Friday, October 28, 2011

Bounce me higher!

     In the twelfth chapter of Jonathan Mooney's captivating book, The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal*, the author introduces us to Katie.  Katie is twenty-four year old woman (at the time the book was written) with Down syndrome.  Mooney (who, as a child, was labeled "dyslexic and profoundly learning disabled") had been traveling the country in a short bus -- the kind of bus special education children often ride to school.  He has been meeting adults for whom that bus was a reality; one of his last stops was with Katie.  At the end of his time with her, Mooney's traveling partner at the time suggested that she, Katie and Mooney get on the big trampoline in Katie's back yard.  Mooney was clearly not interested, but joined the two women:

"It is better if you jump together," Katie said.  So Kelly and I jumped together, our bodies slowly adjusting to each other's weight. Then Katie joined us.  We had only a few more minutes left, so Kelly, Katie, and I threw our bodies in the air and we fell into an unspoken rhythm, each of us using our weight to throw the other one up a little higher than we could ever go simply on our own.**

I was struck by the image and had to put the book down for a few minutes to let it soak in. What an amazing metaphor for cooperation and encouragement.
     I think what struck me so much is how little we hear about encouragement (maybe that's just my perception).  Certainly I hear it among members of athletic teams; they recognize that their own individual and team success depends on the success of all on the team.  But when I considered this in a broader context, I couldn't come up with a lot of other examples.  Indeed, the counter-examples are pretty apparent, from political debates to international relations to some inter-family relations.  The scarcity model reigns:  "If YOU succeed, then, in all likelihood, you'll have gotten the laurels, and there are none for me.  So why encourage YOU?"
      What Katie realized, and what Mooney and Kelly learned, was that despite their differences in abilities, weight, trampoline experience, whatever, if they used what they individually brought TO that trampoline to serve the others, they could all achieve more.  The language Mooney used suggests that there was no agenda on any of their parts, only to jump together on the trampoline.  And then they "fell into an unspoken rhythm" that produced the elevated results.
     Golly, I know I like to hear "encouraging" words, but it seems that on this "range" these days, seldom are heard encouraging words.  Yet if that is what we want to hear, if that is what we want to experience, then perhaps taking the initiative TO encourage might start a trend.  It would be consistent, certainly, with the so-called "Golden Rule" that runs through every religious tradition.  And maybe we could all,together, end up a little higher than we might on our own.
       So, how can I encourage you?



* New York:  Holt Paperbacks, 2007.
** p. 200.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Is the best use of time . . . not to?

       The other day I found myself in a room listening to some pretty nice music.  I had nothing I needed to do EXCEPT listen; there was no other place I needed to be.  And I found it almost impossible to keep my hands off of my smartphone.  I felt absolutely drawn to check my email, or update my to-do list -- right in the middle of doing what I was scheduled to do!  I rationalized that I was making good use of my time.
       And, immediately, as I realized what I was doing, I recalled an article I had read just a day or so earlier.  The article came to my via the social network site "LinkedIn" -- a medium for professionals to make connections -- a very work-oriented social network.  And the article itself came from the magazine "Fast Company", described on their website:

Fast Company is the world's leading progressive business media brand, with a unique editorial focus on innovation in technology, ethonomics (ethical economics), leadership, and design. Written for, by, and about the most progressive business leaders, Fast Company and inspire readers and users to think beyond traditional boundaries, lead conversations and create the future of business. 

The article's title?  "What Happened to Downtime?  The Extinction of Deep Thinking and Sacred Space".
       In it, the author (listed as "The 99 Percent") begins by stating that "interruption-free space is sacred.  Yet in the digital era we live in, we are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched by email, the Internet, people, and other forms of distraction."  The author goes on to argue that this loss of "sacred space" is partly due to our fear of what that space affords:  "To escape this chasm of self-doubt and unanswered questions, you tune into all of the activity and data for reassurance."  So, in the midst of beautiful music (following on the train of thought in the article), I feared being unproductive and turned to that security blanket:  my Android smartphone!
      The article also suggests, however, that in moments of un-connectedness (such as in the shower), we often have those "ah-ha" moments.  We are not "fully engaged in a creative activity" and another form of creativity is able to break through.  A walk through the fall leaves?   Sitting quietly in a church/temple/mosque?  Listening to beautiful music (without an accompanying video)?  Space for inspiration?
       I remember that I hesitated getting my first cell phone because I didn't want to be constantly available.  Things changed, and it became a necessary accompaniment to my life (mostly work-related).  And then the worm turned, and that phone began to control me, to demand that I attend to it--even when no one was calling or texting me.   And empty time became busy time.
       A break from busy time?  Have we turned time into such a precious commodity that it has to be used judiciously, efficiently, intentionally, constantly?  Might occasionally "wasting" time be its best use?  Ironically it was "Fast Company" that encouraged me to consider slowing down.
       Tempus fugit.  So what!?


Friday, October 14, 2011

Rage against the shrinking of the pale!

      No!  Not that kind of pail!
      A "Pale", according to Wiktionary, is "a jurisdiction under a given authority; often held by one nation in another country, hence suggesting that anything outside their control was uncivilised. It was in use by the mid-17th century. The phrase may be a reference to the general sense of boundary, but is often understood to refer to the English Pale in Ireland. In the nominally English territory of Ireland, only the pale fell genuinely under the authority of English law, hence the terms 'within the Pale' and 'beyond the pale'."**  Colloquially, we often hear about certain kinds of behavior that they're "beyond the pale", that is, that they may be unacceptable in polite society.
      The problem with pales is that they are designed by people in (supposed) power/authority to define who's "in" and who's "out". Given the administrative nature of their origins, that's understandable.  The colloquial use, however,  reveals something else:  our need to define ourselves over against something, or someone, else . . . . and to preserve our privilege.  "Protection" may be nothing more than protection against unwelcome opinions or ideas.  In other words, those folks "over there" disagree with us; they MUST be "outside the pale" . . . and therefore we can dismiss them, OR fight them.
      Well, it seems to me that, in the colloquial sense, the pales keep shrinking.  Nations/states define their borders to define who is "in" or "out".  The USA has certainly done that -- and, in recent years, hardened those definitions with walls in the south and requirements-for-passports in the north.  We have done a lot to create smaller and smaller pales within these borders.  We define them by color, by religion, by language.   "You're either in, or you're beyond the pale!" And we have seen in the very recent months and years, the "pale" defined by ideology, or sectarian differences with religion.  The comments about Mormonism by Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress is a case in point (in my opinion).  Calling something a "cult" is an easy way in our culture to dismiss it, imply it's wrong (as everyone should know) -- in other words, cast it and its adherents "beyond the pale."
      Mr. Jeffress is not certainly alone in this, and it is not just a contemporary problem.  I was in college at a time when LOTS of religious groups that the mainstream didn't understand were labeled "cults".  And, now, we see it happening from both the right and the left -- the religious, as well as political, right and left.  And it is true within many different religious traditions; I can certainly think of examples in Christianity, Judaism and Isalm.  Cast someone outside of the pale, and they don't have to be heard from.  And, of course, we don't have to listen, because we are RIGHT!
      Well, I disagree!  And I ask that others join me in raging against the shrinking of the pale.
For the sake OF the pale-of whatever size, we need to engage all those within it in constructive, respectful, conversation.   And, then, expand the conversation, include more voices, increase our capacity for compassion, and enlarge the pale.  


*With apologies to Dylan Thomas, and his poem "Do not go gentle into that dark night"!
**It also refers to a portion of Imperial Russia where Jews were allowed to live -- but, outside of which, they couldn't live permanently.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Living in the future tense

     Earlier this week I had coffee with a member of the faculty who has been at the university for many decades.  He is in the process of retiring, and is pulling away from various responsibilities.  I wanted to take the opportunity to hear what it was about DU that had kept him (and so many others) here so long.  As one might imagine, I heard A LOT!  There wasn't one specific thing that stood out, more of a montage of good memories -- even through the difficult times.  He spoke of the changes in chancellors (and their priorities); he talked about specific people; he mentioned retrenchments during trying economic times; he talked about the increasing capabilities of students.  Through it all, it seemed to me that the one thing that was beneath all of the stories was a sense of optimism and commitment to making it work, to improving, to living into the future.
     That sense of forward-looking seems to characterize much of the commentaries and tributes that have filled the airwaves since the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.  The stories -- both those that have found their way to the mainstream media (and blog sites) as well as the little anecdotes I read in Facebook updates -- focus on how Jobs kept looking for ways to innovate . . . and to delight.  The concern for the future of Apple without its visionary leader has certainly been raised.  Analysts, however, seem to think that a culture of looking to the future has become so ingrained in the company that folks need not worry.
     I was captivated by the stories told me by that member of the faculty, as well as by those about Steve Jobs.  Captivated because there is something hopeful in them.  So different than most of the news, or stories, we hear almost all of the rest of the time.  Hearing stories about "the best" or "peak experiences" energizes most of us.  Yet we are surrounded by stories about what's deficient, or needs fixing.
     I did not ask my coffee-partner about what needed to be corrected at DU; I asked him about the university at its best.  And we both went away up-beat and hopeful (at least I certainly did).   And while the death of Steve Jobs has hit many around the world hard, his legacy -- the way he lived his life, and died his death, as well as his spirit of innovation -- gives hope.  I didn't have to ask about them; they just seemed to roll out of their own accord.
     I am reminded that Moses, as he looked into the Promised Land, knowing that he was not to enter it, charged the Israelites to look forward, to be faithful to the covenant that they had established with the God they believed had delivered them.  He warned them against turning astray; things would not go well if they did.  He summed it all up by saying:  "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live . . . " (Deuteronomy 30.19).   The faculty person with whom I shared coffee could not see all of DU's future, but based on decades of experience, he believed it was bright.  Steve Jobs had known for years that he had cancer; it did not deter him from building on the best experiences Apple had known and looking ahead.
     And so I wonder, what might we learn if we spent more time asking people to tell stories about their best experiences?  There are different threads, and different trajectories, found in stories that focus on the best.  I think that's one of the reasons we like inspirational, positive, movies . . . and why we're so tired of the current negative discourse that fills our airwaves.   What is suggested by the "problematic" keeps us mired in the past, a past about which we can do nothing.  What is suggested to us, however, by the "best" can lead us to a hopeful future.
     So, share stories about your BEST experiences about . . .    Share stories about when you were MOST FULLY engaged in . . .   Dream about a future based on the best.  And then act into that reality