Don’t harden up, give a little

Years ago after Peace Corps, I made a promise to never become callous when it came to beggars. I told myself, even if you don’t feel like giving something, give just a little. I did this because I felt if I always tried to decide whether the person deserved it or if my donation would have an unintended effect, I would eventually seize up and stop caring at all. Better to err on the side of being taken advantage of, I figured, rather than to close my heart and pass up everyone.

In recent years, I’ve definitely been hit or miss. I’d say I give to 60% of beggars or those looking for donations, including some college girls in Ann Arbor this past winter who I’m convinced used it to fund a roaring kegger. So what.

My mind shifted yesterday when I gave a bit to a guy on an expressway ramp and I’m recommitting myself to giving a little whenever I come across someone who is asking. I can hear all of my friends and family lining up right now to ask. :) You’re excluded, unless I find you with a sign on a city corner, which I hope I never do.

I’m doing this because at a minimum everyone deserves to be acknowledged, to know that they exist, to not be obviously ignored and walked past. We all know the feeling of doing that.

So what I’m doing is simple. If I have a dollar in my wallet, I’m going to give it. I’m going to make eye contact, say hi and hang in there. That’s it.

It’s just a dollar. Inflation has pretty much made it worthless. If you’re gainfully employed, think about how many beggars you come across in a year. I’m sure it varies, but for me I’d put my yearly giving expense at about $30 – 40 dollars. That’s not much.

When I don’t have a dollar handy, I’m going say hi and explain that I don’t have enough on me. If bothered or harassed, I’m sure I can fall back on my Peace Corps experience of just saying the same thing over and over – “I already have one, thank you” (for insistent sellers) or “Sorry (brother/sister/mother/father), there’s nothing right now” (for beggars).

This reminds me that I was voted “Most Likely To Be Talking to a Stranger” when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar. I miss those chats. I was always fascinated by the conversations that followed when the person abandoned their original intentions and we just started talking.

This post is partially inspired by the blog zenhabits.net. A common theme there is that when you’re going to make a change in life, broadcast it to foster a sense of accountability. If you haven’t checked out that blog yet, you definitely should.

What I Learned My First Time Rock Climbing

Few experiences in my life have taught me more than the first time I went rock climbing.

On a warm Colorado day in 1999, I received my first quick lessons on tying knots and a run down of the commands I would repeat to let my partner know I was ready to climb. As a healthy, invincible high schooler, I was pretty sure this was going to be cake. I readied myself – “Belay on? Belay is on.” – and latched onto the limestone face of a beginner’s route – “Climbing. Climb away!”

Initially, I didn’t have much trouble. My rested muscles helped me lurch up the rock, my lanky frame made me feel confident. About half way up the 60-foot route, I ran into a problem which seemed to have no immediate solution. I was stuck and couldn’t see a way forward.

Photo from my first climb.
Photo from my first climb. This was the point where I got stumped.

I clutched the wall against the advice of my belayer on the ground who told me to let go and rest on the rope for a while. I couldn’t. Too many thoughts rushed through my head. “Did I tie the knot right? Will my harness hold? What if the rope snaps?”

Strength and confidence slipped away.

Noticing a bolt in the rock, I removed my right hand and hooked my index finger through its metal loop. It felt good and secure, but it was also a big mistake. My experienced belayer let me know that if I wanted to keep that finger, I would need to put it back on the rock. I guess having you finger in a metal bolt loop is a great way to detach important digits if you slip from the rock.

I returned my hand shyly to the rock face and gripped in again, but now my legs began to shake. Maybe I could just come down and try again later. This was my first time after all and I’m sure no one expected me to make it the entire way. While logical, this explanation didn’t inspire any sympathy from my belayer. He was from the school of not letting people back down unless they made it to the top or truly exhausted themselves. I was left with few choices.

So after several confirmations of whether he had me or not, I let go of the rock and sat back into my harness tentatively with my hands firmly around the rope. Deep breaths. This high up, you could see the valley below and I realized how quickly the ground descended just behind my belayer. It gave you a feeling of being much higher than you were.

I craned my neck up and along the rest of the route. It still looked daunting and unsolvable, but after a short time I let go of the rope and allowed my hands rest. With some encouraging words from below, I put my hands and feet back on the rock and scrambled up the rest of the route.

My memory doesn’t recall much from the moment when I reconnected with the rock and finished the route, but I do remember the equal parts of exhilaration and exhaustion that I felt back on the ground. My hands were so stressed from the experience that I couldn’t close them. I placed my palms out in front of me and sent silent commands for them to close. They did nothing but remain open.

Rigor mortis. My hands wouldn't close.
Rigor mortis. My hands wouldn’t close.

Despite the exhaustion, I was giddy and couldn’t stop talking about the climb. My body and mind were pushed to new extremes and somehow came out the other end safe and stronger (although I needed 15 minutes of rest before I ascended my next route).

A year later, I learned to lead climb.
A year later, I learned to lead climb.

In a short period of time with the Colorado sun beating down on me, climbing forced me through through some of our deepest, contrasting human emotions: strength and weakness, confidence and humility, self-doubt and resiliency, fear and trust.

All of that in one short beginner’s route. I still think back to the first ascent on a regular basis. At work or in my personal life, it reminds me that solutions to problems aren’t always apparent. If you fail the first time, take a break, lean back on the rope and re-imagine a new approach.

Never underestimate the support of others. Although they can’t overcome the obstacle for you, their support is crucial in helping you find the solution.

Most of all, you have to push and challenge yourself to grow. Without challenges and failures, there would be no feeling of accomplishment.

Overcoming challenges: This route put you on a precarious edge with a deep view of the valley below.
Overcoming challenges: This route put you on a precarious edge with a deep view of the valley below.

Do a braindump every night

When I was managing a bundle of client projects and working hard to keep my eye on some internal projects I wanted to participate in, I found it difficult to disconnect from my work at the end of the day.

Thoughts would race through my head as I exercised, as I made dinner, as I laid down to bed. “Tomorrow I need to talk to so and so. I need to remember to follow up on this or that. I need to propose this idea. And so on and so on.”

All you need is some scrap paper
All you need is some scrap paper

Somewhere in the mix of that period, I started doing something I call a braindump at the end of each day. Once I wrap up my work, I take out a piece of paper and I make a list of outstanding tasks and thoughts. Many of them are things I didn’t finish that day. Some are things that I want to make sure I start in the next few. Some are big projects, some are small reminders like thanking someone or taking a walk at lunch the next day.

With that list made, I turn it over and place it on my keyboard for the next morning.

What I found is that my mind would let go of those thoughts. They were on the paper, waiting for me. Sure, my brain would still churn some of these tasks in the background, but I felt like they cropped up in my active thought processes a lot less, especially as I was going to sleep.

Give it a try and see if it helps you let go of the day and recharge for the next one.

Add some checkboxes for extra points (they’re so cathartic to check off) :)