Tag Archives: Tough times

Why Our Stories Matter

IMG_5348Matthew Fox, in his autobiography, Confessions: the making of a post-denominational priest, included this quote by Ellie Wiesel, “Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story.” I thank the heavens that Matt took this piece of advice to heart.

Matt and his stories have been instrumental in my professional and personal development over the past twenty years. If the Universe offer us clues where to find needed treasure, it has been far from subtle in urging me to pay attention to this brave and extremely brilliant being. I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin (Matt’s childhood home), was born on December 15th (the day he was famously silenced for a year by Opus Dei), and, although I went to Catholic high school, I was baptized Episcopalian (Matt’s past and current religious affiliation). The clues continue, and I am glad for the consistent nudging!

I want to recommend Matt’s story held in Confessions as we navigate how to fight for what is compassionate and right in these difficult times. Three key approaches in Matt’s life sing truth with me. First, I love his wicked sense of humor! He teaches me how to detach through not taking ourselves or greater tragedies too seriously. Detachment is a core cross-cultural skill for living well. Angeles Arrien described detachment as “caring deeply from an objective place.” Matt cares deeply and has suffered great loss, as you will read in his autobiography. When I first met him in 1998 it was clear how much he loved his Dominican brothers and was adjusting to being recently defrocked for his progressive views on the environment and feminism. The sense of loss was evident, and Matt had me hooked when he said something to the effect, “Five hundred years ago when you were branded as a heretic you were burned at the stake, now,” he added, “your books just sell better.” In his first speech after the year of silence, Matt began, “As I was saying fourteen months ago.… when I was so rudely interrupted …” Humor creates the space we need to survive and to be brave. As Mahatma Gandhi shared in his autobiography, “ If I had no sense of humor, I should long ago have committed suicide.”

Second, I wish to follow Matt’s constant search for wisdom through communing with saints past and present. He reached out to Thomas Merton in his early spiritual formation, searched out the best ritualists across the spiritual traditions including Malidoma Somé and Starhawk, and sought guidance from Fr. Bede Griffiths, Buck Ghosthorse, Joanna Macy, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalom and MC Richards. This is a purposeful list I add here if you wish to learn more about environmental or justice-based activism. His work is based in the writings of Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas to name just a few. Matt is a seeker of the larger whole. How can we all keep asking for more knowledge, ferreting out the greater truth and learning from the wise ones?

Last, I admire Matthew Fox’s courage to be a prophet. He has been willing over the past fifty years to speak truth to power structures that may not want to hear it. As you will read in Confessions, Matt seeks justice and equality for all and is willing to keep sharing this truth, regardless of the consequences. He tried compromise and working within the system as well and reminds me that this approach has its place, but truth is transcendent. We all deserve to be treated equally regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic class or ethic group. This truth cannot be watered down, or shouldn’t be ever hidden, and this often terrifies existing power structures. Matt is willing to stand up and in his standing, we are braver and know where to place our feet.

Thank you Matt for sharing your story and wisdom. Happy birthday and may all your days be blessed.

First “Conflict” Once Removed

A favorite game at extended family reunions used to be point out a tribe member and then see who could properly to identify the relationship. My first cousin Charlie was an expert. He would remind me that my kids were his first cousins once removed as well as our aunt due to a great aunt adopting one of our mother’s sisters. I usually was quickly lost when we would play where Charlie could maintain clarity and rattle off the titles of everyone in the room.

Relationship chart

Relationship chart

Charlie’s gift has kept on giving this week as I have been muddling over how to decipher and describe conflict relationships. Using my cousin’s logic, you’ve got your first degree disputes: you and another are fighting over something. If it is a business relationship, you and that person might be the named parties on the mediation documents. At home, the two kids screaming in your hallway at each other would be the clear participants in the battle. In these cases, we know the disputants or the “sides.”

Meanwhile, what about the sister/wife/business partner/friend of one of the folks you would name above? How would you name her? And, more importantly what is her role?

In honor of Charlie, I want to give that sister/wife/business partner a title — 1st Disputant Once Removed or 1DOR.  A 1DOR will be anyone who is one step back from a conflict, but connected due to their personal connection to a direct player.

Being a 1DOR is a muddy role.  If your wife is fighting with another, does that mean you are fighting with that person as well? What can you say? Where, if anywhere, are your opinions best spoken? In the case of the two kids screaming in the hallway, what is the best position for the third sibling who was in her room reading?

Sometimes we can stay out of the battle while it is fought and resolved. Our loved ones can fight with another while we listen and stay out of the fray. We might provide a few words of encouragement or support as tempers rise and recede. Conflict brings opportunity, but it is also messy, risky and can be dangerous, so laying low would be an advised strategy here.

Meanwhile, some disputes linger and battle lines are drawn. The third sibling can’t hide in her room forever. Your family feuds with a neighbor for years, do we wave at the neighbor when you pass him in the car?  Who is fighting in the US with the government of Afghanistan?

I met with a friend last week who shared she has been exhibiting symptoms of anxiety seemingly for no apparent reason. It was disconcerting her, but as we discussed the past months, it became clear that her role as a 1DOR for both sides of an ongoing dispute had been wearing her down. She can’t escape the enduring conflict, she has little power to resolve it and doesn’t want to take sides.  As I listened, I wondered when my 1DOR status has adversely affected me without my conscious awareness? Stepping back, I was struck by how often I have been a 1DOR as a sister, mother, wife, friend, employee, community member and citizen. This called me to consider more deeply how I can best play in that role.

In my next posts, I will cover how we might naturally react as a 1DOR given our default conflict styles and an ancient Hindu practice upon which we can draw for support.

Remembering our Roots

A mere thirty years ago, I spent a semester at El Tecnológico de Monterrey as an exchange student. I lived in the dorm with a wonderful roommate from Chihuahua, watched telenovelas (Mexican soap operas) and even was a college athlete. “El Tec” was probably one of the few locations in North America where the coach wouldn’t double over in giggles while clocking my splits. They needed another female willing to run the 3K event back then so I fit the bill!

El Tecnológico en Torreón

This past weekend, I reran this memory lane while getting to teach dialogue to Tec students in the town of Torreón during their annual leadership conference. I was transported back as I overheard students talking of movies and majors and hearing cheers as students represented proudly their respective states. I basked in typically fabulous Mexican hospitality and was young again.

But all was not the same. My husband will not be pleased to know that as I jogged around campus for old times sake while black-clad police men with machine guns watched me and fellow runners from a nearby hospital rooftop. We learned that a gang-related altercation had criminals in recovering in that building and a dozen police, some in face masks, were stationed there on high alert. And Monterrey of the state Nuevo Leon, a once sleepy town where I safely ran in its surrounding hills with my fellow track mates, is now nicknamed “Monterror de Nuevo Miedo (Fear).”

While waiting for buses loaded with 130+ students in the vineyard-rich town of Parras, I stared out a car window at a lush grove surrounded by a concrete wall. Suddenly a single thirty-foot tall tree you see on the corner in the photo below began to quickly shake making the leaves blur. Is there a wind storm? No, it was completely calm and just one tree moved. Earthquake? That didn’t make sense, and I felt that disorienting feeling that came on most clearly when I watched the smoke coming out of the World Trade Tower after the first plane had entered. I couldn’t find a contextual framework. “Can not process…can not process,” my brain stuttered watching that tree.

Trees in Parras

A fellow passenger came to my aid – “That’s a nut tree. To harvest nuts, they have attached a band around the tree’s base, attach a motor that shakes the fruit free.”

The tree incident became a metaphor through the weekend. As we dialogued informally and with the students in groups, we all seemed to be wrestling with how the country could have been shaken so quickly and thoroughly. I heard stories of friends who now dive under tables in restaurants when hearing loud noises. 19 and 20 year olds lamented how children now can’t play outside as they had. This is not the Mexico of my young adulthood, or even the one I last visited five years ago.

Like my fellow car mate who gave me a nut harvest tutorial, leaders often appear to reorient us. They can provide a great service as they provide a greater context. However, these are vulnerable times when we are hungry for answers and thus willing to abdicate personal agency – e.g. post WWI Germany and Hitler’s success.

The leadership’s responsibility is at its heaviest when called to reorient others, whatever the circumstances. We must consider in these circumstances, how can I be careful with my communications when in care of another’s reality? Are the statistics I am using are truly facts? Is my answer empowering or enslaving another?

Dialogue in action

At the end of the conference, we listened to a well-known Mexican political analyst Dr. Denise Dresser. I hear “call to action” speeches often as a professor and consultant, and hers was one of the best I have witnessed.

As she “called things by their true names,” she described a country controlled by monopolies and oligopolies. She provided data on the lack of consumer choice in basic areas of phone, energy, food and media. The facts were bleak and at times overwhelming.

After her compelling painting of Mexico’s present, Dr. Dresser had a choice. Once described, Dresser had the opportunity to call forth more fear and hopelessness and for us to follow her advice. But instead, she took a positive assets-based approach and used three leadership techniques. (You can read an article similar to the given presentation here)

1) Share what is workingDresser reminded her audience of the enduring Mexican culture is with a litany of its unique gifts. This is a country of riches that are not just found in natural resources. She had me at “los libros de Elena Poniatowska” and “mangos con chile,” and, teary with nostalgia by “visiting any town’s central plaza on a Sunday afternoon.” Mexico snuggled into a corner of my heart when I was a teenager and has never left.

2) Articulate an empowering vision – In a call to action, Dresser developed a future of possibility. She spoke of Mexico containing options for both a consumer and the voter. Dresser then shared how the government is paid for by the people and each can call for transparency and accountability.

3) Believe in the Whole — When asked why she didn’t run for office, Dr. Dresser, who preferred to be called Denise, responded she wanted to stand at the side of the people. She didn’t want to leave that position, and encouraged us to look for creative solutions to resolve these issues. She believes in the whole. The organizers of the Tec leadership conference mirrored this belief as they trained the students in dialogue. They then encouraged the  participants to create circles of interested students across the country to consider deeply the tough issues confronting not only Mexico but also the world.

I left Mexico heartened by those I met and the dialogue I witnessed. These are tough times, but after meeting the students and staff, these are also outstanding individuals empowered to look for solutions. It was a call for me to keep asking: How are my words stopping fear’s motor and reminding others of their healthy roots? How can I keep aligning with the best and the greater whole to bring innovative solutions into form? And to keep cheering…Go Tec!

 

Check out lifebyme.com

A few months ago, I was asked to write an essay for www.lifebyme.com and today it is being featured on their home page! I hope you check out “Paradox” and find it of interest.

As always, thank you for your support. Today, I get to practice being seen…

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.”