Category Archives: You’ll Go to Bright Places

Stuff about life

The Mean Time of Self Improvement

It’s the middle of January now, a couple weeks after many people made resolutions for the new year.  Some of us might be nearing the reality check stage of our resolutions.  For some, it could be called a reckoning.  And some people are off to a good start with the goals they set, on track for a year of whatever it was they resolved to do.

I love goals.  I don’t exactly make resolutions on New Year’s, but I definitely indulge myself with all that fresh-start, new-me, forward thinking and planning.  I love the ambition and the taking inventory of what I want and what’s important to me.  Not even just at New Year’s, but all year long, I’m a big fan of setting goals and finding your purpose and all that.  Self improvement – or at least daydreaming about self improvement – is kind of a hobby of mine.

But if you’re a person who is currently on a self-improvement kick, and maybe especially if you’re a person who is not on a self-improvement kick but thinks you should be, I have something I want to tell you.  This is something that is important, and that I promise you is true.  The thing is this:  Whatever your goals are, however and whoever you are right now before you’ve reached those goals, and whether or not you ever reach those goals, you’re actually okay how you are right now.

It sounds stupid to just say it like that, as if it’s obvious.  But think about where you are in your life right now.  Then ask yourself when you will be okay.  And I don’t mean okay like surviving.  I mean okay like a person who really is just fine the way they are, who deserves to be happy, who deserves to be proud of their accomplishments, who deserves to love and be loved, who deserves to sleep well at night, and relax, and rejoice.  When will you be okay in that way?

If you’re like many people, you might say, “Yes, of course I’m okay now,” but you also probably feel like you’ll really, truly be just fine when you get (or quit) a certain job, or lose (or gain) some amount of weight, or graduate or start school, or get married (or divorced), or get out of debt, or clean your house, or stop smoking, etc.  There are probably ways you wish you were different, and you might be waiting for those things to change before you let yourself be loved and happy and confident.  Before you let yourself put down your shame.  Maybe even before you let yourself feel like you deserve your spot on this earth.

That’s the problem with self improvement.  It’s good to have goals, but what about the meantime?  Who are you in the meantime, before you’ve met your goals?  I call it the Mean Time of self improvement, because it’s when we’re mean to ourselves.  Most of us would never judge others half as harshly as we judge ourselves for falling short of our goals and ideal selves.  Telling yourself, whether in words or just in the emotional sense, that you are not okay, not deserving of joy or love, that you’re bad or wrong or shameful for not being or having or weighing a particular thing is mean.

And the worst part is that when it comes to self improvement, the Mean Time is always right now.  While we have goals, we’re not there yet, otherwise they wouldn’t be goals anymore.  So we’re always in the Mean Time of self improvement.  Never good enough, never worthy, never enough.  At best, we’re just waiting to be better, and for many of us we’re also carrying shame and guilt and worry about it.

So what I claim – what I promise is true – is that there isn’t anything about you that makes you unworthy of love or happiness or peace.  And you’re not doing anyone any favors by carrying around all that shame.  It’s really a lot of pain for nothing.  Hating yourself isn’t how you earn your right to your humanity.  Just being you is.  You belong here in this world, just like you already are.

If you want to change stuff about yourself, I’m not trying to discourage you.  By all means, set goals.  Set them high, and work hard at them.  And if you fail at some, keep setting goals and trying anyway.  But in the meantime, please remember that you’re already okay.  Just like this.  I promise.

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Happy For You

Are you aware of all the reasons you have to be happy?  Is it possible that you have reasons to be happy that you haven’t yet noticed?  What if you actually have billions of them?

Gratitude as an intentional practice has become popular in recent years, and it’s totally deserving of the hype.  It’s gained popularity as we’ve gained understanding of how beneficial it is to human health and happiness.  If you think about it, practicing gratitude is a way of tapping into reasons you have to be happy that you haven’t yet thought of.  Counting your blessings makes you happier.  Go figure.

I’ve recently been playing with another practice that’s similar to gratitude.  It does involve thinking of things that make me happy.  But instead of counting my own blessings, for this practice, I count other people’s.  And thinking of other people’s happiness brings me joy.  Buddhism has a term for this kind of joy, mudita in Sanskrit, often translated into English as “sympathetic joy.”  It’s the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being.  And you can practice this intentionally.

Now, your first impression of this practice might be that it wouldn’t work for you, or that it can’t possibly work for me as well as counting my own blessings does.  But I’m guessing those ideas are relying on some unchecked assumptions.  Going about our lives, we experience the world as if there are clean, solid boundaries between ourselves and others.  I’m me, and you’re you, and I have my experiences and you have yours.  No overlap.  That’s a perfectly natural way of interpreting things, but it’s erroneous.  If there are boundaries between us, I promise you they’re not as solid as they seem.

Consider whether it seems like thinking about other people’s good fortune could make you happier.  The unchecked assumption is that when good things happen to you, they’re yours, and when good things happen to me, they’re mine.  Yours couldn’t possibly benefit me personally, because they didn’t happen to me.  It would only be by some wild feat of imagination that I could feel happy about something good that happened only to someone else.  Right?

 

 

Not quite.  It does take imagination to feel happy about someone else’s good fortune, but that’s not what makes it hard.  Imagining how others feel comes very naturally to us.  When you think of something really great happening to someone else, do you ever feel jealous?  Isn’t that imagination too?  After all, you wouldn’t be feeling jealous if you didn’t imagine their experience as being something you wanted for yourself.  Or what about schadenfreude, the very useful German term for feeling happy at someone else’s misfortune?  You need to imagine what they’re experiencing to get a kick out of it.  We all imagine what other people are going through, effortlessly and all the time.

So if it’s not hard to imagine the good things happening to other people, why don’t we naturally rejoice in them?  This is where that thing about imagined boundaries comes in.  We think that we don’t get happy about those things because they didn’t happen to us personally.  But the line between what’s mine to rejoice in and what’s yours to rejoice in starts to get fuzzy when we think about different roles.  Consider a parent and a child.  If you’re a parent, you can probably remember a time that you felt personally overjoyed about something that happened to your child, that in no way directly happened to you.  Or think about fans of sports teams.  When your team wins the big game, how do you feel?  Pretty happy, right?  But nothing happened directly to you.  Nothing at all.

So whether your good fortune registers as something for me to get happy about doesn’t depend on whether I am directly affected by it.  It depends on whether I see you as “mine” or not.  “My child.”  “My team.”  “My friends.”  “My fellow Americans.”  We naturally feel happy when good things happen to our people, not just to ourselves.

So how does this increase your reasons to be happy by billions?  Because there are billions of people in this world who are more yours than you probably realize.  And this is where the practice comes in, because it’s very natural to think of “our people” in terms of relatively small groups, like a family, a school, a religion, a nationality.  But it’s possible to adjust the settings on your worldview to broaden the scope of your “in group.”  You can do this by taking time to notice that another person (any other person) wants to be happy just like you do and wants to avoid suffering like you do.  Sometimes it helps to visualize trading places with that person and really trying to feel the situation from their position.  If we realized how much like our own the suffering of other people is, we would naturally want to relieve them of it.  We would naturally want them to be happy.  So through broadening our awareness to include the joys and pains of others, we can learn see everyone is our people.  And we can learn to authentically celebrate their happiness.

 

The next time you have a minute out in the world, try thinking of three things to celebrate on behalf of other people around you.  If you’re standing in line at the grocery store, notice that the other people in line with you have enough money to buy themselves food.  Notice that they are all in good enough health that they feel like eating.  Notice that many of them are probably buying food to feed loved ones, and how wonderful it is that they care for others.  Notice that the person working the counter has a job, and that the store owner has customers to make their business successful.

Resist the temptation to dismiss these things as unworthy of celebration.  If you’re like me, your tendency will be to think of reasons why those things aren’t really so great.  Or you’ll tend to think of reasons those people don’t deserve happiness.  But don’t worry – if the reality is that the things you’re celebrating really aren’t good for some reason, that’s okay.  Your rejoicing in them won’t actually make them happen any more than they would otherwise.  And similarly, even if the person whose happiness you’re celebrating doesn’t, for some reason, deserve to be happy, don’t worry!  You rejoicing in their happiness won’t actually be the deciding factor in whether they get to be happy or not.  So you can rest easy, knowing that the burden of judging them is not yours to bear.

It’s also possible that you’ll experience a resistance to this practice that has the flavor of scarcity.  It might feel risky to rejoice in other people’s good fortune, as if in doing so, you are giving away something that you do not have enough of for yourself.  You might recognize this feeling as envy.  But this practice is not really about giving something away, and if it is, it’s about giving away an unlimited resource.  If someone else won a thousand dollars in a raffle at your work party, you can actually be happy for them without it costing you anything at all.  Your refusal to celebrate their win won’t get you any of that money.  And whether you’re just a tiny bit happy for them, or pretty stoked for them, or downright delighted that they won, the cost to you is the same.  Nothing at all.  The only difference is in how happy you get to feel.

So go out there and celebrate.  Once you start looking for other people’s blessings as well as your own, you’ll see there are literally endless reasons to be happy.  And though it may not be obvious at first, they’re all yours.  Enjoy!

 

 

Missed Connections

To the person in line next to me at the airport:  Lines were long that day, everyone traveling for the holidays.  Everyone busy and tired.  I was busy and tired.  You were busy and tired.  I had my kids with me and about three more bags than we could manage gracefully.  You were stuck in line between someone and someone else.  You looked worried, like you might miss your flight.  I noticed that when our eyes met briefly, before the line moved and I turned my focus back to bags and children.  There was something I wanted to say to you though.

To the person stocking cereal at the grocery store when I was buying oats:  You had on a name tag and black pants.  I was still in my pajamas, but I don’t know if you could tell, because I was wearing a long coat.  You apologized to me, because your cart was blocking the oats I was trying to reach.  I said, “Oh no, you’re fine,” and I waited while you moved some boxes so you could move the cart, so I could get the oats.  I usually get old fashioned, but this time I got steel cut, and then I left.  There was something I wanted to say to you though.

To the person I passed in the crosswalk on the corner of 12th and Division:  You were on your cell phone and walking quickly.  I don’t know if you noticed me.  I had a green backpack on.  I was probably also walking quickly, because it was cold out, and also, I was headed toward falafels.  I watched you walking toward me and wondered about you as you passed.  Then I went back to thinking about my lunch and getting out of the cold.  But there was something I wanted to say to you.

What I wanted to say was this:  Can you believe that we’re both people?!  Here, doing this, in these bodies, on this earth.  Of all the things we could have been or could have never been, not only did we become earth things, we became living earth things, and human earth things.  And we became humans that walk and stock and fly.  On streets, in stores, on planes made by other human earth things.

We have these eyes that come with visions, and ears that come with sounds, and these minds to take it all in.  We have ideas and destinations and priorities and curiosities.  And if you traveled through space, infinitely in infinite directions, and throughout all time, and noticed at every point along the way whether you and I were there, we would almost never be.  It was almost impossible that we would be.

And yet here we are.  Both of us people, right here and now.

If you see me again out in public, I’ll probably look busy and tired.  I probably won’t say hi, because I’m shy, and there are a lot of people.  And you might think I don’t notice you.  But what I really want to do when I see you is grab you and shake you and squeal, “Can you believe this?!  We’re both people!!”

Bury What’s Broken

Lisa is a doll I’ve had since I was very little.  My grandparents on my dad’s side lived in Kentucky, and we’d go out there to visit sometimes, often for holidays.  I’d guess it was on such a trip, a Christmas in Kentucky, that I was given this doll.  I think my grandmother gave her to me.  I can’t remember for sure.  I want to remember, but I can’t.

But I had Lisa all through childhood.  I kept her through my adolescence and young adulthood, keeping her in boxes when I moved across cities and states.  I kept her when I no longer played with dolls.  I kept her when I had children.  Maybe someday they’d play with Lisa.  I kept Lisa when my children mostly didn’t play with her.

One day, about a year ago, my daughter accidentally broke Lisa’s head right across the middle of her face, so that the top of her head with all her dark, matted hair came right off.  My daughter felt bad and sobbed as she apologized.  I said, “It’s okay.  It’s just a doll.”  I knew it was just a doll.  But it was a doll I’d carried with me through all my years.  And she came with stories.  Stories about a grandmother.  Stories about Christmas in Kentucky.  Stories that were almost as good as the memories I wished I had.

I knew it was time to let Lisa go.  Not only was she an old, ragged doll, she was now also broken.  I could look at her, with her face cracked down the middle, and clearly see that she was no longer useful.  But she hadn’t been useful to me in a long time.  And her usefulness wasn’t why I held on to her.  That’s why I’m writing this today, and not a year ago when she broke.  Yes, even after she was broken, twelve more months passed before I could let her go.

For the first few months after Lisa broke, I kept her on top of my dresser to remind myself to get rid of her.  But I didn’t, so she just sat there.  Eventually I carefully tucked her and her head into a drawer out of sight.  At least if I was going to hang on to this broken doll, I could hide her so that I wouldn’t be constantly reminded that I’m the kind of person who keeps old, useless, broken things.

Lisa’s not the only broken thing I’ve held onto since childhood.  There are so many things, so many attitudes and beliefs and behaviors, that I’ve carried with me all these years, just because they’re mine.  Things that were useful or even necessary to me long ago, so long ago I don’t even remember.  They must have served me at some time, or I wouldn’t have acquired them.  But eventually they became useless.  And then they became burdens.  Baggage.  Even hazards.  But how I clung to them.

Today I buried Lisa in my backyard.  I buried her with a note saying goodbye, to her and to every other broken thing I’ve carried since childhood that I could think of.

Perfectionism. 

People-pleasing. 

Fear of failure. 

Shame. 

I ended the note with, “I don’t need you anymore.  Thank you for being there when I did.”

Burying Lisa was messy and difficult and anticlimactic.  Maybe that’s how it is when you finally release the baggage you’ve carried since childhood.  Is that how this all goes?  You pick up something in your formative years and soon it becomes yours.  You carry it past when you need it, because it’s yours.  You hold on to it and make space for it and repeat stories about why it’s yours.  When you can no longer justify keeping it, you move it out of sight, to somewhere dark, and hope that’s the same as giving it up.  But then one day, you decide you’re no longer going to carry what’s broken just because it’s yours.  You realize it doesn’t have to be yours anymore.  Then you thank it, toss it in a hole, throw some mud on top, and without any fanfare, you walk back into the house and get on with your life.

 

 

This felt like an appropriate gesture for this time of year, with the calendar year turning over and so much focus on fresh starts and clean slates.  Out with the old.  I’m grateful to Lisa for being my doll and also for being a lesson in letting go, moving on, and growing up.  To anyone reading this, I wish you a lighter load in 2018.  May this be the year that all the broken things that burden you finally get left in the mud.

New Years Resolutions You’re Dying to Make

I made a list of suggestions for anyone out there who can’t decide on a New Year’s resolution.  (If you haven’t heard, Sunday is the very last day of 2017.)  The resolutions I’m suggesting should be relevant to anyone reading this, because they don’t presume to know anything about you, your habits, your family life, your social life, your work life, your health, or anything else that varies from person to person.  They only depend on one thing being true about you, and I already know that it is.

Before I tell you what that one thing is, I want to show you this picture of a puppy…

Aaaawww!

The thing that these resolutions depend on, and that I know applies to you, is the fact that you and everyone you know will die.  Now, if you think you should click away from this post now, because it reminds you of your impending demise, I urge you to look back at that picture of the puppy, and then go ahead and read the list of suggestions below.  You might be really glad you did.

It can be hard to think about death if you’re not used to it.  But doing so intentionally, even just for the few minutes it can take you to get your priorities in order, can make the rest of your life more meaningful and beautiful and satisfying than you ever thought it could be.  So without further introduction, here’s the list:

 

 

Suggested New Year’s Resolutions:

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When I feel angry, I will spend only as many moments dwelling on that anger as I have to spare in my finite life.

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When I feel angry at someone, I will talk to them the way I would talk to someone who is dying, because they are.

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I will only procrastinate on things that are important to me when I know for absolute certain that I have more time to do those things in the future.

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I will go outside and look at the sky and the trees and the birds and the stars and the clouds on any day that could possibly be my last day alive.

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When faced with hard decisions, big or small, I will ask myself what I will want to have chosen when on my deathbed, and I will do that.

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When stressed out, I will consider my inevitable death and decay, take a deep breath, and chill.

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When I can’t have what I want, I will look forward to the moment right before my death and notice what I will want then.  Then I will notice whether I have that now.

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I will limit my TV watching and mindless internet surfing to moments I have to spare, given that I might die any day.

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If I love someone, and they are not going to live forever, I will tell them that I love them.

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When making conversation, I will say things that are appropriate and meaningful, given that everyone present will die.

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I will only get drunk or high on days that are unimportant for me to experience, given that my days are numbered and irreplaceable.

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When I look at art or listen to music or taste food or watch the sunset, I will do so as if it is the last thing I will ever do.

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I will only be greedy with money that will be useful to me when I am dead.

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I will treat people who serve me food and/or drinks and/or who clean up after me the way I would treat someone whose whole family was dying, because theirs is.

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I will be the person I want to be remembered as.

 

 

That’s the list.  Hope you all have a very happy new year, and that you have many more to come.  Make this one count though, just to be safe.

 

P.S.  Since people generally don’t want to think about death, I knew that a post with a title that was obviously about death would not be eagerly received.  But I felt like it would be dishonest to not include anything about death, hence the title I chose.  And I think I still felt a little guilty for misleading you, so I tried to make it up to you with pictures of cute baby animals.  I hope you enjoyed looking at them.  And I’m sorry to say, they will die too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To The Racist in the Mirror

Hey, there!  I saw you in the mirror today, staring back at me with those wide, blue eyes.  Innocent expression on your pale, pink face.  “Who, me?” your look seemed to say.

As you know, I had just been playing a game of Spot the Racist.  Stuck in late afternoon Portland traffic, I had been troubled by seeing three separate cars drive by with (US)American flags flying out their windows.  It scared me.  Now, normally, I wouldn’t equate American patriotism with racism, but I couldn’t help reading those flags that way today.  They didn’t have swastikas on them or anything, but  just days after the president of the United States compared Robert E. Lee to George Washington and defended a mob of white nationalists and neo-nazis, choosing to display that flag is, at least, suspicious.  And that this appeared to be a pattern made me uneasy.

So I decided they were probably racist, and I started looking around into all the cars.  Who else here is racist? I thought.  Could I tell by looking at them?  Let’s see how many I can spot.  I was looking around, driving down the freeway at a snail’s pace, sizing up the other drivers for signs of racism.  I leaned over to adjust an AC vent, and my eyes caught the rear view mirror.  And I did a double take, because there you were.  Blue eyes.  Pale pink.  Who, me?

That’s not what a racist looks like… is it?

Now, I’ve thought about it, and I’m afraid you’re not going to like this.  I know you don’t like to think of yourself as racist.  You think everyone is the same on the inside.  You support affirmative action, prison reform and immigrants’ rights.  You’re committed to politically correct language, inclusion, intersectionality.  You didn’t vote for that evil clown in the white house.  Surely, you’re one of the good guys, right?

But you seeing yourself as some benevolent ally just because you don’t personally want to kill black people is not doing anything to dismantle white supremacy in this country.  Here’s how I could tell that you’re racist:  You’re white.  You’re a white (US)American.

(And now, let’s pause for a second while the words “NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE…” echo across the internet.  I’ll wait.)

See, racism is not a feeling you have in the privacy of your own mind.  You can, and probably do, have racist thoughts and feelings.  But racism is bigger than you, bigger than any of us.  It’s a whole system of oppression, a hateful web that’s tangled all over our culture and our country.  A self-perpetuating system that runs like clockwork.  And it’s a system that benefits you.

To say that a white person in our culture is not racist is like saying that someone who does not personally kill animals is a vegetarian.  Many people who eat hamburgers have never (and would never) kill a cow with their own hands.  They let other people do that for them.  But they still eat the burgers.  They still enjoy energy and comfort and flavor and sustenance that is a direct result of a cow getting killed.  Just not by them.

In our culture, bubbling with subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism in every corner, white people enjoy relative safety, power, health, wealth and freedom, at the expense of people of color.  Whether they believe in the system or not, they thrive on it.  There are white people who really do everything in their power not to participate in that system.  Just like there are actual vegetarians.  And I would say those white people are not racist.  But there are very, very few of them.

And, my friend in the mirror, I don’t think you cut it.  I know it hurts to hear that, but you’ve got a lot of work to do.  To you, and all your well-meaning white friends, it’s not that you’re bad people.  You grew up being fed burgers and thinking of yourself as an animal lover ’cause you walked the family dog.  Change is hard.  So don’t beat yourself up.  Just remember where your dinner came from.  And then get to work.

 

 

Afterthought:  I don’t actually think it’s particularly helpful (if at all helpful) to call people “racist.”  Racism is a system in our country that needs to be destroyed, but name-calling doesn’t do that anyway and tends to divide people.  I’m standing by this post though, because if there’s one person we (white people) could each stand to consider calling “racist”, it’s the one in the mirror.

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I Hope You Get There Soon: Love in a Traffic Jam

I have a new trick I’ve been using to help myself through hard or uncomfortable experiences.  I discovered it in a traffic jam, in a cloud of rage and rush and nerves, when a helpful thought happened to pop into my head, like a lucky little lightning bolt.  I had been worrying myself sick about not already being where I was trying to go, stuck behind a row of cars as far ahead as I could see, and knowing that I was supposed to be home to my kids by now.  I really, really need to be there, I thought.  Right now!  Bad things could happen if I don’t get there immediately.  And all this traffic, all these cars, all these people are getting in my way! 

That’s when the lucky thought came.  I thought about all those people, and I realized that it was very, very likely that one of those people, in one of those cars, there in that traffic, was actually in a greater hurry than I was.  There was probably someone who desperately needed to get where they were going, and awful things might happen because they were stuck.  I thought about all the reasons someone might be in a hurry.  An interview for their dream job.  An oven left on.  A relative dying, waiting for them to come say goodbye.  Whoever it is, whatever the reason, I thought, they must be worried sick.  They must be suffering so much right now.

I decided to try and send them a message, telepathically.  I’m not usually much of a believer in telepathy, but I had limited tools to work with, sitting in my car.  So I focused real hard (which I imagine to be an important component of telepathic communication), and I thought this message to them:

I’m so sorry you’re stuck in this traffic. 

I know how worried you are. 

I hope you get where you need to be soon. 

I hope everything’s okay for you. 

I’m here with you.

I don’t know if they got the message, whoever they were, but I do know that shifting my focus from me to them turned my whole experience around.  I went from feeling trapped, out of control, burdened and stuck, to feeling empowered, helpful, purposeful, and like I was right were I needed to be.  I can’t explain why it worked like this, but I’m telling you, it did.  It felt like medicine or something.  Somehow, that adjustment in how I was thinking had an effect that was soothing and energizing and liberating.

I’ve since tried this with other hard or uncomfortable experiences, and it consistently works well for me.  I strongly recommend trying it yourself.  Worried about money?  Imagine someone who’s in an even tougher financial spot than you are, and spend the energy you use to worry about your own money instead on hoping that other person gets everything they need.  Have a headache?  Imagine someone who’s in even more physical pain than you are, and focus on hoping they can be comfortable soon.  Fighting with a relative?  Imagine someone with an even more strained relationship with their relative, and wish them peace, space, validation, resolution.  Basically, whatever you need, wish it for someone else who needs it more.

This is not just remembering that there are other people worse off than you.  This is seeing yourself in someone you don’t even know, and actively loving that person.

Because you’re not alone in your suffering.  You’re not the only one who feels how you feel, and in all probability, there’s someone else who is going through whatever it is, having an even harder time with it.  You’re probably not the person who, even in that way, is the very worst off.

And if you are – if you’re really pretty sure that you’re in the worst position, the worst traffic, the worst heat, the worst poverty, the worst pain, out of everyone in the whole world – just think of me.  Know that that I’m out there somewhere, or someone else like me is out there somewhere, sending you support, trying to will things better for you.

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