Friday, August 27, 2010

The elephant in the room . . .

. . . is a phenomenon we've all experienced. It's that unspoken "difficulty" that pretty much everyone knows is present, but that everyone tacitly agrees NOT to bring up. On the other hand, its presence affects the conversation mightily, often derailing discussions, or preventing resolution of problems.

Couples may dance delicately around issues of finances. Members of organizations may recognize morale problems, but never address them. Families may recognize that beloved Uncle Lodovich sees pink elephants, but no one wants to upset the apple cart by calling him on his drinking problem. The problem is, of course, as long as the elephant remains unrecognized, unnamed, "invisible", it cannot be corralled, tamed, disciplined, domesticated -- or even the source of learning. So the status quo is preserved, perhaps prevnting healing, perpetuating injustices, or creating disasters.

Those who were charged with discovering what happened in the horrendous explosions of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia discovered that there was a culture in NASA that effectively prevented "red flags" the engineers discovered prior to launch from ever making their way up the hierarchical management chain. What, at one time, was a proud history of achievement became dominated by a mantra of "faster, better, cheaper." Delays--those pesky "red flags"-- slowed things down, and ended up costing more . . . so keep them hidden! Many folks within NASA recognized this cultural shift, but were afraid to bring it to light. The effects: disastrous.

This whole issue arose for me earlier this week when I was reading a passage from the gospel of John in which the story is told of people in a crowd disagreeing over whether Jesus was a good man or a menace (John 7.10-13). And while they disagreed with one another, the story reports that no one spoke openly about it for fear of the authorities. For fear of the authorities?! Fear of shaking things up? Even discussing something on which there was no consensus. The only consensus was "don't talk about it publicly."

And then a few days later I was in a meeting where organizational health was in peril because of one rather difficult individual. Pretty much everyone knew that he was inhibiting progress but, since he'd been so influential for so long, no one wanted to call him on his behavior and tactics. The future of the organization was being inhibited for fear of stating the obvious.

Of course, we're all in these kinds of situations all the time. It may be at home, or work. I know that I have been guilty of ignoring the elephant in the room of my own self because naming it might mean that I'd have to make a change. Yet change is the one thing that almost all of us want. Who doesn't say "I wish I were better at . . . " And so we read lots of books ABOUT changing our fitness patterns, or diet, or time management practices. And so we substitute the reading for the doing-- partly because we're still not naming the real elephant. I know I often find external excuses for not dealing with internal issues -- the elephant isn't in MY room!

I understand from talking with my Muslim friends that Ramadan (the month of fasting -- its happening right now!) often brings to light issues that have lain hidden (or ignored) at other times of the year. Some other religious traditions have regular rituals for exposing these hidden, personal, "elephants" in order that they may be addressed (the rite of confession in the liturgical branches of Christianity is an example; the asking of forgiveness during the Jewish High Holy Days is another). Opportunities for growth.

Elephants are big. They take up a lot of room. They can be frightening. On the other hand, they can also be made to be allies in changing things. There's a reason why the Hindu god Ganesha (the elephant-headed god) is the "overcomer of obstacles".

I wonder . . . can we name our elephants, domesticate them, and make change for the better?



Friday, August 13, 2010

Sand castles and crawdads . . .

One morning last week, my son and I walked down to the beach at Lake Tahoe to do some crawdad fishing at the dock. As we were walking along the shoreline, he exclaimed, "My sand castle is gone!" I asked where it had been, and he pointed to a flat spot on the beach. "Right there!" he said, disappointedly. (If it looked like the one above [it didn't], I'd feel pretty bummed too!) I had to explain to him that, even at a lake, water rises and falls, and there are plenty of other little people's feet that lay waste to sand walls. In any case, castles on the shore are likely to disappear within a few hours. He didn't necessarily like that answer, but he eventually accepted it -- there were crawdads to catch after all!

And so we walked onto the dock, tied a bit of chicken skin to a rock and dropped it in the lake. Sure enough, within a few minutes, crawdads were grabbing, and holding on tight to, the bait. We would pull them up slowly until we could maneuver a basket underneath them and haul them up. The skin/bait would go back into the water, and we'd examine our catch. More often than not, the critter was pretty small (although the "kung fu crawdad" pose was menacing nonetheless) and we'd have to set it free. The act of freeing a crawdad to be caught some future day didn't seem to have the same sense of loss as did the vanished sand castle.

Maybe it was that the building of a sand castle is an act of creation, while crawdad fishing is simply taking advantage of what was there. Harder, I suppose, for all of us to relinquish something we've spent time fashioning than it is to let go of something that was never really ours to begin with. Whether its a sand-castle or an equally ephemeral snow-man -- or even something slightly more permanent like a thesis or book or stone castle -- nothing we fashion will last forever. Many things won't even outlast US! Nevertheless we cling to them as tenaciously as the crawdads gripped the chicken skin, even as they were being pulled away from the safety of their rocks.

School is starting up all around. Some of the public schools in the Denver area have already started; DU kicks in in a month. As much as I'd like to hold on to the sand-castle that is the summer, I know its on its way to being but a memory. And there is fresh sand to mold. I've learned from the process of building, of crawdad fishing, and I can take that with me into the fall. The new castle may not look the same; the crawdads may be bigger (or smaller). But I'm changed; I'm different -- as is the environment around me. And what's to come . . . ?

As the well-known proverb goes, "You can't step into the same river twice". Or, as our summer commencement speaker, Dean Rahmat Shoureshi, put it this morning, "Always have a 'Plan B' or a 'Plan C". We can enjoy the castles and crawdads as they come . . . and go, but then we need follow the spirit's leading into a new future.