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The Vaccine Against the Curse of Unlivedness



I think I’ve discussed the following quotation before in this blog, but it’s worth reflecting on again and again. It’s the passage from Walden where Thoreau explains why he decided to live alone for two years in a self-built, one-room cabin on Walden Pond:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

I first read Walden when I was twenty-four and I remember being very moved by the book and especially by this passage. Did I understand it? Probably not very well.

As I read this today, I thought: What would I say to my twenty-four-year-old self about this passage? What would I say about living deliberately? About living deep and sucking out the marrow of life? About overcoming the curse of unlivedness?

Well, I doubt if my twenty-four-year old self would listen, but I think I might begin by telling this story.

An angry young man, his eyes blazing, came to a wise old man and said, “I hate the world! Tell me how I can possibly live in this world!” The old man calmly looked at him and said, “I can tell you, but you won’t listen.” The young man said, “No, please tell me how to live in this world, because I hate the world!” The old man sighed. “Okay. Go away and for one year you may not do anything you do not enjoy. If you’re walking down a road and find that you do not enjoy it, sit down. If you’re reading a book and you don’t enjoy it, close the book.” “That’s ridiculous! No one can do that,” said the young man. “See, I told you that you wouldn’t listen.” After they talked, the young man went away and returned a year later. This time his face was relaxed, he was smiling, his eyes sparkled. “Ah,” said the old man, “I see you have learned. Go. Maybe now, you can be of some use in the world.”

I don’t think we have to spend two years alone by a pond to learn to about living deliberately and living fully. But maybe a year spent learning about joy in everyday life should be a part of every person’s education.

And you’re never too old to enroll in that school!

Joy is the vaccine against the curse of unlivedness.

Then Joy Breaks Out



Guest post by Landon Saunders


Joy keeps popping up in so many places. Thanks to Marie Kondo it is even key to organizing our houses! She’s big on noticing the things that spark joy in your life.

Joy is hard to define, isn’t it? It’s hard to parse its meaning, hard to break down into component parts.

I think joy emerges when my inner heart and outer life are most in sync.

Ah, you say, but that is the catch! How do I get my heart in sync with my sense of self, my work, my relationships, even what I do for pleasure?

Here’s what I’ve done for years: I continuously stay in the company of joy. I keep the word where I can see it. I close my letters and emails with the word joy. The word is sprinkled throughout my conversation.

I’ve found that the more I’m in the presence of joy, the more the presence of joy is in me. This releases the energy of joy in my life. The more I work with it, the more it works on me.

Then joy breaks out.

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To Live In Agreement With Life



I love Don Miguel Ruiz’s timeless little book of Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements. Even if you have read it, his simple, profound advice is worth looking at again. Here are his four agreements:

  1. Be Impeccable With Your Word
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions
  4. Always Do Your Best

Ruiz calls these, “agreements with life”. I was struck by that phrase. I don’t think I’d ever thought about that before.

Sometimes we quarrel with life. Sometimes life doesn’t agree with us and sometimes we don’t agree with life—says Ruiz. Then he points to ideas that can help us live in greater agreement with life.

Notice what he says about the second agreement, Don’t Take Anything Personally:

“You make something big out of something so little, because you have the need to be right and make everybody else wrong.”

 Well, I winced when I read that, but I also laughed at myself a little. It’s a good thing to know about ourselves, isn’t it? Then I read:

“There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally…If you keep this agreement, you can travel around the world with your heart completely open and no one can hurt you.”

 That’s a great promise, but I think there’s something to it. Finally, Ruiz paints a picture of what it might be like to live in agreement with life:

“You are loving everything that is around you, because you are loving yourself. Because you like the way you are. Because you are content with you…You are happy with the movie that you are producing, happy with your agreements with life.”

To live in greater agreement with life—is that a real possibility?

I believe it is. And here’s what I believe about you and me: We have a right to get there as fast as we can!


Before It’s Too Late: Cultivate



Guest post by Landon Saunders


Seneca, a Stoic philosopher, wrote many years ago: “Let us cultivate our humanity.”

I love that idea and have found that it encourages a rewarding depth in relationships.

As a boy on a farm in West Virginia, we cultivated fields that before plowing were often covered with weeds and brambles. We didn’t let the weeds discourage us from producing a crop.

In our relationships the “fields” often have a lot of weeds—behaviors that can be difficult, even odorous and noxious, but beneath all of that is the rich soil of humanity which, if cultivated, yields benefits that are rewarding.

Focusing simply on the behaviors often triggers impulsive words and actions that create more “weeds and brambles.” Little or nothing grows there.

Focusing beyond those behaviors on the soil of our common humanity engenders the surprising promise of new growth and possibilities. And that is what it means to “cultivate our humanity”.

Giving up old ways and habits is always hard, but sometimes a future worth living in is at stake.

All of us would be wise to be more attentive to the cultivation of our common humanity—in our homes, our communities, our nation—and less “put off” by the “weeds and brambles.” Let’s cultivate and celebrate…the humanity common to us all.

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Heroism: A Daily Thing



I’m a big fan of Emily Dickinson, and I especially like the following little poem. (I referred to it four years ago, but it’s worth another look.)

We never know how high we are till we are called to rise,

And then if we are true to plan, our statures touch the skies;

The heroism we recite would be a daily thing

Did not ourselves the cubits warp for fear to be a king.

I’m not sure what “cubits warp” means, but three things strike me:

First, as human beings, “we are called to rise.” Don’t you feel that?

There’s something about being alive, being a person, being a unique human being in the world that calls us to grow, to reach up, to elevate, to transcend ourselves.

We’re not here to get bogged down in life-smothering ruts or dragged down by the law of gravity—the sober, boring pronouncements of those who take themselves oh so seriously.

Rather, we are here to rise on the wings of the law of levity—to kiss the joy as it flies, and find joy where we can, and when we can’t find joy, create some!

Second, heroism is “a daily thing.” It’s not just about extraordinary feats—though these can be inspiring. Heroism is any time we try with all our heart at anything. It’s anytime we give ourselves generously.

Third, to rise to everyday heroism, I must dethrone fear.

King Fear keeps me from being the hero of my own story. Fear of failure. Fear of what others may think. Fear that I’m not good enough or smart enough or whatever enough. (The truth is: you are the world’s only expert on being you.)

We can never eliminate fear, of course. But we can keep fear from being king. And we can start by cutting fear in half. As Sir Winston Churchill said:

“One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half. Never run away from anything. Never!”

 How to cut fear in half? Face it.

Which Wolf Will Win?



Guest post by Landon Saunders


I love this story which I ran across again in Rutger Bregman’s impressive book entitled, “Humankind.”

An old man says to his grandson: “There’s a fight going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is bad—angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant, and cowardly. The other is good—peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest, and trustworthy. These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person, too.”

After a moment, the boy asks, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man smiles: “The one you feed.”

All of us can identify with the presence of the two wolves! And all of us know how quickly the bad wolf can leap out. We’re feeding it every time we let it out. The more we feed it, the more it defines us.

So how do we control these inclinations within us?

When the old man was asked this question of which one wins, he didn’t answer with a long lecture or suggest an arduous process.

He smiled.

Nothing is more powerful than a smile in constraining the bad wolf and feeding the good one. And the smile leaves fewer teeth marks!


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Taking The Mask Off Trouble



“Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you,” goes an old saying—and it’s probably good advice.

There are some who seem to go looking for trouble, like the comic Sam Levinson who quipped: “Lord, lead us not into temptation. We can find it ourselves.”

But even if we don’t go looking for it, we can be sure of this: trouble will find us.

 So here’s a good thing to know: when trouble does come to our door, it is often a disguise for something better. As Frank Tyger says:

“Opportunity’s favorite disguise is trouble.”

In 1666 London was hit by the black plague, closing Cambridge University. A Cambridge student named Isaac Newton was forced to leave his studies and go home to the country. There he had time to think freely and follow up on some of his own hunches. These reflections led him to the discovery of the law of gravity and the beginnings of his life’s work.

Newton’s discoveries helped to jumpstart the modern scientific revolution which has brought countless benefits to the human family.

Now, I’m not suggesting that your troubles will lead to similar breakthroughs, but this did get me thinking about the relationship between troubles and opportunities in our lives. It got me wondering…

Are there some life-enhancing opportunities hiding beneath the surface of some of our troubles? Is there an opportunity for personal growth lurking behind some troublesome conflict?  Some problem at work? Some relationship difficulty? Some unnamable fear or anxiety? Some failure or setback? Could embracing trouble actually make sense?

It’s just a question to think about—but don’t think too hard. Have fun with it. It won’t take your troubles away, but it might give you a better way to think about them.

As the saying goes, our troubles won’t kill us, but the way we think about them might.

In this year in which we’ve all been wearing masks, it’s calming and empowering just to think about taking the mask off trouble.


Getting Duller vs. Getting Sharper



There’s an old story about a woodsman who was chopping logs with an ax and having a very hard time. The harder he worked, the more frustrated he became, cursing and sweating. A friend who was watching said, “I think you need to stop and sharpen your ax.” The woodsman replied, “Don’t have time for that! I’ve got all these logs to chop!”

There may be different ways to take this story, but here’s what it says to me: I am the ax! I am the one who determines how I will respond to the people and events of the day.

And when I experience a lot of frustration and conflict, it may be because I have let “my ax”—myself, my mind, heart, attitude, spirit—grow dull. (And let’s face it, life does have a way of grinding us down, dulling our senses.)

 Of course, if we did take time to “sharpen our ax” things would probably go better. But we’re too busy for that! So we just keep repeating the same reactions to the same problems and wonder why things don’t get better.

But what if we could let life sharpen our ax—sharpen our ability to respond?

I heard an old timer say, with wry humor: “There was a time when I always had to be right, and my life was full of problems. But when I learned to stay humble, I noticed that most of my problems went away. So I figured the problem must be me!”

A whetstone used at the wrong angle (the wrong attitude) will make the ax duller. But used at the right angle, it will make the ax sharper, and help things go better.

I find it encouraging that the same people, events and problems of my life that make me duller can also make me sharper—if only I shift my angle/attitude.

The following little prayer sums this up:

“Bless the problems and frustrations I’m about to face today. May they flow through me in a way that makes me sharper in mind and heart and spirit, not duller.”