Words Are Anchors… Or Only Clouds?

Words matter. We hear it all the time. We experience it all the time. We can be in the midst of a fantastic day and then BOOM, some words happen and we become completely thrown off. Maybe the words were a sharp criticism or back-handed compliment. Maybe they were a flirtation that you never expected. Maybe it was a social media post not necessarily aimed at you, but it hit home so hard that you can’t ignore it. Words anchor us to meaning. If you’re like me, you walk around (or run, or sit Zazen) and ruminate about words from time to time.

In the last few years, I have learned that resilience is perhaps the most valuable skill in my life. Resilience, Emotional Intelligence, grit, mindfulness, whatever we’re calling it this week, is the skillset that we use to bounce back from a setback to be able to focus on what is going on right now.

I mentioned earlier that words anchor us to meaning. To expand on that, think about the words that people have used to describe us or to give us feedback. If you’re like me, at least some of those words have stuck and turned into labels – some good and some bad. But either way, they anchor us and limit our possibilities. I have always been on the thin side with a slight frame, which my family lovingly referred to as “skinny.” Now 40 years later, I still doubt my athletic ability before going out for a long run or a soccer match. Will I be strong enough to compete?

One of the ways I’ve recently been able to build resilience around words is to think of them as clouds. Clouds are amazing. They can be beautiful formations in the sky or a grey blanket between the sun and us terrestrial beings. They can provide life-affirming rain or life-threatening lightening. But as with all of these cases, clouds change. Today’s dreary morning is this evening’s sky-on-fire sunset. Like clouds, words are impermanent. While words may represent “reality” right now and they should be given appropriate attention, the situation can and will change.

Interestingly, I’ve also been thinking about my words; especially, my words for others. Even though I’m building resilience to words by imagining them as wispy clouds moving across the sky, I have to recognize that other people aren’t where I am. So these days, I’m being careful to not anchor anyone with my words. I’m finding that it really doesn’t take that much extra time or care. Instead of, “You always do this,” I’m offering up, “I noticed that this happened when I did X.” I am finding that simple adjustments to my words are enriching my relationships because… words matter.

Does One Bad Apple Really Spoil the Whole Bunch?

I’m currently fascinated by Bad Apples. Bad Apples the metaphor for people, not so much the fruit. But of course there are corollaries. So the first question at hand is, “does one bad apple really spoil the whole bunch? For fruit, the answer is yes. Because ethylene. But what about people? From my experience, the answer is also a resounding yes. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this University of Washington study overview, which defined Bad Apples as “negative people as those who don’t do their fair share of work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others.” They found that Bad Apples elicited coping mechanisms in other employees such as “denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear.”

I know, I know, this is not really new. The saying exists for a reason. However, it does set the stage for some further inquiries I’ve been making around Bad Apples. So stay tuned for the Bad Apple series as we explore Bad Apples in Sports, how to deal with Bad Apples in your circles, and how to avoid becoming a Bad Apple.

Reflections of Ireland Part 2: On the Road to Tralee

If you’d like to connect with a people and their culture, spend a couple of days in the hospital. I know, I know, that sentence didn’t end the way you were thinking. Our trip hasn’t exactly gone the way we thought it would either. On the second half of our bus tour of the Ring of Kerry, my wife started getting sick. By the time I got her back to our Airbnb in Killarney, she was literally green and feverish. After she had a nap and overcame her fever, we consulted WebMD and discovered her symptoms checked all the boxes for an appendicitis. Having never experienced a health problem away from the US, we called her insurance company for some direction. The response was swift and admirably simple: go to the hospital and save your receipts for reimbursement.

On the Road to Tralee

Our stay is in Killarney, which is a lovely little town of about 14,000 residents and no hospital. The closest hospital is about 30 minutes drive into a neighboring town of Tralee. We consulted our Airbnb hosts and they confirmed that Kerry General Hospital in Tralee is the place where they go if needed. So, we packed up and headed out. I was raised in the US so driving a sizable right-side drive, manual transmission vehicle on the left side of the road is a bit disorienting. Luckily, I’ve had a few days practice so I was able to deal with the added stress of driving my wife to the hospital at night on roads I hadn’t seen. However, I’ll readily admit that my knuckles were white from time to time over the half hour drive. Over the next 36 hours, I would make this drive in both directions several times as I made provisional trips to and from the hospital. Travel Tip: Planning to drive in Ireland? On top of allowing yourself some time to orient to the left side of the road before jumping into city traffic, I HIGHLY recommend paying the extra fee for the GPS. It took the guess work out of reading road signs (written in Irish first, English second), navigating countless roundabouts, and helped me keep track of the not-always-noticeable speed limit signs.

Irish Healthcare

In hindsight, I’d have looked up the information before traveling to know what to expect. What I learned in our exhaustive time in waiting room of the Emergency Department is that Irish Healthcare is among the slowest in Europe. My wife was seen promptly for admissions and was seen by the triage nurse within 35 minutes. After a very short interview, she informed us that it would be a 4-5 hour wait before we could see the doctor. It was closer to 6 hours. Having arrived at the hospital at roughly 9 PM, we were able to see the doctor at 2:45 AM. Other than taking blood and urine samples and a basic interview of symptoms, no diagnostic work was done until the next morning. At least she had a bed. After sitting in the aluminum bleachers in the waiting area for hours on end, getting a bit of rest in a hospital gurney helped her feel a little more comfortable. I spent the early morning in minimally padded chair next to her and only nodded off briefly once or twice. Over her 36 hour stay, she had an ultrasound, a CT scan, and several consultations with knowledgeable and caring nurses and doctors. The amenities left a little more to be desired.

Other than during her initial consultation with the doctor, she spent the entire time on a gurney in the hallway because the hospital was over-full, which we’re told is quite routine. I promptly lost my chair when she moved into the hallway and either had to go sit in a waiting room away from her or stand in the hallway near her bed. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the visit was the delivery relative to commitments. For instance, after learning that her ultrasound did not help with the diagnosis at 10 AM, we were told she would have a CT scan by 3 PM. She actually received a CT scan at 5:30 PM and was later told that only emergency CT scans are read after 5. That was when we realized that she’d be spending another night in the hallway. Thankfully she didn’t require surgery and was released the next morning with prescriptions. In the end, I would rate the care received as very good, the amenities as less-than-adequate, and the wait times to be longer than average. Travel Tip: If you need hospital care in Ireland, Americans can expect quality care comparable to what we receive in the US but with significant wait times.

The Human Connection

Spending 36 hours in a hallway gurney along with other patients and their families provides significant opportunities to connect with people. We met, among others, a 12 year old girl who broke both wrists in an elliptical bike accident, an elderly lady who was denied an oxygen tank because she hadn’t demonstrated that she had “given up the fags” (stopped smoking), a retirement-aged mother who personally thanked me for the existence of Bon Jovi, and a nurse who wondered what we thought about President Trump. We also got the chance to sit quietly for a bit and listen to conversations among locals. There is a wonderful, polite rhythm to the Irish conversation. It might go something like this (the reader will have to insert the Irish lilt):

  • Man 1: Alright John?
  • Man 2: Never better. You and the missus?
  • Man 1: Nary a complaint
  • Man 2: Where’s that no good partner of yours?
  • Man 1: Did ye check the canteens and pubs?
  • Man 2: I ‘spect he’ll be shutting ’em down later
  • Man 1: Dontcha know
  • Man 2: Alright, gotta get on with it
  • Man 1: Good luck to ye
  • Man 2: T’anks a million, take care

I mentioned in my last post that Ireland and her people reminded me of my childhood home in Southern Ohio. Never was this more apparent than in the hospital. The spoken and body language communicates so much with so little. There is a wonderful wit and wisdom communicated with a sense of humility in these little exchanges. Briefly, one can let the another know that he feels for him and that “we’re in this together.” My wife and I discussed this at length. We believe this comes with the homogeneity of culture that permeates much of rural Ireland. Because of their shared culture and vernacular, they’re “hyper-communicating,” which is my term for sending paragraphs of dialogue in verbal and non-verbal shorthand. And while our accents are different, this brand of communication is very much a part of Southern Ohio’s Scotch-Irish culture. In fact, we even share several colloquialisms. To illustrate, I was giving one of the nurses a hard time and she didn’t respond, feigning frustration. My wife told her to not take me seriously and I said, “Ah, she knows I’m only just funnin’.” This prompted an almost immediate reply from a third party nurse: “Where did you say you’re from again? Because you’re clearly Irish.”

Welcome Home

I wouldn’t wish an appendicitis on anyone. My wife experienced intense pain and I’m sure she was “this close” to having an appendectomy while in the middle of our vacation. However, the experience – without question – gave us a chance to better connect with our host country. And when you boil it all down, that human connection, that rediscovery of the common thread that binds us all together, is essentially why we travel. In the waiting room, as we were chatting with the mom and her little girl with the broken wrists, an elderly lady overheard us and asked if we were American. We said that we were. She smiled from ear to ear, looked at each one of us and said, “I’m sorry for your trouble, but welcome home.”

Five Benefits from Five Years of Journaling

I first started journaling when I was going through a divorce several years ago. The stresses of separating from my spouse, figuring out finances, and helping the children adjust all while maintaining my focus at work was getting to me. I almost started journaling on a whim. I’m a bit of an introvert and I’m not prone to sharing details with others. So journaling was my way out; my way to organize my thoughts and to “say” the things that I didn’t want to actually verbalize to anyone else. I wrote somewhere around 200 pages over 18 months. When my divorce was complete, I purged the file and later started a new one. My second journal turned 5 years old two weeks ago. I’ve decided to start a new one. The file size was getting unwieldy and five years seems like a good cutover point. Starting anew, I reflected on the journaling process and realized how much I’ve learned from it. While there’s probably more, here are my top five benefits from five years of journaling.

1.) Problem solving

I solve problems for a living. Of course, I could argue that everyone who has a job is essentially being paid to solve problems that customers aren’t willing or able to do themselves. But problem-solving is my specialty. I have an engineering background, several technical certifications, and 20+ years of experience solving fairly sizable problems across various industries. With these credentials, one might think that I could solve just about any problem in my sleep. That would be wrong. While it certainly is my forte, sometimes I get stuck. I find that journaling is my unlocking mechanism. The free form of journaling helps me describe a problem from multiple angles or to refine what it is and what it isn’t. I find that spending time writing about a problem not only helps me find breakthrough solutions, but it also stops the swirling in my head. I also use it for household problem-solving. For instance, there was a particularly nasty head and chest cold going through our house from season to season and journaling about it over time helped me figure out how to 1.) avoid getting it and 2.) speed the recovery time from more than 3 weeks to about 5 days. 

2.) Procrastination buster

I’m not one for procrastinating. I’ve always been internally motivated, so when I recognize that something needs to be done, I generally get going. Therefore when I am actually procrastinating on something, I know it’s a special cause. I might not like what needs to be done and I might be waiting on a better solution. Or, it might be that I have too much to do and – if I’m honest – I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself that I won’t pick a direction and move. Bring on journaling! Writing about these situations helps me to be honest with myself about my lack of movement. It really might be that I’m overwhelmed. I’ve often heard the quote, “Sometimes when you don’t know what to do, the best thing to do is nothing.” (Unknown attribution) I wouldn’t say that I do nothing. But I certainly have learned that sitting down to the keyboard, which was no where on the list of things to do, helps me prioritize the work in front of me. When I’m procrastinating out of a sense of being overwhelmed, journaling is exactly what I need. If I’m just hung up on the task at hand or feeling sorry for myself, sometimes I go ahead and have a good complaint session. I write down all the crap that’s annoying me at the time. The act of reading it after I’ve written it helps me see how petty I’m being. Recognizing my pettiness then causes me to shift into gratitude for everything that’s great in my life. And gratitude is extremely motivating. The point is that while I don’t procrastinate often, it can be caused by a number of different factors, and writing helps me get to the bottom of it and get moving.

3.) Better communicator

Have I mentioned that I’m an introvert? One of the key characteristics of an introvert is that we have far, far more thoughts than what comes out of our mouths. A lot of times, I’m just not ready to speak. I might have 4 thoughts on the same topic and if I start speaking without organizing them, I’ll probably confuse myself, never mind the poor listener. Journaling helps me get my thoughts out of my swirling mind. When a topic is particularly complex, the only way to sort it out is to pick up the journal and simply start writing. I may write in circles – making the same point repeatedly with only slightly different angles. But writing it down helps me sort out my thoughts so that I can communicate in a cogent manner. 

4.) Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and exercise control over your emotions, which in turn helps you connect with others. Journaling has helped me in strides on this front by following a simple guide that I learned in college. I took a course on Personal Transformation, which was amazing. Among other techniques, I learned to break down interpretations of an event. I’ll use an example to illustrate. Let’s say I’m running late to work and on the commute, someone cuts me off in traffic. My brain might jump to a conclusion like, “She cut me off just to be a jerk because she could see I’m in a hurry.” In this class, we learned to separate what happened from our interpretations. What actually happened? A lady merged into traffic in front of me, maybe cutting it a little too close given local standards for traffic spacing. When I interpreted what happened, I assigned meaning to the event. She meant harm. She meant to do what she did to prove a point. When I journal about this event, I might rant and rave about it for a few sentences, but then I use the “what happened and what did I interpret” method to break it down. After journaling, I might realize that I created the tight space with my rushed driving. She might have thought she had ample time to pull into traffic had I been going with the flow of normal traffic. Or, maybe she was also in a hurry because she was on the way to the hospital to spend time with an ill child. I really can’t know what was going on with her and I may have had some input in the event. Over time, this practice has become like a muscle that I flex through journaling so that I’m able to process faster in real time, thus giving me more Emotional Intelligence.

5.) Mindfulness Step 1

I didn’t realize it, but when I started journaling on and off about 8 years ago during my divorce, I took my first steps toward a path of mindfulness. dictionary.com defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” I originally started journaling to sort out my thoughts and feelings during my divorce. I needed to address my concerns about the kids and money and the car and the laundry and the bills and the… you get the point. Through journaling, I was able to feel like I was doing something about my concerns. I could write them out to their logical conclusion and see that things would somehow be okay. I was learning to be present. It was a form of meditation for me. Having logged 300 pages in the last five years, I can easily say that journaling was a HUGE first step in my mindfulness journey. 

Getting Started

If these five benefits sound pretty awesome, there’s not really too much to getting started. You might start with a pen and paper. I personally use Pages on Apple products and simply password protect the file to help ensure that it doesn’t get opened or edited by others with whom I share devices. You can do the same with Google Docs and Microsoft products. Whatever you do, stick with it. You might not see the benefits on your first entry, but over time you’ll have your own top five list of benefits.