When researching Thriving Through Tough Times, I learned that to fully recover from difficult circumstances we are counseled to give. Giving creates meaning out of rough situations, moves us out of ourselves and generally makes us feel better. Andy Mackie’s example as you’ll watch below, adds a whole new level of promise to the “give back to come back” maxim.
After nine heart operations and drugs that sickened him, Mackie decided to use the money he had been spending on prescriptions to buy harmonicas for school age children. With little time to live, according to the physicians, Mackie wanted to finish well by doing what he loved. But, Mackie didn’t finish his time on earth as quickly as predicted, and month after month he bought more harmonicas and taught kids how to play. Eleven years and some 16000 harmonicas later, Andy Mackie left behind a strong musical and ethical legacy when he passed away at 73.
Where you see flowers, a rabbit sees lunch. Where most of us would have noticed pesky burrs stuck to our clothing, in 1948 George de Mestral on a walk with his dog visualized Velcro.
Our perspective shapes our experience. Brazilian Jarbas Agnelli reading the newspaper one day, regarded a color photograph of black birds sitting on electric wires. The picture was not simply seen as an idyllic scene, since to that artist’s eye, the birds’ placement reminded him of musical notation. “I knew it wasn’t the most original idea in the universe,” Agnelli writes on his website. “I was just curious to hear what melody the birds were creating.
So, Agnelli translated from “bird” to “note” and here we see the fascinating result.
During a mediation session, each party brings a lens through which he or she views a common situation. Where you might believe you sold me a car in good faith, I might interpret your actions as less than honorable. We each take a subset of the available data and try to make sense of where we stand. To calm down the parties when their interpretations of reality are markedly different, I like to say that we are each looking at a situation from different “windows.”
I had a personal experience of multiple windows while watching the movie “Avatar.” The theatre was packed as seemed appropriate given the positive reviews the movie had consistently received. Set on the imaginary planet of Pandora, the story describes a conflict between Earthings who have come to mine resources and the tall blue Pandorians who seek to protect their world and way of life. As one reviewer wrote, “if you’ve seen ‘Dances of Wolves’ you know the plot.”
Every good movie has a conflict to be resolved. Even if someone isn’t screaming at another, all compelling pictures present a sticky challenge/conflict that the protagonists must overcome. For example, will the hero win the girl? Can our star overcome poverty and solve her problems? or Can they save the world?
After studying conflict for the past 16 years, I can’t help but notice what approaches the protagonists use to resolve the concocted struggle. “Invictus” for example, was delicious as I witnessed Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela creatively employ the Rugby World Cup to rebuild a nation. As you can imagine, life was good while watching “Invictus” from my window!
After working this fall with university students from Pakistan’s FATA region, I have been actively wrestling with why must humans continue to use violence, and war as a knee jerk reaction. I care about these young Pakistanis. Knowing that they are each living now in a war zone, makes my contemplation of this question more than academic.
Mandela reminds me that we can transcend the old strategies of revenge and destruction. Out of love for these students, and others who I have taught from Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Libya and other past and current conflict zones, I want to hope that we can follow Mandela’s, Gandhi’s, Martin Luther King’s and HH Dalai Lama’s lead and shift as a species.
So, when the protagonists and antagonists responded in “Avatar” with violence, I was disheartened. How I wanted a creative resolution! How I wanted the old “they have harmed us enough that we must kill” paradigm to be proven obsolete…especially by the seemingly enlightened and sexy seven-feet-tall blue beings! But no luck. After I had my fill of machine guns, arrows and death, I was probably the only person in America to walk out in the middle of “Avatar.” I knew the rest of the story without reading any spoilers; it’s just too common of a human tale.
If I had pulled out the movie technology lens like many of the reviewers, I would have been delighted by the film. If I had thrown on the glasses of a mythology student, I might have enjoyed how the hero’s spiritual journey was portrayed. But, that day, realizing how many innocent people are at risk due to the often unchallenged belief that revenge and killing can be justified, I couldn’t bear to watch it played out as entertainment. I thought of my international students, and instead needed to recover my composure in the lobby.
Everything depends on our windows. George de Mestral saw velcro. Jarbas Agnelli saw music. Nelson Mandela saw the possibility of his country. In each of them, I thankfully see hope for our future.
And, by my departure from the theatre I also see that I am not done learning the subtle balance between caring deeply and objectivity. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was slavery abolished. I want to hold a vision for productive strategies for resolving conflict without becoming as discouraged about the human condition as I was sitting outside the theatre that evening. We can change — we are changing — that’s the view I want to see from this window.
Passion burns down every branch of exhaustion. Passion is the supreme elixir and renews all things. No one can grow exhausted when passion is born. Don’t sigh heavily your brow bleak with boredom. Look for passion, passion, passion. — Rumi
Our grandfather played eleven different instruments and wrote his high school’s fight song. Yet, somehow musical prowess got wiped from my mother’s offspring. A source of amusement is singing “Happy Birthday” to unsuspecting visitors at family gatherings. Come visit; it’s worth a giggle if you can stand our butchering!
Meanwhile, if you dropped by any of my maternal cousins’ homes it was a different story. All those ancestral musical talents migrated well into their fingers and voices as they each spent hours composing, singing and playing instruments. They created garage bands and followed the Grateful Dead around the Northwest. Two of my cousins from different branches of our family tree actually created a touring duo called “Gene Pool” — was that just to rub it in that they scooped up all the artistic goodies? My cousin Charlie had a tenor voice that could make me cry.
Growing up, I loved to follow them all around and beg these boys to perform. Why? It’s not only because they all played well (i.e. recurring blog theme), but also it was their enduring joy and passion brought to this art form. Their love of music energized not only them, but also me. Passion is contagious.
On Monday, I asked fifteen college freshman honors students the attributes of their best high school teachers. I heard about instructors who were happy to spend hours after class discussing how to improve a paper and about others who welcomed any question, no matter how off base, as a creative opening for conversation. They all described teachers who were passionate about their jobs and curious where their work it might take them. Thomas Friedman wrote in The World is Flat that “CQ + PQ > IQ.” In other words, your curiosity quotient plus your passion quotient will take you farther than a strong intelligence quotient.
Even though I included Benjamin Zander earlier this year, I must add his Ted talk here once more as a reminder how joy can open doors and hearts in unfathomable ways. I can’t help it, Zander’s passion magnetizes me every time:
In my pursuit of leaders who play well, I happened upon one who literally plays well every day as a musician and conductor of the Boston Philharmonia. I am entranced by Benjamin Zander’s philosophy of looking for possibility in every situation and in every person we meet. His book, The Art of Possibility, written with his wife Rosamund describes how leadership entails being “the relentless architect of the possibility that others can be.” The book is now a well-worn favorite.
I hope you enjoy Benjamin Zander and discover wonderful possibility in these interesting times.
I wanted to share a novel approach to creating positive change. Grammy winning filmmaker Mark Johnson believes that music can be a powerful transformative tool. As the founder of Playing for Change (gotta love that name), he has spent the last ten years bringing musicians together to remix classics and foster greater global understanding. The attached video was performed by more than 100 musicians from New Orleans, Tibet, Russia and Africa…and everyone seems to be playing well! Check out the Playing for Change website to learn more.