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Lessons from the Life of Theodore Roosevelt, Part 1

I’ve been working my way through Edmund Morris’ outstanding three part biography of Theodore Roosevelt. In these books we are shown a strong, self-possessed polymath who seemed destined for greatness right from the start. The man was undoubtedly flawed in many ways. In relationships he seemed aloof but loyal, in business poor in managing finances. But in most every other manner he was capable and able to excel.

Success, it seems, is sometimes left to chance. At times it is mostly smarts or talent. And we cannot ignore the importance of connections. However, a common trait in very successful people it seems is an inability to conform to the behaviors of those around them, an innate and almost unconscious resignation to remain true to their core being.

This is completely true for Mr. Roosevelt, who’s leadership ability begins with a clear view of a situation and ends with the respect of those around him, even those who opposed his ideas.

Roosevelt is well known for his environmental stance. Seeing the destruction of the plains and experiencing the decimation of the buffalo herds first hand,  he was driven to preserve as much of the west as possible. He knew there was more to nature than the raw materials used for creating products and wealth. Some of the most beautiful spots in the US have been preserved because of this foresight. Where a generation might have prospered due to the clear cut destruction of a redwood forest, dozens have prospered due to conservation.

In all his accomplishments a character trend appears. Eight lessons from the life of Theodore Roosevelt:

  • Morality is a slippery slope in life, business, and politics. Avoid the slope and stay focused on what you know is right. Time and time again Mr. Roosevelt was faced with the option to stay true to what he believed to be right or capitulate. Often the later would have made his life easier. But he was unwilling to do so.
  • Nothing is won approached half-ass. Mr. Roosevelt wouldn’t read a newspaper without a vehement sense of purpose. You would not see him in the background passive-aggressively directing people or manipulating a situation. He was at the front of all of his ideals and everyone knew what he intended to accomplish.
  • Be open to everyone, from the leaders of the country to those who sweep the floor. Learn their language and be willing to take on their tasks. Mr. Roosevelt was a star at the finest academic salons in the east while willing to sleep on the ground in a forest or herd cattle.
  • You do not have to be the best. But you do have to put yourself out there. He wrote and wrote and wrote, from books to articles to letters. Where he is remembered for being a president, many learned his name from the books he published. A few texts are of note, but many lacking in deep substance. Who we remember today is the president, not the author of decent books.
  • Learn everything you can. Mr. Roosevelt was known to read more than one book a day, and across a variety of subjects. He was continually extending his knowledge base and had a rich frame of reference from which to draw.
  • If times are not challenging, you are not trying hard enough. We often view adversity as a challenge to be avoided through strategies and planning. To the contrary, adversity might in fact be a symptom of a trajectory worth pursuing. The popular opinion is not necessarily the one people will remember in years to come. No one remembers those who simply live in the shadows of others, or conform to the accepted values of the day. History books are written by those who have struggled.
  • Stay fearless, or appear so, even when your world comes crashing down. People will always respect you for it.
  • Most importantly, destiny is only understood in hindsight. He would not let himself dream for fear of disappointment. He took on what came to him and lived fully in whatever position he received. Nothing was a stepping stone.

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What I am Learning from a Self-Imposed, 6 Month Purchasing Freeze

If I were to say I am a shopping addict, the image you might create is of a guy carrying a dozen bags on each arm walking distractedly towards the next store in a shopping mall. In reality I am more of an obsessive online spender. I’m what Malcolm Gladwell calls a maven. Purchasing is a sport, a hobby, predicated on making the very best decision based first a learning of everything you can about a product category.

I once spent 40+ hours researching a storm shell (a hyped-up rain jacket). I looked at the weights, limitations, and benefits of every breathable clothing material. I looked at the variations in seam sealing techniques of every major manufacturer. I watched online videos of jacket owners performing tests and looking for flaws in design and build. I looked for features like pocket designs, hood configurations, and adaptability.

I would feel a rush when I made my way to an REI or received a box from the one online retailer in the US selling products produced by an obscure Scandinavian manufacturer offering a slightly different design variation than that of Marmot, TNF, or other more ubiquitous US manufacturers. And I did this with survival knives, camping equipment, flashlights, cooking equipment, electronics and more. After one project was completed I was on to the next, accompanied with a sense of urgency and importance.

I have realized that my desire to learn and the excitement of the purchase (that emotional rush that comes when new packages arrive in the mail) combined into an obsessive compulsive, out of control spiraling that would infringe on my ability to focus fully or ever hope to exist in the moment. There is a sense of urgency with this type of purchasing. I would feel as though something was wrong or missing until I had discovered and owned that perfect purchase. And the longer I “researched” and obsessed, the more exciting the fulfillment would become.

Companies know this to be true. Product marketing and branding professionals place significance on products and features, each year offering a better version of the last. What came last year was good, but what we have this year is even warmer, better, safer, more breathable, more resilient, better customized for specific applications, smaller, lighter, revolutionary, cutting edge, or just plain game changing. Every year we are told our lives will be better with this unique, more improved product.

And in some cases this is true. But when I walk around in my hi-tech, rain proof jacket with storm flaps, pit zips, and a material guaranteed to keep moisture out while still remaining breathable I should remind myself that the first few individuals to climb Everest or walk to the South Pole did so with animal furs, cotton, and wool. Do I really need the latest advancement in waterproof protection to help on the walk from my car to the office? Do I really need a survival knife with just the perfect balance between length, weight, and steel? Will 1095 carbon, VG10, or 154cm really make a big difference on those 20 mile r/t backpacking or simple car camping trips on heavily populated trails (if you understand this sentence, you may too have a problem)? Will the jump from 140 to 160 lumens in a flashlight make a difference in my way of life?

But Robert, you say, this is a hobby! Sure. I get it completely. Its fun to learn and use this knowledge. But is this the best use of your time or could you possibly be filling in space that could be more useful as, say, room to breathe?

For the past five months, as part of a New Year’s resolution, I have almost entirely cut out extraneous spending from my life, and by default obsessive product researching. I have purchased only the very basics, and then only just a few items. On two separate occasions I began the process of looking for something I deemed “necessary”, my brain tricking me into old behaviors. And after feeling the obsessive and emotional inclinations pop back up, I cancelled the search. That was as or perhaps more rewarding as not purchasing in the first place.

After the first two months I began to notice an increase in the time I had available. I started going to the gym, attending a weekly meditation class, and spending time reading. I went out more often and spent time wandering around the city. Most importantly I spent time thinking critically about where I was and where I wanted to be.

Critical thinking is something that is a bit of a challenge when applied to the self. We all know the old adage about the unexamined life, but we also know how much easier it is to pick the problem out in someone else than to see the glaring error in what we do ourselves. And we also get caught in patterns of behavior rather than look at what those behaviors mean.

Throughout the last few months I have been keeping tally of my emotional impulses (what else can I do with all of this free time?). There are trends in what and how I look for purchases. Some results include:

  • I am inclined to purchase survival type equipment when I feel powerless
  • I am inclined to research vacations or travel options when I feel stuck
  • I am prone to distract myself with entertainment when I know I have something serious to consider or accomplish
  • I am inclined to purchase cooking equipment when I feel tired of what I’m doing at home

Do you see the trend? My inclination towards purchasing and distraction are directly correlated with a deficiency in my emotional well-being: aka, I have been self-medicating. My purchasing has not been meaningless. It has a cause and an effect. The cause is the set of emotions that are felt due to stressors and variables felt in my life. The effect is that I am unable to deal with the cause because I am not aware of it due to the fullness of my mind in relation to purchasing. The emotional impulses are not satisfied, they are simply brushed aside.

In the short time I have been stepping back from purchasing I have noticed small windows of growing clarity. I’m already finding that I have time for to create better boundaries, channel impulses, create opportunities, be more present in every moment, ease stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed, and develop more room to breathe and examine what is really going on in my life.

There was a study once in which researchers looked at the lives of lottery winners. They found that after their win, these new millionaires would keep purchasing more and more expensive items and adapting to a more expensive lifestyle. Essentially, what thrilled them once no longer thrilled them and they needed more and more spending to feel the enjoyment they once felt. This was termed the hedonic escalator.

Take that idea and apply to purchasing, entertainment, or anything else that is enjoyable but capable of moving into a space out of control. I joke with people that I am either spiraling upwards or downwards. I am either moving towards positive actions or negative. I cannot stay still. I know that I’m not alone. The question then becomes, what are you moving towards, and are you aware of this movement? What could you gain by taking a step back?

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The Love of Language

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” –Roland Barthes

One:
Language is an almost magical system of communication. Imagine an early civilization transmitting a message between two individuals hundreds of miles apart. One carves cuneiform symbols with a reed onto a small, thin brick of wet clay and dries it under the sun. A porter on horseback carriers the brick to its destination and hands it to the receiver, who stares at the brink, translating the written symbols to audible symbols, conveying a meaning to those listening.

This would seem a miracle to the uninitiated, illiterate members of the audience. It is like the cartoon where a shipwrecked anthropomorphic animals speaks into a jar, closes it, and throws it into the water to be heard upon opening wherever the jar happens to find its way.

Cultures on multiple continents have viewed their language and even alphabet characters as holy. An alphabet was often viewed as being handed down by God. Written language was divinely inspired.

The spoken language carried a similar weight. Ancient Jews would not speak the name of their God. To utter the collection of sounds that made up that name was taboo.

We speak with purpose to convey a meaning to another. We tell a story, express emotion, attempt to create desire or anger in a recipient, relieve withheld anger, or ask for an answer.

In every situation we use language we communicate multiple meanings – what we might call  layers or levels. It is not that we simply make a statement. We use words to connect what we have understood in our heads to what is understood in the recipient. Words are the force between two magnets, either pulling or pushing sender and receiver towards or away.

Two:
In a meeting I utter the sound “uh” after being asked a question. The sound has an intention. It is a placeholder. The sound is subtle and carries on for two full seconds. Any longer and it would have garnered attention and seemed unique, unusual.

Silence would have allowed for others to take my place in response. I use this sound as a place holder in a social queue. It is a word but not a word: I use it to convey my consideration for the question. If I had stated “please hold while I formulate a response” my language would have seemed forced, robotic. If I had remained silent and simply looked at the asker, I would have again delivered a message.

Three:
I may disconnect my language from my emotion to preserve a relationship or continue on with an objective. I am asked to do something I wish not to do. I reply an enthusiastic “yes” before pausing for a moment and replying “ok” and nod my head twice. It is the follow up that conveys my lack of assurance.

I answer twice.

My emotion is expressed and withheld. It is not a false response as I wish to convey my willingness as well as convey my lack of personal interest. There is an “I” as well as an “I am”. I want but I am also I am wanting ________________.

With language I may express a range and variety of opinions and mix my meanings to convey the complexity of human emotion. It is not the 1 0 of binary language. We are a strange loop.

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Name the Colors, Blind the Eye [, a] Zen Dialectic

One:
The title is, I’m told, an old Zen saying. In looking at the specifics of a situation, in labeling the elements of an experiences, we are limiting our understanding rather than deepening our awareness. In looking for the specifics or meaning we are keeping ourselves from really seeing.

This is a concept clearly applicable to nearly every situation in life. When we define an idea or a person we have already limited our perception of what is really before us.

The antithesis of this argument is the old adage, “if it quacks like a duck.” My iPhone has the ability to quack. Is it in fact a duck? Perhaps in a former life.

Labeling is a very helpful ability in evolutionary terms. If something looks like a snake we assume it is a snake and know to stay away.

I think to be slow to judge is in fact quite a value. To really understand someone we have to listen and focus on the message transmitted rather than our intuitive desire to just assume.  We have to be willing to shrug off biases and see the individual for who they are.

Unhappiness is always an option. It is easy to create associations between the aspects of life and create a narrative in which we in fact are the poor, sad benefactor of life’s cruel misery. This is, however, not the reality of the situation.

We are a part of the whole. What is misery for us might in fact be a tremendous improvement for another. Life is chance and we roll the dice every morning. We play well or we simply hope the next morning will bring a new configuration.

Two:
But is it up to us to decide our fate in a situation? What about the time when things are truly terrible? If someone in a ski mask is holding a gun to our head are we to ignore the objects on display and try not to assume that we are being mugged? When is it beneficial to make judgments and when is it systemic of a deficiency? Should we always assume the best in people in situations?

We cannot say for sure how a situation will turn out in the end. We pay attention to the colors so we can survive what life throws at us. We are born to survive and reproduce. We are happy when our needs (both natural and assumed) are met. We are not happy when we lack or experience loss.

Three:
The meaning is what is found by looking at the meaning. We create meaning from our judgments. It is in looking at this statement and considering its “truthiness” that gives me the ability to create meaning from its parts. I might say, “Yes, I understand this statement to mean … as being a figurative analogy regarding the way I should live my life.” But in this I am giving weight or purpose to the color of nuance.

I have to realize that the logical must give way in moments to the understandings that are not definable or describable. If I assume a logical understanding of not the statement but rather the intuitive awareness that is created through its reading, I am missing the true intuition that is available as its purpose. I must cease to define the object, even the meaning as an object, to create space for the purpose of the statement.

I picture a simple example: a man, dressed like a thug serving food to the homeless and crying while watching chick flicks. The image conveys meaning. But in this I have created meaning around the simplicity of the meaning. The man might in fact steal food from the soup kitchen out of spite. But I cannot know this. I have to experience the moment and gauge that the situation might not in fact be what it seems – in both the good and the bad. In this sense it is through the reduction of meaning that the meaning becomes clear: it is the moment that matters, not our interpretation.

Only in defining the experience can I know my relationship to the meaning. I am the one who defines the colors and the color of the statement. I am the one who finds meaning in the statement. I define the statement and loose the meaning in phrasing a sentence about its purpose and understanding. It is the individual who is creating, not the creation itself.

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Speaking Against the Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day

Let me start out by saying that I hope whoever reads this will understand that this is written with a genuine caring for the friends and family who will read it. I am not in any way pointing out individuals but rather the expressions of the culture as a whole.

I am frankly embarrassed and appalled by the volume of Chick-Fil-A postings I saw yesterday and the message that this sends. I understand, Chick-Fil-A president Cathy is an Evangelical Christian and his small comment (which is part of a larger part the restaurant’s giving has played in the debate) sparked a media frenzy. I also understand that many of you reading this agree wholeheartedly with his belief that one man one woman is the traditional form of marriage and the only way ordained by God.

Here is where I am confused: I am told that yesterday’s Chick-Fil-A rally was about free speech. Was Cathy arrested for his views? Is he in prison? Is Cathy rallying lawyers to come to his aid? Forgive my ignorance, but he is in no way in a position to lose his right to free speech! No one is taking this away from him. I’m sure some would wish they could, but that isn’t even an option.

People who disagree with Cathy have come out in support against his position. People, who in exercising their right to free speech, have publicly disagreed with him. People don’t feel and think that he should have said what he did; just like people (myself included) don’t think a corporation should support a public discussion in one way or another.

Should they have the right to publicly disagree with Cathy? Shouldn’t they have a right to their opinion? Do they have a right to believe that his statements reflect a wrong in society?

Please hear me on this and really think about what I’m saying: Christianity in America has become convinced of its own martyrdom while forgetting that we are the majority! Christians are 76-80% of the population. Christians occupy 86% of congress, 85% of the senate. You can’t, so far, win a presidential election without a confession of Christian beliefs!

But I still hear so much about persecution and rights being taken away. It’s a myth perpetuated through crazy media that wants nothing better than to cause trouble because THAT brings in revenue.

Sure, things change. That is how life works. That is literally how it has always been. 40 years ago we had separate water fountains for people who were black. When this changed it made people uncomfortable (sadly there are still places in the US where this still makes people uncomfortable).

What does this have to do with Chick-Fil-A? Where is the love and compassion that is the foundation of Jesus’ work? Where is the caring about the welfare of people different than you? How are you fulfilling your beliefs by buying a chicken sandwich? Is Cathy’s stance even reflective of the love of Christ that is  so quick to be thrown around as a rallying cry?

This was not an act of love or compassion. Freedom of speech and religion are not on the chopping block. The only rights in this conversation that are up for grabs would be that of option for two consenting adults to choose to unify their lives because they are of the same gender.

Hear me out. Your family is not at risk from an outside source. If gay people get married it will not change your marriage. It will not cheapen your marriage. If the church is really worried about that, why not try to have marriage legally restricted to only Christians? If it is truly a sacrament given by God to you why not keep Muslims or Jews or secular humanists or atheists from participating? And I don’t mean keep them from marrying in a church. I mean why not keep them from marrying legally? This is fear backed up by scripture just as racism and even slavery was many years ago. I see a mentality of division (us vs them), not the actions of a group that was told to care for those who made them uncomfortable.

Even if you do not change your position realize that the message people are hearing is one of hate and bigotry and disdain. If you really want to help and save people, if this is really your goal, realize that something has to change. Supporting a fast food chain and pushing legislation to make the union between two consenting adults illegal is not going to change hearts and minds to your cause, nor is it in any way a fulfillment of Jesus’ call to love your neighbor or even the great commission.

Without doubt to some my writing this will come across as the ramblings of a liberal bias or that of someone trying to justify sin or something. Right now there is little to no room for discussion or disagreement in the Evangelical community on this or many other issues. I have seen the word heretic used for far more minor disagreements than this. I’m just asking that my friends and family who are actively participating in this discussion through their actions and conversations reflect on whether the Christian community is in fact reflecting the love that is so actively preached.

If you do disagree I am not suggesting you say nothing. But just think about the message that you send and whom it is directed. As of right now the message that is received is smug and rude and  self-righteous.

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