Walk No. 362: The Learning Curve

canstockphoto3085947It was a mild day for February in Minnesota yesterday. The sun was out and the birds were already doing their territorial and mating songs. After skimming the news for the day, I needed a walk. My mood was dark, as it usually is after taking in the shootings, the bloviating politicians, the wars and violations of human rights around the globe. As someone prone to depression, I have to fight the sense of desolation.

An alarm often goes off in my brain. Do something! Do something! I have that mentality of trying to fix, mediate, improve, or intervene, which leaves me a paralyzed, impotent ball of anger in the face of overwhelming and constant bad news. I thought about writing letters to Congress, refusing to buy certain products, running for local office, donating money to this cause or that. Bandages for my ego and drops in a bucket.

I walked further and thought about a paragraph by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet. I smiled briefly to myself when I realized I was Rumi-nating. Again.


canstockphoto9679624Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened.  Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading.  Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

 By Rumi, As translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks


Let the beauty we love be what we do. I have had that phrase in my head for a week. It breaks down easily for me in a personal context. I love nature, I grow things. I love reading, I write. I love music, I play. I love my family, I parent and nurture. But what does it mean for my role in the world, when suffering is ever-present?

I’ve been thinking about output – what we, as individuals, contribute with our thoughts, words and actions. In The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris, he talks about the nature of our thoughts, many of which are negative, and that the real question we have to ask of them is not, are they true? But, are they helpful?

My brain has been in overdrive this week thinking about how Is it helpful? makes a fantastic barometer for so many things.

canstockphoto10717036I was at my daughter’s viola recital this week. Twenty kids went through short lesson pieces, while parents beamed. My daughter was allowed to do an advanced piece, since she had performance experience. But she faltered and stumbled. Her face turned red, but she kept going. Afterwards she shrugged and said, “Well, you have to fail sometimes.” She wasn’t defeated or being falsely humble. She was okay with her own truth. I was proud of her resiliency.

The girl next to her performed and when she sat down, her mother whispered, “You should have done a better bow to the audience.” She said to my daughter afterwards “Well, you certainly had the longest piece.” My brain was yelling HOW ARE THESE THINGS HELPFUL? The new barometer has yet to be tuned to subtlety.

People talk about being honest. They’re just being honest, to be frank, the truth is, not to be offensive, blah, blah, blah. First of all, any of those phrases tip me off that you’re likely going to insult me, lie your ass off or are about to say something incredibly ignorant. Lately, people have been praising Donald Trump as “telling like it is”, as if he were a wise soothsayer and not a narcissistic horseshit peddler.

canstockphoto6433663Sometimes, out of morbid curiosity, I’ll read online comments on news stories and feel terribly discouraged. This week was different. I read some horrid bigoted and sexist comments and thought “that was NOT helpful”. Admittedly, the voice in my head was sarcastic, but it did something. It neutralized the hate. It just didn’t have the same impact on me.

My brain takes me down a gloomy path, in the hopes of arriving at a useful conclusion. If, at any moment, my life can be cut short, how would I have wanted to spend the moments before? Worrying, fearful, angry, booing some hateful blowfish at a political rally? Writing angry responses to the wingnuts online? Or, would I prefer to focus on that which is helpful, that which is beautiful, that which adds value to the world?

I think about what some of these public figures have put out into the world, compared to 20 kids anxiously screeching away on their stringed instruments. I think about Trump’s opportunistic hatred and the kids’ nervous hope. I’d lay odds on those twenty kids with the potential for making beautiful music over a grown man reaping the temporary rewards of bigotry and ignorance.

As I wade through my brain swamp, I run through the what-ifs, the choices that I can make, the actions I can take, and I feel that surge of anger. But always and inevitably, I end up thinking about love and compassion.

There’s no arguing with those whose minds are closed. There’s no amount of hatred that can solve the problem of hatred. There’s no amount of aggression that will cure others of aggression. There’s no war to end all wars.

It’s a harder path to walk, deliberately choosing compassion over all the other options.


My anger arises easily. The desire to strike out, to cut down, to rage against, is so heady, so momentarily fulfilling. But it leaves scars and ashes and the sense that I am a lesser person for it. And I know that is not helpful.

I read the news this morning and sighed. It was time for another walk. A mile sooner than yesterday, I reached the same conclusion – love outranks hate, creating is better than destruction, hope is better than despair. If I’m lucky, tomorrow I’ll figure it out before I reach the end of the driveway.

Scrooge in 2015: The Everyday Path to Redemption

I sat incanstockphoto0044344 the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis last week, self-consciously wiping the tears off my face. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 1951 version with Alistair Sim or the 1992 Muppet version or a live version on stage, A Christmas Carol always has me sniffling by the time the third spirit arrives. I know what is coming. The break of day and redemption.

This idea of redemption, not in an afterlife or by last minute acts of desperation, but in the present, is such a beautiful, gut-wrenching concept to me. And I don’t think a supernatural fright is necessary to experience it.

Most of us have not committed egregious, prosecutable crimes. For those who have, I leave it to their victims to offer redemption. Most of us are petty criminals – innocuous in our envy, silently savoring our pride or our appearance, holding petty grudges or being snarky. I do something nearly daily that in hindsight I am embarrassed or ashamed about, whether it be an act or a thought. The nature of being human means that some of our layers aren’t things we’d want others to witness.

Perhaps, too, the redemption I learned about in church is something too ephemeral and distant to mean much. So often it seems that people use religious concepts of redemption as a way of excusing behavior they’ve made no attempt to modify or for which they feel no remorse. Real redemption lies in making amends and then making different choices. It requires that introspection which differentiates us as humans – our willingness to recognize our flaws and our ability to learn to do things differently, to be different.

As a writer, this has always been something that niggles at my little gray cells. I like happy endings in stories. I like it when characters make different choices that lead them on an upward trajectory. I like to believe the most seemingly irredeemable humans find their way into the light. This is why I’ve not enjoyed the latest trend of fictional protagonists as antiheroes – those who are repugnant in their choices and never find a redemptive path. I don’t see the point of elucidating these characters if they are going to continue making the same kinds of choices with inevitably worsening consequences.

Culturally, the antihero seems to dominate public attention. Heroes and heroines are eventually tarnished. Moral rectitude is replaced by expediency and attention-seeking stunts. The myths of goodness in the public sphere are like bad alibis – easy to poke holes in, unable to withstand scrutiny. True heroes and heroines are going about their work, sometimes unregarded and unnoticed, but staying the course. And every day, they are still learning and seeking redemption by choosing in those singular moments to be better than what they might otherwise be.

canstockphoto13945863This is the true beauty of redemption – each moment is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to scrutinize the uglier bits of our personalities and decide to be better. It’s a chance to look at whatever prejudicial beliefs that have permeated our cells and decide to be smarter. It’s a chance to be a better friend or parent or student or employee. It’s an opportunity to say sorry and mean it. Each day, we are presented with small choices and interactions in which we can redeem ourselves. We can be just a little bit better than what our nature dictates. I think that is a miracle unto itself – no spirits required.

 “Many laughed to see this alteration in him, but he let them laugh and little heeded them, for he knew that no good thing in this world ever happened, at which some did not have their fill of laughter. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him. And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843

May your 2015 be filled with redemptive moments and joy – keep it well!


Currently trying to redeem my brain cells with these books:

On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson

The Moral Imagination by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry