I’m a family history nerd. (Shameless plug for KevinMDoyle.com)
I recently completed a project where I tracked all of my mom’s ancestral lines back to the immigrant ancestors. The closest immigrants to me are still three generations removed. My great-grandfather came over from Croatia around 1910. The furthest generation of immigrants is six generations removed from me. My great-great-great-great-grandparents Martin Kohl and Barbara Shitz immigrated from Germany sometime around 1830.
I think about them a lot.
I think how terrifying it must have been for them to leave their villages, cities, and towns. I think of the courage that they showed to leave everything they ever knew to come to a new home in a new place, far away from friends and family and often among strangers.
I think about them when I watch the news or see the latest anti-immigrant rhetoric or policy from politicians in the West. I see my own immigrant ancestors in the faces of the refugees and immigrants I see in the news.
I think of how horrible it must be to be forced to flee your home because of war or threats of violence. How traumatic it must be to see a country you love – everything you’ve ever known – reduced to ruins and know that your only hope of survival comes from running.
I think of the anti-immigrant sentiments my ancestors faced. Anti-Irish feelings were strong in the United States. Eastern Europeans were often viewed as an alien force. All of my immigrants on my mom’s side were, to my knowledge, Catholics. They faced prejudice because of their religion.
I think about the anti-immigrant rhetoric being spewed now. Some politicians compare immigrants and refugees to rapists or vermin. Some policies are designed to strip them at the border of any wealth they’ve managed to hold onto. They too face prejudice because of their religion.
I think of how blessed I am that my ancestors got out before these poor people. I think of how blessed I am that they went through the struggle these people are going through now so that I didn’t have to.
And I think about how easy it would be for me to be in their position.
Let’s face it. I didn’t do anything at all to be born where I was. Talent didn’t get me here. Neither was it connections or hard work.
No. It was dumb luck. Credit can only go to fate that led to me being born in a middle-class town in the middle of the richest country to ever grace their face of the planet.
So, I refuse to greet these people with the hostility others greeted my own immigrant ancestors with. I refuse to support the policies and politicians that use the misery of these poor people as a distraction from or reasons for the economic stagnation and other problems that face our countries.
I hope that I am never put in a situation where I have to flee from war or violence or economic hopelessness. But, I hope that if I do, I am treated with more compassionate policies and words than those these people face right now.
I recently picked up a book by Hal Elrod called “The Miracle Morning.” The book’s central point is given away by its subtitle: “The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life (Before 8AM).” Here’s the idea: get up earlier and take a bit of time to exercise, journal, meditate, and establish other healthy habits.
I’m a sucker for new self-help routines so I had big plans for Monday morning.
I planned to get up at 7:00 a.m. and hit the gym. I was going to go through my workout routine and then take a nice, long swim.
When my alarm started blaring, I reached for the snooze button as quickly as I could. I knew I was doing it. I knew I shouldn’t do it. But, do it I did.
When I finally sat up at about 7:40, I didn’t want to go the gym. I sat there for a few minutes and stretched. My internal monologue was listing off reasons on why I should just skip today and start fresh tomorrow.
But, I went anyway.
On the walk home, I was beating myself up about how the morning had gone. I hadn’t stuck to the plan that I had made for myself. I had slept in. I hadn’t gotten in the workout that I planned. I failed.
Have you gone through something similar? Have you failed to meet the standards you set for yourself and then came down on yourself about it?
Why do we resort to self-flagellation?
Sure, I woke up later than I thought I would be and, sure, I didn’t get a swim in after my routine, but I still got up earlier than I had the day before, and I still got myself to the gym. Those were two successes that I had by 9:00 a.m. Those were two wins!
Tuesday morning was the same story. I laid in bed and could hear the wind howling outside. It was either turn off my alarm, get dressed, and head out or hit snooze one or two or nine times and remain snuggled under the blankets. You know which one I chose.
And you know what I said to myself as I finally walked to the gym.
I’d wager that your story is the same. You may not have hit 100% but maybe 80% instead. Or 70%. Even 30-40% is more than you would’ve hit had you made no effort whatsoever.
And that is something to be proud of.
Why is it so much harder to show compassion for ourselves in those times that we fall short than it is to show our loved ones?
Why are we so much harder on ourselves than to someone we may meet on the street.
Compassion is not always easy to give but it seems infinitely harder to give to ourselves.
My assignment to you (besides reading my blog and sharing all of the articles that you find interesting) is to try and show as much compassion to yourself as you would to your friends and families. The next time you fall somewhat short of the goals you have set, look at what you’ve accomplished instead. Congratulate yourself on the battles you won even if the war-victory eludes you for now.
Life can be hard. There is no reason to make it harder.
I like to drink. I really like to drink.
And if I can find a little, hole-in-the-wall bar, I like it even more.
I think one of my favorite things about these places, even more than the booze, is the people who you meet.
People in bars. People in dive bars. People in dive bars at 4:00 in the afternoon on a Monday are different.
They are more honest and open than people outside. I think if you are in a bar on a Monday afternoon, you want to talk and you want someone to listen to you.
I like to hear people’s stories almost as much as a like to drink.
So, that’s how I found myself at a local bar on a Monday afternoon here in St. John’s. Within 15 minutes of walking in the door, I had made a friend. She was a lovely lady a little older than me who had been in the city for over 20 years. She talked and I listened. I talked and she listened.
She told me about her job. She told me about the heartbreak of family tragedies. She told me about the excitement and joy she gets from her grandchildren.
I was happy to listen.
When it was my turn I told her about how I came to be in St. John’s. I told her about what I hoped to do here and some of my fears about what would happen if those things didn’t work out.
She was happy to listen.
There is something about drinking in bars, especially on a Monday afternoon, that strips away all the pretense and posturing of life. No one is there to impress or one-up the guy across from them. We are all there to forget for a little bit, to share stories, and to commiserate with one another.
Without judgment, we drink and we share. We gain insights into our lives and gain insights into the lives of others.
The booze is the bonding agent.
Over three or four beers my new friend and I shared a lot of stories – some funny and some sad. We each got a tiny little window into the other’s life and, at the end, I think we both felt a little better.
Had we met in a different place, I don’t think this would have happened. The coffee shop or the line at the bank don’t lend themselves to these types of experiences.
Had we met at a different time, I don’t think this would have happened. At 10:00 on a Friday, it’s a different crowd wanting different things. Those people are there to blow off steam after a week of work. They want loud music and strong alcohol. They want to drink, dance, and shout the night away.
The types of experiences I enjoy most only exist in those quiet hours that belong to the regulars, the slow drinkers who chat amongst themselves about sports, the weather, families, and politics. We don’t care about music. We don’t care about dancing or bouncing from bar to bar. We want to sit and drink and listen and be listened to.
I don’t think we are broken or sad although some may disagree. I don’t think we are alcoholics but some may. Instead, I think that we need to connect in a way that is hard to do in the outside world. And it is definitely hard to do when completely sober.
Like a confessional or a therapist’s office, there is something about an afternoon spent in a bar that opens you up and exposes the real human in you. It also makes you more receptive and empathetic to the humanity in others. Time spent there lays bare all of the conflicts and questions that you don’t want to (or can’t) face in the cold light of the outside world.
The problems of the self and the world are solved in a bar at 4:00 in the afternoon on a Monday. Again and again.
There’s a cat that lives on the porch of the house where I am staying. He doesn’t belong to my landlady, but she feeds him and gives him a covered house to sleep in on the porch. So, he’s agreed to live with her.
He begins his day on her porch. Waking up and eating his breakfast. Then, he moves to the next house and eats there. He hits three to four houses in the neighborhood, enjoying breakfast at each. Then he disappears and does whatever cats do during the day. I see his tracks in the snow crisscrossing the neighborhood. Everyday, he follows his routine.
I am terrified of routine.
I think, if I am completely honesty with myself, one of the main reasons that I moved to Vietnam is because I felt my life settling into a routine in the United States. Everyday it was the same. I woke up. I went to work. I went to lunch. I went back to work. I went home. I surfed the web and watched television. I went to bed.
Repeat. Ad infinitum.
I felt that my life was slipping away. Like Lester Burnham in the film American Beauty, I felt…sedated.
I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back. – Lester Burnham
How do you get it back?
Some people join a gym. Or volunteer at a hospital or pet shelter. Some people have children with their partner. Some people accept it for what it is, roll over, and go back to sleep.
Me? I moved to Vietnam.
But, it was a temporary fix. Vietnam is anything but routine but still, toward the end of my yearlong stay there, the dreaded routine came creeping back.
So, I moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Back in the West routine is around every corner. Things are comfortable here. They are predictable. But for a while, they will be different. And that is good enough for me. That is the drug that I crave.
I don’t know why I fear routine.
If you stop and look around, everything runs on routine. Your body needs to eat and sleep in a routine-fashion. Birds migrate. Some animals hibernate. The tides come in and out and the seasons come and go, each in their own turn.
On a larger scale, our planet spins and revolves around our sun. The other planets do as well. Our galaxy has its own rotation.
Everything accepts its routine and lives according to it. Yet I fight it with every fiber of my being. And I know I am not alone.
So, what is a man to do?
I have been thinking about this a lot. After all, there are 16 inches of snow on the ground. I have a lot of time to think.
One routine that I embrace wholeheartedly is smoking. I know…I know…there is slight evidence to show that it may be bad for me, but bear with me.
Everything about smoking is a routine. I get up and go outside. I take the cigarette from my pack and place it in my mouth. I flick my lighter and raise the newborn flame to the end of my cigarette. I draw quickly on the newly lit cigarette to set the flame. And finally, I enjoy the first, glorious, deep draw from the cigarette, and pull the smoke deep into my lungs. I exhale slowly, sending the smoke into the atmosphere.
While it is routine, it is mindful. There is nothing about my smoking routine that I don’t pay attention to and do with deliberation. I am focused. I am alert. I am mindful.
Mindfulness is 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.
Mindfulness, I think, is the key distinction between my smoking routine and the other routines of daily life. I am not mindful on the bus or at the grocery store. I just heedlessly wander through.
But with smoking, I am mindful.
Maybe mindfulness is the key to acceptance of routine because, unless you are planning to upend your life every year like I have, routine will have to be accepted eventually.
Routine will catch up to me. Even I can’t run forever. I have to learn to accept it.
How do you deal with routine? I’d love to read your methods in the comments below.
Travel is safe. Or, rather, travel is safe but with risks. Risks are involved in everything you do. It’s all about being comfortable living with them.
I met a lovely woman in Hanoi. She was a little older than me and was traveling by herself. Four of us sat around a table drinking beer, when she announced her travel plans.
She planned to buy a motorcycle and drive from Hanoi to Saigon by herself.
She asked what we thought of her idea.
Two of my friends (one Vietnamese and one Western) thought it was a bad idea. Well, not exactly bad, but certainly not good.
I thought it was a great idea. As did my friend.
We had a long conversation during which my friends presented many logical reasons on why it was not a good idea to do what my friend was planning on doing. But, sometimes we don’t make decisions from a logical place. And that’s okay.
Whenever I here about an adventure like this – because that’s what it is…an adventure – I am reminded of one of the first travelers I met. It was shortly after my divorce when I was looking to meet new and interesting people. I started meeting up with a group of couchsurfers in St. Louis. One of the gentlemen I met was named Mark. He planned on quitting his job, flying into Eastern Europe and hitchhiking around that part of Europe.
We had a conversation that went something like this:
Me: “Do you know where you are going to stay?”
Me: “Do you know how long you will be gone?”
Mark: “Not really.”
Me: “Do you know what you will do for money?”
Mark: “I have some saved but not really.”
Me: “Isn’t that dangerous?!”
Mark: “I figure I would rather die hitchhiking in Eastern Europe than die in my bed in Collinsville, Illinois.”
That last sentence of Mark’s has really stuck with me and I think of it every time I am faced with something that is outside of my comfort zone. And I thought of it when my friend told me her plans to ride to Saigon.
Sure, something bad could happen. But, something bad could happen here. Something bad can happen anywhere. So what the hell do you have to lose?
Given the axiom of the universe that something bad can always happen, what are you going to do?
I don’t know what happened to Mark. I am sure that he completed his trip hitchhiking and returned safely to his life in the West. But, I hope that he is still out there, six years later, hitchhiking and working his way around the world.
As for my friend in Vietnam, last I heard she was in Nha Trang, about 870 miles south of Hanoi and 270 miles north of her final destination.
I’m always happy to meet people who listen very intently to all the logical reasons that they shouldn’t do something (like Mark listened to me and my biking friend listened to my two other friends) and then say, “Meh. Fuck it all,” and do what they want to do anyway.
I find those people inspiring and I draw strength from them when I face risk in my own life.
And the world is a sure-as-shit more interesting place with them in it.