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.”

The World Doesn’t Give a Sh!* about Your Should

A friend and I had an interesting conversation the other day. This friend lives by a strong ethical code. His moral compass points sharply and consistently. It’s part of what makes him very good at his job and a number of other endeavors.

Codes are not laws of the universe. Codes are ideas and principles that describe what should happen for societies and cultures to run smoothly. Codes are necessary, but they can also be a personal source of misery.

“The world doesn’t give a shit about your should,” I told my friend, pointing to the fact that the laws of the universe and human nature don’t behave according to what he thinks should happen.

He laughed. He knew it was true.

Look, I’m not suggesting you should change your codes. Societies, cultures, organizations, teams, families, and individuals should codes. I’m simply pointing out that if you believe the rest of the world is going to conform to your code or even care about it, you might be in for some self-created misery.

If you try to map your code of what should have happened onto what exists, you are in for a particular brand of misery. What has happened and what exists are perfect expressions of the conditions that preceded them. If you want change, do what you can right now to bring about the new conditions you desire. Wishing away what is for what should have happened won’t work and will only serve to increase your own misery.

Wishing away what is for what you believe should have happened is constricting. It takes the mind to another time and situation. It clouds perception. It closes off awareness to the possibilities that exist right now.

A recent example of this was Sergio Garcia’s play in the Masters on Sunday. After losing a 3 stroke lead to Justin Rose, the wheels appeared to be falling off his round. Matters appeared worse when he hit his 13th tee shot into an unplayable lie and had to take a penalty stroke.

In the past, Sergio would have blamed the world for not producing what he thought should have happened. Sunday, he told a different story.

“In the past, I would have started going at my caddie, “Oh, you know, why doesn’t it go through and whatever?'” He took a different approach Sunday. “I was like, ‘Well, if that was supposed to happen, let it happen. Let’s try to make a great five here and see if we can put a hell of a finish to have a chance. If not, we’ll shake Justin’s hand and congratulate him for winning.'”

With expectations that what happened was meant to happen, Sergio remained composed, stayed open to possibilities, and made a play. He saved par, made birdies on the next two holes, and went on to win his first major in a one-hole sudden death playoff (with a birdie no less).

What I love best about this story is that Sergio was prepared to give his best and accept the consequences even if they didn’t conform to what he wanted, what he believed should happen. This openness and acceptance creates clarity, freedom, and possibility. It is a sign of trusting yourself and the order of the universe.

You should give a shit about your should. Just don’t expect the world to return the favor.

The Can’t Pile

For years I’ve watched myself and others sort what is possible into piles: The Can Pile and the Can’t Pile. Sometimes this is done for seemingly good reasons, such as sorting into piles based on what I can control and what I can’t control. The thinking is, “Why bother with what I can’t control? Just let it be. Save my energy.” On the surface, it makes sense, but there is a problem with sorting like that.

When you sort like that, the Can’t Pile gets too damn big. Please do not limit your influence and possibility in this way.

Let me give an example. I was talking to a young softball player one time, and she was discussing how she controls the controllables and leaves everything else be. She can’t control it, so why bother?

I wanted an example, so she mentioned that she can’t control umpire calls, so she leaves them be and doesn’t worry about them (doubtful this always happens, but I love the effort). In other words, umpire calls are in her Can’t Pile.

This was curious to me, so I asked, “Do you think you can influence umpire calls?”

 She thought about it for a moment. “Yes, maybe. I can talk to them. Thank them for coming. Not complain about calls but rather ask nicely about calls and their strike zone in between innings. I think all that influences calls. If someone likes us, maybe they give us the benefit of the doubt. And people like it when others are nice to them.”

“So if we put umpire calls into our Can’t Pile, aren’t we limiting the true possibilities of our influence?”

She got it, and I hope this example suffices to make a point. When we sort too much into the Can’t Pile, we are limiting our influence too much. We can’t control anything (read the * below if you want more on my definition of control), but to me, we should operate under the belief that we can possibly influence everything to some degree.

Despite our lack of control, our influence is powerful. When we act on what we can influence, so many times we find that forces align to give us what we need and want.

While it is true that our influence is very small sometimes, a small influence can make a huge difference under the right conditions. And small influences over time can have rather large cumulative effects.

Thinking in terms of influence, potential, and possibilities will help open up new worlds to you, so please do not sort into Can and Can’t Piles. The Can’t Pile is too damn big and limits the possibilities you recognize.


*I know control gets confusing for people because I am now the, “We don’t control anything guy,” which makes me a freak in some circles but also seems to hit home in a profound way with so many people. So let me explain.

My definition of control is that to have control, one must control not only their action (or thought or feeling), but everything that goes into allowing that action to happen. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can demonstrate to me they even control something as simple as their consciousness. We are awake now, and we want to be. We don’t control it. It’s a happy coincidence, a beautiful alignment of what we want and what we’ve got, a coming together of forces to give me the illusion of control in this moment.

 If you think you control your consciousness, fall asleep right now and wake up five minutes later to keep reading this. If you can’t do that, the best we can say is that you have some influence over your consciousness, but it certainly doesn’t reach my bar for the definition of control.

Sad About Death

I am departing from my usual post themes because in my household we are sad about death tonight. A classmate of my daughter lost his life in an accident. As a school psychologist, I’ve been around the death of school children dozens of times, too many times. I am, and have been, sad about them all.

Please note that my phrasing sad about death, is quite intentional and one of the main points of this piece. Most of us might say death makes us sad, but in truth, the feelings don’t work this way. Nothing makes us feel or think any certain way. Even death and its finality doesn’t have that power.

What’s my point? It’s certainly not to cheapen life or downplay death.

I have no real words of encouragement. I only want to point in a direction of understanding. Our reactions to death vary because our thoughts about death and life vary as time goes on. Our thoughts and feelings vary even from moment to moment. One moment we are crying thinking about loss, the next we are laughing at a glorious moment we shared with our deceased loved one. You see, death doesn’t make us sad. We are sad about it, and that changes over time even if the sadness keeps coming back when the loss is in our thoughts.

I hope we can be understanding of others. In those deaths I’ve experienced in the schools, I often see finger pointing and blame. Children accuse others of crying too much or crying too little because of perceived relationships and closeness. So and so wasn’t as close as I was, so they shouldn’t be crying as much. We all deal with death differently based on our thoughts about it, and it’s alright that we don’t all feel the same at the same time.

It seems like death makes us sad because we almost all view the loss of life as a sad event, and this is especially true when a child dies. But when we remember that death doesn’t make us sad, we are sad about it, I think this nearly universal reaction is especially informative.

We are sad about death because of the way we think about death. We are sad about death because of our thoughts about loss: What we lost, what family and friends lost, what the deceased lost, what the world lost. We are sad about death because we know some people never get over a loved ones death. We are sad about death because we believe a light that burned so brightly isn’t visible anymore. We are sad about death because we remember loved ones we’ve lost.

Mostly, we are sad about death because we love life, and the loss of it can seem unbearable at times. So if you have the chance today, I hope you celebrate life, even the life of someone who has passed away. After all, we feel our thoughts, and in our thoughts, the life of everyone we remember lasts as long as we live.