Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

How Do You Balance Self-Care With Compassion?

I’m still working my way through the September crunch. Do you get this in your life too? With the summer over, and school starting for the kids, there are schedule disruptions as we try to piece together the kids schedules. when I was in corporate, summer ended and everyone realized they had to make the Q3 numbers all at once. I know traffic here has exploded too as everyone comes back online. Yesterday, I felt overwhelmed. Today, I’m looking to find the good in all this stuff.
Ok, I admit it – being overwhelmed by scheduling extra-curricular activities for my kids seems very much a first world problem, and not a particularly big one at that. In a time when the world is in a refugee crisis, #blacklivesmatter, and Muslim teen Ahmed Mohamed is arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, should this trivial stuff even register? It should, and I’ll get to why in a moment.
First I want to comment on what happened with Ahmed. He is an inventive 14 year old 9th grader, who brought a clock to school, assembled with circuit boards and chunks of metal, to his Texas High School. The school panicked, thought it was a bomb, called the police, and escorted him out of the building in handcuffs. Shamefully, even after they learned it was not a bomb, he was suspended, and admonished for bringing something dangerous to school. This was abysmal treatment of a young creative mind, and fortunately he was not physically harmed. This negative situation opened the door to something amazing: people noticed, and acted.
First, there was outrage on social media as ordinary people spoke out. Soon, Ahmed was invited to
  • the White House to meet the President
  • Google’s science fair
  • Facebook, Twitter, and Box by their CEOs
Suddenly, Ahmed has amazing opportunities because people took action when something bad happened. Each person said to him or herself, “What can I do to make this better?” Collectively, they did a lot.
The Syrian refugee crisis is another opportunity to do good. Here again, some people are stepping up, donating money or opening their homes to help people in need.  I have come to believe that the bigger the crisis, the larger the opportunity to do good. If you would like to donate to help Syrian refugees, Google is matching individual donations. Click here if you’d like to donate.
But what about the garden variety day-to-day crisis, like the September crunch? It is tempting to focus our giving and kindness on “those truly in need.” Yet each of us has needs as well. They may seem trivial compared to the life or death situations faced by millions around the world, but they are the problems we are confronted with. Until we take care of ourselves, we cannot properly care for others.
The same formulation can apply to the trivial: What good can I see in this situation, and what action can I take to make a difference? Today I’m remembering how fortunate to live in an area with such choices for kids growing up. And, it is an opportunity to think about what is truly important to me. Where can I cut back for a few weeks until the schedule settles into a routine? Where can I add some exercise or stress relieving activities? How can I incorporate them into my life on an ongoing basis? If I am getting stressed, is it just me, or do the kids feel it too, and if so, perhaps they have too much on their plates.
And the action I’m taking? The Dr. Who marathon of course!
Tell me what you think. Do you feel the September crunch? How do you balance self-care with compassion?

Can You Stay Calm When Your Buttons Are Pushed?

Can you stay calm when your buttons are pushed?

Can you stay calm when your buttons are pushed?

I’m writing this week from the Frankfurt Airport, on my way home from a long weekend in Basel Switzerland with my wife. I really needed this weekend away, as I’ve been pretty wiped out by the push to finish the book, and the follow on sinus infection.

Just before I left, my Mussar practice shifted to Equanimity, which is also known as “Calmness of the Soul.” My initial thought was – perfect, some rest and relaxation, just what I need to restore my Equanimity. As is often the case with Mussar, the truth is a bit more complicated.

Most people can relax and become/maintain calm when everything is perfect. When we’re rested and our needs are taken care of, it is very easy to keep your cool. Retreating to a quiet place for a weekend to meditate doesn’t really help in the day to day. For example, many times when I was in the working world, I’d return from a vacation refreshed and renewed, which lasted for about 90 minutes. By the second or third email/phone call of substance, my stress was pegged again. While vacation is important for rest and renewal, it is not the same thing as building “Calmness of the Soul.”

This week, I’ve been looking at stress points as opportunities to practice Equanimity. This awareness in itself has been transformative. For example, one morning I woke up early and decided to meditate. There was a loud noise from the other room that was trying to bother me. I say trying because I said to myself, ” This is a test. Can you continue the meditation with that constant irritant?” It took an extra level of concentration, but I was able to do it. I think the secret was that I primed myself to look for opportunities to stay calm when normally I would become irritated.

I’m curious to see how things develop for over the remainder of the month. Often I start strong, but get tired trying to maintain Equanimity.

What has your experience been? Can You Stay Calm When Your Buttons Are Pushed?

Is It Easier For You to Identify Your Leadership Strengths or Weaknesses?

is it easier for you to identify your leadership strengths or weaknesses?I’ve come across an interesting dilemma. My Mussar studies this month focus on leadership. Rabbi Avi Fertig teaches that Leadership is not a single soul trait, but the result of multiple soul traits working together. He suggests a reflective exercise to examine three examples I demonstrated good leadership, and three where I did not. For each case, I am to identify two soul traits. By examining the whole, I can then select  two soul traits where I am strong wrt leadership, and two where I am weak. It is very easy for me to look and see where I have made mistakes, and to point to the soul trait imbalances that contributed. It is much harder for me to focus on the strengths. Why is that? Is this just me, or is it hard for you to recognize your strengths as well?

 

True self-reflection is never easy of course. We can identify surface issues, but getting to the deeper root cause is harder. For example, what soul traits of mine helped me be an effective leader for An Afternoon of Mussar a few months ago? On the surface, I might say Order, because I called meetings regularly, had agendas, and the day was well organized. However, I relied on others to teach me how to write agendas and plan the details. Underneath Order, I was practicing Responsibility, in that I was taking accountability for the outcome; and Compassion, in that I made time to check in on the welfare of the people on the team. Order then, was merely an outcome from my work in these other areas.
Ok, that felt good. For some reason it has been hard for me to do what I just wrote about in the above paragraph. Although it seems simple, I’ve been blocked for days from doing that analysis. What was so hard for me about looking at my good qualities? I’ve done this enough to know that something is there. Once in my class, I asked everyone to do a quick self-evaluation. One of the students freaked out and got anxious. I didn’t push it further at the time, but it stuck with me. A strong reaction is a red flag that there is some soul work to be done.
What has your experience been? Is it easier for you to identify your leadership strengths or weaknesses?
If you want to learn more about Mussar, visit my other website Americanmussar.com

How You Can Prevent Another Charleston Massacre

This week, a white man killed a bunch of black people because he said they were rapists and taking over the country. Wow. I think that certain people are being pushed over the edge because we have a black President. Obamacare is working, his popularity is going up, and those of the racist bent are beside themselves. What are we to do?
As a Jew and practitioner of Mussar, it is insufficient to simply avoid doing bad things – we are called upon to proactively do good things, including standing up for the powerless, and standing against injustice.
When Rabbi Sidney Akselrod, the first Rabbi at my synagogue,  arrived for his first week of work in 1965, he told the board “I’m sorry, I have to go to Selma.” He jumped on a plane, and marched with Dr. King. Few of us would do that, which is why R. Akselrod is so highly revered as a great person. While I’m not jumping on a plane, I will dedicate this letter to speaking out in  hopes that together we can change the climate that fosters hatred and intolerance.
The statement that “blacks are taking over the country” does not come in a vacuum. Rudi Giuliani’s recent comments that President Obama is not “one of us” is a softer way of saying the same thing. In addition, I was puzzled about Donald Trumps’s fixation on where President Obama was born. He seemed to go on and on about the birth certificate. Why? Now, with Trump’s diatribe that Mexico is sending rapists and drug dealers to the US, I understand. Trump is a racist. Giuliani is a racist too.
Do you know any racists? Not the white supremacist kind, but the gentler kind who make disparaging comments. When I was kid in summer camp, the instructor was scolding the class, and out of the blue he said “and this includes you too, Greg.” I was astounded – what had I done wrong? It must have been something. Some gentle racist out there needs you to remind them that what they are saying is not ok.
When it comes to racism, it is not enough to not do anything wrong; we need to look for opportunities to do something right. You will have a chance to do something to prevent another Charleston Massacre. For example, you could:
•    Demand that the confederate flag come down in S. Carolina. If you think it is a matter of heritage not racism, you are rationalizing. Sign a petition.
•    Don’t click or share any stories about Trump – less attention and they’ll s top covering him in the media
•    Speak up if you hear something intolerant.
The Talmud teaches that words are more powerful than knives, because they can kill at a distance. While we can’t control many things, we can control what we say, and what we don’t say.
It’s clear to me that electing a black President does not mean that we are beyond racism, merely that there are not enough racists to prevent a black man from becoming President. When the people of South Carolina and other states choose to stop displaying the Stars and Bars, then we’ll know that hearts are truly changing.
How do you think we can use words to end racism? Of course words along won’t do the job. Some people are beyond changing, and all we can do is to keep them from having power. But words are a good place to start.

Why You Should Read Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook Post

Sheryl Sandberg's Facebook post

Resilience by Alan Levine via Flickr CC

Amid the excitement of my daughter finishing her first year of high school, and a pending visit to Syracuse to visit my parents, it has been an interesting week. I’ve been in a good writing groove, patching some holes in the early middle of the book. And in Mussar, I’ve been practicing Loving Kindness, which led me to read Sherryl Sandberg’s Facebook post about the grieving process for her husband, who died of a freak accident at the age of 46.

 

It is heavy and moving. If you have ever experienced grief, you’ll know what she is talking about. If you haven’t, you’ll learn that grief is not what we see in the movies. Grief is an adult woman who is held by her mother every night as she cries herself to sleep.

 

Sandberg taught me a lot about Loving Kindness. Loving Kindness is doing something for someone else, with no thought of a reward, even if they don’t deserve it. Loving Kindness goes beyond being nice. It is one of the three elements that the world is built on, and thus acts of Loving Kindness also have an element of sustaining other people.

 

Sandberg’s openness of her pain is a gift to the world. She teaches us what to say and what not to say to someone in grief, and she offers community to those who are suffering grief around the world. She also shares how she has opened a space to talk about it with her uncomfortable colleagues. We are given an opportunity to practice Loving Kindness by reading her words, and sharing her pain in silent fellowship.

 

This may seem scary or unappetizing. Life is stressful, and who needs to take on someone else’s grief? We all do. Last night I was meditating on Loving Kindness, and I had an image of a brick with a smiley face on it. Then there was a second brick, then another and another, and before long a huge wall was built that stretched up to the heavens and in all directions. The world is built on Loving Kindness.

 

Someday we will be the one in grief. Someday we will encounter someone who has lost the person they love the most in the world. I guarantee you, when that day comes, you’ll be happy that you read the post because it will teach you how to act.

 

Now, we can saver that Today Is Not That Day. We can celebrate and be thankful for all that we have. If you haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook post, read it now, and then do an act of Loving Kindness.