Category Archives: wisdom

Of Circumstance and Action

In the New Year’s Eve reflection I posted last night, there are a few lines that say more about my year than anything else I wrote:

All of that [skill, experience, enthusiasm, potential, will, and grit] I had, but it wasn’t enough to move me forward. Outside of the umbrella of my former university, I was restricted… When the low-grade stress became a scream and I thought I was exhausted, I conferred with a lawyer and started the process of applying for permanent residency independently… [Now] I’m meeting a new year with the ability to move.

A cartoon person on a rocket wooshes across the top of the image. At the bottom, is a period labeled "The Point."

Sometimes our assumptions and premises lead us to miss the point.

Yet I’d always had the ability to move. This ability changed my year, but it wasn’t magically bestowed on me just in time to deflect a crash. I’d always been able to think new thoughts, see new options, test alternatives, fail, and test something different. But I’d allowed my context to overrule my powers of attention and persistence. Over several months, I beat myself against the rock of Circumstance, and so I suffered. But when I started acting so as to shape Circumstance, the restrictions I’d experienced shifted. Not immediately and not all at once, but not a moment before.

Looking back, I’m glad I experienced this, because now I know what doesn’t work.

Throwing oneself at Circumstance but not identifying actions that could shift Circumstance—that doesn’t work.

It’s not that the external restrictions I faced last year weren’t real. They were very legal and very real. But the internal restrictions I faced? Those were unnecessary troubles, and for the months I let them lead me, they limited the options I saw and judged feasible.

Where I Erred

Trained to listen respectfully to authority figures, I took it for granted that they knew what they were talking about. But instead of speaking about me and my case, some spoke about averages—I’m not average—and others spoke from fears and worries that I don’t live by. Not everyone has the expertise to evaluate my experience or potential or risk load, and no one can be as invested in my continued progress as I am. The rules and cautions they offered weren’t about me or for me, but when I accepted them as though they were, I earned the limited perspective that resulted.

At the same time, I was inconsistent about focusing on the future I knew I wanted and taking small, steady steps toward it. I was tempted, every so often, to appease my uncertainty,  to drop my goals and do what others deemed more responsible, or to seat my projects at the kids’ table while I gave over my prime energy to the visions of others. And I was impatient with everything, especially with myself.

Beginning Again

One of my new friends uses the phrase “Begin Again” as a touchstone. I love this phrase!

Photo: In the foreground, a rocky desert landscape with sparse brush; in the background, a pale blue-white morning sky.

Climb the mountain ahead—one step at a time. Image (c) K. McKenzie

In learning the wisdom of the turtle I’m gaining a lot of experiences to retrain the impatience in my blood. My relocation last decade swung me into high, productive activity within the first 3 weeks, but this decade’s relocation is about building deliberately without an institutional safety net. I still have resources and support, but some of the logic and tools I need this time are different than those I used before.

Last week, I read the 1902 pamphlet As a Man Thinketh by James Allen for the first time. I’ve seen it referenced in several books over the years and it’s a classic in more than age: it represents the spirit of its milieu, the US and Europe pre-Titanic and pre-World War I. Those were years in which popular writers and preachers were equally convinced of the power of mind and thought, the science and surety of human progress, and the role of optimism and innovative action in individual and social development. Out of this milieu came Ernest Holmes and the Science of Mind tradition; its contemporary progeny includes a whole swathe of motivational presenters, “life coaches,” and the new trends in “life design.”

During that same period, my denomination emerged as a contrarian voice. As Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart argue in Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream, the SDA tradition countered the spirit of the age with fatalism about human nature and teachings about impending international calamity, not hope for salvation through science and will. With the unmitigated disasters of the 20th Century’s first three decades, Adventist fatalism seemed justified, and its suspicion of progress persists today.

Despite that backdrop, I feel fortunate to have been exposed to some of the mind-thought-goal-action writing men of the late 20th Century, from Norman Vincent Peale and Earl Nightingale to Og Mandino, Zig Ziglar, and Robert Schuller. My mother, who sold encyclopedias and other books when I was small, absorbed the developmental teachings of these writers to help her sell. She also encouraged my siblings and I to reflect on them on our own. I’ll never be a clone of these men and haven’t always applied their approaches, but I looking forward to rediscovering them and testing their validity for myself this year.

And You?

  • Did you join the resolution crowd this morning with a vague intention, or have you set specific and measurable goals for yourself?
  • Have you already figured the actions you need to take to make your goals happen? Who around you is on board with your plan? Check the quality of your social network to minimize peer resistance once you get started.
  • Will success depend on you “hanging in there” with gritted teeth? Or is there a vision that you can return to and be motivated by when the work gets intense?
  • Plan for a little forward motion every day, your stretch target just ahead to help draw you forward at a sustainable pace. Stay in motion. 

Thanks, Twitter (2013 ed.)—Part 2

This is the second of three Twitter-compilation posts for 2013 (Part 1: Seeing the Real | Part 3: Changing the World).
Evolving Deliberately includes tweets on growing up, self-evaluating, improving, and moving beyond one’s personal status quo.

2. Evolving Deliberately

Turtle Wisdom

44,881 words | NaNoWriMo Participant 2013I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the first time this year. My intention was to write 1,600-2000 words for six to seven days per week month-long, and I finished November with a total of 44,881 words. My NaNoWriMo total didn’t make me a “winner” by the rules of the 50-000 word challenge, but it did give me a structure for re-engaging my research consistently. I’ll be taking that accomplishment—and its momentum—with me into the upcoming year.

When I finished writing up my doctoral study in 2012, I wanted a way to tangibly mark the achievement and capture the lesson learned with something that would outlast the graduation pomp and smiles from visiting relatives.

After some thought, I settled on these pottery turtles.

My two turtles come from the hands of New Mexican Navajo artists Tom Vail Jr. (white-grey with rainbow) and Johnny Williams (glazed black). For the last three years of my program, I spent a few days retreating in New Mexico each fall, and these pieces remind me of the state’s artists, peoples, and land.

They also remind me of wisdom strains that I’d learned as a child and promptly forgotten through the years:

“Slow and steady wins the race…”

“The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong…”

“She that endures to the end shall be saved…”

and then the most prosaic, from one of my research advisors:

“Do a little bit every day.”

It was that last piece of counsel that helped me most through my research topic, around grad student fatigue and despite various family and personal derailments. It kept me current for most of NaNoWriMo, and it’ll also keep me on task with my goals for the coming year.

We’re still a few days away from the calendar turn. What goals do you have for your next 12 months? How can you break them down into manageable pieces? How will you “do a little bit every day”?

Her church dean read the parable of the vineyard. And the children at Vacation Bible School protested the rules of the game.

“Grace is not attractive,” she thought. “It’s not fair!” [Watch the video.]

Once upon a time, I shared Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability and shame with some relatives. The blowback I got in return was epic.

I may never know whether they were reacting to the content. Or to her casual self-effacement. Or to her language (the Work of the People site flags this clip with a “language warning”).

Some respondents thought her talk profane, as if there is anything in the universe more sacred than the vulnerable, intentional connection of two made in the image of God.

And dismissing her could even have been a proxy for dismissing me, the niece who refused shame and preferred integrity. I don’t know.

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz's Painting "The Outsider"

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz’s Painting “The Outsider”

But listening to “Grace isn’t attractive” today made me wonder if the blowback wasn’t about any of these things; if instead it was a kind of resistance to what Brown points to here: what’s “fair” and what’s “just,” who earns rights to be “in the circle” or defined “out,” and who gets to “own” the group and keep others from messing it up…

Fundamentalist religion has very strong ideas about this—about fairness, justice, and the boundaries of good and deviant. It also resists and shuts down challenges to those ideas, regardless of their source. It can’t stand the idea that maybe it isn’t the gatekeeper and maybe its understanding isn’t the measure.

If you’ve ever read one of the parables attributed to Jesus and completely disagreed with the punchline of the story, you’ll understand what Brown is talking about when she says: “It’s not fair! I still don’t get it; I still don’t like it! I like stuff you can earn.”

Grace is polarizing. It’s horrific. And it’s exactly what we need in a culture that’s been stripped of it.

On Dodging Grief

My friend J Mase III, poet, writer, and co-founder of the weekly #qfaith Twitter chat, wrote an article about grief this week. He’d asked his followers about how others react to grief, what they say, and what we wish others said.

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine died. We met at our church 4 years ago; he was an usher and deacon, and his wife often sat in our row. The two of them were and are among the sweetest and most grounded people I know; easy-going, open-hearted, travel-lovers, and wonderfully matched as a couple. While she recovered from breast cancer, he developed a terminal disease, underwent a series of conventional and experimental treatments, and then, about a week and a half ago, went to sleep and never woke.

We all knew it was coming. We just didn’t know when. We saw his suits hanging more loosely around his shoulders and a shadow form in his cheeks—but it was easy to deny impending death because he so thoroughly distracted us with a life that he lived the hell out of. His smile was perennial and his capacity for graciousness, kindness, and other-centeredness was undimmed by either declining health or increasing pain.

I can’t imagine anyone who knew him and won’t miss him. I also don’t know anyone who knew him who’s not glad he’s now beyond the reach of cancer.

Grief is a sneaky thing at times like this. Mainstream culture gives us a straightforward protocol for grief: for family, you get this much time to deny, cry, or pout. With friends, that much. For people with whom you had a social network in common, maybe a little. With celebrities like Nelson Mandela or Paul Walker, follow the news cycle without being maudlin, and then move on.

Who makes up these rules? They don’t fit for me. They don’t match my relationships and I don’t live by them.

Shame and belonging researcher Brené Brown has a gift for explaining how our responses to the vulnerabilities of others can open up our relationships or abridge them. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) animated part of a talk on empathy in which she describes how sympathy falls short, can be dismissive, and is often about assuaging the discomfort of the speaker rather than the person in grief, sadness, or pain:

One of the things we do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations is we try to make things better. If I share something with you that’s very difficult, I’d rather you say, “Phew! I don’t even know what to say right now; I’m just so glad you told me.”

Because the truth is rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection. —Brené Brown

So here are 5 things I told J that I wished folk said when I was grieving:

“I don’t know what to say, so I’m going to be quiet. I love you.”

“I’ll only tell you my grief story if you ask—and you don’t have to.”

“Wanna play some pool? Can pick you up at 8.”

“Doesn’t matter that you’re not grieving a relative. It doesn’t hurt any less.”

“You can feel whatever you feel around me. I’m listening.”

Sometimes, I said, people fill the silences and the space with their noise, awkwardness, and fear-projected-outward, missing opportunities to just be. Not everyone can stand the light of vulnerability or loss or hope, and so when they can’t, yet show up in your space anyway, managing them while managing your own grief becomes an unnecessary and burdensome mission.

There are also some who can stand that light, who can bear it, who will sit with others through sadness without fixing, meddling, or minimizing. Are they rare souls? Does it matter?

I appreciate those I know. And I hope this year to be more of one for the people around me.

Check out J’s article at the Huffington Post: Rules for grieving in the New Year—or Grieving like it’s 1999. What grieving rules or customs do you live by? Share in the comments below.

In order to organize society, we create institutions, we build buildings, we train millions of people to perform very specialized activities. We make endless forms to record and report what we are doing. We create armies of people to supervise other people, and of course the supervisors themselves have to be supervised as well.

These systems acquire a life of their own. We seem to forget that they were created around an idea. All systems… are creations of our unique way of looking at the world, our reality. Systems are expressions of our beliefs. —robert wolff, Original Wisdom

Designing Anew

"Make sure you don't start seeing yourself through the eyes of those who don't value you. Know your worth even if they don't."

Know your value. Image via TheGoodVibe

I’m endlessly fascinated by how minority groups absorb majority standards as a measure of value, even when those standards press the minority to pervert its native expression and don’t elicit the best of what the minority group could bring to the common table.

I was heading to a work dinner with my favorite person yesterday when we wound up talking about a scenario in which I held a contrarian view.

“You’re not a very good sheep,” she concluded.
“I’m a very, very good goat,” I said.

We laughed.

Know Who You, What You Offer, and How You Thrive

If I’m in an environment that values the traits of sheep and devalues the traits of others, I simply won’t thrive, no matter how much effort I put in and how much I mimic or play-act to approximate environmental expectations. As Paul Batalden once said, every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. If I’m not thriving, then because I don’t skimp on effort, I need to ensure that my context supports the outcomes I want to produce. And I need to change it if it doesn’t.

Designing for my highest potential means recognizing that if I am not the kind of creature that the usual standards were made for, then I need to develop new standards—and this doesn’t make the usual standards bad, it only makes them incomplete.

There’s a lot of power in having the vision and ability to “design anew” with standards that take more of reality into account, lots of potential in creating new, sustainable worlds of experiment and experience within and beyond the systems that operate around us now.

What are some of the ways you’ve leveraged that power in your life? I’d love to hear your story.

Lapse In Judgment Question Card

Do you incessantly beat yourself up after a lapse in judgment?

Most of us have done something we cannot believe we did—unexpected and seemingly uncharacteristic. But it was in our character, if only in a very small part of it—a part we have not fully acknowledged, and a part that is mostly out of our sight. When we gracefully accept this aspect of ourselves and understand the conditions that led to its expression, we are in the best position to bring it into a more proactive expression the next time we meet a similar circumstance.

The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin. Even if we hardened our hearts to the shame and misery experienced by the victims, the cost of illiteracy to everyone else is severe—the cost in medical expenses and hospitalization, the cost in crime and prisons, the cost in special education, the cost in lost productivity and in potentially brilliant minds who could help solve the dilemmas besetting us.

Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.—Carl Sagan, The Demon-haunted World

Via the Women in Theology blog: For Shame.

Shame is an internal conflict within the individual’s psyche. Though it can be related to a person’s specific transgressions in complex ways (i.e., one may feel badly about having committed some kind of trespass), it always touches upon questions not only about what the person has done, but who she is. And the person that she takes herself to be is judged unacceptable. The desire for cathartic reparation or atonement does not strongly exist (though it can in “healthy” forms of shame; see below) because one does not believe that one can recover a fundamentally good or at least stable sense of self. —E. Lawrence

This is why what you let people tell you about yourself matters; why what you accept as your core identity matters; why the messaging your peer groups share about “people like you” matters. 

If your social network messaging is toxic, that is the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat.

A toxic social network is slow death.