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Posts Tagged ‘action’

The day after the Inauguration, I had a long conversation with someone who was fighting despair. He was obviously a smart guy, educated, well-spoken, reasonable. He was trying to make sense of what was happening on the national political stage and come up with a plan to fix it, and he was failing. His failure, to which I imagine he is at least somewhat unaccustomed, was causing him a lot of distress.

I told him, “This is an unprecedented and chaotic time, and there isn’t a simple easy fix. No one knows what is this is going to lead to in the future.”

I want you to pause and let that sink in: No one knows what is going to happen.

Seriously. I don’t care how smart any one individual is. They do not know what is going to happen. Most of them do not even have all the facts. Unless X-men mutant powers have suddenly manifested around the globe, nobody knows what the future will bring. They can guess. They can analyze. They can plan. They can string together a line of facts with speculation. But they cannot know.

Why does this matter?

Fear has two sides. On the one hand, it can be an effective weapon. It can galvanize us into action, overcoming the impulses of laziness, denial, and apathy.  It can help us develop courage and integrity. It can act as a loud warning siren that something has gone wrong in the world around us.

But if left unchecked, fear can spiral out of control. It can deepen into despair and defeatist thinking. It can overwhelm and paralyze. It can lead a person into believing there is nothing they can do.

And spending too much time dwelling on and being terrified by an unknown future can lead to this spiral of despair all too easily.

How do we combat this? By aggressive self care, by acknowledging that we do not know what the future will bring, and by empowering ourselves by focusing on concrete actions we can take.

But Amy, I hear someone say, what good are my actions? They won’t make any difference.

And to that person I say, I understand how you feel. We are, each of us, tiny specks of sand being blown by the winds of history in the making. It is an uncomfortable feeling.

But you are wrong. Over and over again in this blog, I have written about the importance of the individual’s choices, about how we impact the world around us, about how living a mindful and examined life matters. And that has never been more true than at this moment.

What you believe matters. How you choose to conduct yourself matters. Acting with integrity matters. Reaching out and supporting your friends, your communities, your families, that all matters. Staying engaged and informed matters. Donating matters. Becoming engaged in the political process matters. Organizing matters. Protesting matters. What you create as an artist matters.

You do not have to conduct a very deep dive into history to find concrete examples of how these things have impact: various independence movements; women’s suffrage; the Civil Rights Movement; the LGBTQ rights movement; the Tea Party. And that’s just off the top of my head. These sorts of things are usually messy and often deeply imperfect, because we as individuals make mistakes and are deeply imperfect. But over time they can change the status quo. Our actions do matter.

And if the fear is strong in you right now, know you don’t have to do it all, and you don’t have to do it alone. That is why organizing is so important, because when it works well, you become more than the sum of your parts. You support each other. You don’t have to be an expert on every single issue. You can take breaks. You can focus on your strengths and not beat yourself up so hard over your weaknesses. You can raise up your voices together, and a million voices are a hell of a lot louder than one single voice.

As Dylan Thomas so famously wrote:

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Fight against despair because it will lie to you. It will tell you your integrity and your principles no longer matter. And that is simply not true.

Who you are will always matter.

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“Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

I have been re-reading bits of Letters to a Young Poet and then I found this cool site called zenpencils.com that illustrates quotations and poems in a comic-like style, and they recently did this Rilke quotation, and it seemed timely. So here we are. (The latest one they did is a Lang Leav one, which I also highly recommend, especially because I love Lang Leav’s poetry.)

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It’s nice to think about living into an answer, but I think we are always living our questions. And the answers simply lead to more questions. Sometimes life seems to me to be one giant experiment. You can follow blueprints left by other people, some of which are more detailed than others. Or you can strike off on your own and see what happens. But it’s all about questions, starting with the simple “What will happen next?”

I ran into a friend at a party some time ago, and he said he reads the blog from time to time, and he told me how idyllic it seemed, that I got to sit around and ponder the big questions. And I do. That’s exactly what I do. I spend a lot of time sitting around and thinking. So here’s another question for you: Why? Why do I sit around and ponder the big questions? And why do I get to do this? And does it have any outward effect whatsoever?

I’m reading a book about playwriting, and I have learned that the “action” of the play is what the characters want. This idea will be familiar to anyone who has studied any kind of storytelling for more than a few months. (Weeks? I don’t remember, I just remember it is foundational.) So then some of the other questions we live are “What do we want?” and “Are we going to get it?” and “Are we going to keep it?” and “Is it going to change?”

I spent several hours on the phone this past weekend with a friend who is going through a break-up after spending more than twenty years not being single. “Friends aren’t the same,” this person told me. “I feel so alone.” And I felt a jolt of surprise that this was a revelation, even though after twenty years, of course it was. Yes, being single means being alone in a different way. How do we become okay with this? How did I come to this almost benign acceptance of yes, that is really how it is? And then another question: who am I when I’m alone? Who am I when I’m not fulfilling a role that is at least partially defined by my relationship to someone else?

These are questions that have been occupying my spare moments lately. Who am I when I strip everything away? When I put aside relationships to friends, family, a lover? When I subtract job and career and calling? When I suspend my hobbies, my interests? When I forget about my past? When I am no longer concerned with status, power, wealth, influence, and ego? Who am I then?

Who am I then? I am living that question. Maybe nothing, maybe everything. I am present. I am living into answers that will give me more questions, and my curiosity will be my fuel.

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“To live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk.” — Robert McKee, Story

“Life is all about not knowing, and then doing something anyway.” — Mark Manson

When I was reading Frankl’s idea that the meaningful thing to do when confronted with avoidable suffering is to avoid it, my first thought was, oh, does this make decision-making simpler? Avoid suffering! Got it.

But the dilemma of leaving behind unnecessary suffering is actually at the crux of many difficult decisions. Because sometimes it is not at all clear which path will lead to less suffering. We are sometimes confronted with decisions in which there is no great answer, no win-win-win that Michael Scott (The Office) championed, no choice that effectively avoids all suffering. At which point it is a determination as to which is the lesser evil, and the answer to that question is sometimes not at all obvious.

What we are left to navigate, then, is a map of decision points. Our choices shape our lives and give them meaning, and they also determine what stories we set down now that change into our pasts with the passing of time. Those stories, which can be re-told, re-interpreted, and even subverted, in turn play their part in forming our identities.

And sometimes we do not know. And sometimes, not knowing, we take large risks. And sometimes those risks do not pay off the way we wish they would.

Photo Credit: Bryan Davidson via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bryan Davidson via Compfight cc

But a life with no risk–besides being impossible, since walking out your door is a risk, as is choosing to stay home–becomes a life of less meaning. Moments matter more because they are impermanent and cannot last. Meaning is created from change, from development, from action and experience. We cannot know and yet we act, and from that action we illustrate who we are. Sometimes we even create who we are. And this is the case regardless of outcome.

I’ve spoken before about the importance of actions, of how I’ve been training myself to pay more attention to people’s actions and less attention to their words (particularly when the two don’t match up). Recently I’ve been thinking not only of how actions define others, but how my actions define me, and more particularly, the relationship between actions and emotions.

For a long time I was baffled by the common wisdom that we get to choose how to react to any given situation. “What was the choice?” I wondered. If someone did something and I felt angry or hurt or sad about it, well then, I was angry or hurt or sad. I couldn’t magically choose not to feel those things.

But what I realize now is that yes, of course I will feel whatever emotions might be present inside me. And it is difficult to choose what those might be in specific situations (although there are ways to foster more compassionate and/or positive outlooks in general). Sometimes emotions just happen. But emotions do not have to define me in the same way that my actions do.

Indeed, in many cases my actions will result in changing my emotions. And my emotions can be valuable indicators of when action might be needed and sometimes even of the types of actions I need to consider. Using my emotions as a kind of barometer to help determine action leads to them defining me less than they did previously, when they just sat there, an inert lump in my stomach.

But for this to work, risk is still necessary. Uncertainty is still present. I don’t always know the right thing to do.

Sometimes there is no right thing to do.

And I think part of what Robert McKee and Mark Manson are saying is that this state of uncertainty is okay. Because the uncertainty makes our decisions matter.

And then these decisions imbue our lives with the meaning we crave.

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Last week I wrote about this gem of an article on differences between amateurs and professionals. But I left my favorite item on Bob Lefsetz’s list for today. If I were compiling a list of things about life I wish I’d known as soon as freaking possible, this would go near the top.

Amateurs, he says, believe what people say. Professionals believe what people do.

Which is to say, talking about something is all fine and good, but if subsequent actions don’t line up with the words, it’s generally the actions that point to the deeper truth about what’s going on. This is true not just in professional life, but across the board.

I suffer from a vein of serious gullibility, crossed with a strong desire to believe the best of people, so I still need to remind myself of this lesson. Noble intentions are wonderful to possess, but until we follow through on them, they remain intangible. Similarly, words matter, but if they aren’t backed up with fact, action, or experience, they remain hollow. And words can create false expectations about what will happen in the future.

I do think it takes a certain self awareness and ability to adjust to line up words with actions. And words by their nature sometimes lack the required precision. Which is why the actions themselves are so important. They cut through the potential for misunderstanding. They also help us better understand ourselves and what we care about.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my priorities and then developing plans around them because I don’t want to be a person who regularly expresses desires but then does nothing to make any of them happen. And it is so easy to be that person. It’s not as interesting to be that person, but it does, in my experience, take a lot less effort.

It also takes less courage. Because acting on words makes them real, and it also makes the possibility of failure or success real. And both failure and success can be terrifying because they cause change and require adjustment. As long as we don’t act, we can hold on to our fantasies about what could be true.

In writing, this manifests as the person who professes to want to write or want to build a career as a writer, but who doesn’t write or pursue this seriously. I’m not talking about people going through rough patches–times when life ruthlessly intervenes or we have to take some time to work out how to deal with a particular demon. But ultimately a writer needs to figure out a process that works, a way to actually write and produce, and ideally a way to write that doesn’t solely depend on the occasional burst of inspiration.

Saying we want to be writers or we wish we could be writers is certainly not uncommon, but it is the actions we take in pursuit of this goal that demonstrate how committed and serious we are. And professionals can tell the difference a mile away. This is, I believe, one reason why going to Clarion and other such workshops can be such a door-opener; spending the time and resources on a residential workshop shows a certain level of commitment that professionals respect.

What we do–the actions we take-becomes a large part of who we are.

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