Saturday, March 22, 2014

Good Enough

Striving for excellence is all well and good, but the fact remains, most days we’re lucky just to make it through without burning down the house. Somehow in our culture the expectation has taken shape that every experience must be a peak experience, every moment an amazing moment, and every effort a stroke of genius. That’s a lot of pressure. Believe it or not, it might be time to lower our expectations. Maybe it’s time to get reacquainted with good enough.
The shadow side of every motivational speech is the implication that who you are right now isn’t good enough. Maybe that’s the wrong message. Do more? We’re already the busiest generation, scrambling like crazy people, multitasking, running on caffeine and nerves. When do we get to rest? When is it OK to simply enjoy the fruits of our labor? When is good enough good enough?
I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot lately, and how different his life was from mine. I race from one obligation to the next. His hours and days were filled with a kind of reverence, illuminated by a slow motion glow brought on by letting things take their sweet time.
When he died last year at the age of 90 we found an old diary he’d kept for the year 1963. It was a simple journal filled with brief entries chronicling each day’s events. Our family had just moved from New Jersey to Ventura, California, a quiet town on the beach just south of Santa Barbara. He was picking up shift work as a printer typesetting at the Ventura Star-Free Press. Like a lot of families back in those days, our family had only one car and after work he’d often walk down to the beach for a stroll along the sand or even a swim if the weather was warm. Then my mom and I would come meet him, I was only 4 at the time, and we’d all swim or walk on the beach. As the sun set we’d amble on home for dinner and a quiet evening. Maybe the neighbors or some of my parent’s friends would come by for a visit, or we’d watch some TV, one of the three channels. My dad seemed content in the knowledge that he was a father, a husband, a worker, a thinker, a homeowner, and the simple of act of being alive was enough. There was no ambitious scheme to be more, do more, own more, or in any other way stand out from the ordinary. Ordinary was good enough.
Of course I realize I’m romanticizing his life – he was subject to the same pain, disillusionment, and endless hunger that any man or woman feels, but none of that worked its way into his diary. But I do remember as a boy often wondering where does he go when he’d just sit in a chair and close his eyes after a long, hot day of working in the yard. My dad had a rich interior life, and that’s another thing that’s increasingly difficult to maintain in our modern, busy world of hyper-connectivity. Being quiet and being alone are increasingly rare and precious jewels buried under the clutter of our busyness.
When my dad was at work he was at work, and when he was off, he was off. That’s something I don’t have. Because of the nature of my work, I’m never off. As a professor and department chair I’m immersed in the life of my college in many ways, and I’m a mentor to 180 students. Not to mention the tens of thousands of former students who I bump into everywhere I go. They message me through Facebook at all hours of the day and night and ask all sorts of questions, and I love staying in touch, but it’s challenging. And in my work as a singer songwriter, public speaker, and writer I am constantly in self-promotion mode pitching shows, talks, my blog, and my upcoming album. I use Facebook and Twitter to build my brand and strengthen my platform. I wake up at three a.m. and ponder a web design decision or a media contact I should make. I run lyrics in my head or think through guitar solos. In my mind’s eye I peruse the photographic styles of noted local photographers and deliberate about who to use for my next photo shoot.
It may be hard to believe, but I’m really not complaining – I chose this life and I eagerly seek the next opportunity to expand my reach. I love singing, playing, recording, performing, speaking, writing, teaching, and being a part of a vibrant and thriving community of fellow artists, speakers, thinkers, and teachers.
In this crazy life many of us live, we have to work hard to make our own sabbaticals, our own Sabbaths, our own days off, our own vacations. If you don’t schedule down time you’ll go crazy, because there is always a deadline, there is always a long list of urgent emails, voice mails, texts, Tweets, and Facebook messages to respond to. If you aren’t careful, your entire life becomes one long to do list, and all human interactions are reduced to increasingly insistent demands for your time. Total strangers message me on Facebook and say things like, “Hey, I love your work, we should really hang out. I play too. We should jam and write a song together.” While I’m touched that I seem that approachable, and that people feel connected enough to reach out, I can’t help but laugh. Dude, I don’t even have time to hang with my best friends, how on earth can I carve out a minute let alone an afternoon for a jam session with an absolute stranger?
I used to continually freak out at how busy I was. Now I see it differently. Keeping a gratitude journal for the last two years changed that. Now I see my work, all of it, as an opportunity for service. I am so deeply honored and blessed that the art I make, whether in song, prose, or oratory, is welcomed warmly in certain circles, and that the encouragement I receive from audiences and readers is profoundly nourishing. Like my father, I just want to know that I’m useful, that I fit somewhere, and that my passions have a place in this world. I think of him often, his quietude, his gentle nature, his steadfast commitment to his wife and his sons and to the proposition that life is beautiful and to be relished and enjoyed. There is no later. There is only now. If it’s a beautiful day at the beach, then you go to the beach.
Wealth is wanting what you have. Success is well-being. Happiness is a decision. Joy is a natural by-product of a virtuous life. These are not secrets, they are ancient insights taught in every spiritual and philosophical tradition. And they are born out in every life lived with integrity, honesty, vigor, and willingness. Life is only a problem if you try and figure it out. If you just live it, it flows pretty well.
Finding a place where your passion meets the needs of the world is the soul work of every man and woman. For my dad it was printing. He plied his craft setting type and playing an integral role in the publication of the news, making our Founder’s ideals of a free press a concrete reality. He knew that language and print media were essential to the human project and he humbly took his place on the mechanical side of the process. And he took it seriously. But when the type was set, he turned it over to the boys on the printing presses, punched the clock and walked down to the beach. He was free. I still see my father swimming in the ocean at the end of a long day, happy, in love, grateful, and reverent. And it was good enough.