How to be a good creature.

climbingfishSy Montgomery’s delightful book, How To Be a Good Creature, is a ‘Memoir in Thirteen Animals‘. What an interesting way to organize a memoir, focusing on the impact various animals have made on her life and what they have taught her about co-existing as fellow creatures on this planet! It is a profound, yet simple, book.

If you were to write a memoir of your life through that lens, who would the animals be that impacted your life in meaningful and enriching ways? What life lessons did you learn? How were your limits expanded from sharing space with that fellow creature?

For inspiration, consider Montgomery’s words:

All the animals I’ve known–from the first bug I must have spied as an infant, to the moon bears I met in Southeast Asia, to the spotted hens I got to know in Kenya–have been good creatures. Each individual is a marvel and perfect in his or her own way. Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding. A spider can taste the world with her feet. Birds can see colors we can’t begin to describe. A cricket can sing with his legs and listen with his knees. A dog can hear sounds above the level of human hearing, and can tell if you’re upset even before you’re aware of it yourself. Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.

I often wish I could go back in time and tell my young, anxious self that my dreams weren’t in vain and my sorrows weren’t permanent. I can’t do that, but I can do something better. I can tell you that teachers are all around to help you: with four legs or two or eight or even none, some with internal skeletons, some without. All you have to do is recognize them as teachers and be ready to hear their truths.

Today, consider the wonder of creation around you and thank your teachers of the non-human persuasion.

 

Stand in awe.

awe

When was the last time you stood in awe of the universe and felt your own smallness within the world’s immensity? It turns out experiencing that smallness, that awe and wonder, is good for what ails you. It could also be part of the glue that holds society together. Scientists believe awe has an important impact on well-being:

One important distinction between awe and other emotions (like inspiration or surprise) is that awe makes us feel small — or feel a sense of “self-diminishment” in science-speak. And that’s good for us, Stellar explains.

We spend a lot of our time thinking about what’s going on in our world and what’s affecting us directly. “Awe changes that, making us see ourselves as a small piece of something larger.”

Feeling small makes us feel humbled (thereby lessening selfish tendencies like entitlement, arrogance, and narcissism). And feeling small and humbled makes us want to engage with others and feel more connected to others, Gordon adds.

“All of that is important for wellbeing,” she says.

Data from a 2018 study that both Stellar and Gordon worked on found that individuals who reported experiencing awe more often in their daily lives were rated more humble by their friends. And after participants experienced awe as part of the study (by watching awe-inspiring videos), they acknowledged strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced way and they were more likely to recognize the role of outside forces (such as luck, a greater being, or others) in their personal accomplishments (such as getting accepted into a university), compared with individuals who had not watched awe-inspiring videos.

These effects of feeling small, feeling humbled, and the desire to connect with others, according to evolutionary scientists, is thought to be part of the reason over the course of human history mankind has formed groups, societies, and lived collectively.

As identified in the article, to experience more awe in your life try these four things: Go out more in nature, get out of your comfort zone, look up, and have an open mind. Or, as Dr. Beau Lotto puts it, “engage with the world with a more open mind, see possibilities, ask questions, and look for the impossible.” It can only be good for us to move our own selves out of the center of the universe in our sensibilities.

Be kind.

kind

As we bump and bustle our way through life, we often don’t notice other people much, maybe never pause to wonder what they may be going through in life. Usually they are just the person in the way, or the one in front of us in line, or the one who is doing a dismally poor job of getting our order right. But if we could step back and see their interior lives, we may get a whole lot of patience in a hurry. Everybody is carrying a load of some kind. Everybody hurts.

Or, as Jon Pavlovitz says in this insightful article, everybody grieves:

If we could keep this reality in the forefront of our mind as we make our way through the hustle and bustle, we would be gentler, kinder, more patient. And that would do a world of good for our weary world.

Dust you are

dust

The world existed before us and will go on after us. That’s a hard thing to wrap our minds around because we see things from our point of view. It’s hard to picture a scenario without ourselves in it. And yet, that day will come. Our chance to make our mark will end. While it seems at first like a very sobering thought, it can be uplifting because it reminds us that we are here now; this is our time to dance, to love, to give, to celebrate, to reach out to the other dust particles like ourselves and do our bit. This is our moment. Let’s make the most of it.

Consider the birds.

silence

Consider the birds. They have so much to teach us. They sing; they fly; they soar. When the storm is over, they come out and sing, fly, and soar again. They vary dramatically from the tiny hummingbird to the great bald eagle, but they have so much in common. And, when we are quiet, they remind us to look up, to look to the future and the possibility that lies there. It turns out considering the birds is good for our well-being, keeping depression at bay.

Be still and notice the birds. Do you see the vulture with its huge wings soaring above you? Do you hear the hawk shriek?  Do you see the crows tuck in their wings and dive to open them again and rise only after you gasp, worried?

Watch them bathe in a puddle, delighting in the way the water splashes around them. Listen to them sing.

They sing for you.

What lies between you and me?

attentiveness

Loneliness is an epidemic. That heart to heart connection with others, our world, our communities is lost as we race from one To Do to the next. Superficial greetings take the place of deep conversation, and we substitute more for better.

When was the last time you felt truly heard by another person–not heard so they could diagnose you or give you instructions for how to do better–but heard as though someone paused to notice the real you, the deep down you?

When was the last time you paused to consider another person, not as a means to an end on your own journey, but as a person with their own dreams and heart desires, their own wants and needs, their own untold story hoping to be heard?

When was the last time you paused to consider the world around you, from the beauty of nature to the miracle of your own next breath?

Perhaps our loneliness epidemic would be eased if we all were to slow down and notice each other, pause to realize we are here for each other,  and be vulnerable enough to allow ourselves to see and be seen.

Mary Oliver’s poems open us in so many ways– to nature, to each other, to our own hidden places. Perhaps this one on loneliness will speak to you today:

Loneliness

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or not.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

Live with the beetle, and the wind.

~ Mary Oliver ~

 

 

 

A heartfelt apology can lead to reconciliation.

goodapology

 

Some apologies make things worse. They don’t feel like apologies at all. They feel, instead, like just more hurt. Other apologies acknowledge the wound and help it heal. What makes the difference?

In When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Making Things Right with Those You Love, Gary Chapman (of Five Love Languages fame) and Jennifer Thomas suggest that a true apology must have six characteristics:

Expressing regret–It’s important for an apology to be for something you did or said.  The more specific, the more it acknowledges the harm caused, the better. “I’m sorry you’re so sensitive,” doesn’t really feel like an apology because it is just restating some perceived flaw in the victim and isn’t focussing on anything you did wrong. Even if the harm was wholly unintended, when your actions cause another person pain, an apology is warranted. It goes to the very essence of the apology: I did not mean to hurt you.

Accepting responsibility— Yes, the pressures of the world can sometimes lead us to get wound up and stressed and to hurt other people, but that does not make it the world’s fault. We control ourselves. We are responsible if we act badly. Blaming the boss, the dog, the economy, the other drivers is deflecting. Apologies for the state of the world or all its ills will not feel like a real apology to the person you lashed out at. Apologizing for losing your temper or not considering the effects of your actions will.

Making restitution–“How can I make it right?” are powerful words. It shows an acknowledgement that what you did caused someone else harm. Maybe you can’t make it right. Maybe you can never make it right. But listening to the victim explain the damage is a powerful step forward in the process. Listening here is key–no justifying your actions, no quarreling with the facts, no defenses, just listening to the other person share their perspective. If there is something you can do to make things better, do that thing.

Genuinely repenting–If you are truly sorry, and have listened deeply to the pain you’ve caused, you will not want to cause that person pain again. You will stop causing the damage. You will want to change. Maybe you will need to write down the steps you want to take to prevent causing further harm. Maybe you will slip up and need to start again. But the most important thing is that you will try to not do this again. Otherwise, are you really sorry?

Requesting Forgiveness–“Can you forgive me?” are powerful words. They show you care about the relationship. They show you understand you did things wrong. They show you are not in control of the relationship.

Everyone messes up. Not everyone takes responsibility for messing up. When we do take responsibility for the harm we’ve caused, it may strengthen our relationships and help them grow stronger. Trust can reenter, fostering healing.

Randy Pausch, the author of the quote above, gave a powerful Last Lecture before he died young of pancreatic cancer. His timeless words can teach us all a lesson about life and living.

 

 

 

Hope.

hope

Sunrise defeats night. The darkness will be driven away. When in the midst of the darkness, it may feel unending, but as day follows night, this, too, shall pass. The beauty of a sunrise is a lovely image to keep in mind when going through a problem. As sunrise defeats night, so hope conquers a problem. In times of great difficulty, we must hold on to hope that things will improve and that we can help.

Jane Goodall speaks to her hope for our future and, specifically, her hope in our youth in this moving speech.

She is right: if we don’t have hope, we give up, we do nothing. She says, “In this world of violence and fear, we must have hope for a better future.” That hope will sustain us and give us strength to solve the problems we face, as surely as day will follow night if we hold on.