Just Don’t Die

I was reading a list of 100 pieces of advice from centenarians, and one of the more common things that was said was don’t die early. On the surface that sounds pretty basic, the biggest obstacle to living to 100 would be dying at 50. But yet, I don’t think the interviewees were talking about physical death. You can die long before your heart stops beating. In this case I am talking about mentally or spiritually dying; dying on a soul level if you will.

This dying at a soul level is akin to giving up. Death on a soul level has nothing to do with what religion you profess or if you even profess a religion. Soul level death is insidious because on the surface you are still alive, and yet deep down you have given up.

I know how easy this kind of death can be, because there have been three instances where I began the process of soul death. Each time it was a different circumstance and a different manner, but the result was the same, I was down and ceasing to live a full life. The first time, I basically just fell into the soul killing pattern of work, watch TV, go to sleep, work, watch TV, go to sleep, etc. I wasn’t engaging. The second time was right after I had gotten back from Hunan, and I was so disappointed in coming back to America, that I continued to live in the past. I basically shutdown and refused to move forward. I couldn’t let go of an awesome experience and instead I became a real pain in the butt to those around me. Luckily my friend told me that I was really annoying and I needed to be present rather than living in the past.

The most recent incident of soul death in my life was probably the worst. I have been living in Beijing for about two and a half years, Beijing is one of the world most unfriendly cities according to a survey, and after being here a while I thought things should be getting easy I found them to be getting harder. On closer examination, I realized I had given up trying to understand Beijing and live within the tension and had started demanding that Beijing become logical (to be fair to me, Chinese people are crazy and nothing makes any sense here). This was all on the subconscious level; I wasn’t running around Beijing yelling at bad drivers and people pooping on the sidewalk.

I realized that the feeling of being other had finally gotten to me, I am a 6’1’’, 285 pound, bald white guy, who doesn’t really speak Chinese, living in a country of small, not white people, who do speak Chinese. As much as that makes me stand out, what makes it worse is that the Chinese go to great lengths to point out how much you stand out. It got to the point where I was just trying to hide and create some normalcy, which in and of itself isn’t bad thing, I but I created a paradox in which I was living in china, but trying to negate the fact that I was living in China and it put me into a pretty big tailspin. Luckily a couple of my friends managed to snap me out of it.

I have been really thinking about this a lot lately, and I came across some quotes that I feel really sum up what is at the heart of the matter here. The great leadership and self-help guru Robin Sharma said, “Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life”. Mel Gibson, in the movie Braveheart, said, “All men die, not all men really live”.

It is so easy to fall prey to this soul death. It basically happens when life doesn’t live up our expectations and we start to withdraw parts of ourselves as a way of minimizing the damage. When this happens we engage less, and when we do engage it usually in a negative way, i.e. complaining, sarcasm, cynicism, or criticism. A constantly negative outlook is the major warning sign that it is time for introspection.

This self-examination is necessary to getting to a place where you deal with this. You have to be willing to dig deep into yourself and face your fears and foibles. It hurts but it’s rewarding.

Living is not just something we do as long as we’re breathing; it’s something we do as long as we’re engaging. Living is something that happens when we stop fearing. Living is something that happens when we stop worrying about the status quo and start worrying about who we were made to be and the impact that that person has on the world around them.

So look deep inside yourself. Search for the real you, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Live my friends, and live well.

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The Art of Failure

Since I’ve been back in the U.S., I have become addicted to the History Channel’s new summer show, Alone. Alone is a show where they take ten survival experts and strand them on Vancouver Island in Canada, they are separated by miles of rough terrain and must survive as long as they can, the last man standing wins $500,000.00.

I really like this show because I have an interest in outdoor survival, as well as extensive survival training. This show really helps illustrate techniques as well as the effect of a survival situation on a human being.

One of the things that I found curious was the fact that when the majority of the contestants tapped out (they were all given satellite radios so they could signal when they had given up), they said they felt like they were letting down all the folks back home. Now when I heard this, I knew it wasn’t true, for the most part, most of the people that these guys left behind probably wouldn’t view them as failures just because they had given up (they were in extreme survival situations and pushed to the breaking point). I knew this feeling of letting people down was a false feeling, and yet I have experienced it before.

When I returned to the from Changsha four years ago, I can’t tell you how much this fear of failure affected me and my decision, it was actually a double edged sword, felt like I would be judged irresponsible if I stayed in Changsha and when I came home, I felt like a failure. And no that I seemingly have struck with Beijing, I am home again and the familiar feeling of failure creeps, only now this feeling is compounded by extenuating circumstances.

This morning I filling out a profile for Eharmony (I thought I might give it shot, since it will probably be harder to meet someone while I’m in the States). To do this I took an inventory and found myself lacking. In America I’m less than a catch, I work in a gas station, I don’t drive, and I live with my Mom and Grandma, and I’m 31. In Beijing, nobody drove, I was a teacher, and I shared a downtown apartment with a roommate. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Fear of failure is as poisonous as fear of death, because both cause life paralysis. If you are afraid to move, you never will. I could sit and whine because I’m not in Beijing (Which I am sort of doing), or I could do what I did, get a job and start planning my escape, by this time next year I will be somewhere else (whether that place is Beijing, Phnom penh, Hanoi, Barcelona, Prague, or Abu Dhabi is still unknown). I am not letting this setback hold me down.

I wasn’t always this okay with failure, in fact I used to believe in the Samurai approach to failure, i.e. when you fail, jam a sword in your gut and have a friend cut your head off (I’m not joking about how strongly I used to believe in this). But the way to get over a fear of failure is to get hit in the head by failure repeatedly. I guess the fact of the matter is that more you feel like a failure, the less you feel like a failure. Four years I wouldn’t be able to handle my current situation. And now 31 years of hitting brick walls has made the landing a little softer.

I don’t mean to sound cynical about failure, but the truth is the more you accept failure as a fact of life, the less failure matters. I read a quote this morning from my hero, Teddy Roosevelt, “The boy who is going to make a great man must not make up his mind to merely overcome a thousand obstacles, but to win in spite of a thousand repulses and defeats.” My Sifu (Kungfu Master) says that through repetition things get easier. I think failure is one of those things that gets easy with repetition, every time you get over it faster.

I want to make it very clear that embracing failure as a fact of life doesn’t mean we should embrace a mindset of failure. Embracing failure mean that I understand that failure happens and when it does I don’t let it destroy my world. Embracing a mindset of failure means that I don’t do anything for fear that I will fail. Embracing failure is healthy. Embracing a mindset of failure is as stupid as burning your house down because someday it may catch fire.

May we risk bravely, fall gracefully, cry as needed, and then pick ourselves up and dust off and go for it again.

And They Will Know You’re Christian’s by You’re Guns?

I am going do something that I make a point of never doing. I am going to talk about something in news (sort of), it is at least a bit of a hot button issue: guns. Hear me on this: I AM NOT Talking about the 2nd amendment, gun control, or anything of that nature. I want to talk about the rise of something I find terribly disturbing a rise in vengeful, hate-filled, unbiblical Christianity (I want to make it very clear that I am not saying ownership of guns is unbiblical, what I am saying is that I see too many angry Christians posting gun related messages of hate on Facebook)
This was sparked by an article I read today about the release of a new model of AR-15, called the Crusader. The company has said that as a measure to keep it it out of the hands of Muslim terrorists, they have put a bible verse above the magazine port, the safety selector is labeled “peace” and “war”, and most heinously, the barrel has the phrase “God wills it” written. Seriously, God wills you to kill someone.
The thing that bugs most about this (and there are several) is that “Deus vult” God wills it), was the battle cry of one of the most horrifying events in history, perpetrated by the established church, the crusades. I’m not going to get into any of the historical or religious reasons the crusades were fought, but I think most of the world agrees they were wrong. And I’d like to point out that both sides of the Middle-East versus West conflict constantly point back to events from the crusades as triggers for modern day violence. So to me the glorification of the crusades only greater glorifies violence and blood shed and serve as a trigger to further violence.
I feel like when Christians stand up for some of the things I seen them stand up for lately (the confederate flag, guns, and other issues), they are laying down the Bible and all the things we’re taught to stand for. The Word love appears in the Bible between 310 and 551 times. We taught that God is love and that perfect loves casts out all fear (and I’ve always been taught that hatred is the product of fear). The title for this post is a parody of John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” But where is the love?
What I am saying here is not that I have it right and everyone else is wrong, and you need to all be more like me. To contrary, I am saying that I am just as bad, I can be a very unloving person. But I am scared to death by what I see, the downward spiral into hate benefits no one, least of all the Kingdom of God.

A Monkey Boy in the Hand of God

This post is inspired by two things: my Auntie Denise and the Ancient Chinese epic, Journey to the West. For the last 20 years or so (man that seems like it shouldn’t be so long, but I did the math) my auntie Denise has called me a monkey boy (a term of endearment), and that nickname resonated with a thought I had based on an episode from Journey to the West.
If you’ve never read Journey to the West, I highly recommend it (it only took me six months for me to finish (achingly slow progress, due to the size of the book, for me)). It is basically the story of a monk who travels to the western heaven to get scriptures from the Buddha, along the way the monk is accompanied by an ogre, a pig monster, a horse that used to be a dragon, and the monkey king. Along the way they fight monsters that try to eat the monk (because apparently eating Buddhist monks brings immortality).
The Beginning of the book deals with the origin stories of the main characters, primarily that of the monkey king. The monkey started life as an overly smart monkey who studied the Tao and gained immortality he then went to the eastern heaven and demanded that the Jade Emperor give him a job in the heavenly bureaucracy. He was put in charge of the heavenly stables. Monkey doesn’t think this job is right for him, because after he attained enlightenment, he named himself The Great Sage Equaling Heaven, and obviously the equal of heaven doesn’t shovel horse crap. So monkey proceeds to cause a whole lot of problems, he eats the peaches of longevity and drinks the wine of immortality (monkey is already immortal because he went to down to the underworld and erased himself and all the monkeys from the scroll of death).
The Jade Emperor is outraged and tries many ways to punish and/destroy monkey, but he fails, so eventually they call in the Western Buddha to deal with monkey. The Buddha tells monkey that if he can leap out of his hand in a single leap Monkey can replace the Jade Emperor. Monkey can of course cover several thousand miles in a single leap, so he thinks it will be easy to jump out of the Buddha’s hand. Monkey jumps very far until he reaches what he assumes are the pillars marking the end of the heavens. He writes “I was here” and pees on the pillars for good measure. He then returns to Buddha and says, “I have jumped to the edge of the heavens”. The Buddha then tells him, “You never left my hand”, and shows him his hand and on the middle fringer there is written “I was here” with a puddle of monkey pee. Monkey is then trapped under a mountain for 5,000 years.
I really like this story, and not just because it has monkeys. I think what I like most about this story is the fact that for all his skills, abilities, and bravado, Monkey still can’t jump out of the Buddha’s hand. I think in my life I need to be reminded that I can’t jump out God’s hand. Nothing is beyond his control. This comforting to me, because I was born into a life of control. From a dysfunctional childhood to a rocky adolescence to a nomadic adult, I seem to live a life devoid of stability and control, and I don’t mean that to sound as bad as it porbably, it’s just that for me so much is spur of the moment and going with the flow of things. I basically live my life in one of two postures: holding God’s hand and trusting that he has it all in hand or holding God’s hand and being dragged into next pahse of my life kicking and screaming. I’ve never let go and it is comforting to know He never will either.