Pivoting Towards Gratitude

Seventeen years ago I got an unexpected call at work. My 69 year old dad had died from a massive heart attack, in his car, at a red light, on his way to his office. Today, Mother Dear’s health is precarious.

My story isn’t unique because the cycle of life doesn’t discriminate. Baby boomers’ parents are dying every day. How do we avoid being overcome by grief?

My dad’s sudden, unforeseen death taught me important lessons. A few weeks afterwards I realized I had a stark choice to make. Should I continue being upset at the fact that he’d never get to know our daughters, that our friendship wouldn’t continue deepening, that my mom wouldn’t enjoy his company anymore, that a taken for granted future was cut short? Or should I be grateful that he was a great grandfather for a few years, that he was my father for 34 years, and that my mom and him spent fifty plus years together.

I chose to be grateful for the time we enjoyed together. “And,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “that has made all the difference.” In the short-term, this intentional pivoting towards gratitude doesn’t inoculate anyone from tremendous sadness. But it’s indispensable in avoiding longer term paralyzing grief.

On a Thanksgiving Day car trip, the conversation with Betrothed turned to our parents’ declining health. I shared this perspective with her and my related opinion that since our parents are in their early 80’s everything from here on in is “extra credit”. We’ve been blessed beyond belief to have them as parents. We won the lottery of life without having to buy tickets. We’re blessed to have a treasure trove of positive memories with them. We need to consciously choose gratitude by celebrating the quality and quantity of time we’ve enjoyed with them.

As a cyclist, I reminded the Good Wife that I run a real risk of getting hit and possibly killed by a drunk or distracted driver. I told her if I die at 52 or 62, I wanted something from her. I said, “Grieve with gusto. Be as sad as you want for a few weeks or months. But then consciously choose to be thankful for the three or four decades we spent together. For the fact that we met. For the specialness of our friendship. For the team we made. Our daughters (who may be younger or the same age I was when my dad suddenly died) will need that modeled for them. Show them how to choose gratitude.”

Pujols Trade Take-Away

Everyone wants to feel needed, appreciated, like a valuable member of the team. Even dudes who get nine figures for being good at baseball.

Jose Reyes is a very good baseball player who recently signed a six-year $106 million deal with the Florida Marlins. “The Marlins,” Reyes said, “showed me a lot of love.” Asked about the team that signed him when he was 16, he said, “The Mets didn’t make a real offer, so that means they don’t want me there. I need to move on.”

Albert Pujols is a decent player too. He just inked a ten-year $254 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Next to Disneyland Between Katella and Orangewood. Gregg Doyel’s disappointment, “Pujols could have had it all, but instead he chose $254 million,” makes perfect sense on the surface—Pujols would have always been beloved in St. Louis if had he settled for their $220 million.

One problem though. The handful of superstars at the top of each sport always want to be paid more than their peers. Their salaries are their measuring sticks, not fleeting fan appreciation. No coincidence he signed for $2m more than ARod’s old contract.

Unreal isn’t that even guys who make $100-200k per baseball game don’t feel appreciated by their teams when another dude somewhere else makes a little more? Even more than unappreciated, they feel “disrespected”.

As I wrote previously about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, everyone wants to feel needed, appreciated, like a valued member of the team. How can those of us who supervise, manage, or coach others create environments where each person feels like an integral part of the whole, like their contributions are important?

A friend of mine, a high school principal, interviewed a grad student of mine for a math position which she got. During the interview process he learned she had a thing for Diet Coke. He told me he got a small fridge, filled it with Diet Coke, and put it in her classroom for her.

An admittedly subtle example, but maybe small, but thoughtful gestures like that are what make the difference in the end. Even when there’s a pay scale in place, like in public school districts, people want to feel like others care that they’re at work, are aware of and appreciate their effort, and genuinely miss them when their gone. My principal friend gets that. What other examples are there of supes, managers, bosses, or coaches getting it?

Living Peacefully and Joyfully

During Sunday night’s Skype session with Nineteen I learned she’d been on a nice walk with KN, the uber-nice mother of one of her best friends, who was visiting Midwest leafy liberal arts college for Parents’ Weekend. On that walk KN revealed that she has read three books that I’ve recommended. Cool dat. Note to self: Make a batch of “I read PressingPause.com” t-shirts to give to subscribers and loyal readers. No doubt a future status symbol*.

I have another book recommendation for KN. I don’t read books consistently enough, as a result I don’t get through all that many, as a result, I choose what I read carefully. I don’t know if I’ve ever chosen as well as in 2011. The ten month long hot streak continues with A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine (2009). So good I read it twice, the second time taking nine pages of notes since I plan on using it in a future writing seminar.

Irvine says the public’s preconceived notions about Stoicism are wrong. Stoics were fully engaged in life and worked to make the world a better place. The goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotions like anger, anxiety, grief, and envy. Musonius Rufus (Is there a better jazz/funk name?) said that “a cheerful disposition and secure joy” will automatically follow those who live in accordance with Stoic principles. Would be Stoics, Irvine writes, will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire—most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. Instead they will turn their attention to the pursuit of tranquility and virtue.

The word “tranquility” is hardly ever used in conversation today, probably because few of us experience much of it, but it’s the central concept of the book. Irvine says “Tranquility is a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular joy.” On a scale of one to ten, what’s your tranquility quotient?

The bulk of the book is about how to practice Stoicism. Irvine does a great job of adapting the Ancient Roman philosophy to modern times. He acknowledges that people should choose a philosophy of life that fits their personality and that Stoicism won’t be for everyone. He points out that in some significant ways Stoicism and Christianity overlap; consequently, they can be complementary.

For Irvine the greatest problem is that few people have any coherent philosophy of life. As a result, they succumb to mindless consumerism; consequently, at the end of the road they often regret that they’ve squandered their time. What is your philosophy of life? To what degree does it shape your day-to-day actions?

The body of the book is a description of five Stoic psychological techniques and Stoic advice on ten topics such as dealing with other people, anger, old age, and dying. Probably best read with a significant other or a small group of friends who you can discuss it with.

* Any graphic artists out there interested in creating a PressingPause logo? If so, please email me (see the “contact” tab at upper right).

We’re All Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Lew

When I was a pipsqueak, switching sports with the seasons, my guys were Jack Nicklaus, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and later, Magic “Earvin” Johnson.

Now my favorite superstars are Dave Gordon, Lance Matheson, and Dan Mathis.

It’s kinda hard to believe Kareem is 64 now. It seems like yesterday I was in college, squatting in front of our fuzzy t.v. in a Palms apartment, as Mark Eaton watched helplessly as Kareem’s “most points in NBA history” setting baseline skyhook hit nothing but net.

Kareem has always been cerebral, aloof, and apparently, not too personable.

Last week, he said he felt slighted by the Lakers since they hadn’t built a statue for him yet out in front of LA’s Staples Center. That complaint could convince me to never erect a statue, but after digging a little bit into the context, I realized Kareem, just like all of us at times, feels unappreciated.

If Kareem felt appreciated by the Lakers, I doubt he’d sweat the statue. The Lakers in essence have said it’s tough to appreciate Kareem, given his aloof, prickly personality. He’s made his own bed.

Some of my co-workers don’t feel fully appreciated by others at work. Some of my friends don’t feel fully appreciated by their partners. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t feel fully appreciated by Barack Obama. Maria Shriver feels unappreciated. I don’t like that I feel unappreciated at times.

I wish I was more self sufficient when it comes to feeling appreciated.

But the truth of the matter is I’d like a statue too. A couple of ’em. One for three decades of conscientious teaching. Another for three months of extra cooking and cleaning while the galpal fights plantar fasciitis. And another for Friday’s lawn work.

Maturity is one’s ability to show appreciation for others without worrying about it being returned in equal measure. The challenge is to switch from “Woe am I, so unappreciated” to “I resolve to out-appreciate you.”

Ever deepening selflessness, characterized by ever increasing appreciation for others, is a key ingredient of a life well lived.