My Owner’s Manual

I bought a new car last year, well, new to me anyway. One of the first things I did with it was look online for an owner’s manual. Yes, it is 2002 model and way past any warranties. But it’s helpful to know what all the buttons do and where to locate things like interior air filters, which would have been impossible to find or even know about, or discovering what that white button on the side of the gear shift does. I have better knowledge of how to maintain and service the car because of this manual. And yes, I am one of those folks who usually does read the manual when I buy a new vehicle, appliance or gadget because, well, there are so many features on things these days that it’s hard to know all the things they can do.

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I discovered some years ago that it would have been very nice if I had been born with an owner’s manual. It would have been so much easier when I was 10 or 11 to read something like: “Tim is a gay male model and will feel an attraction to men.” Or later when I was in my 20’s: “Tim has a tendency toward addiction so it would be best to keep his consumption of mind altering substances completely controlled.” As well it would include some of the basic things about life I never learned in school and had to pick up as I went along. It would have made life much easier to read, “You must learn to live life on life’s terms, not your own.” That would have saved me a lot of heartache, self recrimination and resentments. How about something that said, “You are free to do whatever you want in life as long as you are willing to pay the consequences.” Or, “You can only control things that are within your circle of control which does not extend to other persons, places or things.” Had I read these things somewhere in my Owner’s Manual, how different my life would have been.

My Owner’s Manual would have told me that anger would not solve anything, regrets and resentments cannot change the past. Ninety-nine percent of my fears would not be realized. And that I would survive the other 1%, whatever they were. It would have been nice to know that just because a thought popped into my head I didn’t have to act upon it. That while there would be lots of bad days, they would be tempered by many, many more great days. As well, that whole days aren’t really all that bad; they’re just a few moments that don’t go as expected and I need not label the whole day, sometimes weeks, as a ‘bad’ time.

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And like a vehicle or appliance, I might have found a maintenance schedule that would have included regular rest, proper nutrition, exercise of the body as well as rest, nourishment and exercise of the mind and the soul. It might suggest that every couple of years I go on a retreat, take a course or create an incredible experience for myself to help rejuvenate and restore me to an acceptable level of sanity.

I’m sure that near the front of the manual I would find the words that I have the ability to change. Perspectives can be changed, new skills learned and great people can be invited into my life. It might have included a list of classics that I could read and movies I could watch, classes that I could take that would help me understand the things in life that were happening around me.

The manual would have been several pages under the title: CAUTION. Things like, “This model is equipped with a introvert personality that tends toward aloofness.” And another caution might read, “This model has a self destructive mode which once activated is not guaranteed to turn off.”

Finally, my Owner’s Manual would end with some notes that might say there is no reset button or a factory restore option anywhere on my body. It only continue in a forward direction regardless of how much I might wish to start over. And that it has a variable life expectancy based upon how it is used and maintained over the course of said life.

No. I didn’t arrive with an owner’s manual. I had to find my own way with the guidance of parents, family, friends and teachers who did their best to show me how I and life might function. For those things not covered, it was up to me to discover them; sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I am still figuring thing out and I suspect that it will be so until my final breath. Actually, I am enjoying this journey of discovery. Everyday heralds new possibilities that are full of promise, as long as I look for them.

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What’s written in your Owner’s Manual?

Who Do I Want To Be?

Recently I read or heard that until the 1930’s, most self development dealt with the development desirable character traits such as honesty, friendliness, generosity, discipline and integrity. Then the tone of this literature changed from working on one’s self to working with other types of people to meet your ends, such as what we read in Dale Carnegie’s, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. Later, new branches of psychology emerged dealing with reading people’s actions and noticing how they moved, perhaps their facial tics, to reveal what they are really thinking and feeling. This proved to be, as poker players already knew, a great insight into the human psyche as well as an excellent sales technique. Instead of achieving success and happiness by developing positive character traits, success could also come from learning what to say and how to say it in order to soar up the ladder of success.

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For many years, this became the dominant strategy of personal success. Books that dealt with how to dress, how to speak, how to manage people, and how to get people to like you, were popular. They dealt with being the person the other person wanted you to be; ‘looking good’ on the outside, and not worrying too much about the inside. The maxim ‘Know thyself’, became ‘Know the other guy’; one achieved success in life by figuring out the other person. Initially this strategy worked well because ‘being of good character’ was part of a person’s education and upbringing. However, the rise of the ‘individual’ and ‘egocentric thinking’ has resulted less emphasis on character traits and in some people using the new psychology to manipulate and abuse people. I can be a knave with no principles but do very well in life because I understand how to get people to do what I want them to do, and give them what they want.

And while these principles of success lead to money, real estate and big toys for some, for others, all the wealth, prestige and trappings of success that were generated were hollow; a circle of paper with a flashlight shining upon it is not the moon. Many saw that they had no substance.

The substance that they were lacking is character.

I believe that if something is to ‘look’ good, it must ‘be’ good as well. Here in earthquake country, you learn the difference between looking good and being good very quickly after a tremor. The building of a ‘good’ house requires reinforced construction and exact strengthening of all its systems for a house to stand up to Richter’s logarithmic scale. A poorly built home might look good but it will only stand up to one or two shakes. Eventually it will collapse. Character development is the unseen foundation, the re-bar, the cross bracing and the engineered trusses of a soundly constructed person.

From the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin carried a small notebook with him at all times. In it he had his list of thirteen character traits or ‘virtues’ that were part of his system of character development and at the end of the day he would evaluate just how well he had done with respect to each of these traits. He has always been regarded at a model of high moral character.

Franklin was unencumbered by cell phones and emails. The amount of information in the 18th century was a small percentage of what we have available to us at the speed of light in our pocket or purse. However, we can still choose to be ‘virtuous’ or of ‘good character’ today by building a solid foundation on these same principles. I can change from the person I am now into the person I want to be, or at least into the guy my dog thinks I am.

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” B. Franklin

I have picked out a dozen character traits that I would like to infuse into myself: self-responsibility, self-discipline, generosity, honesty, humility, integrity, courage, compassion, resilience, open-mindedness, spiritual awareness, and gratefulness. Your list will be different I am sure. And a periodic review of my own list will probably change as well as I review my progress in these areas.

Take for example self-responsibility. I am responsible for me; my parents and family, my friends, the community or the government should not have to take care of me. That’s my job. I am responsible for the state of my health and fitness, for my continuing education, for my career, for my finances, for my relationships, my emotions, and my decisions. I remember hearing years and years ago the saying: “If it is to be it’s up to me!” There will always be people, places and things that are outside of my control. However, I control my perspective. I control what I learn. I control who I let into my life. You get the picture? I must stop pointing the finger of blame around me. It’s up to me! It’s my responsibility! Me! Mine!

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What does this do for me? It gives me options. I am an active participant in my own life and the direction that it takes. I am active in my health, learning, finances, career, emotions, and relationships. The passive lifestyle tells me “there’s nothing ‘I‘ can do; ‘he‘ has to fix it.” The active one gives me choices for changing what I can.

I don’t have to become the person of high moral character today. Like Franklin, it is something that I aspire to and I know I will have setbacks along the way. Like the child that is learning to walk, falling on my ass the first few times is part of the process. It means that I wasn’t successful this time and I can learn from my errors and work at taking that first step again. It takes time to evaluate deeply who and how you want to be in life, but I believe the effort will result in greater happiness and contentment. The examined life will result in a strong character and that’s one of my aspirations.

Changing Perspectives

Any student of the philosophy of life will eventually come across a small book of quotes called, Meditations, by the second century CE Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. He was a strict military general who was schooled in Stoic Philosophy and reluctantly took on the mantle of imperial power. I grew up with the idea that Stoic Philosophy was of the ‘stiff upper lip’ variety: take what you get and make the best of it. Sounds like a rather dull way of life and it is no wonder that the boisterous cult of Dionysius had a much greater following. However, the Stoics, much of which we know from the writings of Aurelius, had a very down-to-earth, self-sufficient approach to life. I am enjoying Meditations as well as works of others in this vein of philosophy.

Recently I was presented with the following quote:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Each an every day we are faced with challenges. Sometimes they are somewhat trivial, such as what to wear or where to dine. Other times we must face far more critical moments, such as the decision I recently took to help my 17 year old dog cross over the rainbow bridge. The actual moment of decision is momentary. I pick this shirt, that restaurant and that veterinary. It’s the after effects of carrying through a decision that has the power to cause me pain or distress. I might question my judgement, or wonder about what might have happened had I taken another tack. All of my pain and distress at that moment is completely internal, ricocheting around in my mind. None of my mental vacillations will change an outcome or a decision. And yet I still allow myself to be haunted by them.

Aurelius’ quote reminds me that I don’t have to let these things bother me. I have the power to let the pain and distress go and move forward. I can make the decision to stop questioning myself. I can ‘revoke’ it because it is all in my head and nowhere else. I have the power to replace my thinking with another topic. I am reminded of the saying, ‘Someday we’ll laugh about this,’ when something in life goes terribly wrong. If there is a funny side to what happened, then I don’t have to cry about it: it is within my power to laugh about it now. It takes a change in perspective. I have that much control over my life.

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Sometimes things happen that we have no control over. For example, someone cuts me off in traffic. I might lean on the horn, flip a certain finger to the driver and proceed to get extremely angry about the whole incident. I can rant on about ignorant slobs on their phones, young drivers, old drivers or other charged slurs to whomever might or might not be listening. Again, all of the distress I feel is internal. I can change my perspective. In this instance, I can remember not to take this personally. The other driver probably didn’t see me for whatever reason. This was not an attack on me. It was not done to purposely startle me. I can remember that I too have been the person who cut off another driver in traffic. Only someone who has never been behind the steering wheel has a perfect driving record. I may not be able to stop the initial response. It’s a part of the ‘flight or fright’ autonomic nervous system. However, I do have the power within me to let it go, to ‘revoke’ the power of the distress I feel.

Perhaps there was a childhood trama or other injustice that occurred to you and that you had no control over. You may choose to mourn the loss of innocence and relive the incident in all of its shocking detail over and over in your mind. But the venom in your soul won’t affect the transgressor with the slightest indigestion. Or, you may begin the process of healing by no longer resisting what happened. Accept that it happened and realize that you can diminish the present pain by realizing that it is stopping you from moving forward and growing in life. Forgiveness of others is not pardoning them; it is accepting that mistakes, sometimes extremely grave ones, were made but that you will no longer allow those mistakes to affect and distress your life. You do not have to give the power over what you feel and think to an aggressor. Take it back. Move forward.

In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote very candidly about his interment in a Nazi concentration camp. He credited his survival to an attitude that his torturers might be able to take everything away from him, denigrate and abuse him in every way possible, but they could not take away his free will. He chose to keep a positive attitude and find meaning and understanding in his desperate situation. We do not have to suffer the indignities that Frankl did in order to make the decision to take control over our own destiny.

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This is your life. You own it. You have the power to create whatever you want with it. This is the ultimate gift of free will that we receive upon our birth. We all have the power to change our view, our perspective. Playing the role of victim and powerless pawn of others is a choice; so is being the captain of your own ship and charting your own course. If you have never done this before, deciding to revoke your distress will be strange, and challenging. Start small. It’s not recommended that you change everything at once. You have time. Trust the process of your life and where you wish to sail.