Tag Archives: friendship

Thanksgiving as a Global Holiday

Community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers. ~ Howard Thurman

I love the irony; what is considered a uniquely American holiday seems to bring out our most global attributes.

Here’s the scenario:

  • Cook all day for guests.
  • Spend hours at the dinner table focused on the dishes, conversation and family
  • Lay around afterwards with no goals other than digesting and hanging out.
  • Watch a game on TV

If I spell the game “futbol” (or what the US calls “soccer”) then I have described a ritual that occurs weekend after weekend around the world. Thanksgiving seems to give us the excuse to return our Old World roots. Here we seem to remember what I find to be a delicious experience of making a day all about food and relationship.

This realization came about last Thursday when we included friends visiting from India, Lebanon and Panama at our dinner festivities. Each settled in naturally to what could have been a novel event of remembering the Pilgrims and commented that this reminded them most of home of any of their Montana-based activities.

I first fell in love with food and community-dominant cultures when I was an exchange student in Mexico thirty years ago. On Sundays, friends would host a carne asada or barbeque where we would spend the afternoon eating, dancing, and then when bored, we’d car pool over to another friend’s house to see what they might be doing. Hanging out was a fine art and a distinct contrast from growing up among productive Norwegian descendants in downtown Minneapolis.

Refining this cross-cultural skill I  find to be essential when working with international groups who spend one to five months with us at Montana State University. Since I love it so, I’m always looking for an opportunity to assemble the groups to hang out as a community, yet I now recognize that these gatherings are also one of the key to success for our programs. Drawing on our Thanksgiving roots, is not only personally fulfilling, but also really smart.

I recommend, as we all are called to be more globally-focused leaders, to search out your own opportunities to recreate Thanksgiving at other times with your groups. It’s not about the turkey, but how to allow those we might perceive as turkeys to become a more integrated part of your team. What small ways can you balance the work with the relationships as I described in an early post?

Chat! It’s good for your health

University of Michigan psychologist Oscar Ybarra brought me welcome news this week.  As the lead author of a study reported in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Ybarra explains that brief (10 minute) social conversations like those you would use to make friends boosts our brain’s executive functions.  Improvements in working memory, self-monitoring, and the ability to suppress external and internal distractions resulted from relaxed conversation.

International teachers visiting in Montana

In a study of 192 undergraduates, Ybarra showed that a daily chat enhances both our problem solving and social intelligence capabilities. As a computer programmer who fresh out of college would quickly finish programs so I could catch up with my colleagues, I appreciate some belated justification for my actions. Now as a consultant and instructor focused on getting people to work better together, this study lends credence to my consistent call to bring both your head and your heart to work.

In previous research, Ybarra found that social interaction provides a short-term boost to executive function that’s comparable to playing brain games, such as solving crossword puzzles. “We believe that performance boosts come about because some social interactions induce people to try to read others’ minds and take their perspectives on things,” Ybarra says.

“Taken together with earlier research, these findings highlight the connection between social intelligence and general intelligence,” Ybarra adds. “This fits with evolutionary perspectives that examine social pressures on the emergence of intelligence, and research showing a neural overlap between social-cognitive and executive brain functions.”

Getting to know and empathize with your peers and employees has just become even more worth your time.

Say Yes

Life is movement. The more life there is, the more flexibility there is. The more fluid you are, the more you are alive. – Arnaud Desjardins

Ask a Buddhist what we can count on and he will probably explain that nothing is permanent or, as Desjardins says, “life is movement.”

Sometimes that precept is welcome news. It’s great to know that homesickness or a sore back will eventually end. That your toddler will someday not need diapers and will learn how to dress herself brings a smile to your lips. Yet, as you look across a table at a dear friend, at that beloved toddler or at an aging parent, you’d probably rather forget that everything changes including our favorite people.

So, how do we come to terms with the axiom of constant and sometimes heartbreaking change?

This question has been accompanying me closely as our cousin Charles Bach passed away from congestive heart failure last month. Six months my senior, Charlie assumed the role of elder brother by providing relentless teasing and instruction throughout my childhood, which I usually resisted. Our extended family’s favorite memories include Charlie and me arguing for hours rooted literally and metaphorically in the spot where we began.

Charlie

Charlie

So, fast-forward to today, I’m still balking at the presented topic — I’m not a big fan of impermanence right now, thank you very much. I would love the opportunity to battle with Charlie over introducing it. “Sometimes people need to leave,” I could hear him saying…

Some of Charlie’s last words were, “Yes, yes, yes!” and “It’s an amazing world of yes.” I am told that he died happy and very much at peace. As one of my lifelong teachers, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he left behind answers on how one is supposed to cope.

Since he was a gifted musician and actor, Charlie’s statement reminds me an improvisation rule — “say yes to whatever appears.” For example, what if on stage your partner suggests making spaghetti on Mars? Go along with the program. And if the clarinetist wants to riff in a new direction? Follow her lead. The scene calls for you to now to be ninety-year-old hip-hop star? Fantastic – start dancing.

Patricia Madson, author of Improv Wisdom expands, “The world of yes may be the single most powerful secret of improvising. It allows players who have no history with one another to create a scene effortlessly, telepathically. Safety lies in knowing your partner will go along with whatever idea you present…Seize the first idea and go with it. Don’t confuse this with being a “yes-man,” implying mindless pandering. Saying yes is an act of courage and optimism; it allows you to share control. It is a way to make your partner happy. Yes expands your world.”

A deliciously talented improv actress, friend and teacher Katie Goodman reframes this concept in her book Improvisation for the Spirit as “don’t negate.” She writes, “If someone offers a tidbit of information to move the scene forward (such as “Oh man, I left the money we stole from the bank, um, at the bank,”) and I negate the offering (“No! It’s right here!”) it would do several things: First of all, it would be a power-play over the other actor, which is really not fun for the others and over time makes people not want to work or hang out with you…Secondly, the energy of the scene would have fallen flat – if you outright negate and say no to an idea the scene comes to a screeching halt. And most importantly, I would have just blown an opportunity for a creative challenge, which brings energy and enthusiasm to our lives.”

Not only opening us to exciting new opportunities, saying yes is an act of recognizing reality. We accept even that to which we want to say no. On stage it might be easy to say, “yes, we eat spaghetti on Mars” and yet in real life we are called to say, “Yes, atrocities are being committed against innocent people in the Congo,” “Yes, you think I’m a jerk,” or “Yes, there is racism and misery in the world.”  We see what is, we center into the facts, and then can decide what must be done.

A fighter by nature, I was never happy when it looked like Charlie won an argument. But here, yes, he gets the last word (Charlie would have teased me for choosing that figure of speech so I’ll leave it.).  Yes, I stand silently vanquished not only because I admit that he made another excellent point, but also because as Seneca once said, “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.”

Keeping it Real

I smiled listening to Michael Jordan honor his beloved sister and brothers as some of his valuable opponents when composing last week’s post. I get it; when I wrote The Way of Conflict, I began the introduction by telling the story of how I grew up fighting with my three sisters.

These are three of the dearest people in my life. They are also my walking truth serum. I know within days of exposure, I’ll be required to fess up to what’s working me internally. Over the years, I’ve come to trust their uncanny abilities to make me come clean and have a healthy respect for this power. I love to be with each of them, but know that seeing them always brings some level of reckoning.

For some, old friends might provide a similar experience. They’ve known you too long and you have too much in common to be able to pretend your insecurities or struggles don’t exist. We can tuck them away for most of the world, but there are those souls that keep us honest.

Reading about indigenous cultures I notice that community members are sometimes assigned this truth serum role as a specific job. In the Dagara tribe in Africa you are chosen by the year of your birth to be a community jester or a “nature person.” Nature people are expected to tease you or to give you grief if you are putting on airs. When a nature person shows up at your door, know that you are going to get a work out…it’s their job.

Some Native American traditions explain that this role provides “coyote energy,” seeing this animal as the trickster whose role it is to keep us real. In other traditions it is the ritual clown who makes fun of those trying to pretend that there are above all the messiness of life. Their universal role is to humble us.

Humility means to be “of the earth.” Not less than another, and definitely not higher, but instead that we are all essentially the same. Important souls around the world remind us that as much as we’d like to ignore it, we are human just like everyone else in our community. We all make mistakes, fear death and have physical urges that can control us. We are imperfect and yet valuable in our own right.

I notice that within my sisterhood, we seem to call out behavior that is outside of our best and brightest. My siblings give me grief about eating ice cream out of the container (I know it’s gross), but also none will put up with self-depreciating talk. It’s in that fact that I trust; they see my potential and can get quite peeved when I miss the mark.

Historically we are told this was the role of the court jester. I know how easy it is to delude myself into thinking that my actions make sense and thus appreciate the idea that wise royalty knew that you must have someone checking your work. Too much pride or bravado needs loving critics.

Last weekend I had the rare opportunity to spend time with all three sisters and mom in Yosemite. On Saturday, twice driving back to a cabin we were renting, we saw a cute young coyote cross the road. Rare to see a coyote in Montana in broad daylight, I was impressed to see him in California hanging near the road hours apart. It took until one sister said, “I love each of you, but being all together isn’t always easy,” for me to giggle at the irony. Adding the citings, she was right; there was lots of “coyote energy.” Yet, like after working with a great personal trainer or coach, this week I now have a better sense of who I am, where I stand and what I need to work on. From the nudging and prodding I hope to be better, brighter and more real…and curtail double dipping in the Haagen Daz container.

Emotions are Contagious

As I read about the world’s mourning rituals I notice that you can catch a cold, you can contract the flu, but you can also get a case of sadness or joy from another. Emotions are contagious, which is not such a bad thing.

Burkina Faso traditional home

Burkina Faso traditional home

When I was pregnant, I didn’t think that the viral nature of emotions was good. I couldn’t watch intense dramas; “Shindler’s List,” “The Joy Luck Club” or “Life is Beautiful,” were far from my viewing list. I could bearly watch a happy sitcom on TV since there might be one of those “times of your life” commercials that could set me into tears. In that state, my emotional radar was so strong that I could sympathetically cry about just about any moment. It was embarrassing.

Now far away from the prenatal stage, I recognize that there are still times where being exposed to another’s grief or hardship can get me weeping. For example, when I’m struggling, I’m leery of situations or films that will bring up sadness. I want to hide out and be entertained with fluff. Yet, I am hiding, not truly coping, and in that lies the core reason for communal grieving.

Around the world, we can find long lasting rituals that push us to face and move through the sadness of loss. In Ireland and Scotland for example, the practice of keening or a vocal lament over a corpse was popular from the sixteenth century on. Women, often paid for their services, would recite list the lineage of the deceased, poetically describe those left behind and literally sing his praises. This practice continues in parts of rural Greece where elder women of the community sing laments at funerals, memorial services and during exhumation.

These songs appear to have the same effect as watching “P.S. I Love You.” Those grieving are moved to tears. Yet, they are expected to stay relatively under control so they can follow the singing. In Greece, if a widow were to lose control and begin shouting for example, the rest of the mourners would move her back to her seat so that she can listen to the laments and quietly weep.

In tribal culture of western Africa, communal grief rituals are created when a major loss occurs. Meanwhile during the ritual, others in the community are expected to describe their own tragedies and sadness so together the tribe can move to the other side of mourning. You might begin by recounting how you miss your deceased aunt, yet I would be expected to add how I am suffering with the loss of my grandfather and the sadness I feel that life is so short. Here too people lament until they are moved to face the source of suffering and allow it to be seen and processed.

Ritual seems to be created to keep the grief on track. We are required to stay with our sadness instead of being distracted by the injustice of the loss and running down the path of rage or blame. What is gone, is gone and we are to simply face it.

So how might I translate this knowledge to my drama vs. romantic comedy dilemma?

Lately, I have been watching what type of emotion I am trying to avoid. Is it I don’t want to witness sadness? Do I want to run from others who are afraid or anxious? Struggling with facing the reality of injustice in the world? Starting there, I try to identify which emotion has me on the run.

Then I attempt to just allow that feeling to be within me. For example, I was avoiding the natural sadness that comes with sending another son off on an exchange program on Friday. It didn’t seem right, since it is mixed with huge joy for his next adventure; I didn’t want to be sad and happy at the same time. However, I noticed that I instead had been wanting to hide from anything emotional…generally, not a good practice.

I realized I had some internal clean up to do. To push myself along, I looked at pictures of when he was a toddler and thought of our dear boy as a baby…a bit masochistic I know, but it really helped. Essentially created my own little lament. After allowing happy/sad/nervous to be fully present, I now find I can better participate in his last week home.

What is equally important for me is to be comfortable enough with my own grief, so I can show up for another in a similar circumstance. We really need community when we are struggling. As in my last post on Job, it is when we can stick with someone as they experience scary emotions that we shine as friends…and as parents.