Say Goodbye to Each Season

I’m not talking about House of the Dragon, although, if the early reviews are any indication, that too will require getting ourselves together until season two arrives. The seasons I mean are the ones you can watch simply by looking out your window. Today, I saw the first leaf drop from the big maple tree across the street. Fall is officially here.

There is something magical about spring blossoming into summer, summer stepping aside for autumn, and winter softly covering fall with snow. It’s as if we had cast a collective spell to transform the air, and with it, our spirits also change. Despite our not playing an active role in it, the passage of seasons is worth acknowledging.

Maybe you’ll come up with a little ritual, like lighting a candle on the first day of each quarter, or the first time you see a flower blossom, a person eating ice cream, a leaf or snow fall. Maybe you’ll write a diary entry, treat yourself to a season-themed meal, or spend a day outdoors. The point is to participate in life without letting nature yank it right by you in front of your eyes.

It doesn’t take much to do this. As long as you’re present, really there for the new season’s arrival, a single moment can be enough. “Wow. Okay. It’s no longer time for shorts. I guess fall is truly here.” Then, you can start asking questions.

“What did I do this summer? How do I want to spend the winter? What should be my theme for the spring?” Acknowledging the shifting tide of seasons makes us more resilient to the passage of time. Instead of waking up five years later, wondering where it went, we get to check in with ourselves every three odd months or so. “Ah! I do have some control here. I can change what I’m doing.”

There’s room for gratitude too. For nostalgia. For calling a friend and saying, “You know what? That was a great spring of working out together once a week.” Most of all, however, saying hello and goodbye to nature’s seasons will make it easier to do the same for the seasons of our own lives.

It takes conscious effort to switch from being a family man to working really hard on your business or vice versa. You can neglect your health for a while to hang out more with friends, but eventually, you’ll need to return to taking care of yourself regularly. If you’re already used to greeting and sending off spring, summer, fall, and winter, you’ll more easily reorder your priorities when it’s time to do so — and those times tend to find us more often than we expect.

Open your window. Look outside. What season is it? And how can you best savor life while it lasts?

In Sickness and in Health

Society treats health as binary because it needs to keep functioning. When a factory worker has the flu, it is better for the business if that person doesn’t show up. Otherwise, ten factory workers might have the flu next week. The same applies to schools, concerts, or gatherings of important politicians: Wherever there’s a risk of disease spreading, we try to prevent the diseased from attending, and that makes sense.

The result, however, is that every child learns that health only comes in two forms: You either have it, or you don’t, and depending on your current status, you will (and should be) blocked from certain activities until you have your wellness back. This mindset comes with a long tail of problems.

I first glimpsed health’s more continuous true nature in 2016. After shipping a big article right on time, a big lump of stress fell off my chest, but all it did was make way for a nasty virus. I learned that some kinds of stress are better than others, and that it wasn’t the strain itself that got me but its imbalance. We always have some stress — the question is whether we actively manage its types and totality so it won’t knock us out.

In the same vein, we are always ill to some degree. Both our physical and mental health are sliders on a spectrum, and we must constantly make an effort to keep these barometers well-balanced. You might not have missed a day at work in years yet go to the dermatologist every week because you have dry skin. You could be a million-dollar rockstar living the dream but feel completely empty and depressed on the inside. You may be confined to a wheelchair but improve the mental health of millions through your positive attitude.

In other words: You’re never 100% healthy, and you’re never 100% sick. While this means there’s always something to worry about, work on, and improve, it also suggests there’s always something to feel good about, enjoy, and capitalize on. If you can no longer sprint because of a knee injury, perhaps you can lift weights and discover you have a knack for it. What makes you anxious about playing the trumpet in front of the whole school might be the very thing that makes you a great listener and private trumpet tutor.

Health is a dynamic, ever-moving balance, and if we want to use ours to its full potential, we must keep flowing with it. The limits of our physical health are not always clear, but they’re more obvious than our mental ones: When our body won’t allow us to get out of bed, we simply can’t. When it’s our mind telling us to stay under the covers, things become tricky.

“Whenever I began to feel a tiny bit ill again, I would become deeply anxious and depressed that I was back to being properly ill,” Matt Haig writes about his mental health struggles. “It would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would become ill because I believed I was.” The solution? Like eating good food, exercising, and sleeping enough to maintain our body, we also have to work on our inner attitude and balance. Those, too, are tasks we’ll always face. “We have to accept that bad feelings and memories can return,” but we an also take comfort in the fact that “if they do we will be ready for them, accepting of what they are, transient and changing.”

If anything showed us health isn’t binary, it’s coronavirus. Some people barely had any symptoms. Others went to the ICU, lost their sense of smell for months, or even…died. Different countries came up with different rules, and different people came up with different ways of flouting them. Some took planes they weren’t allowed to take. Others refused to wear masks or strategically didn’t test themselves. This isn’t to say the rules were perfect, but it proves that even though it was (and still is) a global health crisis, there was no one-size-fits-all solution — because there’s no straight line demarcating the “healthy/not healthy” border for humans.

Long before covid, flu-ridden people went to work. Parents sent their chickenpox-plagued children into kindergarten. “Let them all get it and be done with it!” Will a 19-year-old skip a concert because of a dry cough? Probably not, especially if they can “kill the bacteria” with alcohol. Are these good ideas? Unlikely. Meanwhile, depressed people often keep to themselves for far too long. Don’t wait until the dark thoughts already have you by the ankle. Speak up now! Call a number. Start a chat. There are plenty of free resources, and you can confide in someone anonymously.

You’re never 100% healthy, and you’re never 100% sick. “Reality isn’t a simple jar we can stick a label on, to say this is what it is, and it will never change,” Haig writes. “We can move against the current of life, and forever meet resistance, or we can let our thoughts flow, and become the free uncertain river.”

Be water, my friend.

After You Slip, Make Sure You Don’t Fall

I have a shower mat. My girlfriend laughs at me for it. It makes me look like an 80-year-old man. Why would a perfectly healthy guy put a rubber mat down every time he showers? The answer is that I slipped more than once — and I don’t intend to fall.

There’s a lot of stuff you can land on in my bathroom. The sink. The toilet. The floor. None of it will provide a soft landing, and if you’re unlucky, you’ll make the “dumbest ways to die” list the next day.

My grandpa is an 80-year-old man. In fact, he’ll turn 82 in a few days. Not too long ago, he did fall in the shower, and the bruises were neither fun to look at nor quick to heal. It was the last warning shot I needed — and so I bought a shower mat.

Life pulls the rug from under our feet often enough. We don’t always get fair warning, let alone multiple ones, and yet when we do, we usually ignore them. We keep barreling down the slope on our skateboard, thinking we’re invincible. A helmet? Knee pads? Those are for suckers! Sure they are. Until the wheels catch a tiny stone, and we get the flying lesson we never asked for.

If fortune is generous enough to let you slip before you fall, don’t take it for granted. Heed that warning. Buy the anti-slip socks, the helmet, or the flowers that let your girlfriend know you love her. Life has given you a chance to prevent unnecessary disaster, and it is your duty to take it — if not to protect others, then at least to save your own neck.

Slip once, buy a shower mat, phew. Slip twice, fall, that’s on you. May you never hit the dirt.

Common Is Not Natural

Society is far too accommodating for humanity’s countless addictions. Just because over a billion people drink two cups of coffee a day does not make it normal to not be able to function without your 8 AM cup of joe — but in the affluent countries where 50, 60, 75% of people drink coffee on a daily basis, it can seem weirder to skip it than to sip it.

Different addictions become socialized in different geographies. A friend from Brazil once told me that in South America, everyone is extra-addicted to their phone, particularly Instagram, and therefore obsessed with their looks. In Bavaria, annual beer consumption averages out to half a liter per person per day. Take out the non-drinkers and more casual consumers, and you’re left with a lot of alcoholics, no matter how high-functioning they may be.

Germans have endless jokes about beer bellies, relationship bellies, and traveling salesman bellies not because those bellies are normal but because two thirds of men and more than half of women are overweight — and about a quarter of adults is outright obese. Common is not “normal.” We apply that word to whatever we frequently see, and we use it to make ourselves feel better about what’s really an untenable situation.

The next time someone tells you something is “normal,” ask yourself: “Yes, but is it natural?” Our ancestors didn’t have a flat rate for soy milk lattes, and they got out of bed just fine. Beauty wasn’t a contest but an indicator of natural selection, and alcohol, like other high-calorie foods, was a rare indulgence.

This isn’t to say we can’t enjoy today’s abundance of these goods, but we must not pretend that depending on them is healthy, even warranted. Skip your coffee for a day. Quit drinking for a month. Look around your town, your office, your country, and dare to question the masses.

There’s a difference between what’s common and what’s natural, and we ought to remember it.

Don’t Stand Too Close to the Art

Yesterday, I stood in front of Picasso’s Woman With a Violin. No matter how long I stared, I could barely make out the instrument among the sea of cubes, let alone the woman. Eventually, I snapped a photo of the painting, then moved on.

Back home, I went through my pictures, and lo and behold: From the more distant perspective, both the woman and violin were perfectly clear.

Sometimes, we’re too close to something to see the beauty that’s in it. A tired waiter might miss the deep gratitude resting in a customer’s smile. A frustrated parent may forget how far her daughter has come. And an art dealer doing too many transactions may no longer be able to spot what’s special about a painting.

That’s life. It happens. We all get too deep into the weeds from time to time. But when we realize it, we can also take a step back. Get the distance we need, be it in time or in space, to once again see what the (big) picture is truly about.

You’re not a cynic, unappreciated, or incompetent. Try again tomorrow. Pick a different angle. Chances are, you’re just standing too close to the art.

The Meaning of Work

If your work involves manual labor, you are transforming physical reality. Pause for a second, and realize how profound this is. Carving a chair out of wood, assembling metal sheets into a car, operating a machine that turns sand into glass bottles — manufacturing is nothing short of alchemy. Back in the Middle Ages, kings dreamed about converting lead into gold, but what we have accomplished is a thousand times better.

If your work mainly consists of thinking, you too perform alchemy, just a slightly different kind. Instead of transmuting the materials already present in our physical realm, you are bringing new ones into it. You are chiseling knowledge, ideas, and emotions out of the fabric of space — and that, too, is an awe-inspiring task.

Science tells us space is empty, but that is not true. After all, everything that exists came out of space. Earth. Other planets. Donuts. Skyscrapers. Even humans — you and I — are rearranged stardust. In that sense, sculpting a little more stuff out of ether should seem as natural to us as fetching water from a spring.

If you imagine this “life force,” this basic, cosmic soup, as something a little more tangible than air, a translucent, smoky substance perhaps, or invisible, rainbow-colored cotton candy, your work will begin feeling less abstract and more meaningful. You also won’t be alone.

In Star Wars, they call it “the Force.” In Final Fantasy VII, they call it “the lifestream.” Even the Stoics had a word for it: “Logos” — the divine yet perfectly natural “anima mundi,” the soul or spirit of the world. The ancient philosophers thought this “operative principle” of life to be invisible yet ever-present, elusive yet palpable, and they wholeheartedly believed it was forever driven forward by virtue and purpose.

The lifestream is more than destiny. It is not a predetermined future, but the raw material from which we create it. Whether we shape our contribution with our hands or our mind, we are drawing from the same source, and that source wants goodness — in creation, in history, in us — to prevail.

Every day, we collectively carve tomorrow out of the cosmos, and in this grand scheme of creation, smiling at a young child while picking up her family’s trash is as important as discovering the next cancer therapy that wins a Nobel Prize.

You are here for a reason. You may not always get to choose what you do, but rest assured that, no matter the task in front of you, that reason is always intact.

Your work matters. Thank you for giving it all you’ve got.

Waiting for the Rain

I planned a weekend trip to a nearby lake. Then, the weather forecast said it would rain. On the day of, the skies were cloudy, but the rain was a long time coming.

Instead of grabbing my bag and going, I waited. I knew it would come, just not when. An hour went by, then three, then five. In the afternoon, the sun even poked its head through the clouds. Preposterous!

But eventually, at 9 PM or so, the skies opened, and torrential rain poured down. Finally! It kept raining for the rest of the weekend. My trip would have to happen another day.

Sometimes, all you can do is wait for the rain. Maybe the rain is an email. Or a rejection letter. Or news from the doc. Whatever shape your weather blockade takes, it doesn’t mean your delay is dead time. You can still fill those hours. Carpe diem — seize the day!

I read while I waited. Rested. Called my mom. Had a schnitzel. Bought some bread. Even went outside. It wasn’t the trip I had planned, but maybe it was the trip that I needed. Forced breaks are an opportunity to reflect on your pacing. Are you going too fast? Too slow? How can you make the wait time well spent?

We can’t always avoid the rain, but even when the downpour is inevitable, we can still choose how we spend our time. Life never “waits” in the sense that it stops altogether — and neither should we.

I Hope You’re Doing

A friend of mine is grieving the sudden loss of his dad. He’s not okay, and everyone knows it, but as his friends, we still want to check in on him.

How do you know when you’re a welcome distraction vs. when you’re just more noise someone doesn’t need? You don’t — but you can ask. So I told him: “I hope you’re doing okay, but really, I hope you’re just doing. I’m happy to chat anytime if you want, but if you’re not ready, I’m happy to leave you alone too.”

Sometimes, it’s enough to let someone know you’re glad they’re coping any way whichever. You don’t have to pretend everything is fine so they can do the same. You can admit that it sucks, but at least you’re still both around, still friends, together waiting for the suck to end.

Most of the time, it’s great to be optimistic. But every now and then, the going gets so tough, reality will just have to do as it is. So while I do hope that you too are doing great, well, or okay, for today, I’ll be more than satisfied if you’re doing at all — and it truly is okay if the only thing you expect of yourself is the same.

There Is Just News

The little red panda runs to his tortoise mentor: “Master! Master! I have very bad news!”

Calm as ever, Oogway answers: “Ahh, Shifu. There is just news! There is no good or bad.”

After Shifu relays his message — a dangerous leopard warrior has escaped from his high-security prison — the Master concedes: “That is bad news…if you do not believe that the Dragon Warrior can stop him.”

To everyone but the Master, the situation seems hopeless. The enemy has great power. The Dragon Warrior isn’t a warrior at all — just a chubby panda who makes noodles for a living (and eats twice as much as he sells).

But Master Oogway remains unfazed, for he already knows what viewers of Kung Fu Panda are yet to learn: Everything is relative. There is no yin without its yang, and the end result is always balance.

Bad news are just bad if you believe nothing good can ever come from them — and today, like every day, it is a little too soon to tell. Trust the scale to even out. Have faith, and eventually, the Dragon Warrior will come. Sooner or later, the dark will find its light.

I know it’s not easy. On some days, the current of judgement will be too strong. But even when it carries you away, you can always get out of the water. Climb back ashore, and remember: There is just news. There is no good or bad.

And when you’re sitting on dry land again, no matter how wet you might be, you may even recall Master Oogway’s last words: “You must believe.”

Is It the End or the Beginning?

In the movie The Adjustment Bureau, a team of mysterious agents tries to prevent Matt Damon’s character David from being together with the love of his life. The agents have a book describing “the Plan,” the grand, cosmic scheme of things, supposedly written by God himself. According to this plan, disaster will ensue for David, his love Elise, and the entire world should the two be together.

Ironically, the agents use doors to keep closing gates for David. By wearing special hats, the agents can use any door to teleport to another location, thus thwarting David’s every move in trying to reach Elise. If fate has ever slammed the door in your face, you know what it feels like to have the Adjustment Bureau on your heels.

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us,” Hellen Keller once wrote. While forcing us to leave something behind, every door also leads to a new place. In David’s case, he would become the most powerful man in the world, and Elise’s future looks more than bright without him too. And yet…

“We never know what is on the other side of the door,” Matt Haig writes in The Comfort Book. “It may be a room similar to the one we are standing in, or it might be a room we have never seen before. It might not be a room at all. But we can never be sure.” That’s why doors are scary. We can’t see what we’re about to gain. All we know is what we’re giving up.

Sometimes, we look around the room we’re so familiar with, and we hesitate. We take our hand off the handle. “Do I really need to open this one? What if it’s Pandora’s box?” At other times, particularly those when we did find a wasteland rather than an oasis after taking our latest portal, we desperately cling to the handle of a door that’s long been closed. We rattle and shake and hit our flat hand against the wood, all to no avail. Like David, desperately trying to find his way back to Elise.

But was that door ever really locked? Haig believes few endings mean something is actually over: “Even though I have largely recovered from depression, the door is never quite closed.” It is “always slightly ajar,” he writes. Some doors are revolving. They transport us into the unfamiliar, but they still allow us to return. Sometimes, they even painfully try to pull us back.

Every ending contains a new beginning, because there are neither endings nor beginnings. Only doors. “Everything in front of us is defined by possibility,” Haig says. “And even if we end up somewhere we don’t want to be,” we should remember that “another door exists. And another beautiful handle, waiting to be turned.”

I don’t know if the Adjustment Bureau will breathe down your neck today. I don’t know where your next door will lead. All I know is that it is neither the end nor the beginning. It is a door to the future — and the only way to find out what’s behind it is to step through.