. You don’t need to criticize or undercut someone else so that you can get a leg up.

No matter what, people change. Maybe you need to change how you handle that reality.

How to Adult: Dream in Years, Live in Days

As best as we can tell, the universe is almost fourteen billion years old. Earth, itself, is about four and a half billion years old. There is exposed rock in the Grand Canyon that is two billion years old. I can’t wait to see it myself later this year.

At up to 80 or 100 years, a human life is just a small sliver of time in comparison to the age of the planet we live on and the rest of the universe we find ourselves in the midst of. The writer of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible describes human life as fleeting as the mist out of a spray bottle–there and then floating invisibly into the next phase.

With just a vapor of time to work with, we owe it to ourselves to think about the course we want our life to take–to figure out how to “suck the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau once said.

No one can have the whole thing planned out at the beginning, of course. Many of us grow up dreaming of becoming a fireman or the president or an astronaut–only to end up doing something much different. Even within a year’s time a lot can change.

But I would argue that there is a way to think about how to live a life that might help you get the most out of it, and it’s pretty simple. Dream in years. Live in days.

The bigger moves and chapters of your life take time. Anyone who decides to go to college rarely chooses to do so on a whim. And college itself takes a handful of years to complete–let alone graduate school if you keep going. Despite its prevalence in film and television, most people don’t decide to get married on a whim either. There’s a slow, sometimes agonizing unfolding of dating, rejection, doubt, dating again, engagement, wedding planning, and then eventually, marriage.

So dream in years. Where would you like to be a few years from now? Another country? Married? In a tiny house you built?

Who would you like to be a few years from now? More compassionate? Less stressed? An artist?

Use your imagination to set a horizon to journey toward.

And live in days. Imagining your future–dreaming in years–will set the path of where you’re trying to go. Living life out, day by day, is how you’ll actually get there. No day can be taken for granted. Life is fragile and unpredictable. “The best-laid plans often go awry.” You have to suck the marrow out of today, not just days in the future. So do the things now that will help you get closer to what you’ve imagined for the years to come, but let the day also feel full and complete on its own. Save up to move if you’re dreaming of moving. Start the degree if you need the education. Take a cooking lesson so you can make more of your own food. Get drinks with that person that you’ve been meaning to get to know better. And laugh, sweat, rest, dance, eat, love, breathe, watch, reflect. Some of the best days can feel like a whole lifetime.

You don’t need a doctorate in philosophy to resonate with Socrates’ lesson that the unexamined life is not worth living. By dreaming in years and living in days, I’m confident you’ll be off to a good start writing chapters of your life that you’ll be truly grateful for. You’ll leave layers of your time in the universe as remarkable as the rock of the Grand Canyon.