Steak in the Ground

Where will you put your steak in the ground in 2021? Most years at this time I reflect back on events that have happened since the previous Christmas. This year, my memories have wandered much further back. I’m not sure why, but it seems to be having an effect both on how I view 2020 and on how I plan for the year to come.

I remember the smell of the fire burning before my mom switched the fireplace from wood to gas logs. Christmas never felt the same after that. I remember putting up the Christmas tree and decorating it alone while my parents were at work, then wrapping all the Christmas gifts for the entire family without ever peeking in the boxes for me. Perhaps it’s the similarities between Christmas 2020 and many from my childhood that have taken me back.

For whatever reason, everything seems to remind me of something from the way way back. A food poll published by FiveThirtyEight triggered the memory of an oft told family story reflecting upon an incident in which a relative’s girlfriend was dumped for nothing more than ordering steak well-done (with steak sauce, gasp). I don’t know if that story is true or just a way to elevate the teller’s and listeners’ reputations as a discerning diners.

What does feel familiar is a comparison between the percent of poll respondents who said they prefer their steak medium-rare (38%) to the number of people who, according to Longhorn Steakhouse, ordered it that way from May 30, 2016 – May 21, 2017 (22%). One could argue that this is because Longhorn Steakhouse orders do not accurately reflect the orders of those polled. That is certainly possible but saying one thing and doing another also rings true.

If 2020 has made anything clear, it is that as a culture we’re more than comfortable seeing evidence of something and behaving as if it were something else than dealing with difficult truths. Unfortunately, this doesn’t just keep us from getting the steak we prefer, it can lead to victim blaming, risky health choices, escalating violence, political chaos, and continued social injustice. Because we must first see a problem before we can solve it, denial will forever keep us from making forward progress – personally, professionally, and as a community.

Denial is a powerful tool for maintaining the status quo. But as 2020 has also shown us, change is inevitable. When we face change by holding onto the past with white knuckles, we miss the opportunity to make the future better.

We already know that much of 2021 will be similar to 2020. Given that, it seems foolish to develop a long list of intentions for the New Year. Instead, I intend to let myself see what is and face difficult truths. That is enough. From that pivot point, I can address any problems that arise in informed, prudent, and productive ways. If we use this approach collectively, we can improve all our lives. This is where I intend to put a steak in the ground (and yes, I know it’s stake).

Wishing all of us the strength, clarity, and the insight to improve individually and as a whole in 2021.

Many Diagnoses Come With Uncertainty

Just like this pandemic year, many diagnoses come with uncertainty. Truthfully, they all do. Getting comfortable with not knowing can help lead to the healthiest path for dealing with the coming months or a disconcerting diagnosis.

The contrasts of this year seem especially sharp as Christmas 2020 approaches. The middle road we often cruise has given way to distinct divisions between comfort and danger. And it feels disconcerting because many of the holiday traditions in which we usually find comfort are not currently safe. The pandemic has brought uncertainty we cannot avoid. Too much has changed too fast.

Under normal conditions, many of us shove uncertainty aside. We believe we know what each day will hold. We focus on that and tune out things we don’t expect or don’t want to deal with. We know that there will be minor mishaps – spills that stain a favorite blouse, flat tires, computer malfunctions, etc. We limit our expectations to those and move forward. That works great until an unavoidable life-altering event presents itself.

Big events often mean big decisions. It’s so much easier to make a decision if the outcome is immediate and known. But that’s not really how it works in most life-altering situations. Every choice is a gamble.

So how can we stay grounded and trust ourselves to make good enough choices?

It’s important to note that good enough choices aren’t always perfect choices. We can move toward health by making informed, if imperfect, choices. When we feel confident in our choices, we lessen the fear and anxiety created by uncertainty.

Fear triggers the urge to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn or hey, if things are really bad, all four! Just recognizing this can lessen the impact of the feelings when they arise. And there are ways to help calm your lower brain so that you can move in and out of fear deliberately and effectively.

Here are a few techniques to try:

Grounding – plant your feet firmly on the floor and press as if you’re getting ready for the starting gun of a race. If you still need to calm down, look around the room (leave your feet planted) and count all of the red you see, then green, then black, etc. You can continue by looking for shapes.

Tapping – Memorize a simple sequence of tapping. When you feel distress coming on, tap the sequence until you feel better.

Feeling your body – gently squeeze your arms noting how the skin feels and how the muscles feel beneath your arms. Continue with your legs or feet. Sometimes resting one hand on your chest just below your throat can feel calming. Feeling your body will help bring you into the present moment instead of getting lost in a panic of “what if”.

Breathing – stand in mountain pose and breathe. What I love about this pose is that you can do it anywhere without inviting the stares that downward dog would bring. If you’re at home, try alternate nostril breathing.

Once you develop successful methods to calm yourself, you will be ready to explore leaning into the feeling of fear. What works best for me is to allow myself to feel scared and to stay in that feeling as long as I can stand it. Having done this many times, I know that there will be a point at which things will shift and I will no longer feel afraid. If I can’t stick with it that long, I let it go for the moment knowing I can move in and out of fear as needed.

I don’t try to figure anything out or make any decisions when I’m leaning into fear. I just feel it and observe how my body responds. I trust that things will seem more clear once I’ve worked through some of the fear. When dealt with directly and immediately (or deliberately over a relatively short period of time), fear doesn’t have a chance to turn into long-term anxiety. It simply dissipates and goes away.

You can’t expect yourself to work through the fear brought by a diagnosis while you’re in the doctor’s office. At that moment, or any time you need to make immediate decisions under duress, I compartmentalize. I understand that many mental health professionals may not support that idea, but it works for me. The key is to create time and space soon after to feel my way through what has happened.

In other words, I compartmentalize temporarily. That gives me the clarity to proceed to another step of feeling confident in my decisions: gathering information. I set my feelings aside to ask the doctor as many questions as I can think of. I also ask the process for submitting questions that may come up once I’ve processed a bit longer.

Once I leave the doctor’s office, I research my options until I reach the point that I feel comfortable working with my doctor to devise a care plan. This sometimes includes getting a second opinion. Having the knowledge of more than one expert makes me feel more confident moving forward. While there is no way to know for sure whether we’ll achieve the outcome I desire, making informed plans builds my confidence and comfort level make uncertainty feel more tolerable.

Uncertainty can still weigh heavy. That’s when I like to get outside. Or on days like today, a trip outdoors offers an opportunity to bank good feelings to pull from when I need them. It’s such a gorgeous day! The work view I’ve chosen is from the porch overlooking my back yard.

Multiple birds chirp as they shuffle in and out of the wisteria on the arbor. Crows caw in the distance. Sugar snap peas extend their small white blossoms above the fence into a net trellis. The sun is full on my face and I’m comfortable in a light sweater. At sunset, we’ll be able to see Jupiter and Saturn align into a bright Christmas star. How could anything be bad?

Of course I’m aware of the perils of delivering gifts to my friends. Any other year, we’d be sharing food, wine, and laughter along with our gift bags. This year, we’re navigating quarantine just to get them to each other’s porches.

But while I sit under a brilliant blue sky, I don’t have to think about that. I can simply soak in the sun, the sounds, and the smell of BBQ when the breeze shifts just so. The smell of smoke from that nearby BBQ pit is a peril in itself. Live here long, and you’ll crave barbecue for breakfast.

As we move through stunted holiday celebrations into more months of pandemic uncertainty, some of us will receive unwanted diagnoses with the potential to increase anxiety. Having tools to reduce discomfort can mean better decision making and more peace of mind.

That’s my wish for all of us through the holidays…peace of mind and spirit!

There is no Permanent Record

Life is a process and there is no permanent record. This year has shined a bright light on the US culture. One of the things I’ve noticed is that we seem to view what happens right this minute as determinative of everything that follows. This is hobbling our thinking at a time when pivoting needs to be swift and nimble.

It is absolutely responsible and important to carefully consider decisions. But if we don’t empty our mind of expectations, assumptions, conventional wisdom, and trending topics first, we both limit ourselves and create undue pressure at a time when we need less.

Rather than recognizing that uncertainty is always with us, some have responded to this year of swift change by further entrenching themselves in ideas or behaviors that do not serve well. Many times, it comes down to the idea that if we do something unconventional, or different than our family or friends, and it doesn’t turn out well, it will go on our permanent record.

There is no permanent record. If someone holds a long-time grudge, that’s on them, not you. If someone continues to judge you for a mistake you have acknowledged in spite of it being a one-time error, that’s on them. If your parents disagree with your decision, but you’re okay with the consequences, it’s their problem, not yours. If everyone in your Facebook group disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean you’re misguided.

I understand it doesn’t always feel good to stand alone. I left high school a year early. My dad thought that was a mistake. I had the credits to graduate and went to straight to college with a scholarship in hand. In spite of this, and the fact that I received my high school diploma the following year along with my class, he still believed it was a mistake.

Ten years later, although I had no regrets about the decision, he scored it as an error on his version of my permanent record. I could have accepted his view and let it create doubt or I could feel confident that I had researched my options and was willing to continue to move toward my goals.

Were there failures along the way? Of course. But failing in an endeavor does not make me a failure because I know I don’t have to become mired in that glitch. I can view it as a chance for improvement. To remain inspired, I keep these words from a 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt in my head at all times:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

If there were a permanent record, I would want it to reflect me as a contender in the arena rather than someone who always towed a line drawn by others. I’d want it to show that my decisions were well thought and carefully made. I’d want to be seen as a problem solver who moved past obstacles. And I would hope to be judged on more than appearance or net worth.

If you are a student whose grades are suffering during the pandemic, it is not a life ruining experience. Learn the life lessons in front of you. Those are more valuable than any letter grade.

If you are a parent struggling to be productive while also minding the kids, cut yourself some slack when you don’t perform at your 2019 level. Not all productivity can be measured in immediate output. Ask any strategic planner.

If you are a child who cannot visit an elderly parent in long-term care, just do what you can to stay connected. The separation does not mean your relationship has ended. It just means it has had to shift.

If you are feeling frustrated, sad, and angry because you cannot safely attend a wedding, funeral, graduation, performance, or family reunion, those feelings are normal. You may need to designate some time for self-care to grieve the loss.

If you are having to ask for help, it doesn’t mean you aren’t capable. We all need assistance under certain circumstances.

If you are a frontline or essential worker, thank you! Collectively, we have placed an undue burden on you. It will take a toll. That is not because you are weak. It is because you are a human tasked with superhuman expectations.

There’s lots of catastrophizing going on right now. The news and social media are filled with hyperbole. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that our lives are falling apart. Some are suffering devastating pain and loss. Others are suffering a change in routine. Many of us fall somewhere in between.

But before we decide that we can’t bounce back from the setbacks of 2020 and 2021, let’s remember that we can adapt when needed. We can see ourselves as the man in the arena and use challenges as motivation to be better. We can shift priorities and make better choices. And we can evaluate, reevaluate, and leave our mistakes in the past because there is no permanent record.

Time to Decide

This excruciating year is winding down and now it’s time to decide. Will we use the disruptions of 2020 as an opportunity to learn and improve, or will we dig in our heels and double down on pre-pandemic positions? Will we choose to explore our values and priorities and then realign our lives around them, or will we claw our way back to a sense of 2019 normal? What we make of this year is not up to a new administration or a health crisis. What we make of this year is up to us.

I’ve seen the resignation on faces. I’ve heard it in voices. It feels as though many of us see ourselves as helpless right now. Being resigned to helplessness is a slippery slope. If we are helpless then what we do doesn’t matter so we may as well do whatever we want and consequences be damned.

Sometimes our thinking isn’t so blatantly rebellious. We just reason our way around anything that might shake our established beliefs. And it happens so quickly we don’t even know we’re doing it. Perhaps it’s normal when faced with uncertainty to grab onto the nearest comfort or run from new thoughts. I’m not sure.

I am certain what we do makes a difference even when we can’t immediately see the results. So as we wind down this year in the midst of an accelerating health crisis, I encourage you to trust yourself enough to approach the coming year with the belief that what you do matters.

Most of us can change one thing we never believed we could change. In changing that one thing, we open the door for vast positive contributions to our selves, our families, and our communities.

If you have trouble making that leap, try asking yourself the questions below. Then take one of the answers and do it. It doesn’t have to look like anything you’ve thought of before. It doesn’t have to be accomplished to any certain standard. Just think of this as a learning experience.

Let’s begin the experience of learning to make a difference:

What’s one thing I’ve learned about myself in 2020 that surprised me?

Is there a way I can use that knowledge to improve my life or my community?

What’s one thing I am willing to give up so that I have time for ___________(that thing you say you want to do but never get around to)?

What’s one thing I am willing to give up to help my friend?

What’s one thing I’d do differently if I felt appreciated?

What’s one thing I’d do differently if I felt like part of a winning team?

What’s one thing I can do that will make my life better?

What’s one thing I can do that will make my family’s life better?

What’s one thing I can do that will make a friend’s life better?

What’s one thing I can do that will make a stranger’s life better?

What’s one thing I would do if I were brave?

What’s one ability I have that I can use differently?

What’s the worst thing I’ve ever done? If my friend did that, would I forgive them?

What can I do to be a better listener?

What’s one thing I’m willing to say no to?

What’s one unexplored solution to an ongoing problem?

What’s one feeling I always avoid and what would change if I felt it?

What’s one habit I want to give up?

What’s one habit I want to develop?

Yes, these are simple questions. But so often we fail to take the first step toward significant improvement or significant contribution because we imagine the task as so large that we resign ourselves to failure. But once change has begun, it’s just a matter of commitment and time before you see that what you’ve done has made a difference.

Knowing you can make a difference even in the worst of circumstances will equip you to weather any storm that changes your life’s course without the need to control the outcome. I know it may just sound like words right now, but try it. See what happens.

2021 is upon us. Like 2020 it will not be a cakewalk. We can choose to make a difference and become captains of our own destiny, or we can hold back and feel helpless. If you’re not sure which way to go, now is the time to decide.

I choose to make a difference.