Gratitude is good, but contentment is better

Gratitude. It’s something we hear a lot about, especially this week. But, there is something that has a greater impact on our lives, like gratitude, but more richly. What is it?

It’s contentment.

You see, gratitude is something you do, an action. But contentment is a state of being. It’s not just an act; it’s who you become. What I mean is that we don’t say “practice contentment,” like you would say with “gratitude.” Rather, we say to “be content.” We do say “be grateful,” but that often means for something or a particular time, like “you should be grateful for this present, or this food, etc.” Whereas, “contentment” is what you are. And therein lies the magic.

With gratitude, we’re told to give thanks for this and that, and we have our gratitude practices, journals and yoga poses (I don’t know if the last one exists or if I just made it up). But after we’re done practicing, journaling, yoga-ing. It’s easy for us to fall right back into complaining, wanting, pining.

“But John, I practice my gratitude sessions every day,” you might be thinking, “and I hear people talking about gratitude all of the time.”

I applaud you and am sure that you are practicing it, but I think we talk too much about gratitude; and not enough about contentment.

Because, even though you have that practice, you still live with dissatisfaction and envy and a grass-is-always-greener syndrome. Deep down inside, you probably think that if you get that upgraded car, or prettier spouse, or more money, or that new job, or better home, or whatever, then you’ll be happier. And you might be for a bit. But you won’t stay that way. That happiness will fade because practicing gratitude is a start, not the fulfillment.

Just because we practice gratitude doesn’t make us live gratefully. When we are content, that’s the fulfillment of gratefulness.

A sign that someone is content is if they look at their life and sincerely say, “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now, and I’m glad” even with all of the crap going on, the pain, the difficulties, mixed with the joys and blessings and goodness.

“Contentment” means you’re satisfied with who you are, what you have, where you are, etc. When you look around at your life and at yourself, you’re filled with satisfaction.

It’s not that gratitude or the practice thereof is bad—far from it. Gratitude is a part of contentment. To be content, we must have a gratitude practice and that can include our spirituality.

For Christians, like me, contentment should be particularly applicable to us. God is called our “portion” in the Scriptures, and that means he is everything we could ever need or want. And if we believe in him and that he is truly God, then we should grow in our contentment. We can know that this world does not have what we really want. For what truly feeds us and gives us joy isn’t here. It’s him, the Eternal Being.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I struggle with contentment, too. Very much so. Even when I’m doing my warrior one gratitude poses on my fancy yoga mat, getting my grateful namaste on, telling myself that I’m glad to be here right now, I can still feel a twinge of envy for this or that thing I want but don’t have.

But, I am improving. If I can, so can you.

So in this great season of Thanksgiving, let’s not just give thanks. Let’s learn to be content.

For, today is a gift.


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Become true for yourself

Don’t be true to yourself; be true to the truth.

“Be authentic.” We hear it all of the time. It’s about being true to yourself. But often, being ourselves is the last thing we should be. Often we can be awful. We make mistakes, fail others, hurt our loved ones. I mean, sometimes, I’m a terrible father. And that’s authentic. But that’s not who I should be. Often, being authentic is exactly what we shouldn’t be.

Instead, we should be looking to be better than ourselves. And the way to do that is by finding the truth.

Many of us avoid the truth because it’s unpleasant. We don’t like hearing what might make us wrong. That’s why we tend to read articles that only support the ideas we already believe. We’re biased. We’re so much so that we don’t even realize we are. So we stay the same. We don’t change. How can we if we never see ourselves as wrong?

But isn’t that what we all want? To change, I mean. Don’t we all want to get better? Isn’t this why you’re even bothering reading this post? We don’t want to be like ourselves; we want to transform.

And we do that by searching for the truth. It needs to be searched for, sought after. It doesn’t come to us; it requires work. It’s not easy. Admitting that you may not know as much as you think is a good start. Doubting our presuppositions helps us peel away our biases. From there, we can see that what we’ve “always been told,” may have always been wrong. To find the truth, you must read sources from the other side, talk to others wiser than you, and find and debate people who disagree with you. (And having a Facebook comment war doesn’t count.) You must hunt for the truth.

These days, there are many lies, or at least untruths and misinformation, being spewed out into the world. It’s getting harder to decipher truth from untruth. And it’s not just out there.

The ones that are often most disturbing are the ones we tell ourselves, the lies in us. It’s easy for me to fall into thinking I can never be this or that, or how my failures define me and my future, or how my worst fears will become a reality.

Maybe you do the same.

That’s when we must sit and really examine ourselves and our thoughts and pit them against science or God or the ideas of more learned people than us. Doing that will set us aright. And we will find that being truer to truth makes us far more ourselves and better humans than we could ever achieve by just trying to “be our authentic selves.”

See, being authentically true to truth makes us far more ourselves than we could ever imagine. It helps us transcend the lies and untruths. The truth isn’t about you or me. It’s bigger and better than all of us. And when we find it, it raises us up, transforming us to be better and truer than we ever could have been without it.

The truth sets us free.


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Endings are new beginnings

By embracing the end, you will start to see new beginnings. 

Sure, some endings are good, like getting out of a bad job or unhealthy relationships, etc. But I’m not talking about that. 

I’m talking about the things we don’t want to end, the ones that aren’t good. It can be as trivial as a great movie or show, or as serious as some major life change, or watching your baby grow up too fast.

It was a warm late summer morning, with golden rays of sun breaking through the trees, as the laughter of children rang through the air. Our firstborn was three and starting pre-school. It was his first day. We didn’t know how he would take us leaving him at school. It marked the first time he would ever be away from us. Our family was on the playground as other parents talked and the children ran around playing. Some kids were crying. 

But ours wasn’t, and he didn’t. 

When it was time for us to say goodbye, he almost didn’t care that we were leaving. We kissed, and he ran off with his new friends, unbothered. 

When my wife and I got into our car to drive home, we found that we couldn’t. Instead, we sat there and watched him. We cried like babies as we realized that our child was no longer a baby.

Endings are everywhere. They happen every day. 

Some endings just hurt. They’re hard. Really hard. They stun us. They may even kill a little bit of something inside of us. They can break our hearts. They make us cry in our car as we watch our baby growing up before our eyes.

Some of you are experiencing midlife. Like me, you feel it. And, it’s strange. It feels like you lost your youth somewhere along your journey, and you realize that you’ll never get it back. And you hate it.

Others of you are experiencing moving out of a city you love, losing a community, needing to find a new job, a loss of a career. And you’re having a hard time imagining what the future will hold because that end still has ahold of you.

All of us are feeling what the pandemic ended for us. Normal feels dead. The upcoming holidays smack us hard with that fact. 

And the problem is that we often try to fight those endings. We’re wrestling against the realities that we live in.

But, we can’t fight aging, and sometimes, we have to move, find a new job—change.

Sometimes fighting only hurts us. 

That’s why we must drop our fists and embrace the end. 

When you do that, you see life as it is. You accept the truth. You’re no longer wasting your energy running against it, no. You see that fighting some endings is like trying to stop a wave from crashing the beach—impossible. 

But, when you decide to let go of the past, that’s when something magical happens. You can see new potential, possibilities, opportunities.

You see, when you give in to the end, you welcome new beginnings. 

You see that life isn’t ending. Instead, you are allowing yourself to change, evolve, even transform. 

In midlife, you can take the learnings you gleaned in your youth and start to optimize your life. If you moved, you could start to appreciate your new home and begin to set new roots and make new friends. In the pandemic, you might see how good it is to work from home and how nice it feels to slow down. 

See, an end isn’t the end. It’s a new beginning.

And when you stop trying to fight the ocean waves, you can begin to swim with them. And when you do that, they will propel you to new places and possibilities.

You won’t be trapped in the past. You’ll be present. 

You’ll be free. 

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Permission to live

Give yourself permission to fail, to overreach, to try.

Give yourself permission to be imperfect, wrong, weird.

Give yourself permission to do that thing you love, pursue your dream, take a different path.

I’m not saying to do anything wrong or immoral. I’m just saying that there are a lot of things that are good that we want but we won’t let ourselves do them because they’re new to us or they might seem odd to our friends or we’re afraid of what strangers might think or, worse, what we might think of ourselves.

But that’s ridiculous.

Too often we lock ourselves in the prisons we create. We shackle our futures by saying no to ourselves even before anyone ever thinks to deny us. Chains of “can’t” weigh us down before we’ve even tried. We strip ourselves of the life we want to live before it’s ever lived. We’ve stopped ourselves before we even begin to think about starting.

That. Must. Stop.

Give yourself permission to give yourself permission. You are the key; free yourself.

And start living.

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The greatest reward for pandemic risk

Assessing risk is hard anytime, but, in a pandemic, it’s even harder. But it’s paramount.

People should think “The coronavirus kills and is unpredictable, so I should wear a mask, especially indoors, and socially distance so I don’t transmit or get infected and become a transmitter.” But many don’t.

Especially in the US.

People aren’t socially distancing. People aren’t wearing masks.

And I think it has a lot to do with how people assess risk. Yes, it’s not the only reason the virus is rampant in our country. Sure, people are selfish. And true, people think the pandemic is a hoax. But there’s also this critical mental exercise that so many of us fail to practice that often harms us. We don’t think realistically about the downside of our actions.

And, to be honest, that’s the wonderful thing about Americans: we are optimists. We attempt the impossible because we refuse to see the impossibilities. That’s what makes us scrappy, entrepreneurial, rugged, dogged, where many of us have an I-can’t-let-some-stupid-virus-stop-me-from-living-my-best-life mindset. That’s an attribute—in a pre-pandemic world.

My mother. I love her. She’s an octogenarian. She’s old. And last week she went to a store with my sister and picked up legos for my first born son. And I scolded her for it. Because, to me, going to the store with my sister to pick up legos for my son isn’t worth the risk of putting herself in danger of getting a virus that would likely kill her. But she scoffed at me.

The virus turns optimism against us. It seizes that which is usually a strength in a non-pandemic world and turns it into, not only a weakness, but a weapon. See, my mother’s ventures into a toy store can lead to her getting herself, or me, or my son, or others, sick.

Often we don’t even know what the stakes are. We’re completely unaware. That’s especially true now. I think it’s because the virus can’t be seen and anyone who’s sick is behind hospital walls and you can’t really see what is going on with them. All we have are some stories people tell us in the media or social media. And we lack the imagination and awareness (maybe even the humility) to apply those horrific accounts to ourselves.

Till it’s too late.

The pandemic is a long view problem. Short term desires and actions only threaten and kill more people. There are no quick fixes. It needs to be handled with creating new habits, patterns, thinking that affect our lives. But too many refuse to think that way, and, instead, they do what they want when they want because that’s what they’ve always done.

But the pandemic isn’t about losing money or failure or losing a job or getting broken up with—no. It’s about death. It’s about forfeiting your life, or, worse, your actions costing the lives of your loved ones. When we are cavalier and careless, trying to live on as if the pandemic didn’t exist, we aren’t endangering just ourselves; we are risking the lives of everyone we love, too.

See, the world has changed; and in order to survive, even thrive in it, we must also change. We must adapt. What once was safe is now dangerous, no matter how optimistic we feel. And with each interaction with the physical world, we must measure it against this new reality.

And if you do, there is reward.

It’s life.


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We started a podcast

So…a friend and I started a podcast.

There’s a lot of confessing, challenging, a bit of conflict, and a touch of cussing.

But most of all it’s a conversation between friends.

This project grew out of years of relationship and talking about our ventures and missteps and learnings and stories.

And we want to share them with you.

This podcast is a series of conversations about life, entrepreneurship, money, wellness.

But, really, it’s about improving our lives in midlife.

My friend’s name is Howard Lerner. He’s a great dude and entrepreneur and conversationalist. If you’re from St. Louis, you’ve likely heard of Kaldis Coffee. He started that company. After building it, he sold it.

Join us every week, as we put out a weekly episode. Here’s the latest one entitled Finding Midlife Motivation.

Feel free to ask us questions or give us topics you want to hear us discuss. And we welcome any feedback you might have. Contact me through this site or @itsjohnpa on Twitter or Instagram.

Find all of our episodes, and subscribe, on Spotify and check us out at www.howardandjohn.com.

Or if you want to watch us, go to YouTube to get the full facial experience. We don’t have the latest episode up yet, but you can watch one of our first versions.

Everyone, lastly, I just want to thank you for joining me on this journey. It’s almost weekly that I get to hear from someone that’s said they read my blog at one point or another, and that always makes me feel honored and grateful to feel connected to you somehow.

I love you. And I wish you the best as we continue this beautiful journey called life.

Lots of love,

John


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Finding purpose

What do you live for?

It’s a simple question. But it’s one of the most difficult to answer.

From my experience, many of us find meaning but few have purpose.

Purpose is the belief or reason we have for living. It’s different from meaning. Meaning is about the significance or feeling of significance for something or someone or belief.

For example, a purpose could be someone living to care for their family. Their meaning is sensed when they are able to help a sibling, daughter, or parent.

Usually I hear and read more about meaning but not so much purpose. But the latter gets down to the roots, into the guts of life, into our souls. It’s the foundation upon which we all stand.

Purpose is the reason for our existence.

What is more important than that?

And if we leave it undefined, we are setting ourselves on shaky ground.

In college, this question haunted me. I had no idea what my purpose was. And living without one caused me to fall into a depression. Motivation was wrested from me and all I wanted to do was watch Disney movies in my dorm room (which I did: there’s nothing like a college guy watching Little Mermaid on a Saturday night, alone in his room, crying and singing along with Ariel).

I was lonely, angsty, and angry. All my life I had dealt with the trauma of my dad’s death and other difficulties in my life.

And I felt rootless, restless (and sang Disney songs).

Soon thereafter, I became a Christian. Jesus became my purpose, my reason for living. And that belief has sustained me, and still does.

Now, I know that not all of you believe as I do. And my point isn’t to bludgeon you with my beliefs but to press you to consider your own purpose.

I think that many of us can go all our lives without knowing what we’re really living for.

And that robs us. It makes life emptier, less fulfilling. And I don’t want that for you. I know what it feels like.

But that needn’t be the case. There is purpose in the world for you.

Seek it. It’s there.


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Overcoming one of our greatest obstacles: ourselves

Our lives are determined not just by what we think but how we think.

Before I started writing I used to believe I couldn’t write. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that my high school papers, after being graded, had so much red ink on them that they looked like someone dragged a freshly killed animal over them. It was traumatic for me. And add the fact that I grew up in an immigrant family where English was a third language and Dr. Seuss wasn’t read to me, I thought I was doomed to be a poor wordsmith.

That frame of mind followed me all the way through college, into my career, and got worse when I started a creative agency, and reached all the way into my midlife.

But I was wrong.

See, in the cradle of our minds we nurture something that forms us all. It’s weened in the shadows of our psyche, hidden, growing into an idea or narrative that chokes our dreams and kills opportunities because we are often too afraid to challenge it.

This “how” we think is a framework of thinking that we all possess. They are the ideas that we have about ourselves and others and the world, that guide us.

They exist in the forms of memories, stories, experiences, phrases spoken to us in anger by loved ones, past failures, etc. And they hold incredible power of us.

Once I heard about puppies that someone was training and they used a gate to keep them in the kitchen. And one time, when the puppies were playing with the gate, testing the limits, it fell on them. And never again did they try to test that barrier. They were terrified of it even when they out grew it and towered over it; they dared not cross it.

We are those puppies. And we all have gates in our lives.

Even if we’ve outgrown them, they still feel like they tower over us and can hurt us, even if we can clearly see that all we need to do is jump a little and we would easily clear it. But, instead, the gate traps us.

But it’s not the gate that traps us but how we think of it.

You see, the puppies weren’t trapped by the physical gate. It was their idea of the gate that was trapping them.

The same was true of me: it wasn’t my bloodied high school papers and growing up immigrant that kept me from writing—no. It was my idea of myself that did that. And it held me back from doing what I enjoyed, loved, all because I was afraid of something I had outgrown.

What are your gates?

It can be anything. I’ve had friends who believed they couldn’t get married, or that they couldn’t be happy, or that they couldn’t get fit, or that God wouldn’t forgive them, or that the world is ending. Maybe you’re wondering if you can make it through this pandemic. There are endless options of the gates that imprison us.

To find out what they are, an exercise you can do it just to write down all of the things that you believe you can’t do but enjoy doing. Take time to slow down and really parse through your thoughts and beliefs about yourself and actually put them down either in your device or even on paper with a pen. Doing that will help you practice awareness. Wake yourself up to the way you see yourself. You don’t need to write Pulitzer Prize winning work. You just need to document your observations so that you can read it and reflect on the ideas and stories that are barricading you.

Also, you can’t do it alone. Often, we need help. For me, it was my wife and God. I felt like there was divine assistance that sparked my mind to see the possibilities, then my wife fanned the flame. There was a God given desire to write. And my wife had heard my musings and love for words and encouraged me.

“I can’t…” is too often said about this or that dream or possibility. But more often than not, it’s just a gate that fell on you when you were young.

It’s time to jump the gate.

Lots of love,

John


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Savoring life

Life is short; enjoy today.

This week an old friend’s wife died. It was sudden—tragic. She was young, around my age, too young to die. They likely had dreams of growing gray together, wrinkled, swinging on a creaky porch swing, talking about their grown kids and grandkids. Now that’s gone.

See, life can sucker punch you in the face. It can knock the wind out of you, and make you feel like you’re dying.

But that’s not my point. The point is to enjoy—no, savor—each day.

And I don’t mean to party hard and do something thrilling. I mean sip and take in the moments and the mundane things like embracing your spouse, telling your loved ones that you love them, eating a home cooked meal with family—the things we get to do everyday, but often take for granted because they are so normal. When placed against the finality of death, those are the things that matter most.

So let your palate of life absorb each and every flavor. Relish them. Feel satiated.

For life’s a delicious gift.

Give thanks.


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One of the best ways to deal with uncertainty

Uncertainty is everywhere. And the best thing we can do isn’t fight it, try to force things to happen—control. No.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is just do this—surrender.

That’s not the same as giving up. You’re not quitting. Absolutely not!

Surrendering is different. It’s not giving up; it’s giving in. And that’s an important distinction, especially in times like these.

It’s like quicksand. When you get stuck in it it’s terrifying and your temptation is to just fight and flail and twist and turn and writhe. The fear grips you and you want to gain control, but that only saps your strength and weakens you until you don’t have any energy to actually solve your problem.

Instead, when you’re in that situation, you need to relax. Make yourself light, and then you make slow and deliberate moves to get yourself out. It takes time, patience, and persistence.

We’re all in quicksand now.

We feel it. With a crazy political world, incredible divisions, an election year—a pandemic—looming possible school openings, quarantines, lockdowns, financial stress, and the list can go on, there’s just more to make us want to fight and flail and twist and turn and writhe, isn’t there? We want control but can never really get it, can we?

And we’re tired. We’re stressed, fatigued.

Stop trying to control and fight.

Instead, surrender. Don’t give up. Give in. Let your mind and body relax. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Think about today. Make a plan. Take deliberate and slow steps. Feed yourself. Feed your family. Find time to laugh and play. Create. Work. Find a way to survive.

Remember, you can’t control the quicksand: the political mayhem, people’s comments on Facebook, their ideologies, the economy. You can control yourself, your mindset, your prayer-life, your meditation practice, your routine, your actions.

Slow down. Let the future unfold. Persist. Go with the flow.

And, when you do, I believe, you’ll be free to find freedom.

You’ll even grow.

Love,

John


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