Learning to Shut Up

I’ve never met the brilliant Canadian comic Ron James but we share a childhood memory. When we were kids, doctors did not diagnose ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. James explains that his father instead called it, “What the hell’s wrong with that boy?”

Like Mr. James, I was always flitting from one thing to another and wanting to do more, read more, and know more. While I did all right in elementary school, I recall wanting lessons to be faster and to explore not what the teacher was pointing at but whatever was around the next corner. I was the kid staring out the window or asking so many questions and offering so many comments that I was deemed a disruptive dreamer. Now, I guess, I would be drugged into submissiveness.

Through high school I applied coping mechanisms. I’d doodle and day dream and ask to go to the washroom in order to walk a bit. I’d snatch what I needed from classes and then read the rest on my own. In the fourth class of a university course I asked the professor if she would be basing the rest of her lectures on the reading packages. When told she would, I skipped the next four months, submitted the assignments, wrote the exam, and earned an A. It was my all time favourite course. Basically, I’d been taught and effectively learned to shut up.

The silence is not a solution for your problems.

I got better at it but like many people, even those without so many thoughts competing for attention and itching to volcano, I’m still learning. Here’s what I’ve figured out so far and, with mixed success, am still practicing:

  1. We need to shut up about other people. Surely the joys and challenges of our own lives are plenty without concerning ourselves with the minutia of others. Besides, it’s none of our business. Privacy is good and gossip is the devil’s radio.
  1. We need to shut up about other people’s motives. We never have all the information and there is no such thing as mind reading. Our guesses will never be more than projections of our own values, needs, or reactions.
  1. We need to shut up about things we’re unwilling to do anything about. If that dog down the street is barking again or the boss has just done something infuriating, or myriad other irritants that test our mettle, we need to either directly address the person or issue or stop complaining.
  1. We need to shut up when someone is talking. When we blurt out our guess regarding what someone is about to say we’re often wrong and always annoying.
  1. We need to shut up when someone tells a joke or story. Even if we know a better one, no one likes the one-upper who competes with a funnier anecdote or broader tale. Let the other enjoy the spotlight.
  1. We need to shut up when someone is dealing with a difficult situation and wants only to work it out by talking it out. We can feel all mushy that we’re being trusted with the unburdening but must resist the urge to offer advice or solutions.
  1. We need to shut up in meetings. Meetings are often too long because of airtime hogged to re-word points already made or to impress the boss. Meetings should be held standing up or walking and rewards bestowed for value added rather than word count.
  1. We need to shut up in the presence of dead air. A little silence is okay. Reflection and thought is okay. We should appreciate the tranquil moments, especially in a car.

Consider the value of occasionally shutting up altogether. In 2013, Imke Kirste of Duke University found that when we stop talking and enjoy silence, the hippocampus portion of the brain explodes with new cell growth. It is the seahorse shaped bit at the brain’s centre that is responsible for the categorization and storage of long-term memory.

Kirste quantified what monks have, through their example, been gently arguing for centuries. Based on monastic notions of spiritual sojourning, silent retreats now exist throughout the world. They offer idyllic settings and experiences such as hiking, yoga, or spa treatments, all linked by their sanctuaries of silence. No radio. No TVs, i-things, or music and, most importantly, no talking. People pay big money to shut up. The Esalen Institute in Big Sur California, for instance, charges $5,000 to spend a week with them in silence.

Some folks can’t do it. The toughest part, apparently, is that a week of silence demands hours alone with oneself and some find they don’t like the company. Try it. For just one day, switch everything off and shut up. Let your mind flow. Ponder why it’s so hard or marvel at your personal mystery tour as your brain rewires itself.

There’s work left for me to do. I still slip up and don’t shut up when asked my opinion of an emotionally controversial matter or when happily amid friends. Ron James learned to make a living by harnessing his bucking bronco thoughts. Speaking, writing, and even singing torrents of words have similarly enabled me to ply my trade and pursue my passions. I get the irony of saying this through a blog post shot-gunned into the universe, but I’m getting better at silence.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking my others at http://www.johnboyko.com or even following my Monday blog posts.(Photo: http://www.texasenterprise.utexas.edu566)

The Power of Humility

If the universe is infinite then you are at its very centre. The notion is momentarily intoxicating until you realize that so is everywhere and everyone else. Twin that thought with the three or four score we’ll be here while the universe celebrates its 13.8 billionth birthday. Both facts invite humility just as we need more of the stuff.

Humility is not the surrender of self-confidence or the abandonment of ambition. Rather, it is the conquering of the self-defeating twin demons of ego and narcissism. Humility offers the road to happiness and ticket to redemption.

With humility, accomplishment can be celebrated as the team effort it always is; the immediate team with which you attained the goal and the accident of your birth that put you at the right time in history, the right place on Earth, and with the right genes and health and doses of luck and ability to work in the first place. No team can thrive without humility. Without humility, a boss can only be a bully and a parent only a boss.

The Power of Humility

(Photo: postjesusonline.wordpress.com)

These, I believe, are humility’s three most important lessons:

1. Cool is a Myth: I recall the day it happened. I was with colleagues on a Friday afternoon when it was whispered, “Look over there. All the young people are deciding what they’re going to do tonight.” My eyes widened. How did that happen? I thought I was one of the young people.

Most people in their twenties think they’re cool. Most in their thirties worry that they are no longer cool. In their forties, many swear they don’t care about no longer being cool. Most folks in their fifties realize they were never really cool at all.

Test yourself at the next wedding or party. Try to find that person on the dance floor that made you giggle as a teenager. Can’t find him? Then it’s probably you.

Rather than standing as King Canute on the thundering, relentless shore, humility offers the option of laughter, the tranquility of acceptance, and comfort in one’s inevitably aging skin.

2. There’s Always Someone Better: I have played guitar since I was nine years old. I’ve played and sung in bars, clubs, and coffee houses and my band still plays a monthly gig at Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle pub.

Last Sunday I was plugged in and enjoying a loping run along the river when Brian Setzer’s version of Mystery Train stopped me in my sweaty tracks. His guitar work was stunning, masterful, and unearthly. I clicked over to YouTube to hear more of his work of which I had always been sort of aware but never paid adequate attention to. He makes the guitar sing.

Back home, my trusty Gretsch felt like a fence post in my arms. I resisted the urge to put it on eBay. Only slowly did I regain my composure and re-dedicate myself to the instrument.

Humility allows the realization that not being the best, or even in the same ballpark as the best, is never a reason to quit or stop trying to improve. Humility invites us to imagine the tragic silence of a forest where only birds with the best voices sing and then find our song.

3. Some Things Can’t Be Fixed: Last Wednesday I held my three and a half month old granddaughter. I know how lucky I am that she and her sister live so close and that I see them nearly every day. On this morning, however, she was screaming. Tears flooded her squinting eyes as she launched into the vibrating cry that shakes parent’s and grandparent’s souls.

Her first tooth was poking through with the pain that, I am told, would drop any adult to their knees. Worse, is that infants live in the moment and so, in their minds, the agony will never go away. Worse still, for me at least, was that beyond the gel, teething toy, and cooing comfort of the gentle sway, there was nothing I could do, nothing.

Sometimes there is, indeed, nothing you can do. Sometimes, no matter who we are or who in our society to whom we turn, it can be neither avoided nor fixed. Pain will be suffered, disease will strike, an accident will happen, and a loss so devastating as to urge quitting it all will occur. Character is not made in those moments, it is revealed. Humility is character’s handmaiden.

The Power of Humility..

(Photo: http://www.discoveryplace.info)

So let’s praise the examined life, the charm of folly, the seeking of goals rather than credit, the experience rather than the picture, and the humble acceptance that we are what we are for the speck of time we’re here. With humility as our guide, our brief journey will be a whole lot happier for ourselves, for those with whom we work and play, and especially for those we love and love us back and make the trip worth taking.

 If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others using your social media of choice and consider following my Monday morning blog found at http:www.johnboyko.com

What Can We Learn from Leviticus, Wealth, and the Monkees?

As a historian, my job is to urge greater understanding of where we are through offering fresh perspectives on where we’ve been. My humble efforts constantly have me discovering things I never knew while challenging myself to reconsider things I thought I knew for sure. The curiosity quest has led to more questions than answers, which, I think, is as it should be. The following are among those issues and queries currently furrowing my brow.

Questions(Photo: http://www.cedar-rapids.org)

Science: In grade 4, Miss Haney taught me that man very early made jars stand up nearly perpendicular. The mnemonic device allowed me to remember the nine planets and their order from the sun. Look back and see what I mean; I’ll wait.

All was well until 2006 when scientists demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status because it had an unsteady orbit and was unable to “dominate its neighbourhood”. Then, thanks largely to the Hubble telescope, it was discovered that beyond our solar system there are perhaps a trillion planets. I don’t really know what a trillion is but it’s a lot more than eight. These new facts laid waste to Miss Haney’s old facts and ruined her perfectly charming memorization trick.

So, is science based not on facts but our best guess at the moment? If that is true, then what of mathematics, economics or anything else resting upon quantifiable truths?

Music: I used to sneak a small transistor radio into my bed every night. From beneath my pillow, so my parents couldn’t hear, I nodded off to a Buffalo radio station that skipped the latest rock ‘n’ roll across Lake Ontario just for me. I was ripe for the Monkees. I bought the records and every week enjoyed their TV show.

Although an enamoured nine-year old, I noticed that what I was hearing did not match what they were playing; especially Micky the drummer. It ends up that the Monkees sang but the music was played by a group of crack LA studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew. They were the same talented group we really heard when listening to The Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Beach Boys, Association, Partridge Family, Grass Roots, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and many more.

So, can music be enjoyed while accepting deceit in its creation? If so, does the same acceptance apply to other forms of artistic endeavour? If we accept deception in art, then where else will we wink at irony tilting toward lies – perhaps business and governance?

Bible: Until we stopped going to church for some reason, I attended Sunday school. Every week I fidgeted with the adults before we kids were led downstairs for a snack and lesson that we could actually understand. The rather violent portrayal of Jesus upstairs and the equally gruesome representation in the basement frightened me. The stories of God were thankfully reassuring as we were encouraged to consider Him as an old man who not only looked like Santa Claus but also acted a lot like him. Both had lists of naughty and nice and both meted out rewards and punishments although God seemed more quick to anger and a whole lot more spiteful and violent. I recall being shaken by the thought that I was apparently under constant surveillance.

I later enjoyed a university World Religions course, read a great deal, and, over the years, I have re-read the Bible four times. I learned to accept that Jesus was likely not the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blond man with whom I’d grown up. I learned that crucifixion was the Roman’s chosen form of capital punishment. So wearing a cross as jewellery then would be like wearing an electric chair now. Further, I learned that God is no more a man than Santa but, rather, a concept.

All this was fine but I was more troubled to find myself cherry picking from the Bible. I read that Leviticus 18:22 says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Ok, I disagreed, but it was clearly stated that homosexuality is a sin. But wait, 25:44 says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” So slavery, alternatively, is not a sin but, in fact, encouraged. It must be so because Exodus 21:7 says, “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.”

So, can we accept the good things a religion proffers while ignoring the questionable stuff? Can we use a part of the Bible to justify a particular belief while ignoring other parts? Can we treat the Bible as a smorgasbord without cheapening or even rejecting its core message?

Wealth: I once worked at a school for teenagers who were damaged, learning disabled, culture shocked, lost in the criminal justice system, or just lost. Later, I worked in a private school where those of means could buy their children’s peers and opportunities no longer available in the ideologically besieged and fiscally starved public system. I found about the same percentage of happy and unhappy kids in both schools.

Happiness, it turns out, has little to do with money. Last year, University of San Francisco psychology professor Ryan Howell determined that buying more stuff, having more clothes and cars and living in bigger houses do not make people happier. His findings supported a 2010 Princeton study showing that happiness rises until income hits about $75,000. After that, it was found that happiness goes up not one whit even if one’s income soars higher than poor old Pluto.

So, was John Lennon right? Is love really all we need? If the studies are true then should we re-examine the meaning of success, the efficacy of ambition, and the value of materialism?

There are folks I know who are deeply offended by questions that invite an exploration of opinions that they have hardened into facts. The questions should none the less be asked. I believe that we owe it to ourselves to ask questions of ourselves, even if the answers are difficult, illusive, or impossible.

 If you enjoyed this column please share it with others and consider pushing the blue button to follow my weekly blog.

The Importance of Ignoring Your Rabbits

Journalists, detectives, and hiring teams love hypothetical questions. Those in their sights are asked to imagine situations and predict reactions. Politicians dismiss them. Suspects leap behind lawyers. Pity the sweaty-palmed job applicant spinning an internal Rolodex of possible responses while balancing honesty with guessing the right answer

As an author, I have been interviewed countless times in TV and radio studios, over the phone and over coffee, and before audiences. Speaking engagements always end with a Q and A. In most cases, I am asked about whatever book has just been published and my answers come relatively easily. After all, by the time a book leaves the nest to make its perilous way in the world, it has been re-written so many times that an author nearly has it memorized. Further, after a while, an author hears the same dozen or so questions and it becomes a little like Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline – the performance is still heart-felt, enjoyable, and hopefully entertaining, but seldom challenging.

But then, once in a while, down the queue comes the query – the hypothetical. It just happened to me again. I am proud and was humbled to have been invited to be one of six artists, authors, business people, and community leaders to participate in the annual fundraiser for the Greater Peterborough Health Services called Peterborough Speaks.

Last Wednesday evening, each of us took a turn on a chat show-like setting at the Market Hall theatre. We were interviewed for about 15 minutes before an audience of 250 and those who will watch later on television. Media personality Michelle Ferreri began my session with a question about my upcoming book and all was going well enough, I thought, until the end. She concluded with, “What advice would the current you give to your 20-year-old self?”

Ignoring Rabbits (photo: Peterborough Examiner)

Wow! Up in the Green Room, I had heard BrandHealth president Paul Hickey asked that question and so I didn’t think the same bullet would be fired again. I was reminded of the same gulping feeling I experienced when asked by a Calgary CBC journalist during a live radio broadcast: “Of all the Canadian prime ministers, which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?”

That time, I was on the phone with radio’s cruel absence of the communication crutches of expressions or gestures and the terror of dead air. Now I was on stage before all those people and cameras. I was suddenly like one of the hundreds of job applicants who, in another part of my life, I had interviewed with similarly tough, hypothetical questions. It was my turn to spin the Rolodex.

I said, “I would tell my 20 year-old self to ignore the rabbits and tend the tree.” Michelle looked incredulous and there were smatters of nervous laughter from the audience. I explained;

“When I was 20, I was like a frenetic young man alone in a large field teeming with rabbits. I was armed with a tiny net called ambition. I scurried from one to the next, finding that with every rabbit I snared, two more got away. I wish I could convince that guy to leave the field and seek a sanctuary of silence to contemplate what is truly important. I would implore him to imagine shaping his life less as a hunter and more as a gardener before a young bonsai tree. I would suggest that he slowly nurture its growth by picturing its ideal shape and then, over time, mold it into that shape by snipping off certain people, places, activities, and habits and all else that is destructive and distracting. I’m not sure he would have had the capacity to hear me for winter can seldom warn the spring, but I would advise my 20-year-old self to ignore the rabbits and tend the tree.”

I had considered the metaphor of the bonsai before but never constructed the thought as I expressed it that evening. Now that I have, and because I did it in such a public way and with this writing I am doing it again, I am pressing myself to a new challenge. I will soon be making a couple more snips.

As for the fellow in Calgary, I said, “Sir John A. Macdonald would have been the best NHL hockey player for in the Gordie Howe tradition he had the broadest skill set of anyone at the time and was not above throwing a few elbows.” I hope Sir John and Mr. Howe would have liked that. I suspect that as young men they had learned to ignore the rabbits.

If you enjoyed this column, please consider sharing it with others through your social media of choice and to subscribing to follow my Monday morning blog: http://www.johnboyko.com

Happy is a Decision

Happy is not a goal. It’s not a destination. Happy is not a dream or some Hallmark card hokum. Happy is a decision. I once enjoyed a lecture by a Tibetan monk. He said a great deal that rang of declarative knowledge, that is, he dragged things I already knew into the light where, for the first time, I could see them clearly. Of all that he said that day, the one thing that resonated most was, “If you want to be happy, go ahead.”

It sounds easy, but it’s not. Many people struggle with depression or other ailments that make happiness frustratingly illusive. Thankfully, I am not among them. But, for a long time, I might as well have been. I simply refused to see that if happiness is indeed a decision, then it implies responsibility. I had work to do. I had to differentiate between those things that make me happy from those that do not. Like changing one’s diet rather than going on a diet, the challenge suggested a long-term life-style change. The idea that happiness is a decision forced me to redefine happy.

I have, for instance, taught myself to avoid what Germans call schadenfreude; taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Shameful joy is too easy. It’s what makes slapstick comedy fun, from Charlie Chaplin to Jim Carrey. But in real life, it’s a sad and shabby pleasure. Shameful joy’s price is shame and its reward is not joy. Like the emptiness of envy or materialist consumption, it is an abdication of responsibility; it is the outsourcing of one’s happiness.

Like an alcoholic summoning the strength to avoid a sip of that rich double malt, I sometimes still struggle to avoid drinking from the sour nectar of shameful joy. But I force myself to keep that old habit locked in the cage with other happiness-draining habits such as succumbing to the media’s fear du jour, or the tug of an advertiser’s appeal, or the succulence of the latest celebrity, neighbourhood, or office gossip. I guard the cage’s frail and fragile bars. I heed the monk.

trail

Last week I was running along the trail near my home. It is a beautiful place. There are fields and woods along one side and a river along the other. On this particular afternoon, the sun was striking the river so that it shone as diamonds. The sky was a deep and vivid blue. I had just passed the 6K-mark where the endorphins kick in and my mind begins to float and even my Clydesdale-like gait feels graceful. I said, out loud and to no one, “This is a good moment.” And it was.

My practice of quietly announcing good moments has helped me to see life as a bonsai tree. I snip off the parts that ruin its symmetry; the situations, people, and places that bring me no happiness. After all, consider how many people lie on their death bed and whisper, “I wish I had spent more time at the office, or in lineups, or in traffic, or buying stuff, or with people whose insecurities or inner demons poisoned rooms.” How many, on the other hand, say with their last breaths, “I wish I had filled my life with more moments that filled my heart?”

Try it. Wait for a moment that offers true tranquility, pure enjoyment, heart-skipping joy, or tear-inducing warmth. Then say it: “This is a good moment.” It won’t count unless you mean it and it won’t count unless you say it out loud. Say it although others may hear it. Say it because others may hear it. Say it because you have decided to be happy.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others, consider leaving a comment, following my weekly blog, or checking out one of my five books at Chapters, Amazon or even a book store if you can still find one.