The Examined Life in Practice, Step 5: Let Yourself Imagine a Better Tomorrow

So what if one starts to "question everything" and to "think for yourself"?

How do you stay mentally healthy and keep effectively pursuing joy?

I am looking at these steps:

1) look at the way the individuals and groups that form your intimate and social circles affect you.
2) begin the process of deliberately building healthy, safe relationships.
3) start from where you are and who you are.
4) build healthy daily habits.
5) let yourself imagine a better tomorrow.
6) walk forward with continuity and kindness toward that better tomorrow.

Step Five: Let Yourself Imagine a Better Tomorrow

In this step, I am not primarily addressing your ability to articulate a description of what you hope a happy future will look like for you, but rather addressing your ability to feel hope and enthusiasm about the rest of your life.

We are not motivated by our analysis or even by our goals and plans.  Those things give the front part of our brain something to think about, but they do not make us wake up with joy or wake up with fear or depression.  Our motivations (and procrastinations and fears) are based on neurochemistry that we cannot control with our cognitive processes alone.  For instance, you cannot make yourself snap out of depression by telling yourself that depression is unwarranted in your current circumstances.

The reason that this step follows the steps about your social life and your inner perceptions of your current reality and your daily habits is because those things are the primary shapers of your ability to imagine a better tomorrow with your heart rather than with your head.  They will not necessarily heal PTSD or your genetically-driven mood disorders; but without them, you are unlikely to make any progress on those anxieties and struggles.  So start by reading those earlier posts, if you have not yet, or if you cannot recall their content.

After you have a foundation of some healthy relationships and some real understanding of who you are now and some progress in healthy daily habits, there are 6 main tools I use and recommend that you use to allow you to live in a space where you have an increasing measure of peace and hope and enthusiasm about your future:
  1. Wake up without an alarm and early enough to lie bed and consider the way you feel and what the day ahead of you holds.
  2. Fill your life with the music and art that bring you joy. 
  3. Plan the solitude that you want to have.
  4. Give yourself permission to get to know God.
  5. Plan the time you want with people who energize you.
  6. Pay attention to your emotional reactions all the time, as if you are someone else watching you to see what brings you joy and pain -- and plan small changes in response to what you see so that you experience increasing joy and peace and decreasing pain, to the extent it is within your control.
You are probably wondering why this list is not in my last post about daily habits -- and indeed, they are habits that you can consider as you work that aspect of your life.   The reason they are in this post is because my point is not about habits but rather about paying attention to your mood and giving yourself permission to grow in peace and hope and to let depression and pain fade to the past.  That is something that it is hard to do before you have mastered the other habits around work and family and housework and personal health.

So, after you have been practicing daily habits that are conscious rather than either just a repetition of what your were taught or what you rebelled against doing, you can add to them these ways to allow yourself to imagine a better tomorrow:

  • Wake up without an alarm and early enough to lie bed and consider the way you feel and what the day ahead of you holds.   This requires going to bed early enough that you can sleep until you wake up naturally and long enough ahead of an alarm that you can luxuriate in bed and consider your life for as long as you want.  (If you doubt the power of this practice, I recommend the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker PhD.)
  • Fill your life with the music and art that bring you joy. As you spend time driving or sitting at the computer or walking or sitting on your sofa in the evening, stop giving your time to websites or programming that sucks you in but gives you no energy to walk away and do something that matters to your vision of tomorrow.  Give yourself permission to go sleep 2 hours early or go for a walk as you listen to music or an encouraging or important book or podcast, rather than to sit and watch 3 hours of news or sitcoms that are fine but not as good as you deserve emotionally and intellectually and spiritually.
  • Plan the solitude that you want to have.  If you are energized by 8 hours of solitude a day and several days of solitude a month, then find ways to change your life to allow for that solitude.  On the other hand, if you are an extrovert and you only need and want tiny tastes of solitude in your life, still pay attention to your need for that much solitude, and make sure you schedule it and get it.  We all need to periodically detach from all the voices around us in order to hear our own voice in silence, let alone the voice of God.
  • Give yourself permission to get to know God.  I am a Christian and so my practices and beliefs let me dance with the 3-fold God who is creator and who became human and who inhabits me now, but I believe that all of our practices and beliefs will be used by the God-Who-Is-Reality to pull each one of us out of our ideologies and religions and into communion with TRUTH itself.  Spend time pursuing the God Who is pursuing you!  Healthy faith gives us greater peace and hope and joy.
  • Plan the time you want with people who energize you. Find ways to schedule time where you are present to the key people in your life who bring you peace and joy and hope.  Find ways to bring that presence to them as well, and give them back a store of energy.  As I said in Step Two - community: make small changes in your workplace and relationships that move them toward something healthier, and give yourself permission to honor your own desires in your plans for your career and your family commitments. When you have committed yourself to hard situations (with sick parents, demanding children, or a difficult spouse, for instance), make sure you do all you can to balance that time with tastes of healthy friendships or family relationships that feed you emotionally and spiritually.
  • Pay attention to your emotional reactions all the time, as if you are someone else watching you to see what brings you joy and pain -- and plan small changes in response to what you see so that you experience increasing joy and peace and decreasing pain, to the extent it is within your control.  Parents learn to take care of their children in this way, and friends and partners learn to care for their companions in this way.  We each deserve that same kind of patient care from ourselves that we believe parents should extend to their children.

All of these practices, as well as many others that you are conscious of and that I neglect to mention here, will allow you to grow in your ability to imagine a better tomorrow.  If you are striving to live an examined life rather than simply being herded forward with the rest of your generation, you need the sustained will and perspective that will allow you to know the difference.  Resolve to deliberately prioritize your peace and hope and joy so that you can sustain a deliberate walk forward day by day and moment by moment.

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The Examined Life in Practice, Step 4: Build Healthy Daily Habits

So what if one starts to "question everything" and to "think for yourself"?

How do you stay mentally healthy and keep effectively pursuing joy?

I am looking at these steps:

1) look at the way the individuals and groups that form your intimate and social circles affect you.
2) begin the process of deliberately building healthy, safe relationships.
3) start from where you are and who you are.
4) build healthy daily habits.
5) let yourself imagine a better tomorrow.
6) walk forward with continuity and kindness toward that better tomorrow.

Step Four: 
Our daily habits are like the fixed recurring expenses in a balanced (or unbalanced) budget.  They are the ways that we take care of the basics of life in ways that form the foundation for the extras of life, and when our habits do not cover some aspect of living that requires regular attention, we end up with problems.

I am addressing this part of living as my fourth step (instead of as an earlier step) because we learn and reinforce habits from and through our community, and because adjusting those habits requires a growing knowledge of who you are and where you are.  When we see that our personal resources of time, energy, and circumstances do not lead us to good daily and weekly habits, we need to be able to figure out WHY before we figure out what to do about that.

The Values and Habits of Your Community of Origin
Before you can remember your daily life, you lived in an environment and routine created for you by your parents and/or caregivers.  You internalized their rhythms of sleep and activity, their times and rituals in preparing and eating food, their ways of interacting with each other and with you, their times of personal grooming and housework, and every other observable aspect to you of their daily lives.  You absorbed their real values as they demonstrated them to you through years of these routines.

Not far along the way, they worked to incorporate you into this small society in which they lived.  They tried to get you to sleep when they needed to sleep and eat at times that worked to not disrupt the rest of their habits.  They tried to groom you and dress you in ways that fit their culture's values.  They tried to teach you to interact in ways that fit into their own community.

Morality, for many of us, never goes beyond what we internalized at that young age: good people adapt to the community around them, learn to do what is requested of them, and learn eventually to teach others to do the same.  Bad people question those routines and interactions and get in the way of a smoothly-functioning life.   For a small child who is just learning to walk and eat and play and form friendships, this is a good and healthy place to start.

For those of us who are adults, morality must go beyond this construct if we are to actually build healthy daily habits, because our world is never the same as the world that we were born into, and because it is not possible to build effective daily habits for ones adult self unless one has a morality that considers whether ones daily habits are contributing to the life one wants for oneself and ones community.  To consider this, we continue the habits we were taught until we have reason to believe that they are broken.

The habits we were taught are broken if the life or community they produce is chaotic in some way or leaves basic needs unmet in some way.  If there is some large gap in a needed resource because of our habits, or if there is some obvious task that needs to be done but is neglected because of habits that were never previously needed, then it is obvious that habits need adjusting.

The habits we were taught are broken if we find ourselves unable or unwilling to continue certain habits in the same way that we were taught.   This may not  be evidence of changed circumstances or resources, but rather evidence of shifting values or different personalities.  This requires discernment and is why healthy community and healthy self-knowledge are so important.

Creating and Tweaking Health Habits

We begin with the habits we have today, which either mimic what we were taught to do, or show our rebellion against what we were taught to do, or reflect our best attempts to develop habits to this point that would take us where we want to go and make us who we want to be.  If they mostly work, awesome!  If not, put down the 20 objects you are juggling and pick up just one, in this moment.  Leave the others.

You are allowed to let things deliberately "fall apart" for a few hours or days as long as you feed the baby or dog and do nothing criminal.  Your goal is to quickly get up to speed in meeting the responsibilities that only you can meet.

So consider your basic responsibilities.  You need to to care for your own body and health.  You need to groom yourself and dress yourself.  You need to pay your bills.  You need to do your share of housework and care for any vehicle you use.  You need to maintain basic relationships and care for any persons or animals or plants that are dependent upon you.  And you have other basic responsibilities you can add to this list.

Then consider your daily and weekly habits, and how well they address your basic responsibilities.  What does not work?  Why?  What can be changed?

Next, ask for any help you may need in making changes that will be effective, and ask for permission to neglect any responsibility that you really cannot fulfill and that someone else could take over.  Keep doing the daily things that work, and stop doing the daily things that get in the way of it all.  Remember, it is a budget, and if you have more responsibility than time and energy, something is going to be neglected.  Choose deliberately what to neglect so that you do not let life or others cause you to neglect the things you personally most value.

Daily practice:

Each day is an opportunity to spend your time and energy on the things that will create the life and world that you want to experience during your life and that you want to help leave for those who come after you.  Your daily habits will either help you accomplish that, or will keep you enmeshed in someone else's vision at the expense of a shared vision -- or worse, will be a reflection of your inner rebellion against following their vision without doing the work to create and live your own vision.

Each day will be a give and take between the habits you create that allow you to be in the moment and grow wise and strong, and the unexpected daily circumstances and interruptions that force you out of your plan and habits and into reality.   You get to juggle your plan, your reflection, and your responses.  You get to decide when to lower your expectations of yourself or change your view of reality.  You get to acknowledge new information about what brings you joy and new information about what exhausts you.  You get to do a daily accounting for your resources and time and energy and what you spent them on and how you grew them and how you shared them.  Or you get to put your head in the sand and let it all go away, unexamined.


The steps toward the Examined Life in Practice begin with our community, but ultimately belong to each one of us individually.  We are taught daily habits by our community before we even know what it is to learn.  There are societal pressures and internal pressures on each of us throughout our lives to simply conform to societal norms, and to show that primarily by our daily habits.   And in our daily habits we determine whether we are actually living an Examined Life in Practice, or whether we have just enjoyed the mental exercise of analyzing the life we share.

Paint the life and world you want to see, one brush-stroke at a time.  Your habits are those brush-strokes.

Step back and look at what you are painting each day.

Then pick up the same brushes, mix the paints for the next layer, and add the next layer -- stroke by stroke.

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The Examined Life in Practice, Step 3: Start from Where You Are and Who You Are

So what if one starts to "question everything" and to "think for yourself"?

How do you stay mentally healthy and keep effectively pursuing joy?

I am looking at these steps:

1) look at the way the individuals and groups that form your intimate and social circles affect you.
2) begin the process of deliberately building healthy, safe relationships.
3) start from where you are and who you are.
4) build healthy daily habits.
5) let yourself imagine a better tomorrow.
6) walk forward with continuity and kindness toward that better tomorrow.

Step Three: 
There are a million articles, books, blog posts, and sermons out there about starting from where you are.  They are worth looking at!  But my perspective is just a little narrower than that, probably because of my evangelical daily practice of prayer over the course of my life, and my love of the Bible.  So my "texts" for this post are The Serenity Prayer and the first chapter of the book of James.  

The Serenity Prayer:
The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr has an interesting history and many versions.  I invite you to take a look at the Wikipedia page on the Serenity Prayer, because it it interesting!  However, I am referencing the version popularized by 12-step programs:

              God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
              Courage to change the things I can,
              and the Wisdom to know the difference.

We all get a lifetime course in this particular prayer, whether we sign up for one or not, and whether we actually ever pray or not.  This prayer is not only a prayer, but a description of maturity and of understanding life and our personal relationship with life as a whole.  We can make that course easier and more rewarding if we choose to pay attention to the lessons and prepare for the quizzes and tests along the way.

This is a simple prayer with simple concepts, but truly learning patience with life is not simple, and many of us spend an awful amount of time refusing the lessons of patience by investing great energy into fighting to change the things that truly cannot be changed, rather than investing that same effort into learning to recognize reality for what it is.   If we do allow ourselves to be trained in wisdom, patience, and courage, we do learn to put all that fighting energy into moving the mountains that can be moved rather than into trying to use a hairdryer to dry up the oceans.

In order to know "where you are and who you are", you do need to deliberately engage in this lifetime exercise in reality.  You will never know the full picture, but each day and each emotional reaction give you a clearer picture of the things that only you can really know:  
  1. what brings you joy
  2. what motivates you
  3. what makes you want to chase a friendship
  4. what makes you want to avoid a person indefinitely
  5. what makes you wake up with energy for the day
  6. what makes you want to curl up in bed and hide
  7. what feels like freedom and hope to you
  8. what feels like prison and death to you
Your emotions can and will change as your circumstances, skills, and maturity change, but all you get to work with for now is today's real emotions.

Your emotions do not need to dictate your actions or words, but they do need to be honored in the same way you would honor the emotions of a toddler or infant: identify them, empathize with them, and then figure out the best way to respond to them and comfort them and perhaps redirect them.

The single biggest part of "the things I cannot change" is YOU, and it honestly cannot and should not be changed,  Trying to change genetics, emotions, personality, age, and many other elements of yourself is like spending time trying to change the properties of diamonds -- not only an exercise in futility, but missing the point of the excellence of the properties that are there!

On the other hand, it is also true that the biggest part of "the things I can" have courage to change is YOU, in the choices you can legitimately make each moment, in the habits you can break and in the new habits you can build, in the skills you can deliberately acquire, and in all the other ways you can manage yourself and your daily life.

Obviously, it is here that daily wisdom comes into play, and it is here that all my other 5 steps in living the Examined Life interweave with this step.  Wisdom requires community, solitude, reflection, fine-tuning daily habits, cultivated imagination, and daily walking forward in kindness and openness toward something better.

The Book of James, chapter 1
The writer of the New Testament letter that we know as James starts his letter this way:

"I, James, am a slave of God and the Master Jesus, writing to the twelve tribes scattered to Kingdom Come: Hello!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.

When down-and-outers get a break, cheer! And when the arrogant rich are brought down to size, cheer! Prosperity is as short-lived as a wildflower, so don’t ever count on it. You know that as soon as the sun rises, pouring down its scorching heat, the flower withers. Its petals wilt and, before you know it, that beautiful face is a barren stem. Well, that’s a picture of the “prosperous life.” At the very moment everyone is looking on in admiration, it fades away to nothing.

Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.

Don’t let anyone under pressure to give in to evil say, “God is trying to trip me up.” God is impervious to evil, and puts evil in no one’s way. The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust. Lust gets pregnant, and has a baby: sin! Sin grows up to adulthood, and becomes a real killer. So, my very dear friends, don’t get thrown off course.

Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures.

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage.

In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like. But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.

Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world." (from The Message, James chapter 1)

I will not go through all of the writer's points in his opening to his letter.   My point in using it as a text in this step of the Examined Life in Practice is to show his focus on perseverance in the face of reality, and his focus on your relationship with reality itself.

In starting, each day, from where you are and from who you are, you need to come face to face with the larger reality in order to come face to face with yourself and your real place in that reality.

Daily practice:

When you first wake up each morning, what is your first thought?  What is your first feeling?
When you get into bed each evening and turn off the lights and set your devices aside, intending to sleep, what is your last thought?  What are your emotions?

Take time each day to consider yourself with kindness, and to learn the things about you that you do not yet know, and that no one else can know until you know them.

Our parents may have modeled this for us, but often that is not the case.  The generations of the 20th and 21st centuries have been heavy on action and light on simple observation.   Yet that is what must be the starting point for all meaningful interaction with the rest of the world: who am I, how do I feel about my life right now, and how do I hold on to the things I value in my current life while making legitimate changes in things I actually can change in my relationships, habits, and circumstances.


The steps toward the Examined Life in Practice begin with our community, because we do not learn to know ourselves or to examine reality without an "operating system" for those "applications" to run on, but a great deal of the Examined Life in Practice depends upon self-knowledge that cannot come from your community or from anywhere outside your own body and mind.  Only YOU know your own inner reality, and if you do not take time to understand that reality as it is today, you are not equipped to live fully.  Look at yourself.  Listen to yourself.  Learn the properties of YOU.   This is foundational to God's call to love others as we love ourselves.

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The Examined Life in Practice, Step 2: Building Healthy Community

So what if one starts to "question everything" and to "think for yourself"?

How do you stay mentally healthy and keep effectively pursuing joy?

I am looking at these steps:

1) look at the way the individuals and groups that form your intimate and social circles affect you.
2) begin the process of deliberately building healthy, safe relationships.
3) start from where you are and who you are.
4) build healthy daily habits.
5) let yourself imagine a better tomorrow.
6) walk forward with continuity and kindness toward that better tomorrow.

Step Two: 

As my last post began, we are social creatures and creatures of habit -- and these characteristics are both the characteristics that allow us to fall so easily into the unexamined life and the characteristics that allow us to escape it permanently and with an effective impact on a healthier today and tomorrow.

If you read my last two posts, you have the overview of your goal in community and have begun the process of considering your current community and how it impacts your identity and your habits and your life.

At this point, you are ready to begin the process of owning your own relationships and of choosing to shape them and to add to them with new relationships.

Evolution, not revolution:

The process of changing our community does not need to be a revolution, but can instead be an evolution, and, in my opinion, usually should be slow and reflective rather than abrupt and disruptive.  However, there are times when we have no choice except to rebuild big pieces of our community around us -- for instance, after a cross-country move or after a career change or divorce -- and there are times when you may be the one who chooses to make hugely disruptive changes.  I would urge you to get support for grief and trauma in these situations, or at least to prepare for grief and trauma.  I would also urge you to avoid plunging yourself into situations like this unless there is truly no other option.

I took a whole year off from my blog primarily because of the impact of that kind of change on my family in moving from California to Minnesota when my husband and I are past the years of forming our adult communities and when my youngest two children are teenagers.  It has been a very difficulty year in terms of community and adjustments, but most of the stories are not mine to tell.

However, the issues of this series that I was writing are exactly the issues of my life right now; so this is a perfect place to pick up the reality of how to build the healthy community that drives and shapes each of us.

We each need to keep tabs on our own disappointments and our own drives, and examine them for evidences of the ways we need both to grow in our self-management and to grow our communities.

The dance of connection, attention, and detachment:

Our movies and our faith communities and our cultural values have indoctrinated us with the idea that we only need to find the right church or the right spouse or the right small group of best friends.  Even if we consciously reject the idea of our emotional and practical needs being met by a single person or small group of people, we often have internalized that hope to such an extent that we keep being drawn to spend too much time in a limited number of relationships.

There is no way to make extra time, energy, or motivation for healthy relationships when we are consumed with fixing (or just enduring) unhealthy relationships.  The solution to this is probably not in the unhealthy relationship or in ending the unhealthy relationship, however.  The solution is is a practice of detachment from those relationships that does not sever the unhealthy relationship but rather helps you to internalize a shift in your expectations for that relationship.

I find this practice to be largely untaught and unpracticed in our culture.  We are taught either to redouble our efforts to make our marriage or church or friendship all that it could be, or we are urged to end imperfect relationships in search of better ones.  We are not taught how to maintain our imperfect relationships in a healthy way while broadening our sources of input and connection.

To restate my point: we do not build healthy community by looking for healthy people and discarding the unhealthy ones.  We build healthy community by learning the dance of connection, attention, and detachment that allows a bigger set of connections to get time and attention.

Finding healthier people to form your community:

So then, if we are not to discard people and chase healthier people and healthier relationships, do we just trust God or life with bringing the right people our way?  No, we assume a proactive stance that really SEES the people who cross our path and considers who they appear to be and how we feel about them and how they seem to feel about us.

To repeat the questions I listed in the last post:

1) do they only seek to teach me and train me, or are they open to being taught by me?

2) do they use shame to punish me when I do things differently than they think is best?

3) what shared values connect me to these people?

4) how do they support me in those shared values?

5) how do they treat people who have different values?

6) are they actually after our stated goals, or do they care more about ego gratification, control, maintaining the status quo, or their own sense of safety?

We find healthier people by choosing each day to be reflective about where we go and who we encounter, and then by considering our emotional response to them and their apparent response to us, as well as the answers to reflective questions.  Then we spend more of our attention and time on those who bring us joy and peace and encouragement toward the values we have and the life we want, and we spend less of our time on those who leave us depressed or angry or distracted from the things that really matter.

Does this mean we should never use a dating site or visit new churches or seek out new groups to join?  No, of course that is not what I am saying.

What I am saying is that the groups we join and the churches we attend and the places where we center our lives should fit the life we want in the long run, rather than being just a way to look for new friends, and that the process of building a good strong long-term network of healthy people around each of us is a lifetime building project for which their are few legitimate shortcuts.

Legitimate Shortcuts:

There are a few legitimate shortcuts, however.  They are the practices of healthy people, and will get you to the goal of healthy community faster than if you do not practice them.

They are:

1) Have reflective time alone each day to reflect on your life and your relationships, both analytically and intuitively (ie your thoughts and your emotions about them);
2) Pray for and about the people in your life, individually and as groups;
3) Give yourself permission to decrease your time with people that your emotions and analysis show as a current drain on your ability to be consciously moving toward an examined and chosen life;
4) Make slow movements toward growing relationships that you choose to grow;
5) be part of groups and churches and workplaces that are good fits for your values and choices.


When we understand how thoroughly we are shaped by the people who have daily influence on our perceptions of ourselves and of the world, we must take steps toward building healthy community around us that will shape our future in the ways we desire.  Those steps are slow, daily, deliberative steps, and do not usually involve ending other relationships abruptly.  Rather, they involve daily self-management and daily responses that move us, over time, to a place where we have chosen the major players in our emotional lives and where we have cultivated a whole set of habits that allows us to continue to shape our communities over time.

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The Examined Life in Practice, Step 1: Examine Your Community

So what if one starts to "question everything" and to "think for yourself"?

How do you stay mentally healthy and keep effectively pursuing joy?

I will look at these steps:

1) look at the way the individuals and groups that form your intimate and social circles affect you.
2) begin the process of deliberately building healthy, safe relationships.
3) start from where you are and who you are.
4) build healthy daily habits.
5) let yourself imagine a better tomorrow.
6) walk forward with continuity and kindness toward that better tomorrow.

Step One: 

We are social creatures and creatures of habit -- and these characteristics are both the characteristics that allow us to fall so easily into the unexamined life and that allow us to escape it permanently and with an effective impact on a healthier today and tomorrow.

We are manipulated by our connections with others and by our need for approval and by the pain rejection causes.  We can allow those characteristics to push us into choices and habits that play out poorly, or we can choose to focus on the people in our lives who support us both in questioning everything and in making active choices to set a course away from the crowd. 

It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that changing from one ideology to another (in faith, politics, culture, etc.) will accomplish the changes we are after.  This is only true to the extent that the people around you in your new community are healthy people themselves, rather than just enforcers of a new ideology by the same old social norming techniques.  

It is not nearly as important that you agree with the people you allow to surround you and build you as it is that they are capable of allowing you to grow and change even when they disagree wth you.

So how can you tell if the people around you are helping you to question everything, think for yourself, and build the kind of world you want for future generations?

Ask these questions about individuals and groups in your world:

1) do they only seek to teach me and train me, or are they open to being taught by me?

2) do they use shame to punish me when I do things differently than they think is best?

3) what shared values connect me to these people?

4) how do they support me in those shared values?

5) how do they treat people who have different values?

6) are they actually after our stated goals, or do they care more about ego gratification, control, maintaining the status quo, or their own sense of safety?

If you conclude that they are not as healthy as you want to be, it is not necessary to change them or confront them or lose them.  You can be kind and supportive while you look for ways to build a community that includes healthier people too.

My next post in this series will consider how to build that new network of safe, healthy people and groups.

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The Unexamined Life is not worth living

If the unexamined life is not worth living, why not?

The unexamined life is a life where a person is carried along by their appetites and their caregivers, internalizing the values others teach that person through their need for food, shelter, safety, a sense of purpose, and a sense of social connection.

The unexamined life is not worth living because it ignores the deeper-but-less-immediate human needs: 

1) to examine reality as perceived by that particular individual, 
2) to examine an individual's own ability to make a valuable contribution based on the individual's own perception of self and of the rest of reality,
3) to examine dissonance between one's own perceptions and the perceptions of others,
4) to adjust course and adjust world view based on ongoing perceptions,
5) to build and affect a shared sense of reality (a social construct) with the circles of friends, family, acquaintances, and larger society around an individual,
6) to imagine the best world possible and to take steps to leave the world more like that for future generations.

The funny thing about those who do a good job at meeting those needs individually is that they often leave a culture that teaches the group to suppress and penalize those who question the latest social construct.

So, to build a healthy social construct, a person must deliberately teach oneself and those impacted by oneself to think for themselves and to question everything.

Think for yourself.

Question everything.

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Pursuing Peace

Two white middle-class girls -- around eight or nine years old -- were walking home from school one day in the early 1970s in Omaha, Nebraska. They lived just around the corner from each other and were best friends.  It was a beautiful day and only a half-mile walk in a safe neighborhood.  

They heard a voice and turned to see a little black girl rushing to join them.  Amy was five or six and very bright and very friendly.  She assumed she would be welcomed to walk with the older girls, as she had been other days.

This was Missy's and Sally's time to chat and have fun.  They tried to be friendly but then hint that Amy should let them walk on without her.

Amy just kept on walking with them and chatting at them.  No hint could break through her enthusiasm to be part of their little circle.

The walk was short and they had almost reached Missy's house; the older girls were frustrated.  Were they going to have to give up their daily talk to accommodate this annoying little chatterbox every single day?

As they reached her house, Missy told the little girl that she couldn't walk home with them anymore.

Sally walked a few houses further and went into her house too, and Amy went home and cried.  

A few minutes later, Missy's mom answered the phone.

"Really?  I am so sorry!  Just a minute."
"Missy, come here."
"Yes, Mom?"
"We're you and Sally rude to Amy Williams just now?  Her mom is on the phone, and she says Amy is crying."
"Well, no ... not really."
"So why is she crying?"
"She was bugging us; so we told her we don't want her to walk with us."
"You can't not walk with her; that's not nice!"
"But, Mom, she uses bad words!"
"Like what?!"
"She said f@<%!

Then, into the phone,
"She says Amy said f@<% so they told her they don't want to walk with her anymore."
"Yes, I'm sorry.  Yes. Goodbye."

Missy went back to the book she had been reading, and forgot all about Amy.  

The next months were Amy-free, and Missy enjoyed her walks home each day.  She doesn't remember if she ever told Sally the whole story.

Missy's family was Christian, and she had been raised to pray to Jesus as she went to bed each night, and had prayed to ask Jesus into her heart when she was younger.  Just a year or so earlier, Missy had had her first real personal experience of faith, praying alone to Jesus to try to "do the things he said to do and not do the things he said not to do" after her first time of opening a Bible to the gospels all by herself and reading the words and story of Jesus all by herself.  

It had been an emotional experience for her, and she believed it was real and important.  It made her feel happy and safe to read the Bible and pray at bedtime most nights.

But the little lie she had told about Amy gradually snuffed out her sense of connection to Jesus.  She tried to pray at bedtime, but it stopped feeling like anyone was really listening.  It felt like the sun had gone out, and left her cold and alone.

Finally, many months later, Missy tried to pray in a bed in her grandmother's house at Christmastime.  She knew what she had to do in the morning.  Maybe that would fix the coldness inside her and let her feel Jesus again.

The next day Missy told her mom the truth, and asked her to tell Amy's mom for her.  When they got back to Omaha, Missy's mom did call Amy's mom and tell her. Missy was not punished, and her mom thanked her for telling her the truth, and said that Amy's mom was extremely appreciative of the phone call.

Missy felt happy again, and she could talk to Jesus again.  And she kept talking to Jesus -- all the way to now.

I do not tell this story to sell Jesus.  You may be turned off by her faith, or identify with it, or just explain it away.  None of that is my point here.

My point here is that even children can learn a way of living that keeps joy and hope going, even after joy and hope get squashed.

Missy's actions taught her four things:  

1) when she hurt someone else, it hurt her, too;
2) she couldn't feel okay again until she did something to try to fix what she did to hurt someone else;
3) all of her reasons for keeping silent so long were unreasonable in light of her pain;
4) telling the truth and asking for help to fix things did fix things.

I believe this story is also a story of racism.  If Missy was being racist, it was not conscious; she was just annoyed by a little girl intruding on her routine and on her friendship.  But to Amy, it had to add another layer to the layer-upon-layer experience of being left out.  And to Missy's mom and to Amy's mom, the lie about language likely had a whole different meaning than it would have had if Amy had been a little white girl.

And so I believe this story goes beyond personal life skills to cultural life skills. Tiny stories add up to mountains of injustice, and although we do need to respond to the mountains of injustice with big systematic changes, we also need to address each tiny layer, one by one.

This starts with telling the truth about each instance in our personal stories and in our history, and understanding that an intent to be racist is not the point.  

A better tomorrow starts today, by tasting it -- at least in our imaginations -- and then by teaching ourselves and our kids that we can tell the truth and endure pain to get something better than we have now.

As you go through your day, take time to imagine a world that offers peace and joy and hope to everyone.  Take time to feel the places that you hurt and to see where others have been hurt.  Let yourself come to a resolve to tell the truth and to ask for help to fix one broken thing.  Then do it again, tomorrow.


The Native American Christian

In the very early 1800s, when Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa were still the wild west, a young Native American maiden named Maw Waiquoi woke up from her sleep having dreamt of the handsome white man she had encountered near the trappers' settlement near her village.  The men there were mostly Frenchmen, but this man was Scottish.  From her dream, she knew he would be her husband; so she went to him and a few days later they were married.

Her husband was a surgeon, trained at the medical college in Edinburgh, Scotland before emigrating to America.  He was still in his mid-twenties, and fearless.  Maw Waiquoi was in her mid-teens, and her dream had made her fearless too, even though she knew that marrying a white man meant, to her people, she was no longer a member of the tribe.  Now she was one of the white settlers, as far as the Sak and Fox were concerned.

Maw Waiquoi adopted the name "Sophia Muir", and she bore two children to Dr. Samuel Muir before he was conscripted by the American army and taken south to fight in the Americans' war.  Although Sophia was no longer a member of her tribe, she also was not considered by American law or American society to be a member of their tribe.  She and her children not only had no legal rights; they were considered a reason for treason by the military, who had ordered all soldiers to abandon their Native American families and have no further contact.  So Sophia was alone with two little ones, with no way to feed them and with no tribe to care for her.

Sophia had a canoe, and she was not ready to let her children die.  She could scavenge berries, and she could fish.  She took supplies, the children, and her canoe, and she pursued her husband.  She traveled 800 miles over many months, and she reached him.  Her children were strong and healthy, but she was a walking skeleton.  She had fed her children well, but had not been able to feed herself more than enough to survive.

Dr. Samuel Muir vowed never again to be separated from Sophia and his children.  He left the army, and he was one of the founding community of Galena, Illinois, and built a home and life near Keokuk, Iowa.  They had two or three more children, and they were happy.  The women of Galena respected Sophia and did their best to be welcoming, although she never really fit in.  Sophia embraced Christianity, and raised her children to follow Jesus.

In 1832, Dr Samuel Muir took ill and died.  Their home of many years was taken away from Sophia and their children.  Sophia appealed to the governor of Illinois for the lives of her two youngest children who were still dependent upon her, and he granted her the relief of turning them over to the custody of one of the leading women in Galena, who would care for them.  Sophia took the children to the meeting place, but was late, and found the woman had left Galena without the children.

Sophia had no resources and no welcome in American society without her husband, and the Black Hawk War had destroyed her people.  Desperate to save her children, she again gathered what she could to provide for her children on a journey, and pursued the remaining Sac and Fox tribes.  She had Jesus, and she had hope and love and survival skills.

Sometime that cold winter, American settlers found the bodies of Sophia and her youngest two children, in the snow of what is now the upper MidWest.

Sophia is my hero.  She did what the best of us do:  she made her path through the realities she encountered as best as she could, with perseverance, grace, and hope.

In my imagination, Sophia calls me to do the same, but also to widen the path for others, and to heal the broken places in our world that make survival so difficult for those who are not fortunate enough to be born into the right family.

She missed being killed by American soldiers at the Battle of Bad Ax on August 2nd the year her husband died of cholera at their home on the banks of the Mississippi.  She successfully raised her two older children who grew up remembering her mad dash to save them and reunite with their father.  And she held her youngest two children as they froze to death in her arms over a decade later.

Our big question is not "Does God exist?", nor is it "Is Jesus my Savior and Lord?".  I personally answer both of those questions affirmatively, as did Sophia; I believe Sophia is present with Jesus now, and I believe I will be too, once I reach my end.  

I believe Jesus was with Sophia in her most terrifying and final moments; it was Christians who were not.  And so, to me, THAT is our big question: "How do I respond to real needs around me today, both to help individuals and to fix broken systems that oppress or abandon the people of today."

In all of Jesus' teaching, He called us to meet real needs of real people: our brethren, or enemies, and the strangers and outcasts.

Sophia echoes the teaching of her Savior:   Do not just teach what is true.  Live it.

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On Massacres And Victories

On August 1st and 2nd, 1832, we killed babies and women and children and weak old men, after the Sac Indian leaders (Black Hawk and a few remaining warriors) commanded his people to surrender to the US army while he and his few living men fled to the north.  He thought the army would spare the women and children, but that they would have killed the Sac warriors.  He thought wrong, because the US army massacred his people, lied about it (even to this day, although history has plenty of truth-tellers that have carried the real news report forward from that day to this), and then captured the warriors and kept them alive as trophies of victory.

I first became aware of this story when I was reading an early history of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa as part of my interest in my own family history, and read the author's horrified contemporary account of the whole Black Hawk war from her perspective as a founding settler of Galena, Illinois.  She told a compelling story, and it caused me to look up the Black Hawk War and the Battle of Bad Ax on Google.  What I read did not match her account; so I have been digging deeper ever since.  I even visited some of the battle sites, and drove to "Victory, Wisconsin" where the final massacre occurred.

I found it fascinating that two opposing stories of the war have carried down through all these years:  the official army version and the truth as relayed by early settlers and discovered by later settlers (they found mass graves with babies and little children) and memorialized by honorable writers who felt it was a tale that had to be told.

One of the most interesting recent books goes even further, and digs into the written record from the soldiers who committed this massacre.  It finds that the army had been brainwashed quite deliberately into seeing the world through a certain macho and racist filter that glorified the honor in exterminating these "savages" who stood in the way of white people settling safely into these new areas.  They very clearly saw the Sac as something other than real people like them, and very clearly valued male humans over female ones.  They did not see that they were inhumane savages themselves by murdering women and children and lying about the circumstances in which it happened; they were truly the heroes in the events that transpired, as they saw things.

This split view of history is echoed in so many other pieces of our past, from the civil war to other conflicts with Native Americans to Vietnam and Afganistan and Iraq.  It is emotionally important, when you are the aggressor, to have brainwashed yourself into seeing your actions as honorable and right; and in the aftermath it makes no sense emotionally to process guilt and horror if you have the option of maintaining a view where you were the hero in all that happened.  Even so, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) has stolen as much productivity, peace, and joy from our nation over these centuries as actual deaths, injuries, and monetary costs have stolen.

And here we are.  

If we want our present and future to be as free of the impact of PTSD as possible, and if we want to move forward in peace and joy and creative engagement with each other and with reality, we need to come to grips with "Victory, Wisconsin" and with all the other horrors of our past.  We need to understand the cognitive dissonance between a valuing of life and peace and a calling to be part of an ideology.  We need to understand our need to be part of a compelling ideological group and how motivating that can be.  We need to understand propaganda and social norming techniques that sell both healthy and abhorrent belief systems.  And, above all, we need to understand our individual responsibility and ability to evaluate ideologies and propaganda and the cultural norming techniques being used by us and on us.

You need to become mindful and informed, and start being the leader in your own story.  Your only alternative is to be led to believe and do things that history will show as the brainwashing of good people to accomplish the wrong things in the wrong way.  You may still make wrong choices and believe lies; but at least you will have attempted to push past that.  And in the end we will have raised kids and created a culture that is harder to fool and that has the skills to do better than the Battle of Bad Ax.

Figure out what matters.  Figure out what is true.  Figure out where you stand and what you should do with your time, energy, and money.  Figure out who you love.  And figure out what you want history to show about what you do today, tomorrow, and to your end.


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My answer to all private and public battles

I finally figured out my answer to all our political and cultural battles, and to the interpersonal conflicts in my own life. It came to me out of a distressing but normal conflict with my seventeen-year-old son. And, of course, I did not think it up. Rather, everything wise women and men and wise faith have been teaching me all my life finally won out in my head and heart, and put to rest my silly notions of “winning” and “losing”.

I will let you see my epiphany as most of you see so much interaction these days: as a series of text messages, written by me to my son after he had treated me poorly because he felt I was “on him” unreasonably, but then he needed a favor some hours later and so acted as if none of it even happened.Here is my response, which was also the written expression of my own eyes opening to my own struggle to communicate my reality in ways that made him (and the world) take it as seriously as his own perspective:

HimI need to … (his words are not mine to share)… so will you … (not mine to share)

MeI love you. My answer is going to be “yes” if you will bear with me and hear me out about this morning.

Me: When we are in community (ie family, coworkers/bosses/employees, students&teachers&staff, members of the same club or church, etc) we are committed together toward accomplishing certain goals and with efficiency and kindness to one another.

Me: In the community of our family, we are committed together toward : 1) providing daily routines that allow us all to be where we need to be when we need to be there with everything we need for our day; 2) planning together how we can each and all best move toward a future that brings us peace and joy; 3) using available resources to do a better job toward the above two things than we did yesterday; AND 4) growing, together and individually, into peacable and passionate (joy-filled) creatures.

Me: If you are not committed to those goals, but instead allow your anger to put you in a place where you work to destroy our ability (and your own ability) to achieve those goals, you do not win

Me: Nor do my goals change.

Me: I still love you.

Me: I still am after the same goals.

Me: I still know you can achieve those goals too, if you decide to do so, once you decide to do so,

Me: But right now you think anger makes destroying progress toward those goals a “win”,

Me: as if you are punishing me.

Me: I do not believe in punishment — not in the sense of retribution anyway. I do believe there are consequences to our choices, but I think life and society impose those consequences, not me.

Me: I think my role (not just as your mom, but as a fellow human being) is to keep my eye on the bigger goals and just keep trying to move toward them.

Me: That is the role of forgiveness:

Me: not some sickly-sweet useless caving in to an angry teenager,

Me: but a choosing to keep my eye on real goals that will bring joy and peace rather than to get pulled into a win/lose game where even the winner loses.

Me: So my answer is “yes”,

Me: But until you learn to use your anger to point you toward all that you actually long for,

Me: you lose.

Me: Because joy and peace and love ARE real

Me: and you are missing out.

Me: So each time one of us frustrates or angers the other, it is not a fight where there will be a winner and a loser.

Me: You ARE growing up. Neither of us can speed that up or slow that down.

Me: Each time we have conflict, it is an opportunity for each of us and for us together

Me: To grow in our ability to stay fixed on peace and joy

Me: and to get there

Me: together or not.

Me: That is all.

We each have our own perspectives and goals, and we cannot control others, and we cannot even set the goals we think those with us in community should be pursuing. They may pursue winning at the expense of everything that lasts.

However, we can choose to pursue peace and joy and love in the context of reality, and practice the forgiveness over and over and over that frees us up to KEEP pursuing peace and joy and love even if it is a lone pursuit.

We cannot avoid the conflict and tragedy that are outside our control, but we CAN each let all that conflict and tragedy direct us back to our ever-stronger pursuit of peace and joy and love.

And in our personal lives we will become amazing and experience full life.

And in our political and cultural conflicts, we will learn to listen and learn to value real progress over time, rather than just valuing the temporary triumph of our own current ideologies or the power to impose our own perspectives on others.

And in our collective life and history, over time, we will become whole and free, with real diversity and with real unity.

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Step One

Before I was out of bed this morning, I woke up feeling empathy for the 19-year-old young man in San Diego who was deported by INS this week.  He doesn't ever remember living in Mexico; he was brought up just like my boys in So Cal.  He was a DACA kid, and graduated from a CA high school and went on to study arts at a local school.  But, just like most of his safe white classmates, he had a tiny bit of weed in his pocket when he was stopped ... so now that kid is in Mexico with no resources.

I got up and googled to see more details, and saw something similar happened to a 23-year-old DACA student in Washington.  And the list of stories go on.

So we have become a country that does violence to the innocent and terrorizes all of us but particularly ethnic minorities.  I hear voices saying "but they broke the law", but if my white kids break the law they get a proportionate reaction -- not shipped to another country with no resources.  So I am sickened.

The best I can figure, as I consider the apathy or antipathy of voters, senators, congressmen & congresswomen, FOXnews, and many of my friends, is that we really see the world in "us vs them" terms and have no problem letting "them" "lose" when "we" were the ones who "won".  And then for those like me, who "voted right" and have empathy, there is a feeling of helplessness to help but then also a feeling of fear of helping and having that heartlessness directed toward us as "they" perceive us as "on the other side" and thus fair game for this national purge of people that didn't "play by the rules" in this current life-altering cruel game.  

My amazement is doubled by the economic facts, which make it clear that we will all be hurt by this purge, which is of good tax-paying social-security-paying workers and consumers, almost all of whom have state-side citizen nuclear-family members.  There will be fewer dollars spent at Costco, fewer dollars spent at Target, fewer dollars to every business in our economy.  And the jobs they leave empty are not the ones our unemployed college grads or unemployed 50-somethings or unemployed coal miners can fill.

And FOXnews is not covering it, and my FB and Twitter feeds only touch on it.

My first step in responding will be prayer and fasting.  Fasting is a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition designed not to make God hear me better, but purposed to help me hear God better.  It involves abstaining from some part of life that I will miss enough to remind me to pray.  I will be praying both for God to intervene on behalf of those living in fear of the INS and for God to show me how I personally should respond.

I invite you to join me.


Practicing Relational Engagement Across the Political Divide

No one can deny that conservatives and progressives find each other's perspectives troubling and perplexing, and that good people on both sides are committed to doing all they can to advance their ideological and political agenda.  This post is not intended to oppose political activism, which is a good and protected American tradition.

However, in the midst of our peaceful activism, we do not want to lose unnecessary ground in our mutual respect and kindness and understanding.

If you are after a United States of America and after a world that is kind and wise and secure, I invite you to commit yourself to these disciplines:

1) Maintain several daily friendships (with real face-to-face interaction several times a month or more) that are with people who have a political perspective that you personally oppose.  Engage with them in the things you hold in common, and do not let your engagement be focused on changing their political perspective.

2) Deliberately allocate a portion of the time and attention you spend on news and information to perspectives that trouble you.  

If you spend hours watching FOXNEWS or MSNBC, record and watch an hour of coverage from the other channel, even if it makes you angry.  Add in a third perspective, too, by watching an hour of a more neutral news program or by reading down the stories on news.google.com each day.

If you read the Wall Street Journal each morning, spend time skimming the stories on a less conservative or truly progressive paper like the New York Times, and vice versa.  And again, add a more moderate mix like CBS news.

3) Practice empathy with those on "the other side", and understand that you would have their perspective and make their choices if you were in their situation and had been formed by the forces that formed them.

That is not to say that you should not fight for the things you passionately defend and promote.  It is to say you should do it without violence or hatred, but with respect for even people that you rightly see as the enemy.


1) Maintain several warm face-to-face friendships that are with people who have a political perspective that you personally oppose.  

2) Deliberately allocate a portion of the daily time and attention that you spend on news and information to perspectives that trouble you, to be informed fully.

3) Practice respect and empathy for those “on the other side”  without sacrificing your own beliefs.

For support and accountability in promoting and practicing these commitments, join me here: