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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Life Lessons

I recently read letters written by the author Rainer Maria Rilke. He sent  these letters to his friend Mr. Knopps. Rainer provides thoughtful and moving advice to his friend to help him gain perspective on the life difficulties that he is facing. There is an immense amount of wisdom in Rainer's words and he helped me gain clarity on various issues that I think about in my own life. My hope is that by sharing these thoughts, I can help others with their difficulties as well.

Rainer begins by discussing the importance of remembering our inner worth even when we find ourselves in difficult external circumstances:
And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds—wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?
It's important to remember that even during our struggles and when life isn't going in the direction we want, we still have a rich inner world that we have cultivated and formed throughout our lifetime. This internal value cannot be taken away from us even when our surroundings have changed for the worse.  We can tap into this core and use it as a source of emotional strength to help us persevere through arduous times.

Related to this idea is exploring our inner selves to discover solutions to our problems and for tapping our creativity:

Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.
Often times, going deep into ourselves can be a terrifying experience and it potentially scares many people because they end up being viewed as someone who “takes things too seriously” and “overthinks” everything. Additionally, if one does not have experience with introspection then the inner world has remained largely unexplored. If something is unexplored, it contains numerous uncertainties and unknowns. Such an environment (whether real or in our mind) can be an intimidating place to enter, at least initially. Rainer uses a beautiful metaphor to describe this foreign inner landscape and why it can be frightening:
Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing.
Furthermore, such introspection could have heavy costs because
“every person must choose how much truth he can stand.” ― Irvin D. Yalom. 
By going down the road of self-awareness, we eventually start discovering issues that are emotionally challenging to confront. For instance, we potentially end up asking questions about life's meaning, what we are meant to devote ourselves to, what it means to lead a fulfilling life, what should be our priorities, and other "big" questions that do not have easy and straightforward answers. Such questions are difficult and intimidating to face directly and a simpler and more tempting solution could be avoidance and distraction.

However, having said that, the “cost” of going down this path is absolutely worth it and we can end up living more honest, genuine, and meaningful lives. We might not be as happy as someone who didn’t go through the same trial but at least we will be more self aware and honest with ourselves. Rainer touches upon this topic as well: 
Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching that I as of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you.
The mental and emotional effort that we exert will not be in vain and we can come out the other end as someone who is more prepared to lead a fulfilling life. Additionally, such a deliberate introspective quest can allow us to truly address the root of our anxieties and fears:
The only sadnesses that are dangerous and unhealthy are the ones that we carry around in public in order to drown them out with the noise; like diseases that are treated superficially and foolishly.
Throughout this whole process, Rainer advises a change in our perspective and learning to accept uncertainty and asking questions instead of fearing it and hoping it will go away as soon as possible. He advises
to have patience with everything unresolved in [our] heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.
He recommends welcoming the mystery and looking at it as a challenging puzzle to discover and solve over time because
it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult.
The more challenging an ordeal is, the more we learn in the process of conquering it. Further, the most worthwhile goals, wants, and desires are difficult to attain and take an immense amount of work and a certain amount of suffering. But, if something is difficult to attain, it's likely that the sense of satisfaction and happiness after attaining it is going to be significant. Additionally, the journey towards the goal itself will be full of growth and self discovery.  This is assuming the goal isn’t rooted in consumerism or anything else equally superficial.

Rainer explores this issue even further with a wonderful metaphor:

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Such a change in perspective is essential for confronting aspects of our lives that create fear and anxiety.

Rainer then continues on to discuss the importance of forming valuable friendships, He believes we should

seek out some simple and true feeling of what [we] have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when [we] change again and again.
Instead of focusing on what an "ideal" friendship is or having a laundry list of restrictions for filtering out who can be our friend and who can't, we should instead focus on core attributes such as how kind and caring the person is. For instance, if we can't have a deep intellectual connection with someone, should we discount them as a potential close friend? What if this individual is caring and is there to support us when we are facing difficult emotional situations? Such a personality trait should not be discounted and it can survive and always be a friendship-strengthening force no matter what kinds of changes we go through. A friend who cares about us is always a blessing, both during difficult and favorable times.

However, if we do end up failing to form close friendships, Rainer has additional advice:

If there is nothing you can share with other people, try to be close to Things; they will not abandon you; and the nights are still there, and the winds that move through the trees and across many lands; everything in the world of Things and animals is still filled with happening, which you can take part in.
If we find ourselves being consistently disappointed and hurt by the people in our lives, we should cultivate hobbies, learn to appreciate time spent in nature, and have solitary activities that we can be involved in as a way of coping with interpersonal shortcomings and struggles.  This isn't an ideal path to take since it involves further isolation but it's perhaps better than doing nothing at all and becoming even more idle and potentially depressed.

Rainer also discusses the importance of moving past personal boundaries and expanding our horizons. He uses an apt metaphor to make his point:
If we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security.
We are often times tempted to settle for security instead of exploration or going past our boundaries. Being cautious provides us with comfort and security and such a path is quite tempting. A sense of security is comforting in the short term but it gains us nothing in the long-term and it stifles growth.

Rainer also has encouraging advice for getting through our melancholic days:
But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.
It's true that sometimes the only way to power through a low point is to do our best to simply wait it out. Depending on how serious the issue is, sometimes a single night's rest can do wonders in changing our outlook and mood. However, for more serious situations, it could take considerably longer. But the underlying idea should not be forgotten: the passage of time can have a healing effect. 

And finally, let's not forget that going through difficult times and experiencing emotional setbacks can give us a unique insight into helping others during their times of most need:
And if there is one more thing that I must say to you, it is this: Don’t think that the person who is trying to comfort you now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you much pleasure. His life has much trouble and sadness, and remains far behind yours. If it were otherwise, he would never have been able to find those words.
Sometimes, the words "I know, I've been there and it does get better. Let's talk. I'm here to listen" can mean the world to a person who might be at their lowest point. Them realizing that we have experienced something similar to what they are feeling now can help immensely and allow them to trust us to listen to them non-judgmentally.  Being there for someone and having them feel heard can have immense emotional benefits, but if the person also knows that we have relevant personal experience, then they are even more likely to feel comfortable and share their innermost troubles with us.

I hope Rainer Maria Rilke's thoughtful commentary and beautiful metaphors can help others as much as they helped me. That is my goal for sharing this.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Autumn in Southern California

Southern California is stereotypically known for not having any real seasons or Autumn colors. However, there are various small pockets around Los Angeles County where one can get a few hints of Fall. One such location is at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

Here are a few shots from the garden. It's a beautiful place and worth a visit for both locals and tourists.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

One Day

For whatever reason, I would like to remember today’s events and how I felt about what happened.

For those who don’t know, at my current job, I investigate the estates of deceased individuals. Part of my duties involves searching through the residences of deceased individuals. Today, I had two such searches.

The first visit was to the apartment of an old man who was receiving dialysis before passing away. The witness who joined me during the search informed me that the old man used to play the piano and was in a band called “The Drifters.” But what she said next is what really caught my attention and stuck with me:

You know… I think he gave up. I’ve seen this before with the other tenants. He was on dialysis and he started missing his appointments. The doctor was calling us asking where he was. I’m pretty sure he gave up.

This is one of those moments when I have no words and I prefer silence. We both stood there without saying anything. I then resumed my search of the roach-infested and food-stained paperwork that lay in front of me

My second visit was to the apartment of an old Hungarian man who loved music and had an extensive vinyl collection. Upon entering his residence, I noticed he had 15 recent messages on his answering machine. I clicked play and waited patiently. An old woman started speaking in Hungarian. The witness and I had no idea what she was saying but one thing was clear, as the messages progressed, her tone became more and more desperate and concerned until she was eventually crying on the second to last message. Fortunately, on the very last message she spoke in English and said “Please… please call me.” She left her phone number. After reaching her, we found out that she is the deceased old man’s sister and she hasn’t seen him for over 30 years. She had recently found him again and they had been talking on the phone. She had a visit planned in a few days. Her voice started trembling and she said she will never get to see him now.  I had no words. We shared a brief moment of heavy silence.

And that was my day.

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