The Order of Things

I’ve spent a lot of time in contemplation in my life. I tend to be logical, analytical, and quantitative. That’s just the way I am. This often puts me at odds with the spiritual, and yet, counterintuitively to my logical side, more and more it leads me to spiritual considerations.

There is an order to the universe that is humanly impossibly to understand. I think the best we can do is to feel it in our heart or gut, yet that probably doesn’t quite do it justice. Pick up a bible or a scientific text on cosmology and this much will become clear.

Even what appears random has order, causes, reasons. It may not be apparent to us, but it’s there, a creative force powering what exists. Some believe this order, this intelligence if you will, is God, or evidence or God, and others believe it exists independent of God. I’m not sure it’s important to make that distinction, or at least it’s not important for me to suggest one way or another to you. I think you are fully capable of arriving at your own conclusion, but I do want to point out something that must be true both logically and spiritually.

Despite what we were taught, our minds do not operate on a stimulus——>response basis. That’s the way it appears to our conscious mind, but that isn’t the way it works. Neuroscience is very clear on this. Our minds and their supporting structure – the brain – create hundreds and thousands of possibilities each second, trying to predict how to operate our bodies in the world around us. The subconscious workings of our minds match sensory input, such as sights, sounds, and touch, to these predictions, and we become aware of the best fits. It all happens before we become aware of it.

Sometimes we are right-ish about what bubbles up in awareness, like when we realize we must jam on the brakes to avoid hitting a suddenly stopped vehicle in front of us. Other times we are wrong-ish about our awareness, like when we startle over a stick in the brush that we mistakenly perceived as a snake or when we mistakenly interpret someone’s quiet contemplation as anger pointed at us. In any case, our brain has already moved forward before we are aware of it, actively predicting how to respond to hundreds and thousands of possible new sensory inputs.

Our conscious awareness was already created for us in the subconscious working of our mind. Even the choices we believe we make consciously, such as choosing between chocolate or vanilla ice cream, appear in our subconscious mind before we become aware of them. And it’s not just the choices that appear in our subconscious before we make a decision. The resulting decision is present in the subconscious mind before we are aware of it. Our conscious steering of awareness and choice is an illusion.

I really don’t want to confuse the hell out of you. It’s really hard to understand this stuff and get around in the world as a conscious being. After all, if you follow this logically, it calls into question whether or not we have free will. In a sense we do, in a sense we don’t. We are creative, influential beings, yet our creativity is limited to what occurs to us out of the workings of our subconscious. To be logical and scientific about it, believing we have free will over our minds is like a prisoner believing he has free will because the warden offers him a choice of chicken or fish for dinner. We are puppets to what our minds do on a subconscious level whether we realize it or not. That’s not easy to comprehend. So let me see if I can make some sense of it and help you get around in the world.

This lack of free will may feel a bit familiar to the spiritually oriented. God’s intelligence intervenes or guides in ways we will never truly understand. Perhaps it shapes events, thoughts, feelings, or actions. When we accept that, we gain peace.

To the scientifically oriented, we may have a little more trouble with it because it bucks what seems to make sense, but if we are truly being scientific, we follow the evidence. In this case, the evidence points to our lack of control. We simply do not have a definitive conscious handle on our thoughts, feelings, and actions even if it seems as if we do.

This lack of control can be uncomfortable for a moment. After all, I want control over my thoughts, feelings, and actions. I want control over healing my wife’s cancer. I want control over my daughter’s health and safety. Understanding I don’t have control can feel terrifying, yet when I let that understanding settle, a gratitude sets in. You see, despite my lack of control, there is an order of things that allows me to become aware of certain things in my life that I can only describe as blessings or miracles. These things include the love of family and friends, our general health and strength, the beauty I sense from nature, even the feeling of excitement I receive from football season around the corner. I can come up with thousands of these blessings. The miraculous is found in the common, and that seems pretty cool to me.

Yet even the term me is thrown into question. I am always tempted to perceive this awareness as an individual mind (substitute soul for mind if you prefer). When I do so, I eventually encounter a sign from within or without that points out that I am not truly a lone individual. In other words, I am not truly alone. Everyone and everything is connected. My path in life is not a solo trek. It is a trip influenced by everyone and everything around me. I’m like a wave in an ocean. A spoke on a wheel. Interconnected and inseparable.

This understanding creates meaning for me that unites the spiritual with the logical. When we learn to dance in rhythm with this order rather than trying to pin it down and elicit an answer to our constant questioning, “Why me?!” life gets a little easier. When we understand our connection with others and the world, we begin to roll with life rather than crashing against it.

There is a cause and order of things that I cannot truly be aware of, certainly not as it occurs in real time. My individual perspective is an illusion in that I am intimately connected with this order (I cannot be separated from it and it cannot be separated from me). Despite my lack of control and occasional disagreement, I find love and beauty in this order. I do what I can.

The best analogy I can come up with is that I am an artist. I do not have say over the medium I work in or even much of my skill. These were set up for me by the order and intelligence of the universe that I don’t understand. Yet I am capable of creating something with what I am given, and what I create mingles with all the other creations of the world. If that’s control to you, so be it. To me, I have no need to pat myself on the back for having control. Having the experience is enough, and the experience isn’t really my choosing even if it seems as if it is. It’s my blessing.

That’s as simple and as complex as it needs to be. Everything does happen for a reason. There is an underlying cause and connection for everything. If one sees God in this, that’s cool. If one simply sees physical cause and effect connection in this, that’s cool too. The understanding of connection is the important thing. If this post does one thing for you, I hope it is to plant the idea of connection in your mind so that your subconscious possibilities begin to process connection as part of their predictions for your place in the world around you.

I hope this makes sense and finds you and yours connected in beautiful ways. Have a great day. Do what you can.

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

Baby I’ve been here before

I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor (you know)

I used to live alone before I knew you

And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch

And love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

 Hallelujah. Praise God.

As cancer wages war on my wife’s body, it seems a funny thing to be occurring in my mind right now. Yet as we prayed together tonight, the song appeared in my thoughts, and I can’t shake it.

Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

I was reminded of Leonard Cohen’s prophetic words and Jeff Buckley’s beautiful singing earlier this year at a concert, and I downloaded the song the next day. I listened to it over and over on my way to and from work for a week, just turning the lyrics and haunting melody over in my mind, letting it mingle with what already lived there, creating new connections and rhythms.

I’m not going to pretend that I have some great insight into what the song means, but it occurs to me that it has to do with spirituality, human flesh, and the one certain thing that seems to unite the two: Love.

So often we tend to think of hallelujah as an exultation, a shout of joy, yet as Cohen’s words explained long before it occurred to me, love and praise don’t always come beautifully wrapped in achievement, celebration, or joy. They often show up through pain, tears, and confusion.

Our humans bodies and brains distort reality so that we see from a personal perspective. This illusion is easy to give into, and it seems especially easy when the human body is attacking itself. Yet at times, we are able to transcend that illusion, and find our light in the darkness. In those times, we are able to sing hallelujah from down on our knees, head in our hands, supplicated to a greater order of the universe. And when we begin to dance rhythmically with the order of the universe rather than trying to control it, we begin to gain more power than we ever believed possible.

Do we think we should only sing praise when we are on top? No, the true test of the strength of our spirit comes when we are on the bottom.  It seems paradoxical, but we gain our greatest power when we give up control and give in to a greater order of the universe, an order we can never truly understand. We are capable of realizing our true power and love even when we feel weakest, for we do not gain this power through achievement. We gain it through a cold and broken hallelujah.

Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.




Influential Power

Regular readers of my blog, and anyone who talks to me, will note that I am big on eliminating the idea of control. Anything that seems within my control, even simple actions like typing this post, depend on so many factors outside of my control that it is utterly ridiculously to pat myself on the back for controlling it. To me, I would only truly have control of thoughts, feelings, or actions if I perfectly controlled the process of those thoughts, feelings, and actions AND everything that goes into allowing me to create those thoughts, feelings, and actions. For example, my mom and grandmother have essential tremors. Their hands shake, which has a very large effect on how their hands and fingers work. They do not control that they have it. I do not control that I don’t have it. If I get this condition someday, perhaps today (perhaps the condition is lurking in my DNA and is going to strike before I finish this post), I’ll lose the excellent command of my typing that I currently enjoy, shattering any sense of control I had. Seems like I’m in control, but I know I’m not. 

So what’s the big deal? Why do I harp on the issue of control? It’s simple. I’m a psychologist. So much of the reason patients seek me out is that they don’t understand their lack of control. They think they can control what they can and leave the rest to the control of other entities. 

What’s wrong with that? Life and the world do not work that way. Everything depends on influences, thousands of them, perhaps millions or more if we really got technical. Our very awareness of existence, and everything we do, think, and feel, depends on influences, none of which we control completely, because each one depends on all the others.

Let’s back to my question: So what’s the big deal? Most people seek control for a sense of power and influence. Yet when they buy into the idea that they sometimes have control, or that they have control over certain things, they also tend to give away certain power and influence to other people and things. When their intentions aren’t matching the outcomes they want they say, “Well, I don’t control that. Such and such does.” We do this all the time when we blame. Blame is the main power drain from what I can tell. This is a phenomena I call passing the control baton. It appears that sometimes I have it, sometimes someone or something else has it. So essentially, in our search for power, we create this illusionary concept of control, yet we give away our power every time we cast blame. 

So most people do this dance of trying to create power by seeking control, then they shrink their power each time they cast blame. What ends of happening is that they end up confused and holding the reigns of very little power at all. In essence, in seeking control, they give up their influence over thoughts, feelings, and actions when they believe to be under the influence of someone or something else. When you add up all the control they give away, you can see how people throw away influence that they could otherwise tap into in order to gain a sense of empowerment.

The solution is to simply see things more clearly. Everything that happens, including me being able to type these words, is dependent upon more influences than I can count. I am in reliable command of some of them, or in other words, I have a high degree of influence over them, but to call that control would just be giving into an illusion that is temporary at best and would eventually lead to a catastrophic failure, a shattering of that illusion at the time I most desperately need clarity. 

Perhaps the most powerful influence we have is perspective. We are free from external control and we. We’d not blame ourselves our kick ourselves when we are and find that we have forgotten we are wonderful and beautiful because of our flaws. A change of perspective, a change of heart can change the world for us. That’s influence. And that’s real freedom and power. 

Leave control behind. I think you will find yourself feeling more empowered and grateful. It will flow automatically and effortlessly as you begin to open your eyes to the common miracles of the little things we do not control, yet somehow, countless influences come together to create something that seems to be going our way. This understanding will ebb and flow with various influences that come bear on it because we don’t control awareness either But going with the flow and understanding that even awareness doesn’t control us is part of the beauty of navigating this world. 

My peace and love to you and yours today. Do what can to make plays today. 


Making Plays and Kicking Cancer’s Ass

My wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this week. While this isn’t the diagnosis we were hoping for, at least we know and can get into fight mode. Much of what I write in upcoming months will likely deal with this topic in one way or another, so here is a reminder of what I’ve written before that has been helpful to us so far.

Our moods rise and fall, and our thoughts and feelings change even if circumstances don’t. As we’ve lived with the diagnosis, it hasn’t changed, but our sadness, anger, happiness, and optimism have. They have come and gone. They will likely come and go some more as we go rising and falling in cycles, and this will remain true after we kick cancer’s ass. Right now I’m up. It’s effortless and feels great, but I don’t fear going down because I know it won’t last.

Mental toughness does not have to be built. It is available in an instant, and one need not even realize one is capable of toughness to act with toughness. It just happens when we need it most. I think it helps to realize this, but it’s not necessary. I would say that we are exactly as tough as we think we are (it seems to go this way), but I see people acting on toughness daily without even realizing what they are doing. I think the only cardinal sin with mental toughness is to believe it has to be built and that one is not capable of building it. Yet I’ve even seen people with this mindset act tougher than they predict they are capable of acting.

In every moment, opportunities to make plays exist. We make some. We miss some. We move on.

Be aware of your influence. You have some abilities. Use them. Realize none of us is in 100% control of anything. When you truly understand this, you’re very likely to feel grateful when everything is going your way. You’ll learn to roll gracefully when the forces seem to align against you.

Be awake to possibility. Your influence is powerful. It is more powerful than the control you think you desire. Miraculous possibilities are everywhere if you simply open your eyes to them. Sometimes they even appear when forces seem to be aligned against you.

Be alive with action and awe. Make plays. Seize opportunities. See the world the way you can. Find the miraculous in the common.

We are all connected, yet as individual observers, each of us has her own path. Our minds create meaning for the path, but the path isn’t right or wrong, good or bad. It just is. Make the plays you can on your path. Influence others the best you can. Everything happens for a reason. I believe that. I don’t know if God’s will is that reason or if it’s just a matter of physics. Some propose it’s a combination. In any case, everything is connected. Be mindful of that. Perhaps you have more answers than I do.

Be well my friends. Make plays. Today in the Wood family we are making plays to live, love, and laugh while we kick cancer’s ass.

A Sunday Wish for You

I apologize for not writing much lately. I think that will change very shortly. Between not having much new to say and much going on personally, I just haven’t written. Here is a short post about my current awareness. Hope you enjoy.

My Sunday wish for you. Too often I’ve focused on achievement and the elusive and undefined “success.” I’ve sought outcomes and achievements, and believes I was failing when they didn’t come my way. Over the past few years I’ve been waking up to a different way of living, and that is paying off in ways I certainly never imagined. Ways I never wanted to be true. Instead of patting myself on the back for my achievements and control over the elements of the world, I’ve realized that we don’t control a thing.

Control is a compelling illusion we fall for often, but make no mistake. It’s an illusion. And yet control being an illusion does not render us powerless. We are powerful beyond our wildest imagination if we just severe our ties with outcomes and achievements in favor of connecting to the moment at hand. We rise above the matter and matters of this world when we realize they have no restraining power over our spirit. We think, feel, and do what we can in each moment, and whether we are aware of it or not, what we CAN DO is dictated by immeasurable forces we can’t even fully understand let alone control. This much is clear lately.

And in the midst of a storm of influences I cannot control, today I feel more empowered than I ever have. Mental toughness and confidence can arise in a moment completely independent of the circumstances that surround us. My Sunday wish is for you to understand the same and feel the gratitude, awe, and love that I feel today. I hope you and yours have a great day.

Peace and love. JW

Last Play


Memento mori.

-Latin phrase meaning, “Remember, you will die.”

Carpe diem.

-Latin phrase meaning, “Seize the day.”

To start my post, I’d like to thank everyone for surviving the last two weeks, so that I wasn’t tempted to write another eulogy-type piece this week. But I’ve been thinking about loss and finality. Per usual, my mind turned to athletics and the idea of the last play, the last repetition we take as athletes.

It’s incredible to watch players who play ever play as if it is their last. No matter how physically talented they are, they are overachievers. Unlike other players who throttle back at times, worry about their next breath, save their energy reserves, and occasional give up on winning the game, players who play every play as if it were their last almost always seem to find that extra gear.

They never seem to worry about their next breath, and yet it always comes. They never seem to spare an ounce of energy, and yet there’s always more when they need it. They never seem to surrender, and yet sometimes the other team gets the best of them. They always manage to play and practice with an intensity that suggests they believe this current play could be their last.

They play and practice with minimal regrets. They certainly may experience disappointment, but for the rest of their days, regret is minimal because they left nothing in the tank. They spent it all on the field or in the arena.

Looking back at films of my old teams, we played hard. We overachieved. We flew to the ball, yet we certainly weren’t perfect. Personally, I didn’t take many plays off, if any, but I definitely didn’t play every play as if it were my last. I should have. I would have been a better player if I did.

Then again, there was my senior season at Albion. Before then, I always assumed there would be other plays. I played pretty hard. I got after it. But looking back on it, I often had another gear to give, and I never realized it until I finally hit that higher gear in my senior season, the season I finally accepted the fact that any play could be my last. On any play, I could have suffered a season ending injury. Because I wasn’t moving on to another level of football, a play ending my season would also have ended my career.

So in my senior year at Albion, 7 years into varsity football, I finally began to understand that any play could be my last. It changed how I played. I unleashed a new intensity in drills. I enjoyed every moment of every rep. I did more than enjoy the pain, I embraced and savored it. Every rep was a love affair with football. Every sprint was a celebration of speed. I’d finally begun to play every play as if it were my last. It was the most enjoyable season of my playing days, and it was probably my best. I still miss it. I dream of it. My heart breaks that I can’t play another last play.

That’s the thing about sports and life. We never really know what we had until it ends (or nears an end). Part of the beauty in life is getting lost in those moments before the last play is over.

Sports are just part of a bigger life. Someday, the last play, last rep, last day, last breath will come for each of us. This is the essence of the Latin phrase memento mori. Remember, you will die. When the last play arrives, if you have done things right often enough and given a great effort, you will leave minimal regrets.

But to do so, you may need to seize each moment as it arrives. Makes plays in the moment you have. This is the essence of the Latin phrase carpe diem. Seize the opportunity. Seize the day. It is the antidote to regret.

May we all play every play as if it’s our last.

Best wishes.


Other favorite quotes on last play:

“Even in camp, every play’s a big play. With the Steelers you learn to play every play like it’s your last.”

-Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers

“Now, you guys all understand what last play means? Last play. You play every play as if it was the last play you will ever play. And if we don’t play with emotion, if we don’t play the last play on every play, it will be. There won’t be a next week. Every play tonight, you play….you think about what that means. You think about what it means to be on your last play! This is my last play of football ever! My last play! How do I want it to be? How do I want to be remembered? My last play! Every play.”

-Coach Ed Burke, Torrey Pines High School, San Diego, CA

Filling Need with Deed

I strive to write clearly, but with the topics I write about, I am sure I fail sometimes. One ridiculously simple point that isn’t always clear: The title of my blog, What does it mean to make plays? What is a play anyway? Hopefully this post will clear that up a bit.

I don’t feel the need to define play strictly. I believe you know the plays of your life when you encounter them. Sometimes they are explicit, such as picking off a pass in football or picking up a check in a restaurant. Other times they are less clear, such as openly honoring someone’s right to disagree or silently changing your experience of a situation by having an epiphany about it.

The importance of a play varies from person to person, and it varies from moment to moment for each individual. I like to think they all have unlimited potential. No play is too big or too small to be worthy of your effort.

Every moment of our lives, opportunities to make plays are available. We make some. We miss some. We move on in the present moment with new plays available for the making.

This past week, three playmakers in my family died. I wrote about my Uncle Jake last week (you can read that article by clicking to the link here It’s Been Fun). This week I want to write about Ron Block and my Aunt Susan Klaus Hoffman. You may or may not know them, but both made plays that were important to me. By discussing them, I hope to shed light on what it means to make a play.

Truth be told, Ron Block wasn’t part of my family. Not by blood at least. But I loved him, and he treated me like family. His entire family treated mine with kindness, so he and the Blocks are family to me.

As a single parent, my mom did her best, and her best was incredible. But she was human (although I think many would consider my mom Saint Kate with the love she has for the world), and after playing the roles of mother, father, and breadwinner, she didn’t always have time left to figure out how to take care of what she wanted for me. That’s where Ron and the Block family often stepped in.

My childhood memories are filled with times I spent with the Blocks. They drove me to countless games and events. As I write this, I have visions from their back of their minivan flooding my head (to be clear, there was a new minivan every year, and I hope more than a few of you are laughing your butts off at the thought of one of Dee’s new minivans parked next to Ron’s old S-10, both immaculately cleaned by Ron’s compulsive hand). Ron was typically at the wheel, unless of course we had been to the beach where Ron had imbibed plenty of fun (and more than a few Black Labels), in which case Dee drove back home. Anyone who knows Ron will have plenty of memories of Ron smiling and laughing as if the point of life was simply to smile and laugh, which very well might be the point of life. The man could celebrate, and he never needed much of a reason.

Once when Ron and I were celebrating at a graduation party, we had a conversation about my personality. I was a pretty serious kid at times (okay, that’s the understatement of the year, quit laughing people), and Ron noted that as I entered my early 20s, I was starting to loosen up a bit and have a little fun. I like to think I’m still on that path, and I like to think I learned some of it from him.

One particular memory of Ron has been popping up in my mind for years. One year Ryan and I had to make Pinewood Derby cars for Cub Scouts. Ron knew mom and I couldn’t handle it on our own. He was good with tools and had a workshop in his basement. So he took Ryan and I, and we designed, drilled, weighted, cut, and finished our cars in the workshop. Unlike so many parents today, Ron didn’t interfere with my design, weighting, or aerodynamics. He let me create and build my own car. He simply made sure I was safe with the tools. It was the perfect level of guidance.

I am pretty sure the design of the car was mediocre and finished with mediocre results, but today the process means much more to me than any result ever could. Ron thought about me and cared enough to step up and make a play. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful things life has to offer: Someone sees a need and fills it with deed. It’s like a dovetail joint that brings together the spiritual with the physical, the intangible with the tangible. It’s common, yet when it’s experienced with great awareness, it seems miraculous. It’s the essence of making a play.

When Ron made plays for me, Dee, Rhondi, Ryan, and Darren should get credit for their assists (and they made their own plays for me too). They shared their husband and father with me, and that’s worth more than a small mention. Sometimes we can’t make plays without assists from others.

That’s where my Aunt Sue comes in. She certainly made her own plays in life, but she also made assists by allowing my Uncle Hank to be another father figure in my life. She and my cousins, Kyle and Tim, shared selflessly and included me in their lives in so many ways.

Aunt Sue also shared her family of origin with me. I have great memories of spending time with her brothers, sisters, and parents, Harold and Ruth Klaus. One of my earliest memories is of her marriage to my uncle at their family farm in Harbor Beach. Another is smelt dipping with Uncle, Harold, and her brother Tim. We fished for hours, then used scissors to gut the fish for what seemed like hours more, then fried and ate them. Talk about filling a need with a deed. It was a perfect adventure for a young boy.

When her brother Tim was a teen, he and Uncle Hank put up a basketball hoop that provided hundreds of hours of fun for me, and I’ll never forget fishing on Sanford Lake with her sisters Jackie and Linda. These were times they used their skills to make plays my mom couldn’t make. That is not a knock on my mom. It’s a nod to their thoughtful efforts to make the plays my mom simply couldn’t. It was filling a need with a deed.

Given all the memories of my aunt from my youth, perhaps it’s a bit ironic that one of my lasting memories of her will be her late-life battle with MS. Truth be told, it wasn’t necessarily the battle that impressed me; It was the grace with which she accepted her disease.

Early on in the course of the disease, she fought through pain and debilitated motion to continue making plays in life. She constantly sought to make contributions to her communities. When she wasn’t teaching a class of her own, she was working as an assistant, tutor, or volunteer. She was always active making plays in her community through the schools, churches, and other organizations. She lived to make plays that helped enrich others.

I am sure she had moments of frustration, but she rarely showed it when I was around. On the contrary, she often seemed to be at peace with her frailty. It was as if she understood: This is my path. It’s the only one I can travel, and I recognize that I am the one who must travel it.

It often seemed as if her greatest strength, her grace, was revealed through her greatest weakness, the weakness that eventually took her life. With her grace, my aunt displayed one of the key principles of what is all about. The situations of our lives do not dictate our experiences of them. They do not control us. We have creative power to construct our own experience and meaning of life. We rise above situations when we understand that our experience of life resides in our own awareness. Ultimately, perhaps life becomes what we can make of it. No situation is too big or too small. Every play has unlimited potential, and you may never truly understand the value another person attributes to your play.

Our biological frailty has taken two great ones this week, Ron Block and Sue Hoffman. Even though they are gone from the world, their spirit will surely live on in those who knew them. For me, I hope to remember them by making plays like they made for me. I hope to be able to see needs and fill them with deeds. I hope to understand life is what I make of it. And as I progress toward my own inevitable frailty, I hope to show grace and acceptance of what I can no longer influence.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you. Ron and Sue were certainly worthy of your time. Whether you know them or not, I have a humble ask. Make a play. Fill a need with a deed. Place Ron or Sue or someone else you know in mind, someone who made plays for you and has now passed. Grab your favorite beverage, and give a toast to them and the plays they made.

Prost. Cheers to Ron, Sue, and you and yours. May you make plays until the day you can’t, and when you pass, may your plays live on in the memories of your loved ones.

It’s Been Fun

Human resilience amazes me.

After a long battle with various ailments and pain, my Great-Uncle Jake died Sunday. We buried him Thursday. He was 87 years old. He was a fine man. A damn fine man.

To me, Jake always looked like Johnny Cash if Johnny Cash were a farmer. He was a big, strong guy. He had a great sense of humor and was quick with a smile and an unforgettable laugh.

If the world around us had ever sunk into chaos, Jake’s farm would have been a good place to be. Jake was self-reliant. He could grow things. He could fix things. He could hunt. When he wasn’t working on the farm “making hay while the sun shined” -as his eldest grandson Steve eulogized – he was working a second job in a saw mill or spending time with his family. He had an unstoppable work ethic and generous heart.

Jake walked a path in life that is hard for me to imagine. When he was 11, he and my grandmother (who was then 16) ran the family farm when their father died (he was trampled by horses) and their other brothers were off fighting World War II or running their own farms.

When he was 29, Jake (and my Great Aunt Mary Lou) lost a daughter. She lived 4 days. When he was 48, he lost his oldest son. Young Jake was 21 when he was cut in half by a drunk driver who plowed into the back of his semi as he attended to it on the side of the road. He left behind a wife and a 9 month old son (Steve, Uncle’s eulogizer, now a 39 year old PhD geneticist with a wife and 2 children of his own).

When I sat down for the funeral and read his obituary printed in the program, I’d forgotten about the young daughter, Marilyn. But I remember when Jakie died. I was 5, but I still remember my mom and grandmother and their seemingly unstoppable tears. It was the 3rd death of a 20-something male in my family in a 5 year span. I was only 7 weeks old when my father died, so it was my first memorable experience of despair.

But this isn’t about despair. It’s about resilience.

Our moods ebb and flow, and with the changes, our thoughts change as well. We go from up, optimistic, open, full of possibility, to down, pessimistic, closed, and devoid of hope. We then feel our thoughts. When we lack awareness, we blame the world for how we think and feel. When we are fully aware, we understand that we project our thoughts and feelings onto the world independent of the circumstances of the world. As John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Our experience of the world is what we can make of it. Most of us understand this at times. We have some say in how we experience life.

Yet certain situations seem to have a gravity to them, an inescapable force that sucks us down into it. The death of child is one of those. Uncle Jake lost two of his children.

To me, the most incredible part of the grieving process is our human resilience. While it is completely normal to grieve, it’s also completely normal to move on from it. Yes, when the loss is in mind again, the pain returns. Yet we always move on at times, often long stretches at a time, demonstrating that forces such as gravity do not exist in thoughts and feelings even though it seems as if they do. It’s in our nature to overcome what seems like emotional gravity. We have resilience. We nurture our own emotional crops.

My uncle understood this. You see, farming wasn’t just his occupation. It was his life. He used the dirt of this world as a fertile medium for growing the life he desired.

Once, when Steve asked why he became a farmer, he responded, “You get to be your own boss.” Despite all the lack of control farmers have over weather, disease, and soil, he still viewed himself as his own boss of his experience. He was a farmer. He was his own boss, the man with influence over the crops he cultivated. He did the best he could with what he had.

He understood this to the very end. At his funeral, Uncle’s pastor described his last rites and meal in the hospital before going home to hospice care. He asked Uncle, “Is there anything you want to tell Mary Lou.”

“It’s been fun,” Uncle said.

It’s been fun. Imagine that. After 87 years, under any life circumstances, could you have a better testimony about life? This was from someone who was forced into being the man of the farm at 11, lost two of his children, farmed for a living (and sometimes a starving), breathed saw dust in the mill all winter long, and fought the pain of those physical occupations for decades.

It’s been fun. What a damn fine man my uncle was to be able to see that. And yet, if we are being honest, he was completely ordinary and normal. He is a testament to finding the miraculous in the common.

For his last act of resilience, his sons Bill and Mike have taken on their father’s sense of humor. At the funeral, they laughed the laugh they inherited from him as they delivered a nod to the cycle of life only a farmer can truly appreciate, “He still has one more spring planting to do.”

As the procession left the funeral home parking lot to go plant Uncle in the cemetery soil, we drove past a last reminder of his life here on Earth, a life spent working the earth. Mike had driven his father’s old tractor to the funeral home and parked it in the lot near the road. It was the first thing I saw when I pulled up. It was one of the coolest and most fitting tributes I’ve ever seen at a funeral.

It was a fine tribute to a fine man. A common man yet a miraculous man. A man who used his life to point in the direction of our incredible resilience and capacity to enjoy life.

I have no answers folks. I won’t pretend to understand how the spiritual works here on Earth or beyond. I won’t tell you what to think, and I am fine with whatever you believe. But today I like to believe that Uncle drove his tractor to heaven, hopped out on two good knees, and firmly shook God’s hand. And I like to believe that God grasped my uncle’s big, powerful farmer hand in his own and gave it a worthy shake, the type of firm, respectful shake I practiced with Jake when Mom and Grandma tried to teach a father-less boy how men shake hands. And I like to believe God greeted Jacob Hoffman with the message I would speak to him if I had one more chance to tell him what I thought about his time in Earth’s dirt.

“You cultivated a damn fine life, Jake. Glad you enjoyed it.”