Scratching and Clawing

I’m constantly in awe of TED talks. 

Whenever I listen to them or watch them, I am always inspired by the mastery of content matter, the confidence in the delivery, and the importance of the message. They have a way of making sense of complex topics. 

Yesterday I was walking home from getting dinner and was feeling a bit down, a bit lonely, so I decided to listen to a podcast – on happiness. 

Usually I don’t like to have my headphones in while walking anywhere at night because it makes me more unaware of my surroundings and calls attention to the fact that I have something valuable on me, but I lowered the volume, hid them under my hoodie and tried to learn a little more about what makes us happy or unhappy. 

One of the fascinating insights (the podcast is titled “Simply Happy”) was that our minds are often wandering. This might not seem like a big deal, but part of the research showed that we are most happy when we are most focused

When I used to teach, I would often have a lot of trouble getting the attention of my students when trying to deliver a lecture on topics like checks and balances rather than an engaging activity. This usually culminated with them solemnly leaving class, probably yawning on their way out the door. I’d return to my desk and on my really close minded days probably lament to a co-worker some version of, “kids these days” while letting out a frustrated sigh.  

Upon further reflection, it all makes perfect sense. If I was giving a lecture and it wasn’t engaging, most likely there were a lot of wandering minds which meant a room full of unhappy students.

Not giving them opportunities to be focused meant I was robbing them of happiness. 

In a previous post, I mentioned that before I decided to back off social media that I’d even be on my phone when I watched TV. It’s really interesting to think about the fact that maybe part of the reason that I felt even more empty after an hour of watching TV while also on my phone was that yes both of them can qualify as distractions but the truth was I wasn’t focusing on either of them

I know that sometimes this is going to look like scratching and clawing. Just like my students in History class – some of them really fought to pay attention even when their compatriots had thrown in the towel. Maybe their reward for this was a better grade, but looking back on what I know now, they were also creating more happiness. 

Thinking more on my life and relationships, I already know that giving attention, simply to the primacy of focus will have an impact on my future happiness. The people in my life that work to do this, especially when I am sharing a particularly long-winded story, are not only being kind and patient, they’re choosing to be happier.

More focus = more happiness. I know it’s not infallible, but it makes a lot of sense to me. 

Dull idea

Excitement can be crushed in seconds. 

Have you ever had someone express a new endeavor or way of thinking to you and your response be an unnecessary critique? Something like this:

Person A: I’m thinking of starting a garden. I’ve always enjoyed helping out with them and think that my own would provide me a positive outlet, a new hobby.

Person B: Sounds like a lot of work. Gardens are fickle. 

I’ve certainly done it before, thankfully I’ve finally figured out why. 

‘Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) [idea] by Joseph Kosuth’

When I was twenty three or so, I woke up after a late night of hanging out with my friends. We had gone out downtown, had a bunch of drinks and ate late night food. 

I woke up feeling awful. 

Seeking a change, something that might improve future nights out – I told some of my friends that I was going to stop drinking hard liquor. The responses to my idea varied drastically – some chuckled and others just nodded their heads. One even said something to the tune of “I’ll believe it when I see it.” 

I remember being so upset. Here I was with an idea for self-improvement and even some of my own friends didn’t believe in me. For many years I have been hurt by this, but as I’ve grown older and wiser I better understand their responses. 

So often we hear people around us or see people online talking about making a change and often times those changes never come. Often times our pessimism is based in facts. 

I had been regularly drinking with my friends for a few years at the point when I started talking about cutting back, they didn’t exactly have reason to believe I was actually going to do it. Why would they? Recent evidence pointed to anything but that. 

Turns out that they were right. This conversation was about two years before I actually stopped. I’ve already written in the post On Drinking about how people reacted when I told them I was quitting drinking completely – it was a spectrum from disregard and disbelief to total support.

Now I don’t blame anyone for their actions or hold resentment because I’ve taken ownership of my own. If their reactions were more positive, could this change have happened earlier? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it was just a matter of not understanding the whole situation or maybe I never provided the real reasoning behind my idea. Looking back, I never shared with them how desperately I wanted this change. How much I wanted a different life – one filled with confidence and fun that didn’t involve drinking. Part of the problem was I didn’t think this life existed. I thought everyone’s social lives revolved around drinking and drinking a lot.

Regardless, life isn’t about talking about change, it’s showing the change. People shouldn’t have to take my word for things or be convinced, they should plainly see the efforts and intentionality. It needs to come from me and it is not their responsibility.

All this being said, I know I do have the power to brighten or support ideas shared with me. So why does this dulling or disbelieving of ideas happen, and why have I done this to others up until my recent realization? Well, for me my reactions are often most negative when someone is discussing a change I haven’t been able to get myself to do. For you, it might be a different reason, the reasoning behind being negative can be complex and can also involve mental health. Often times it is easy to bring others down when I’m going through tough times – maybe you feel the same way. 

I’ve been the person who laughed off or gave a snarky response to someone saying they were going to make a change. Just thinking of doing this eats at me, and it should. 

Finally, there is a big difference between this negative response and one that is filled with constructive criticism, suggestions, and care. I’m not advocating for simply agreeing with every idea that is shared. I do know that being honest and sharing my opinion can be helpful – often someone who speaks helpful truth can be rare. Having people who proceed like this in my life has certainly helped me grow. 

So what am I saying? I’m saying excitement can be crushed in seconds, it can also be created. 

I need to let ideas grow.

Starting your own garden? So cool. That sounds like a bright idea to me!

Someone Forgot to Tell the Kids

The other day I read about racism, war, famine, drought, and depression and that was just the front page of the paper.

Earlier in the year, I had the chance to tour the Loyola Early Learning Center in Baltimore. Walking around the school I noticed student artwork, colorful learning tools, toys and areas to play. The student learning spilled over into the hallways in the best of ways – answers yelled with excitement, students accompanied by warm and caring teachers navigating their way to meet friends.

My mom taught children this age. I vividly remember visiting her classrooms. Thoroughly and thoughtfully decorated and intentionally designed with the student in mind – the space welcomed and encouraged exploration and learning. Being that a hallmark of early childhood education is the importance of play, she always made sure students had opportunities for joy while they learned their foundational skills. These games and activities were based in a pedagogy, but the kids didn’t know any of that – all they did was be themselves, silly, energetic and full of excitement. Each child was known, valued and included. If there was ever a time this wasn’t the case, she would go out of her way to make sure to invite them back in to reunite with their friends. 

The last stop of our tour was the playground. Tucked away in a city alley, was yet another slice of heaven, an oasis, a respite – a place where shouts of joy didn’t need to be hushed, a place where kids played tag, climbed, jumped and learned. Accompanying them were their teachers and parent & guardian volunteers. There were a lot of smiles as we all witnessed our future, hanging out with their friends. 

Reflecting on this time, I found myself seeing the news through a different lens. It’s one thing for me to read about what is happening and think about how I’m affected by racism, war, famine, drought, and depression and decide whether to pay attention to these issues or block them out, but what about the kids? They don’t get a choice to contribute or opt out. All they’re doing is trying their best to pay attention, follow directions and be kind to their friends. 

I think this is a great way to approach world affairs, whether it’s a political power struggle or policy decision – anything that impacts our societal structure. I might be able to stomach these things or explain away why they can be justified, but I’m an adult and my time on this earth is much less than our youth. They have to live with these choices for much longer. They should be the ones who influence and inform my way of proceeding. This realization has certainly challenged me to examine my own behaviors. I can make excuses and justify why I might want to hang on to my time, money or energy and turn my back on our youth by not addressing some of our most threatening issues. I can tell myself a million reasons to justify focusing on just me. One thing I can’t do is explain some of these selfish decisions to our youth. 

So I won’t. 

The only choice is to do my part to ensure a brighter future for our kids. There is so much more in store for them and much of their story is yet to be written. In a world where racism, war, famine, drought, and depression dominate our front pages, it’s important to remember the classrooms full of learners, adventurers, and explorers, playing with blocks, shouting out answers. 

There was a moment on the playground when I found myself thinking about the challenges and evil in our world that the news tells us about, seemingly all the time, painting a world doomed for destruction. My pessimism was then interrupted by a joyful yell – a student recognizing one of their friends. I then thought to myself,

Someone forgot to tell the kids. 

Open Doors Open Arms

I wouldn’t be here without the care, love and concern showed by the LGBTQ+ community.

One fact I omitted from a previous blog about my recovery was that the first AA meeting I went to was specifically for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

I had no idea.

All I knew was that I made the decision to get sober and wanted to attend a meeting that evening.

Apprehensive about embarking on a life without alcohol, and not sure if it was even possible, I walked in the room and took a seat in the back.

Immediately, I was greeted by an understanding smile. My uneasiness must have been visible because the leader of the meeting approached me to check-in.

He gave me a copy of The Big Book, even after I told him I didn’t have any money.

He knew I needed it and was there for me.

No judgement.

All understanding.

Soon after, I found my home at a morning meeting close to my apartment, but it was because of the initial open door and open arms and the acceptance of the group that allowed me to begin my recovery.

Through this experience, I was reminded of what it really means to love and respect one another.

The leader of that meeting was there for me simply because it was the right thing to do.

If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? – Luke 6:33

I was truly being treated as the people in the group want to be treated.

No judgement.

All understanding.

I learned that often times when I’m in need, and I am honest and open to receiving help, it’s there, like God, waiting for me.

If I’m whispering, I’m speaking too loud

Sticks and stones may break bones but what about whispered words?

They burn bridges.

I’ve written on gossip before and how damaging it is to both parties, but this whispering isn’t the make sure the door is closed whispering, it’s the things I tell myself.

The other day I saw this sign and thought it was eerily poignant.

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I’ve been going through it.

Call it what you want it – you all know what I’m talking about.

Recently, I decided to get rid of social media as an experiment to see if it would help. Lonely at times? Sure. Liberating? Absolutely.

I’m seeing things differently.

Yesterday I watched T.V.

Yeah I know, wow Brendan you got off social media to watch T.V.

I mean I really watched. Not watched five minutes then grab my phone and check Instagram while the episode played in the background.

Yesterday I drove my car.

Really drove. Not get to a red light, check my phone, put it down, keep driving.

Yesterday I took pictures.

Just took them. Didn’t post or share.

Yesterday I walked.

Just walked. Not walked while scrolling or listening to music.

These might seem trivial, even laughable, and that’s okay, but it’s a seemingly small shift that has been seismic.

After a lot of prayer and reflection, I’ve realized the most important commodity, feeling, emotion, state of mind – whatever you want to call it – is freedom.

Before social media, it was having a beer.

Clean up the apartment, and have a beer.

Play video games, and have a beer.

Read a book, and have a beer.

Sobriety has also been freeing. Lonely at times? Sure. But I enjoy not having a substance that has control over my words, emotions or actions.

There doesn’t have to be an and. We can all just do. Just be.

Society tells us we need to multitask. Maximize each hour. Grind.

The catch is that often times, in that pursuit, I forget to look both ways.

Look back to what has brought me to this place – what’s coming down the road.

Look ahead to what could be – what’s next.

We’ve all closed the door and shared something with someone we trust. This is a good thing, privacy and honesty are important. However, I’ve found when I’m looking around to see if anyone is listening or watching – the words or actions that follow can hold more weight than shouts of joy.

Now I know that when I close my door, in the privacy of my own soul, what I choose to tell myself has great power, and if I’m not careful it can lead me astray. But, with awareness, trust, and courage, I can make progress.

I can be free.

Keep me posted

I’ve talked a lot about wanting to write a book.

I remember the reaction when I first posted my plan on Facebook.

It felt great, I was affirmed and my hopes soared.

That summer I wrote almost eighty pages and was hopeful for the future.

Recently, I haven’t made enough time for writing and other things that bring me joy. I love following and seeing what everyone is up to and it lifts my spirits to see all the wonderful things happening in the lives of loved ones and friends.

However, I decided that social media has taken up too much space in my life. I’m just cutting out Facebook for now and will post on Instagram occasionally because I really like taking and seeing photos, but I’m going to back off on that too.

When I do eventually finish this book, I hope that you find out about it and give it a chance.

This isn’t an indictment on social media, just something I’m trying.

At the end of the day, everything is an experiment, so add this to the list.

Thanks for following along for this long, keep me posted.

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brendanpatrick.okane@gmail.com

Long Division

I was never too good at Math.

One aspect that confounded me was long division. Ending up with a remainder and still having the right answer somehow felt like cheating. I didn’t think there should be any unfinished business. A remainder? C’mon.

I know, not sound logic, like I said – not my strong suit.

Round numbers, clean results, no remainders, if it were only that simple right?

When I get in heated situations or when it’s been a day and I let my defenses down, sometimes I’ll say or do something I wish I didn’t.

Hopefully, I’m not alone in this.

Recently I went to a leadership seminar and when we discussed managing conflict, I told my group the most important lesson I’ve learned (through trial and error) was to respond with kindness.

Another group member spoke up and said, their most important thing was to first do nothing.

Don’t respond.

Do nothing.

This allows the space for a proper plan to develop.

It could look like cutting a conversation short, saying you need time to think, whatever it is – it’s better than what was about to happen!

I liked this so much, so I added some steps to it and posted it where I can easily see it.

Here’s how I see this playing out for me:

Refrain – Do nothing. No matter how much I might want to, leave it alone.

Reflect – What just happened? Take a while to go over the details – review the evidence.

Respond – With kindness (I still think this is the way to go) even if it’s a response that contains some harsh truth or maybe an apology.

Remain – Be confident and stick to what I know is right. Don’t second guess. If new information presents itself and I need to alter my course, fine, but I need to be good with my choice.

For me, the toughest part of this process isn’t the first step, it’s the last one.

I need to be okay with unfinished conversations or unresolved issues.

Sometimes there isn’t a tidy conclusion.

At 33 I’m finally embracing this whole concept of remainders.

Still awful at long division.