How Is This the Best Thing That’s Happened to Me?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Audio version:

kenny sandals maple ridge 5k 2022 tulsa, ok

One of the last cool spring breezes of the year rolled over the historic neighborhood as folks of every age, shape, and goal-set pinned race number bibs to their shirts, stretched out legs, and bounced around in anticipation of the starting gun. Scanning the crowd for familiar faces, I spotted my Rabbi, his family, and many others from my synagogue. Minutes before the starting gun, I swam through the crowd of runners over to give my “good luck!” wishes and perhaps run alongside a few friends. 

“I didn’t know you were a runner!” My Rabbi exclaimed, seeing me behind the starting line in my runner’s duds for the first time.

“Well, as of just the last couple of months. It’s a funny little story.” 

“You’ll have to tell me sometime,” he said looking at his watch before looking back up, “or, just now.” 

My eyes shot towards the bill of my cap as I processed the short version of the story.

“I used to jump rope on my backyard deck every morning. During Sukkot this fall, however, the best spot for our sukkah was where I would usually jump rope. So, instead of jumping rope, I went for runs in the nearby park that week. I ended up really enjoying running and, thus, why I’m here.” (Don’t worry, I’ll explain what on earth this means.)

“So, the Jewish holiday of Sukkot made you a runner?” 

“I guess you could say that.” 

I could see the Rabbi-wheels turning behind his eyes, pondering how the tale could be leveraged for the sake of Judaism.

As I wrapped up my short story, the starting gun went off. 

We wished each good luck and I ran across the line. The cluster of runners became a long stream as their varying speeds stretched out the shape of the formation. 

Putting one foot in front of another, I started to realize how what was originally perceived as an inconvenience led to what is now one of my favorite activities—one that has reshaped my relationship with my body, mind, and community. 

And it was true; a Jewish holiday had made me a runner. 

For many years, I had grown to enjoy jump rope. The activity was not only a great way to kickstart my day but had resulted in nearly 40 pounds of weight loss. My favorite place to jump rope was a section of a wooden deck in my backyard—just the right amount of give. However, this section of the deck was also the best place in my backyard for the construction of what is called a “sukkah.” Huh? Don’t worry—I’ll explain.

Every year, immediately after the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), there is a week-long holiday called Sukkot (“sue-coat”)—the Festival of Booths. The “booths” reference the temporary dwellings that the Israelites lived in while traveling through the desert for 40 years. To commemorate this time, Jewish people erect temporary dwellings and host an array of festivities within. Our synagogue builds a sukkah on-site nearly the size of our sanctuary. My family does as well—erecting a 6×8 foot screened-in room with a roof made of bamboo thatch in our backyard. My non-Jewish friends just call mine “Ken’s Jewish Party Hut” and come over to clink a few pint glasses, eat some tasty grub, and enjoy the last of the temperate fall weather before winter forces us inside. 

There was only one problem—my sukkah took my jump rope spot. Jumping rope on my concrete driveway was too firm and attempting to jump rope on another section of the deck presented the possibility of hitting low-hanging utility wires. Just greeeat. 

It only took a few days of Sukkot before I started getting the itch to break a sweat. Leaving my jump rope behind, I headed off to a nearby park to attempt to scratch the itch with a walk. After a kilometer lap or so, it was clear that simply walking wasn’t going to cut it. So, I decided to pick up the pace and run. 

After running a kilometer lap, my heart was racing and my lungs were looking for air wherever it could be found. It felt great. Though my cardiovascular system was grinning, my legs, knees, and hips were not. Being clueless about proper technique, I had forced them to carry me around the track—pounding my lower extremities against the pavement. 

My quest to figure out how to run properly took me through a whirlwind of technique tutorials far exceeding the week of Sukkot. I dove headfirst into any books and videos I could find on the subject, including:  

It didn’t take long before I was fairly obsessed. I went from pushing myself to 5k (or 3.1-mile) distances at slower paces (well over 11 minutes per mile) to breaking a 12-mile distance barrier and finally being able to run a mile in under 8 minutes.

More than fitness, running became a practice—as important for my mind as much as my body. Figuring out how to improve or seeing what my body can accomplish feels like gradually working on a huge puzzle with little boosts of encouragement every time a new piece falls into place.

Even though I could ramble on and on about what I think about while I’m putting in miles (absolutely nothing, refreshingly enough) and what drives me to put one foot in front of another, my favorite fictional runner already summarized this in the 1994 film Forrest Gump,

 “I just felt like running.”  

But the events that eventually led to my love of running originally came from a much darker place: cancer. 

In 2017, I was diagnosed with and treated for testicular cancer—an experience that forever changed my relationship with my own body. After bouts of health anxiety in the wake of such treatment and surveillance, I started jumping rope. Thus, my cancer inspired me to seek fitness as a means of preserving my mind and body. If you poke around online, you’re likely to find hundreds of such stories of folks, who, after staring death in the face, went on to change their lives for the better.

Though I had successfully transformed what was the worst thing that could have happened to one of the best things, it wasn’t until about a week ago that I realized this—as well as how much time and pain I could have avoided if I’d had such foresight instead of this hindsight.

But wishing for foresight makes about as much sense as wishing for a crystal ball. What we can do is ask ourselves one question: How could this situation actually be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me? 

This practice was first introduced to me through a YouTube video called “8 Habits that Changed My Life” by the creator Struthless. I remember watching this video on my couch while nursing a case of metatarsalgia (inflammation of the forefoot) that kept me from running. The host mentioned a mental exercise he had taken on—simply, when faced with a difficult situation, instead of getting frustrated, asking one’s self, “How is this the best thing that’s ever happened to me?”

What was a frustrated pity party with a side of an itch to run became wondering…how is this the best thing that’s ever happened to me? 

In this instance, I realized that my metatarsaliga was a symptom of a larger problem—my running form. I was landing on my forefoot with too much force. I used my downtime to figure out how to remedy the problem and how to distribute force across my entire foot. After doing so, I ran my fastest mile ever about a week later—even faster than I was before my injury. 

While helpful, I feel like my piddly instance of going from a sore foot to breaking a personal record is just at the lower tier of how this mental exercise can be utilized. What if I had asked myself, “How is this the best thing that’s ever happened to me?” when I received my cancer diagnosis? Then, maybe I could have avoided a year or two of anxiety and hopped into fitness even sooner. I have no idea. 

I feel that this mental exercise can change or even save someone’s life.

Instead of spiraling into deep depression or anxiety, someone can ask this question and begin to see a way out of despair. 

Instead of seeing adversity as a speed bump, they can ask this question and use such an instance as, instead, a launch ramp. 

Instead of letting a setback ruin your day, you can ask this question, reframe your vision of a problem, and pivot toward personal success. 

Instead of seeing an event as the last shoe to drop, you can see it as the starting gun to wake you from procrastinating your own betterment. 

How is what is going wrong in your life actually the greatest thing that’s ever happened to you? How can you make it so?

kenny sandals tulsa 5k maple ridge memorial day run

Becoming Besties With Death

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Prefer to listen?

We all have differing relationships with Death. Some have come face to face with it on battlefields, city streets, or ICUs. Some scroll right past it like an advertisement on a social media timeline. Most of us are aware of Death but are afraid to look it in the eye.

It feels odd to say, but Death has become a close friend. I invite Death along with me throughout my happiest moments—in the mornings over coffee, when my son gives me a big hug, seeing my wife’s warm smile, or when I go out for runs. I have gotten to the point where I actually want Death there with me. Don’t worry—it’s not as dark as it sounds.

And it wasn’t always this way. 

I’m pretty sure I was introduced to Death when my grandfather died a week or so before the first day of sixth grade. Despite being raised with the afterlife-believing theology that comes with a religious upbringing, the mystery of Death was suddenly terrifying. No one could tell me precisely what happens the moment after I would take my last breath. The lack of answers kept my breathing shallow and my eyes deeply acquainted with the contours of my bedroom ceiling. Despite this, like most of my fears, I leaned into it—even, for a time, considering becoming a mortician. Eh, too much school. 

After receiving news that my first marriage was going to end, I realized that worst-case scenarios were, in fact, possible. I buried my emotions about the divorce in order to cope. This resulted in me becoming a hypochondriac. I believe that this made my death anxiety resurface. I was certain that every odd physical sensation was a malady that would flip over my mortal hourglass—like such a scene from the Wizard of Oz. I knew that it was only a matter of time before an odd symptom would lead to a doctor’s visit that would then result in bad news.

Then one did. 

A few years into my blissful second marriage, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Despite an early detection that allowed for a virtual cure thanks to one out-patient surgery, I would still have to undergo regular scans to ensure that the cancer had not spread. Every year, I’d get the “all clear,” and go about my life for another 11 months. One month out, when the next scan was scheduled, my emotional burners would ignite beneath my guts. Just as my anxiety would begin to boil, another “all clear” would swiftly cut the burner off once again. 

Then, one Sunday afternoon, I befriended Death. At a playground.  

With the place to ourselves, I chased my three-year-old son up ladders and down slides. Through wood chips and sand. Jumping, running, swinging, and laughing. As he continued to expend his virtually endless energy stores on climbing and sliding, I sauntered over to some nearby swings to take a load off. As I let a tailwind rock me back and forth, I savored the tired sensation of chasing a toddler up and down the grounds. With a joyful sigh, I felt the presence of someone approach and take a seat in the swing next to mine. I didn’t have to look over to see that it was none other than Death. 

Death wasn’t there to take me. No, he was simply there to show me what mattered. 

The silver clouds reflected a handful of straw-like rays to the east. The ecstatic cluck of my son’s laughter echoed off the nearby treeline. The air in my nostrils carried notes of a recent spring rain as it filled my chest and then flowed out again over the top of my graying mustache. For a few moments, the entire world was free of buzzing notifications, jealous gossip, the frantic compulsion to keep up appearances, and gripping one’s own biases like a bull rider behind the gate. As Death rested its bones on the swing beside mine, he wiped away these diversions like blemishes from a lens—if for just a moment.

I know that, somewhere, my mortal hourglass is hissing with the trickle of sand from one chamber to the other. There’s no way to invert such a device, tighten its waist, or thicken the material within. To make matters worse, our petty squabbles, unfounded anxieties, and insincere motivations only work to scoop handfuls of sand out of the top halves of our mortal hourglasses. 

Most of us look to the upper chamber of our hourglass—filled with worry and expectation about what is hiding in the sand. If we’re not gazing at the top of the funnel, we’re frantically sifting through the particulate that has already fallen through to the bottom. We’re desperate to hold good times up to the light or bury the painful particles we unearth. 

Where should we be looking? The only place that matters—where the dust falls.  

As the air kisses the falling grains, this is where our attention should be—hovering between chambers. Only here, with the tremor of the device, can we change its travel through time and space. And while the top of the hourglass contains an unknown matter(s) and the bottom holds inaccessible sand, what falls between the chambers is the golden powder of life. The only time we can observe this golden powder fully illuminated by the setting sun is in free-fall in the waist of the hourglass—after it has left the above chamber of the Future and before it lands in the chamber of the Past in the belly of the vessel. 

You’re not going to die. No, you are currently dying. Like mine, your hourglass is hissing with the falling sands of time. The sand below represents every day given to Death. The sands above contain materials you cannot access. Instead of filling you with dread, this realization should infuse the present with vitality. It should compel you to stop squandering your time on pursuits of hollow vanity, insincere gestures, or needless self-inflicted anxieties. 

Your relationship with Death while alive should not be one of paralysis but instead a motivational friendship. Death doesn’t come around to frighten, but to inspire. Death is not something to run away from, but to run with every mile of your life. In the parlance of the youth of the early 21st century, to invigorate your daily life with clarity, purpose, and richness, Death should be your “bestie.” 

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”

-Seneca

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

-Marcus Aurelius

How to Make Chores Suck Less

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Prefer to listen to this piece?

I’ll make this piece short because the concept, while is meaningful, is incredibly simple. It was somewhat brought to mind during a stand-up spot from 2013  by one of my favorite comedians—Rory Scovel.  

“The older you get, the more you realize—life is just chores. That’s all it is. In fact, the day you officially become an adult is the day you accept, ‘…this is only chores.’ It doesn’t matter how well you do them, how fast you do them—they’re coming back tomorrow, they’re coming back the next day, they’re coming back next week. And some people are like, ‘…—I thought there was more to life than this.’ There is. There’s a medicine that you can take that makes you think that every chore you have to do is a…video game that you get to live inside of.”

While his bit was touching at how ridiculous the marijuana laws of the United States were in 2013, his reframing brought to mind a type of reframing for our lives that doesn’t quite require getting high, but rather by changing one word in our typical thought patterns: 

Simply replace “have to” with “get to.” 

  • I have to get the mail.
  • I have to go for a run. 
  • I have to take a shower.
  • I have to go to the grocery store. 
  • I have to cook dinner. 
  • I have to work.
  • I have to drive home.

Let’s see what happens when we replace that single word. 

  • I get to get the mail.
  • I get to go for a run. 
  • I get to take a shower.
  • I get to go to the grocery store. 
  • I get to cook dinner. 
  • I get to go to work.
  • I get to drive home.

The truth behind this shift is that most of us take many of these tasks for granted. 

  • Some people would love for nothing more than the ability to stand, walk, and get the mail from their mailbox. 
  • Others would love to run, but for some reason, physically can’t. 
  • Taking a shower for many in the world requires running water that they don’t have. 
  • Going to the grocery seems downright exotic to some in the world—either due to living in a food desert or not having enough money to buy food. 
  • Cooking said food is yet another luxury. 
  • Going to work means you have a job—something many pray for.
  • You get to drive home while many have to walk through the elements or simply have no place to even call home.  

While it seems like a pretty insignificant shift that likely won’t likely positively impact your mindset the first time you apply it, I challenge you to give it a shot. 

So, what do you get to do today?


To get these pieces in your inbox, feel free to subscribe. You can unsubscribe anytime you decide you don’t want them anymore. It’s cool—I do that all the time. 

Determine How to Spend Time With One Question

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Prefer to listen to this post?

There have never been more ways to spend your time. Even if you have chosen to sit on your duff and watch a screen, the choices are endless.

Do you want to watch Netflix? Hulu? HBO? It seems like we’ll never scratch the surface of even figuring out what show to watch next. 

And that’s just watching TV. If you want to listen to music, read a book, take a class, cook a meal, or anything else—the options aren’t virtually endless, they’re genuinely endless in the span of a single human lifetime. It feels like we’re on a crusade against the word “boredom”—committed to ending its use.

So, how do we determine how to spend our time? 

I had been experiencing this dilemma lately. It would start with something mindless—a YouTube binge, a meme-scroll session, or something else. Then, after a while, my default mode network would flicker slightly and I’d “wake up” to the recurring question:

Is this is what I should be doing? Is this how I should be spending my time?

Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with the occasional mindless escape into the world of entertainment with low nutritional value. But like consuming loads of empty calories, I never found myself feeling especially glad that I had done so. 

That’s when I asked myself a question that has become an immensely useful litmus test for gauging whether or not I should doing something: 

How will this activity make me feel after I’ve done it? Will I be glad that I did that? 

I’ve come to personally refer to this sensational-gauge as the Subsequent Tone Litmus Test.

One of the first times I put this litmus test for time consumption to work was while getting back into reading great stories. I’ve been on a John Grisham kick—reading A Time to Kill, Sycamore Row, A Time For Mercy, The Innocent Man, and The Rainmaker all within about the span of two or three months. I not only thoroughly enjoyed the stories but also just the act of reading. 

Setting my phone in the next room and arming myself with my Kindle Paperwhite connected to my public library account, reading became effortless. I turned off all page indicators so I had no idea how far I had left to go. Hours would fly by as I got lost in the texts. I would usually only stop when life’s other obligations would arise or when my reading would take me into the night and I found myself nodding off in the early morning hours.

Usually, when I’d binge a show or fall down an hours-long YouTube wormhole, I would come out the other side exhausted—beat, but with my mind still racing. However, every time I’d close my Kindle after a hearty reading session, I would feel refreshed—almost rested. There would be a genuine feeling of whew—that was great. I’m glad I did that.

Soon after realizing this difference, I became cognizant to gauge how certain activities made me feel—what I call the “subsequent tone” of an event or activity.  The following are a few experiments and their outcomes. 

Music Production

As a musician and a huge fan of the subgenre of Reggae known as “Dub,” within the past few months, I decided to try my hand at producing some Dub recordings of my own. Like reading, I found myself immersing myself in the process of piecing together drum sounds, recording bass lines, experimenting with chord progressions on my midi keyboard, and finding the perfect melodica melodies to tie up every “riddim” like a bow. Once I had recorded all of the instruments, I’d spend hours tweaking the recordings, effects, and molding them to my liking on my dinky laptop. 

I proudly released two of those recordings as singles—accessible to most streaming platforms. You can find them on the platform of your choice on my music page

As I completed the tracks and uploaded them for distribution, never once did I feel like I was wasting my time. Even after exhaustedly re-recording a bassline at 2 AM because the intonation on my bass guitar was off on the original recording, I felt the same sensations—man, I’m glad that I did that. Though I could barely keep my eyes open, I felt full of life. 

Journaling

Rarely do I ever start a journaling session because I have a craving to scribble my thoughts onto a page. I usually do so because I feel like I have so many things on my mind that my own lack of clarity is starting to weigh me down. However, by the time I’ve laid out all of the “paperwork” of my mind onto the table of the page, I can begin to see what I can fix, what I should ignore, and what is holding me back. I start sketching out plans, goals, aspirations, and fixes. Then, closing my journal, I’m hit with the wave of man, I’m glad I did that

Exercise

Rarely do I leave my house in the morning anxious to break a sweat. Whether I’m going out to my deck to jump rope or to walk or run laps around the nearby park, my soft bed still calls out to me. However, after my body has warmed up, my pulse increases, and I hit my stride, I start to feel alive. Heading back inside my house with a sweat-soaked beard and clothes sticking to me, I feel great. The rest of the day seems to go easier because I got my increased pulse and sweat to blow out the morning’s cobwebs. 

Prayer

Like journaling and exercise, I rarely initiate my prayers pumped to be there. It can be an immense slog that requires many mindset and liturgical shifts before finding a groove. In Judaism, we have a concept referred to as “kavannah” — which most translate as “intention” but I prefer Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser’s translation, which I’ve heard is actually more accurate — “alignment.” The moments leading up to my moments of kavannah—my spiritual alignment with my Creator—can feel like a dial-up modem circa 1998 trying to log on to the internet. Like that dial-up modem, there is a lot of internal static, whirling, and sharp creaking—spiritual turbulence that accompanies such ascension. But like flying above the turbulence, there is a moment of soaring above the clouds where the connection is made.

When I have moments of immense kavannah, while it doesn’t feel like I can hear the voice of a Higher Power, it does feel as though Someone has picked up the receiver. Paraphrasing a quote from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l —“This call is being monitored for quality purposes.” 

As much as I may have to wrestle to get myself to get into a place of spiritual alignment, I always walk away from prayer with the feeling in my bones of, “I’m glad I did that.” 

Social Media

Though I stopped using about 97% of all social media years before officially using the Subsequent Tone Litmus Test as a decision-making tool, similar feelings resulted in me deleting my accounts. I can’t think of many if any instances in which I would conclude a social media scrolling session and feel better for having partaken in the social media experience. 

Applying the Subsequent Tone Litmus Test to Activities 

If you’re struggling to determine how you should be spending your limited time on this planet, I would urge you to apply this test to your own actions: after completing an activity, do you feel better having participated in that activity? 

Do you feel elevated or deflated?

Do you feel inspired or simply tired?

Do you feel fulfilled or drained?

Applying the Subsequent Tone Litmus Test to Life

Activities aren’t the only area of life where the Subsequent Tone Litmus Test can be applied. You can also use this test to determine other decisions—career choices, people, what foods to eat, and the like.

Sometimes, making a life-changing decision simply means asking yourself — Is this going to make me feel better or worse when it’s all over?


Enjoy this piece? Feel free to subscribe to get new articles in your inbox as they’re published. Unsubscribe anytime (I promise not to take it personally).

Two Ancient Notions That Helped Pull Me From the Depths

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Prefer to listen to this piece?

The summer of 2020 was rough for a lot of people…

…for a lot of different reasons. It was rough for me because I was experiencing levels of health anxiety only matched by the week before I received a positive cancer diagnosis in 2017. 

This was different, though.

Was I displaying any physical symptoms? Eh, probably not. Then what was the source of the anxiety? For those who have experienced bouts of anxiety, you know that you don’t need a reason. In fact, most of us pray for a source of our torment so that we can know what the hell to fix. The worst anxiety often makes the least sense. 

But I did find something that turned it all around—two ancient notions that have been helping people like me for thousands of years. But these require additional context.

Anxiety is a lying snake.

Impending doom continued to swirl around my perception of how I was doing inside. These feelings were briefly alleviated by trips to my doctor. He would immediately tell me that nothing was wrong. In fact, that I was in better health than I had been since my teenage years. I would ride this high of relief for a few weeks only for the feelings of anxiety and dread to slither back into my life. 

My health anxiety would crack fever pitches just before surveillance appointments—routine follow-up scans with my urologist following my cancer treatment in 2017. This bubbling dread leading up to scans is what is known as “scanxiety” in the cancer community. 

He’d usually just walk into the examination room, tell me how the scans showed nothing abnormal, and remind me that I hadn’t displayed any signs of cancer in several years. 

A few months later, the dread would reappear—like Ol’ Pap Finn back in town, looking for his Huckleberry to knock around. Rinse and repeat.

But that was all about to change.

One morning in early spring 2021, the dread slithered up my spine and sat atop my shoulder as I examined my appearance in the bathroom mirror. With it’s split tongue tickling every consonant, it whispered—

“You’re going to die soon.” 

Taking a deep breath and realizing it was [only] the anxiety talking—something meditation had made me hip to—I let a deep exhale flap my lips in cheeky facetious exasperation as I let out my reply.

Well, if that’s the case, I better make this summer count,” chuckling to myself, scoffing off the serpent’s lies as I dried my hands and walked out of the bathroom. 

I didn’t know it at the time but something shifted inside. That serpent, who thrived on my fear and dread, was defanged. 

Did I truly believe that I was going to die soon? No—it was just another lie my mind was trying to get me to believe. 

But I started living as though it were true

  • I made an extra effort to spend time with people I cared about —sometimes seeking out old friends who had slipped through life’s cracks.
  • I became more conscious of what foods, habits, and activities made me feel my best and made a point to fill my life with them.
  • I sought out moments of peace. 
  • I made conscious efforts to be more present in everything I did—especially while spending time with loved ones. 
  • And yes, this was around the time I quit social media—an activity I’ve mostly replaced with more pleasure-reading than I had done in my entire life. Thanks, John Grisham.

With these activities and the mental residue that accompanied them, my dread was rendered powerless. The whispered lies grew increasingly faint and manageable. Ease and contentment snuck their way back into my life reminiscent of childhood.

There’s no doubt that these activities aided in managing my mood and anxiety levels. Still, I attribute much of this relief to the combination of two philosophical pillars of Stoicism I had learned about years prior but had begun inadvertently practicing—amor fati and memento mori. 

Amor Fati

We have little control over what happens to us in life. And how boring would life be if we could? Without a little uncertainty, you may not have ever met your spouse or discovered your passion. 

Amori fati literally means a love of one’s fate—whatever that happens to be. Even if it sucks. Because ultimately it will teach you something or play a role in helping you become the person you were meant to be just as it had up to this point. Fighting fate is a losing battle, so you might as well fall in love with it. 

Memento Mori

Speaking of fate, you’re going to die. 

“Yeah, but not for a while.” 

Says who? You could die in a few months. Next week. Tomorrow. 

Instead of letting this idea burden your thoughts, use it to bring clarity to your life. When tomorrow is not promised, this notion should make your next meal delicious, every sunset spectacular, and moments with those close to you an extravagant privilege. The governor just gave you a stay of execution—what are you going to do with it before he changes his mind?

Memento mori means “remembrance of death” — which is actually a remembrance of life. 

Death is inevitable and thus a silly fear. The true fear is never having truly lived.

Still, it is important to remember that yes, you’re going to die. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Simply make sure you’re squeezing the juice out of life and not leaving any meat on the bone. 

These notions may not click for you or change your life right now or even in the near future. That’s ok. But they’re planted. If you’re like me, your subconscious may need to chew on them for a few years before they “turn on.” My prayer is that one day, your mind finds use for them when you most need them.

Enjoy this post? Feel free to subscribe to receive new articles and podcast episodes in your inbox. Unsubscribe anytime.

Choosing Your Shovel: A Field Manual to Leveraging Fear & Managing Anxiety

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Prefer to listen to this piece?

Quick disclaimer: There is a significant difference between sporadic spells of anxiety and a chronic anxiety disorder. This piece is meant more to aid with periodic anxious spells rather than treating any condition, which should be addressed by a mental health professional.

Two emotions. Endless misinterpretations.

Fear and anxiety are two of the most perplexing emotions one can have. Both can overtake you and result in a miserable daily life. Conquering fear and anxiety is the work of life and not a life hack that can be acquired by reading a short online essay or listening to a podcast episode. This being said, I’ve personally found the following mindset shifts to be immensely helpful when attempting to control or even leverage fear and anxiety. When these mindset shifts are combined, they may even be able to help the average person pull themself from the occasional bout of anxiety. 

Mindset Shift 1: Fear can be useful when correctly identified.

Fear — ”an unpleasant emotion caused by being aware of danger.”
– Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary

Though fear can be debilitating, it is an instrumental emotion. Without fear, we might find ourselves attempting to cross busy highways on foot, coming too close to the edges of steep heights, or petting dangerous creatures. Fear is a mechanism to protect us from many of the dangers of life.

While this is true, fear is only helpful when it can be leveraged or applied — when it results in a discernable behavioral shift. When it cannot be, it ceases to be fear. It is, instead, anxiety. 

Mindset Shift 2: We frequently confuse fear with anxiety and vice versa.

One of the biggest reasons we cling to debilitating anxiety is because we confuse it with helpful fear. As we’ve discussed before, fear is instrumental. Anxiety, however, is not. 

  • The shovel of fear can dig us free from a situation.
  • The shovel of anxiety only deepens our rut. 

For this reason, it’s crucial to correctly identify the shovel of fear and the shovel of anxiety. So, the first step out is knowing when you’re clutching the wrong shovel. 

Mindset Shift 3: Becoming mindful of anxious thoughts can help you manage them. 

You are not your thoughts. If this were the case, you would be incapable of thinking about your thoughts. Humans are unique from other creatures on this planet in that we are capable of offering the Director’s Commentary of our own thought process. 

Most of us, however, can rarely distinguish our thinking from thinking about thinking. This thinking about our thoughts can be referred to as “metacognition” but is most commonly referred to as “mindfulness.” 

The term “mindfulness” is meant to be used to contrast our default mode — mindlessness. When our thoughts are allowed to ricochet in our heads without control, the result is a dangerous rumination and can culminate in severe anxiety and depression.

Mindset Shift 3: Mind control is an obtainable superpower if it’s your own mind you’re controlling.

Like stopping a ricocheting bullet, catching a mindless thought before it tears through our emotions can feel like a superpower. Mindfulness, however, is not the act of catching speeding bullets but rather slowing them down to the point of plucking them out of thin air. When a thought or reactionary emotion can be slowed down, its details can be more objectively analyzed, its intent considered, and the most appropriate response deployed. 

Examining Fear vs. Anxiety in Practice

The next time you experience the frantic gloom of fear or anxiety, as soon as you can identify the sensation, do your best to cease what you’re doing and take hold of the moment for yourself.

  • Focus on the raw sensation of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils. This present action will help pull the emergency brake on your thought processes.
  • Once grounded in the present, aim to perceive this negative emotion as though belonging to someone else. Aim to observe it as objectively as placing a glass slide under the lens of a microscope for examination. 
  • Carefully inspecting this thought or feeling, ask yourself, “What action is this sensation prompting me to do?” 

Leveraging Useful Fear

If this sensation has practical next steps that can prevent ailment or injury, whether of your body, relationships, career, or overall wellbeing, this is valuable fear. Consider how these steps can be positively applied to the betterment of your daily life. Break each action into its tiniest achievable steps — with no effort too small as long as you’re moving forward. Construct a plan for following these steps with scheduled times and deadlines. 

The following are a few examples of how to possibly leverage useful fear to help resolve a fearful state.

  • If a bodily symptom is fearfully weighing on your mind, an executable action is to present your concern to a doctor. If this action feels daunting, break the activity into smaller parts. Perhaps, start by sending a message to the doctor through email or your health care provider’s online portal. Maybe even start as small as scheduling a time to make an appointment with a deadline for the completion of this action. If even this feels like too much, perhaps your first step is looking at yourself in the mirror and saying out loud, “tomorrow, I’m going to call my doctor’s office.” Again, no step is too small if it means moving forward from your present fearful state.
  • If you’re fearfully concerned about the future of your job, whether due to your performance or the support of your employer, an executable action would be to make a list of actionable items you can take in case your fears are founded. If the fear is performance-based, identify your weaknesses as an employee and develop ways to strengthen them — even little by little. Asking colleagues, even superiors, for constructive criticism can help in this matter and express your dedication to your duties and role. If your fear is with your employer’s support, you can either bring these fears to your employer to quell or confirm them. If you don’t feel comfortable with the potential confrontation, consider taking tactful steps toward securing employment elsewhere.
  • Suppose you’re fearful about the deterioration of a relationship. In that case, an executable action may be to identify why you feel this way and what actions you can take to nurture or remedy said relationship. If, upon closer analysis, the relationship does not seem salvageable, begin devising steps to end the relationship on agreeable terms. 

Quelling Pernicious Anxiety

The sinking feeling in your gut and increased heart rate are helpful biological responses to approaching the edge of a dizzyingly high cliff. Such sensations are your mind’s signal to your body to be fearfully conscious of impending danger. However, the same sensations while simply lying in bed can be immensely hazardous to your mental and physical health. These are not leverageable sensations but rather potentially debilitating ruminations. 

As previously discussed, properly identifying fear versus anxiety is a practical means of quelling either. When fear is appropriately identified, actionable steps can be executed to leverage and squelch such sensations.  

But once anxiety is identified, then what?

Once anxiety is correctly identified as such—as a senseless nuisance—we can begin to leverage the lack of teeth in these ruminations — aka no discernable executables — to shift our minds to efforts worthy of our attention. We do this by pivoting our thought process from anxiety to the raw perception of the present moment. 

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

― Lao Tzu, author of Tao Te Ching

Mindset Shift 4: Simply sensing the present is your oasis from pernicious anxiety. 

Upon realizing that a particular mental and emotional sensation is harmful anxiety rather than helpful fear, there is a place we can go to manage such disturbing thoughts—the present moment. 

In the present, there is no fear or worry—there is only the moment itself. At this moment, all that need exist for us is the space we occupy and our body’s involuntary biological function. 

  • Our heart beats in our chest, sending blood throughout our body. 
  • Our skin forwards data about the temperature of the airflow of the space. 
  • Our eyes perceive the shapes of objects and the flow of light around us.
  • Our nostrils detect the coolness of inhaled air and the warmth of exhaled air.

None of these sensations of the present moment require thoughts of the past or future. In fact, they can only be perceived clearly once we’ve shelved non-present thinking. 

We can access the escape hatch from anxiety through any of our sense perceptions of the present moment. Tapping into the present perception of our bodies and surroundings rather than our mindless ruminations is immensely useful whenever anxious ruminations seek to creep into our thought process. A constructive way to do this is with a method that I’ll call the Monitor Technique for the sake of this piece.

The Monitor Technique

Unlike a full camera or audio recorder, a monitor—whether a camera’s viewfinder screen monitor, a musician’s stage monitor speaker, or even a medical heart monitor—has the singular job of sharing what exists in real-time. It cannot store sights or sounds. It cannot recall past moments. It cannot process data. Even though it is called a “monitor,” it is usually a secondary computer system or a user that is actually doing the monitoring. In this sense, it should be called an “allows-you-to-monitor.” But for the most part, monitors are nothing more than vehicles for capturing present data.

When you have become more acquainted with the mental and physical sensation of anxiety, instead of attempting to process your way out of such an episode, become a monitor of your present surroundings. Do not attempt to consider how any of these make you feel. Rather, simply observe them as objectively as possible. This is quite literally what many mean when they use the expression, “stop and smell the roses.” 

Here are a few monitoring techniques that have worked for me: 

  • Observe the shapes, slopes, angles, and colors of objects in your vicinity. The arm of a chair or couch. The rise of a window sill. The angles in the edges of the leaves on trees. The sunlight against the backside of a curtain.
  • Close your eyes and allow your ears to absorb the mosaic soundscape around you. There is always sound — from birds chirping to air vents, the whirl of distant lawnmowers, airplanes, cars on a nearby highway, a humming refrigerator, a computer fan, and beyond. You can either let all of the sounds swirl together as one at the front of your attention or isolate one sound to savor. 
  • Sit with your eyes closed and focus on the raw sensations of your breath. Feel the cool and warm air passing through your nose, the rise and fall of your chest, or the space between breaths.
  • Sit with your eyes closed and simply experience the sensation of the surrounding air on your skin. If the air is moving, notice its direction, intensity, and texture. Even with eyes closed, attempt to feel the shape of the space. 

While practicing the Monitor Technique, your anxieties will likely attempt to breach the doors of your focus. Your first impulse will be to fight them, but this too is a mindless reaction. When this happens, simply observe the anxiety itself as its own entity, mindfully note its existence, and then return to practicing the observation of the present moment via the Monitor Technique. 

Choosing Your Shovel

A fearful mindset tends to result in reaching for one of two shovels. 

The first shovel of pernicious anxiety resulting in aimless rumination is sharp and only capable of digging downward—creating ruts and holes in which to hide. Though seeming like a helpful refuge, the occupant of these ruts or holes will soon find themselves unable to climb out. 

The second shovel of useful fear is broad, better able to dig oneself out from psychological and even physical harm. Though it is a heavier shovel to wield, the more efficiently it is utilized, the sooner it can be stowed until needed again. 

Distinguishing fear from anxiety is not a life hack — it is a skill that requires perpetual sharpening. Honing of the perception of our mental state is aided by regularly “checking in” with ourselves in ways that pull the emergency brake on rumination and align our awareness with the present.  As we sharpen this tool of discernment, we must also remain mindful of which shovel we choose to sharpen — that of useful fear or useless anxiety.


Reminders:

A Great Little Life

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Prefer to listen to this piece?

The other day, after my mother had watched our son while my wife and I ran some errands, she offered to help me pick up my beloved beater car, which had been in the shop for repairs. As I backed her car out of my driveway, she let out a positive sigh from the passenger seat as her eyes fell on our “new” house — a 2 bedroom red brick house built in the ‘60s — our “weigh station” on our road to homeownership.

“What a great little house,” she tacked to the end of her sigh. 

“I know. I like it.” 

“And a great little family.” 

“I like them, too.” 

After a few beats, she turned to look at me as I drove her car down my street. 

“You seem to just have a great little life.” 

“I like to think so.” 

Most people want to live a great big life — whatever that means. 

Not me. 

Don’t get me wrong — I like that great part. But making it “big”? Big already comes with living.
It’s hard to define the what and why of “big.” 

What does it mean to live a big life? 

Does that mean to accomplish monumental feats—whatever the hell “monumental” means? To make lots of money and earn prestige or status? To be famous? 

Why would someone want to live a big life?

Does this mean that the status and the money earned can grant you the freedom to do what you want? To live lavishly wherever you’d like? 

I’ll take a little life over a big life. 

What does it mean to live a little life? 

Living little means a simpler existence.
Fewer plates to spin.
Fewer people to impress.
Less to lose.
Shorter heights from which to fall.
Less time worrying about things that, in the end, don’t really matter. 

Why would someone want to live a little life?

The motivations of others aren’t as regularly called into question.
Your belongings are few and simple but aren’t intended to impress strangers and acquaintances.
 You have fewer, but higher quality friends. 

Where does greatness come into play? 

I don’t want only a little life, but rather a great little life.
Accomplishing what I want to accomplish — never only what is expected of me.
Perpetually sharpening myself — as a husband, father, friend, mensch, and artist.
Enjoying a higher quality of time with the people that matter the most to me. 

It is my prayer that when the wrinkled fingers of my exceedingly aged hand turn the pages of personal photo albums — drawing out memories from the deepest recesses of my hopefully-still-accessible memory — that upon closing the book, I can happily sigh — just as my mom did in the car that day — and say to myself, 

“I sure have lived a great little life.”


Feel free to subscribe to receive pieces like this in your inbox or find on your favorite podcast player.

The Broken Autopilot

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Prefer to listen to this piece?


Let me know if this sounds familiar:

You’ve been actively doing something — work, a chore, making dinner — and now you’re done. For a moment, the drive of your mind peters out like a small plane engine that has just stalled. The momentum of that task, much like a spinning propeller in front of your face, suddenly flutters and stops with a clunk. What once was the sound of a some-odd-stroke engine buzzing through the skies has been replaced with whistling wind as you begin to feel the loss of altitude in your guts. 

Left with nothing that needs to be immediately done, the need to be mentally stimulated begins to bounce around inside your head like ballpoint pens and paper coffee cups in a now-dropping cockpit. Rather than clutching the headliner of the cockpit in anticipation of impact, you’ve remembered that you have a default safety mechanism for aimless thought — a shining screen.

As soon as you’ve booted up that screen — whether it’s a phone screen, tablet, or television — you can feel your pulse begin to normalize and your palms begin to dry. The engine of your attention turns back over, the propeller sputters to life, and you begin to regain lost altitude. Whoa, that was close. 

After a time, though you’re relieved that you’re not likely to plummet to the earth, you wake up from behind the controls. The auto-pilot had taken over and you’re now headed in the opposite direction. You’ve been down the rabbit hole of social media vanity metrics, social comparison, paparazzi voyeurism, and sensationalist news for a while and are now even further from your destination. Due to your original panic, you left control of your attention to the auto-pilot. Once control was happily handed off, it took you further away from your destination of contentment than had you made an emergency landing once you lost engine power. 

Here’s the interesting thing about where the airplane analogy differs from your attention: there’s not actually any ground below. You could kill the engine, prop your feet up on the instrument panel, and lean back with your fingers gently interlocked behind your closed eyes, and never actually hit anything. The Cessna of your attention span will simply continue to fall toward…nothing — like a flight simulator whose developers forgot to write the code for mountains, oceans, trees, or even firm land.

The plane of our focus will stall out every day, likely hundreds of times a day. And that’s ok. Why? Because there’s no ground beneath that plane.

But if there’s no ground, what’s down there? 

The present moment — that’s all. And it’s really quite nice. And it’s especially nicer than an auto-pilot that is specifically designed to take us away from actually living.


Enjoy this piece? Feel free to subscribe.

How to Make Self-Improvement Suck Dramatically Less

Reading Time: 4 minutes

They don’t know you, but you know you.

One of the reasons why most lifestyle enhancement plans and products fail is that they were not designed with you in mind. These influencers and plan developers don’t know you. They have no clue about what lifestyle changes would be sustainable for you. They don’t know what activities you hate doing and which you enjoy. But do you know who does know? You do, that’s who! 

What do you enjoy doing?

To design a growth-oriented lifestyle tailored to your specifications, the process itself must be enjoyable—or at the least, potentially enjoyable.

Step 1. Jot Down What You Like to Do

Bring to mind all of the things you currently enjoy doing as well as the activities you once enjoyed—regardless of their positive or negative implications. Physically jotting these down on a piece of paper or typing them into a document may prove to be helpful.

Step 2. Strikethrough the Destructive Habits

Recall or look through these activities and strikethrough all of the activities that are bad for you. These can range from unhealthy habits like smoking or excessive drinking to compulsive social media checking, maintaining toxic relationships, and the like. 

Step 3. Highlight the Activities That Are Good For You

Regardless of how unhealthy your favorite activities are, there are likely a few that aren’t bad for you. Heck, some may even be good for you. There are probably even some that are extremely good for you that you haven’t thought about in decades. Even still, there are likely some activities you enjoy that share an unlikely component with something that is good for you. 

Let’s use some examples to get the wheels turning. 

Activities You Currently Enjoy That Are Good For You

Ok, maybe you’re not a total loaf of soggy bread. Maybe you genuinely enjoy the occasional walk around town. Perhaps you enjoy learning from historical documentaries. Consider the things you do every day that aren’t actively hastening your demise.

Activities You Once Enjoyed But Hadn’t Thought About Since

Did you play sports in high school? Middle school? Elementary school? Did you enjoy writing stories as a kid? How about painting? Have you stopped playing a musical instrument because life got too busy? 

Activities Your Enjoy That Could Correspond to Something Good For You

Do you enjoy sitting still? Look at you—you potential meditator, you. 

Do you tend to doodle during inconsequential meetings? Is that a budding illustrator I see?

What are your personal goals? 

We all have positive goals in life. Maybe you want to achieve and maintain a certain level of fitness. Perhaps you’d like to get more sleep. Maybe you want to become an avid reader. Bring these specific goals to mind and jot them down—the more specific, the better. 

And finally—use your favorite activities as tools in your growth.

Whether you physically wrote down your goals and favorite activities or just have them at the forefront of your mind, begin to draw lines between the two. 

  • Which of your favorite activities can you leverage toward your goals?
  • Which of your past favorite activities could you revisit to aid your progress? 
  • Which of your favorite activities are negatively inhibiting your goals?
  • How can you replace these harmful-yet-enjoyable activities with positive activities you enjoy? 

Stuff You Enjoy + Stuff That’s Good For You = Stuff You Should Do

venn diagram of stuff you enjoy and stuff that is good for you

When you leverage your favorite activities that also happen to align with your goals, you can begin to craft a growth-oriented lifestyle you enjoy. This Venn diagram should summarize the point of this article as well as anything. 

I jump rope because it’s fun. Fitness is a side effect. 

When I was in elementary school in the early-to-mid ‘90s, Jump Rope For Heart was on a crusade to get kids jumping rope. I remember enjoying the experience thoroughly. However, once I moved into middle school, where gym class was optional, I didn’t touch a jump rope again until I was into my 30’s. 

Why did I pick up jump rope again? Was it because I was at my heaviest weight of 235 pounds? Was it because I was researching various forms of exercise and found jump rope to be one of the most underrated forms of cardio? 

Nope. It just looked fun. And it was. 

Beginning again as an easily-winded sack of flab means it wasn’t necessarily easy, but even as an utterly sedentary desk jockey, I enjoyed the challenge. 

Every week, my stamina increased, and my body began to change. I had no specific weight-loss goal in mind, aside from possibly dipping below 200 pounds for the first time in about five years. That happened rather uneventfully because, though the process was challenging, it didn’t suck. I enjoyed pushing myself to my limits and leaving puddles of sweat in my driveway. I would look forward to my next jump rope session with anticipation rather than dread.  

At the time I write this, I jump rope six days a week, regardless of the weather, for 15-30 minutes, striving to keep an average heart rate of above 145 bpm. 

Is it hard some mornings? Yes. 

Is it challenging to push through when I feel like giving up? Definitely. 

Does it suck? Absolutely not. 

Leverage what you consider fun. Lean into what you consider challenging. 

Whether you’re looking to run a faster mile, lose and keep off a certain amount of weight, or develop a useful meditation habit, utilizing the activities you already enjoy will help you not only tolerate the growth process but crave it. When you use enjoyable activities to push your journey towards achievement, you pour rocket fuel on your progress.

The Importance of Determining How Much is Enough & Why

Reading Time: 4 minutes

How are you determining what is enough for you?

Most of us are probably familiar with the “rock bottom” scene from 1979’s comedy classic, “The Jerk.” If you’re not, Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, has lost all of his wealth and his relationship with love interest Maria (played by Bernadette Peters) is on the rocks. In an attempt to prove that he hasn’t quite hit rock bottom, he walks out of his mansion, only taking “all I need.” As he scoots out of the house in his bathrobe, pants around his ankles, he grabs random items as he passes them. Cradling them in his arms, he bellows out that these few items are all he needs.

“The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that’s all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine, and the chair.”

What started out as an act of defiance against the universe’s attempt to crush his spirit turns into a hilarious joke about just how dependant on petty materialism he really is. 

The joke is on us.

We laugh at this scene—partially because of its absurdity, but also because of its relevance to our own lives. Not only do we not know how much is enough, but we also don’t know how we should decide how much is enough for our lives. However, determining how much is enough and why is absolutely crucial—not only for the sake of our own contentment but also so we can understand our role as conduits for giving in the world. 

“How much is enough?” vs. “How much can I afford?”

Most of us have never taken the time to really consider what kind of stuff and how much of it is necessary for us to be content. For most of us, the question is answered by “how much can I afford?” Cheaper goods and open lines of credit have made this method of thinking immensely problematic. Suddenly, even once we no longer have enough money to keep our bills paid, we’re still allowed to feel like we don’t have enough stuff to feel satisfied. 

Really, though—how much is enough to make you “happy”?

We’ve been conditioned to always seek out more without really taking the time to assess if accumulating more material goods is really worth the sacrifices we make to attain them. We’re simply never expected to ask ourselves certain contentment-determining “how much is enough” questions. 

“How much (insert item here) is enough?” 

  • How much house is enough?
  • How much car is enough?
  • How much consumer technology is enough?
  • How much wardrobe is enough?
  • etc.

Getting to the Root with “But Why?” 

For anyone who has been in the presence of an inquisitive child, the question of “but why?” may seem annoying, if not maddening. However, asking ourselves “why?” we want anything is an effective practice in cutting away motivations that do not result in a contented spirit. 

  • Why do I need this much house? 
  • Why do I need this much car? 
  • Why do I need this much consumer technology?
  • Why do I need this much of a wardrobe?

Asking “Why?” About Your Whys

To truly chip away at weak motivations, repeatedly and honestly asking “why?” about our answers to “why?” can expose flimsy reasons for wanting certain things.

“XYZ is enough car because I want a modern SUV from a luxury brand.” 

Why?

“Well, because I want my car to reflect my success.” 

Why?

“Appearing successful, even to strangers, is important to me.”

Why?

“Because I need outward affirmation to convince myself that I am successful.” 

Not all “why” roots will be negative truths that require deeply psychological remedies. Some will be legitimate reasons, even if they seem a bit superfluous initially. Eventually, your answer to “why?” may start to become repetitive once it has begun to hit its root and may feel like a semi-compelling argument. While this is possible, it’s important to not attempt to rationalize every superfluous material desire. 

You are a conduit for others. 

Most of us have more than enough. We convince ourselves of the need to upgrade perfectly adequate items. We buy several versions of the same thing that differ slightly in ways only we could ever perceive. We purchase more of something than we could ever consume—from channels to data plans and beyond. Is this really the best use of our excess? 

There are people, believe it or not, who do not have enough. Through unfortunate events or even as a result of systemic oppression, there those who lack even the most basic of essentials. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for determining our levels of “enoughness” is so we can be activated as a conduit for blessing in their lives. By determining what is enough for you, you will be in a more comfortable position to give. Instead of buying yet another version of that thing that still works for you, perhaps consider donating to a food bank, picking up someone’s groceries, or paying the rent for someone who has lost their job.

Once you realize what is enough for you, this is an opportunity to be a blessing for others without enough.

Contentment is a choice.

Happiness is an “inside job.” If we build our joy with the approval of others as its foundation, the moment their attention shifts or wanes, this structure will collapse. That’s why it is imperative that we choose to perpetually cultivate self-sustaining happiness and do our best to avoid conditional “hits” of happiness.

Happiness through material possession is unquenchable.

Happiness through social approval is fickle. 

Happiness through accomplishment is untenable.

Happiness generated via chosen contentment within the present moment is abiding. 

The only truthful answer to “I’ll be happy when…” is “…when I decide to allow myself to be happy.”

Putting Enough Into Practice

Answer the following question about all material possessions you have or feel you need. 

  • What do you feel is enough (house, vehicle, technology, wardrobe, etc.) for you? 

 

  • Why do you feel that this is so?

 

  • Could the resources you’ve invested in this item or service be better utilized for others while leaving you feeling like you have enough? How?