5 Mantras

Every week, I share a list of 5 Things. These things are shared one at a time each day as part of my subscriber’s daily update. Want to get this kind of goodness in your inbox every weekday? Along with all sorts of other good stuff? Then become a subscriber. I am biased, but I think it’s worth it. This post is shared with everyone on my email list and is public at combatsnuggles.com. Feel free to forward this email, share on Facebook or Twitter, or otherwise pass along to whomever you think would enjoy it. Thanks for reading.

Fun fact: today is the 120th day since our family began lockdown. Four months ago we stopped going to school, to church, to the library, playground and park, and - most impactful for our family - going out to eat. We like to eat. Especially when other people cook it.

We now spend most of our time at home. Even more than before all this, and that was a lot. barb works from home and has for over 10 years. Matthew and Liz are both home bodies and didn’t go out a lot before. Now it’s even less. Justin and I have been most affected. We went on an outing every day. Park, library, museum, pool... always something. Now? Not much.

It’s not like being at home is the only thing. It’s been a crazy 4 months for our family. One of the handful of times Barb has left the house was a few weeks ago when she went to Catawba County and spent the weekend in the ER with Willie. His care has been a constant source of stress and concern, and has taken up a lot of emotional space. Justin has had ongoing medical issues although we are hopefully seeing light at the end of that tunnel. Yesterday, our daughter Alex submitted her final assignment as an undergrad, and tomorrow she takes the LSAT. We are so proud of her, but we also miss being able to be with her to support and celebrate. Liz has ongoing mental health stuff. It’s not easy being a queer teen in the best of times. And this definitely ain’t the best of times. Matthew just wants to go to basic training, which is the one thing it seems like the Air Force can’t do right now.

And that is just the stuff that I am willing or able to talk about right now. 

Here’s the thing. I get that lots of other families could make a list like this. So many of us are carrying heavy burdens in this season of existence. We are experiencing collective and individual calamities at an alarming rate. We have first hand experience with lost jobs and lost homes and even lost people. We have all been through SO much the last 4 months. I am acutely aware that the problems of my family, while significant and impactful for us, are also indicative of the many interlocking privileges we enjoy. 

Everyone is struggling right now. It’s hard out there, y’all.

For this week’s 5 Things, I will be sharing my 5 Mantras. These are 5 bits of hard earned wisdom - phrases and ideas - that keep me grounded and keep me sane. And I am sane. Despite all the chaos and challenges - globally, locally, family, and everywhere in between - my mental health has remained stable. Stable, not perfect. I still have rough moments, just like all of us. And. They are just moments. I can’t begin to tell you how different it is for me to be calm in the face of chaos, instead of being a chaos agent in the midst of a calm space. This has been huge for me. These mantras are the centerpieces of my internal monologue. These are the truths I remind myself of now, instead of allowing my past to tell me awful things about myself. I am in a good place, even in the midst of all the crazy.

And these 5 Mantras are a big part of the reason why.

Some of you will smile when you read them. If you interact with me a lot they will be things that you have heard me say many, many times. In fact, some of you could probably write this list for me. Some of you may be hearing them for the first time. Whether it is your first time or your 100th time, I hope that these mantras will encourage and inspire you to think about the messages that play on repeat in your head, especially when things are hard and news is bad. What are your mantras? Are they useful for you? Do they need to be changed or modified or updated? What we tell ourselves determines our reality.

I encourage you to think about your mantras as we work through this week’s 5 Things. I will be asking you to share your mantras for Friday Positivity. I can’t wait to hear yours. Here are mine. My 5 Mantras.

#1 - Two things can be true at the same time.

While I was enrolled in Veteran’s Treatment Court, one of the things that I was required to do was attend weekly therapy. For most folks, this therapy was provided by the psychologist who worked for the court. The challenge is that the court was in Harnett County, and I was already driving down there once a week for my court appearances. The judge asked the case manager to see if she could arrange a therapist in Chapel Hill. And that is how I met my therapist Katie.

When Katie and first met she talked to me about her approach, which was different than any kind of therapy I had previously. And I had a LOT of therapy. I wasn’t completely convinced. She told me that trauma had an effect on the way we saw the world. 

“Imagine that you are in a room looking at a painting,” she said. “When you have accumulated trauma, that picture is in black and white.”

“I get it,” I said. “You want to help me see the shades of gray.”

“Yes. To start. And I want you to see even more than that.”

“OH,” I said excitedly, “you want me to see that it is a COLOR painting!” I said triumphantly. I was kicking therapy’s ass. I was already a star student. I was so smart and —

“Jeff, by the time we are finished with our time together, I want you to see more than the colors of the painting on the wall. I want you to understand that it is a painting in a building in a neighborhood in a town in a whole world in a unimaginable universe that is full of a more infinite reality than your brain can process. We are going way past shades of gray. Or a few colors.”

I realized I had a lot to learn. And one of the first lessons was the most important.

Two things can be true at the same time. 

For so long, my response to any challenge was to see it in purely binary terms. Someone was right and someone was wrong. There was a winner and a loser. Things were true or they were bullshit. People were good or they were bad. Things were all one way or all another.

There are very, very few situations in life that are like that. Most of the time, things are a mix. Everyone remembers the joy of going to Disney. No one remembers the lines or the heat (or this year, the Covid). When people get divorced, they think about the pain and the hurt and the challenge. They forget about the love and the laughs and the joys. Life is all those things. Nothing is just one thing.

One of the things that I am constantly reminding myself is that two things can be true at once. Things can be hard. Things can be heavy. And the truth of that reality is undeniable. And. Things are also beautiful. And we are capable of seeing that light, even in the dark.

Because two things can be true at the same time.

#2 - This is temporary.

In 2003, I went to Afghanistan. On the day I left, I said goodbye to Barb and the kids and went to work. There was a lot to do the day we left. There was equipment to load, and I had to make last minute checks to make sure my soldiers had what they needed. All of our sensitive items were packed into one large case, and it had to be secured. 

My platoon sergeant and friend Shawn and I looked at the case. Look at those hinges, he said. They look kinda flimsy. I made some joke about it being made by the lowest bidder and got out some green duct tape. Let’s tape it up, I suggested. He agreed and we started taping.

I don’t know if any of you have ever used military duct tape. We called it “100 mile per hour tape” because it could hold stuff together in 100mph wind. It is one of the stickiest substances known to man. We got the case taped, and it came time to cut the tape. I pulled out my knife and started to cut, only the broad side of the blade touched the tape. I wiggled it to pull it free, using my left hand to stabilize the tape.

I saw the cut before I felt it. One clean in the V where my thumb connected to the rest of my hand. I had just had the knife professionally sharpened for deployment. It was sharp as hell and the cut was deep. I stood there frozen for a second. “What’s up?” asked Shawn. “I cut myself.” 

“Ha ha. Dumbass. Is it bad?”

I looked down at my left and moved my thumb away from the other fingers. I saw bone. “Yeah. It’s not good.”

We then had a choice to make. We could go report what happened and get me seen by a doctor. But that would take time we didn’t have. If they had to sew it up, then it would be even more time. The plane to Kyrgyzstan (our first stop) wasn’t going to wait for one dumbass who cut his hand. I had to be on that plane. I grabbed some paper towels that were nearby and folded some into a square to put on the cut, which was now bleeding. I needed to hold it in place.

I looked at the tape.

I flew to Kyrgyzstan with my cut wrapped in paper towel and 100 mile an hour tape. And gobbling ibuprofen like M&Ms because I felt a dull, stabbing pain with literally every heartbeat. I thought the flight would never end. I thought that I was going to end up without a left thumb. That flight lasted at least 3 weeks. Okay. 14 hours that felt like 3 weeks.

One of the hardest things about hard things is how complete they feel. In the moment that we are feeling pain, it can be so overwhelming that we think that pain is all there is. 

It’s not.

The truth is, nothing lasts forever. This is always temporary. And it doesn’t matter what *this* is. Because nothing lasts forever.

The plane eventually landed. I saw a PA at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan who laughed his ass off when he saw my homemade bandage. He sewed up my hand. To this day, I have a kick ass scar. I also have a thumb. And most of the time it doesn’t hurt, and I definitely don’t try to cut it off anymore.

Because nothing lasts forever. 

#3 - You can do hard things.

This one is popular. I mean like really popular. It’s everywhere. There are about a million Pinterest pages full of products with “You Can Do Hard Things” stenciled, embroidered, screen printed, calligraphy’ed, and otherwise embossed on products from pillows to t-shirts to coffee cups. 

Sometimes we hear some of the most basic truths so much we forget about how true they really are, and how much wisdom they hold. We become so enamored of new things that we forget that common sense became common for a reason. And we lose sight of the fact that the things we have heard a thousand times can be the things that get us through the most challenging times.

If you know me and we have talked for more than 15 minutes, the chances I have told you that you can do hard things is 99%. I tell people this all the time. And I have a confession to make about that. It’s a doozy.

Almost every time I say this I am not talking to you.

I mean I am. Telling you that you can do hard things is good advice and it is undoubtedly true. It is a message I want and need you to hear. And I am also really saying it to myself. Because I need to hear it. This is something I have to remind myself all the time. Because I doubt myself constantly. I wonder when I will stumble again. If I will fall. I remind you that YOU can do hard things as a way of reminding me that I can do hard things.

And we can, you know. We can do hard things. Pay attention for just a second to what I am not saying. I am not saying that doing hard things is okay. I wish they weren’t hard. For any of us. Hard things are, well, hard. And that fucking sucks. And we can do them anyway. And I am not saying that doing hard things is easy. Doing hard things is hard. It’s work. You have to labor to do them. 

And. 

You can do hard things. We can do hard things. And we must remind ourselves of that.

Using a stenciled coffee cup if need be. Whatever motivates you, motivates you. So drink your coffee. 

And do your hard things. We got this.

#4 - Carry what’s in your hands.

There is an old Buddhist story that is one of my favorites.

A wise master and teacher is invited to travel to a monastery to teach. He graciously accepts, and chooses a promising novice from among his followers to accompany him on his journey.

Now the master is famous for his strong teaching and guidance on purity. He has renounced all earthly pleasures - including taking a vow of celibacy - to focus on purity of mind and focus. His followers emulate the master and follow a rigidly ascetic code.

As the master and novice make their way, they come across a river, swollen from recent rain. There is a young woman standing on the bank of the river crying. The master asks her why she is so troubled. “My father lives in the next village and has fallen ill,” she said. “I must cross this river to see him. Normally I can wade across, but the river has risen with rain, and I can not swim. I am afraid that if I have to wait until the river level falls, I will not be able to see my father before he passes.”

Upon hearing the woman’s story, the master asked if he could carry her across. She agreed and he lifted her onto his shoulders and made his way across the river. She thanked him on the other side, and immediately began running for the village where her father awaited. The young novice looked on with horror, feeling great internal distress. There was no doubt that the young woman was in need, and helping her was important. At the same time, the master’s example taught that to touch a woman was wrong and impure. He struggled to balance these two thoughts as he and the master began to walk again toward the monastery.

The master and novice walked in silence, the young monk turning the situation over and over in his head. The more he thought the more confused he became. A few hours later they arrived at the monastery to which they had been invited.

“We are here!” said the master excitedly. “The first part of our journey is complete.” The novice stayed silent. “What’s wrong, my son?” asked the master. “You seem troubled.”

The novice could not hold his emotions any longer. He expressed his confusion and frustration to the master. He explained that he did not know how the master could have carried the young woman when they were forbidden to touch. 

The master smiled at the young novice. “Have you been thinking about this for the hours since we left the river?”

“Yes,” said the novice. “I could not think of anything else.”

“My son,” said the master, “I stopped carrying that woman at the river. Why do you still carry her?”  

We are all carrying something. It is different for all of us. And most of the time, what we carry is heavy, and it weighs us down. The story tells us that one of the most effective ways to lighten that burden is to simply set it down. That is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but is way harder in practice. Every day brings weight to carry. And some of us have been carrying our weight for years.

How do we manage the weight? Carry what’s in your hands.

Carry what is in your hands right now. Most of what you are carrying needs to be left at the river. Set yesterday down. Leave tomorrow’s weight for tomorrow.

Carry what’s in your hands. Your HANDS. Some of us want to bring out duffle bags and backpacks and wagons full of stuff. We want to carry as much as it is possible, until we are more pack mule than person.

Carry what’s in your hands. YOUR hands. Carry your stuff. We had a saying in the Army - you packed it, you carry it. You are responsible for what you have to carry. You can help folks that are in trouble - just like the woman at the river. But some of us make a habit of carrying a bunch of stuff that ain’t ours to carry. Life will weigh you down enough. 

Carry what’s in your hands. Your hands. Right now.

Leave everything else at the river.

#5 - Do the next right thing.

In communications, there is something called the dog food problem. Companies spend millions of dollars developing dog food. It is meticulously prepared and tested. Money is spent developing branding and packaging. Even more money is spent on advertising showing happy, healthy dogs romping around while enjoying some delicious kibble. 

Most dog food brands fail. And they fail for a pretty basic reason. Dogs won’t eat it. Some dogs might. Dogs in focus groups testing the food before market. But most dogs in the real world won’t. For whatever reason. The best marketing in the world won’t make a dog eat food they don’t like.

The lessons for communications are pretty clear. You can work hard to craft a message, think critically about the way you disseminate it, and optimize all possible analytics to know which platform to speak on when. And you can do all that and still have people say they didn’t get what you were trying to say. Because all the planning in the world won’t make people pay attention.

Life often throws dog food problems at us. We can meticulously prepare ourselves for things that are going to happen. We can think through permutations and game plan outcomes. We can be ready for every eventuality - mind, body, and soul.

And life can still knock us right on our ass.

What do we do then? How do we react when all our preparation vanishes in a moment and all our readiness evaporates?

We do the next right thing.

We do the NEXT thing. We can’t worry about the steps we will take 2 miles down the road. We have to walk the mile we’re in. We can’t worry about what went wrong, or the missteps that may have brought us to where we are. You are where you are. Do what comes next.

Do the next RIGHT thing. Do it because it is the right thing to do. Right doesn’t mean perfect. The only way to be perfect is to never make a choice which is... imperfect. Right choices mean looking at all the options and making the best one based on your capacity and the information you have. Try to leave behind thinking about choices as “good” or “bad.” These are arbitrary labels that don’t have a lot of meaning. What looks good now, make not look so wonderful in hindsight. Don’t believe me? Look at your hair in high school. Things that seem bad now, may look very different in a few months or years.

Focus on making the best decision you can with what you have to work with. Do the next right thing. Then the next. Then the next. Eventually you will look around and realize you are well beyond crisis, and you are making your way in a new space.

Doing the right thing will never be the wrong choice. 

And there it is. The list of the 5 Mantras that get me through struggle and challenge. I am not perfect, and I do not perfectly apply these mantras in my own life. And I still try. I keep pounding the rock every day.

It is all any of us can do.

May it ever be so.