Asking the right question is powerful. Answering it honestly is a superpower. Good questions unlock doors and windows in our minds and hearts, and honest answers allow light into dark, dank, haunted places within us.
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For me, part of the magic of good questions is the challenge to think bigger and more creatively. Questions help me focus on problem-solving.
Life is all about problem-solving.
So, here are three questions. The first is from Joshua Becker on Becoming Minimalist. The others were inspired by his post:
If I didn’t have this thing, what would I use instead?
If I wasn’t doing this activity, what would I do instead?
If I wasn’t investing my time, energy, and power here, where would I invest them instead?
In the first questions, the thing, whatever it is, may be something you’re not using in the first place. But if you are, or you think you are, or you have, or you think you might need to sometime in the future, ask yourself if you didn’t have it, what would you use in place of it?
If I didn’t have this apple corer, what would I use instead?
A good kitchen knife is multipurpose. An apple corer is not.
If I didn’t have a TV habit, what could I do instead?
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Spend actual face-to-face time with someone. Read a book. Take a walk. Play with pets. Exercise. Play a game. Go outside.
If I wasn’t consumed and exhausted by stress, anxiety, toxic mimics, or unhealthy relationships, what could I have energy for?
I don’t suggest a ban on apple corers or TV. These questions are not weapons with which to make ourselves bad and wrong. The point is that asking the questions reminds us we are making choices and gives us a chance to consider whether or not our choices are adding value to our lives and taking us in the direction we want to go.
Do we really need a bigger kitchen to house our collection of apple corers and other gidgets and gadgets that do the work of a good knife?
Do we really need three, or six, or nine different streaming services and a steady diet of however many hours of TV a day?
If we ask and answer these questions intermittently during our day, what might we learn about which activities and objects are useful and valuable and which are not? How would our relationships look through the lens of these questions, beginning with our relationship with ourselves?
This is the old French story about Bluebeard. Once his young wife looked in the forbidden room and saw all his former headless brides, she couldn’t unsee it. There was no going back.
This kind of self-inquiry is a choice. We may not want to. We may not be willing to. That’s OK. Life has a way of increasing the pressure until we are forced to go in the direction of our fear and resistance. On the other hand, maybe you’re a person with no emotional, physical, or thought clutter. Maybe you have no time-wasting coping mechanisms and habits. Maybe your kitchen drawers are clean, functional, mouse free, and contain nothing but a few useful multipurpose tools you use regularly. Maybe all your relationships are perfectly healthy. Good for you! I’m jealous.
My life (and my kitchen) is messier than that. I spend too much time and energy in non-useful activities, and even more time and energy being hard on myself for it. I worry, and make up stories, and work hard to stay defended and hidden.
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If I didn’t spend time playing online solitaire in an effort to manage uncomfortable feelings or fatigue, what could I do? Write? Take a walk? Relax with a book? Dance? Journal? Talk to a friend? Scrub a floor?
It’s not that solitaire is necessarily bad. The question is, would another activity be better? A walk takes care of exercise; spending time outside; and spending undistracted time with myself or a friend, pet, or loved one. A walk is a multipurpose activity. Solitaire is not.
I need a good kitchen knife. I need to be outside and exercise.
Do I need an apple corer and online solitaire?
(Well, no. But maybe I want them. That apple corer is mine (this is called the endowment effect). I paid good money for it! Maybe I used it once. Maybe I’ll use it again one day. I deserve to relax and take a break now and then. Solitaire is better than TV or a social media habit. It doesn’t hurt anyone. I need some downtime in my day.)
I’m not here to argue with you. I want you to have what you need. I want what I need, too.
In Controlling People by Patricia Evans, I read about group control connections. She compares and contrasts healthy groups with unhealthy ones.
As social beings who need connection, humans form many kinds of groups: family, tribal, cultural, religious, political, formal, and informal.
Healthy groups, according to Evans, bond together for, not against, others. In this type of group, members are open to information exchange, questions, and learning, not only among group members, but with other groups. Healthy groups support their members and do not work to harm others. Such groups are dynamic, flexible, and consistent. Group members build trust, respect, and integrity. They communicate clearly. They don’t pretend they can define others. They don’t need to win and be right and they understand the value of diversity. They seek to share power. They understand interconnection. Unhealthy groups bond together against another person or group. They are not open to information, questions, or learning. Unhealthy groups pretend they can define others. They make up derogatory labels and apply them liberally. Unhealthy groups generate sweeping generalizations, memes, and disinformation. The bond in these groups is based on an agreement, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, to act against authentic persons to sustain an illusion the group is invested in. Such groups employ coercive tactics like silencing, scapegoating, deplatforming, and tribal shaming. They employ black-and-white, either/or thinking. They seek power over others, and these groups are often led by an authoritarian leader who rigidly controls group activities and expects absolute obedience.
Discerning the difference between these two groups is tricky. Individuals and groups don’t necessarily state their agendas honestly. An organization or group may say their purpose is to work for equal rights (healthy) when in fact they seek to disempower others in an effort to increase the power of the in-group (unhealthy).
Working for equal power, or a more level playing field, is entirely different from the intention to grab more power at the expense of others.
A key to assessing the true purpose and health of any individual or group is consistency, and judging consistency requires close observation and time. A disconnect between words and actions is a visible red flag.
Another key is the position of power a group or individual takes. Not their stated position, but their active position. A group working for equal rights and power, or working to support a disadvantaged or threatened group against power predators, is not a hate group. Calling it so doesn’t make it so.
An individual or group operating out of integrity will be consistent in their words and actions over time. Integrity doesn’t mean perfection in expression or action. It means the individual or group are honest and thoughtful about their purpose and goals and endeavor to focus their actions in effective ways that serve the whole, not just their own interests.
The ability to judge the difference between healthy and unhealthy groups has never been more important. Many people are swept up in unhealthy groups because they’re starving for connection and don’t have the skills to assess the situation. Leaders of unhealthy groups are often charismatic, glib, attractive liars and manipulators, seductive wolves looking for sheep. They do not share power.
Such people are invariably inconsistent in their words and actions, and a close look reveals it. Ideology supported by coercion and gaslighting is dangerous.
If we seek loyalty, trust, respect, creditability, and to positively influence others, we must demonstrate consistency. If we seek to contribute ideas, art, or material products to the marketplace, we must be consistent.
If we seek to be part of healthy groups and connections, and we believe in equal rights, opportunity, and justice for all, we have a responsibility to maintain integrity and consistency, and demand it from others. Ours is not the only story. Ours are not the only needs. Our personal power is not the only power that matters.
As I implemented the holistic planning process earlier in the year, the first step was defining the whole I was trying to manage. I continue to feel challenged as I remember to include my needs in the whole. My default has always been to work harder in pursuit of goals, but now I recognize the wisdom of working smarter instead.
Last week I read a post titled ‘Do You Like the Person You are Becoming?’ by one of my favorite minimalists, Joshua Becker. His piece doesn’t focus on needs, but on how we feel about who we are in the context of our lives and projects.
Something about his language cut right to the heart of my struggle to hold onto my own hand as I go forward into the future.
I feel a lot of movement right now. The season is part of it, with its new growth and hope. Pandemic limitations are relaxing and human affairs flow more “normally.” Personally, I’ve had some new opportunities, some of which I engaged with and some of which I didn’t. I’m involved with an exciting new creative project (more about that later).
At the same time, balance is hard. I squeeze the last minute out of every hour and berate myself when I feel unproductive. The gardens and yard cry out to me, but I haven’t spent more than an hour playing with them. If I work hard creatively all day, I feel too drained to exercise. If I exercise and choose to be more active, I’m unhappy with my creative progress.
Now, more than ever before, I simply can’t do it all.
Writing has made me confident, authentic, joyful and playful.
Which woman do I like better? Whom do I want to live with and see in the mirror?
The fact is I could meet all my needs and still not like myself. I could have chosen to make more money, but I would have liked myself less.
Learning to love myself has been an incredible journey, one that saved my life.
I have no intention of going backwards.
Another tenet of minimalism is understanding the feeling we don’t have enough space and time doesn’t mean we need more space and time. It means we need less stuff and fewer things to do. We need to find a way to make our lives easier, not harder.
We need to love ourselves enough to create a meaningful, joyful life with plenty of space and time.
Maybe, as I begin my day, the question is not what I want and need to accomplish, but what choices will make me like myself better than I did the day before.
Can it be done? Is it possible to lead a balanced, vibrant life, full of texture and joy, keep an adequate roof over my head, and create a more secure future while doing the work I love, all while loving the person I am?
(I finally know what I want to be when I grow up! Not only what I want to do, but who I want to be!)
In this age of disinformation, misinformation, and connectivity, it’s ironic that some of the most emotionally intelligent among us are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Such people have a twisted mastery of emotional intelligence; enough to successfully manipulate and recruit others behind lies, postmodernism and ideology, but not enough to use constructively.
We are evolved to be emotional creatures, and the combination of our feelings and intellect is powerful, but we must maintain a balance of both. Feelings without the tempering effect of information will often lead us astray. Intellect without feelings abandons traits that make us human, such as intuition and compassion.
Belief is built on trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something, and once we establish a belief, we think of it as part of our identity. However, true identity is not defined by our beliefs, choices, style, or preferences. Those are merely toxic mimics for a healthy identity, which evolves, changes, and expands as we learn and grow.
When influencers encourage us to mistake our beliefs for our identities, they’re wielding a powerful social tool in order to glue together communities they can manipulate. Within such communities, to question or lose confidence in a belief results in severe social sanctions intended to stifle any such challenge. Influencers work hard to control and manage both our emotions and access to information that might threaten the belief they’re selling.
Fear of being outcast effectively disables our willingness to objectively examine the beliefs our community espouses.
If we are low in emotional intelligence, our lives don’t work well. Happiness eludes us. Relationships are problematic and frequently unhealthy. We’re ignorant of our needs and thus neglect them. We become estranged from ourselves (our true identities) and lose our flexibility and resilience. We take everything personally, and fiercely protect our beliefs, no matter how damaging and illogical they are.
We stop growing and learning. We murder our curiosity and become afraid to ask questions or seek new information.
Worst of all, we are blind to the emotional manipulations of others. An appeal to our desire to heal the planet, be kind and compassionate, be tolerant and generous, pushes us into enabling the agendas of others before we’ve thoroughly researched and explored those agendas. We react to the views and criticisms of others reflexively, fearful of appearing in a bad light.
We cannot identify our power and thus fail to protect it, making it easy for others to take it away.
Many well-meaning people are duped by predators who play on their fears and/or desire to make a positive contribution to the culture and conversation. If we identify as a good person, a peaceful person, we’re deeply distressed by the accusation that we’re hateful, and will accept any kind of ideological nonsense in order to maintain our social identity. We, in turn, pass on the pressure to others. If we must believe the moon is made of green cheese in order to be accepted, others must also believe it for us to accept them.
Our lack of emotional intelligence makes our current chaos of dis- and misinformation predictable. People interested in power and control have no problem lying, and our low emotional skills make us quite vulnerable to those lies, especially when they’re presented with high emotion.
We don’t have mastery of our emotions and thus become victims.
I’m reading a book titled Controlling People, by Patricia Evans. It’s an interesting look at why some people are so controlling of others. Here’s a quote I resonated with:
“What blinds people the most to controlling behavior is the belief that the person who consistently defines them truly loves them.”
We are so often manipulated by others because we believe they have something we need. Love. Wealth. A raise or promotion. Validation. Belonging. Something.
As long as we believe anyone has something we need, we’re open to manipulation. We’ve entered the ancient archetype of prostitution. We’ll make choices based on pleasing that person in order to earn what we need.
The minute we enter into that dynamic, we’ve become disempowered, and I assure you that pleasing people never works. It always ends badly. Show me someone, no matter how beloved, who demands you please them in order to be rewarded, and I’ll show you a power predator incapable of love or being pleased.
Such people do not share power. Ever.
When you are no longer useful, you will be discarded.
Emotional intelligence empowers us to find an effective balance between feelings and information. It allows us to discard our pseudo selves and support a dynamic identity. It helps us discern the difference between someone seeking to control and disempower us with emotional appeals and someone committed to power-with and win-win, where disagreement and curiosity are not punished and we’re encouraged to think for ourselves.
I’m having a hard time keeping track of the date and day of the week. The shape of my time has changed, and my life now feels uncomfortably uncontained. I no longer navigate by my old landmarks and routines.
I notice, as I intentionally reach out to friends, that our interactions no longer revolve around weekend plans, leisure activities and local events and opportunities. I want to hear their voices, talk with them, be with them, but I have no real news, nothing that seems exciting or interesting to say. We all have projects to help us feel productive and give ourselves something to focus on, but my projects don’t feel important enough to share in any detail. In fact, after the initial question, no longer a casual politeness, but THE question: How are you? — I don’t have any sparkling conversation to offer.
Not that I’m usually a sparkling conversationalist.
And what about that question? How to answer? Yes, I am well physically and grateful to be so. Sometimes I’m scared. Sometimes I despair. I don’t feel safe out in the world. I’m infuriated and appalled by conspiracy theories, protests, misinformation and willful ignorance. I’m anxious about the future. I’m loving being outdoors and having so much time to write. I’m horrified by the sense of inescapable slow-motion collapse that I have no power to stop or alleviate.
I love all this unstructured time.
I hate all this unstructured time.
How are you? Same, same. Same as you. Same as yesterday.
But not really.
Not really, because life is not a brightly colored video game with music, sound effects, fast action and a replay button. We know that, of course, but we forget that we know it as we move faster and faster, consume more and more, race to keep up. So many of us structure our time with various kinds of instant gratifications, even if that’s just an alert that we’ve got a text message or an e-mail.
Now, all of a sudden, the plug on our video game is pulled and we’re reintroduced into a slower, more natural flow and rhythm. Events unfold subtly and sometimes invisibly. Deep forces are at work that we can only intuit.
We were informed yesterday that one of our best local long-term care facilities has a resident who has tested positive for COVID-19. Central Maine, so far, has been comparatively lucky in terms of numbers of infections and deaths, partly because we have a low population and are mostly rural, and partly due to the dedicated teamwork of our governor and CDC representative. My partner and I are very careful when we are in public, wearing masks and gloves and observing social distancing. Many others are, as well.
Some are not.
During all those same, same days last week, coronavirus was incubating, invisibly and silently, in that nursing home. It wasn’t identified until yesterday, but it was there, replicating, infecting, and probably spreading. We just didn’t know it yet.
Today, the whole facility, staff and patients, will be tested. If there are several positive tests, we’ll have an outbreak and widespread community transmission will have come to our small city.
I often have the thought, as I rake, help my partner stack firewood, plan for gardens, clean the bathroom, wash out a mask or cook a meal, that all this busyness is pointless. What’s it all for? Who’s it all for? What is the shape of the future?
Is there a future distinct from these times, or will we go on, same, same, day after day, until we grow old and die, or get sick with coronavirus, whichever comes first?
At this point in my thoughts, I find myself leaning on my rake, staring blankly at the next patch of ground to clear, or standing staring out the kitchen window with a soapy plate in my hands, and with a click time and I begin moving again.
I remind myself that of course there is a future. I simply can no longer predict the shape of it. I’m too small and too limited. Time, life, the cosmos, never stop. Change is always with us, but we’re not big enough to see or understand most of it, or it happens too slowly for us to discern, so we assume it’s not happening. We feel stuck in some unchanging, endless stasis.
There’s so much we don’t know. Sometimes all that we don’t know terrifies me, and other times it comforts me.
And there are things I do know. Life is change. Change itself is neutral. We can welcome it and work with it, or we can resist and fear it, a chocolate or vanilla choice. The small choices we’re each making in this moment are shaping the future in ways we’ll never know about or understand. The future is literally built on this moment, and we all influence it.
Raking won’t fix coronavirus, or the economy, or the terrible damage our national leadership is inflicting. It won’t shape a future I can look forward to and invest in. It’s not fast and sexy and addictive; something I’ll post on Instagram or Facebook with a selfie and get “likes” or thumbs-ups or hearts. On the other hand, it makes me happy to be outside working on the land. It keeps me strong and healthy to be in the sun and fresh air. It satisfies me to be clearing the ground for mowing. It’s an activity that’s keeping me going right now, providing fuel for my love and creativity, the best offerings I can make to others and to life.
How are you, who are reading these words? Same, same, but not really? I hope you’re well in mind, spirit and body. I hope you stay that way.
I’m raking and stacking firewood. I’m writing. I’m holding tight to my friends. I’m picking up seedlings, buying local eggs, transplanting a rose. I don’t know when I’m going back to work. I don’t know what work will look like when I do go back. I don’t know what my economic future looks like, or if we’ll be able to buy the food we need. I don’t know anything about the deep, invisible changes and currents that are always present in life and mostly hidden from my awareness. This day blurs into all the others since the day I stopped working. I have to look at the calendar to know the day of the week and date. I’m not even sure what time it is.
Outside my window, the wind is blowing, stirring the budding trees and buffeting against the house. Things are happening, visibly and invisibly, here at home, in the community, in the state, in the country, in the world. This day is different than yesterday, and tomorrow will be different again, in spite of this long, weary grind of being stuck at home and uncertain about everything. It looks the same as yesterday. It feels the same as yesterday. But it’s not the same.