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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: December 2001

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Conspiracies!
  3. Musings
  4. Different but inexpensive Holiday gifts for special people

  1. Techniques for balance

    At the Holiday Season there is usually angst, and this year there will probably be more than ever because of the tragedies of the recent past. Herein some modest suggestions for Balance during the season, no matter what your faith or beliefs.

    • Enjoy the moment. This is an existential time. Rejoice in the company you're a part of without recourse to "what might have been."
    • Gifts are an expression of regard for another person. Yet gift selection is often an odious chore. Perhaps this time they can be true expressions of affection. (See section 4 below.)
    • Reflect a bit on the future. Although it tends to be cliché, the New Year is an ideal departure point for new habits, new undertakings, and new relationships (and/or the abandonment of dysfunctional ones).
    • There are few extremes that are healthy, including the antipodal positions of "don't indulge in anything, it's inappropriate," and "go for broke, life is short." Engage your passions with zest, without either monk-like privation or hedonistic abandon.
    • Involve yourself in some philanthropy. We ought to do this anyway, year-round, but the Holidays seem to underscore it (often through guilt) and these times demand it. Consider supporting those worthy causes which are now disadvantaged by the diversion of support to the September 11 recovery. The support needn't be money—volunteerism, advice, and contributions-in-kind are sorely needed, as well.
    • If you have kids, of any age, spend some time with them if at all possible.
    • Ask yourself how productive the prior year has been in terms of meeting your life goals. If you haven't made much progress—or have regressed—then ask yourself what you must do differently in the year ahead. If you've done well, then what must you do to further accelerate your speed?
    • Plot your time off for next year. We're usually in a position of trying to cram in vacation time after we take care of "priorities." Try something different. Plan your vacation time and then arrange the rest of the year around that.
    • Explore a bias with the intent of giving it up. Biases are extraordinarily self-limiting. I've come to understand that some animated movies are actually quite excellent, and "Chicken Run" was one of the best movies I've seen over the past year, as was "Shrek."
    • Stop doing things that annoy you, are unpleasant, and/or compromise your integrity, to the greatest extent you can. While we can't eliminate all this from our lives, we tend to endure far more of it than is actually necessary.

  2. The Human Condition: Conspiracies!

    There are still people spending more time than I can comprehend on who killed John F. Kennedy: Cuban operatives, Russians, our own CIA, the mafia, little green men, or Bill Gates. Call me naïve, but I've concluded it was a single demented nut case with a rifle.

    A few years ago, a man died in Scotland. He was the man who had taken the most convincing photo of "Nessie," the fabled Loch Ness Monster, with neck and head fully extended from the lake. The significance of this event was that, on his deathbed, he produced incontrovertible evidence of the props he had used to fake the photo. Most people had long suspected the fraud, and he decided that setting the record straight before dying might just be an asset in the afterlife.

    I wrote to a San Francisco man—a member of Mensa, no less—who was the chair of the Bay Area Loch Ness Monster Committee, or some such thing, and asked if he would now disband. (Hey, it was a slow day.) His answer was that the props were a fake, and that the dying man wanted to hide the secret of the real monster.

    Now, why hadn't I thought of that?

    People engage in conspiracy theory with great fervor and frequency. I've had planes cancelled under me—with mechanics clearly crawling around the innards—when a fellow passenger would point out in low tones, "United always does this when there aren't many passengers and they won't make much money on the flight." The facts that United still had to accommodate those people, needed that equipment at some other site, and was throwing off its own schedule seemed to be incidental to the conspiracy.

    Why is so much time and energy spent on theories that fly in the face of fact? (If there's a Sasquatch in the woods or a Yeti in the Himalayas being hidden from public view, why has one never died and left its carcass? And don't they ever have to relieve themselves, leaving some evidence?) I think it's because these theories, no matter how convoluted, provide us with some control over an otherwise inexplicable set of circumstances.

    How could a loner like Lee Harvey Oswald have killed a well-protected President? Why do our flights cancel when others don't? What accounts for people reporting strange sightings? We need some way of organizing the long shots, random events, and unpredictable nature of our lives. I don't think I've ever instituted a major survey for a company without someone, somewhere, claiming that there were hidden codes which would identify the respondent, so that the company could retaliate if necessary. I used to tediously explain why that would be detrimental to the company and to me. Now I simply tell them to get over it. (The more effort you expend trying to explain, the more calcified their belief in a conspiracy becomes.)

    A conspiracy implies that there is some agent or intelligent planning at work that can explain the inexplicable. That's why, evidently, the Air Force is holding the bodies of some dead aliens in Hangar 54 in Roswell, New Mexico, along with the remnants of their spacecraft. My favorite recent example (and this, too, is very popular in Mensa, so go figure) is that we never really landed on the moon, but have been hoodwinked by our government with trick photos and special effects. (The fact that the same government which can't protect its own nuclear secrets would require unprecedented secrecy and cooperation from hundreds of people is conveniently ignored.)

    Teapot Dome was a conspiracy, as was the South Seas bubble, as are almost all network and pyramid marketing schemes, in which late entrants can't possibly make money. But random events are nothing more than random events. We do have an urge to try to explain why they occurred when they did and where they did, and that urge would rather create hidden schemes than go unfulfilled.

    But life's not a conspiracy. It's what we make it.

  3. Musings

    [Note: Quite a few readers have asked for more thoughts and suggestions about living in an altered world, filled with fearful states which can be debilitating, and how to remove almost unthinkable tragedy from day-to-day thinking. In addition to this column, see our archives, particularly our September Special Edition.]

    I'm once again leaving New York by Amtrak's Acela Express after celebrating my sister-in-law's surprise 50th birthday party, and my son's off-Broadway new play in which he stars and which is produced by a theater company he co-founded. The train is rattling across the behemoth Hellsgate Bridge, the largest steel expansion bridge ever built up to 1917, created to connect the New Haven and Pennsylvania Railroads, and still an awesome span. (The structure is so impressive that I'm considering adding a replica to my new train layout, even though it will take a huge amount of space.)

    New York is shimmering in unseasonal 50 degree sunlight, the skyline is breathtaking, and I'm in an extraordinarily good mood and hopeful state. The City has withstood incredible tragedy, including a horrible and apparently accidental recent plane crash. But it is also bustling again. My hotel was filled, there is a line for discount theater tickets in Times Square, good restaurants require advance reservations, and the red caps at Penn Station tell me that tourists are returning.

    We are a resilient people because we are an intelligent people. Our primary and secondary education could be improved, but our higher education provides more quality to more people than any other system in the world. (In fact, people from around the world flock to American universities. They are melting pots which further enrich us.) It is no accident that many who mindlessly hate us are also fearfully uneducated.

    The growth of the mind is one of the great resources for life balance and for recovery from despair. There is no greater power than our own ability to engage in life-long learning, development, and revival.

    In a fascinating study reported in the New York Times, researchers discovered that London cab drivers have superior navigation skills because that part of their brains that handles such activity is better developed than in the average person. London cabbies, of course, must take a rigorous two-year training program in order to navigate through London's non-methodical street system. They study the system, develop themselves, and become better and better at the competency.

    All of us can balance our lives better by developing our minds the way we're taught to develop our bodies—through consistent workout, "stretching" to new levels, and periodically changing the regimen.

    We can also develop our sense of perspective and safety in the same way. We've watched our country respond through volunteerism, philanthropy, government intervention, and military muscle. No matter what policies we agree or disagree with and what our politics may be, we've seen a resilient people who are concerned but not cowed, cautious but not capitulating.

    We can choose to learn from our devastating experience, and grow as people (and as a people). I've been more impressed with my fellow Americans over the past two months than at any other time I can remember. I'm learning about our resiliency and determination, which enables me to more easily develop my own.

    The danger is in remaining in a mental state of no growth, no exercise, no development, which is a breeding ground for fear. We can continue to learn how to thrive—not merely survive—in these new times. That doesn't happen, however, through timidity, retreat, or withdrawal.

    "Hellsgate" comes from the Dutch, meaning "treacherous waters." The train is safely over them now, because of the engineering marvel of that great bridge. You and I are our own engineers, and must build personal bridges over treacherous waters to the fabulous destinations ahead.

  4. Different but inexpensive Holiday gifts for special people

    • Take on someone's ugliest, most loathed chores for a week.
    • A full day at a spa.
    • A contribution in the other's name.
    • A subscription to the New York Times' Sunday crossword puzzle series.
    • Sports lessons: tennis, golf, swimming, race car driving, skiing, etc.
    • A subscription to the regional theater, symphony, ballet, etc.
    • A photo album arranged with personal photos and reminiscences.
    • A surprise, catered, candlelight dinner.
    • Passes to the local movie theaters.
    • Gift certificates to the three best restaurants in the area.
    • A subscription to a magazine covering the other person's hobby.
    • Enrollment in a course, seminar, or university evening program.
    • Headphones which remove all ambient noise while listening to music.
    • Coupons for free car washes.
    • A gift for their pet.