Survivorship bias is an error in logic. We make this error when we emphasize whatever "survives" a selection process. So we overlook whatever did not survive, because it's no longer visible.
How often do we discount, or even conceal our mistakes because of how they made us look? How often do we discard rough drafts, or pattern ourselves after someone else who "succeeded?"
A failure is the invisible cornerstone of our ascendancy. A scar is the often invisible survivor of a wound. Only we know the journey from then to now, and every step of that journey is real.
Our experience - all of it - is the most reliable bias there is, whether we succeed or not. Choose you, drink deep, and savor it. It's the best medicine there is.
I lived in Georgia from 1990 through 1993. Each New Year's Day, I rode on horseback in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, four hours north. My chosen steed was a chocolate bay Arabian mare named Ariane. Her regal head was sculpted and massive, her every gait supple and smooth. A few years earlier, she was rescued starving and terrified from a neighboring farm whose owners were divorcing. What Ariane endured there stretched her naturally taut psyche to the breaking point. She never fully regained her equilibrium, but she had enough good days to forbear my inexperience in the saddle. On those good days, she gave me long hours on her back traversing the slopes of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the Appalachian Range.
January 1, 1991 on the trail was sunny and warm despite our altitude. The far-off scent of woodfire reminded me we shared this vast, silent space. With Ariane in the lead - where she absolutely had to be - a group of us traveled a wide level path skirting a pine-covered slope that banked to our left. She stopped abruptly, and looked uphill. I followed her gaze. Just above us on the steep incline lay a pine sapling, staking its tender claim, nearly crushed beneath a rock that had rolled downhill. Its slender trunk bent far over. Ariane studied this for a good 30 seconds, then moved us on.
The first day of 1992 dawned cloudy and damp on the mountainside. It rained for days before our ride, and the rich aroma of damp loam fattened every inhaled breath. For safety's sake, our guide suggested we travel the same wide level trail, reckoning the narrower mountain paths might have washed away. Again, Ariane led the pack, and again, she suddenly stopped. We found ourselves looking at the same young tree, which I had forgotten. The young sapling not only survived, it grew. Farther up the slope, larger trees lay toppled, released by the drenched soil, but this little tree stood rooted and firm. Its thickening trunk now curved up and around the rock that nearly flattened it. Ariane and I took another good long look, and she led us away. I marveled not only that the tree was still alive, but also that the horse stopped again at the same place.
January 1, 1993 was the first day of the year I left the south. My ending there was bitter, and all I could see were the failures. It was a good day on the trail, though. A smaller group of us traveled the same wide level path. It was cold and clear with snow on the ground, and the trails were frozen crisp. Bracing, pine-infused air opened our lungs, and Ariane exhaled silver clouds that disappeared in seconds. All I could think about was the tree. Memory can refract our sense of location, so I scoured the slopes to my left as we climbed. I needn't have worried; we arrived at the spot, and Ariane stopped once more. What I saw took my breath away. With a year of growth the tree had dislodged the rock, which now lay on the ground alongside its distinctly curved trunk. I placed an open hand on my horse's neck and told her I wished we'd been there together the moment the stone rolled away. She acknowledged me with a backward shift of her enormous brown eyes, and carried me on down the mountain.
Our gradual descent and Ariane's easy gait lulled me into pondering. The pine tree's misfortune became its distinguishing feature. The rock's assault left a scar - a permanent downhill cantilever in the tree's young trunk - that suited it perfectly to life on the unforgiving pitch of a mountainside. This was one outcome I had not foreseen.
Another unforeseen outcome was the painful sundering, two years later, of the same household that rescued Ariane. In June of 1995, the woman who saved her called me in Ohio. Everything was falling apart. A barn burnt down. The farm was losing money, and there wasn't enough to rebuild or even maintain the place. The strain broke her relationship with the woman who helped her run it all, and she had to sell or rehome sixty horses. The heartbreak was audible in her voice as she offered me Ariane for $1500. It was a steal, but I lived in an apartment in Cleveland then, and my good days were years ahead of me.
Ariane would be 38 today, so it's likely she's gone. I still wonder what drew her to that tree. I still wonder what she saw, and what she reckoned, if she did. In my wondering, I can glimpse a tendency to ascribe noble motives to her. I imagine, for example, that she taught me a lesson about survival. Or that she showed me her own survival. Even that she recognized a kinship between herself and the tree. The facts are simpler and more compelling. Alert as she was, something caught her eye, and she stopped to look. That's what horses do. Pinned under a rock, the tree did what trees do - root down for food and foundation, and grow toward the light.
What do humans do?
What I call my life is a series of characters and events that occur in apparently random order. As it turns out, though, there's a design. Within those plot elements lives a pattern that has resonance - if I remember to stop and look. The horse, the tree, and the rock all have meaning because I was there too.
Perhaps what humans can do is to pause within our lives and look for evidence of a design. So every experience has value. So everywhere I go has meaning because I am there too.
A horse's alert stillness along a mountain path thirty-one years ago revealed a design. I was there too. The path exists because I do, yet it neither begins nor ends with me.
for Thich Nhat Hanh
When I stand in a river, I can feel the current's force.
It takes will to remain standing. I widen my base and adjust my footing. I engage my core. I meet the resistance. The onrushing water must account for me.
Then something truly magical happens.
I change the river's shape. I find my equilibrium, and the river senses me. It allows for me. Accommodates me. It becomes itself because I become myself.
The onrushing river of circumstances I call my life needs me to shape it. I stand in the river to make my life my own.
When the river and I learn this dance together, the tension we hold between us reminds me I'm alive. I learn to embrace my life. My life returns the embrace to remind me I belong, and the embrace is unconditional.
I can always let go, float downstream, and subject myself to the law of accident.
Or I can stand in the river. Stand for my life, and join the dance.
Happy new year.
Photo credit: Michael Sendbuehler
Someone dear to me died at 3:10AM on Saturday, July 17, 2021.
She was also one of an estimated 178,000 people who died on earth that same day.*
By that measure, some 7400 people died in the same hour, and 120 within the same minute.
One other person on earth died the very second she did.
Because of our bond, her death was uncommon. What strikes me, though, is how common an occurrence death was that day.
What distinguishes her? What distinguishes any of us?
For most of us, death is personal. If I had been among the 120 people who died between 3:10 and 3:11AM on that day, however, and if for an instant we all somehow found ourselves in the same place, there’s so much I’d want to know.
Who are you now? How did you know you were dead?
I could ask the same questions of myself, while I’m alive.
Who am I now? How do I know I’m alive?
And any attempt to answer invites a connection with others.
The hallmark of our humanity is what we share. Our lives vary, but the fact of our death unites us. For most, though, death is only real when it’s imminent. Until then, we keep it at arm’s length.
Fear grows in the gap I keep between me and what I know is inevitable.
Or, my life can close that gap. After all, every day I’m closer.
I know I will die; a good friend just reminded me. And I know that the second I die, I will not be alone.
*Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Bioethics Research Library
Photo credit: Michael Sendbuehler
Our death and we are promised
Our lives a dowry
Where we give everything
To become nothing
Our kingdom’s past knowing
And before believing
Where now is always then
And never becoming
We reign in wind
Emperors of air
Our just deserts
Are ever becoming
Full into empty becomes full
All into aught becomes all
Captive into free
We are always becoming
All antecedents naught
There is only becoming
My beloved and I
In our becoming
I vow to you each living memory
And silent evening prayer
For nothing fulfills like nothing
And nothing costs as dear
We all have the power to transcend our circumstances, and become our sovereign selves. He wanted us to know that.
When the Buddha said “The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart,” he was encouraging us to see that there is nothing outside us worthy of understanding. The lesson - the kingdom - lay within us.
The world, then, had nothing for me. For many years I thought it did. I derived my sense of worth from how I managed what happened in my world.
What I thought of as “the world,” however, was actually just a series of events and circumstances. Ironically, they were someone else’s as often as they were mine.
How could I possibly define myself by what had little or nothing to do with me? And even if it did have something to do with me, “it” simply kept happening. And kept changing.
And yet...amid continual change, here I was, still breathing.
With guidance, I saw that circumstances could not define nor understand me any better than I could myself.
I saw that the experience I was trying to have was the one I was already having.
Whenever my circumstances changed, instead of asking “Is this me?” I began to ask “Am I me?”
And it became ever more important that the answer be yes. Always yes. It was only fair. I had been the only one there for all of it.
I am all that needs to be understood. I am also the understanding.
I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life.
The path to understanding is me.
*Photo credit: Michael Sendbuehler
I could not sit still, nor keep my mouth shut or my hands to myself for any sustained length of time. I fought naps. Someone recommended medication.
In 1968, pharmaceutical protocols for ADHD were new, and my mom did not want to medicate me. Instead, she sent me to a special-needs summer camp, but she didn’t tell me that’s what it was. It was there, at six years old, that I learned the rudiments of managing my energy.
The camp was a southern Ohio farm whose stewards were a brother and sister in their 40s. They wore identical faded denim overalls. The brother had a long brown beard, and his sister braided her thick hair in brown pigtails streaked with gray. Their hands lived on their hips, and they threw their heads back when they laughed.
I spent each day with 30 children just like me. We played games and sang rhythmic songs. We ran in open fields and climbed trees. We petted calves and milked their mamas. We made our own butter by shaking mason jars half-filled with the cream we skimmed off the top of the milk in the pail. When we finally had something we could spread on a Saltine cracker, we ate together. I still remember the taste of that group effort.
There was one rule. We had to pause between activities.
“Time to change gears!” brother or sister would call out in a clarion voice.
We stopped wherever we were. We lay in grass, our heads went down on a picnic table, or we sat with our backs against a tree, and we rested.
For a hyperactive kid, this was a job.
We started with one minute, and then it became a game.
“I bet you can’t go two minutes!”
“No way you could do three.”
“Yes we can!” we shrieked.
By the end of two weeks, we could rest for eight minutes.
I remember the sound of our breathing.
I remember knowing this time was for me.
I remember my mother watching our “final presentation,” which ended with 30 high-energy kids resting together in perfect, golden silence, and smiling through her tears. We got Dairy Queen on the way home, and I felt like the President of the United States.
“Resting” became the foundation of a meditation practice that appeared, just when I needed it, when I became a hyperactive, workaholic adult. I thought the world had something for me, and I was afraid I’d miss it. Once again, I fought rest, terrified I’d fall behind.
A seed, planted years before, began to sprout. All I needed was me, if only eight minutes at a time.
I wish I could thank that brother and sister for their priceless legacy, but I imagine they’re resting by now.
So I honor them with my practice.
*Photo credit: Michael Sendbuehler
I was raised to walk a path of salvation.
As a result, my worth became a status I had to earn. So I threw myself into worth-earning, and became a consummate self-improver.
There was a consequence, though. I learned to see myself as inherently wrong.
If I could just fix myself, I’d be OK. I even defined others’ worth by how hard I thought they worked on themselves. My relationships became rehabilitation projects, which was patently unfair to both of us.
With all the time I invested in self-improvement, I learned to court my problems. Brokenness became a lover. Because as long as I was wounded, I could stay in the self-improvement club, and on the path to salvation.
But for me, that path went nowhere. It was like shoveling a bottomless pile of coal. If there was always something to fix, I’d never be OK. And I had to be OK.
Then I was offered a radical idea: maybe I already was OK.
Holy crap! That was a scary notion. But it had teeth.
The learning didn’t stop. The lessons, though, were not about solving problems, but about claiming them. Choosing my imperfect experience liberated me from being wrong. I was also free to be wrong if I actually was. No problem.
Worth is not a prize to be earned.
Worth is knowing you’re free to let life express itself through you, just as you are.
The flavor of you is exquisite.
“The universe is clearly telling me something here.”
“We’ll see what the universe wants.”
- “I offered it up to the universe.”
There’s no question it can get lonely out there, but when did the universe become “the other?”
That’s a pretty neat trick.
This all-knowing “other” is the answer to all our questions, and we spend our lives trying to communicate with it.
Or if you’re like I was, we profess to try, because:
It looks good to appear “aware,” or
- It’s good form to have faith in the cosmos.
My own experience was different. I spent decades sending unanswered messages to the universe, and all I felt was lonely.
How could I know I was here if no one answered me? Was I even here?
Out of that simple question came another one.
When did I make “the universe” responsible for what happened in my life?
I knew there were moments along the way when I didn’t feel alone. In those moments, who was with me?
It began to dawn on me that I’d never been alone.
“The universe” wasn’t holding out on me, because it had nothing to offer me. I was already a part of it. In my lonely efforts to matter, I forgot I already mattered to me.
Those occasional moments of grace were me knowing, like a child knows it’s safe, that I belonged to me.
Feeling whole is not a path or a process. It’s an accumulation of guided experiences that gradually become where you choose to be.
If you can sense your personhood occasionally, but would like to do so more often, I’d love to help.
Her skin is honey almond, her face gold filigree, and her voice has a soft assurance that reaches the furthest corners of our house. On her brow sits a globe like a third-eye chakra, etched with the words “tempus fugit.” Those words and her rhythmic, insistent chime remind me to account for my allotted time.
Our clock, like the time it tells, was a gift to me. Whenever she runs fast or slow, I open her glass pendulum case and stop the pendulum, which has a small knob at its base. One quarter turn to the right speeds her up two full minutes a day if she’s running behind. If she’s running fast, a quarter turn to the left slows her down by the same amount of time.
It’s fascinating to me how one small adjustment can have a measurable impact on a complex system. It’s reassuring how simplicity and economy can yield elegance and grace, and how significant change can emerge from a single, intentional gesture.
It can be simple. Anyone who’s tried to simplify anything knows that “simple,” however, is not always easy.
It’s also not as difficult as we make it.
If simplifying is something you’d like to try, I can help.
Schedule a discovery chat or send me a direct message. I’ll get back to you.