Friday, August 21, 2009


"It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one, than to have an opportunity and be unprepared ." ~~ Whitney Young

During the weeks leading up to Y2K (or simply the year 2000, as we know now), there was a frenzy of preparedness amongst people who were fearing the worst. People were scared that banks would no longer be able to function, that gasoline pumps would fail and supermarkets would not able to scan items for check out. There were those who were certain the change of century numbers would bring Armageddon. There were others who felt it would be a mere blip on the radar. We watched on as people boarded up their homes, had months of food stockpiled in basements and extra fuel sources on hand. And yet, as the flip of the numbers brought few complications, the experience did teach us about considering preparedness. While the year 2000 did not bring the catastrophic collapse of society, it did usher in a time of major upheavals in other ways. Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other disasters around the world. The question is: are we prepared for any eventuality?

This dilemma reminds me of my 12th grade Physics final presentation. My partner and I had chosen to do the topic of tides and tidal forces. We researched in the library at our prep school, and we had written, what we thought, was a well developed, inclusive and interesting speech. Our teacher, a thoughtful and entertaining Australian man, listened politely throughout our presentation. At the very end, he asked me, "But, Ellen, what exactly *causes* tides?". I was stumped. All of my witty remarks, all of my anecdotal quotations and all of my historical references were moot. I had no idea. My preparation was completely useless. I did not know the most basic answer to the most basic question of my project. I had the opportunity to succeed and I blew it because of my lack of thorough preparation.

Still, the question remains as to whether or not we can be fully prepared for any circumstance that comes our way. I believe that we can be so utterly focused on one area of preparation for one possibility so that we may become blindsided by yet another, just as I was in my Physics project. We may find ourselves with our vision skewed about what our goals truly need to be, where we need to focus our attention and how we work to ready ourselves for the 'coming storm'. And yet, metaphorically speaking, when a storm arrives in the form of a blizzard, rather than a tsunami, we realize that our sandbags, to hold back the rising river,will be powerless against the feet of snow falling from the sky. St. John of the Cross wrote, "I am not made or unmade by my circumstances, but by my reactions to them." In my very humble opinion, our greatest gift, and our greatest weapon, in battling the unknown forces we will encounter, is the preparedness of flexibility. So often, we construct plans that we believe are foolproof. When those fail, we are lost. If we find ourselves, then, grooming, developing and fortifying our creative, lateral thinking problem solving skills, we will be better able to adapt to changing challenges.

Does this mean we should cease all sense of organization? Of course not. We have every day obligations that require our attention and commitment. We need to pay our bills, maintain our homes and plan for the future, as best as we can. We should try to anticipate our upcoming needs and attempt to meet them. But, when life doesn't proceed as we expected, we must learn to develop the ability to modify, to adapt and to acclimate. When we are able to find that balance between anticipation and adaptability, we will find a greater sense of harmony.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Living life to the fullest...without the hoopla.

Whatever you are, be a good one. ~Abraham Lincoln

There has been a great deal of media attention, in recent years, about "living up to one's potential". Self-help books abound that explore the practical side of personal development, by investigating topics such as time management, home organization and home decorating to 'inspire' you through Feng Shui. Other books and movies, such as "What the Bleep?" and "The Secret", explore the spiritual, esoteric side of maximizing your life's possibilities through prayer, requesting from the universe and meditation. Women's magazines encourage us to unlock our 'inner power'. People are attending motivational speaker conferences in record numbers. They are meeting with Life Coaches and counselors to help better themselves. Western culture, in particular, has a passion for wanting its citizens to *be* passionate. Goal oriented means goal oriented at all costs to many. And yet, are we better directed, and more evolved, than we were twenty, fifty or even one hundred years ago?

While I believe that there are some incredible tools to help us improve our outlook, our skill set and our ease of life, I am afraid that just as many tools exist that make us feel worse about ourselves. I am often in the camp that finds far too many of these programs to be overwhelming. As I listen to the many ways in which my life could be vastly more meaningful, I am left with a feeling of dissatisfaction with the way my life is at this very moment. I am left wondering if I'm missing a critically urgent element in my development. Because I haven't joined a pyramid plan to create my own wealth, invested in international corporations, left my family to go on a pilgrimage to Israel or India or gone to France to study cooking, I feel as if I've missed the boat to emotional, spiritual and financial success. As much as I did enjoy reading Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love", I kept comparing myself to the author, and for lack of a better term, found myself sorely 'wanting'. Elizabeth Gilbert accomplished her own 'bucket list'. The author left her home for a year, and divided her time between Italy (learning Italian), India (immersing herself in yoga) and Indonesia (to find inner peace). I was enriched by this thoroughly entertaining read, but ending up feeling quite depressed by the end. I realized that I divide my own time between the supermarket (to shop for fast and easy meals), the studio (to work) and the house (to clean and supervise the mayhem). Was I leading a life of meaningless busywork, and therefore, wasting my time on Earth?

I realize that I'm not alone in these feelings. Most of us have them from time to time. Many of us, in fact, still have no idea what we want to "be when we grow up", even if we're actively working and raising families. In our 6th grade essays we wrote that we'd like to cure cancer, become an astronaut or be President of the United States. Yet, those are not attainable goals for the vast majority of the population. While books, coaches and motivational speakers can open our eyes to the potential that lays within us, I believe with all my heart, that it's okay to just be yourself. We all have positive traits and negative ones. We all have skills that come easier to us than others. For example, my cousin, Lori, is extraordinary with numbers. She can see them and feel them as a part of her being. I, on the other hand, am hopeless. Should I try to become a financial officer, as she is? Absolutely not. It goes against my nature and my innate abilities. Some self-improvement philosophies would tell me that I'm poorly equipped to handle finances because I don't "really believe" I can; that if I just 'sent it out to the universe' that I would like to become a mathematician, I will be one. Frankly, I believe that it's okay for me to let that one slide. Why? Because I've been blessed in other areas. If we can look inside and honestly assess ourselves, our strengths (no matter how subtle) and our weaknesses (no matter how enormous), we can begin on our own journey of self-improvement.

Our personal journey doesn't have to come from "A Program". It doesn't need to cost thousands of dollars and a course guide to follow. It doesn't require anything from you but some time and space in which to be quiet and thoughtful. Turning off the television, putting aside your 'have to' lists and simply taking a few moments just to ask yourself "Am I happy?", "What can I do to become happy?", "What can I do to enjoy life more?". For some of us, the break from a busy routine, in and of itself, is enough. For others, we may be inspired to make a career change. Even more us may realize that our work doesn't define who we are; that we can explore our own sense of happiness outside of work. In my own case, this means volunteering at the local library. Although I'm not a librarian by career, I am passionate about books. I have learned valuable skills from helping the librarians in all areas of the facility. I enjoy sharing my love of reading with library patrons. I have found something to help boost my self-esteem, as well as my sense of community, by exploring this area of my life.

Not long ago, I was reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln, one of my personal heroes. Obviously, he was an exceptional man and one of our most dedicated presidents during an unthinkable time in history. But, one area I admired most about Mr. Lincoln was his ability to see himself for what he know his gifts, and to know his shortcomings, but not to allow either of these to keep him from fulfilling his destiny. The fact is, the man lived a tough life. He was looked down upon, when first elected to Congress, for being too "country" and for his lack of refined ways. He was married to a highly dysfunctional woman. He lost his beloved son. He was President during the worst war in our nation's history. He was attacked by critics from all sides. And yet, he called himself "content" most of the time because he knew who he was. He lived an authentic life.

As you go on your own journey of self-discovery, be kind to yourself. "Don't judge yourself by other people's yardsticks" (A. Lincoln) and remember that just being you is the greatest gift possible.