Reduce Stress with One Ancient Word

I just finished reading “How to Live -or- The Life of Montaigne” by Sarah Bakewell.  Renaissance writers were obsessed with the question of  “How should we live life?”   Michael Eyquem de Montaigne, considered to be the first “modern” individual was no exception. Reading about his discovery of Skepticism, and more specifically Pyrrhonism Skepticism, had an intellectually rejuvenating effect on me.

I’ll save you the history listen of the philosophy of Skepticism, but I’ll share the end game.

“All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that.”  – Pyrrhonism Skeptism Saying

This group of philosophers enjoyed using a one-word response to any and all questions — “epekho” which is Greek for “I suspend judgment.”

There is an incongruent nature of modern society.  The complexity of all that surrounds us increases daily; specialists reign supreme and generalists go hungry, yet everyone has an opinion on everything.  How is this possible?  Further, we place this expectation upon ourselves perhaps without even realizing it.

What do you think about global warming?  How about immigration reform?  Our criminal justice system?  Nuclear Power?  Chinese-American international relations?

These are complex issues about which very few of us have spent much time researching or learning.  Further, it is possible that there are an infinite number of answers to these increasingly complex scenarios, yet there seems to be intense pressure to select the “right” answer from two available options.  However, as social creatures, we take our social cues from our peers and if everyone else has an opinion on “everything,” I guess, I will too.  I find this exhausting.

I think we’d all reduce our stress levels if we weren’t incessantly holding ourselves to an unobtainable standard of having an answer to everything.  Say “I don’t know” or even “epekho” – I suspend judgment.

Extend this further, as the Greek Skeptics did, so our reactions to events in our lives.  We are obsessed with categorizing events, moment by moment, as “good” or “bad.”  We have no idea whether being laid off from our jobs is “good” or “bad” — time will tell a story that is guaranteed to be a vastly different than the one in your head today, you know this.   The consequences of the events in our lives — caught in traffic, late for an appointment, underperformed during a presentation, closed the deal, received (or didn’t) the promotion — are never really clear to us at the moment.

Might it be refreshing to try to react with “epekho” in response to your day’s events?

I’m not sure we realize the damage we doing to our psyche when we hold ourselves to an omnipotent standard.  I challenge you, for just one day, to “suspend judgment” . . . take the weight off of your shoulders, let the universe unfold as it should, and reveal the consequences to you. We are not the judge and jury of every detail of our lives, so why do we burden ourselves with the weight of that illusionary responsibility.   And we certainly don’t have to be the expert of the world’s most complex and pressing issues.   Keep in mind, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t have an opinion, I’m simply reminding you that it is not necessary.  You can even be very informed and still epekho (suspend judgment).

Try this for a day.  Tell yourself “I don’t know” . . . “I’m not sure” . . . “I guess we’ll see” . . . “I can’t wait to see how this plays out”  Take the chains of the obsessive need to categorize every minute detail of your life into categories of “good” and “bad” from off of your shoulders.  Rest your mind and watch your stress level plummet almost instantly.

Be a Greedy and Gracious Communicator

Here’s a thought experiment, I’d like to present to you.

Consider the following assumptions, one at a time, carefully:

1. People are generally selfish.

2. Conversation is the exchange of information. When we speak, we give information and when we listen, we receive information.

3. Most people prefer to talk (give) than to listen (receive).

I would contend that most people would agree with each of these assumptions individually.  However, as a group, we are left with an illogicality. One, or more, of these assumptions, must be false.

Which one?  You may conclude differently, but I contend that #2 although true, suffers from the “intellect vs. emotion” discrepancy — our intellect knows something to be true, but our emotion perceives the situation differently.  The castle of intellect is surrounded by the mote of emotion.

Do we prefer to talk because our desire to give information is greater than our desire to receive it?  I don’t think so.

Let’s swim across the mote together.

Although conversation, in theory, is the exchange of information, in practice, it is often the exchange of perceived external validation.  When I speak, I receive validation and I listen, I give validation.  The problem with this practice is that the exchange of information is lost.  If the exchange of information is lost — why are we talking?  Only to receive the external validation of our existing ideas and information?  That seems like a waste of time.

Do we value external validation over receiving information and ideas?  

If true, this would explain why so many of our conversations of substantive matters are fruitless.  Each party coming to the table with their immutable ideas and information, waiting their turn to feed their ego with an external validation meal.  When the dialogue is complete, the ego’s appetite is sated but the intellect starves.

There is good news here.  There is a secret loophole in this phenomena.  Our emotion’s perception that speaking provides external validation is mostly wrong.  Who do you hold in higher regard, a good listener or a motor mouth?  The external validation that we seek comes from listening more than it does from talking.  Plus, the bonus – when we listen, we increase the balance of our “bank of account” of information.

Once we accept this, everyone wins.  The ego gets its external validation by becoming a good listener and the intellect is finally fed new ideas and information.       

“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.”
–Doug Larson

What Memorial Day Means to Me

Memorial Day, for most of us, is a day of joy – parades, barbecues, family, and friends.  We celebrate those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our great nation, our way of life, and our freedom.  There was a time in my life where Memorial Day made me uncomfortable.  Celebrating death felt odd.  Throw in the hot dogs, the drunk Uncle, and the background swimming pools and the odd feeling becoming a disturbing one. I see things differently now.

Before, I explain how I see things differently now, all me to explain, as I see it, the realities of the sacrifices we honor on Memorial Day.

About 1.1 million Americans have died fighting in uniform.  Statistics are literally mind numbing.  They utterly fail us in our ability to comprehend the sacrifices that we are celebrating.  We’ve each had (or will have had) a loved one pass away.  The pain, confusion, and grief caused by these losses are beyond description.  I pray that few of you have ever witnessed a person die in combat.  Of the 1.1 million sacrifices we honor today, let’s grab just one person out of that statistic.  Assume the actual number is 1,100,001 and we are going to grab that stray “1” and think about him for a moment.

Stay with me.

We’ll call him Tony.  Tony was a star high school football player in Des Moines, Iowa and an excellent guitarist thanks to his grandfather’s tutelage.  He enlisted in the Marines after High School to serve his country because Tony believed in America and he believed in the American Spirit — he was also tough as nails.  After his first tour of duty, Tony married his High School sweetheart, Juliette.  Juliette was a Middle School history teacher and a gifted painter.  Their two boys, Michael and Joseph — twins, were toddlers whose days were filled with reckless abandon.  Getting them to sit quietly through church each week was possible only through divine intervention.

One day, Tony had to leave home for a deployment.  He and Juliette cried softly as they said goodbye.  Michael and Joseph hugged their father goodbye and both were adamant in their one and only request – “Go get the bad guys, Daddy!”

Months later, Tony’s platoon was ambushed.  Tony never had a chance.  His wounds were fatal but his death was not immediate.  He screamed and  writhed in unspeakable pain as the black blood pooled out of his wounds.  Surviving members of his platoon held his hand tightly as Tony bled out.  His screams of pain softened into boyish cries for his mother, his wife, and his children . . . and then to whisper as he prayed to God as his mouth gushed blood.  In his final moments on Earth, there was no hospital bed, friendly nurse attendant, or family gathering.  He was thousands of miles away from his home, afraid, and alone save his brothers in arms who wept as they dutifully and delicately placed his corpse in a body bag.

War is hell.  I didn’t enjoy writing that and I know you didn’t enjoy reading it.  However, if you read the equivalent summary story of each unique 1.1 million sacrifices who we honor today, you would need 4 years without sleep to do so.  That’s more than our feeble minds can comprehend.

We cannot possibly honor our fallen brethren by attempting to process the details of 1.1 million deaths, but we can think of people like Tony.  Tony had hopes, dreams and a vision for his future.  On the day of his death, he had no warning that those dreams were already placed squarely in the crosshairs of the enemy.

If Tony, from the other side, was watching your Memorial Day, how would he want you to celebrate?  How would he want you to live?  The answers to these questions explain my change of heart about Memorial Day.  I don’t even know Tony because he’s a fictional character representative of the sacrifices we are honoring today, but I have a pretty good idea of what his answers would be.  He would ask us to celebrate with joy and love.  He would ask us to cherish every moment with our loved ones — along with each bite of our hot dogs and sips of our beer.

What is our obligation to Tony beyond today’s holiday?  When he enlisted in the Marine Corps, he handed a check to our country.  The check was written in the amount of “all I have, up to and including my life.”  Tony didn’t die in excruciating pain in a foreign land because he wanted to.  He died defending our nation and our way of life.  I suspect if you asked Tony to answer that question for us, he would respond as Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Saving Private Ryan did – “Earn it.”

We “earn it” by living free where we stand.  You don’t have to take up arms and fight the enemies that killed Tony.  But you do have to claim your responsibility of doing whatever you can, whenever you can, wherever you are to carry on the American traditions that Tony graciously sacrificed himself for.  What traditions?  The traditions of chasing your destiny, helping your neighbors, leading your community, raising your family with values of honor, respect, and faith.

Tony died defending America from the enemies without but today the greatest threat to America, as Thomas Jefferson predicted, is from within.  We are the defenders of freedom and liberty on the domestic front.  How do we fight this front?  Lead!  Lead your family, your neighborhood, your community, your church, your city, your county, your state, and your nation by helping, mentoring, and honoring each other.  The political stage cannot divide us, we need local leaders who recognize that we the people, with our God-given rights, hold the American Spirit in our hearts.  This spirit, which knows no surrender, perseveres through all and is the bedrock of our freedom and liberty.
Happy Memorial Day!  Have a cold one for Tony.


The One Breath That Sabotages Your Conversations

Breathing — the most fundamental human function. We, rightly, emphasise our breathing when we are in the process of accomplishing something formidable.

Giving Birth – “breathe, breathe, breathe”
Trying not to lose your temper – “deep breaths, deep breaths”
Meditation – “breathe in, breathe out”
Lifting weights – “Don’t hold your breath. Breathe!”
Running – “Breath in through your nose, not your mouth”

What about in our conversations with one another?  You may have never thought about this, but I challenge you to. Most people listen to another person until they think of what they want to say. What do you do then? You take a deep breath and then hold that breath until the other person stops talking. Unfortunately, the moment you take that breath, the person you are talking to subconsciously knows that you’re listening less intently and waiting to speak.  The other person wraps up their thought.  And then you exhale with your words, and the other person does the same thing. Repeat — ad infinitum.

I present you two challenges.  First, observe this phenomenon in your conversation and others. Observe how that deep breath affects the speaker’s speech – their tone, their cadence, their pace. Notice how that breathe you take and hold puts the other person on notice – “I’m ready to speak now, wrap it up.” Notice how that process adds stress to the conversation.  That stress can be removed.

Secondly, I challenge you to stop this.  Try the following for even just one day.  Listen intently and patiently – continue to breathe in and out. When the other person is done talking. Wait for a fraction of a second.  Take a small breath – inhale and exhale . . and THEN begin your response. At first, the delay will feel like a lifetime. Trust me, it’s not. Actually, don’t trust me. Try it for yourself and watch how your interaction takes on a new feeling. The conversation will feel more meaningful and you will put the other person at ease. If the person you are speaking to feels at ease, even if they don’t know why, they will leave the conversation knowing that talking to you made them feel good.

Listen. Wait until the other person is done talking. Take a small breath – inhale and exhale. And THEN speak.

If breathing plays such a large role in every other challenging activity we engage in, is it unreasonable to think it would in our conversations as well?

I look forward to hearing your feedback.