Look at the ceiling, not the bar.

This morning I engaged in Day Two of Weightlifting.  It was big day for me, because:

I made it past Day One.  

I’ve read all kinds of exciting things about how building muscle will strengthen my bones, straighten my spine and burn my fat.  We’ll see.  

Right now it feels like I’m ten years old again, using my noodly arms to shove my brother off when he’d sit on my chest and hock a loogy in my face. (He thought this was funny.  It would have been, had it not been so abusive.)

Lying on the bench, pushing the weight of the bar (yes, just the bar) away from me, I took care to follow the manual’s strict instructions to focus my gaze on the ceiling:

 the trainer said, look at the ceiling and just see the bar.  The bar moves and the ceiling does not, and the ceiling is therefore your position reference for the bar.  

In other words, I was allowed a glimpse of the bar out of the corner of my eye, but I wasn’t allowed to focus on it.  This was tricky; how was I supposed to move the bar without even looking at it?  

If I could stare that bar down—eye of the tiger and all that—surely I could beat it.  Wasn’t that why people stared themselves down in the mirrors at the gym—to size up the challenge?  Locking your gaze on the target feels good. But then the trainer went on to say this, and I’m not even making the all-caps part up:

DO NOT look at the bar as it moves; DO NOT follow the bar with your eyes, but just stare at the ceiling.  You are going to make the bar go to that place every rep. 

Man this trainer was bossy.  But since he’s ripped and I’m me, I decided to give him his say.  I looked at the ceiling, not the bar, and pushed. And then I pushed again, and again—all while keeping my gaze fixed on the ceiling.  And guess what? My noodly arms were able to get that bar to the exact same place every single time.  

I’d thought the bar was the thing, but it wasn’t.  The ceiling was the thing.  

And later (while mopping my floor, natch) it dawned on me:  I am the bar. I am the bar.  Not as long and slender, perhaps, but the bar nonetheless.


So if I am the bar, what is the ceiling?  Well, that’s a loaded question. (Forgive the pun; we “load” weights on barbells.  Okay, we don’t, but other people do.  I load nothing because I can barely lift the bar.)  But in short: if I am the bar, then the ceiling is whatever I’m aiming for.  

It’s simple.  Except it’s not.

Because if I am the bar—not the ceiling—it means I have to look past myself to get to where I need to be.  Which is hard, because I’d really rather focus on myself, and only myself, all the time. (Have you noticed? I haven’t noticed if you’ve noticed; I’ve been too busy focusing on myself.)

Here’s a few examples:

Health.  The ceiling is my goal of health and strength, and my body is the bar—or tool—that allows me to obtain it.  So if I take my eye off the goal (health and strength) and cast it only to the tool (my body) my gaze lowers, my focus shifts, and I can’t get the bar—my body—anywhere.

This is why people who starve themselves to “get skinny” rarely stay that way; they focus on the tool instead of the goal; on their body instead of their health.  (It’s also why staring at your muscles in the gym mirror doesn’t do a whole lot to build them.)  

Learning.  When we learn for the sake of learning—not just for “self-improvement”—we look beyond ourselves and, almost accidentally, improve ourselves.  I’ve always thought that reading self-help books won’t improve us as much as reading good books will. If our aim is to really learn—not to pad ourselves with learning— then self-improvement will follow.  Because bar follows the ceiling.

Relationships.  This one’s tricky because it involves other, presumably flawed people  But when we choose to care more about the ceiling of our relationship than the bar of our own feelings (pride, victimhood, resentment), we set our sights higher and our feelings fall into their proper place.  

This doesn’t mean swallowing feelings to keep the peace; it means minimizing Self and maximizing Other.  (Other doesn’t necessarily mean others.  It means a goal other than Self.)  It means we turn away from the mirror and toward the relationship.  This takes discipline and humility and grit; it takes the best of our maturity.  But it’s the only way we can get out of the way, so the bar can follow the ceiling—so we can adjust our self to the relationship instead of adjusting the relationship to our self.  (Which never works anyway.)

 Me. (And maybe you.)  So this week, as I huff and grunt that big heavy bar toward the ceiling, I’m going to think about grunting my big heavy self—leaden with ego and indignation and self-pity—toward the ceiling too.  I’m going to stop staring at the Bar Of Me. Because there are better things to glorify.  

Sure, I’ll always be able to see the bar out of the corner of my eye, but that’s exactly how much emphasis it deserves in this upward push of life.  I am relevant to the push, I’d even say I’m crucial. But I am not the destination of the push. I am not the ceiling.

And thank goodness for that.

Re-post: A Case for Loneliness (and snozzberries.)

Originally posted 8/9/2015


Do you remember the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when Mr. Wonka is showing the children his “lickable wallpaper?”   He points out each row of colorful fruit, excitedly explaining that oranges taste like oranges, strawberries taste like strawberries, and “snozzberries taste like snozzberries!”  His voice is giddy with the revelation.

Veruca Salt then replies, snotty as ever, “Snozzberries?  Who ever heard of a snozzberry?”

At this, Mr. Wonka cups her cheeks and then quietly delivers my favorite line of the movie—of any movie, really.  “We are the music makers,” he tells her, “and we are the dreamers of dreams.”

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

Come on.  Does it get any better than that?  I don’t think Mr. Wonka was necessarily talking about music here.  But I do think he was talking about dreams.

The line is actually the first of a poem, “Ode” by English poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy:

We are the music makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams,

Wandering by lone sea-breakers,

And sitting by desolate streams;—

World-losers and world-forsakers,

On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers

Of the world for ever, it seems.

This poem, like all good poems, makes me a little sad.  Maybe it’s because along with music and dreams come words like lone and desolate; alongside maker and dreamer, we have loser and forsaker.  Maybe it’s because the movers and shakers soak up the pale moon, not the warm sun.  Or maybe it’s that despite all that loneliness—because of all that loneliness—they are the ones who, in the end, change the world.

Loneliness seems a terrible reward for changing the world.  But it has always been required for that particular feat, hasn’t it?  Maybe that’s the saddest truth of all.

Loneliness is only ever romantic in hindsight, when it’s endured long ago by someone else.  For the lonely here and now, it is empty and silent and shameful.  And unlike other human woes, loneliness gains no sympathy from its onlookers.  How could it?  The dreaded mark of loneliness is that it’s suffered alone.


But sometimes, I think, loneliness is on to something.  When we feel disconnected from the crowd and withdraw into ourselves—even (hopefully) for a short time—our mind may just be doing some different, deeper work that can only be done during the long days of Lonely.

When do you do your best thinking?  Your best dreaming?  Your best music-making, problem-solving, relationship-repairing work?  When you’re lonely.  Not just alone, but lonely.  Those ideas start percolating long before they’re put to paper and pen, days and weeks and months before that problem finds its solution.  Those ideas start to swell, bubble by tiny bubble, when we surrender to the sentence of loneliness.

Creativity, in its myriad forms, requires more than physical solitude every now and then because creativity can’t be called forth like a dog in the occasionally idle hour.  Creativity requires the ability—the learned skill—of detaching our minds from the peripheral buzz to explore the silent and sumptuous life of the imagination.  Unearthing it takes time and patience and yes, loneliness.  Because when we are lonely we are sadder but softer, quiet but curious, mournful but malleable.  When we are lonely, we listen.

Maybe to make the music, we must sit by the desolate stream.  Maybe to move the world, we must forsake what we once thought it was.  Questions that wilt under a bright sun can blossom under a pale moon.  Loneliness takes us there to answer them.

So if you are lonely, if you feel different, if you sense a gut-twisting gulf between yourself and Everybody Else, take heart, my world-forsaking friend.  You are simply wandering for a bit—as we all must wander for a bit—along that lone sea breaker, while your might and mind conspire to change the current of the world and the canvas of your world.  And change it you will, because you are the music maker.  And you, the dreamer of dreams.



Chaos, Order and Religion

So we all know I’m a Jordan Peterson geek.  Actually, disciple is probably a better word.  I’ve read 12 Rules for Life twice and just started it again on audio because cleaning out my bathroom cabinets was too grim a task to face alone. 

If you’re not familiar with Peterson’s work, he writes at length about the existential meaning found between the boundaries of Order (the known) and Chaos (the unknown.)  Order represents rules, structure, and reason; order is what makes sense and makes us feel safe.  It is generally associated with the Masculine. (Think a well-run army or efficient factory line.)

Chaos, on the other hand, is everything we don’t understand.  It is darkness and mystery and the richness of possibility. It is the tangled jungle from which Order is drawn; it is where the Idea For Everything gestates before birth. Chaos is what doesn’t make sense and makes us uneasy.  But it is also what makes us curious and excited and creative. It is generally associated with the Feminine. (“Mother Nature” is Chaos itself; unexplored, powerfully creative, untamed by order.)  

In the yin yang symbol of the Tao, Order is the white yang and Chaos is the black yin, opposite serpents that forever wind their way back to each other.  One can’t live without the other; one is not superior to the other—though at first glance you might assume Order to be the boss. Not so. Without Chaos, Order would have nothing to organize; it could not create.  The army wouldn’t have anything to fight for; the factory line, nothing to produce. And so the Taoists had it right a millennia ago: we can find meaning in our lives only when we walk the line between the two serpents, when we balance Order and Chaos.  And we must have Meaning—capital M—to make life worth living.  

Look around and you’ll start seeing Order and Chaos coupled in everything that’s purposeful and lasting:  good music (think harmonic discord), a solid marriage (guess who’s Order and who’s Chaos in mine), even our system of government:  e pluribus unum—out of many (chaos), one (order.)  Democracy doesn’t just make order out of chaos, its order is dependent on chaos, because rules are drawn from the mess of different ideas.  That’s what keeps it from Tyranny (too much yang) or Anarchy (too much yin.) 

And so what about religion?  Does it fall under the same mandate?  This morning, while getting ready for church, I wondered.  I started thinking about how Order and Chaos might apply to religion—my own in particular and all religion in general.  I mention going to church because I realized as I was blow drying my hair (which is when I do my best thinking), that in most established religions, Church is the Order.  Church is structure and boundaries and ritual; Church is tradition and authority and assurance. But Church alone doesn’t give religion enough meaning to last, at least not beyond childhood.   

And so I thought, if Church—tangible, patriarchal, known—is religion’s Order, what is the Chaos—intangible, matriarchal, unknown—it complements and contends with?  After much wondering and much blow drying, I came to the conclusion that it must be faith.

Faith:  that elusive, almost indefensible quality we stake so much on yet can barely define.  Faith is influence instead of authority, a mist instead of a mallett.  It unnerves us while it comforts us. It’s the heady, hidden backdrop behind every pattern and every prayer; the reason behind the ritual, the yin to the yang.  It’s Chaos. And it is necessary—it is crucial—to a lasting conversion.  Because without it, the Order of Church is found meaningless.

Lately, people are dropping like flies from any and all religion and we can list a million reasons why.  But two big ones stand out to me: they’re either appalled by religion’s Order or terrified of its Chaos.  We hear the claim from both sides:

“Church is too oppressive, too traditional, too patriarchal…” 


“Faith is too irrational, too naive, too illiterate…”

It seems we either can’t abide by the rules or can’t buy into the belief.  Church restricts the rebel; faith condescends the intellectual. And if you fall somewhere in between, just pick your poison and it will show you out religion’s door.

But think of someone you know who has, to the best of their ability, lived their religion—with all of its rules and responsibilities.  I bet their life isn’t all Order; I bet they have a lot of Chaos in it. Meaning, I bet they’ve attended Church while attending to their faith.  They’ve learned to walk that line between the beauty of Ideal and the blight of Reality, between seeing blessings and seeing obstacles.  They’ve balanced Chaos and Order and found Meaning within. They might not have found ease or even happiness, but they’ve found Meaning—which sticks around a lot longer than happiness.  

I’ve long thought faith was given to us as a kind of personal improvement exercise, to test our devotion and keep us humble until we are given All The Answers To Everything In The End.  But now I wonder: is it possible that, in the end, we really won’t get all the answers, because unlocking her mysteries would make faith cease to be Faith?  She’d no longer exist and we’d be left with nothing but Church. We’d have Order without Chaos, yin without yang, religion without meaning.  If Faith ceased to exist, wouldn’t Church have to follow?  On the other hand, for Church to stand forever—which we’re assured it will—wouldn’t Faith have to stand forever too?  And for Faith to stay faith, wouldn’t she always—eternally—have to retain an element of the unknown?  Might it be that somethings are never to be understood, even in the hereafter?  It’s an unsettling thought, but kind of a cool one.

Maybe our exercise in faith is really a devotion to Faith, and all that she requires of us—alongside her partner, Church, and all that he requires of us.   For just as Church without Faith won’t keep us committed, neither will Faith without Church. That results in a generation which defines itself as “spiritual but not religious,” whatever that means.  (We get to choose whatever that means, depending on the day. I think that’s the unfortunate point.)

Humility is a word heard often among the devoted, but I think it’s a largely misunderstood one.  Sure, it means being meek, but it also means being comfortable with the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know.  Shoot, we hardly know anything.  That’s why humility’s so hard; that’s why we need it so much.

So if you are struggling with your faith, if you are losing interest in your church, if you are disappointed with religion—and every single one of us is, at one time or another—let’s take that humility out for a spin.  Let’s get comfortable with the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know.  Let’s leave the crowd behind and take a walk down that road between Chaos and Order.  It will mean shaking hands with Known and Unknown, Reason and Mystery, Certainty and Possibility.  It will also mean finding Rules along with Freedom, Commandments along with Love, Expectations along with Acceptance.  

It’s a tough route; it’s not in our nature to take it.  But people can. We can.  And when we do, we get to see and hear everything:  the safety of Church and the exhilaration of Faith, the patriarchy of structure and the matriarchy of creation, the Known and the Unknown, the Chaos and the Order, the stunning harmonic discord of it all.  We get to experience a life of Meaning. It’s heavy and it’s hard, but it’s full and it’s fascinating. It’s grounded in reality and rich with possibility. It’s the good life, the only life. It’s the life for us.