Monday, October 31, 2011

Why is Everyone So Afraid?

The arrival of Halloween this year made me wonder: Why are so many Americans afraid all of the time? Rather than being scared by vampires or ghouls briefly during October, many citizens seem to be constantly afraid of daily life.

Granted, the last few years have been tough, especially in view of our failing economy and world turmoil. People have experienced increasing unemployment, decreasing real estate values, a volatile stock market and uncertainty at every turn. In our present worldwide economy, problems in other parts of the world -- including Greece and Ireland -- greatly impact stock markets around the globe only contributing to the instability.

This isn't the first time our country has experienced widespread tension but the current crisis has lasted for years without much hope on the horizon. What happened to that old American bravado? Why is everyone so negative about our future?

There might be a logical explanation for our insecurity. It may be that the financial volatility and related concerns have fallen victim to excessive media overexposure. The existence of cable news/information programs and talk radio have naturally driven competition throughout the media. The huge amount of airtime to be filled each day -- which includes many 24-hour channels -- has also ramped up the need for more information to be regurgitated for public consumption. In decades passed, reports merely provided highlights and then moved on to the next story. Now the evening news programs bestow details of the day's investment trading disaster, what analysts think about it and how Congress reacted, sometimes filling more than half of the entire news show. Viewers are left with a single issue enthusiastically repeated and examined from every possible angle.

News editors also seem a little less selective about which features are chosen for reporting. Have you ever watched a piece on the news and wondered how a story of no general concern or interest even made it into the coverage? Chances are the reason is that they have plenty of empty air time to fill. As a result, viewers are exposed to a variety of rather insignificant items of relatively no importance, but shown repeatedly to drive home the point.

There is plenty of work to be done to improve matters in this country. People are struggling every day just to survive, education needs an overhaul and we are still trying to figure out how to bring troops home. But what seems to be missing is focus. While much of the population -- the "99%" -- has learned by necessity to multi-task, the country as a whole has not. Until we can cut out some of the rhetoric and most of the static, we will continue to flail.

We need to concentrate on what really matters and recognize what we can fix and how to do it. To that end, I like this comment by philosopher W.W. Bartley:

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there is none, never mind it.

Let's all try to pull together and find our way back to a positive plan.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

It's the Little Things…

We all have different ideas about what we need to make us happy. Those ideas begin to form during childhood and remain dangling before our vision like the proverbial carrot on a stick. The "happiness thoughts" keeps us thinking ahead, moving forward to attain the goal. Some people might think happiness is found in a big house, a job significant enough to impress others or a hefty bank account. Others aspire to some goal which is likely unobtainable but nevertheless provides a focus.

As we strive to reach our happiness target, we should try to focus on fully experiencing each day in order to make the most of it. After all, it is in the present that we spend our time. View each day as though it really matters -- because it does.

Explore pleasure in the little things of daily life.

This is a habit that I began to practice during an extremely difficult time in my life. When I would awaken each morning, I forced myself to immediately think of something positive to lift my spirits. On the rare occasion when I could not think of anything pleasant, I stopped in my tracks to make that happen. It became an utmost priority. Thinking a good thought first thing in the day set my mood on the right path.

Many days during that period, I might only find one positive element in the entire day; but that was enough. It might be something relatively insignificant -- like wearing a favorite item of clothing, enjoying a delicacy or exotic coffee for breakfast or knowing that a great movie was scheduled on TCM that night. It wasn't the object itself that was important but the deliberate concentration on a pleasant experience.

There are countless stories of concentration camp survivors who lost everything during World War II -- family, home and friends -- then went on to live full and seemingly happy lives. How could these people possibly endure such hardship and tragedy and then go on with their lives? This horror occurred during a period when modern mental health was in its infancy and before doctors prescribed pills to help with anxiety. How did they do it? Surely such extreme situations test an individual's strength. Their ultimate survival required incredible coping skills. They surely learned to keep focused on each day rather than wondering how many days stretched ahead before they could live freely again.

The world continues to challenge us. Even those of us who have much to be thankful for are often discontent with our lives. We need to step back and exam what is really important to us and learn to live fully each day. Take pleasure in the little things. Whether it is lingering over lunch with a friend, relaxing with your pet companion or watching a sunset, the little indulgences can add up to a stack of happy days.

It's a good path to follow.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Several recent events have caused me to think about death.

Not my own specifically, but death in general. Let's face it -- death is part of life's circle, whether it involves losing a loved one, a pet companion or merely experiencing the change of seasons. Although fall and winter are my two favorite seasons, some people find falling leaves and fewer hours of sunshine depressing, even incapacitating. But change will continue occur, whether or not we want it.

Loss has surrounded me during most of my life. A childhood playmate was a polio victim during the 1950s. Two high school friends were killed in a car accident during the summer before my senior year. Then the Vietnam War scooped up a huge number of boys from my hometown. All of these events occurred before I reached the age of 21. Scattered throughout this period were the deaths of my grandparents, paternal and maternal relatives and neighbors. Death was neither easy nor very far away.

Possibly those of us who experience loss early in life have a different perspective. We appreciate that we are all on shaky ground and life brings no guarantees. The biggest shock to my adolescent being was acknowledging the death of people who were my own age. This fact was unsettling to say the least, especially because young people always feel (and hope) they are "immortal." The older we get, the more loss we inevitably suffer.

Perhaps the key to experiencing a rich life is not to waste time dwelling on events of the past. A great percentage of people not only focus on trivial, perceived slights, but repeat the tale to anyone who will listen. This may be a result of watching too much reality television. We somehow feel entitled to complain and criticize, an attitude which spills over into our actual lives. But regardless of the reason, this negative outlook is filled with bitterness and selfishness and, unfortunately, can become contagious.

Instead, we should try to enjoy every day to its fullest, as though each might be our last day. I would imagine people who are killed in some horrible accident -- like a plane crash -- don't spend their final moments recalling the many projects they left unfinished or phone calls they neglected to return. Their thoughts are likely about loved ones or fond memories. I might be wrong on that point. But just think about that for a moment.

We should strive to enjoy each day. Perform random acts of kindness and be appreciative of others. We could all benefit from re-learning how to relax and laugh. Try to live in the moment. Who knows how many more moments we have?

Simple though this approach might be, it is a good guide for daily life.