should foreign language classes be required in college?

In the December 2016 “Room for Debate” from the Opinion Pages of The New York Times, three high school students shared their thoughts on then-recent proposal by Princeton University that would require college students to study another language, even if they are already proficient in another language. The students’ responses varied significantly. Yes, one said. It’s a global world out there and students need to be able to communicate in another language besides English in order to be competitive. No, said the second. Learning to think is more important than struggling to express your thoughts in another language. It depends, said the third. It depends because it depends on a student’s goals; really, if we’re going to require students to learn a second language, we should really starting requiring it in kindergarten.

These students’ responses are not unlike responses politicians and educators have thrown around in the past, but what I find interesting is the common threads they all share. First, each of these students recognizes that, by the time a student reaches college, it’s already way too late to introduce them to a second language: The time to learn a language is when you’re young and your brain’s neural pathways are still being formed. Second, they all recognize the inherent value of knowing a second (or third, or fourth) language. The way they define these values are different, but they all see second-language learning as being beneficial. And third, they all feel that something needs to be changed about the way second-language learning is being approached in the United States. The American education system is falling short and, in so doing, failing our children.

And I have to say, I agree. The American education system is failing its children, and something does need to be done — long before students reach college. Learning a second language is critical for all kinds of reasons, but the one I feel most strongly about is one that isn’t usually talked about — or at least isn’t fully understood.

英速全體合照

With a group of 5th graders in Taiwan. Can you find me? :D

When I was 25 I moved to Taiwan. I moved to a little city called Sanjhih, about an hour north of Taipei, to teach English at a camp for 5th graders. Originally I was only going to stay for seven months, but I ended up staying for two years, and afterward I lived in Hong Kong for a year. In both cities I found myself surrounded by an unfamiliar people, language, and culture, and at first it was really hard. I was incredibly homesick and thought many times about returning home. Ultimately, though, it was my students who changed my mind. My Taiwanese students — bright, inquisitive 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds — were for the most part incredibly sweet, and I was blown away not only by their sweetness, but also by their similarity to the 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds I knew back home, as well as by their aptitude for English. Many of my students were already quite adept English speakers — fluent, even — despite the drastic difference between the English language and their native tongues. But more than that, English or no English, they were kids like any other kids found anywhere else in the world. The barriers that cultures and countries and religion and political systems create wasn’t in place yet. These kids were just KIDS. (People are PEOPLE.)

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Suffice it to say when I came back to the United States, I returned with a new set of eyes. I could no longer see my own country in the same light, nor I could I see those from other countries in the same light. A foreigner struggling to ask for directions in broken English was a person in a strange land trying to get by, just as I had been trying to get by, struggling to ask for directions in Mandarin at a 7-11 in Taiwan. The noisy group of tourists from mainland China was no longer an annoying group of tourists but an interesting group of people with a unique culture and background. Living abroad and the little bit of Mandarin and Cantonese I’d learned while I was there had changed my perspective on the entire world immensely, and I would never be able to go back to the narrower mindset I’d had before.

That said, it is very true that, because I wasn’t (and still am not) fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese, I felt very isolated while living abroad. I know that if I’d been able to communicate more easily, I would have gained a better understanding of the culture in which I was living. I also recognized while living abroad just how difficult it would be to master a second language like Mandarin, and that if I would ever have been able to do so, I would need to have started very young — very young, as in, kindergarten.

jGHNy51According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, American students lag way behind European students in language learning. In her article presenting the study, Kat Devlin says, “Across Europe, students typically begin studying their first foreign language as a required school subject between the ages of 6 and 9. Furthermore, studying a second foreign language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European countries . . . Meanwhile, far fewer K-12 students in the U.S. participate in foreign language education. Throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia, 20 percent of K-12 students are enrolled in foreign language classes, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit American Councils for International Education.”

This is, I feel, more than a shame — it’s doing our students harm. The cognitive benefits of learning a second language have been proven time and time again. The potential for improved job prospects and general understanding of other cultures is also vastly improved by knowledge of other languages. The United States is home to people from all different backgrounds, with roughly 65.3 million Americans over the age of four (i.e., approx. 21 percent) speaking a language other than English at home (2015 U.S. Census). If this is the case, and if my own experience in Asia is true (which it most certainly is), how much could we stand to gain if we started implementing the European language-learning model in our country? What would the results be if we started teaching our kids a second language in kindergarten? How much wiser would they be? How much more understanding of others? How much more competitive in the global job market? How much more culturally aware both abroad and at home?

At the rate the United States is going, we’ll likely never know. Things seem to move at a snails’ pace when it comes to making changes in education at the federal level. According to Dan Davidson’s “Notes on the American Academy Commission Report: America’s Languages (2017),” the founders of our country understood that “the study of language in the U.S. was a complex and varied endeavor, so much so that they determined not to establish an official state language for the new nation. They supported inquiries into what they referred to as the ‘rationale, genius and idiom of the English language,’” as well as examined Native American languages and linguistics more generally, as they believed that an “appreciation of the plurality of languages would improve communication domestically and internationally, and help the new nation understand its place in a changing world.” And yet here we are more than 200 years later, lagging behind the rest of the world in this very key area.

That said, if anyone brings up the argument, “Well, if we’re going to teach a second language, what language should we teach? There are so many here in the States, after all—how do you choose?” To them, I say, Any spoken language! It doesn’t matter. The results and benefits of knowing a second or third are the same no matter what language is being studied.

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With my language-exchange friends in Taiwan–Mandarin is hard!

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Note: Sorry for my long absence! I actually wrote this as an assignment for a grad school class. Grad school is hard!

can/’t

Emails, voicemails, recommended stories, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, T.V., Pandora, NOISE.

Oh my God. My head spins.

I can’t keep up.

Can’t, can’t, can’t. The words roar in the furnace of my head. Who said them first?

I sit in a class full of writers. The room is dark and hot. Our teacher—a dark-haired Muskogee* whose henna-tattooed hands and bohemian attire make me feel wildly out of place in my blue blouse, white shorts, and silver sandals—talks about her time as an MFA student at the esteemed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She’s a published author and playwright and plays the saxophone in a Native American jazz band. She expects us to read and write more in a shorter period of time than I have in years.

I am terrified.

I look around me. The other students appear calm. I see no traces on their faces of the panic I am feeling inside. I play the saxophone. I know how to write. But . . . I don’t belong here.

**

I’m standing with a group of triathletes. We’re on a dock down by the river in the heart of Knoxville. The sun beats violently upon us, creating a steam of humidity so thick that every breath digs in me a hole of longing for the West Coast so large that I’m certain I’ll fall in, never to surface anywhere ever again . . . Instead, I climb into a kayak and watch the swimmers glide. Their movements look effortless, easy.

I grew up swimming, but I can’t swim like that. Who am I?

**

I pick up a book today. It’s something my brother gave me when I was home in July. It’s the story of an overweight middle-aged former athlete who, at 39, decided he wanted to live again. The memoir is mostly typical—an out-of-shape dude changes his lifestyle and ends up winning Ironman-distance world championships; ya know, no big deal, right?—but the last chapter hits me hard. In it, the author talks about the importance of mindset, setting goals, improving our diets, and becoming the hero of our own stories. And through it, he challenges me revisit my own story.

Can’t, can’t, can’t. Who said that first? I did.

I don’t belong here, don’t belong her-, don’t belong . . . Who said that first? I did.

Who am I, I, I? Who said that first? I did.

I bought into the stories I was telling myself a long time ago—feelings of inadequacy and failure. Deep down I knew the stories weren’t true, but instead of squashing them, I allowed them to become my beliefs . . . My beliefs became my patterns. My patterns became my habits. My habits became the very way I saw the world.

But now . . .

Now I am wondering: What if, instead of saying I can’t, I say, “I CAN“?


*member of the Mvskoke Nation, a federally recognized Native American tribe based in the U.S. state of Oklahoma

 

 

at the end of the day

(Note: For this post to make any sense, you’ll first need to read my last one.)

I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m HERE, I’M HERE.

But but but but but . . .

You didn’t get it. I wasn’t clear. It’s not just home I’m talking about; it’s an awareness: I’m HERE. 

“Here not only in location, but in body, mind, and spirit. Here in loyalty. Here in love.” Here is also a presence of mind, a recognition of where we stand and what we stand for and what we (really) want and what has made us who we are.

In the ever-increasing madness of today’s world, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget to consider these questions. But these queries are important because answering them (or not) is what shapes the course of our lives… Because the other side of the coin is that we really do change. How we change and what we accomplish is up to us and requires self-awareness and honesty with ourselves.

While I was home in California in July, I skimmed through a journal I wrote in Italy half my lifetime ago. I was shocked to see some of the things I’d written. Who IS this person?! I marveled. The fanciful view I had of the world at 17 does not match the world I’ve experienced as an adult. And yet going back in time helped me better understand the decisions I made at 17 (or 25, or 33) that have shaped the person I’ve become. It helped me be kinder to my younger and older self.

How do I mean? Living in Asia gave me a greater cultural perspective of the world. Talking to people has given me greater empathy. Holding various jobs has given me greater insight into others’ lives. Going back to school has made me realize just how quickly time goes . . .

Not all people are as reflective as I am. And that’s okay. You do your weird and I’ll do mine. But as for me, I want my years on this planet to MEAN something. And not just for me.

 

home again

Muddy. Like the murky shallows of Trinity Lake when the waters have drop-drop-dropped and sucked the shoreline muck into red clay pools swirled with yesterday’s bath water. Like the ash falling from nearby fires, engulfing an entire state in smoke and soot, a sickly yellow fog no place should ever see (let alone breathe). My thoughts were hazy.

Who am I? And why am I here?

I needed distance. Distance from the he-said-she-said. Distance from the rush-rush-rush of hurryupandwaiting. Distance from the clammy humid-cloud that enveloped me the moment I opened my front door.

In all of my years in Tennessee and abroad, I have never been so homesick.

I flew West on July 12 and cried when I landed at the San Francisco International Airport. I laughed when I heard a passenger complaining about California’s gun laws. I smiled when I shivered as I walked to my rental car. I was home.

Home with all of its myriads of problems is still home.

I spent three weeks visiting friends and family. I played with my 15-month-old nephew. I sorted through childhood memory boxes and read old letters and journal entries. I relived my twenties like a movie watched in reverse—this is who I am; this is why I’m here . . . Here not only in location, but in body, mind, and spirit. Here in loyalty. Here in love. I’m here I’m here I’m-here I’m-here-I’m-HERE.

It’s raining today in Knoxville, pouring buckets in a fashion California rarely sees (and sorely needs). I’m not home anymore. But this is home for now, for reasons I must cling to, no matter life’s sea.

After all, those reasons are ME.

 

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nobody knows

I didn’t mean to let this sit so long. There’s a story here that hasn’t been told.

It’s the story of a 14-year-old girl walking her dog under the shade of oak trees in the California sun. She wondered why she had to feel this way. She was scared of her feelings. Her crush had written her a letter. He liked her, too.

Why, if she had food to eat and air to breathe, why did she have to have emotions, too? Even at 14, she was scared of rejection.

Fast forward a thousand years. Her heart’s been broken many times. He loved her—and still does—but he had a higher calling to attend to.

She will always love him.

At 1,034, she’s a million years old. The world is her oyster, but even that is not enough. She’s one in a billion, and her story is the same. How can she matter? How can this mean . . . anything?

She’s seen a lot in a million years. Most recently it’s been adults acting like children. At our cores we all want the same things—love and acceptance. Why is this so hard to admit?

. . . and where are all the dreamers? The ones who think beyond the here and now? They are few and far between, it seems. And she doesn’t understand.

And so she fights for her life as she rides out life’s storm, and she fights for her life on the train. And she goes . . . nobody knows . . . Except for the dreamers. They’re one in the same.

P.S. Happy Independence Day, America.

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*Featured image: Mine. Taken in Knoxville on a bike ride two days ago!!

thoughts on a sunday morning

I’m sitting at my kitchen counter sipping caramel coffee and wishing I had more time. Time to explore, time to read, time to help, time to breathe. I’m lucky, too. Luckier than most. But still, this world and the time we are allotted are not enough.

I made a friend recently who told me he’s an atheist. After hearing more of his life story, I didn’t wonder why.

I have friends who had wonderful childhoods who’ve become atheists, too. You never know.

Living in Asia made me question everything I’d ever been taught about religion. I still don’t have any answers.

I’ve been thinking, too, about expectations and desires versus reality. Reality never aligns itself with Hollywood versions of caked-out weddings and happily-ever-afters. Even in the happily-ever-afters, reality’s life is HARD.

Patience is HARD.

Never compare your life to anyone else’s, people say . . . while they post on social media happy images of the engagement party they attended yesterday. No one says anything about the anxiety leading up to the party or the way they REALLY feel inside . . . Or if they do they’re looking for sympathy. That’s just as bad.

You CAN’T win.

Or can you?

Me I just forge forward, fighting for positive and looking for good, being myself and not apologizing for being real. You lose every time you lie to yourself or others. Honesty is HUGE.

Yesterday I participated in my first dragon boat race. It was a fundraiser for Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries and a great bonding experience with my newfound poetry and game friends. I was exhausted when it was over, but thrilled to have gotten to join in on an event I’d previously only watched in Hong Kong.

Oh the memories.

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blessed

It’s Father’s Day. We all have the world’s best father, don’t we? Except those who don’t. Or those who have lost their dads. Or those who never knew them to begin with.

Life isn’t fair.

That’s one thing my mother taught me as a child: Life isn’t fair, so stop expecting it to be. She was right. I met a young man recently who broke my heart. A “thug” on the outside, he quickly showed that he’d had an unstable childhood at best. He had no support system, and as an adult, he was hurting.

How much of who we are is who we are, and how much of it is where we came from?

Me, though—I was blessed. I have two amazing parents. My dad is and always has been my best friend. He knows me better than anyone. We think alike, and he’s always been there for me with open ears and ready arms—no matter the hour, no matter how tired, no matter what he himself is going through. He’s the most giving person I’ve ever met—giving to a fault, in fact. (Dad, you need to take care of YOU!!)

But I love him for it and know he will always put others first, no matter what I or my brother say. We’re a trio, really. My brother is amazing, too—why don’t we have a Sibling’s Day, by the way?—and this is perhaps the hardest part about being so far from home. I miss being surrounded by people who know me and love me just as I am. I wish I could be closer to watch my nephew grow. But, alas, I have to follow my own path, and my path has taken me to Tennessee.

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Today I want to share with you an event from this past week, which actually started earlier (the “backstory” from my last post), and which I couldn’t have done without my dad, who has encouraged me every step of my non-traditional way.

Back in March I wrote a post about attending my first “Poetry Slam.” The “Slam” meets once a month, and last month I got brave and recited a couple of my old poems. It was nerve-wracking, but afterward a guy reached out to me and said he and his friends had really liked my work. He invited me to a game night, which I later attended, and in a span of about five weeks my social circle in Knoxville has nearly doubled.  Thanks to my new friend I now have numerous contacts to do crazy things with like hike, rock climb, sky dive, and more. And even cooler? I no longer have to attend Poetry Slams alone! This is a video my friends took of me at this month’s Slam. Some of you may recognize my work.

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All of this to say, NONE of this would have been possible without my dad. He’s been there for me through thick and thin and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He’s supported me through every life transition and trusted that I was making the right decisions. He’s visited me wherever I am and is always been just a phone call away. He’s my biggest supporter and number one fan, and is exactly the kind of parent I wish everyone had . . . What an amazing place this world would be if that were true!!

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I love you!

a dangerous business

“Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” — Hellen Keller

There’s a back story to this. It’s coming.

I moved to Tennessee knowing no one. It’s been a lonely adventure—until recently. That’s the back story. The now-story is that, within the past few weeks I’ve tried several things I never thought I would, or thought I might but had no idea when.

I’ve hung out with a group of strangers playing games like “Killer Queen” and “Cards Against Humanity.” I’ve gone to a medieval fair. I’ve rock climbed for the second time since my accident. Tomorrow I’m headed out to play paintball, and in a couple of weeks I’m participating in a dragon boat race . . . Heck, in a few months I might even go sky diving!

Life is strange!

 

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The way I’ve survived until now, though, is by getting out. When I was lonely, I went out and exercised. This didn’t always help, but when I finished I’d text or call my closest friends. I looked for interesting events around town. I’ve seen Blind Pilot, Jason Mraz, Lucy Rose, and Charlie Cunningham in concert since moving to Knoxville. (Okay, so Jason Mraz might not have helped. All of his songs are love songs, and I might have cried through half the concert. But still . . .) I’ve gone to and participated in poetry slams. Last week I saw the comedian Henry Cho in downtown Knoxville, and a few months ago I was thrilled to see Steve Martin and Martin Short at their show in Chattanooga.
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I’ve done anything and everything I can to get my introverted self out the door and in places where I knew I might meet people. And nine months into my adventure here in Knoxville, it’s finally paying off. Nine months later, I’m meeting an incredibly diverse group of humans who are proving a point I made early on after moving home from Hong Kong: People are people. And people are beautiful.

My journey isn’t over yet. Life is full of ups and downs, and most of my days are still very quiet. But if I’ve learned anything in the last three years, it’s to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. You never know what a day will bring once you force yourself out the door. The trick is forcing yourself out the door.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

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why i do this

I ran a trail race today. I’ve never run a trail race before. It’s been raining a lot in Knoxville. The trail was slick as hell.

This morning when my alarm went off before sunrise, I groaned: Why am I doing this again? After the race, when I was discussing the course with friends, I realized I would have only just gotten up if I’d slept in. This is why I do this . . .

img_3421During the run, I saw a guy wearing a shirt advertising the La Jolla Half Marathon. He was talking to a buddy about trail races in San Diego. “You from California?” I couldn’t help but ask. “Nah,” he said. “Went out there for college; just moved back.” Still running, he raised his hands to the canopy of leaves above us. “I missed this . . .” He seemed to forget me for a moment, then resurfaced. “And you? You from Cali?” “Yes, I’m from Cali—born and raised. I miss it, but I like Knoxville, too.”

Both were true.

Last weekend, I did a sprint triathlon. The scenario was the same. Why am I doing this? . . . Oh yeah, this is why I’m doing this. I commented to a friend afterward that I still find warm Tennessee mornings strange. In California it’s always cold at night and in the early morning. I miss that about home, but the warmer weather here does help during triathlons.

After another event a man said to me: “I lived in Cali for eight months, in Oakland. I never really could get used to it—didn’t understand what all the hype was about.” “Oh yeah?” I said. “Yeah. It‘s so expensive, and the traffic is awful, and . . . ” “But what about the beaches?” I pressed. “Places like Mendocino or the Bay—they’re so pretty!” “But the water is so cold!” he said.

The water is cold, I’ll give him that. But also, you find what you look for.

 

I have friends, so many friends, who have never left their hometown. People stay where they’re comfortable—most stay in the same place their whole lives. It’s easier to do this, certainly. I’ve moved around a lot, and moving is HARD. It’s hard to make friends in places and then leave them; it’s hard to never have roots. But after the initial adjustment period in a new town—after you no longer have to ask Siri for directions to get home, and when you’re finally making friends, and when you’re getting involved in things around town—suddenly, it makes sense. This is why I do this.

I do this to grow and to see and to experience different places in the world. I do this to push myself and to relate better to others, no matter where they’re from. I do this to better understand myself and to challenge my beliefs about the world. I do this because what I learned in Taiwan is true: There is no “better,” there is no “best.” All that exists among the world’s various regions and climates is “different,” and it is these differences that make that make our world interesting and beautiful. It is these differences that make our lives worth living.

So please, dear readers, stop fearing change. Stop taking the easy route. Move if you feel stagnant. Move even if you don’t feel stagnant. Growth cannot happen without change. Happiness cannot happen without growth.

Trust me. After almost a year, I can finally say: Knoxville is starting to feel a little bit like “home.”

 

 

 

 

 

writer’s block

Been struggling to find inspiration lately. Maybe I’m just jaded? I mean, how many more shootings can I write about? And the royal wedding was splendid and all, but I didn’t even know it was happening until it was over. (Yes, I’m out of touch.) I’ve been searching for meaning and struggling to find it, even in my triathlon training. Like, who cares? What’s the point? I keep thinking about my friend from college in Africa. I’ve been back in the States too long. Maybe once I finish this grad school thing, it’s time to go where I feel like I can really make a difference.

Below is a poem I originally published on February 20, 2013. It seems appropriate today.

writer’s block

I’m reaching and falling.
I’m hemming and hawing.
I’m trying and failing.
I’m rowing, now bailing.
Stop.

Another day.

(Go outside.)
(Never give up.)

My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living. — Anais Nin

For an audio recording of the above, click below:

 

 

 

 

love you, mom!

It would be impossible to tell you my first memory of my mom. Mothers aren’t someone you remember meeting. They were just . . . always there. My mom was athletic and fun. I remember she used to go running, and I’d beg to go with her as a kid. Back then we lived on a small court and she often ran on busy roads. “When you’re older,” she said. And when I was older, I did.

Mom always made amazing home-cooked meals for our family. She made it look easy, and our house was always spotless, too. “Does anyone even live here?” my friends used to ask when they’d visit. “Yes,” I’d reply. “Mom makes us clean up after ourselves.” It was true.

My beautiful picture

Mom and me on my 2nd birthday. Pretty sure she baked that cake herself!

Mom did her best to try to teach me how to cook; sadly, I was never much interested. I wasn’t interested in sewing, either. “Too much work and too tedious!” I’d say. “I’ll marry someone who can cook and take my sewing to a tailor.” Thanks to her persistence, however, I actually can cook today. I’ll probably never sew a Halloween costume, though.

Mom took us to swim lessons, music lessons, varsity practices, school performances. She took care of us and kissed our “owies” when we got hurt. She worried over us and saved her salary to help my brother and I get through college without loans.

Speaking of college, she drove me across the country — was it twice, Mom? — to go to school in Tennessee. Once there, she bought me a mini fridge and a microwave and new bedding so I’d be comfortable in my new “home away from home.” She always wanted the best for me.

Mom liked to play. I remember people-watching with her at the airport or mall, or any time we had downtime in a public place. “Everyone looks like a different animal,” Mom told my brother and me. “And people look like their pets.” And so we’d sit and determine what animals different people looked like, and especially those who were toting their pets.

Mom was artistic. She had impeccable taste and the eye of an interior decorator. She knew how to make everything in a space “just right,” and to this day walking into her house is like walking into a model home. She could paint and draw, and she created magnificent booths at our school’s Fall Festival every year. She was also known for her amazing gift-wrapping skills. At Christmas we always joke that we don’t want to open our gifts — they’re too pretty!

My beautiful picture

Mom and me at Halloween a few years ago. ;)

In short, Mom was everything a mother should be, and much, much more, and her greatest gift to my brother and I was (and is) the time she’s given us throughout our lives. These days Mom and her husband Ron live in California, my “forever home,” and thus I didn’t get to have brunch with them this morning. I did, however, get to FaceTime them, and I was reminded that there’s truly no place like home — and by “home” I mean family!

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! I love you!

P.S. Yes, in case you were wondering, my mom and I are a lot alike!

the trouble is . . .

“. . . you think you have time.” — Buddha

I tried to write a blog post tonight. I really did. I had it all written out, but then my formatting was off, and I didn’t know how to fix it, and then I somehow erased it, and I just don’t have TIME to redo it all now.

My post, incidentally, was about “time,” and I was going to share the below video. The clip is somewhat cliché, but it hones in on how precious time really is and how too often we waste it.

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Continue reading

the assimilation effect

Happy Cindo de Mayo!! Cheers! Err . . .  I mean, Salud! Err . . .

Oh, wait. You mean, that was yesterday? Ohhh, crap.

(Ugh, I have a headache! And who are you? And where are my shoes?!)

Lol, okay, so the above did not happen to me this morning. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I celebrated Cinco de Mayo. I’m not much a tequila drinker, and I’m too much of an introvert for rowdy parties. My idea of a wild night is running and looking for household items at discount stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s. 😂

That said, while I was out running and looking for household items at discount stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s (yes, that’s really how I spent Cinco de Mayo), I couldn’t help noticing how busy Abuelo’s Mexican Restaurant in West Knoxville was until late last night. American’s sure do enjoy celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day!

Oh, wait. Say, whaaa? You mean that’s not what Cinco de Mayo is about? Continue reading

ain’t nobody got time fo’ that!

It’s been a weird week, y’all. Yes, I said “y’all.” I still say it consciously, but it flows easier than it used to.

But my final paper is done (that was my ENTIRE DAY Wednesday) and the realization that I don’t have classes next week is finally hitting me . . . Oh don’t get me wrong — I still have work to do. Gotta pay bills somehow. But I don’t have to manage school AND work.

Breathe . . .

Except, oh, there’s that long book list for my class next semester that I really gotta get going on. And there’s the travel plans home I still need to make. And there’s my dryer that’s not working (apparently the vent wasn’t designed properly), and the faucet out front that’s only a drip, drip, drip.

So much for washing my car.

Ughhh.

There’s also the races I still need to sign up for and the training I need to do.

So WHY am I sitting at my computer?!

Because, really, this is how I feel about all of it!*

*I would add “spiders” and “research papers” to this list!

Hope your weekend is off to a great start! :D

May the 4th be with you . . .

the power of “real”

Or, why Shift has necessarily evolved into a “personal blog.”

To write or not to write, that is the question.

Actually, no. That’s not the question. The answer is always, “Write.” There’s no point in asking questions you already know the answer to. (Unless, of course, you’re asking to reaffirm what you already know. In that case, by all means, ask the question . . . )

No, the question is: what to write about?

Soooo many things.

There are the controversial, disheartening topics, of course — the Cosby verdict, the Trump administration, the Waffle House shooting, the Kate Middleton vs. Meghan Markle comparisons . . . Or there is the avoidance of these subjects: the travel posts, the love poems, the movie reviews, the short fiction. There is a place for all of these, certainly, but lately it seems I’ve been trending towards my own life experience.

Why? Maybe because my life experience is the only thing I can claim to be an expert on. And, also, maybe because I’m tired of bullsh*t.

Interestingly, I didn’t start Shift with the term “personal blog” in mind. I started it to share stories from my time abroad. As time has gone on, however, I’ve realized: how can good writing be anything but personal? Everything we do is personal, and to deny the power of our experience is to negate our humanity and potency as people. There is power in vulnerability: vulnerability is the bridge to connection.

That said, vulnerability is also scary as sh*t.

brene-brown-quotesTake, for example, my last post. Do you think it was easy for me to admit that I didn’t receive an offer of funding the first time I applied to school? Hell no! It was embarrassing and made me feel “less than.” But I thought it was worth sharing because, well, what’s the value of a goal if it’s not worth fighting for?

In fact, the more terrified I am after I post something, the better my writing usually is, and the better my post is received. I find this telling. Readers can sense pretense and appreciate authenticity. At least I know I do . . . I also get tired of reading articles about things I should and shouldn’t be doing or concepts that are plain common sense. Give me something real, people. Don’t give me guilt trips.

Of course, this world is a scary place, and I would never “bare all” on my blog. Oversharing does not equal vulnerability, and there are obvious lines that should not be crossed. But the walls we build and the facades we live behind are toxic to ourselves and our fellow humanity. I have never felt better than, when admitting something I’ve struggled with on my blog, I’ve managed to touch someone else.

It makes me feel less alone.

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Note: In trying to uncover images to accompany this post, I’ve found quite a few quotes from researcher Brené Brown and others that resonate with me. I’m sharing them here for your perusal.

 

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All images courtesy of the world wide web. Featured image by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep.

 

lemonade, anyone?

There’s that saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Haha, we laugh. Sure. I don’t even like lemonade, but you got it.

Life has given me a lot of lemons over the past ten years.

Yeah, yeah. “Look for the positive — focus on the good!” Isn’t that the other phrase we hear? Easy to say, much easier said than done.

But still we try. Or at least we move on. Or at least we keep getting up every morning, putting two feet on the floor, and shuffling towards the door. We go through the motions without a clear picture of where we’re going — just knowing that this is what we’re supposed to do, this is how to escape the fog and move towards the light.

Someday things will make sense.

We hope.

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Stairway into the fog at Dalmaji Hill, Busan, South Korea, taken on my trip in 2011.

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A detail I never fully explained was why, as a California native, I chose to go to graduate school in Tennessee. Sure, I like Tennessee (I did go to college here), but . . . Move away from my family? Move back to the humidity? Why would any fine-haired new aunt choose to do that? (My hair is incorrigible here, and I miss my nephew so much!)

A simple reason: finances. When I was looking into graduate school, I knew I couldn’t afford to do it on my own. I didn’t want to go deep into student loan debt, so I looked into programs with assistantships that offered funding. UT was one of these, and when I was accepted, I was thrilled. But there was a catch. I’d been accepted to the program, but I hadn’t been offered funding.

Well, damn.

So last April I flew to Tennessee and met with the program’s director and, together, we hatched a crazy plan. I’d move to Tennessee, start school on my own, and reapply for funding in spring. If I got it, I’d be fully funded for the following two years. If I didn’t, well . . . I’d be back to square one.

Well — deep breath — go.

Fast-forward one year and here I am in Tennessee and for months I’ve been waiting to hear if I got funding. I wasn’t on the initial offer list (that was heartbreaking), but as everything shook out, I found out recently that I was, in fact, offered funding for next year.

There is a God, lol.

No, seriously. I’ve had my doubts.

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An optimistic view of Knoxville, looking west. Taken on a ride a couple days ago.

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It’s been all sunshine here in Knoxville for the past couple of days, and yesterday on my drive to class — in my beloved 18-year-old Jetta, sunroof open and windows rolled down — I couldn’t help feeling something I haven’t felt in a very long time: optimistic. I’m still scared sh*tless most days. The future is murky and there’s still sadness behind and a resistance to letting go and always the very real chance of being let down again (and again, and again and again and again). But somewhere in there I hope tenacity is rewarded. Grit is its own strength. And life experience — in all of its varieties — is what connects us.

It’s what’s connected me to you.

Lemonade? Anyone?

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*Lemonade image credit to Smirnoff.com

what i wanted to say

I’m struggling to write what I want to today. You see . . .

Some of you have said I’m a good writer. Sometimes I think I am. Some you have suggested I write a book. Sometimes I’ve thought about it. (My rock-climbing accident would make a good story.) Sadly, though, I struggle with descriptive writing. I can write personal pieces all day long, but story-telling? Honestly, I suck.

The fact is I need to read more, and read good authors — people like Dickens, and Tolkien, and Hemingway. I need to read authors who paint big pictures and create even bigger characters. I need to read writers who know what they’re doing.

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“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Can that be?

It was encouraging this past week, though, when I was admitted into a creative writing class despite not having taken the prereq. It’s the only graduate writing course being offered next semester, and while my program isn’t writing-specific, I can tailor it to my interests. This class required the prereq or approval from the instructor, so I contacted the teacher recently and sent her some writing samples. She took a few days but finally sent this response:

Jessica,

You are welcome to sign up, but with the warning that the other students in the class are graduate MFA and PhD students and are more advanced. Of course, that means you can learn more that way. I always choose musicians to play with who know more than I do.

You have my permission.

Professor —

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Life is about taking chances, and the world of graduate school has been one of the biggest and most intimidating chances I’ve taken so far. I applied four times before finally being accepted and talked recently with another classmate about her own graduate journey. She has an MFA in non-fiction creative writing (something I’d like to do) and participated in multiple writing workshops at UCLA just to create a writing sample for her applications . . . and even then she was only accepted to one of the schools to which she applied.

Oh. My. Word.

(Side note: So then how does most of the garbage in the literature sections of grocery stores and airports today get published? I don’t get it!)

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And so, yes . . . Anyway . . . My point is . . .

I’m a decent writer, but I’ve got a long way to go, and sometimes I can’t write what I want to, even when I try. I swear, though, that sometime I’ll get around to writing a description of Hanoi, and how I met my friend K- , and about the package my friend P- sent me, and about the real reason that Facebook is worth it to me . . . I’ve just got to get through a few other things — like the research paper I’m supposed to be working on or the sprint triathlon I was talked into doing tomorrow morning (when there’s a 100 percent chance of rain) — first. Aye aye aye!

Happy weekend, all!

poipet..

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we’re just a little unwell

Gone are the days of face-to-face interaction, when being social actually meant talking to someone — in person.

I have this love-hate relationship with Facebook. Some of you know what I’m talking about. On the one hand, it allows me to stay in touch with friends I’ve made at various points in my life around the globe. I have friends from grade school, friends from abroad, friends I’ve made blogging. With some of Facebook’s newer features like the “Calendar,” I can discover local events I wouldn’t otherwise know about, including races to participate in and concerts to attend. It’s fun to watch my friends’ kids grow and neat to see what people are up to.

That said, Facebook can also be a terrible thing. It can be a time suck, a comparison trap, an excuse for and detractor from “real” relationships, and an overall waste of life. It’s “On this day” feature sucks at differentiating between good and painful memories, and sometimes it makes me feel plain old. It’s been EIGHT years since such-and-such? I swear that was just yesterday!

I haven’t ever delved into Instagram or Tumblr and haven’t spent much time on Twitter. At some point these platforms just seem like another thing to check, another waste of life. Sadly, I think I’m going to become one of those “out of touch” middle-aged people who’s still blasting Matchbox 20 like they’re cool when it’s actually Drake who’s popular now.

Oh, and of course there’s that whole discussion about how much of our personal information Facebook has — how nothing in our lives is private anymore . . .

Countless studies have been done showing the negative effects of social media on people and society, and yet it’s apparent social media isn’t going away any time soon. I have no idea how I’ll handle social media if I ever have kids. When I was in school, a boy had to call and talk to my DAD in order to get a hold of me after school. These days, I don’t even have a landline!

And so, am I nostalgic for the “olden days”? Maybe a little. My friend Sam posted this music video online the other day. Matchbox 20 released “Unwell” as a single fifteen years ago. Sheesh. The funny thing? The song’s message is just as relatable now as it was back then, if not more so. Some things never change.

These days I try to keep my time on facebook and other social media to a minimum.
What about you? What’s your relationship with social media?

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*Images Institute Al Islam and Study Breaks magazine

where i’m at

I’m surprised y’all are reading me, honestly. Lately it seems I only write crazy dialogues with myself, or I preach — to myself. I’ve always believed people are more alike than different (culture is extrinsic rather than intrinsic, at least initially), and so it is perhaps validating if you can relate to my absurdity. But . . . Really — I’m sorry.

That adult-child piece, though — the idea that when we were kids we thought adults had things all figured out . . .

Oh, honey.

As I have aged, life has (sadly) gotten more rather than less complex. This is of course inevitable as a person assumes self-reliance in adulthood, but I sometimes wonder if the modern world and its Internetopia hasn’t exaggerated this complexity. Now not only am I aware of what was once the “Great Unknown,” the Great Unknown is also available at the opening of an Internet browser. I can access the world with my fingertips.

And not only that, as an adult, I’ve become increasingly aware of the world within. We are emotional creatures with the capacity for both great love and great darkness. The things that make us “us” start when we are young, but it is as we grow and grapple with our genetic and cultural makeup that we can make decisions about who we will become. I myself have struggled with feelings of inadequacy. Why? Many reasons, but it is up to me to determine what to do with those feelings. I have one life to live. Why should I spend mine trying to meet others’ standards?

This is where that “why” I’ve mentioned comes in. If I am tuned into my own values — the morals I learned as a child and the passions that make me “me” — and if I listen to my gut on a daily basis, then I should have nothing to apologize for. I’m me, and I’m on a journey. If you’re not interested in joining the ride, then please, move along. (Easier for a “pleaser” like me to say than do!)

I didn’t make it to my trash clean-up this morning. I wanted to — both for humanitarian and social reasons — but I’m realizing that sometimes it’s okay to take a day off. I needed to write this post as much as I need to think. And to breathe. I hope that, wherever you are, you’re taking a day off and taking care of yourself this weekend, too.

 

 

friday night frenzy

If I were to open my heart I’d say a lot of things right now. Things like, “It’s Friday, folks. Hip hip hooray!”

Only it’s raining. And I volunteered to pick up trash tomorrow — in the rain. Ohhh, goodie.

Put your money where your mouth is.

No, really. It won’t be so bad. My friends will be there. I can sleep when we’re done. Really.

If you say so.

I say so. Except . . . When I was a kid, I thought my parents had it all figured out. I thought that when I grew up, I’d have it all figured out, too.

Oh, honey.

I know. I know.

Speaking of “honey,” people say funny things in the South. Like “Sweet Pea.” And “you’uns.” And “y’all.” And I realized tonight: I’m getting used to it. It will feel strange to visit California and not hear, “You’uns ain’t done nothin’ wrong, y’all ‘ear?” or “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” . . .

. . . It’s not so different from listening to Mandarin in Asia, actually. It was strange to return home and understand conversations around me then, too.

Is that so? Hmm . . .

Conversations are great, yes. But what about communication?

You would ask.

Communication is key — in everything. It’s why we can’t just all get along. We don’t seek to listen and understand before first being heard. This goes for everyone.

And me too. Me too.

But . . . “home.” What is home? Is it the bed upon which we lay our head? The person with whom we don’t hold back? The thing we’re really good at? People boast that their homes are the BEST EVER. But have they traveled the world? Have they seen everything it has to offer?

They don’t have to. Home is where they’re comfortable.

I see, I see. But not for me. Home is where my heart is, but it’s more than that, too.

SO much more.

SO.

I should really go to bed. But I have dishes to do and wars to fight first. (This poem inspired me the other night, though. Lord knows I need to lay off the Pledge®.)

dust if you must

 

 

 

 

 

 

walking my “why”

The truth is I lied in my last post. My trouble with blogging isn’t work. It’s time management.

Sure, sure — we all have this problem. Who ever does everything they’re supposed to exactly when they’re supposed to do it? Almost no one. That’s human nature — and life. But this flaw has perhaps been exaggerated in my case since moving to Knoxville. I work from home for a company on the west coast. I have class in the middle of the day. I’ve always been a night owl . . .

You see where I’m going with this.

It’s a fine thing to have flexibility and down time, but there comes a point where structure is good, too. Kids need routines and schedules, and so do adults. I like needing to be places and feeling productive. I like feeling like I’m a part of something in a meaningful way.

I’ve talked a lot about happiness on my blog — what it is compared to what we think it is. I’m come to see that happiness is multi-faceted. It’s not enough just to be thankful for what you have. Happiness is not about possessions or wealth. Happiness is much more than that, and part of it is “walking your why” and feeling like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.

Take, for example, the families who have been displaced in places like Syria or Rohingya. Many of these people have nothing except the clothes on their backs. Surely these people are suffering, but something that keeps them going — something that keeps all of us going — is the idea that a better future is within their grasp, that somehow they can create a better life for their children.

But why do I bring up refugees? Why not talk about the Yale graduate who left a prestigious law firm to help save women from human trafficking? Or the CEO who left the big business to start a program to help the homeless? Or myself who moved across country to start school to become a teacher? Those are the kinds of stories you were expecting, right?

Why? Because happiness isn’t limited to “first world” nations, folks. Take a look at that smiling Syrian baby above. Is he not the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? Indeed, some of the happiest people I’ve ever met were in countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Imagine how much simpler your own life would be if you didn’t have all of those “things” to worry about and bills to pay? How much easier would it be to live in the moment? We underestimate the toll some of our privileges take on our overall well-being.

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In her talk on emotional agility, which I mentioned previously, psychologist Susan David talks about the importance of living our lives according to our values when it comes to our happiness. And I feel like that’s what’s really missing here. I say I want to get to bed earlier. But do I? I wake up much more satisfied with myself the next morning when I do! We say we want to help others. But do we? We’re much happier when we volunteer at that food kitchen, or reach out to that silent coworker, or take a leap of faith and make that career change — in other words, when we listen to our gut and think outside of ourselves — yes, when we follow through!

My challenge to myself this Easter weekend is to challenge my habits and actions that are not in line with my true values. I desperately want to be a better person and to “walk my why” on a daily basis. Don’t you?

Just food for thought on this beautiful Easter weekend. And . . . Speaking of “whys” . . . Now that I’ve got this blog post done ;) . . . I’ve got a five-page paper to write, so I guess I’d better get going on that, too!

the ragnar report

I should have written this post a few days ago. I tried. But this darn thing called “work” kept getting in the way.

Ragnar was amazing. I didn’t expect it to be. In fact, in the weeks leading up to the event, I was worried about sleep deprivation and missing work and school and wondered why I’d signed up.

What is Ragnar? you might ask. Up until a year ago, I had no idea, either. Ragnar is a multi-stage, point-to-point relay race in which teams of 12 runners (or fewer, if you’re crazy) cover 200ish miles in one straight shot. Teams typically split up between two vans and stagger shifts of runners. Van 1 has runners one through six; Van 2 has runners seven through twelve. When your van isn’t running, it’s either eating or sleeping — or trying to! Ragnar Tennessee goes from Chattanooga to Nashville and covers everything from mountain climbs to farmland to city scapes. It was an amazing way to see Tennessee, but even more, it was an opportunity to meet some incredible people.

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Outside the Blue Chair coffee shop after our first run

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Continue reading

wide awake

The night before the race, late. Too late to write; too late to sleep.

If only you knew,
How often I think of you . . . 

How many sleepless nights,
How many thoughts per hour, day, week . . .

If I had time to write all my thoughts, I’d have written a book by now — a blog post a day, maybe two.

Instead my thoughts are scattered; my time, full.
I’m off on adventures, trying to forget you,
Looking for the day I no longer think of you.

After all, you’ve forgotten me.

(A bunch of poetic lines, just erased, which didn’t rhyme or have a real place.)

Yes, somehow I’ll get through.
I’ll find the new me,
I’ll find a way . . .

But I’ll always miss you.

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I’m running Ragnar Tennessee this weekend with a group of friends and acquaintances from college. The race covers the nearly 200 miles between Chattanooga and Nashville, with each team member covering three legs totaling anywhere from 14 to 21(ish) miles each. It’s an overnight race. You don’t stop until you reach your destination. It’s going to be cold. It might thunderstorm. It’s going to be exhausting. It’s going to be fun.

When in doubt, pedal (or run) it out. It’s always worked for me!

(Hope all of you out there are gearing up for a good weekend — and hopefully get more rest than me!)

enough

Inadequate. That’s how I feel every time I sit down at the page.

Every time I put on running shoes.

Every time I open an email.

I’m not enough, ‘nough, ‘nough, but I’ll be damned if I give in. Every day is a fight against the great unknown, the land within.

There are people for that, they say . . . you whisper . . . They can help. They can help.

I knowww . . .

But I’m doing fine on my own. I’ve got my boxing gloves and heart of steel, my line of defense, my reason. I don’t need your Zoloft.

But how did you get here? Your peers are fine. They’ve got kids of their own now. Careers. Homes. You never wanted that, anyway. You were a woman with purpose, not a “Mom!!!”

That doesn’t mean I wanted to be alone.

But you’ve got it so good. Remember Taiwan when it was 100 million degrees and you didn’t have air-conditioning? When you didn’t have a place to wash your clothes? When you didn’t have an oven? You have SO MUCH to be thankful for.

And I am. I am . . .

. . . But if I have all of these things, and if I’m still struggling, is it my fault? Is it yours? Is it society’s?

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

True enough, but try again. That’s others’ problem, not mine. I think often of the Syrian and Rohingyan refugees, the Bangladeshis, the Cambodians. I’ve seen them. Seen their lives. Felt them. I have so much to be thankful for, and I’d give it up in an insta—

—So easy to say. Would you? Would you, really?

YES.

And?

And yet.

Thankful is not enough. Purpose. Life is about purpose. What is the mother when her children leave the nest? What is the rich man on his dying day? What is the triathlete when the race is over? What REALLY matters?

Granted, I AM alone. I’m NOT a mom. I have TIME to think these thoughts, on my bed in my apartment in Tennessee — where the birds “sing pretty” and the rebel flag flies high. (Who knew the North-South controversy was still so strong? Not this California girl.) Why can’t we look for our similarities instead of our differences? Why does white privilege have to exist? Why must women be forced fight for their rights? If you really stop to think about it, it’s all SO DUMB.

But it IS real, and it IS relevant — just like the mother in rags living in a cardboard box in India. She’s only 23 but she looks 35. Her children will always be beggars. This is the caste they’ve been given, the lot they have won — just by being BORN.

The 16-year-old in Southern California whose grandma got liposuction, permanent makeup, and a boob job is real, too. LOOK like the stars, kiddo. That’s the real reason you’re here.

It’s a big world out there, they say. Shoot for the stars. Follow your heart.

But what happens when the stars forget to shine, and your heart breaks before you begin?

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I’m gonna go for my run now. Wish me luck!

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I went to a “Poetry Slam” last night — basically an open mic session for people to share their poems, which also included a performance by the American poet Buddy Wakefield. I’d never heard of Buddy before, but apparently he’s a pretty big deal. He’s performed on BBC, HBO, ABC and won Individual World Poetry Slams in recent years. His work is powerful; much of it is dark. I like the powerful part — not so much the darkness. I’m not sure I agree with his worldview, but I bought his book and liked how he signed it. He hit a nerve close to home, as you can see.

what is happiness?

I don’t know how others do it. I mean . . .  We’re all different, I get that. But some people can churn out blog post after blog post no matter what else is going on in their life. I’m not like that never have been. When I’m “down,” I shut down. I can’t write about something I’m not focused on.

This would be true even if I had a blog about cooking. Or knitting. Or cycling. I mean, who cares about power meters or crème brûlée when your personal life is falling apart?

In a recent TED Talk, psychologist Susan David of Harvard Medical School says society has trained us to either judge ourselves for having so-called ‘bad emotions’ things like sadness, anger, or grief or to actively try to push these feelings away. “Normal, natural emotions are now seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and being positive has become a new form of ‘moral correctness’ . . . People with cancer are told to ‘just stay positive.’ Women, to ‘stop being angry’ . . . But when we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

A friend of David’s who recently died of cancer put the problem poignantly this way before she passed: “What it starts to do is implicate me in my own death, like somehow I’m culpable for not thinking my way out of ill health.”

 

. . . Well, okay. But you’re not dying of cancer, Jess. (Sheesh, Jess. Get a grip!) And outlook is everything, right? Like I stated in my last post, how you see yourself and what you put out into the universe is what you get back, right? There is always something to be thankful for.

Well, yes. And yes, and yes, and yes. But can you do all of these things and still remain true to yourself? Is it possible that sometimes your best self is the one that’s sad because something didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped? The one that’s disappointed because you didn’t get the position you applied for? The one that’s grieving because your relationship ended? Life isn’t all cupcakes and roses.

I suppose I’m often silent because I feel I have to choose between writing something positive and not writing at all, and because the last thing I want is to either a) appear to be looking for sympathy (we’re all going through something), or b) to hear, “Cheer up!” or “Hope things look up for you soon,” or “Tomorrow is another day!” Because folks, no. The only thing that’s guaranteed is now, and like it or not, happiness is not a goal. Happiness is a byproduct of living according to our values and striving to be our personal best through the good and the bad. Happiness is showing up and working through life’s problems authentically, recognizing that life is rarely if ever ideal but that there is beauty in its fragility.

Ironically, then, happiness doesn’t always mean being happy, just as courage doesn’t mean being without fear. I liked the way David described courage in her talk. She said, “Courage is fear walking.” I would even take it a step farther and say that happiness is courage. Incidentally, then, it is also within our control.

I don’t know about you, but at the end of my life I want to be able to look back and know I did the best I could to leave the planet a better place. Lately I’ve worried about whether or not I’m achieving that goal, but in this world of false positivity, David’s words give me hope. “Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”

With courage, I will find the light at the end of my tunnel. Happiness is my authenticity and the torch I’ll take with me to show the way.

The above is a preview of David’s TED Talk. The full TED Talk, which is less than 17 minutes, can be found here. She also has an interesting free Emotional Agility quiz, which you can access here. It takes less than five minutes to complete and aims to help readers make everyday choices and live their lives with more intention and insight.