Reverse Resolutions – 11 Reflections on 2011

Despite how awesome Woody Guthrie’s New Years resolutions from 1943 written in his own hand and with illustrations are, I’ve always been ambivalent about making them for myself.  It’s not that I don’t like to set goals, but there’s something arbitrary and artificial about setting New Years resolutions.  I admit, there is something to be said for starting with a clean slate.  My intentions seem to show up in real time, in the natural course of whatever life event or dynamic happens to be relevant and salient in some way at that time.  I am now midstream working towards some goals and I anticipate others coming up before long.  They usually don’t simply pop up on January 1.

I’m seeing all kinds of posts and comments and blog articles talking about how bad 2011 was, and looking just at the numbers (economic and otherwise) it’s not hard to see why.  The media is also talking about 2011 as The Lost Year.  To some, 2012 doesn’t show much more promise.  There is also a major election to endure when the country is already deeply divided along political, religious and cultural lines.  But of course we are an optimistic specie and we thrive on hope. The comments, posts and blogs reflect that as well.

I have to say that I had a pretty good year!  Maybe that’s an understatement so let me rephrase that.  Any year alive in anything better than debilitating suffering beats the hell out of the alternative.  In that light I had a great year!  Who knows what the New Year will bring?  Will it take us by surprise or will we reap the fruits of either our investment in ourselves, or our acts of negligence and complacency? I believe that our lives honor the level of complacency we bring to them and that sobers me right up.

My classes talk a lot about the idea that chance favors the prepared mind, that luck is “where preparation meets opportunity,” that “the harder I work the luckier I get.”  Rather than make promises to myself then, I would prefer to maximize my preparation so that I can not only recognize and seize, but create opportunity for myself. The man waiting to follow up on this essay a year from now will have something to say about how well I’ve done.  So in an effort to take full advantage of 2012 on my own behalf, let me share just some of the important things I learned in 2011, lessons that I will carry with me into this year.

1)   There is nothing more important than love.

Those who are closest to me are at the top of the list and my kids are at the top of the top.  This is not just warm fuzzy “I love you” love that feels good and attractive and emotional and gooey and only says nice things (see #2 below).  This is acknowledgment that those people are embedded and integrated into the fibers of my life at its deepest levels.  This is willingness to make choices to go out of my way to make these relationships and the people in them thrive.  We all complain at times when it feels like we are the only ones making efforts to build relationships.  Well, in some cases I need to make the effort no matter what, even if it is just me.  That’s what love is sometimes.

2) Patience is truly a virtue.

This will come as no surprise to those who know me, but I don’t know everything.  I have a lot to learn.  I like when people are patient with me as I’m learning.  I’m a professor and there are some things I know that my students don’t.  We are all in different places and in different stations in our lives.  We can help some people in some ways, and those same people can help us in other ways.  I feel honored and loved when people are patient with me as I sincerely work my way through my life.  I expect myself to be patient with others as well.  It says a lot to me about a person who is able to demonstrate persistent engaged patience.   “Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Note to self: Patience is not passivity.  It is not ignoring or detaching.  Not everyone deserves my active patience because I have priorities about who and how many people I can engage with in my life and at what levels.  Sometimes it is also necessary to be abrupt and even rude.  That is not in any way antithetical to love.

3) Listen and ask questions.

I’m involved in many discussions and conversations about religion, faith, politics, worldviews and culture.  These are issues people care about deeply and passionately.  I know many of my views are neither popular or common.  People ask me questions and I believe they are entitled to honest answers if they are entitled to answers at all (and sometimes they are not). I appreciate when people ask and when they genuinely listen.

I have found that I learn more about myself, others and the world I live in when I ask questions and genuinely listen to what people have to say. We all have our stories and I am honored to be brought in on another’s.  We are our stories.  Even if I have a point to make, I find I am much more effective at making it when I ask questions and let the other process the answer; his or her own answer.  I have learned that I am not important or smart enough to pontificate, proclaim, lecture, expound, or otherwise bore my audience shitless so that I can feel better about myself by establishing how smart and important I am.  That doesn’t work for anyone.  Two ears, one mouth.  Dig?

4) I have limitations.

I always knew that in my head but in my heart I was invincible and immortal.  I am finding that I must honor the changes in my body and what it needs, what is best for it. I must work a little harder at some things, accept that I cannot hear or see as well as I used to, that my muscles and tendons are not what they once were, that my libido is different now in many ways than it was when I was 20 (thankfully!).  I need to be kind to myself. The limitations I have today are not the limitations I will have tomorrow.  There will be new ones.  Deal with that and deal with them.

Note to Self:  This is not an excuse or justification for complacency.  What this is, is a call to work around and through limitations wherever and however possible within the construct of honoring my body and mind.  Resolved:  You will be working out the rest of your life, five days a week, at least an hour a day.  What that looks like may change over time, but it will not disappear. Ever. Same goes for proactive learning.

5) Time is short. 

There is no time to waste.  Every day is important; every single day.  There is no afterlife in my worldview.  This is it. Any loving will have to be done now.  Any reconciliations will have to be done now.  Any time spent with those I love will have to be spent here in this life, now.  Any learning, self-development, plans to reach my full potential will have to be done or at least started now.  In short, any living I plan on doing has to be done here, now, in this life, on this world, in my body.  I must take whatever baby steps need to be taken now, even if the path forward seems completely and hopelessly impossible.  I want no regrets at the end of my days – mistakes, yes, plenty of them – regrets, zero.  There is no tomorrow.

Note to Self:  Rest is not the same as wasting time.  Rest is important.  I need that – more of it.  I am the one who listens to myself and monitors myself to determine whether I am resting or wasting time.  I must be honest with myself.

6) Doubt and skepticism are healthy and necessary for a balanced life.

I don’t know how to state this strongly enough or how to show the full impact and benefits of skepticism in my life.  They are too many, they are too deep, they span the whole breadth of my life.  The greatest of these is a sense of liberation, a heightened sense of what it means to live a moral life, and my capacity to love.  There is no question that I am more connected to the world and the universe as it really is, incomplete as our knowledge is, and to the fullness of what it means to be a human being when I keep ideas that have not earned their keep out of my world.   It is not so much that I have changed who I am, but how I evaluate things.

I used to fear admitting publicly that I no longer believed many of the central tenets of Christianity.  I’m not talking about things that are secret or hidden, things that we have no access to and cannot be proved or disproved, like the existence of cherubim.  I’m talking about the tenets of faith that are real and objective, thus scientific statements about events that happened in our space-time world.  I thought the questions would come in barrages and that I would get logically trounced.  To my utter and fascinating amazement and bewilderment the barrage came but the trouncing did not happen at all.  I have been utterly flabbergasted at the weakness of the arguments in support of religious doctrines.  I mean, even I could anticipate and imagine better questions of myself than I was getting from pastors, theologians, and the laity.  I have thus had to continue to challenge myself and ask myself the hard questions I was not getting elsewhere.

In the course of an email interview I am in the middle of right now, I was perusing some of Thomas Huxley’s writing.  I will let him make the rest of this point for me:

“Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the marvelous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.”

The testimony of believers vis-à-vis the beauty and utter compelling power of scientific advancement has been one of the most important factors in my ongoing skepticism.

There just may be a god.  I am not arguing against that idea.  I argue against the many claims advanced on behalf of and in support of the doctrines of the gods in the world theater today. Many people think that because I argue those specific claims’ weak or nonexistent support that I am without an inner life, without a sense of mystery, love or beauty.  I’ve been told that explicitly. Of course, the dogmatic must think thus.

7) I have weaknesses of character that I have not yet mastered.

I still let myself down, I still do things that are out of alignment with who I say I am at my core. I still feel a sense of despondence when I fail to live up to my own standards.  I thought I’d have this all worked out at my age and in this stage in life and yet sometimes it seems the only thing I’m getting better at is recognizing my shortcomings quicker and at a deeper level. They cause me fear.  They hold me back.  I rule myself out of deeper intimacies and disqualify myself from certain successes and accomplishments because of them.

I think all of my weaknesses involve at least a level of dishonesty at some point in their process, either in the conception or aftermath.  Denial, justification, rationalization, wishful and magical thinking, conditioning, all these and other biases and fallacies act in very subtle ways to taint my otherwise virtuous self. I’m not talking about wholesale lying here, failing to answer a direct question truthfully.  I’m talking about the many ways I can deceive myself, fool myself, sell myself short, color the facts, try to save myself pain, underestimate my insensitivities and the consequences of my choices and actions for myself and for others, those I love most of all. I’m talking about the nuances of trust, loyalty and fidelity, prudence, temperance, justice and courage (see #8 below) to myself and friends in at least the same measure they have extended me, building the strength and fiber necessary to love at a higher level, and at times, even at an acceptable level.

On a related note, I want to buy the essay “Lying,” by Sam Harris.  I’m hearing good things about it. I’m thinking that perhaps a good jolt of understanding, of bringing the dynamic into the light might shake things up a little and at least move me one step or so farther along the path of personal integrity and alignment. We have come to accept a certain threshold of lying – white lies, lies we tell to spare others discomfort, convincing ourselves we are even doing good while lying. “Each of us is capable of, and would benefit from, a life led free of the lie,” he says, and that “we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by merely telling the truth in situations where others often lie.” Learning how to do that would be a very good thing, and it must be learned.

Note to Self:  Was publishing this #7 publicly really a good idea? But as long as I’m asking that…

8) I need to man up and get a goddam colonoscopy, goddam it!

If not this year, then next.  Medicine is where I feel least brave. Fear, denial, rationalization, wishful thinking…

9) Where is my music?

I talk about it all the time, every day.  It’s my job.  I used to say all the time that I wanted music to be part of my daily dialog (occupationally).  That was a goal that has been realized now a number of times in my life. I am very lucky that way (in the “harder I work the luckier I get” sense).  I really do love it.  I have always had this duality between music creation and music facilitation through the business side of making music.  I can’t say that I loved that business aspect of it, but we ignore it at our peril and I always knew that if I wanted to continue to make the kind of music I wanted to make, I’d have to get intimate with the business stuff.

I’ve had a number of hard lessons about all this over the years.  After having been in Undercover and owning and operating Brainstorm Artists where we created with abandon, I graduated from college then got my MBA and shortly after worked briefly as the Director of Finance at Priority Records, a seminal rap label in Los Angeles.  I hated that.  I learned I had to be as close to the creative process as possible to be able to tolerate the business stuff.  I learned that I was willing to make less money to do that.

I studied music midlife and got my Master of Music and again the duality of music creation and music business showed up, this time in my education.  I thought perhaps this combination of music and business graduate degrees might be useful somehow along with my experience with Undercover and Brainstorm.  The James Madison opportunity presented itself just before I graduated (chance favors the prepared mind).  Not only do I teach the music business stuff, but I also facilitate the students’ own creativity.  I received this email from a student just two weeks ago:

“I wanted to take the time to personally thank you for a great semester in songwriting.  I can honestly say that this class has been the most enjoyable, interesting and educational class I have had at JMU.  I looked forward to this class every week and honestly this is a class that I never wanted to miss (so I didn’t).  Your insights and criticisms throughout the semester have all been useful and I greatly appreciate them.  I feel extremely privileged to have been a part of this class and I wanted to make sure you knew that.  Thanks again Ojo and I will see you next semester in part 2!”

I don’t write this to pat myself on the back or toot my own horn, but to remind myself, or rather to allow others to remind me that there is more to music creation than pushing notes around and managing royalty checks.  I have always liked pushing notes around.  That’s what I’ve always done.  It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, but this is pretty good.  I hear their songs from the first day of class and I hear them at the end after I’ve had my say.  Thirty or forty students each year learning to write better songs, finding their own voices, learning what it means to live life as an observer of all that is poetic in beauty or ugliness, but in any case, either devastating or nothing.

Why am I not writing prolifically now that music is almost my every waking activity, that I have time to write, that I don’t have the pressures of record deals, singles, touring or day-to-day parenting?  The students certainly inspire me!  I have been asking myself that same question for the four years that I have been at James Madison University.

The answer is that it’s ok right where it is right now. I have no musical statement to make right this minute even though I am writing and have lots of great ideas I want to release eventually.   I have no sense of urgency around it right this minute on the first day of 2012.  My creativity is coming out in other ways.  It’s ok right where it is right now.  It’s fluid and my sense of stress and urgency can change from month to month and even week to week, but four years of wrestling with it is long enough to have learned that I am not interested in forcing it or arbitrary musical contrivance even though time is short.

I tell my students I have a deathbed scenario that keeps me moving forward.  In that scenario I would have regrets in only two cases.  The first regret would be that I have not loved deeply and actively, especially those closest to me, my children.  My fear is that I don’t know how, that I’ve got blockages.  The second is that I did not write enough music.  My lesson is knowing that it is part of who I am and that although my creativity is manifesting in other ways right now, a number of other ways actually, there is a full-length musical statement in my future.  If I die tomorrow though, I die fulfilled.

10) I can make people happier and the world a better place for free whenever I choose.

I walked into a gas station one night feeling fine, not  particularly perky, probably in the normal stupor of working through the day.  The woman behind the counter was wearing a plastic tiara that said “Birthday Girl” across the front.  Her demeanor did not reflect the occasion or the festive headdress. I imagined she was at the end of a long day herself.  Here was my chance!  I acknowledged her birthday and her tiara with a big smile and some energy and humor, all sincere, and watched her light up like a Christmas tree.  I’d like to think it made her day.

Why do I not do this more often, or even all the time?  Do I need to know someone to extend an unexpected kindness? Do I need to be in a good mood?  Do I need everyone to be no happier than I am in any given moment?  Am I emotionally strong enough to acknowledge another’s unique life and heart, to lift them up even higher than I am just then?  Do I need them to look a certain way, unthreatening, safe, or receptive?  Do they need to be at least close to my own tribe? I think I can make the world a happier place for free whenever I want, whenever I choose, whenever I am brave enough to put myself aside for a moment with no other intention than to celebrate another’s existence in even the smallest way and gesture.

Note to Self:  When you do this you make yourself happier too.  This is a good way to bring love to the world, to love those who are not otherwise in your closest circles.

11) More and more subtracted from less and less

I will miss Christopher Hitchens.  What a force!  I’ve watched my father age, gradually lose those he has been closest to one by one, and have watched command of his world slip away little by little.  He knows he is next in line generationally, and hopefully that is some time off.  The older we all get, the more we will lose too.  Yes, time is short. I am clearly well into the back nine of my life.  I enjoy good health and yet I know what the trend looks like from here even with the most optimistic and aggressive plans to stay fit and healthy and vital.  That gives me not only the sense of urgency I mentioned above, but with that comes a profound sense of gratitude.

Rather than be miffed over the idea that there is no afterlife, or that we are owed a meaningful eternity I am grateful to have lived at all, to have known so many beautiful people, to have been moved by them, touched by them, driven to tears, to have loved, communed and related with other species; to have understood a few things about the incomprehensible universe and our remote corner of it, to have glimpsed a good part of our own transitory and fragile planet, to have heard any music at all even though I am losing my hearing, to have felt my lover’s skin, to have merged, to have individuated, to have educated myself, to have made a difference in someone else’s world, to have known beauty.  Where should I stop? If there is anything approaching “eternal,” it is this wellspring.  May my gratitude and yours increase even more in 2012.

Do you have any lessons of your own from the last year you’d like to share?

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3 thoughts on “Reverse Resolutions – 11 Reflections on 2011

  1. I have one: The love and connection we share is proportional to our willingness to honestly engage with others. I’d been thinking about that a lot toward the end of the year. I know I have a tendency to keep people at arms length. Most of that is insecurity. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, and struggle with thinking people will find my ideas stupid or boring. In an effort to change that (and with the encouragement of my wife), I decided to set up a blog to have a place to post stuff I’m thinking about. My goal was to launch it before the end of 2011, and I made it with a couple hours to spare! So… I’m kind of excited to begin to engage with people more. It’s going to be interesting to reflect back on how well I did this time next year.

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