I ran into a friend on my commute home this evening, who told me a story about one of his friends. This simple story was an instant lesson in humility.
My friend is a lawyer, and his friend — let’s call him Alex for the sake of this recounting — is also a lawyer. But there’s something else you should know about Alex: He has cerebral palsy.
I’m sure those two facts alone are enough to make you pause and reflect on all the challenges he had to overcome to embrace that vocation — and how relatively easy your path has been to get to wherever you are right now.
Alex’s life is a daily exercise in humility. Imagine being the person who holds up the train every morning so that the ramp can be employed to get you aboard. All I do is complain that the train is late. Imagine going to lunch with a friend and having to ask that friend to physically help you to use the restroom. Sometimes I wonder if I would even have the humility to be the helpful friend.
If you struggled daily against such overwhelming physical challenges since the day you were born, how would you be different? Would you complain as much about the petty daily annoyances that often seem so difficult and important in the moment?
If it was a physical struggle to get from Point A to Point B, I think my whole perspective would have to change. The challenge of doing simple things like getting on a train or having to wonder if a new location is handicapped accessible would probably force me to embrace the beauty of the even simpler things. The sun is shining today. Someone smiled at me.
The humbling part is that I don’t have such challenges, and yet I am usually unwilling to pause and recognize the blessing of the simple or the even simpler things. The sun is shining today. I have to stand on the train, but I am blessed to be physically capable of standing on the train.
It’s always a good time to be reminded of something that Alex proves every day: Our only real limitation is our inability to embrace what we do have.
I’m trying to form a daily routine of writing at least 100 words every weekday. Subscribe here if you’d like to read them. Thanks!
The start of a new year is the perfect time to start shedding the fat in your life…and not just around your waist.
Do you ever think about how much time you waste on a given day? Now compound that into the wasted time of weeks, months and years. If you really examine the way you spend your days, it’s both astonishing and shameful.
How much of your time do you spend doing things that are productive and how much is just spent on distractions or relatively meaningless activities to which you have somehow assigned increasing (and unearned) value?
Guilty as charged. As I considered New Year’s resolutions, I thought a lot about self-improvement and how much time it would take to actually implement some of the things that will make me the person I want to be. My mind immediately defaulted to my usual excuse: I’m so busy. How can I possibly find the time to work these new habits into my life and routine?
A bit more soul-searching led me to realize that before I can implement any new habits, I first need to break a bad habit.
For years, I’ve been perpetuating a lie to myself that I am a good steward of my time.
Spoiler alert: I’m not.
So Job #1 is conducting an honest audit of my free time and figuring out why it disappears so easily and what I’m spending it on. Then I can move on to setting goals of how I actually want to spend it. Then I can make a realistic plan about how to accomplish those goals. So let’s give it a whirl. Hopefully it will be time well spent.
What are you doing?
It’s a basic question, but it’s worth asking if you’re trying to figure out how you’re wasting your time. For me, the answer is probably “looking at my phone.” Much as I hate to admit it, this device that can add so much to my life when used properly more often than not simply takes and takes.
In the past, I’ve made a concerted effort to use it less when I’m in the company of other people (to varying degrees of success), but I’ve never thought much about the importance of putting it down when it’s just me. With every swiped refresh of my social media feeds, I waste another five minutes that easily turns into 10 or 20, as a video or article intrigues me.
You could argue — and, oh, how I’ve tried — that some of this content is enriching. I’m catching up on the doings of old friends or reading about current events. While that is sometimes true, I’m more likely watching an Honest Trailer or reading something about a new movie that’s coming out.
This has gotten particularly monstrous when I’m about to go to bed and engage in what I mentally call one last check. I cycle through each of my drugs — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, work email, regular email, etc. — and willingly fall down whatever rabbit hole lies in my path. Now that I’ve switched to a Pixel, I’ve started swiping to the right to get my customized newsfeed of content — an AI-powered stream of stories that computer algorithms think I would be interested in. And am I ever!
When my bloodshot eyes finally begin to bother me, I realize that I have been sitting in my darkened bedroom staring at the screen for sometimes as long as 45 minutes — wasting my precious sleep time and coming away with little more than bits of trivia that I won’t even remember by the morning. (Seriously…I have no memory of what I read last night.)
A few nights ago, I was startled awake by the sound of my one-year-old daughter crying in her room. I had completed my one last check and had been asleep for about 15 minutes. I groggily picked up my phone to check out the video baby monitor and make sure she was OK. Reassured that all was well, I couldn’t help but notice a notification and spent the next 10 minutes doing one more one last check. I have a problem.
Combined with my multitudinous social media fixes and the ensuing daytime rabbit holes, this is not an insignificant amount of time being wasted almost every single day. This has to stop.
What do you want to do?
Now comes the fun part. If you had unlimited time, what would you want to do with it? It’s frustrating that I don’t realize how much time I’m wasting until after I’ve wasted it, and I don’t think about how that time could be so easily reallocated when I wistfully ponder how busy I am and how impossible it is to accomplish some of my dreams and goals.
So what am I hoping to do? Well, I’m going to start with three wishes, Aladdin-style.
I want to exercise regularly. I want to write daily. I want to (re)learn Spanish.
Exercise has been a nearly annual New Year’s or Lenten or summer commitment, er, intention of mine for as long as I can remember. Par for the course, I eventually fall off the wagon and never seem to find the time for regular exercise, even though I have plenty of time to stay caught up on the weekly melodrama of This Is Us.
Thanks to some good genes, I’ve been blessed to be able to eat pretty much whatever I want and not worry too much about significantly tipping the scale. Thanks to my advancing age and a few bad genes, spending my days sedentarily sitting in a cube is adding to both my gut and my risk of hypertension. I’m a proud Dad, but I am in no rush to continue developing a Dad Bod or missing out on a few extra years of life because of poor health choices. It’s time for some regular exercise (and some portion control!) to help whip me into shape.
Writing is a skill and a passion that I have enjoyed from a very young age. It’s also a muscle that grows weak from disuse. Writing Instagram captions and witty tweets is a far cry from taking her to sea in a Medium-length blog post. My numerousbloggingoutlets have stalled recently due to my quote-unquote lack of time and my quote-unquote writer’s block. These are both excuses that I’m hoping my new time-sensitive zeal can overcome.
Brushing up on Spanish just seems like a challenging, useful idea. It would benefit me professionally to speak the language (or at least be a bit more fluent) and it would do my brain some good to be actively learning something again. Besides, maybe my one-year-old will learn to speak it with me! I started using Duolingo last January and it lasted for about a month and a half. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, it’s just that I once again excused myself from the commitment.
Stop doing what you’re doing and do what you really want to do.
Tim Urban, the genius behind Wait But Why, wrote a thought-provoking piece on how little time you actually have left with your parents and other loved ones by the time you reach your 30s. My musings here are greatly informed by what he wrote, but I am applying his sense of urgency to self-improvement rather than relationships. Tim said:
Priorities matter. Your remaining face time with any person depends largely on where that person falls on your list of life priorities. Make sure this list is set by you — not by unconscious inertia.
I’ve realized that much of my free time is gobbled up by similar unconscious inertia — or rather a conscious decision to waste time on something that leads to unconscious inertia. I desperately need to reclaim my free time, declare my priorities and accomplish my goals.
The other aspect of all this is that I need to pursue these activities in a way that is not detrimental to my relationships and responsibilities. I am a faithful husband, father and employee. Any extracurricular self-improvement must be relegated to “me time,” and not impinge on quality time or other pressing duties of daily life.
Fortunately, I have already identified several pockets of such time in my day that could be put to more productive use: my morning and evening commutes, my lunch break at work (which I really need to take with more regularity), and any time I choose to create by staying up late or getting up early (responsibly, of course).
All that’s left is to make a realistic plan and commitment to fill this time with the activities I described above. However, I believe the success of my mission hinges more on my ability to police myself from engaging in the time-wasting activities, so I can revert to something more productive during those times. I also need to be realistic about letting myself have some mindless free time — I’m not interested in a complete fast from social media and Netflix binges.
Well, I guess I got my writing in for the day. Even if I fail at this ambitious enterprise, at least I can say that this was my most long-winded New Year’s resolution.
Here’s hoping everything else about 2018 is a whole lot leaner. And if you’re embarking on a similar journey this year, buena suerte!
Today marks three years of marriage for me, and since this blog’s niche seems to be mostly about the passage of time and marking milestones, I can’t afford not to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.
First of all, I know that three years sounds like a fairly insignificant amount of time about which to wax poetic, but it certainly feels a lot more monumental to me. I think that’s because each year of my marriage has been defined by a huge life experience.
Year 1: Cancer!
Year 2: Pregnancy!
Year 3: Baby!
I sometimes think about how we might have reacted if at our wedding reception we had magically been shown a movie trailer providing a tantalizing glimpse of what the next three years would hold. Would we have run screaming out of the ballroom? Would we have been a little more reflective whilst doing The Wobble on the dance floor? Would we have wondered where the Candid Camera was hidden?
Regardless of our imagined reactions to a hypothetical scenario, we still would have been forced to do exactly what we did—live through it all and rely on each other every day.
Marriage is not a movie trailer. It is not defined by the big moments and the dramatic reveals. A more realistic trailer would show how mundane married life really is, even when you’re dealing with an admittedly outsized number of intense life events over a short period of time.
The true-to-life trailer would have Oscar-worthy scenes of me texting Theresa about what time the train will get me home from work and Theresa replying to ask about my dinner preferences. It would feature suspenseful scenes of Theresa finding out that we somehow owe money on our income taxes and me desperately trying to finish mowing the last few rows of my lawn before the bag fills up. Will he make it?!
My point is that marriage—even a quote-un-quote exciting marriage like mine—is far less action-packed than it seems like it will be. It’s mostly about just going through your daily life, but with the added complexity of going through it with a partner.
That complexity is the key to the whole thing. If you’ve found the kind of partner with whom you would happily watch paint dry, the day-to-day “drudgery” can be pretty darn fun. Big stuff like getting through cancer, going through pregnancy and raising a baby will be similarly enjoyable (OK, maybe some more enjoyable than others) because you have entered into a partnership that enhances your life and makes the mundane moments manageable and the important moments magical.
I’m filing jointly now—in taxes and everything else.
But marriage is a process, not a proclamation, and there’s no guarantee that we’re always making things manageable or magical for each other. These three years have taught me two main lessons about how to be the loving, selfless husband that I want to be: how far I’ve come from who I was when I was single and how far I still have to go.
Sometimes it’s the day-to-day disagreements that stack up to the point where you’re tripping over each other as you try to walk around them. Other times it’s a seemingly fundamental fight that in the moment makes you wonder how you’ll ever come back together on the issue.
Thankfully, the balms of heartfelt apology, authentic forgiveness and eventual laughter have soothed wounds both big and small. We agree that the partnership is the best thing we have going—and that our partner’s influence is helping us to become the people we are meant to be.
As parenthood became the focus in Year 3, the centrality of our partnership became more complex and crucial than it had been during disease or pregnancy. We brought a new life into the world together—and introduced a host of new joys, sorrows, worries and wonders with which to grapple. With a third member added to our party, we found more magical moments to enjoy together and more opportunities for the marital rubber to hit the road. Our beautiful daughter required us to individually push ourselves to our limits of time, energy, and enthusiasm, while also requiring us to support each other and protect our partnership more than ever.
Even with our diverse experiences in the first two years of marriage, it was still hard. It remains hard. But as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, it’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great. And the last three years of my life have been a whole lot better than great.
I try not to let a day pass without being grateful that Theresa and I found each other and for the innumerable blessings that have flowed into my life by hitching my wagon to her star. To have lived through and learned so much by her side in just three short years of marriage makes me wonder what mundane and momentous experiences await when three years becomes 30 and 30 becomes 50. Is there a movie trailer for that?
I don’t know how or why it happened. If I had reflected on it more deeply back then, I probably would have thought that I was starting to develop my mutant power like the X-Men I was so thoroughly obsessed with at that point.
But this mutant power only lasted a year, and it was very specific in its application. At my suburban Catholic school, there was a circular driveway around the grassy field behind the school. On days when it was seasonable enough for gym classes to be held outside, this driveway doubled as a running track, complete with speed bumps.
While the school has long since shuttered, the driveway remains intact, instantly transporting me back to the dreaded two laps that we were forced to run at the beginning of each class. Or worse yet, I’m reminded of the seven laps around the track that constituted the annual Running of The Mile. You always knew that The Mile awaited you eventually, and from the ages of about 8 through 18, it was one of the worst days of the school year for me.
But not in fifth grade.
When we would complete those two laps to kick off class, there I was near the front of the pack—waiting for the majority of my classmates to finish while I stood around victoriously regaining my wind and trying my best not to look cocky. “Yes, I used to be like you slow-pokes. Don’t worry, your day will come. My day just came quicker than yours. Because I’m so fast.”
When it came time to run The Mile, my latent mutant power kicked in again. I don’t remember my time—probably under eight minutes?—but I do remember being congratulated heartily by the other fast kids. I was standing with the athletic titans of my class: the girls who ran on the track team, the guy who was good at every sport he ever tried, and the incredibly short kid who parlayed his speed into a major source of social capital.
The point of this recollection is to assert that fifth grade was one of the only times in my life that I can remember not actively despising the act of running. Unfortunately, sixth grade rolled around and my mutant power regressed back to its customary place of being awkward around girls, and my love for running dissipated as quickly as my odds of snagging a partner at a school dance.
I’m happy to report, however, that almost 25 years later, I have once again made peace with running and have frequently paid money to run. I’m also married to a beautiful woman who loves to dance with me, which goes to show that nice mutants don’t always finish last…in love or races.
But this is about running and how I learned to un-hate it.
Somewhere around 2010, I realized that my slowing metabolism and life as an office-dwelling desk jockey were catching up to my waistline as well as my longterm cardiovascular health. While I don’t remember exactly what led me to choose my old foe of running as a plausible weapon in my battle against the bulge, it probably stemmed from the fact that I had read one too many of those “sitting all day is slowly killing you” articles. It also helped that I had coworkers and a brother who were also interested in running, which leads me to my first tip for learning to be OK with running:
1. Choose a running mate.
When it comes to exercise, I think it’s important to have a wingman. It’s not all that necessary that they even run alongside you—maybe they’re faster than you, or slower than you or just have a different schedule from you and can’t meet up to run. It doesn’t matter. The point is to find a training buddy who will listen to your sob stories about how hard your run was yesterday and how sore you are today, who will celebrate with you when you break a personal record, and who will inspire you to keep pushing yourself in those moments when you realize that you are now spending your free time willingly doing that thing you hated for so long. It’s also way more fun to sign up for a race with someone else, rather than just doing it by yourself. It gives you a common goal to strive for and someone to eat bananas with after you cross the finish line.
Once I had found my running mates, it was time to actually go for a run. I still remember the first time I went to the gym after work and ran a mile THAT I WAS CHOOSING TO RUN. It was exhausting, but also invigorating in a weird way. When I was eventually able to run an entire mile without stopping, it became less exhausting and even more invigorating.
2. Sign up for a race.
Just because I’m OK with running, doesn’t mean that I love it. There are still plenty of times when I don’t feel like doing it, which makes me all the more proud of myself when I actually follow through. I’ve always been better about motivating myself to run when there is a date on my calendar when I know I’m going to run an organized 5K. My interest in and stamina for running has not led me to anything beyond a 5K in the last 5 years—and I’m not sure that I’ll ever tackle anything greater than that—but it’s been important for me to use races as a reason to run.
It’s also just really fun participating in a race. Beyond the varying quality of the race swag (I highly recommend the Hot Chocolate 5K in Chicago!), there is a palpable energy at a race that calls you to be the best runner you can be and usually provokes me to run faster and last longer than I would when I’m running on my treadmill or around my neighborhood. It’s almost like you can feed off of the energy of the other runners to replenish your own reserves. It also helps that the race results will be posted online for eternity along with your full name and age at the time of the race, just a Google search away from being discovered by personal stalkers, blind dates or future employers. With those stakes, you want to put your fastest foot forward.
3. Track your progress.
Even before the days when I wore a FitBit that is perpetually telling me to get up and take some steps and smartly tracking my moments of exercise throughout the week (apparently my FitBit thinks mowing the lawn is a brisk bike ride), it was important for me to track my personal progress as a runner. Since the act of running is still not particularly diverting for me, the reward is the process of noticing improvement over time. How quickly can I run a mile? Can I run a full 5K without stopping to walk? Can I run a 5K in under 30 minutes? I always have a goal of some sort in mind, and completing one goal makes me want to tackle the next. It took years of on-again/off-again training, but I recently ran my first 5K without stopping, so now I’ll be moving on to improving my time. It’s also nice to have a device that will tell me exactly how far I’ve run and show me my mile time splits.
4. Make the conditions as perfect as possible.
Running is an investment of time as well as calories, so it’s important to make that time well spent, or you’ll never learn to tolerate it. Once I decided that running was something I wanted to commit to, I tried to make the conditions as conducive to running as possible. On a basic level, that meant buying some dry-fit clothes to combat my profuse sweating and getting new shoes to be used exclusively for running. (I actually started out using my old shoes and eventually hurt my knee, probably because the shoes weren’t giving me the cushioned support that I needed.) I also downloaded an app that could track my runs and eventually bought a FitBit. I like to listen to music or podcasts while I run, so I got an armband to hold my phone. When I was starting to see some progress and increasing my distance beyond The Mile, I paid some hard-earned money to sign up for my first race. (Again, find one with good swag so that it feels like you’re buying something beyond a runner’s high.) Most recently, I bought a treadmill so that I could continue to run over the winter without having to pay for a gym membership or deal with the hassle of driving to and from the gym to go for a run. To my immense surprise, I actually used it quite a bit and was able to maintain some of my running momentum even through the harsh Chicago winter. When spring rolled around, I wasn’t starting at zero, which was a great feeling.
5. Don’t stop believing.
As I’ve hopefully made clear, I still don’t love running. I have yet to have a full epiphany on the joy of spending a half hour banging my legs into the ground as I travel short distances that humankind has invented better methods for traversing. (My bike stares back at me with disgust every time I go for a run.) I also encountered injury (that shoe-induced sore knee) that prevented me from running for a time and derailed the progress I had made. That wasn’t fun, and my break from running extended well beyond the healing of my injury, as I kept coming up with reasons why I couldn’t get back into it just yet. But the seed had been planted, and eventually a spring day came that made me say “This is running weather,” and I started pounding the pavement again.
It sounds cliche, but running is almost as much of a mental challenge as a physical one for me. Since it’s not my passion, there are mental hurdles I sometimes have to jump to maintain my motivation, but once I do, I never regret the run. I definitely like running more after I finish than before I start. And for now, chasing that feeling is enough to make it worthwhile.
If you’re like me and you’ve hated running for a long time, I’d encourage you to give it another try. If I could go back in time and tell my childhood self that I would grow up and frequently run of my own volition, he would never believe me, but that thought also inspires some pride that makes me glad I’m doing it.
And, who knows: If I keep this up, maybe I’ll magically become fast again someday.
This thought always seems to not-so-coincidentally occur to me around the time of my once-every-four-months oncologist checkups. How sad that it takes the specter of cancer to make me once again realize how truly blessed I am.
The timing of this week’s appointment was particularly compelling, as Lumpy was already back on my mind for a variety of reasons.
First of all, I had just read the story of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a Chicago area writer who knew she was dying of ovarian cancer and penned a touching love letter to her soon-to-be-widowed husband for Valentine’s Day in the form of an online dating profile for any woman who would be lucky enough to be with him after she had passed. She was diagnosed in September 2015 and died this week at the age of 51. As always, epically sad stories like this one leave me reeling with grateful thoughts about the fact that my Lumpy was the beatable kind. By simply adding “non-” to the beginning of my Hodgkin’s diagnosis, it could have easily gone another way. Why was I chosen to live?
Secondly, I received an email last week from a new health site called Bright Bod that is seeking to interview patients of various cancers and post their answers to experiential questions online as a somewhat crowd-sourced version of Web MD. Always eager to share my cancer experience in any way that would be helpful to Lumpy’s future victims, I jumped at the chance and walked through my cancer fight via a 45-minute Skype interview. (Incidentally, if there are any other cancer patients reading this, I can send you the site’s contact info if you would like to participate…they will pay you for your time!) Going over the timeline and symptoms and side effects of treatment, I realized how infrequently I think about it on a daily basis. Being a cancer survivor will always be a big part of my identity, but my full return to good health more often than not makes it a footnote instead of a headline. What a blessing.
Thirdly, a few weeks ago a friend texted me asking for prayers for a couple who found out they were pregnant…and then found out the mother has Hodgkin’s. I have written many blog posts here and elsewhere chronicling the joys and sorrows of both cancer and pregnancy—but going through both of those medical events simultaneously is simply unfathomable to me. Please stop reading this for a moment and offer a prayer for that couple and their baby. They must be a very special husband and wife to be given such a tremendous trial.
The final reminder that my gratitudinal attitude could use some adjusting came from looking back at one of my own cancer posts. Since Facebook now delivers a daily “This Is Your Life” digest of what I was doing on this day in previous years, I am able to relive the 2015 Lumpy battle as it recedes into the social media version of the history of my life. I wrote this post almost exactly two years ago, as I struggled with neutropenic fever and an unwillingness to endure more chemo treatments that I knew would make me feel even worse. I was reading the comments on the post and saw one from a woman whose blog site was titled “Livingly Dying.” I clicked over to the site and saw that she had indeed passed away on June 10, 2015—less than three months after commenting on my blog. Recent posts were dedicated to memorial services and a charitable event in her honor. The blog lives on as a testament to her more than four-year fight against ovarian cancer. Once again, it becomes impossible not to be extraordinarily grateful for my current situation and rather ashamed of my frequent lack of gratitude.
Now you might say, “Matt, don’t be so hard on yourself.” But why shouldn’t I start every day with a prayer of gratitude that I am still alive? My ability to write this post right now is a product of early detection, modern medicine and the support and prayers of everyone in my life. I am no more worthy of getting to live my life, love my wife and raise my children than any of the countless people who have succumbed to terminal versions of the disease. And neither are you, my cancer-free friend.
But it’s so hard to remember all of this during the day-to-day frustrations of daily life that nevertheless are still moments of a life that we are blessed to continue living! We should live in full and constant thanksgiving for all the awesomeness in our lives, and seek out joy even in the beautifully mundane moments. I’m striving to shed the skin of entitled indifference that starts building up every time I get another all-clear from my doctor. I got that call today. I’m four healthy months closer to total remission and a declaration of “cured.”
But I know the real cure is unmitigated gratitude, and I need to increase my dosage.