About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

30 November 2010

Andy Reid and the Redemption of Michael Vick

When Andy Reid, head coach of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, announced that he had signed Michael Vick, who had just been released from prison after serving 18 months for running an illegal dog fighting operation in Virginia, to an Eagles' contract, I was both surprised and not surprised. I was surprised that any NFL team would take on the public relations nightmare that surely would ensue; I was not surprised when I heard it was Reid and the Eagles who did it in spite of that. Let me explain further.

In a 1977 Harvard Business Review article - Managers and Leaders: Are They Different? - Abraham Zaleznik, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership Emeritus at the Harvard Business School, said that most great leaders are "twice born" individuals who have endured a major event such as a tough childhood, a religious revelation, or a life and death experience (a second birth) that leads to a sense of separateness, or perhaps estrangement from their environment. As a result, they turn inward and after a period of self-reflection emerge with a not only a deepened and stronger sense of self, but also relatively free of dependency on the social structures that surround them. This, I think, is Andy Reid's story.

Reid stepped into a crucible of fire on January 30, 2007 when his two oldest sons, Garrett and Britt, were arrested in separate driving incidents. Garrett, the older of the two, was charged with felony drug possession. Britt was charged with felony drug possession and for illegally carrying and brandishing a hand gun. Both were subsequently convicted of the charges and incarcerated. Reid immediately drew heavy fire from the media and the public, of course, but chose not to respond to any of it. In fact, I'm guessing that if you'd dialed him up on the cell back then, you'd have heard:
"You've reached the voice-mailbox of Andy Reid. I'm sorry I'm not here to take your call. Please leave a message. You can begin speaking at the beep."
And even though the cacophony of advice, recriminations, and demands for a "come to Jesus" meeting with the press grew louder and louder, Reid maintained his silence. He turned inward; it was a time for soul searching.

Andy maintained his separateness for almost a year before he finally agreed to do an interview with Philadelphia Magazine. He was joined by his wife Tammy. The interview is here. If you read it front-to-back, you'll get a real sense of how much - and how fundamentally - he changed during his year of self-reflection or "second birth." Here are a couple of things that stood out for me.

First, when he was asked what he had learned about addiction by participating in Garrett's treatment he said:
"Because of the chemical makeup of the brain, certain people are more susceptible to drug use and addiction than others. You might be able to have knee surgery, take Oxycontin, and you’re fine. Where Garrett might take a quarter of one, his mind gets hold of it, and he’s got to have more. He’s got to have it. You find out that everybody is different. Everybody has their drug of choice, that their mind loves. It’s an epidemic that has attacked America. I was sitting there, in counseling, with good people. They are not bad people, it encompasses everybody."
Second, when he was asked what he had learned about himself he said:
"You put it all out on the table. As a parent, if you can’t do that with them, then there is going to be a wall. And so we both put it out on the table. Every emotion, you go through every emotion you can imagine, you go back to when you were a kid and work to the present, the whole shebango. It was a great experience. I’m not saying it was fun — but it was an unbelievable experience, an emotional roller coaster."
Third, when he was asked to compare the amount of control a coach has over his team with the amount of control a parent has over an addict he said:
"They’re really very similar, though. In a game, once the whistle blows, and you’re playing the game, now the human element is there, and it’s how you’ve trained them. Some days they are going to throw an interception or miss a tackle. You didn’t train them that way. But you live with it, and you keep on teaching them. That’s why we’re here, we’re here to be teachers. And so you do the same thing at home, you teach them and then let them go. You blow the whistle and let them play. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t."
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't point you to the reader comments at the end of each page. See if you can tell the difference between the folks who've walked in the Reid's shoes and those who haven't.

Back to Michael Vick. In describing the press conference in which Reid announced Vick's signing, sportswriter Rich Hoffman of the Philadelphia Daily News said in part:
"The coach acknowledged that Vick has been on his mind for months and years. He said that Vick got into trouble at about the same time his sons got into trouble, and that he followed Vick's story from afar and compared it to what his sons were enduring. It was as open and as human as Reid has ever been at an interview podium, and it was clear that not only was this Reid's decision, first and foremost - but that his personal life opened him to the possibilities.

"At one point Thursday night, he was asked whether he might not have been so open if he had not seen his sons, and the mistakes they made, and what they went through. He said: 'I don't know that. I would hope that I would be, just like I hope the fans would be.'

"A minute later, he added: 'I've kind of lived that process. I've seen change.'"
Did Michael Vick do wrong? Yes, but don't we all? Did he deserve a chance to redeem himself? I say, "Yes." Why? Because I've walked a mile in Andy Reid's shoes, and if it's good enough for Andy, it's good enough for me.

  • Would you have given Michael Vick a second chance? Why or why not?
  • Have you gone through a "second birth" experience? If so, how were you changed, and how has your life been affected since?
  • Has someone given you the opportunity to redeem yourself sometime during your life's journey to date? What happened? Who was involved? How was your life changed? How much did it matter?
"There is not a righteous man on Earth who does what is right and never sins."
- Ecclesiastes 7:20
"Some of the best lessons are learned from past mistakes. The error of the past is the wisdom of the future." - Dale Turner
"Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls. The most massive characters are seared with scars." - Khalil Gibran
"Every kind of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism." Carl Gustav Jung
"I am not being flippant when I say that all of us suffer from addiction. Nor am I reducing the meaning of addiction. I mean in all truth that the psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of full-fledged addiction are actively at work within every human being. The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods, fantasies, and an endless variety of other things. We are all addicts in every sense of the word. Moreover, our addictions are our own worst enemies." - Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace
"Every form of refuge has its price." - The Eagles, Lyin' Eyes
"And the truth I see is that the Bible is populated with people like you and me. People who are flawed and imperfect. People who have crooked teeth and bad skin. Who have stinky breath and dirty feet. Who don't always know the difference between right and wrong. Who are self-serving and capricious. People caught in the conflict and dichotomy between good and evil, between the sacred and the profane, between beauty and ugliness, and between the bright and the moronic. People who hope - and many believe - that they are made in the very image of God." – Barry Moser
"Up to a point a man's life is shaped by environment, heredity, and movements and changes in the world about him; then there comes a time when it lies within his grasp to shape the clay of his life into the sort of thing he wishes it to be. Everyone has it within his power to say, this I am today, that I shall be tomorrow." - Louis L’Amour

09 November 2010

Playing the Ball Where It Lies

Bobby Jones is certainly the greatest amateur golfer who ever lived, and a strong argument can be made that he should be recognized as the greatest golfer ever. His climb to that dizzying height began in 1923, when he won his first major championship - the U.S. Open - at Inwood CC, Inwood, NY. It ended in 1930, when he retired after reaching the top of golf's Mt. Everest. He won all four majors that year - accomplishing what has come to be known as golf's Grand Slam - including his last competitive outing, the U.S. Amateur at Merion Cricket Club, Ardmore, PA. In between, he won 11 other majors - 3 U.S. Opens, 3 British Opens, 3 U.S. Amateurs, and 2 British Amateurs - in 18 tries.

Jones accomplished all this while devoting only about a quarter of his time to golf. The rest of it was spent pursuing a law degree, and practicing law once he obtained it. Besides his playing prowess, he is remembered for co-designing and building Augusta National Golf Club and founding The Masters golf tournament.

Among the many things worth knowing about Bobby Jones, there are two I want to point to in particular.

The first involves an incident during the 1925 U.S. Open at Worcester CC, Worcester, MA. During the play of one of the early holes in the final round, his ball dribbled into the rough just off the fairway. As he addressed the ball in preparation to play his next shot, the ball moved imperceptibly. He immediately turned to the nearby tournament officials, and called a penalty on himself. The officials were stunned; they hadn't seen his ball move. They asked if anyone in the gallery had seen it move; no one had. They huddled and decided that since no one had seen the ball move, the final decision was Jones'. Bobby Jones didn't hesitate for one second, and let the penalty stand. He ended up losing the tournament by a single shot. When he was praised for his gesture, Jones replied:
"You might as well praise me for not breaking into banks. There is only one way to play this game."
The second, involves the great tragedy of his life. In 1948, at the age of 46, he contracted syringomyelia, a fluid-filled cavity in his spinal cord causing first pain, then paralysis. He never played golf again, and in due time was relegated to a wheelchair. He died December 18, 1971. He was 69. Shortly before he died, he was asked about his illness. His answer is testament to his deep and abiding wisdom:
"I will tell you privately it's not going to get better, it's going to get worse all the time, but don't fret. Remember, we play the ball where it lies, and now let's not talk about this, ever again."
To play the ball where it lies is the most basic rule of golf. Golfers who play by this rule - accepting and handling both the good and bad breaks that come with the territory - are not only able to leave the 18th green with a score that truly means something, but also with the deep personal satisfaction that can only come from doing what's right - win, lose, or draw. Golfers who ignore it - who cheat to win - not only debase themselves in the eyes of their fellows (word gets around) but in their own eyes as well.

For Bobby Jones playing the ball where it lies was also a basic rule for living a good and noble life, and a true test of character. Do you think he passed?
"For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the game."- Grantland Rice, sportswriter
  • Are you willing to confront the truth of even the worst of the situations you face in your life? Is there a particular lesson you've learned that you can share?
  • Do you trust someone who cheats at golf - or any other seemingly innocuous activity - to do right when it comes to the more important aspects of life?
  • How do you play the ball in your work and life?
  • What will the One Great Scorer mark against your name?
"The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names." - Chinese Proverb
"The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it." - John Ruskin
"Fame is something which must be won; honor is something which must not be lost." - Arthur Schopenhauer
"There's a gigantic gray area between good moral behavior and outright felonious activities. I call that the Weasel Zone and it's where most of life happens." - Scott Adams, Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel
"When another is shooting, no player should talk, whistle, hum, clink coins, or pass gas." - Willie Nelson, reciting a rule he enforces at the private golf course he built for himself and all his rowdy friends

01 October 2010

A Page of Lost Questions

John O'Donohue was an Irish poet and philosopher who lived in a small cottage in the West of Ireland. He wrote several books including Anam Cara: The Book of Celtic Wisdom and Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong. John passed away on January 3, 2008. He was 52 years old. You can access his website to learn more about John and his work.

John appeared in the 2004 Masters Forum. He spoke of many things, including his view on the thrill of being involved in a great conversation.
"When is the last time you had a great conversation? A conversation which wasn’t just two intersecting monologues, which is what passes for conversation in this culture. When have you had a great conversation in which: you overheard yourself saying things you never knew you knew; you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you had thought you had lost; you and your partner ascended to a different plane; memories of the exchange continued to sing in your mind for weeks afterward?"

O'Donohue left us with these questions from what he called a page of lost questions. He said each would lead to a great conversation.
  • Is there someone walking home this evening through the streets of Leningrad that you have never met and never will meet, but whose life had an incredible interest on yours?
  • At the angel bar, what stories does your angel tell about you?
  • Supposin' you were to take your heart away on your own for a day out, and that you really decided to listen to your heart, what do you think your heart would say to you?
  • If you were in conversation with your heart, and you told it how actually, factually short your life is, what would your heart make you stop from doing right now?
  • If it is true that nothing good is ever truly lost, what would you like to have back?
"Our time is hungry in spirit. In some unnoticed way we have managed to inflict severe surgery on ourselves. We have separated soul from experience, become utterly taken up with the outside world and allowed the interior life to shrink. Like a stream that disappears underground, there remains on the surface only the slightest trickle. When we devote no time to the inner life, we lose the habit of soul. We become accustomed to keeping things at surface level. The deeper questions about who we are and what we are here for visit us less and less. If we allow time for soul, we will come to sense its dark and luminous depth. If we fail to acquaint ourselves with soul, we will remain strangers in our own lives." - John O'Donohue, from his book Beauty

A link to a slide show of O'Donohue narrating a blessing he wrote called Beannacht.

24 September 2010

Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor & Me

Garrison Keillor is creator and host of A Prairie Home Companion which was first broadcast from the Janet Wallace auditorium at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 6, 1974.

Today, almost 40 years later, his tales from the fictional Lake Wobegon, which he calls "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve," are heard by over 4 million listeners each week on almost 600 public radio stations here and abroad.

Speaking about the show's long run on APHC's website, Keillor says:

"When the show started, it was something funny to do with my friends, and then it became an achievement that I hoped would be successful, and now it's a good way of life."

I get Garrison Keillor. I grew up in a small, out-of-the-way Minnesota town - not unlike his Lake Wobegon - and can relate to the yarns he spins about the folks who live there and the warp and weft of their lives.

I also get Garrison because he and I are pretty close to the same age and grew up with the same stuff spinning around, over, under and through us: the dawn of the nuclear age; the dark shadow cast 'round the world by an evil Soviet Union; The Shadow and The Lone Ranger on the radio; Ozzie & Harriet, Father Knows Best and Bonanza on TV; the birth of rock & roll; the tragic deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P Richardson aka The Big Bopper; the civil rights movement; the murders of Jack and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; Timothy Leary and trips on LSD; Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and The Kingston Trio; San Francisco, flower children, Volkswagen buses and free love; Vietnam, draft dodgers, war protesters; the Beatles, Helter Skelter & Charlie Manson; Richard Nixon, Watergate, and on ... and on ... and on. Ahh! Yes! "Those were the days, my friend" ... sing along now ... "I thought they'd never end, we'd sing and dance forever and a day." Hmmm.

Times have changed, of course, just like Bob Dylan said they would, and when I get to looking back on those days of yesteryear, I usually get to thinking about how smart I thought I was; how I had all the answers. Maybe Garrison does too. But, once you get to be our age - Garrison's and mine - and if you still have your wits about you, it slowly dawns on you that you may not have been so smart after all. Or, as Garrison has simply and profoundly stated:
"You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories."
Stories ... they are the principle driver of learning that sticks in the human brain:
"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." - Rudyard Kipling
Stories ... they keep us from losing our way:
"If you don't know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don't know the stories you may be lost in life." -  A Siberian Elder
Stories ... they help us connect with others in a deep, meaningful way:
"We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome.  One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — 'Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.' " - John Steinbeck
  • In Dreamgates, Robert Moss wrote: "Australian Aborigines say that the big stories - the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life - are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush." What is the big story you are meant to tell? How will it find you?
  • Hannah Arendt has said: "Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it." How do you understand what she is saying?
  • When he is talking to leaders, Peter Block often says: "Our ability to facilitate the learning of others is absolutely dependent on our own consciousness and on our willingness to make our own actions a legitimate subject of inquiry. Allowing the personal to become public is the act of responsibility that initiates cultural change and reforms organizations. Our need for privacy and our fear of the personal are primary reasons why organizational change is more rhetoric than reality. Real change comes from our willingness to own our vulnerability, confess our failures, and acknowledge that many of our stories do not have a happy ending." Do you typically share these kinds of stories? Why or why not?
"The eye of understanding is like the eye of the sense; for as you may see great objects through small crannies or levels, so you may see great axioms of nature through small and contemptible instances." - Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum
"Proverbs are always platitudes until you have personally experienced the truth of them." - Aldous Huxley
"The leader who says ‘I don’t know’ essentially says that the group is facing a new ballgame where the old tools of logic may be its undoing rather than its salvation. To drop these tools is not to give up on finding a workable answer. It is only to give up on one means of answering that is ill-suited to the unstable, the unknowable, the unpredictable. To drop the heavy tools of rationality is to gain access to lightness in the form of intuitions, feelings, stories, experience, active listening, shared humanity, awareness in the moment, capability for fascination, awe, novel words and empathy." - Karl Weick
"Self-disclosure is the act of revealing yourself to others – your thoughts, feelings, intentions– telling your story. Another word for self-disclosure is 'intimacy'. This word is commonly associated with sexuality. But it really refers to familiarity and closeness. Intimacy can be understood better by pronouncing it as 'in-to-me-see' – a clear reference to self-disclosure. Why is intimacy so important? It builds understanding, trust, compassion, and commonality – all of which are essential to effective relationships. When you begin to understand other people’s stories, your heart softens. You find that their sorrows and joys are similar to yours, and that you have more in common than you ever thought. You draw closer and become more tolerant, more supportive, and more understanding." - Mark D. Youngblood, Life at the Edge of Chaos
"'I would ask you to remember only this one thing,' said Badger. 'The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. This is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good story-tellers. Never forget these obligations.'" - Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel
"A minister has to be able to read a clock. At noon, it's time to go home and turn up the pot roast and get the peas out of the freezer." - Garrison Keillor
"They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad that I'm going to miss mine by just a few days." - Garrison Keillor
"Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people." - Garrison Keillor

17 September 2010

For Beowulf, Nothing Failed Like Success

In my freshman year of college, I enrolled in English Literature 101. On the first day of class, the teacher stood behind the podium and began reading the epic tale of Beowulf. I listened, but in vain; I couldn't grasp a thing she was saying. And, as soon as the two hours of that initial class period had passed, I headed to the office and dropped the class. I tried not to even think of Beowulf after that.

That all changed on a sunny St. Patrick's Day a few years ago when real-life wizard Brian Bates appeared at The Masters Forum, and told the story of Beowulf in words that even I could understand.

A little about Brian. He teaches psychology at the University of Brighton, directs the Shaman Research Program at the University of Sussex, and is an adviser to the Ford Foundation's project on worldwide indigenous wisdom. He is the author of several books including: The Way of Wyrd and The Real Middle Earth.

Back to Beowulf. Here's the story as I now understand it:
A monster named Grendel was attacking the castle of King Hrothgar of Denmark each night, killing and devouring his soldiers and guests. No one could stop him.

A great warrior from afar, Beowulf, hears of the king's plight and comes to the rescue. He succeeds in slaying the monster.

It turns out, though, that the monster has a nasty ol' mother who rears up out of her swamp and takes over where Grendel left off. Beowulf takes out the mother as well. Hrothgar is forever grateful.

Beowulf returns to his own people, the Geats. He serves them well; becomes their king.

Fifty winters pass. Beowulf has grown old.

One day, an evil dragon shows up and begins to beat on the Geats. Beowulf decides that he - and he alone - will slay the dragon.

Beowulf preps for battle. As he heads out to meet the dragon, he asks 12 of his warriors to join him. He gives them a direct order to stay out of the battle.

The battle rages. Beowulf is getting his ass handed to him. His warriors can see he needs help, but they have no idea what to do; besides they are scared witless. They head for the hills. Well, at least 11 of them do. The 12th, Wiglaf, decides to help the old man out. He does it by rushing in and distracting the dragon just long enough for Beowulf to strike a killing blow. The dragon goes down for the count. Minutes later, it's lights out for Beowulf as well.
There are several lessons to be learned here for accomplished leaders and high achievers of all stripes.

  • Why do you think Beowulf decided to face the dragon by himself? Have you ever done the same in some instance in your work or life? Is it typical of you?
  • Do you think he considered the possibility he would die? Why or why not? Do you consider the possibility of failing when you decide to go it alone?
  • The story says Beowulf invited a few of his warriors to come along for the ride, but only to observe. Why? Have you ever done the same?
  • The warriors didn't rush to rescue Beowulf when he got into trouble. In fact, 11 of 12 turned tail and ran. The story says they fled because they didn't know what to do to help. This suggests that Beowulf had not mentally or physically prepared his warriors to fight such a battle. Why do you suppose he failed to do so? How about you? Are you truly developing your subordinates, or merely entertaining them with your brilliance? Explain.
  • Nothing fails like success is an old saying. How do you interpret it in light of this story? How do you interpret it in terms of your own life and work?
"Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt." - Wiglaf
"The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings." - Okakura Kakuzo, author
"It seldom happens that a man changes his life through his habitual reasoning. No matter how fully he may sense the new plans and aims revealed to him by reason, he continues to plod along in old paths until his life becomes frustrating and unbearable. He finally makes the change only when his usual life can no longer be tolerated." - Leo Tolstoy
"People hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest." - Simon & Garfunkel, The Boxer
"Firefighters are most likely to get killed or injured in their 10th year on the job, when they think they've seen pretty much everything there is to see on the fires. They become less open to new information that would allow them to update their models." - Karl Weick, Wired, April, 2004

10 September 2010

Schindler's List

As the 1993 film Schindler's List opens, Polish Jews are being relocated from the countryside to a crowded ghetto in Krakow. The year is 1939. World War II has just begun. Shortly thereafter, Oskar Schindler - played by Liam Neeson - a successful businessman and member of the Nazi Party, arrives from Czechoslovakia hoping to manufacture field kitchenware and mess kits for the German army. He acquires a factory by bribing SS officials and brings in accountant and financier Itzhak Stern - played by Ben Kingsley - to help him run it. Among the first things Stern does is advise Schindler to staff the plant with Jews from the ghetto; he said this would give him a dependable, low-paid work force. Schindler sees the financial benefits and quickly agrees. For Stern a job in a war-related plant means survival - at least in the short term - for himself and other Jews working for Schindler.

Schindler initially treats the Jewish workers with indifference, seeing them as a nameless, faceless mass instead of individuals with rights and equal worth to gentiles such as himself. He changes on this score as the film moves on, though, and eventually spends his entire fortune and risks his life on many occasions to keep Stern and more than 1200 other Jews out of the Nazi death camps.

Why did he do it? What made this man do what no other German had the courage to do? This is the question people - including the Jews saved by Schindler - are still asking today.

Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's Arc - later renamed Schindler's List - hints at why he thinks Schindler did it when he says in the book:
"Schindler grew up in a strong Roman Catholic household with deeply religious parents. Their nearest neighbors were a Jewish Rabbi and his family, and the Rabbi's two sons were Oskar's best friends for years."
Steven Spielberg, who turned the novel to film, said in an interview in Der Spiegel:
"Oskar Schindler was simply ein guter Mensch whose sheer humanity forced him to take great personal risk to save his Jews."
A decade before Spielberg's Schindler's List won seven Academy Awards, a British producer and director, Jon Blair, made Schindler, an 80 minute documentary on the life of Oskar Schindler for British Thames Television. The film won a British Academy Award for best documentary in 1983, but left few clues as to why Schindler did what he did. Blair was quoted later as saying:
"Oskar, this big man with a big heart and big connections, loved to be loved and needed. But I always thought that it was a weakness in my film that I couldn't explain Schindler's motivation, and Spielberg told me the same about his - it seems impossible to crack that enigma."
Perhaps Schindler himself didn't know for sure. In a 1964 interview he said:
"The persecution of Jews in occupied Poland meant that we could see horror emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced to wear Jewish stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then in the years '41 and '42, there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With people behaving like pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice."
The most plausible explanation may have been revealed in a 1965 conversation between Schindler and Moshe Bejski - a Schindler Jew and later an Israeli Supreme Court justice. When Bejski asked him why he did it, Schindler answered:
"I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings."
The story of Oskar Schindler is not merely one about an altruistic and morally decent man - though Schindler was that. It is, in the main, the story of a man who gets to know his workers through personal encounters, and comes to see them as individual human beings with hopes, dreams, fears, and passions just like his own. And, once he grants them humanity, he feels a strong pull to assist them. I think this idea is best expressed near the end of the film when Schindler introduces Stern to his wife. He says:
"Stern is my accountant and my friend."
  • How does this last explanation for Schindler's behavior make more or less sense to you than the others considered?
  • Why might it be important for leaders to build personal relationships with their followers?
  • Why might they want to keep from getting too personally involved?
  • What is your philosophy in this regard? How is it working for you? Have you ever thought there might be a better way? Have you experimented with it? What happened?
  • What is your reaction to the statement: Your people are not human resources, they are human beings?
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke
"We ask ourselves, 'How could the German people not have known what was going on, long before the Panzer divisions moved into Poland in September of 1939? How could they not have known about Bergen-Belsen?' Well, a system to administer evil without interference is usually firmly entrenched before anyone notices - you don’t get the opportunity to see it coming. As Mussolini intuited, if you just make the trains run on time, people will be happy. So, if you’re simply getting on with life - paying taxes, changing diapers, wondering how you’re going to make the car payment next month- you’re not really paying attention to what having the trains run on time might mean." - Barry Lopez, in an interview with Christian Martin, Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2005
"They came for the communists, and I did not speak up because I wasn't a communist.  They came for the socialists, and I did not speak up because I was not a socialist.  They came for the union leaders, and I did not speak up because I wasn't a union leader.  They came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.  Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me." - Martin Niemoller
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." - Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
"After the war we reassured ourselves that it would be enough to relate a single night in Treblinka, to tell of the cruelty, the senselessness of murder, and the outrage born of indifference: it would be enough to find the right word and the propitious moment to say it, to shake humanity out of its indifference and keep the torturer from torturing ever again. We thought it would be enough to read the world a poem written by a child in the Theresienstadt ghetto to ensure that no child anywhere would ever again have to endure hunger or fear. It would be enough to describe a death-camp 'Selection,' to prevent the human right to dignity from ever being violated again. We thought it would be enough to tell of the tidal wave of hatred which broke over the Jewish people for men everywhere to decide once and for all to put an end to hatred of anyone who is 'different' - whether black or white, Jew or Arab, Christian or Moslem - anyone whose orientation differs politically, philosophically, sexually. A naive undertaking? Of course...." - Elie Wiesel, speaking of his book Night in his 1986 Nobel address
"Honor never grows old, and honor rejoices the heart of age. It does so because honor is, finally, about defending those noble and worthy things that deserve defending, even if it comes at a high cost. In our time, that may mean social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or as always, even death itself. The question remains: What is worth defending? What is worth dying for? What is worth living for?" - William J. Bennett - in a lecture to the United States Naval Academy November 24, 1997
"We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." - George Orwell

This scene takes place near the end of the movie. The Germans have surrendered. Schindler, who will now be seen as a war criminal by the occupying Soviet army, is taking his leave. It is a powerful expression of the deep affection that Schindler has for those he saved, and of theirs for him.

03 September 2010

I've Got a Secret. You've Got a Secret.

I don't know Penelope Trunk, but I'm sure I'd like her if I ever got the chance to sit down and talk with her a bit. I discovered her when I listened to a presentation she gave a couple of years ago at The Executive Forum, a business lecture series based in Denver, Colorado, and run by my friend Margie Mauldin. What I liked best about Penelope was her candor; it was a real breath of fresh air to hear someone talk in such a plain way about things that really matter, but are rarely - if ever - discussed around the water coolers or in the rest of the nooks and crannies of corporate America.

Ms. Trunk is even more candid in her blog Brazen Careerist, which has nearly 35,000 subscribers. I'm a semi-regular reader, and happened on a post a short while ago I really liked: I Hate David Dellifield. The One from Ada, Ohio. Here's the crux of it. The help she normally has to watch her kids while she works was not available during Spring Break, so she spent most of that time being a stay-at-home mom. She had figured out earlier in her life that this wasn't something she seemed to be genetically coded to do, so toward the end of her time at home with the kids - and in what she says was a moment of innocent desperation - she Twittered:
"No school today and the nanny's on vacation. A whole day with the kids gets so boring: all intergalactic battles and no intellectual banter."
In seconds, men from all over cyberspace started firing shot across her bow; they were telling her she was a bad mom. One of those shots - in particular - really ticked her off. It was fired by - you guessed it - David Dellifield of Ada, Ohio:
"@penelopetrunk sorry your kids are a burden, send them to OH, we'll enjoy them for who they are"
You can read the rest of her post for yourself. And, you should; the tap dance she does on his head is really well choreographed. What I want to pick up on here, though, is something she said about a third of the way through her riff:
"Parents need to be able to say that parenting is not fun."
She's right, of course. Parenting is not all grins and giggles. Kids are cute - but not 24/7 cute - when they're young; largely a pain-in-the-butt when they're teenagers; and who knows what after that. And, we parents should be able to say so without having some self-appointed referee toss a penalty flag.

An even larger point is there are way too many things we don't get to say these days without being derided, shunned, or cast out of our tribes. This is especially true in the workplace; it's true in most of the other places we habituate as well.

Secrets. Paul Tournier says:
"Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets."
And sick. I think much of the fear and sadness we experience in our lives is rooted in keeping things we really need to talk about hidden behind a facade of good cheer. How sick can we get trying to suck it up? Watch this YouTube video; it answers that question very directly. It was produced and uploaded by a young girl who wanted to share her story of self-immolation, self-injury, and redemption in hopes it might be of help to others who find themselves in the same boat.

If you watched all the way to the end, you were surely struck in some way, shape, or form. Perhaps you wondered why she didn't cry out for help sooner; it's the logical thing to do, after all. Maybe you thought she was weak or lacking willpower, that all she needed to do was "Just say no!" And, why not? Lots of people have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Another possibility is that you breathed a sigh of relief when you found she entered a treatment program, because you know they work. Don't they? Most likely, though, your heart went out to her, and you wish you had been there to help. But, how? She tells us at the end:
"Don't judge me by the scars on my arms, instead help me to throw away the blade."
It shouldn't have to get that far. If we - individuals, families, communities, the world at large - could develop a less judgmental and more understanding ethos, people in trouble would be willing to step forward and ask for our help much sooner. And, if that were to happen, fewer people would put their hands on the blade in the first place. This is an extreme case, of course, but not uncommon. We all most certainly have family members, friends, co-workers, close acquaintances, and others we know suffering in a private hell we don't have a clue about. And, most of us are living in one of our own as well.

Secrets. Accept them as gifts when they are offered. Give them as gifts when you can.

  • What are some things that just aren't discussed at work? Which of the things you named do you think should be open for discussion? Why? Which do you think are better left unsaid? Why? How about at home?
  • What is your personal experience with secrets? How readily to disclose them to others? Have you found confiding in others to be helpful or hurtful? Is there a story you can tell to illustrate? How are you receptive or not receptive to having others confide in you? How do respond when someone really opens up to you? Is there a story you can tell about helping someone who took the risk of being vulnerable with you?
  • Have you ever been stunned to learn something about another person that you could never have guessed? How could you have known sooner?
  • Do you have a deep, dark secret? If you were willing to share it at all, who would you share it with and why?
"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know." - Diane Arbus
"All secrets are deep. All secrets become dark. That’s in the nature of secrets." - Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, 2005
"The shadow is the long bag that we drag behind us in which we've stuffed all the dark parts of ourselves that we would like to keep secret." - Robert Bly
"The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them - words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they're brought out. But it's more than than, isn't it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried when you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for the want of a teller but for the want of an understanding ear." - Stephen King
"Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it. What appears conceit, cynicism or bad manners is always a sign of things no ears have heard no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone." - Miller Williams, The Ways We Touch
"The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire." - Teilhard de Chardin

27 August 2010

What Do You Know of What You Speak?

In early 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister at the time, was asked to address the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School. The address was to be given on July 15th. Ironically, he got the invitation only a few days after he had decided to leave the ministry because he felt that organized religion could no longer command respect. Still, Emerson accepted the invitation, and on a beautiful July evening in Boston he spoke to the audience of seminarians about to enter the active Christian clergy. Most of what he said that night was the standard stuff of commencement addresses. One thing, though, stood out. He told a story about bad preaching.
“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had plowed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life - life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography. It seemed strange the people should come to church."
Emerson's preacher failed - at least in Emerson's eyes - because his discourse left Emerson asking himself: "What does he know of what he speaks?"

In today's world, we are bombarded by preaching - religious and otherwise. And, as the words rain down, a lot of us never think to ask "What does she know of what she speaks?" If we would, though, we could quickly separate the preachers who truly know from the legion who don't. One way to approach this issue is to simply ask anyone who's preaching to you "How do you know that?" Another is to use a simple tool - The Bullshit Detector - from author and economist Thomas Sowell:
"Much of the self-righteous nonsense that abounds on so many subjects cannot stand up to three questions: Compared to what? At what cost? What are the hard facts?"
There is a flip-side to this coin, of course, and it concerns our own preaching.

  • When you are teaching or preaching or selling or otherwise giving advice, do you routinely provide evidence that you know of what you speak? If so, how do you do it? Is what you provide sufficient? How do you know?
  • If not, what is a case you can make for doing so? If you are able to build a strong case in favor of doing this, how would you go about making it a habit?
"I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in vain. There is a good ear, in some men, that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the common-places of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly spoken, they may be wisely heard." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Some people do not listen to a speaker unless he speaks mathematically, others unless he gives instances, while others expect him to cite a poet as witness. And some want to have everything done accurately, while others are annoyed by accuracy. Hence one must be already trained to know how to take each sort of argument." - Aristotle
"After having propounded his famous theory of relativity, Albert Einstein would tour the various Universities in the United States, delivering lectures wherever he went. He was always accompanied by his faithful chauffeur, Harry, who would attend each of these lectures while seated in the back row! One fine day, after Einstein had finished a lecture and was coming out of the auditorium into his vehicle, Harry addresses him and says, 'Professor Einstein, I've heard your lecture on Relativity so many times, that if I were ever given the opportunity, I would be able to deliver it to perfection myself!' 'Very well,' replied Einstein, 'I'm going to Dartmouth next week. They don't know me there. You can deliver the lecture as Einstein, and I'll take your place as Harry!' And so it came to be ... Harry delivered the lecture to perfection, without a word out of place, while Einstein sat in the back row playing 'chauffeur', and enjoying a snooze for a change. Just as Harry was descending from the podium, however, one of the research assistants intercepted him, and began to ask him a question on the theory of relativity ... one that involved a lot of complex calculations and equations. Harry replied to the assistant 'The answer to this question is very simple! In fact, it's so simple, that I'm going to let my chauffeur answer it!'" - Source Unknown

20 August 2010

An Architect's Vision

Daniel Libeskind is a world renowned architect. He is most famous for being selected by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to oversee the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks. He titled his concept for the site Memory Foundations. Some of his other projects include the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England, and the Wohl Centre at Bar-Ilan University, in Ramat-Gan, Israel.

Libeskind gave a presentation titled 17 Words of Architectural Inspiration last February at a TED event. The 17 words form the basis of his vision for the future of architecture. You can watch the presentation here. If you do, and if you happen to be an architect, you will most likely find yourself either nodding in agreement with what he says, or calling him a fool or worse. I say this because I didn't find many neutral opinions in the "Comments" section.

As I listened to him speak - with nary a shard of architectural savvy in my bones - I started to wonder how many of his 17 words can help form a vision for building a more satisfying and meaningful life. And, without doing much stretching, I can make a case for the relevance of all 17. What I want to do here, though, is to take just a few of the words and share the connections I made.

Optimism vs. Pessimism

Libeskind believes that architecture - more than almost any other profession - must be anchored in an optimistic view of the future. He said:
"You can be an general, a politician, an economist who is depressed, a musician in a minor key, a painter in dark colors. But architecture is that complete ecstasy that the future can be better."
There's not much to argue with here. Optimists fare better in nearly all aspects of life ... and studies have shown they live longer too. So, if you're a pessimist ... you have one more thing to be pessimistic about. On the other hand pessimism doesn't have to be a life sentence. Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and recovering pessimist, has shown that we can cross the bridge from pessimist to optimist by developing three specific cognitive skills. You can read about them in his book, Learned Optimism, which he wrote because his daughter kept telling him how big a grouch he was.

Hand vs. Computer

While admitting that the whole practice of architecture today relies heavily on the computer, Libeskind is adamant that the hand should drive the computer, instead of the other way around. He says this because he full-out believes that his best ideas come from an unknown, unseen source deep inside him and have to be teased out into the light through hand drawings and sketches. That being done, he is only too happy to open his computer and begin the process of turning his sketches into blueprints. He closes with a question for his fellow architects:
"How can we make the computer respond to our hand rather than the hand responding to the computer?"
This comparison raises several interesting questions. On a practical level, you might ask whether the technology you are using in your work and your life is your servant or your master. Do you really have to jump to answer your cell every time it rings? Should you open PowerPoint the minute you start preparing a presentation or should you sketch it out on paper first? Should email or text messaging be the default option in your communication with the important people in your life? On a philosophical level, you might wonder if you are living a life of your own design or following a template designed for you by others or even by circumstance. On a spiritual level, you could ask whether the fundamental choices you make are informed by your conscience - the voice inside you that tells you what is moral and good - or that which is expedient and self serving. I could go on with my list, but I am sure you get the idea. You can read more about this notion in the book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford. You can also read more abut Matthew's ideas in his New York Times Magazine article The Case for Working With Your Hands.

Raw vs. Refined

In this instance, Libeskind said he thinks of raw as "naked experience, untouched by luxury, untouched by expensive materials, untouched by the kind of refinement that we associate with high culture." And he believes that the creation of sustainable environments in the future will depend on the use of raw space or "...
a space that isn't decorated, a space that isn't mannered in any source, but a space that might be cool in terms of its temperature, might be refractive to our desires. A space that doesn't always follow us like a dog that has been trained to follow us, but moves ahead into directions of demonstrating other possibilities, other experiences, that have never been part of the vocabulary of architecture."

Here I think relationships. I like mine raw or as open, juicy, and authentic as possible. I don't much like them refined or dry, stilted, and managed. All relationships? No, not all. Most, then? Yes. Including work relationships? Yes. Why? Because the more time I can spend with people I've come to truly know and care about, the better my life is for it.

  • How are you generally optimistic or pessimistic? Would the people who know you best agree? Why or why not?
  • How do you work with your hands? Does doing so bless your life? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • How is a relationship either raw or refined as you see it? What is the balance between the two in your life? If it needs to shift, how so. If not, why not?

"Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly." - Langston Hughes
“I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.” - J. B. Priestly
"I promise you the sloth approach is the most successful life-maintenance program. So many of us waste our time being angry at our bosses, our families, our president, or even our God. The Sloth Plan, on the other hand, helps us to accept that there is no real hope for change. Power is in the hands of an elite, entitled few, and there is no reason to waste our lives howling in the wilderness." - Wendy Wasserstein, Sloth
"Deep down in people there is love and craving for the beautiful. There are many who go through their whole lives without ever knowing when they have liked or what they have liked." - Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
"'Hunches,' his mother used to call them. The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really just a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it's all written there." - Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
"Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his own blood." - Friedrich Nietzsche
"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'" - C.S. Lewis

13 August 2010

Lay These Words Upon Your Heart ...

Jacob Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and the author of many books, including: Why Can't We Be Good?, The Wisdom of Love, Time and the Soul, The Heart of Philosophy, Lost Christianity, and Money and the Meaning of Life.

More than a decade ago, we invited Jacob to do a special evening presentation for our Masters Forum members. His topic was Money and the Meaning of Life.

Since that time, I've made it a point to keep in touch with his work, and early this year bumped into a transcript of a speech he gave at Indian Springs School on January 22, 2004. The speech was about the great unanswerable questions of life; the questions that come from a deep place within us, such as:
  • Who am I?
  • Does God exist?
  • Is there a soul, and is it immortal?
  • What can we know?
  • What ought we do?
  • What is good and evil?
A great body of ideas and teachings has been built up over thousands of years to help people as they try to answer these questions. This wisdom is alive in every culture of the world, and forms the basis for all the great religious traditions and spiritual philosophies of the world. It was studied, practiced and passed on by mystics, saints, and great philosophers. It comes in many forms: words and stories; pictures and symbols; modes of behavior; and various forms of art. According to Needleman:
"The great stories and images of the world don’t usually reveal their meaning to us right away. These great stories, these fairy tales, these Biblical images, these myths, these great works of art - sometimes they’re not there to convince the brain, the head which is rational - but they’re there to make a kind of end run around the rational mind, which is sometimes connected to the superficial sense of ego; to do an end run, and go down in the direction of the heart. And later on, as the years pass, and suddenly life does something to you, some shock, some disappointment, some triumph, some extraordinary thing, and suddenly, 'Ah! That’s what the story meant, that’s what the story was telling me!' So try to let these stories come into you and slowly radiate their meaning."
Jacob told a story to drive his point home; it's an exchange between a pupil and a wise old rebbe:
"And so, the pupil asks the wise rebbe about a passage in the Bible, in the Book of Deuteronomy, which is part of the Torah, the heart of the Old Testament. There is a sentence there that says to 'Lay these words upon your heart.' The words, which sum up the fundamental belief of the Hebraic tradition, are these: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.' (Deuteronomy 6: 4-6) And the pupil asks the rebbe, 'Why does it tell us to lay these words upon our heart? Why doesn’t it tell us to put them in our heart?' And the rebbe answers, 'It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and the words can’t get it in. So we just put them on top of the heart. And there they stay. There they stay until someday, when the heart breaks, they fall in.'"
He ended his time on the dais by saying:
"The great wisdom: study it in all its forms, and someday when your heart breaks, either in great sorrow or in uncontainable joy, it will fall in, and you’ll understand this other level of human values that every school worthy of the name is trying to lead you toward."
  • How is your life guided by the deep wisdom of the heart Needleman refers to?
  • What words are laying upon your heart?
"Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" - T.S. Eliot
"Australian Aborigines say that the big stories - the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life - are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush." - Robert Moss, Dreamgates

06 August 2010

The Heart Aroused

When author and poet David Whyte appeared in our Masters Forum series some years ago, he began with a story of how he got started working with corporations. He said that not long after he became a professional poet, an American businessman cornered him following a speech and said he wanted to hire him to work with his company. When Whyte asked why, the man said:
"The language we have in the corporate world is too small for the territory of relationship we've entered."
Whyte accepted the invitation. He said he was intrigued with the possibility of helping business folks move past jargon and begin to communicate with each other using words of the heart. His first book - The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America - centers directly on that theme.

Whyte told us the poetry we should read, think about, and even write ourselves, is poetry that'll lead to self-discovery, or re-remembering. For example, one of the poems he read - Lost by David Waggoner - asked us to re-think what it means to be lost. Lost compared to what? We may not always know where we are - and that may be a blessing rather than a curse - but the world always knows where we are, and what our part in it is.
Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must not treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be know.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made the place around you.
If you leave it you may not come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Another - Love After Love by Derek Walcott - describes the life we bury underneath our everyday behavior and the deal we can strike to get it back.
The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your mirror,
And each smile at the other's welcome,
And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you
All your life, whom you ignored
For another who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

In addition to poetry of the heart, Whyte talked about conversations of the heart. He called them courageous conversations. He said we shy away from them, but cautioned us not to do so. He said we need to involve ourselves in them from time to time to re-remember that which gives meaning to our lives. He gave us questions to help us think about some of conversations we might be ducking. He hoped turning the lights on for us in that way would prompt us to go forth and have the conversations.
  • What is the courageous conversation I am refusing to have with myself with regard to my work, and the present life threshold on which I find myself?
  • What is the courageous conversation I am not having with my partner or spouse, my children or loved ones?
  • What is the courageous conversation I am not having with my immediate work group, or with my immediate supervisors, associates and subordinates? What is the courageous conversation I can personally initiate to start things moving in this immediate circle?
"If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness." - Charles Darwin
"Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me." - Sigmund Freud
"One demands two things of a poem. Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honor to the language in which it is written. Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective. What the poet says has never been said before, but, once he has said it, his readers recognize its validity for themselves." - W. H. Auden
"One of the things you get when you say you're a poet is, 'Oh, you're a poet! Well that's interesting. Our daughter, Tiffany, she's eleven, she writes poetry.' And my revenge fantasy is that I ask this guy what he does and he says, "Well I'm an investment banker." And I say, 'Really! Because our son, Timmy, was playing with some change on the floor the other day. It's such an interesting connection...'" - Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States, 2001

30 July 2010

You'll Never Walk Alone

There is a quote from Tony Campolo, pastor and author, that I've had in my files for years. I've kept it because it jarred me when I first read it, and has challenged my thinking about life since. Here's what he said:

"I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."

I've never been able to argue with his assertion; I've only been able to ask myself why I think he's right, and on that score, I've come up empty.

There's another quote I came across recently that's helped me begin to answer my question. It comes from Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon:
"Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations, people will no longer even know how to fart on their own and humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame back in the Pleistocene era. Our world will not die as a result of the bomb, as the papers say, it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything, and a lousy joke at that."
Or, as Tom Robbins asked about the TV set in Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates:
“Does it not posses the power of a totem pole and the heart of a rat?”
Is television to blame for the fact so many of us have become so numb and disconnected from the violence and suffering that whirls around us like a doomsday machine? I think so; at least in part.

A case in point. I was up late reading and watching TV when the first reports of the February 13, 2009, plane crash at the Buffalo, NY airport started coming in. For a few minutes, I gave my full attention to the TV, but soon I was back to reading and glancing up every now and then to see if anything new was happening. I fell asleep before long, and slept peacefully through the night. In the morning, I turned the TV back on and found out that 50 people had died in the crash. At that point, I did what I think many of us did that morning: I acknowledged that some people I didn't know died in a plane crash in a city far away, and went about my business. After all, we see stuff like this on TV all the time.

Then ... I got a wake-up call. I had wandered back to the family room. The TV was still tuned to a cable news channel. I watched - mindlessly at first. I noticed that a young man was being interviewed. I figured the reporter would be asking the same banal questions reporters always ask in similar situations, and that the young man would answer in pretty much the same way others I've seen standing in his shoes did. The reporter didn't disappoint, to be sure, but the young man's answers stunned me. All of a sudden I was awake, and personally involved. In a nutshell, here's what happened. The young man told the reporter he had planned to stop by the airport on his way home from soccer practice to meet his sister's plane. He told him he had learned she was on the ill-fated flight, and no one had made it out alive. The reporter asked the first banal question: "What has been going through your mind the last few minutes?" The young man said he just talked to his Father - who was vacationing with his Mother in Florida - to relay the bad news, and said he was really worried about his Mother. The reporter then asked him another banal question: - "How are they taking it?" His answer was anything but banal:
"To tell you the truth, I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I've never heard before."
All of a sudden I was there with him. I conjured up a vivid picture of his parents dealing with their grief in a small motel somewhere in Florida. I thought back to the time in my life when I had to pass the news to my future wife - we had been dating for about six months at the time - that her 14 year old brother had died in a freak accident. I remember trying to come up with the words to comfort her. I couldn't so I just held her. She cried herself to sleep. I thought about the struggle our family has been going through to help one of my sons deal with a serious substance abuse problem, and the nights I've stayed awake waiting for him to come home, and hoping the phone didn't ring first. This is hard stuff, and you pretty much end up dealing with it by yourself. Even those of us who thought twice about the 50 folks who died in the dark of night in Buffalo, were able to quickly put it our of our minds and go back to our daily routines. For those closest to the victims, however, life will never be the same.

In the future, I hope to remember that there are real people - with real families and friends that love them - behind the pictures we see and the sound bites we hear on TV. And, if I can do that, maybe I can also remember to stop to say a prayer asking God to walk with them in their time of great need.


  • What is your reaction to the Tony Campolo Quote?
  • Have you experienced the sudden loss of a close friend or family member?
  • If so, how did you cope? Did you walk through your pain or deny it?
  • If not, have you ever helped someone deal with a tragic loss? Explain.
"You cannot put a cheap band-aid on a sacred wound; there is no way through pain but to walk through it." - Dr. Robin Smith
"We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. And one of our ancient methods is to tell a story, begging the listener to say, and to feel, 'Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.' " - John Steinbeck
"When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares." - Henri Nouwen

The interview discussed above.

You'll Never Walk Alone, Celtic & Liverpool Fans

23 July 2010

Lectio Divina

Lectio divina is the ancient Benedictine monastics' practice of slow, meditative reading of Scripture intended to promote communion with God and to increase knowledge of God's Word. It is a way of praying with Scripture that calls one to study, ponder, listen and, finally, pray and even sing and rejoice from God's Word, within the soul.

The four-step process of lectio divina is fully described in a paper - Introduction to Lectio Divina - written by Fr. Luke Dysinger, O.S.B. in the Spring of 1990. Here is a shortened version mostly in Fr. Dysinger's words:

LECTIO: Reading/Listening. The art of lectio divina begins with cultivating the ability to listen deeply as we read the Scriptures; to hear "with the ear of our hearts" the "faint murmuring sound" of God's voice touching our hearts.

This reading or listening is very different from the speed reading which we moderns apply to newspapers, books and even to the Bible. Lectio is reverential listening; listening both in a spirit of silence and of awe; listening for the still, small voice of God to speak to us personally - not loudly, but intimately; gently listening to hear a word or phrase that is God's word for us.

MEDITATIO: Meditation. Once we have found a word or a passage in the Scriptures that speaks to us in a personal way, we must take it in and "ruminate" on it. The image of the ruminant animal quietly chewing its cud was used in antiquity as a symbol of the Christian pondering the Word of God. Christians have always seen a scriptural invitation to lectio divina in the example of the Virgin Mary "pondering in her heart" what she saw and heard of Christ.

For us today these images are a reminder that we must take in the word - that is, memorize it - and while gently repeating it to ourselves, allow it to interact with our thoughts, our hopes, our memories, our desires. Through meditatio we allow God's word to become His word for us, a word that touches us and affects us at our deepest levels.

ORATIO: Prayer. Next is oratio - prayer understood both as dialogue with God, that is, as loving conversation with the One who has invited us into His embrace; and as consecration, prayer as the priestly offering to God of parts of ourselves that we have not previously believed God wants. In this consecration prayer we allow the word we have taken in and on which we are pondering to touch and change our deepest selves. Just as a priest consecrates the elements of bread and wine at the Eucharist, God invites us in lectio divina to hold up our most difficult and pain-filled experiences to Him, and to gently recite over them the healing word or phrase He has given us in our lectio and meditatio. In this oratio, we allow our real selves to be touched and changed by the word of God.

CONTEMPLATIO: Contemplation. Here, we simply rest in the presence of the One who has used His word as a means of inviting us to accept His transforming embrace. No one who has ever been in love needs to be reminded that there are moments in loving relationships when words are unnecessary. It is the same in our relationship with God. Wordless, quiet rest in the presence of the One Who loves us has a name in the Christian tradition - contemplatio. Once again we practice silence, letting go of our own words; this time simply enjoying the experience of being in the presence of God.The most authentic and traditional form of Christian lectio divina is a solitary or private practice. Today, however, "group lectio" has become popular and is widely practiced in many different forms. Here is one form of group process from Fr. Dysinger:

1. Listening for the Gentle Touch of Christ the Word: The Literal Sense
  • One person reads aloud (twice) the passage of scripture, as others are attentive to some segment that is especially meaningful to them.
  • Silence for 1-2 minutes. Each hears and silently repeats a word or phrase that attracts.
  • Sharing aloud: A word or phrase that has attracted each person. A simple statement of one or a few words. No elaboration.
 2. How Christ the Word speaks to ME: The Allegorical Sense
  • Second reading of same passage by another person.
  • Silence for 2-3 minutes. Reflect on "Where does the content of this reading touch my life today?"
  • Sharing aloud: Briefly: "I hear, I see __."
     3. What Christ the Word Invites me to DO: The Moral Sense
    • Third reading by still another person.
    • Silence for 2-3 minutes. Reflect on "I believe that God wants me to __ today/this week."
    • Sharing aloud: at somewhat greater length the results of each one's reflection. Be especially aware of what is shared by the person to your right.
    • After full sharing, pray for the person to your right.
      I am sure you can readily see the value of studying the Scriptures in this way, but why not consider using the same process to gain deep, life-changing insights from sources other than sacred texts? "Why not?" you say. Okay. Here's a way to give it a shot in a group setting.

      In preparation for the group sit-down, the convener should pick a story to be contemplated and discussed. A great place to start is my book See New Now, which contains 24 stories specifically written to be used in this way. And, if you go here and click on "Click to Look Inside," you'll find you can read three of the stories. Here is a synopsis of each:

      The Scent on the Floor
      When a frustrated Estée Lauder poured a bottle of perfume onto the carpet at the finest department store in Paris, she changed the future of her company. The "scent" you leave behind can build your business or tear it down.

      The Baboon Reflex
      Baboons rarely hunt successfully in packs, because longstanding fears and feuds lead them to fight with each other instead of chasing their prey. Fear is deeply embedded in humans, too – much more so than we might imagine. Recognizing our hair-trigger fear reflex makes for more effective organizations and individuals.

      The Balance Pole
      The great high-wire artist Karl Wallenda fell to his death because he wouldn’t let go of his balance pole. Companies and individuals sometimes need to let go of their most cherished practices and beliefs.

      Conversation: Lectio Divina Style

      1. Listening to the Story: Literal Sense
      • One person reads the story aloud (twice) as the others listen for a word or phrase or that is especially meaningful to them.
      • Silence for 1-2 minutes. Each hears and silently repeats a word or phrase that attracts.
      • Sharing aloud: A word or phrase that has attracted each person. A simple statement of one or a few words. No elaboration.
      2. How the story speaks to me: Allegorical sense
      • The story is read by a different person
      • Silence for 2-3 minutes. Reflect on "Where does the content of this story touch my life today?"
      • Sharing aloud: briefly, "I hear, I see __"
      3. What the story invites me to do: Moral Sense
      • A third person reads the story.
      • Silence for 2-3 minutes. Reflect on “I believe this story is telling me to __ today/this week.”
      • Sharing aloud: at somewhat greater length the results of each one’s reflection. Be especially aware of what is shared by the person to your right.
      • After full sharing, make an offer of support to the person sitting at your right.
      "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress." - Saint Athanasius
      "At fixed hours time should be given to certain definite reading. For haphazard reading, constantly varied and as if lighted on by chance does not edify but makes the mind unstable; taken into the memory lightly, it goes out from it even more lightly. But you should concentrate on certain authors and let your mind grow used to them." - William of St. Thierry
      "The Scriptures need to be read and understood in the same spirit in which they were written. You will never enter into Paul's meaning until by constant application to reading him and by giving yourself to meditation you have imbibed his spirit. You will never understand David until by experience you have made the very sentiments of the psalms your own. And that applies to all Scripture. There is the same gulf between attentive study and mere reading as there is between friendship and acquaintance with a passing guest, between boon companionship and chance meeting." - William of St. Thierry

      Guigo II, The Ladder of the Four Rungs (Classic Text on Lectio Divina)