This morning I woke up well before a full night’s sleep had been slept, exhausted, full of anxiety (as has been typical since the tragedy in Newtown) and fairly pessimistic about whether I could get back to sleep. Despair started to creep in – what if I can’t get back to sleep? How tired will I be all day? When am I ever going to recoup the energy to deal with the things I need to do? Blargh!
So I took one deep breath. I didn’t entirely believe that it would help, but I had just enough objectivity to remember that if anything would help, that would be it. Then I took another. Nope, not working. So I got a little more comfortable and took another deep breath. And then one more. I’m not sure how many more there were, because the next thing I remember is waking up an hour later.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the small actions (“Turtle Steps,” to quote the title of my most recent album) that have been behind every significant accomplishment in my own life. It’s not a new concept to me, but it really hit me about a month ago when I was at Choate and found myself rushing from some troubleshooting in the basement computer lab to a lesson on the 4th floor. As I ran up the 5 flights of stairs, I had enough free brain space to note that when I began teaching there in 2006 I used to dread those stairs every time I arrived or left. On this day, though, they were no big deal – I wasn’t out of breath, my knees didn’t ache and my heart didn’t fill with trepidation at the prospect of mounting the stairs nor disillusionment at how much it took out of me to get to the 4th floor.
Earlier that morning I had dragged myself out of bed to go to the pool and swim some laps. I do not enjoy swimming laps. At all. There was one brief period where I sort of enjoyed them, but that was only because at that time my life on land was so difficult that I appreciated the respite of 30 minutes where nobody could find me. Aside from that, I simply appreciate that swimming makes my body function better, so I do it anyway.
That morning I tried to calculate how many laps I have swum since that became part of my routine in the Fall of 2000. I really don’t know, but for argument’s sake I came up with a very conservative estimate of 20,000. The reason I wondered about that was that I reached the 20 minute mark (e.g. the unofficial “enough that it wasn’t a waste to get wet in the first place”), and I wanted to stop, but I knew both physically and intellectually that I needed more. So I did another lap. And then I wanted to stop. But I did another lap. After 10 more minutes of this, I allowed myself to hit the shower, and I calculated that each lap represented well under a tenth of one percent of that year’s allotment of laps and a statistically insignificant percentage with regards to the grand total of laps I’ve done.
So, then, what difference did each of those laps make? From that purely mathematical perspective, not much. But that perspective is just one version of reality, and one that is seldom useful. In the version of reality that keeps me running, each of those laps is vital. There are two reasons for this, which sum up the methodology behind every substantial thing I have ever accomplished:
1) Life’s big accomplishments represent, from this perspective, simply the cumulative impact of many of these seemingly small moral victories. Nothing major can be achieved in one heroic swoop – the heroism comes in persistence with the comparatively humble little actions.
2) Any dauntingly large task becomes less daunting and more surmountable once it is broken down into small, manageable component tasks. Few people can make huge goals (become a virtuoso on the banjo, heal a failing relationship, lose 100 pounds) without being overwhelmed, but most of us can manage something like “this afternoon I will practice the banjo for 30 minutes, say something nice to my wife and eat salad instead of a cheeseburger.”
This outlook confuses people sometimes, in that I am proud of some of the things I have done, but not in the ways one might think. This year I won three tennis tournaments, 12 years removed from hanging up my racquet for good, I thought. I’m not really proud of winning, but I’m quite proud of every bit of drudgery that went into my training, every instance in which I re-routed myself when caught in a cycle of self-defeating pessimism and every on-court moment when I overcame nerves or pain or fatigue and kept fighting. I’ll take the trophies, not because winning those matches was that big a deal, but because nobody is going to give me any hardware to commemorate all those times I spent half an hour on the Nordic Track when I didn’t feel like it. This year also marked the 10 year anniversary of the sessions for my Patch Kit album, at which time it seemed absurd to think I would still be playing the piano come 2012. I am proud of all the boring strength exercises I’ve done, proud that I started wearing ring splints even though I hate being blinged-out, and proud that I was able to fight through my stubbornness a little bit at a time to adapt my musical approach to be compatible with my physical reality. That I can still play is a comparatively unglamorous outgrowth of thousands of little moments of doing the right thing. There are many reasons I feel uncomfortable about accepting praise for my beautiful family, but I do feel good about every moment that I acted out of kindness even when angry or tired, every moment that I did what I knew was right even though nobody would consciously notice the difference if I didn’t. I would feel good about all these little things regardless of outcome, but I also know they are central to the positive outcomes.
To an extent I can thank Nat Gunod, the publisher/editor of my first three method books for instilling this way of thinking in me, whether or not it was his intention to do so. Much of what I have described here was already central to my daily life by 1997 – if it hadn’t been, I would have been done with the piano for years by that point – but I never really thought much about it, I just did what needed to be done on a daily basis and over time things came together, and then got hard again, and then came together again. When, in my 23-year-old naiveté, I signed a contract to write three books in the stretch of a few months, I really didn’t think much about how I would actually pull it off. Right from the beginning, Nat insisted that I present a page-by-page outline before I began writing. That seemed counter-intuitive and stifling at first, but once I got into it I realized it was my lifeboat. Every morning I woke up and wrote for 10-12 hours, but it was not emotionally overwhelming because I knew what that day’s task was (book 2, pages 43-46, right-o). The workdays were long and tiring but not at all superhuman. And true to form, when I look at those books now, I simply feel pride that I got up and did what I needed to do each day.
This outlook drifts to the back of my consciousness at times when life is chugging forward, my mind is clear, my energy is strong and my more disciplined ways are habitual. But I’m not going to mince words – 2012 has been one hell of a year. In the first eleven months of the year, people close to me seemed snake-bitten. Multiple cancers. Multiple divorces. Professional upheaval, suicide and various other things too complicated and/or personal to be appropriate for a passing reference in this setting. My own physical health was all over the map, from back woes to ear problems to a cyst on my lower back that made it difficult to sit or wear pants (just one more reason to be grateful for the absence of paparazzi in my life). And that was all before the shooting in Newtown.
As a result of all of this, there are basically three categories of people in my life right now:
1) People dealing directly with adversity.
2) People who are doing okay but are emotionally rocked by others’ adversity and feel compelled to try and DO something.
3) People who are doing okay and don’t give a rat’s a** about anybody else.
Putting aside category 3 (a population highly unlikely to be reading this far in the first place), the common thread is daunting obstacles. And the common solution is on some level simple: do something. If you are experiencing moments of calm and lucidity, however fleeting they may be, make note in those moments of manageable, positive things you can do (and write them down if you need to). If you can’t find those moments, talk to somebody you trust. The twelve-step “one day at a time” credo is a good rule of thumb, but if the adversity is substantial enough, a day may be too large an increment. Start with an hour. Or a moment. Or a single action. If your emotions and mental capacities and logistical circumstances are relatively positive, then maybe you can handle a greater number of these things in a given day or hour.
There will be other opportunities to discuss what each of us can do to heal ourselves and/or make the world a better place in greater depth and detail. Most often, though, we can think of at least something that moves us in that direction and simply need to have the courage and discipline to do it and the belief that it will make a difference. It will and it does! Jimmy Greene put it quite well the other day when he wrote “if each one of us, in our own sphere of influence, do all we can to invest in the eternal, show love in the natural, practice mercy and provide for another’s well-being, then our reality will look so much brighter.if each one of us, in our own sphere of influence, do all we can to invest in the eternal, show love in the natural, practice mercy and provide for another’s well-being, then our reality will look so much brighter.”
Many of these actions simply require a shift of perspective, rather than a Herculean effort. When I smile and say hello to the grumpy guy at the gym for the 20th time, I can’t guarantee he will eventually be friendly in return, but I know that it’s putting out better energy into the world than if I just scowled and looked away AND it doesn’t require any greater effort. Jimmy and Nelba have spoken publicly about their beloved Ana’s “random acts of kindness.” Can you imagine the energetic shift if the number of acts of kindness in the world increased by ONE BILLION per day? That would be one extra act of kindness put forth by every seventh human on the planet. That doesn’t seem that ludicrous to me. And I’m not even talking about acts of profound self-sacrifice. I’m talking about “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” and “You are not alone.” If you are the one experiencing grief and adversity, it still counts if you direct these same things inward. Ditto for a healthy meal or a walk in the sun or 15 minutes of exercise. Heck, what if we saw an increase of TEN MILLION (1/100 of the already conservative number above) daily instances of people taking deep breaths before acting from a place of tension? It would be an earth-shaking transformation, don’t you think?
I may not know much, but I know this is true. Each expression of love and brotherhood and kindness and good health is profoundly healing to us and to the world. God bless those who build orphanages and donate their kidneys to complete strangers and give their life’s savings to programs for the needy. But the rest of us don’t need to sit on the sidelines feeling inconsequential. Each kind word, each loving action, each extra lap in that pool, and yes, each re-centering deep breath represents a step towards healing for all of us.