Numbers Game

fullsizeoutput_5119Many years ago, I was in charge of the summer reading program at my church.  The idea was to encourage children to read during their summer vacation, so I would create a display to keep track of how many books the kids read and give them a reward when they had completed the program.  The program usually had a lot of kids, but one year only five signed up.  I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to go to so much time and trouble for only five children, so I called the church secretary to let her know I was going to cancel the program this year.  There was a brief pause, and then she asked, “But don’t you think those five kids deserve a reading program?”  And, of course, she was right.

Sometimes I think we live in a world where we put far too much value on popularity.  Social media encourages that, since success there depends on attracting huge numbers of followers and likes, and  we all know that a post “going viral” is considered the ultimate goal.

When I tune into the local news in the morning, I’m encouraged to join the thousands of others who follow that particular station.  They actually put that request across the bottom of the screen, right between the international news and the daily traffic report.  Things aren’t any better for those who get their news from the internet.  There, the stories seem specifically designed to get a reaction from the readers, because the goal is to get as many “clicks” and comments as possible. (I’m assuming in the hopes of attracting more advertising money.)  And the more outrageous the story, the more popular it is.  But that doesn’t mean it’s the news we actually need to know.

I refuse to name names, but I’m sure we can all think of several celebrities whose chief talent seems to be being a celebrity.  How they achieved that status, I don’t know, but it might have something to do with their ability to create viral posts, or say really outrageous things.

I remember when I told a friend I had just started a blog, and she immediately asked me how many followers I had.  I answered, with equal parts honesty and shame, “twelve,” and she changed the subject rather quickly.  That was over four years ago, and now I would have a very different answer to that question, and one that might not cause her to worry that she had asked an embarrassing question.  But you know what?  I’m not putting any more effort into my blogs posts these days.  I did the best I could then, and I’m doing the best I can now .  My blog may be a little more popular now, but I honestly don’t believe it’s any better.

I’m proud to say that I paid attention to the lesson that church secretary taught me, all those years ago.  I did go ahead with the reading program for those five children, and I put just as much effort into making it a good one as I did when lots of kids signed up.  Because when it comes to true quality, the numbers don’t count.

Getting Over It

I’m done with Winter.  I’m ready for the cold, grey days followed by the frigid, dark nights to go away.  I don’t want to shovel any more snow or slide across any more icy sidewalks and parking lots.  I’m tired of dry skin, frozen nose hair, and chapped lips.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s time for Winter to be over.  Right this very minute.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’ve been feeling a little crabby lately.  And it’s not just Winter I’m tired of, either.  I’m so sick of all those robo-calls that constantly bombard both my cell phone and my land-line that I’m seriously thinking of living a phone-free life.  (No matter how hard they try, no one can call you if you don’t actually have a phone.)  I’m tired of the way my dog insists on trying to lick his stitches, because it means we have to keep that silly “cone of shame” on him for another few days.  That thing hurts when he slams it into my legs, which he does on a regular basis.  When you live with a dog wearing a cone, sometimes love hurts.

I’m tired of all the nasty, petty meanness that I see every time I log onto my Facebook account, and really wish that more people would live by that old adage, “If you can’t say (or post) anything nice, then don’t say (or post) anything at all.”  I’m even more disgusted with the hatred and violence I see all too often on the news, and wish it would all just stop, immediately.

But the problem is, I can’t make any of it go away.  Not even my cell phone, because I really need that little device to stay in touch with my family and friends.  And I don’t really want to live my life as a crabby person.  So that means I have to figure out another way to cope with it all.

Today I think I took a step in the right direction.  I woke up in a particularly foul mood, probably because I went to sleep last night to the sound of sleet hitting the bedroom window.  It didn’t help that the morning dawned cold, slushy and very foggy, and I was due down at the animal shelter to walk dogs for several hours.   I thought, seriously if briefly, of not going in, but then my sense of responsibility kicked in and I got dressed and drove to the shelter.

IMG_4539And you know what?  The longer I walked the dogs, the less crabby I felt.  The dogs were just so darned happy to be getting out for a walk that it was kind of hard to keep that nasty mood of mine going.  And afterwards, when I came home for lunch, my own dog was so ecstatic to see me that I was willing to overlook a few painful jabs to my shins.

The lesson here isn’t just to spend more time with dogs (although I do recommend it).  It’s that when we’re feeling overwhelmed and crabby, sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves isn’t going to help.  But what will help is making the effort to do something for someone else (two or four-footed).  I honestly don’t know if it’s just the realization that we really can make a difference in the world, or if it’s the happiness that we give others reflecting back on us that lifts our spirits.  I only know that it works, and that’s good enough for me.

Only The Best

I was at a restaurant the other night when I noticed a young couple being seated at a nearby table.  As soon as they sat down, the man placed his laptop computer on the table in front of him and began typing.  The woman immediately pulled out her phone and gave it her full attention.  The looked up from their devices just long enough to place their orders, but I don’t think they said more than three words to each other before their food arrived.

DSC03670 2Once the food came, the man pushed his computer aside and began to eat, but the woman kept her phone out and used it to take some photos of her dinner.  And apparently the lighting over their table wasn’t very good, because she picked up her plate and carried it to an empty table, where she put it down and took another photo.  I guess that photo wasn’t satisfactory either, because she repeated the process at several other tables before she finally carried her food back to her own table and began to eat.

I’ll never know exactly why the woman was so concerned with getting a high-quality photo of her dinner, but I assume she intended to share it on social media.  We certainly live in a time where it’s common to share almost every detail of our lives and almost every thought that crosses our minds, and the internet makes it so very easy for us to do so.  But it seems to me that all too often, we have lost sight of the difference between the things we should share and the things that we should be keeping to ourselves.

Honestly, sharing all the mundane details of our lives only annoys other people.  (I know I could live happily without ever seeing a photo of someone else’s meal.)   But far worse is the kind of sharing that is downright hurtful. When someone we care for voices an opinion that we think is just plain silly, we don’t need to actually tell them that.  I’ve never yet met a pregnant woman who appreciated being told about someone’s incredibly long and painful labor.  And people who have made difficult decisions don’t benefit from having someone second-guess their choice afterwards.  A good rule of thumb is that if sharing our thoughts will cause unnecessary stress or hurt feelings, then those thoughts shouldn’t be shared at all.

Sharing is a good thing, as long as we do it wisely.  We can do an incredible amount of good when we share our resources with those who are in desperate need, and sharing words of encouragement and hope can make a huge difference in the life of someone who is struggling.  The trick is to make sure that what we are sharing is something that is actually wanted and/or needed by the person we intended to share with.

I still think about that couple at the restaurant.  Maybe they really didn’t have anything they wanted to say to each other.  But I believe that their dinner would have been so much better if, rather than focusing on taking a good photo of their food to share online, they’d chosen to give their time and attention to each other instead.  That, in my opinion, would have been something actually worth sharing.  Because good things happen when we choose to share only the very best we have to offer…..

Like Me

A couple of years ago, I was at a party when one of my friends introduced me to a woman she’d known for years.  At first the woman was quite friendly as we exchanged the kind of pleasantries that people do when they first meet.  But as our conversation continued,  she became cool, and then almost hostile, and I had no idea why.  Later, I went over our conversation several times in my head, but I still wasn’t sure just exactly what I said that turned her off so completely.  I’m not going to lie, the encounter kind of bothered me for several days afterwards.

More recently, I loaned a book by one of my favorite authors to a good friend, thinking she would enjoy it as much as I did.  But she gave it back a few weeks later, saying that she found the book so boring that she didn’t even manage to finish it.  I was surprised by her response, and I admit, a little bit hurt.

It’s so easy to say that we don’t care what other people think about us, but at times it is so very hard to really and truly not care.  Especially when we’re trying our best to be nice, or offering up something that we really value for someone else’s opinion.  A friend who taught art classes at a local college once told me the hardest part of her job was getting her students past the paralyzing fear of putting their best work “out there” for other people to see and judge.  My guess is almost all creative people can relate to that particular fear.

Personally, I have always struggled with my need for the approval of others.  Sadly, social media doesn’t help, with it’s little “like” button that lets us know just exactly how many others approve of whatever we’ve been brave enough to share.  And the only downside to blogging is the stat page, which makes it all too easy to judge how well we wrote a particular post by the number of views it received on any given day.  So I have to be intentional about trusting my own judgement and not falling into the trap of thinking that whatever (and whomever) happens to be the most popular is automatically the best.

We are all individuals with our own tastes, our own opinions and our own unique way of looking at the world.  That means we aren’t always going to get the encouragement and the positive affirmations from other people that we would like, even when we are offering the very best we have to give.   And in order to be truly happy, we have to learn to live with that.

I honestly think that the one of the most important lessons we can learn in this life is to trust ourselves to know what is, and isn’t, best for us.  Because the important thing isn’t how many people “like” us or our work.  The important thing is whether or not we like ourselves.

A Better Choice

I don’t know about you, but this past week has had an almost surreal feel to it.  Our nation’s long and contentious election is finally over, with a result that surprised many of us.  I had hoped that the end of the election would also bring an end to the ugliness, but sadly, that didn’t happen.  The internet is filled with the same intolerance, anger, attacks, and counter attacks that we saw during the campaign months and it seems as if there is no end in sight to any of it.  Sweeping generalizations seem to be the norm, along with finger-pointing, blame, and a complete refusal to listen to anyone who has a different point of view.

I actually considered taking a break from it all by refusing to watch any television news, staying off social media sites, and avoiding the internet all together.  It’s just too depressing, and sometimes makes me feel as if there is no hope for our country, or even our world, when so many people seemed so intent on sharing every single angry thought that crosses their minds, with no concern for whom they happen to hurt in the process.

But then I realized that by doing so, I would also be cutting myself off from many friends and family members who live far away from me and stay in touch via Facebook.  And I would also be withdrawing from the world of blogging, and I didn’t particularly want to take a break from the blogs I enjoy reading and from my blogging friends whose writing and comments usually brighten my day.  There is certainly a lot on the internet and news that’s upsetting, but there is also a lot that is comforting and affirming, and I can’t avoid the bad stuff without also cutting myself off from the good.

So, I decided that it’s time for me to simply get on with the business of living my life.  I’ll complete the necessary chores before me, continue with my writing and volunteer work, speak up (in a civil and respectful way) when I see injustice, and take care of my family and those who need me.  An when I do find myself feeling angry and threatened, I’ll try very hard to remember that it’s not okay to take those feelings out on other people.  I’ll also try very hard to focus on all that is good and positive in my life.

In just two days, my son is getting married to a wonderful young woman who is going to be a terrific daughter-in-law.  Friends and family are going to gather around them as they take this important step together, affirming their love and their commitment to each other.  We will eat, drink, laugh and dance (or in my case, try to dance) together as we celebrate this union.  Because often, in spite of everything that is going on around us, life can still be very, very, good.

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The Sound of Silence

IMG_0886.jpgLike most people, I have lots of opinions on just about everything, and I’m only too happy to share them, usually in much more detail than anyone cares to hear.  I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when we were encouraged to “let it all hang out” in “rap sessions” (remember when “rap” didn’t refer to a musical genre?) and I guess I took that lesson to heart a little bit too much.  So believe me,  I really do understand why so many people feel the need to constantly express themselves in almost any situation they happen to be in.  It’s just that I’ve come to realize that there are times when it’s much, much better not to communicate just exactly what we are thinking and feeling.

There are so many ways in which silence can be the best response.  There’s the little things, like when a friend makes what I think is an unfortunate fashion choice, and I’m thinking, “Gee, that outfit emphasizes all the wrong things.”  If we’re not in a dressing room where my friend is still choosing whether or not to buy that particular item of clothing, that’s a thought that is best left unexpressed.  Being a good friend means not letting every petty thought that flits across my brain actually come out of my mouth.

And then there’s Facebook, where I check in daily to make sure I don’t miss out on something important, like a photo of someone’s meal or the latest cute puppy video.  Each time I scroll down my newsfeed, I’m sure to see a post about some hot-button topic that I think is completely and totally wrong.  Even though Facebook thoughtfully provides a comment section inviting me to say just that, I refrain.  Because while I’ve seen far too many heated arguments on Facebook, I have never yet seen anyone change his or her mind just because someone took the time to tell them they were wrong…on-line, no less, where everybody can see it.  Go figure.

The higher the stakes, the harder it is to remain silent, at least for me.  When a friend or relative is telling me about an important problem, my natural reaction is to speak up right away, telling them exactly what they need to do to make things right.  Usually, that’s not at all helpful to the person with the problem.  They need me to listen and provide a safe sounding board while they figure out exactly what it is they want to do about their problem, not jump in and tell them what to do.  Sometimes unsolicited advice just makes things harder, like if I say, “dump the cheating jerk,” when what my friend really wants to do is figure out a way to salvage her relationship.  In that cases, my advice just makes her feel judged, not supported, and I’ve only added to her problems.

I am, by nature, both a talker and a fixer, and in many situations, that’s actually a good thing.  But slowly, I’m learning that there are also many times when I need to stay silent, to keep my advice and my opinions to myself.  There are times when I need to simply allow people to believe things I disagree with, to make choices that I think aren’t wise and to live their lives exactly the way they want to, without the “benefit” of my wisdom.  In short, I need to do my best to keep my lips zipped unless I actually hear those magic words, “and what do you think?”