Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues: Week Eleven, Q1

Tranquility: “Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

*this may also be viewed as “Acceptance”

Personal notes:

  • Forgive yourself, your setbacks and flaws.
  • Find and nourish a sense of calm.
  • If there is something you do not like, get annoyed by, or worse, say “Tranquility” or “Acceptance.”

Tranquility is my favorite week and it couldn’t have come at a better time. You see, this week we’ve been dealing with our landlord and trying to get a rent reduction. This was of course, after they proposed a rent increase.

Our borrowed home is beautiful, but the situation hasn’t been smooth: leaks, critters, hot water shortages, the list goes on. An increase seemed like a reward for a terrible season and we felt we rode out the worst of the messes, fixed their problems and were flexible when they needed help. Why not ask for a reduction?

We posed the question to our landlords who, for lack of a better comparison, represent the epitome of aged Bernie Sanders supporters. The warm, fuzzy exterior however, quickly turned cold and detached when the conversation involved money. They live a nice lifestyle, summer in the North, winter in the South, travel the world, etc., and they very much want to keep it that way.

It’s their property after all, and they’re free to do with it as they choose, but as rent and home prices steadily climb higher, what are young families supposed to do? I posed that question, and their answer was “you can move.” Of course, they’re right: we can, and will, move. So now we have to think about moving… awesome.

Maybe this all came back to miscommunication. But Tranquility was certainly important. As texts, emails, phone calls were exchanged, sitting back and not taking it personally was valuable. In fact, my wife and I even talked about it in one of our text exchanges:

  • Me: Also. Had a moment we’re I remembered this week is Tranquility. Just saying it to myself had an effect. This is certainly a pain but just a road bump in life.
  • Wife: So, so true. All of these are truly minor annoyances. Which lovely home do we live in, what job interviews do we take, how do we take a deep breath when our safe & healthy & happy 4 year old accidentally spills her juice. *acceptance* of all good things.
  • Me: I know. It’s all super annoying, but that’s just it. It’s annoying like a gnat buzzing in your ear. No real threat. I don’t have any great answers or insight. But saying Tranquility actually had a little bit of an impact.
  • Wife: Completely agree. Reading my book another one that helps is “transience”. Like our presence in this world is too brief to get worked up by minor details.

Negotiating with landlords is not battling cancer. An annoying commute is not the same as living in a war zone; both are a long way of saying, don’t sweat the small stuff. As for moving, who knows? The universe may have aligned and we might have a possible solution at a new, much smaller apartment.

Downsizing to a smaller space with greatly reduced rent immediately sprung forth a seed of contentment. The idea of finding something cozier, smaller, cheaper grew happiness. All we can do is keep our finger’s crossed, hope for the best and remain at ease with the outcome. And that’s something I’m learning, remaining tranquil when confronting little annoyances has helped in the larger battle to reduce anxiety and depression.

In the end, I wrote our landlords a nice note thanking them for allowing us to live in their home the past year. We did enjoy our time here but it is time to move on and, when I think about it, moving on is by far the happier solution: the unexpected outcome of saving more, downsizing, getting rid of junk all turned out to increase our happiness. But to be fair, getting there required a lot of Tranquility.


Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues: Week Ten, Q1

Cleanliness: “Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or location.”

Personal notes:

  • For me, this also includes how I dress. Go with the 007 mantra. Look like bond – when going out at least 😉
  • While I don’t think it’s necessary to wear a suit around the house, I should dress up, get out of PJs, don’t look like a slob, aim to look like an adult with style.
  • Pick up little things laying around the house. We leave little piles everywhere and it drives me crazy!
  • Maintain front of the house & garden (more so during summer).
  • Fix what needs repair.

Cleanliness is a week I enjoy but don’t always know what to write about. I guess if I had to distill why I enjoy Cleanliness, I would have 3 reasons: First, and now I know I’m getting old, when I am physically cleaning, my mind falls at ease. Second, when I improve my state of appearance, sometimes even marginally so, I simply feel better about myself, more confident. And finally, piles of mail, clothes, whatever, are little land-mines waiting to set me off and it’s important to clear them from my life.

It’s true, small, insignificant clutter can drive me insane and ruin the day of not just me, but everyone around me. Example: the other day I was making Saturday morning breakfast for the family. The bacon was sizzling, coffee brewing, music playing, the sun was out, everything was great, but then I began to set out the plates, and there in front of me was a giant pile of mail. I was so annoyed laying out the breakfast spread that a moment later, when my wife asked me a harmless question, I was short, abrasive and set of a spiral that ruined the morning. That little pile of mail might as well have been a pile of dynamite.

It’s amazing how insignificant it all seems in retrospect but the cluttered counter space sprung a well of annoyance and anger. Why even let these piles accumulate if I know they’re going to have a negative effect? To be honest, I have no good answer; laziness I guess. The weird thing is though, I don’t mind cleaning. In fact, when engaging in big or little projects, I enjoy cleaning, clearing, working. In that moment I can shut off my mind and disappear into a task.

In the case of my yard, I spent hours removing a tree stump and couldn’t care less what was going on in the world. Working in the dirt, physically laboring away, feeling the sun and knowing I was making our yard more enjoyable allowed me to disappear into the present. I looked at that stump a million times thinking how difficult it would be to remove, setting up obstacles and preventing its removal. Don’t get me wrong, removing the stump was a bear, but once the process began, time flowed and the labor was its own reward. I walked away thinking, why do I let mail piles become tree stumps?

This week, I also upped my wardrobe and did my best to look like an adult. Don’t worry, I didn’t remove the tree stump wearing a three piece suit, but quickly remembered that it feels good to look your best. Feeling good, who doesn’t like that? No one; but writing about it here, I think of it a little bit more complexly. Yes, we know all the cliche “dress to impress” and dressing well helps with promotions and social interactions, all of which make you feel good, but what about when you’re alone? Safely in your home with no strangers, no meetings, no social pressure, how do you feel then to dress your best? Surprisingly, I found you feel pretty good.

It all stems from my wife and I’s experience on Sundays. Many times we’d stay in our PJ’s all day, being lethargic, hanging out, rolling around with the kids. Winter kept us on the couch, gray and sleepy. But we always felt bad at the end of the day, sluggish, detached, never really embracing what was before us, until we started dressing up a bit.

We did it to see if we felt better and you know what, we felt the benefit almost immediately. We felt better about ourselves, got more accomplished during the day, engaged more with the world, began attending church again, got the girls away from the TV, it was an all around improvement. Was it all tied to the clothes, probably not, but it was a part of the small steps we took to change our psyche.

There are days when we’re still in a rough place, but overall our outlook has vastly improved, and it all stems from little, simple changes. I guess it goes back to our theme, these little incremental pieces all add up to a larger benefit. It doesn’t have to be a tree stump, small actions like wearing a pressed shirt or cleaning up a mail pile have dramatic consequences. One of the best things we ever did was change our sheets on a Sunday night. Now we do it every Sunday night because climbing into clean, cool sheets on Sunday night is a simple way to vastly improve your Monday.


Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues: Week Nine, Q1

Moderation: “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”

Personal notes:

  • I am a person of extremes; focus on control.
  • Sometimes I go 0 to 60. Pump breaks. No need to fly off into a rage or think dark thoughts.
  • Avoid hyper-criticism of those closest to you.
  • Master emotions.

I thought I was doing well this week. In fact, during one moment of foolishness I had a cheery idea, “there might not be much to write about,” but that proved to be wishful thinking. You see, I have kids, and as much as I love them, they are a relentless force; piling on requests, pleas, cries, and messes, until the weight of exhaustion crushes my resistance and destroys all notion of emotional control. 

This week the (first) moment of lost emotional control happened in the bathroom. Like most dads, I just needed a minute, and there’s no place better to catch up on world events than some quiet time on the throne. Halfway through a Wall Street Journal article on the Panama Papers, my 4 year old daughter kicked down the door SWAT style and blew up my momentary fortress of solitude. Now in this exposed position, my ability to physically respond was limited, so I resorted to a hard and angry bark “Get OUT!”

“But I just want to show you this picture I drew for mom.”

“Get out, NOW!” 

It’s hard to capture just how angry I was, the emotion electrified my entire core, my voice turned to a growl, and while it may be tough to capture this evocative anger here, one thing was for certain, the anger and annoyance was clearly audible to a four year old. She backed away, lip downturned, eyes at the floor, sad and upset that her dad was so angry. After all, all she wanted to do was share her exciting art, but all I wanted was a moment alone. She left and my victory was fleeting. The preceding moment of calm was gone, never to be recaptured, replaced by guilt, anger and sadness. Quite an emotional rollercoaster for a trip to the bathroom.

I’m always in awe of people who have seemingly mastered their emotions. As a history nerd, I think of the story of FDR who barely flinched when he learned the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; here I am erupting over an interrupted bathroom visit. But we all have those moments, at least that’s what I tell myself, when we’re overwhelmed by the persistent force of life. Sometimes this wear forces us to snap at someone we love. I don’t hit my children but I’ve certainly clenched our child’s hand knowing it hurts, forcing her back in line, watching her eyes fill with fear. I know at that moment I’ve lost control again and my subtle grip is trying to hide my lashing out, not so much from the child. It’s shameful when I think about it.

But like I said in last week’s email, I wanted to think about triggers. Moments where Moderation escapes me and I loose emotional control.

  • Electronics: When I am interrupted on my phone or computer, there is a noticeable rise in anger that otherwise would not be present; and let me emphasize, it is very noticeable. Next time you get angry at your kids, or anyone for that matter, look at your hand and see if it’s clutching a phone or typing on a keyboard.
  • Exhaustion: If sleep the night before (or week before) was a poor, I am terrible and quick to spark. We’re currently in a trend where my daughter will not sleep in her room. In the beginning, with every night interrupted, I would be furious, and being furious in the middle of the night is one way to ensure the next morning sucks. It took a long time to allow her to sleep in a blow-up bed in our room. We essentially admitted defeat in order to win a victory.
  • Hitting: Somehow my kids are amazing at hitting me in the tenders. Always by accident, yet targeted perfectly: hits to the groin, eye, nose and any other sore appendage raises a deep rooted, mammalian anger. Often, I have to leave the room or I sit there seething in pain, calming the muscles waiting to respond, waiting for the moment to pass.
  • Screaming: There is something about high pitched screaming, particularly if it’s directed immediately in one’s ear, that creates a visceral response. When I was in the military, we spent a few evenings locked in a dog cage for survival training. It sounds bad but it didn’t bother me, until they started blasting the recording of children screaming for hours upon hours. There’s no quick fix here. Have to just realize it’s a trigger and walk away. 

There’s a million other examples that will do: trying to feed my child, only to have the food thrown on the floor; trying to change the child’s diaper while she squirms and spreads poop all over her hands. Like I said, children are relentless, but so is life. You don’t have to have kids to cause these triggers, just look at your day-to-day: a crowded commute, a particularly rude grown-up, a terrible driver, a relentless co-worker, all of them break down the notion of emotional control. You snap, you’re angry at everyone, your life is consumed by rage; what can you do about it?

I’ve come to realize you need to embrace a long-term project to re-wire your brain. For me, the list is long: I’ve put down the phones when my kids are around, work on a daily gratitude journal, found a physical outlet through martial arts, say to myself “maybe that driver is in a hurry because he has an emergency,” choose to not have an opinion, work on Bens13, and force myself to explore my triggers. These are just a few steps and I’ve come to realize I will not achieve emotional control over night, but I’m getting better.

I realize my child is at her purest stage in life and I have to do my best to encourage her and not let the weariness of adulthood punish her innocence. Clearly I’ve stumbled and had set backs but I’m getting better, and you can too. We just have to remember, we allow many of the events and people around us to define us. Why do that? Why let them make you angry? All I can say is, next time the cheerio crushes underfoot and the scintillating fire creeps up our neck, it’s just easier to grab the broom and move on. Allow the moment to pass.