Plans

Plans

When you are a young adult, (as many of you have been, and many of you are) people are fond of asking you about your plans. What is your career trajectory? Where do you want to be in five years? Where are you going to live? How are you providing for the future?

I have a handful of friends who are still finishing up college, and at this point these questions have grown tiresome to them. Every time they say hello, there’s another expectant face asking about their plans. And here’s the thing- in a surprise to no one- most of them have no idea. “I’m twenty years old, leave me alone!” “How the heck am I supposed to know? I’ll get a job? I guess?”

I think the questioning is well intentioned for the most part. Elder counterparts of those just joining the currents of the proverbial real world want to help others avoid their mistakes or wasted time, or they happened to do well out of the gate and they want to push others to do the same. Either way, there seems to be a disconnect. It feels like an unfair question a lot of the time. How in the world am I supposed to know what life looks like in ten years? I may have a direction, but directions change, don’t they?

Most Americans change careers several times in their lives. Most everyone changes relationship statuses at least once. People move. The economy tanks. The economy skyrockets. Opportunity comes and goes. Buying into a horse and buggy business sounded great until Mr. Ford came around. Some tides can be predicted, others simply can’t. And yet, there is a pressure (not just for college grads, but really everyone) to have their entire life laid out. It’s as if we’re giving orders to a maitre d’ at a fancy restaurant.

“Excellent choice of career changes, sir. Would you like to pair that with a vacation home in Nassau? And when will you be dying this evening?”

Dwight D. Eisenhower put it best, I think. He said that plans are worthless while planning is invaluable. I have to agree with him. I think stating it in this way takes out a lot of the ambiguity and pressure.

I may or may not be a smart guy, but one thing I’m not for certain is a fortune teller. I can’t write out my plans, etch them into stone, overlay it with bronze and then never divert from them at all. Life just isn’t that stable. But here’s the thing about plans that doesn’t get said nearly enough: they can change, and that’s okay. Going into uncertainty with a good plan is infinitely better than winging it all of the time. And yet, since there is uncertainty, there will always be variables we couldn’t have accounted for until we found ourselves immersed in them. That’s when we pull out the pencil, erase a few lines and call a few audibles.

I write about this today because I feel like I see a lot of frustration. I’ve even experienced it myself. We make these grand, ornate plans, but then life just doesn’t want to cooperate. When we try to grit our teeth and refuse to budge on any aspect of our ten points to success, usually nothing happens, we fall behind, and we get depressed. Oftentimes this is when people simply quit. I’m reminded of a much less famous quote (alright, my brother said it), “You’re only stuck if you don’t move.”

I see frustration the other way as well- friends who have never bothered to really sit down and make an attack strategy, and then they wonder why things never work out. In short, it’s pretty difficult to nab an opportunity when you have zero idea of what sort of opportunity you’re aiming at. Learning to plan is great, because if you do it well you’ll be doing it your entire life. There’s a change in the wind, but we can throw our papers in the air with a smile, because even though we need to write a new plan, we’ve done this dozens of times, and it’s gotten easier. Refusing to make plans simply because life shifts and we might have to change them is like not taking a shower because you might get dirty later.

Life is beautiful. It’s full of things that I can’t control- and yet I can control the decisions that I make. The way that I interact with the variables will always be shifting, but I can adjust too. I’m not saying to give up on your dreams or to abandon your purpose; I’m simply saying that most sure roads wind quite a bit. (Or we might even say they’re anfractuous, if we’re feeling particularly erudite.)

I have some very clear goals in my life that I have no intention of changing, and yet the way I see myself getting there has changed several times. The world shifts, and so does my strategy. And yet my resolve and my purpose remain firm. The reed that bends does not break, correct? And yet it’s still rooted in the ground.

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Heat Wave

fireball

It’s September in Southern California, and that inevitably means a heat wave. The air conditioner blasts here in my upper room essentially all day while the fan struggles to keep up. It makes things bearable. They say that the secret to enduring the heat is not fighting it- to just let your body sweat and adjust to a new standard. I’ve gone for that idea from time to time, but today is not one of those days. Today, the rumble of the AC is my constant companion.

What I find remarkable about this heat wave that has brought us temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s is not its location on the calendar or its severity, it’s the comments I hear about it. I don’t mean simple griping. That’s a given. I even find myself uttering the inane, obligatory, “it is HOT.” The comments I find surprising are the ones in which surprise is articulated. “What is happening?” “How weird is this for SEPTEMBER?” “Why is this happening?”

Here’s the thing. We get a heat wave every September. We usually get one in January too, and people get a lot more excited about that one. But then it goes away and gets cold again (as cold as it ever does around here) and February goes back to being especially chilly, and life goes on. It reminds me of an unfortunate reality of man, myself most certainly included. (I suppose that was redundant to reinclude myself, but I want to emphasize that I am by no means immune to this malady.)

Our memories are both selective and short. It isn’t that they are defective, necessarily. Indeed, one of the foremost pediatric neurosurgeons in the country once claimed that the human mind has enough room in it for all of the knowledge discovered in all of the history of mankind. (Accessing that information in a timely manner, as well as inputting it in a timely manner is another matter entirely.) We choose to use our minds this way. We forget, we are surprised, and we gripe in our stunned condition. Yet the heat wave came last year too, and at the same time.

Every winter the news freaks out about how cold it is. Then in the summer they freak out about how hot it is. The populace is right there with them, for the most part. Why are we surprised about things that happen almost exactly the same every year?

We return to the gym and we’ve forgotten that it’s hard. We drive through Los Angeles at one am on a Tuesday and we’re shocked that there’s traffic. And every September and January, we’re surprised at the heat wave.

I don’t know why this is. I only know that I want to remember things. Life is a little less scary that way. The heat wave will come next year too, and I’ll turn on a ceiling fan and get on with my life. Life is full of the unexpected, but it also isn’t.

I suppose it depends on what we remember, and on what we expect.

I’ve read a fair number of accounts of prisoners of war during the various conflicts of the modern age, and those that managed to live through their experiences and return to some sort of normalcy typically agree on a certain principle for looking at the world. It is perhaps articulated best by a P.O.W. in the infamous Hanoi Hotel during the Vietnam War. When asked who were the first kind of people to break in prison- to give up and die- he naturally responded that it was the pessimists. This makes sense, as they never had any hope. However, he was quick to add that the optimists were quick to follow in their footsteps and fall next, succumbing to the horror of their circumstances. This is counter-intuitive. We’re always told to stay positive, and in truth, there is much good to be found in that advice. Yet what he calls optimism others might call denial. Those he referred to as the optimists in prison were always going on about how they would all be rescued by Christmas, and then they would smile and caress their hope as it brought them through agony. But then Christmas would come and the rescue wouldn’t. They would be shattered until they lighted upon another idea. By the spring we’ll be rescued. They would then shift to this being their mantra, remembering that despite all of the bad, they would be out by spring. Then spring would come, and with it no rescue. It required a varying number of crushing disappointments for these optimists to lose it and give up, but they all did. They had hope, but it was imaginary. Their timelines were arbitrary. True, the glass is half full, but if it’s full of antifreeze, you still shouldn’t drink it.

The ones who made it through the war without cracking up or dying were what this officer called the hopeful pragmatists. They were the ones who realized that they had received a beating yesterday, a beating today, and in all likelihood, they’d get another one tomorrow. Their hope was not that every man of them would be rescued- that was impossible. Their hope was not that they would be rescued at a certain point. Their hope was that the day would eventually come when old glory stormed the castle. They had no idea when this would be or which ones of them would make it, but this hope, this true hope, kept them going. They did not succumb to the bitterness of their circumstance by denying hope, nor did they fabricate it. They hoped in what was real, and they remembered what had happened already so they were not surprised when it came again. Eventually, their hope was proved substantial. Rescue did come, but it came long after the optimists and the pessimists had died alike.

Circumstances are hard. It’s hot. We’re unhappy with X, Y, or Z. Putting a smile on your face won’t solve all of your problems in an instant, but neither will carrying  a wounded sense of defeatism. Life is what it is. There’s a lot of beauty around if you know where to look for it. Even in the darkest of situations, there is some good to be found. Even if we don’t know when things are going to get better, they will at some point- either for us or for some of our brothers in arms. I’m not saying don’t hope for big things- great change never comes without that sort of audacity. Only let us remember that it gets hot every September, and then we can deal with it accordingly, without the burden of shock slowing us down.

I want to remember things. I want to be a hopeful pragmatist. Do you?

Memorization is Overrated

Memory

A hallmark of education in this country, in our time, seems to be this: memorization is overrated.

Many of you probably agree. We’ve all partaken in the groaning and moaning about history classes that are reduced to “a bunch of names and dates.” “Why does it matter if I know what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue?” (1492 is the knee-jerk response, of course, but also in 1493 and 1498 for those of you at home keeping score.) “Who cares if I know the periodic table? I can just look it up.”

Yes. Yes you can. But here’s the problem with that.

It lets you be stupid.

“Dang it, Wes! You’ve insulted me for the last time. I’m going to stop reading your blog and spend more time on r/cats.”

Wait a minute and hear me out.

For centuries and centuries- possibly from the beginning of time- man has relied on memorization as the primary means of learning. Why is that? We are often quick to assume that those who have gone before us were brainless nitwits and Neanderthals, so it isn’t hard to disregard their opinion. (of course, those who actually read things written more than ten years ago will see how silly the idea of past inferiority is) Yet they must have had a reason. It is said that Saladin, the great hero of the Second Crusades (Well, hero if you’re a Muslim, I suppose, but he was even respected by his enemies in Christendom at the time) had ten books of poetry committed to memory. TEN. I know people who don’t have their own phone number committed to memory.

We give lip service to critical thinking- an excellent concept, to be sure, and quite valuable. And yet what good is analysis by a fool? By someone who knows nothing. I have zero knowledge about diesel mechanics. If a diesel mechanic called me up and said, “Wes, come look at this aircraft carrier I have in the bay. I want your analysis.” Well, I suppose I could wander down to the water and give it a look. Then, using my powers of critical thinking, I could tell him…

Well, probably nothing of use.

Why was Sherlock Holmes so successful, albeit in his fictional world, at solving crimes? His powers of observation and deduction, of course. Yes, good. Why was this of use to him? Other people were capable of noticing the six flecks of mud that were on the riding boot of the man at the door, but that did no one any good except for Sherlock Holmes. Why? Because, like the freak of nature that he is, he had memorized the color of every mud in England, so he was able to deduce where the man had just come from. Without his great wealth of facts, Sherlock Holmes is reduced to being a moderately clever average joe with a cocaine problem and a penchant for the violin.

The most intelligent people I know also seem to have the most committed to memory. I do not think this is a coincidence. Training our memory trains our mind. Proper reflection and critical analysis can only take place after there are facts to work with. Insight comes from saturation, not from a void. It is said that the Druids of ancient Celtic lore were able to reproduce anything they had read one time. Think about that. Once they had completed the training of years and years, they were supposed to have been able to read a book one time, then pick up a pen and reproduce it for you.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty handy skill to me. If you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t need to reproduce books that often,” then you’re not thinking broadly enough. Remembering precisely what happened, knowing the facts and figures relevant to my work, preserving new words when trying to learn a language- all of these things make for a life of higher achievement and learning.

Furthermore, I can say based on my own experience and more importantly on the testimony of others that there is a deeper sort of understanding that often comes with memorization. I often don’t fully grasp a piece of poetry until I’ve committed it to memory. Once done, its meaning opens up like a blossoming flower. Am I being overly dramatic? Perhaps, but it is true nonetheless.

Why is it that people go through four years of a language during high school and don’t speak a word of a second language? Why is it that so few people remember how to do the calculus they learned in college? Why is it that so many people read a book or listen to a speech and instantly forget what it was about? Why do we so often repeat the same mistakes over and over again?

Memory is a precious and an underappreciated thing, friends. Thankfully, it is a muscle that can be improved with practice.

Now let’s go memorize something, yeah?

Struggle!

Flashlight

When I was thirteen years old, my cousin tutored me in math, teaching me Geometry. We would go over to my grandpa’s house, gather a couple of chairs around a table in the rumpus room, and get to work. On one such occasion, working through problems in the book, we came across a difficult puzzle. I don’t remember the exact problem, only that it had something to do with shooting a hockey puck so that it gets past the goalie and into the net- and that it was really hard. I couldn’t figure it out. She couldn’t figure it out. It was apparent that she was a bit frustrated (as was I) with my questions and requests for clarification of the concepts we were studying in the problem, because it wasn’t making any sense. My cousin, having no other recourse, started talking through a couple of lines of reasoning she could maybe use to solve it. Math scribbles covered the paper. Lines of thought were followed, then abandoned when it was apparent they were incorrect. Lots and lots of writing. No solution. Frustration.

I asked her in my frustration, at one point, how all of the “impressive-looking math” helps us when it wasn’t getting us closer to the problem’s solution. My cousin ran a hand through her hair and I’ll never forget what she told me. It was something along the lines of, “I don’t know how to do this. But I’m trying. And sometimes, you have to do a lot of ‘impressive-looking math’ to try and figure out something that works.”

Lo and behold, however many more minutes passed without fruit, eventually, she came up with the right answer, and understanding followed like a wave. A wise man once said that despair is the refusal to struggle. I refused on that day. My cousin did not. She figured out the problem.

I share this story, because I have heard a lot of talks and read a lot of articles recently (really in the past several years) that seem to have a common theme: ‘There isn’t always a solution.’ ‘Stop trying to fix it.’ ‘Don’t say that to him/her/etc.’ ‘That’s just how things are.’ Something has sort of been bubbling up inside of me with the addition of more and more such expositions, and I wanted to share my thoughts with you.

Let me not be misunderstood. Empathy is a good thing. It’s been said that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. This is absolutely the case. Love must come first, and it must be sincere. If someone comes to me with a problem, the first thing I’m going to do is not sit them down and tell them all of the things they did wrong. Of course they need a shoulder to cry on. Of course I will (hopefully) provide that to them. That said, this is often viewed as the proper end of things, and I don’t think that it is. I see a lot of back-patting, and not a lot of change. I think sincere love for each other has to go further than this.

I don’t know when we all tacitly agreed that fixing things is bad form, but I disagree wholeheartedly. Frankly, I have problems, and I want them to get better. I very often am in uncertainty about some of them. I can’t always see the solution, but I think it’s better to struggle than to despair. When I have an issue and I take it to someone, open arms are great, and I need that, and everyone needs that. But if there’s a solution, I want to hear it. I want to be reminded of truth, I want to be reminded of what I know but my circumstances have obscured. Perhaps it is the impertinence of my youth, but I want answers.

We’re often told that there aren’t any. I don’t believe that. I think that there is not a problem in this world that does not have a solution. It very often might not look the way I think it ought to, but there is always a solution. There is always an answer, even if I don’t know it.

I was told recently that recipes are great in the kitchen, but if the lights go out, they’re worthless. I agree and I disagree. If I’ve memorized the recipe, it still does me a great deal of good. If someone in the next room has it in front of them and they’ve got a lamp on, it’s still helpful.

I’m not talking about cheap solutions and heartless “shut up and get better”isms. What I am talking about is the courage to seek healing where it looks like there can’t be any, to keep looking for a solution when it seems like you’ve exhausted every avenue, to keep fighting when it looks like you’re beat. Sometimes I don’t have the answer- but there is one. Sometimes I can’t do it myself- but someone can.

In short, I am not satisfied with mere empathy. I want answers. I want truth.

Struggle.

Steadfast

(For this week’s exposition, I wanted to post this piece that I wrote about three years ago. Enjoy.)

“Indeed we count them blessed who endure.  You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord- that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful”

–          James 5:11 NKJV

waterfall-330911_640

Perseverance is a deeper subject than it seems.  It is more than simply “toughing it out.” Sometimes, even oftentimes, gritting one’s proverbial teeth is not enough.  Perseverance may seem to be an inert, even passive concept, but it is rather the opposite.  Continuing in one direction is not to set a course and then do nothing; perseverance is more like a battle than a plotted course.  In life there is hardship.  Plans fail.  People fail.  Ideas fail.  Setbacks are too numerous to list.  Perseverance is holding on tightly to what you learned in the light, even when it is dark all around.  It is buffeting the advancing swarms of despair and self-pity.  It is fencing with rationalizations to depart from what one knows to be good.  It is wrestling with the desire to give up and go somewhere else.

It is a hard thing, for surely everyone has heard of the concept of “attrition”, which is the steady wearing down of an opponent using third-degree methods.  A steady trickle of water will eventually wear through a concrete barrier, a steady flow of wind will eventually carve out a mountainside, and, when he has no source of replenishing, a steady flow of setbacks will defeat a man.

A few weeks ago at jiu-jitsu, I found myself engaged in multiple bouts with a three-striped purple belt (a rank higher than my own).  I was defeated many times by this ‘foe’, and yet he wanted to continue fighting me.  My opponent had much more experience than I had, and was several years older as well.  He was quick, he was strong, and he knew his technique.  After losing to him several times, and being challenged by him yet again, I accepted.  As we proceeded to engage, I lunged at my opponent and he deflected my attacks, and soon I found myself first inside the confines of his guard, next, on the inside of a very tight choke called an arm triangle.  In a moment of defiance, I slowly twisted my head enough so I could look my attacker in the eyes, and through a tightly compressed throat said to him “I can breathe longer than you can choke me.”

He then proceeded to tighten his already vise-like grip on my throat, as he flexed all of the muscles in his arms and chest, directing their strength toward my throat.  My carotid arteries were mostly closed off by the pressure of his hold, and my throat was only occasionally open enough to give me any sort of air.  I held my composure and put my chin square with my chest, attempting to keep some small passage of air open.  His grip increased in intensity; I only focused on staying conscious.  He choked me for a good minute and a half, employing all of his strength.  Just as I felt the edges of awareness starting to fade around me, his grip loosened, then broke.  My opponent had spent all of his strength on his attack and had nothing left in reserve.  No longer able to resist me, I rolled from under his grip, mounted, and proceeded to submit him in a conventional triangle choke.

Was what I did necessary?  Probably not.  It was just training, and I could have tapped out when his arms closed around my throat.  However, it seemed very symbolic to me to defeat an opponent more skilled than myself through patient endurance.  I have heard it said that one cannot win a war of attrition because it slowly wears one down over time.  Certainly it is true that when confronted with steady, constant opposition, the thing to do is to deliver a decisive blow to the source, and thus be saved from wearing down.  However, in life, one cannot always get to the source of opposition, and hardship.  So what then, is my conclusion?  In the strength of God, with perseverance I shall defeat attrition.

Be encouraged, friends.

Sincerely Yours,

megaphone- speaker

A friend of mine had an interesting task recently. She, in preparation for a speech of her own, had to research several young speakers and listen to some of their orations. The problem? Many of them, evidently, were… less than savory to their audiences. They came off as brash, inflated, or simply immature. Having to listen to someone condescending is always a trial, and evidently this was no exception. Many of these speeches proved lackluster, to be conservative with our judgment.

This friend, being the astute, terrifically intelligent person that she is, said something intriguing to me during the course of her research. She mentioned that all of the best speakers she had ever listened to had one trait in common: authenticity. After musing upon the point, I had to agree with her. All of the best speakers I have ever heard struck me as genuine as well.

Authenticity, transparency, sincerity (call it what you will) is not a characteristic that is often spoken about in our culture, and yet it is something that is almost universally respected. It is refreshing to meet someone and realize that what you see is what you get. It sets one at ease to have an instructor who has no ulterior motives. If I am going to be preached to, I want it to be from someone who believes what they’re saying. Conviction should precede speech, not the other way around. Someone who strikes me as genuine is someone who has my attention. (A good thing for a speaker)

What’s shocking about sincerity is that it is a quality that can never truly be faked. A person can make himself appear sad, angry, elated, or any number of things, but people have a keen eye for spotting insincerity. Dale Carnegie, in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (an excellent read, if you have not yet gotten around to it) mentions how off-putting flattery is. Typically, unless one is a master flatterer, it ends up simply being annoying. In order to come off as sincere, he says, one actually needs to be sincere. If I want to pay someone a compliment that means anything at all, I need to first appreciate the corresponding quality in the one I compliment. A phony reeks from a mile away.

The men and women I admire most in this world are authentic and sincere and open, and I want to be like them. The difference between these sorts of people and the terrible speakers that my friend had to endure might be multi-faceted, but it is a crucial distinction that one group is pretentious and the other is not. What is pretentiousness, anyway, if not hiding behind an insecure façade? People who are authentic, in my experience, are not hiding anything at all. This gives them an air of humility, for no one is perfect, and to keep from hiding is to admit this. Someone who reeks of pretention is proud- a strange twisting of what one might expect, but it is always evident.

We live in a very pretentious world, full of white lies for the sake of image and edits for the sake of obscuring what is really happening. And yet- none of us likes this quality when we meet someone or have to listen to someone speak. A different friend of mine once said something very wise to me that I will never forget. He said, “People can’t relate to perfection, but they understand brokenness.” Everyone is broken, in some way at least. Yet we find it so necessary to hide this fact- especially when speaking or instructing others. Don’t misunderstand me; I am all for putting one’s best foot forward, but pretending to be perfect is nothing more than farcical. Genuine people, the sort of people I admire and wish to emulate, have no hesitance in admitting their faults, but because of this their strengths appear that much more real. I don’t have to question them or wonder if they exaggerate their good qualities. And yet most everyone lives in such fear and behind such masks.

I am broken. I admit to that.

But see- you are too. If I’m upfront about who I am, I will most certainly show the uglier colors in me, but then they will be exposed. Darkness cannot hope to survive in the light. If it is apparent to all who are close to me what my weaknesses are, those things will probably be pointed out to me, and then I’m on the road to God-willing having a better heart.

My point, in all of this today, is to encourage you. It is a frightening prospect to live life with no secrets, to be transparent. If I may be so bold as to bend one of my rules and assume your feelings for a moment- remember that you like those sorts of people. That you admire them, even though they aren’t perfect. Let’s try and be like them in that. I want to be like that.

Wake Me Up

Wake Up

There is a song by Avicii called “Wake Me Up” that has gotten a lot of play on the radio for the past six months or so. It has a compelling beat, more complexity than your typical EDM track, and there is no denying that the singer, Aloe Blacc, has a truly incredible voice. I like the song. Here are the lyrics to the chorus:

 

So wake me up when it’s all over

   When I’m wiser and I’m older

All this time I was finding myself and I…

   I didn’t know I was lost

 

The lyrics have always made me tilt my head a little bit. They make me think of how much smarter I feel that I am as compared to five years ago, when I was appreciably smarter than five years before that. I don’t think that there’s anything I did then that I’m not better equipped to do now.

The strange place that this logic leads us is that in five years from now, I will probably feel the same way in comparison to my present self.

What, then, is the point of undertaking any great task? If whatever I am doing now could be done in a superior manner five years from now, why not put off the hard work till then? When I’m wiser and I’m older.

It is sort of a strange paradox. To quote another recent song, by Yellowcard (yes, Yellowcard) “They say you don’t grow up, you just grow old. It’s safe to say I haven’t done both.” I hear this song and I think about how age is typically associated with experience and wisdom. It is a valid correlation. Yet I can think of some individuals that I know who are well-advanced in years and haven’t learned or done very much. They’re older, but wiser? Maybe. Maybe not. I wonder if they feel the same way I do about their “past” self.

The reason I always cock my head when the chorus of “Wake Me Up” comes on is this: I have no interest in being woken up when “it’s all over.” That means I’ve missed whatever it is that’s happening, does it not? In all likelihood, I will be smarter, wiser, and better equipped for whatever books I’m writing, plans I’m making, relationships I’m investing in, when I’m five years older. Yet if I don’t do all of these things now, most of the experience that “comes with age” won’t ever truly take place for me. I’m wiser and better equipped now than I was five years ago not simply because I’m older, but because I’ve tried to go out and do things. I’ve fallen, I’ve stumbled, occasionally I’ve triumphed, and in the process, I have learned and grown quite a bit.

Hindsight is 20-20, as they say, but it’s strict blindness if you never go through the challenges at all.

So go ahead and wake up after everything important is over if you want. I’m going to be out here stumbling my way through tasks that are beyond me. With God’s help I’ll get better, and then I’ll be able to look at my past self once again and shake my head knowingly. Of course, my future self from that point will eventually do the same. This is a good thing.