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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: November 2003

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Ruttedness
  3. Musings
  4. Solitude

  1. Techniques for balance

    • Determine if you can remove the cause and correct the situation. For example, if your inability to understand technology is hampering your effectiveness at work, arrange for a coach, tutor, or formal training to provide the skills.
    • If you can't remove the cause, determine whether you can adapt to the effects successfully. For example, if your boss has a habit of telling harmless but inane jokes at the beginning of every meeting, it probably won't kill you to say, "Another good one!" and chuckle a bit. We often tend to fight needless battles or endure unnecessary stress by refusing to adapt to minor inconveniences. (Sometimes it's easier to put a quart of oil in the car once a quarter and not worry about finding a mechanic to fix a minor leak.)
    • Ask yourself if you can make a decision unilaterally--and determine your range of alternatives--which will end the discomfort. It is possible to find another job, decline an odious request, or forgive someone.
    • Learn coping mechanisms. Some pain simply must be accepted, such as the loss of a loved one. But coping includes remembering the good times, celebrating their life, and dedicating yourself to their causes.
    • Apply your lessons learned to the future. The best medicine is always preventive. (Fire inspections are always more important than the fire extinguishers that smother a blaze since, in the latter case, the fire has occurred.) Ask what you can do to avoid similar issues in the future, whether providing routine maintenance for the car, establishing a more comprehensive savings fund, or being more proactive with your kids.
    • Seek help. Use friends, family, respected colleagues, and professionals. Over 90% of the time, therapy is sought too late to be as effective as it might have been.
    • Accept empathy, not sympathy. Empathy is the understanding of your issues by others, but sympathy is the sharing of your issues by others. You don't need people who seek to add their unhappiness to yours, but rather those who understand what you're going through and truly want to help.
    • It's counterintuitive, but sometimes you're better served in trying times by talking more than listening. The comedian Sid Caesar cured his own depression by taping long conversations with himself. Therapists listen to you far more than they speak. Talk through your challenges with others, but don't incessantly listen to advice. You're often better served with empathetic listeners.
    • Ignore the small stuff. The Romans had a phrase which translates as "The magistrate does not consider trifles." Don't elevate inconvenience into agony or a gnat into a shark.
    • Finally, set deadlines. I don't mean that you can establish a date to stop grieving or learn fluent Spanish, but you can set clear time lines to speak to your significant other, fix a leak, confront the boss, or send out a résumé.

    We control more of our fate than we give ourselves credit for. Our well being is based on our seizing, not abdicating, that accountability.

  2. The Human Condition: Ruttedness

    Before you reach for your dictionaries, I confess I manufactured this word. But its tenor and tone suit my point perfectly.

    Many of you probably know that the gauge of American railroads (the distance from one rail to the parallel rail) is an odd traverse. It is based on the English railroad system, which was copied on these shores so that locomotives cold be readily imported. The English system was based on the existing cart path widths, over which railroads were usually built, with the rails in the existing wheel craters. Those cart paths were based on the existing rough road systems, originated by the Romans when they ran the place. Since the wheel ruts were so deep, English cart makers built their conveyances with dimensions that allowed the wheels to fit in the existing depressions. Otherwise, travel would have been slow and agonizing, and rebuilding all the roads was unthinkable.

    The Roman road width was no accident. It was based precisely on the distance required by the girth of two war horses in tandem pulling a chariot, the predominant "cavalry" of the day. There was no reason for the road to be any wider (wasting building time) but it also couldn't be any narrower if the chariots were to accompany the legions, which was crucial to military superiority.

    Ergo, our modern high speed Acela trains, as well as lumbering cross-country freight trains and modern subways, are all operating on a specification created by Roman engineers over two millennia ago for completely different purposes. It's far too expensive and unwieldy to change the system now. We're stuck with it, unless we adopt completely new technology, such as monorails or magnetic drives.

    We tend to operate in similar ruts throughout our lives if we don't take the time to ask, "Why am I doing this in such a manner?" and "What was the origin of my approach or belief?" Unlike the railroads, however, we needn't be worried about kibillions of dollars of infrastructure cost to change the ruts. We simply have to understand that we're in them and can extricate ourselves.

    Regularly, people tell me that they can't write. As long as they believe that, they're probably correct. I find others who are positive they dislike the taste of shellfish, though they've never, ever tried it. A woman told me that she could never tell her husband that he was uncaring and abusive, but had to live with it. (The apotheosis of this plight was a woman divorced after 21 years of marriage who told me she knew it was a mistake after the first year, but had to please her parents.) I knew a man who desperately wanted to change jobs, but was afraid to even broach the subject with his wife, who didn't work.

    The obvious ruts--e.g., dead-end careers, horrible family relationships, predictably drab vacations, unfulfilling intimate relations--may themselves invoke action. But it's the accretion of the tinier ruts which can create huge canyons of despair in our lives. Find another way to commute if you hate driving (especially if you've become an aggressive driver); develop new friends if you find you're not getting out enough; make special weekend plans with the kids if it seems you don't see them during the week. (Remember Tevye's great line from "Sunrise, Sunset" in Fiddler on the Roof: "I don't remember growing older. When did they?")

    Some of you are preparing to write me at this moment to remind me there are "good ruts." These are the great, repeating vacation spots; the regular Friday dinner in a special restaurant; the joy in rooting for the home team. Yet I would maintain that life is short, and it will neither dampen your happiness nor eviscerate your spirit to occasionally try a different refuge, restaurant, or recreation.

    I read a fascinating comment by a specialist in canine psychology, who maintains that dogs are actually social parasites who chose humans as their hosts ten thousand years ago, and now we're stuck with them. Perhaps the dogs understood that we're profound creatures of habit, and created a new rut for us.

    But I also know that even my dog likes to strike out on new trails whenever the opportunity presents itself. Both of us enjoy the scent and the sight of new horizons.

  3. Musings

    Along the lobster claw of land that comprises the northwest coast of Maui, where Lahaina and Kaanapali meet, exists a pearl necklace of resort hotels perched along a storm-eroded beach. There is a myriad of tourists, but there are no crowds--it's easy to find a beach chair, pool spot, restaurant reservation, or tour slot.

    Tourism is the industry here, and apparently the powers that be have decided that this means that tourists should be accommodated. There is plenty of room, the recreation areas are creative and aesthetic (pools with waterfalls, caves, and slides; kids' areas with pirate ships and sand beaches), and the staffs are helpful. Everywhere you go there's a view of the water and you don't have to bribe anyone to get a decent seat. There's a decent seat for everyone.

    During the baseball playoffs people would adhere to the outdoor bar and quickly devised a series of hand signals to communicate the scores across the pool, and soon developed the ability to convey the specifics of men on base, number of outs, pitchers being relieved, and so on. The Yankee and Red Sox fans rooted mightily, but also got along just fine.

    One morning we all arose (wife, daughter-the-producer, son-the-actor, and perhaps future daughter-in-law) at 2:45 am, staggered into a luxury van, and spend two hours traveling to the 10,000-foot summit of the dormant volcano at Haleakala (18 years overdue on its eruption schedule!) to watch the sun rise through the clouds in a kaleidoscope of colors. Several hundred people had assembled, arrayed on the rocks in foul whether gear all facing in the same direction, for all the world resembling those penguins in the Antarctic which gather together in boring symmetry to keep warm. I've seen dramatic sunrises all over the world, but I don't ever recall seeing so many humans, miserable from lack of sleep and abhorrent wind and cold--in a veritable moonscape of sterile rock and lava--banding together in bonhomie to experience a truly novel way to begin a day.

    The people who drive the boats, and operate the parasailing (hauling us 800 feet in the air behind a boat traveling between Maui and Molokai), and run the dive shops are men and women who have settled here to enjoy the environment and work in great conditions. They are enriching their lives as well as those of us who are here only for all-too-brief respite.

    This is a year which has seen me in Santiago, Quito, Mexico City, and Bogotá, often in the presence of security people and armed guards; searched constantly in airports; listening to news of world strife and inexplicable terror; and working constantly as a consultant, speaker, writer, and mentor to help others overcome real and perceived difficulties with the economy, their jobs, and their lives. I've tried to attack my work with discipline and innovation.

    I've tried to vacation with abandon and unmitigated pleasure.

    We have to recharge our batteries, which to me means taking time to focus on ourselves, our families, and our view of life. We need to focus on the signals which indicate the score of a ball game, chat with people driving boats who work in shorts and bare feet, and actually watch the sun rise and set.

    The world, as always, harbors uncertainty and danger. But it also increasingly offers an escape, relief, and new horizons. It's crazy to tolerate the former and not exploit the latter.

    I won't travel up to that volcano peak again, but I've been there, seen it, and absorbed the experience as an enrichment of my life. And I'm ready now for the next summit.

  4. Solitude

    I am scuba diving with an instructor a few hundred yards off the beach of Kaanapali in Maui. At a depth of about 30 feet, there is undulating, colorful coral interspersed with brief patches of sand. Colorful fish, spiny anemones, and sea cucumbers comprise most of the population.

    A spotted eagle ray, related to sharks, flaps by above us, casting a shadow which alerts us to its presence. I'm wondering what lurks in the caves at the bottom of the irregular formations, but I know better than to stick head or hand in there. Moray eels are quite common and highly aggressive.

    Suddenly, an endangered Hawaiian green sea turtle swims languidly past. The instructor has told me prior to the dive that, should we see one, it's not to be touched, nor accompanied if it surfaces for air. But swimming next to it is fine--the turtles seem to enjoy the company--and it would be a great picture for our underwater camera.

    The turtle is now only four feet in front of me, so I begin kicking strongly to bring myself alongside him. His flippers slowly undulate and he maintains a constant depth. I'm envisioning the photo and planning where to place it when I realize that I continue to be four feet behind the barely moving turtle and using up a huge amount of air.

    When the instructor finally catches me and calls off the chase my heart is pounding and my legs ache. A final look at the reptile shows it seemingly creeping on its way. The instructor tells me when we surface that I almost arranged for him to take the last picture of me before my heart attack.

    There's a wonderful solitude under the water's surface, an ironic calmness that overtakes me even as I discover exciting new things. Perhaps it comes from the humble realization that we're dependent on a tenuous air supply and are basically ill-adapted for the environment. The turtle made it look easy. It is for the turtle, it's not for us.

    We don't have to succeed at new experiences. Sometimes failing and appreciating our limitations is as rewarding as "success." That's why, to me, it's all about the exploration, whether attaining new heights or appreciating new limitations.

    The only failure is to have refused the experience. I still remember that turtle's effortless grace and what I can only believe was a bemused look on its face. For that brief moment, he knew a lot more than I did.

    And then he swam off in his solitude.