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.

Good, Better, Best or Quit?

On any given day, should you strive for good, better, best, or just quit? In the past week, I’ve read three quotes that stuck with me:

The first was from Arkansas Razorback Men’s Basketball Coach Eric Musselman:

“If you strive for good, you will get average. If you strive for great, you will get good. Strive for perfect so you can achieve great.”

Eric Musselman

It’s the kind of aspirational statement you’d expect from a coach. It immediately made me think of Michael Jordan. (I just finished watching “The Last Dance.”) Jordan was a great player! He was a great player because he was always motivated to win.

miss target
I can improve but still miss the target.

I can be motivated to win, but I’ll never be a great basketball player. In fact, I can do everything Eric Musselman says and I’ll never be a great basketball player. I could play a lot of basketball and I’m sure I’d improve, but would I be wasting time that could be better spent in some other endeavor?

That question brings me to quote #2 and perhaps an even better question. Is striving for perfection good?

Let me start with a quote from newsman Josh Belzman replying to @EricPMusselman

“Strive for perfect and you’ll give yourself an ulcer and then a heart attack. No thanks.”

Josh Belzman

Obviously, Mr. Belzman believes striving for perfection is detrimental to one’s health. But even if it doesn’t lead to a heart attack, the idea that we must reach an ideal that cannot realistically be attained or sustained prevents some of us from ever getting started. And there’s some wisdom to that. Why put time and energy toward a goal you know can’t be achieved?

So, what’s the best way to be outstanding in your life?

I’m going to go with the idea that it’s more important to be a great human being than to achieve any certain anything. And that brings me to the third quote, one by Marianne Williamson:

“As big as the problems are on the outside, that’s how big on the inside we have to be in order to handle it. Every unhealed place in our lives is coming up for review now, because the more healed we are within ourselves the more healing we can bring to the world.”

Marianne Williamson

Real strength always shows itself in the midst of difficulty. It looks attentive, kind, caring, vulnerable, empathetic, and loving. It feels solid. It does not need to manipulate or mislead. This kind of strength lies within all of us.

The way to be outstanding in your life is to honor, support, reinforce, and display your best self often. If that is your intention, you will succeed no matter what you achieve because you will bring peace to your life and healing to the world.

The one thing you need to quit doing is punishing yourself. Whatever you’ve done is done. Apologize, make amends, learn something, let it go. You cannot be your best until you do.

I’m all for reaching for the stars and pushing yourself and achieving great things. I’m for showing up with energy, focus, and effort. I’m for doing the very best job I can in any job I take on. I just don’t think achievement, as we currently think of it, is the best measure of a life well lived.

You Can’t Beat a Speeding Train

Most of the time, you can’t beat a speeding train. Should you try? Sounds risky.

My oldest grandson LOVES the movie Cars. At one point in the original movie, Lightning McQueen hits the gas to beat an oncoming train. He’s a race car. He makes it across the tracks in time.

Always in teaching mode, I feel a need to let this 3-year-old know that it’s not a good idea to try to beat an oncoming train. At the same time, I don’t want to take away his heroic view of Lightning McQueen. I tell him, “Only race cars can beat trains.” To me, this is a reasonable compromise that will convey the message that he should not try to beat a train because he isn’t a race car.

His response? “My mommy’s car is a race car. Her car can beat trains too.” He doesn’t just believe Lightning McQueen can beat a train. He believes his family car can as well. I have failed to effectively communicate the lesson I intended.

The way to repair this misunderstanding is to, first, recognize it. The good news is I didn’t ignore what he was watching. The topic has been introduced and is open for discussion. Now I just need to build on his knowledge in a slow and consistent way until I’m sure he understands the risks of trying to beat a train.

If you have kids, you know lessons that stick are taught through repetition. You may also have observed that all lessons are learned through levels of understanding. Some must be absorbed many times over on one level, then another, then another.

We are at a moment in time when clear, consistent, trustworthy health messages must be delivered for us to survive. They should be repeated, built on, expanded, repaired when new information reveals previous cracks in knowledge, and repeated again. Yes, that requires more effort than sticking to a theme, or talking point, but it’s the only responsible thing to do.

The country is still in the midst of an opioid crisis that began with misinformation. But the train that is speeding toward us now is the expansion and growth of COVID-19. There is no time for playing semantics, slow reporting of numbers so that positivity rates look low, or downplaying the risks of sipping wine for hours with a group of friends at your favorite indoor bar.

There may be safe ways to interact, open schools, and keep businesses open, but we simply do not have adequate diagnostic testing, sufficiently accurate antibody testing, and ample contact tracing in place to do it now. We have not studied the airflow in our restaurants, office buildings, or classrooms. We have not expanded classroom space to ensure sufficient distance between students. We have not added funds for schools to replace group supplies with individual kits. Many states are not mandating masks for adults or children 2-10.

And perhaps more significantly, health agencies, institutions, and political leaders have failed to deliver the safety messages needed in a manner that will be effective. In fact, they are actively making the situation worse. Each day, we receive such confusing and conflicting messages, we instinctively know we cannot trust what is being said. Because we are not being provided timely, accurate, consistent messages in an understandable manner, those in charge of policy are losing the information war. And that is costing us lives.

It also makes it more difficult to thrive. You and I may stay home, clean surfaces, wear masks, and adjust to the very real threats of the virus. We may find sources of inspiration and joy. We may practice gratitude. But a basic tenet of thriving is feeling safe. It is impossible to feel safe when we cannot trust the information we receive and the institutions that deliver it.

Since we cannot rely on our leaders to level with us, it takes a massive amount of reading each and every day to filter, decipher, and piece together a cohesive image of the scientific picture of SARS-CoV-2 that’s emerging. That means it’s easier to ignore. Add to that, the tendency we all have to deny hard truths and you have a recipe for the disaster we are experiencing.

There is always the opportunity to change course, but at this point we cannot wait for instruction from an authority. It may not come. It is incumbent on individuals to take charge of the country’s destiny.

I understand that choosing safe health practices that are not fun while everyone around you has resumed life as usual can be lonely and painful. It will have financial and personal costs. My quarantine bubble unexpectedly burst last week. I feel the loss deeply. That doesn’t keep me from researching and following a safe regimen.

I can see that things are going to get worse before they get better because that’s the choice we’re making. We want so badly to beat the train. We want to return to our previous lives. The messaging failed to tell us we can’t yet do that safely. Now we’re all piled in Mommy’s slow, clunky SUV thinking we’re Lightning McQueen.

We are in a skid. Now is the time to turn right to go left.*

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7293495/

https://elemental.medium.com/coronavirus-may-be-a-blood-vessel-disease-which-explains-everything-2c4032481ab2

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7191274/

*Advice from Doc Hudson to Lightning McQueen in the movie Cars.