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 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)

      16 July 2010

      Knowers and Learners

      Former longshoreman and writer Eric Hoffer said:
      "In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."
      Hoffer made that statement many years ago, but it's never been more important to truly understand what he meant. To help me think about it, I like to draw a clear distinction between knowers and learners.
      • Knowers see learning as a destination; learners see it as a journey
      • Knowers seek certainty; learners seek plausibility
      • Knowers see their truth as the only truth; learners are open to others' views
      • Knowers base their self esteem on being right; learners base theirs on contribution
      • Knowers can't be wrong, so if they make a mistake they find someone or something else to blame; learners can make mistakes, admit they don't have all the answers, and continue to be part of the solution
      • Knowers find it difficult to adapt to change, and become weaker, less effective, and less influential over time; learners, who more readily adapt, become stronger, more effective, and more influential
      A story that illustrates the difference between knowing and learning involves former NHL star Brett Hull and what happened to some advice he gave me to pass along to my two hockey-playing sons.
      "First, make sure they get the basics down cold, because you can’t be a great hockey player if you can't skate, pass, and shoot. Second, have them develop a signature move, or something they become really well known for."
      When I sat my boys down to pass on Brett’s advice, they both got the work on the basics part right away. They were a little slow on the uptake, however, when I told them they needed to develop a signature move. Once I explained, each had a different reaction.

      My oldest – the knower – said he already had one - scoring goals - and sprinted off. He spent most of the rest of his hockey career trying to do that, and the older he got, the less successful he became. In his senior year of high school, his coach told him that his strength was playing defense. Once he got that through his head - it was either that or sit on the bench - he led his team to the Minnesota State High School Tournament. Despite his success, however, he still sees his hockey strength as scoring goals. He is a knower in all other aspects of life as well, and I often wonder if it's a trait he inherited - from his mother of course. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but I really can relate to the following classified ad:
      "FOR SALE CHEAP! Complete Set of Encyclopedia Britannica. 45 volumes. Excellent condition. $100 or best offer. No longer needed. Got married last week. Wife knows everything."
      My youngest, on the other hand, proved himself a learner; he looked at me and said:
      “Dad. How can I get a one of those moves?”
      I asked:
      “What are you really good at?”
      He said:
      “I really like to hit people.”
      So, we had a brainstorming session and he came up with the idea that he would be the Little Assassin, the fastest, meanest, little son-of-a-gun on the ice. This combined a couple of ideas. First, he was the smallest - and fastest - kid on his team. Second, we had just seen the movie The Day of the Jackal, which is about a real assassin. From that day on, he was exactly that. And though he became a really good hockey player, and developed many other skills, he was always known best for his toughness. Is he still a learner? No, he's a teenager.

      • Are you a knower or a learner? How so?
      • What kind of questions do you ask yourself? Are they serving you well?
      • Do you spend more time searching for answers to questions you know to ask, or searching for new questions?
      • What was the last truly new question you asked? How did you come to ask it?
      • What are the most basic assumptions you hold about how the world works? How long have you held them? Have you ever really challenged them? If you did, which to you think would hold up? Which may not? Why?
      "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge." - Stephen Hawking
      "The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind." - William Blake
      "It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong." - Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
      "The very liveliness of a culture is determined not by how frequently explorers discover new continents of knowledge, but by how frequently they depart to seek them." - James P. Carse
      "The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades." - Joseph Campbell

      09 July 2010

      Friends in Low Places

      Country singer-songwriter, Garth Brooks, has sold more records than anyone in the history of the music industry, save The Beatles. His signature song is the blue-collar rouser Friends in Low Places.

      Friends in low places is a theme that shows up often in the movie Charlie Wilson's War, which is based on the book of the same name by George Crile. A synopsis of the movie from Reuters follows:

      Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was a bachelor congressman from Texas whose "Good Time Charlie" exterior masked an extraordinary mind, a deep sense of patriotism and a passion for the underdog. In the early 1980s the underdog was Afghanistan - which had just been brutally invaded by the Russians.

      Charlie's longtime friend, patron and sometime lover was Joanne
      Herring (Julia Roberts) - one of the richest women in Texas and a virulent anti-communist. Believing the American response to the Russian invasion was anemic at best, she prodded Charlie into doing more for the Mujahideen (Afghan freedom fighters).

      Charlie's partner in this uphill endeavor was CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) - a blue-collar operative in a company of Ivy League blue bloods. Together they traveled the world to form unlikely alliances among the Pakistanis, Israelis, Egyptians, arms dealers, law makers and a belly dancer.

      Their success was remarkable. Funding for covert ops against the Soviets went from $5 million to $1 billion annually. The Red Army retreated out of Afghanistan. When asked how a group of peasants was able to deliver such a decisive blow to the army of a superpower, Pakistani President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq responded simply: "Charlie did it."

      Charlie was able to do it because of the help he and Gust got from friends in low places and in other places as well. Crile explains:
      "The way things normally work, if you’re not Jewish you don’t get into the Jewish caucus, but Charlie did. And if you’re not black you don’t get into the black caucus. But Charlie plays poker with the black caucus; they had a game, and he’s the only white guy in it. The House, like any human institution, is moved by friendships, and no matter what people might think about Wilson’s antics, they tend to like him and enjoy his company."
      "Avrakotos was hardly the first CIA case officer to recognize the value of lower-level members of an intelligence organization. Abroad, every CIA spy recognizes that perhaps the most promising targets for recruitment in an enemy intelligence service are low-level figures: the code clerks, the secretaries, the couriers. But it was rare indeed to fine a case officer who made an effort to befriend such lowly figures within their own organization. In vivid contrast, Avrakotos had always found himself more at home with these fellow untouchables than with the well-born, high-ranking officers of the clandestine services, and from the time he first joined the CIA he had befriended them. He made it a point to intervene when he could on their behalf. He became their champion whenever one of them would be unfairly treated. And he always shared the truth about the way he felt about the blue-bloods."
      • How would you characterize your relationships with the little people in your personal as well as your professional life? Would they echo your comments? Are you sure?
      • How has a friend in a low place helped you?
      • How has an enemy in a low place done you in?
      • As you build and nurture your networks, where do the little people stand? Top of mind? Afterthought? Out of the picture?
      • If you say they are important to you, are you treating them accordingly?
      • If you say they are not important, is it possible you should rethink your position?
      "Answer e-mails from junior people before more senior ones. Junior people have further to go and tend to remember who slighted them." - Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Sunday Times - June 1, 2008
      "If you're in trouble, or hurt or need -- go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help - the only ones." - John Steinbeck
      "America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but it's people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor, but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters." - Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

      02 July 2010

      God Bless the U.S.A.

      On July 4, 1776, Congress approved the wording of the Declaration of Independence and started the United States of America on its steady march to becoming the greatest nation on Earth. This year we celebrate Independence Day for the 233rd time.

      I see this holiday as a beacon that burns brightly once each year to remind us to open our hearts and give thanks to our Founding Fathers for building, christening, and launching this ship we call America, and to all those who have sacrificed so much to keep her safe and riding high for the nearly two and a half centuries since. And, the best way to thank them, I think, is to keep the spirit of America alive and well by studying her history - especially at the time of her founding - and relaying the stories and lessons learned to future generations.

      Here is a story worth telling and remembering. It is a story about authentic leadership. In sharing it with you, I will paraphrase and quote from the second volume of George Washington in the American Revolution (1775-1873) by James Thomas Flexner.

      On March 15, 1783, a large group of Continental Army officers, who had all served under George Washington met in Newburgh, New York, on the Hudson River. They were bitter because they had not been paid properly by Congress for years and because no provision had been made for their retirement. They were debating whether or not to overthrow Congress and establish a military dictatorship that would force Congress and the states to give them what they thought they had earned. Those in favor of the coup wanted Washington to lead them; some even tried to convince him to become the new American king.

      Washington, though not scheduled to attend the meeting, showed up in the middle of their deliberations. As he spoke, he told them that while their cause was righteous and just, only bloodshed would result from an assertion of military power over civilian authority. He went on to tell them that he would help them in every way his ability and prestige would permit within the normal political context of Congress' authority over the military, but that he would not lead a military takeover of America. The officers listened politely and respectfully, but clearly were not willing to give in to his plea.

      At that point, Washington pulled out a piece of paper - a note from a member of Congress telling the officers he was sympathetic with their plight and that he would do whatever he could to help them. He fumbled with the note and finally took out a pair of eyeglasses so he could read it. Most of the officers sitting in the room were shocked; very few knew he used them. Washington said:
      "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country."
      He then read the short statement from the member of Congress, and without any anti-climactic epilogue, he walked out of the meeting, mounted his horse, and rode back to his headquarters. Quoting Flexner:
      "This simple statement achieved what all Washington's rhetoric and all his argument had been unable to achieve. The officers were instantly in tears, and ... their eyes looked with love at the commander who had led them all so far and so long."
      The push for military takeover vanished and the officers drafted a new address to Congress expressing a willingness to trust the process that General Washington had outlined.

      So, when all was said and done, it was not reason or logic that turned the tide and prevented a military coup, is was the love and affection a group of soldiers had for their leader.

      At the end of the story, Flexner says:
      "Americans can never be adequately grateful that George Washington possessed the power and the will to intervene effectively in what may well have been the most dangerous hour the United States has ever known."
      • What are your early memories of celebrating Independence Day? What did this holiday mean to your community? Your school? Your friends? Your family? You?
      • Is Independence Day either more or less important to you now as it was then? If so, what's changed and why?
      • How does being an American have personal meaning for you?
      "And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget the men who died, who gave that right to me." - Lee Greenwood
      "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children's children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done." - Ronald Reagan
      "When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect." - Adlai Stevenson
      "Our hearts where they rocked our cradle,
      Our love where we spent our toil,
      And our faith, and our hope, and our honor,
      We pledge to our native soil.
      God gave all men all earth to love,
      But since our hearts are small,
      Ordained for each one spot should prove
      Beloved over all."
      - Rudyard Kipling


      Lee Greenwood, God Bless the U.S.A.