5 Change Notes

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I have a pen problem. 

I am really picky about the kind of pens I use. And I use pens a lot. I write everything down. Or at least I try to. It helps me remember to write things down, and with my Brian injury memory is always an issue. Since I write so much, I have a lot of preferences when it comes to pens.

I prefer ballpoint to gel ink, although the latter is more widely available these days. While I will use gel ink (the Pilot G2 was my go to pen for years), I really prefer ballpoint. I prefer blue ink over black. Mainly because it stands out more and is easier for me to read. I like thicker ink, not fine point. The pen has to have weight and thickness to it, and be well-balanced. 

Since I am so picky about my pens, I frequently try new ones. I go through a lot of pens looking for the perfect one. That means that we have a metric ton of barely used pens around the house. We are buried under blue pens. My house is like a rescue farm for lightly used pens that weren’t quite right.

This is my pen problem.

The pens are actually not the problem. They are the manifestation of the problem. The real problem is that I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) as just one more dish on the buffet of mental illness in my brain. Because of my ADD I have a hard time concentrating. That is actually one of the reasons I write things down. A few times I have tried to go purely digital, but anytime I open my phone or iPad, it’s game over. Distractions everywhere. I also change my mind, about pens and everything else, all the time.

I was originally diagnosed with ADD in the late 70s, before it was cool. Also before doctors really understood what it was or how to treat it. The doctor I saw told my mom that she shouldn’t let me have gum. Or milk after 3pm. That was it. That was my treatment plan.

Over the years I have learned how to manage the symptoms of ADD. It has sometimes been hard. I really do find it hard to concentrate. My mind often drifts, and often to weird places. Memory is a constant challenge. It can be frustrating for me and the people around me. I know they get tired of me constantly changing my mind. About pens mostly.

For all the challenges that ADD brings, it has brought some gifts too. I have learned a lot about how to deal with change. Sometimes the change happened because of forces beyond my control. Sometimes change happened because I got distracted, or forgot, or changed my mind. Regardless of the provenance of the change, I had to deal with it.

And there have been a lot of changes in my life. From 4 high schools in 3 states all the way up to a surprise baby in my mid 40s. And so many things in between. Change has, in many ways, defined my life. 

This week I will be sharing 5 things about change - what it is, how to manage it, and what it means. Change feels like an especially relevant thing to think about right now. 2020 has been a year of constant change, with all the challenges that go with that. If there is one thing we have learned from a global pandemic, an erratic president, and a hyper partisan country, it is that change happens. Change always happens.

Now what?

Change Note #1

Change is the rule, not the exception.

Having a special needs child changes your life in a whole lot of ways. Some are wonderful. Many are challenging. Some are hilarious.

At least, they would be hilarious if they happened to someone else.

Willie was about Justin’s age when he stole someone else’s dinner for the first time. It was at the McDonald’s on Cliffdale Road just outside Fort Bragg in Fayetteville. I let go of his hand for 2 seconds while we placed our order and.... there he was. Eating another kid’s fries at a nearby table.

There’s not really any parenting books that tell you how to handle that situation. Luckily, the other family was cool about it. I was apologetic. Also flustered and confused. I mean, you have a certain set of expectations when you head to the McDonald’s on Cliffdale Road. You also know that it is Fayetteville and something unexpected might happen. What you are never really prepared for is that your son with autism may start gnashing on another family’s dinner. At least we didn’t expect that until that day. After that, we got used to it, and prepared for it.

And. No matter how much you prepare, having a special needs kid (or any kid really) will cause weirdness in your life that you are in no way prepared for. Nothing is ever the same from one moment to the next. Everything changes. All the time.

Lots of people say that change is hard. Hell, I’ve said it. I think that what makes change hard is that we tend to think of change as something dramatic or unusual. We think of change as black swans or lightning strikes. Something aberrant or different. But it’s not.

Change is the one universal constant. Predictability, things staying the same, THAT is unusual. We think of change as extraordinary, when it is the most ordinary thing in the world. 

Things change. All the time. It is a lesson we have learned again and again, and yet we don’t always acknowledge it, or see change for what it is. Instead of embracing change, and leaning in to what it can mean for us and the world, we instead avoid it, or even fight it.

What are we fighting? And why are we fighting it? I can’t answer these questions for you, but for me I think that a big reason change scares me is because it is a reminder that control is an illusion. That you can not prepare for every eventuality. That you will be caught off guard. Change is a challenge because I don’t always walk the mile I am in. I am trying to run ahead to some uncertain future, and missing the steps I need to take here, and now.

I have found a pen I like. It is a wide body Fisher space pen. It writes nicely. It has good balance. I have been using it for a while now. The other pens are jealous. I keep them around anyway because you never know what might happen.

Because change is the one thing we can count on.  

Change Note #2

Change is hard.

Let’s do a thought experiment. I want you to close your eyes for one full minute - 60 seconds - and think about the hardest thing you have ever had to do in your life. I don’t mean this figuratively. I want you to take the next full minute to think about the hardest thing you have ever had to do. Think about what led up to it. Think about what made it hard for you. 

Okay. Ready? Close your eyes and give it a think for a full minute. 

I’ll wait.

Thanks. A minute is longer than you thought, huh? I want to ask you a question about your challenge. How did it relate to change? Did your challenge arise because of a change? Was your challenge a change itself? Maybe one that was really unexpected or hard to manage? Was your hard thing the result of a change that had just happened, or was about to?

My guess is that, for most of us, our biggest challenges are related directly to change, directly or indirectly. And it makes sense. Change creates challenges. Change is a challenge. Because change is hard. Even good changes test us.

One of my mantras is that you can do hard things. Anyone who talks to me even semi-regularly will probably have heard me say it. More than once. A few of them are probably sick of me saying it. And while it sounds like a slogan custom made for an Etsy shop, the truth is that you CAN do hard things. 

One of my core beliefs is that human beings are capable of incredible acts of resilience and strength. I believe in people’s ability to overcome challenges to be their best selves. I believe this because I have seen it happen again and again. I have seen my fellow soldiers push beyond what they believed to be their mental and physical limits to make the mission happen. I have seen people recover from addictions that they have had their whole lives. I have seen very sick people learn to manage and heal their mental illness. I have seen people overcome unimaginable traumas to be functional, loving, and happy adults.

It’s not just that I believe. I KNOW that we can do hard things.

And.

Hard things suck.

Change sucks. Even good change can suck. Ever moved to a new house? You picked the new place. You were excited to move there. Giddy even. New home, new start. But the actual moving is the worst. Boxes everywhere. Not knowing where anything is. The sudden discovery of imperfections you didn’t see in the walkthrough with the realtor. New neighbors, new dramas on Nextdoor. Even good change is hard.

Change is relentless and constant. It challenges us in every way that we can be challenged. We can do hard things. That means that we can manage change. It doesn’t mean that managing change is easy or fun. Just that we can do it.

We CAN do hard things. But y’all. Doing hard things is hard. Constant change gets old. I have made it almost to the end of 2020. I have done this very hard thing. I have lived / am living with all the changes this year has brought. And I never, ever want to have another year like this. Just because I can do hard things doesn’t mean I want to.

Understanding and acknowledging that change is hard helps us to better accept the challenges when they come. We know it will be hard. We know that we can rise to the occasion. And it is okay to not want to. It is okay to be annoyed. Pissed even. And we can still do it. We can be prepared for the frustrations and surprises.

If we know that change is going to happen, and we understand that change is hard, then we are on our way to dealing with the changes that come. 

Now. Think about that for a full minute.

Change Note #3

Change happens slowly, then all at once.

One of the most amazing historical events of my lifetime was the fall of the Berlin Wall just over 31 years ago this month. One of the things that sticks with me is how quickly it seemed to happen.

On the evening of November 9, 1989, Gunther Schabowski, the chief spokesman for the East German government, appeared at a press conference. The East German government had made the decision a few days earlier to open the border for travel to and from West Berlin, provided citizens met some basic requirements. The changes represented a major lessening of restrictions on freedom of movement in the East. 

The East German politburo had met in secret to work out the changes. The new travel regulations were to be phased in. Only, Schabowski hadn’t been a part of the meetings where the specific plans were discussed. He only knew generally that the border was being relaxed. At the press conference, he told the press (and via radio, all of East Berlin) about the planned changes. When pressed on a timeline, Schabowski famously replied that the changes were “effective immediately, without delay.” While this was not the plan of the East German government, it didn’t matter. The die was cast.

Within minutes of Schabowski’s pronouncement, East German citizens began to cue at the border, demanding to be let across. The crowds grew and became more restless. They were soon joined by cheering West German supporters. The guards frantically called their supervisors, only the East German high command was as confused as Schabowski. They gave the order to open the gates. 

Within hours, it was all over. The Berlin Wall, the most iconic symbol of the division of east and west during the Cold War was, for all practical purposes, a relic of history. Parties began. The scene played out jubilantly on televisions around the world. And it gave rise to one of my very favorite musical moments of all time.

Yeah. That’s right. The Hoff. In a light up jacket. Just lookin’ for freedom.

Within days, pickaxes, shovels and hammers would make the wall a physical memory as well. Within a couple of months, early plans for reunification would start to take shape. It had all happened so quickly. A sudden, unexpected, earth altering change.

Only... that’s not exactly what really happened, right?

Sure, what happened on November 9 was dramatic and seemed sudden. However, thousands of people inside and outside of East Germany had been working for this moment for the entirety of the Cold War. 140 East Germans gave their lives trying to make a run from East Germany over, around, and through the Berlin Wall. What happened that crisp fall night had been put into motion decades before David Hasselhoff climbed that crane and belted his bop. The jacket still slaps, though.

Soccer star Lionel Messi once famously said that it took 17 years of hard work to turn him into an overnight success. 

That’s how change is. It can feel sudden and surprising. It feels like it happens all at once. But change is rarely sudden. It is more frequently the culmination of a whole series of things that have happened before, a thousand tiny adjustments and imperceptible shifts that lead to something big and earth changing.

Change happens slowly. Then all at once. It’s our job to better understand and appreciate the small changes. I think it can help prepare us for the big ones. Being in the moment liberates us to respond more effectively when big change comes.

And, in the end, we are all just lookin’ for freedom.

Change Note #4

Being is better than becoming.

It got perilously close to the first freeze of the season this week. Trees have turned from green to yellow or orange to red to brown. Now leaves are aggressively falling everywhere I look. In our neighborhood, the landscaping is done by a company hired by the HOA. Leaf blowers are the soundtrack of our days lately. Christmas decorations fill the windows of the stores I drive by (but won’t go in, cause covid). All this tells me one thing.

It’s almost January. And that means it is almost time for New Year’s resolutions. 

I dread these every year. I always feel like I have to come up with at least one. There is a lot of societal pressure. Most people have them, and they are a pretty popular topic of conversation. And I get it. They’re fun, and mostly harmless. Mostly.

For me, they are also a little nerve wracking. I am a really good starter. I have lots of good ideas. I am not always a good finisher. I am definitely one of those “start a gym membership in January, stop going by March” kind of guys. I have gotten better about this as I have gotten older. I am a lot more selective about what I commit to. And I make better decisions as a general rule. Some of that is because of accumulated wisdom. Mostly, though, it's because of fatigue.

I am too tired to make many bad decisions. And when I do, I just tend to stick with it. Sticking with a bad decision is sometimes easier than fighting for a good decision. Because, change is hard. 

Losing weight, getting in shape, creating a new habit (or losing an old one)... these and other resolutions can be challenging. Change creates fatigue because the act of becoming is hard work. For me, at least, there is so much happening on a normal day that the idea of adding another project or expectation is at the very least daunting. And most of the time it is just a non-starter. My list of resolutions just becomes a graveyard of shit I didn’t do.

I think that this is at least partly due to the fact that “becoming” is an unnatural state. It is unnatural by design. You are making a conscious choice to shift things that are happening around you. You are adjusting - changing - your environment or yourself. You can absolutely succeed at this (people do all the time) but it will take work.

One of my favorite Arabic phrases is “inshallah” which means “God willing.” If you spend even a short time in a mostly Muslim country or community, you will hear this phrase repeatedly. It is basically a shorthand way of saying maybe. Are you coming to dinner? Inshallah. Will UNC beat Duke? Inshallah. Will Trump ever really leave? Inshallah. 

The phrase can sometimes feel dismissive and, depending on context, can be actively annoying. Once our team leader asked our counterpart in the Iraqi army (whose unit was supposed to help provide security for our mission) if all his troops were ready. “Inshallah,” came the response. Ummm. No, dude. I am really gonna need you to confirm that the guys who are watching my back are actually there and ready to go. 

The Iraqi commander didn’t mean it dismissively or cavalierly. I began to understand over time that “inshallah” was also a way of saying “shit happens.” You can have every intention of doing something - a mission, a resolution, a life change - but something else could always come up.

Instead of thinking in terms of “resolutions” I prefer to think of intentions. Rather than focusing on becoming, I want to focus on being. Instead of trying to change my actions or behaviors or something external around me, I want to instead focus on changing ME. The way I think about things. The way I approach the world.

When I first began actively working on addiction recovery, one of my first mentors told me that addiction was like walking down a really dangerous road. Imagine walking down a sidewalk covered with huge holes you could fall in, with people randomly popping out from doors trying to grab you, and with cars screaming down the road driving erratically. Recovery, he said, was learning how to avoid the danger. “I see,” I said, “as I get sober, I will learn to identify the dangerous areas of the road and where I should be on guard.” “No, Jeff,” he said, “when you get sober, you will realize that you don’t even have to walk down the road at all. There is always another way to get where you are going.”

Change will happen. By focusing on being who we want to be, the specifics of change will not throw us off. We can smile at the good, and laugh at the bad, knowing that the only constant is change and that nothing lasts forever.

Inshallah.

Change Note #5

Change is full of hope and promise.

Okay. So far this week we have talked about how change is constant, and difficult. We have talked about how change happens slowly then all at once and that change can be difficult to manage, even when you are focused on being and not becoming. All of these things are true. Change is hard, and frequently overwhelming. And transitions suck. One needs only a few minutes perusing the news to be reminded how true that is.

And. More than one thing can be true at once. I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that change can actually be pretty amazing. It can be wonderful even. It can be liberating and full of hope. Change reveals the promise that our future can be brighter than our today.

While I want to acknowledge and respect the challenge that change brings, I also want to celebrate the hope that it can embody. There is nothing quite as thrilling as the first day of school, a new job, graduation, or promotion. These moments are tangible evidence that change is coming, that something new is happening.

Every story is a story of change. Change is the through line connecting the stories we share with one another, the stories we tell the world, and the stories we tell ourselves. All stories are, at the core, stories about how one thing becomes something else, even when that something else is a wiser version of us. What connects us to one another is that we are all changing, and we get to bear witness to the changes in others, as they see our own.

Barb and I have been together for over 30 years now. And in that time we have been asked about the secret to being in a happy relationship over a long period of time. There are lots of reasons. Like most things, the answers are never as simple as it might seem or as you might hope. But if there is one truth that lies beneath all those answers, it is this: enjoy the changes. Celebrate each other’s growth. Help each other be. 

One of the dumbest things I have ever heard (and I was in the Army and the PTA, I have heard a lot of dumb things) is when one of my soldiers told me that he was leaving his wife because she - and I quote - was “not the person I married.” Yeah dumbass. That’s how growing up works. Of course she’s not the person you married. Do you think you are the guy she married? No one, and no thing, stays the same. 

The world spins. Change happens. Tides roll in and tides roll out. 

Lean into the change. Embrace it. See all the ways -  big and small - the world changes every day. Celebrate the good ones. Help transform the bad ones you can, and avoid the ones you can’t. Breathe. Breathe again.

After all, what is breathing but taking in air and changing it into something your body can use?

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber.

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.

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