The Deep Rhythms of Life

If you are a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

I try and remember that old adage when I consider things I read or hear.  Given my career, training and perspective, I often see historical overtones, even—perhaps—when they don’t exist.  So with that grain of salt, I’ll note that over the course of a recent weekend, I took part in three conversations that all struck me as narratives somehow important and related.

The first was not really a conversation. But it felt as if I was on the listening end of one as I went on a Friday night to hear Lucinda Williams and the Drive By Truckers in concert.  Both were great, but it was the music and between-songs patter of Lucinda Williams—her stories, if you will—that made me think about the way in which we can break out of our pasts and stand out from what is expected. Williams has been writing and performing emotionally devastating lyrics for four decades. But she also takes courageous stands against racism, sexism, and hate in the context of a history (Southern) and a musical genre (country) where such political points-of-view can get you ostracized. The next afternoon, I was at Politics & Prose, our local independent bookstore, to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr.  Pitts is a powerful writer who regularly calls on history—and our willful ignorance of much of that history—in both his novels and his weekly columns for the Miami Herald.  He did so recently when noting that a willful ignorance of black history is directly responsible for some of the recent headlines coming out of Virginia.  I had a conversation with Pitts after his talk, and we discussed the challenges and benefits of writing for different genres while still rooting his work in history and story. Understanding history, deeply and fully, is critical to Pitts for an understanding of life today.

It was the conversation held between these two encounters that I found most intriguing. I was in a Takoma Park coffee shop for our regular Saturday morning family coffee/catch-up.  We sat at the common table and soon a young woman in her early 30s sat across from us.  In the course of conversation we learned that Brittany was a Unitarian Universalist chaplain for Hospice.  In response, I told her what hospice had meant to our family when my mother passed away, in her own home, after a two-year battle with cancer.  Sitting at that common table, we had a long conversation that ranged across millennials’ spiritual practices, living in community, and the changes over time in how society treats sickness and death.

When describing her past, Brittany mentioned that her family’s home in Rockford, Illinois, had been a type of hospice, as both her great-grandmothers, her grandmother, and her great aunt all died there.  Brittany fully expected to follow the same course, but another aunt sold the house and it went out of the family’s hands.  That aunt remained active as a local hospice volunteer, and was surprised one day when a 16-year-old came to her office. This teenager was the youngest volunteer, by far, in the local hospice chapter.  When asked what led her to step forward, the young girl said she had always felt a special calling to this work.  As the girl’s mother was paying for a training course, Brittany’s aunt happened to look at the address on the check.

It was their old family home.

When Brittany told this story, I immediately said, “place matters.”  I fully believe that in this particular case, the love and care that permeated the home—the fullness of life—carried forward to a new family and new generations. Writing in Two-Part Invention, author Madeleine L’Engle speaks of such an attachment to place when she says, “I get to Crosswicks (her country home) whenever I can, to relax in the deep rhythm of the house, filled with the living of over two centuries.  That richness of experience permeates the rooms, life lived to the utmost, birth and death, joy and grief, laughter and tears.” And even when death arrives, none of the fullness of life is lost.  It simply becomes part of the rhythm of the house.  Emotions flow through places, and saving those places is a little understood key to our emotional health as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.

Northern Ireland Farm

The Rhythm of Life (credit: Claire Brown)

A Southern country singer with a history and a strong literary bent* that leads her to call out our transgressions as a nation. An  African American writer who calls on history to remind us that in troubled times—as theologian and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes—“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”  And a young hospice chaplain who calls on a personal story of the power of place and people to heal even in the face of death.  All three are saying, in different ways, that places from our past—and the stories they tell—matter.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*Lucinda Williams’ father, Miller Williams, was an American poet who passed away in 2015.  One of his poems was read at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration.  Throughout that Friday evening concert there was a conversation ongoing about the connection between history, what we’ve been given, and how we chose to take that past and live our lives today.  Storytelling is clearly in her genes.  You have to love a performer who, playing before a huge crowd of millennials (and the occasional out-of-pocket fan like me), takes the time in an introduction to a song to riff at length on Flannery O’Connor and give a shout out for Wise Blood—O’Connor’s first novel which was turned into an eccentric and acclaimed (yet seldom seen) film by John Huston.  Enjoy this video of Lucinda’s classic Drunken Angel.

Let’s Do This

A friend, momentarily flummoxed by the varied scale and relative importance of several tasks to be completed over a recent weekend, struggled to develop a schedule.  I tried to be helpful and, as a result, our conversation soon led me to think more broadly about the well-known—and often dreaded—“To-Do” list.

I suspect that there are tens-of-thousands of articles and books on how to construct a useful To-Do list.  (Google says there are 10.6 billion!)  After reading dozens, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no one way to organize your time effectively.  We are all so different—and the things we value are so different—that to simply proclaim one system the best is foolish.  My interest in this question has become much more relevant as I put together a list of tasks to be completed each day before I transition out of the job I’ve occupied here at the National Trust for more than two decades.

Let me begin with a couple of big-picture thoughts.  First, a significant step towards effectiveness and efficiency is to determine what you are going to stop doing.  That’s a longer term project, but it is worth the effort.  Second, understand that in the best of worlds, much of what you do today should be building blocks for weekly, quarterly, or life-time goals.  No one scales Mount Everest in a day.  Likewise, to achieve the larger things in life we want—writing a book, running a 10K, becoming a senior manager in your organization, starting your own business—requires that we take countless small steps to get there.  Robert Glazer writes,

“While one person contemplates all that they have going on in their life that’s preventing them from accomplishing their goal, another person just starts working toward it. It’s hard to underestimate the value that these small “deposits” of energy have, even over just 90 days. While one person gets on Facebook for 30 minutes a day, another chooses to invest that same time writing a book. At the end of three months, the first person is much wiser about their friends’ vacations and the food people are eating whereas the other person has drafted the first 30-40 pages of their book. . . .[F]or just five days, track how you spend your time every hour of the day. I’ve done this and I was very surprised to see where it really went. I had been telling myself seemingly harmless white lies that were hindering my ability to get what I wanted most out of my life.”

With that context, here is the DJB Method® of creating the daily To-Do list (number 10.6 billion + 1).

  • First, there is never enough time in the day, so plan accordingly — You cannot do 13 tasks a day, unless your list consists of brushing your teeth and lacing up your shoes.  I’ve begun limiting my tasks to 3-5 (at most) per day.  This was one challenge my friend—feeling overwhelmed with 8-9 tasks—faced.  We talked through which ones had to be done that day (more on that in a moment), and which ones could simply go on a separate list with less stringent time requirements.
  • Second, begin with the end in mind — A 2014 Harvard Business Review article by Ron Friedman suggests you take the first ten minutes of your day and ask yourself this question the moment you sit at your desk: “The day is over and I am leaving the office with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. What have I achieved?”  Do you really think you’ll feel that sense of accomplishment if you’ve spent most of the day checking emails or listening to voice mails?
  • Next, understand what matters the most, and know that all else is noise — President Eisenhower had a system (since duplicated by Stephen Covey) that put tasks in one of four categories or quadrants.
    • Urgent and Important: Things that are important to do and need to be done now.
    • Urgent and Not Important: Minor tasks that are time-sensitive. It feels good to check these off our lists, but they aren’t really critical.
    • Important and Not Urgent: Things that need to be done but don’t have to be done immediately.
    • Not Urgent and Not Important: These tasks are neither important nor time-sensitive.
    • Tackle the “Urgent and Important” tasks first.  Then before taking on other urgent tasks, focus on the “Important and Not Urgent” items.  Do everything in your power to stay out of the “Not Urgent and Not Important” quadrant.
Journals

Journals, which can be a key part of planning

  • Put your To-Do list on your calendar — If you keep a calendar or daily journal, figure out how long it will take to do the task and then schedule it.  Leave a little space on your calendar for the unexpected.  My experience is that calendars tend to get filled up with “Urgent and Not Important” items if you don’t set aside time for what matters to you.
  • Keep a longer list of things to do, but review it on a regular basis — Go back to point #1.  What happened to the other 4-5 things on my friend’s list?  When I’m faced with that problem, I put them on my task list in Outlook (and because I tend to be a “belt-and-suspenders” type of guy, they also end up in my bullet journal). Next, I give them a timeframe for completion.  Then I forget about them, because they are on my list. When setting up each day’s work, these items are where I turn for identifying my tasks.  However, if I have rescheduled something three times, I stop and have a conversation with myself about the relative importance of that task.  Is it a “Not Urgent and Not Important” task? Sometimes it becomes clear that I don’t really need to complete this one item, so I drop it.  Other times I realize that I do need to complete a task (say, get the piano tuned), but I can wait and do that when April arrives and I’m both literally and figuratively cleaning out my home and mental closets.
  • Finally, there is always more to do, so don’t beat yourself up if today doesn’t go quite according to plan — Life intervenes. Every single day. That’s especially true if you have children. Or you have a partner/parent who needs care. Or out-of-the-blue a great opportunity (or challenge) comes along that requires you to say Yes!  As I’ve said before, don’t let the dirty dishes in the sink get in the way of paradise.  Life’s a journey, not a destination.  Treat it that way.

That’s it.  Don’t plan to accomplish too much, but plan to accomplish the right things. So let’s do this…and have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

History is a Teacher

Why do we care about history?

Writer and philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Mark Twain took a more humorous approach with, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  Over the weekend, I saw a bumper sticker that read “Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”  Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman—co-host of the history podcast BackStory and author of The Field of Blood:  Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil Warsays simply that “History doesn’t repeat, but it teaches.”

My executive assistant (a former Capitol guide) recommended The Field of Blood, and for the past week or more I have been absorbed in the riveting tales of mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests…and that’s just on the floor of Congress! During the turbulent and violent three decades leading up to the Civil War, bowie knives and pistols were regularly drawn on members by other members.  Duels happened with alarming frequency, including one that led to the death of one representative at the hand of another. All involved, with the exception of the poor victim, were handily re-elected.  Slavery, and its future in America, was the key issue that led to this bullying, fighting, and total breakdown of civil discourse.

Field of Blood

“The Field of Blood” by Joanne B. Freeman

In a delightful and raucous (for a history book) presentation at Politics and Prose, Freeman points to the modern echoes of our own time.  As she notes, the book tells the story of:

  • Extreme polarization
  • Fundamental disagreements about what kind of nation the United States would be
  • Splintering political parties
  • New technologies skewing and scattering the news, and complicating politics in the process
  • Conspiracy theories being spread, North and South, as the nation’s crisis unfolds
  • Panic about the impact of free speech in that fraught environment
  • Rampant distrust in national political institutions as well as rampant distrust of Americans in each other

If you agree that history is a good teacher, we can look at today’s environment in light of the decades from 1830 to 1860 and worry about our future.  No one is suggesting that we are moving towards a civil war; however, we are playing with figurative fire due to the extreme polarization of the electorate, the spread of conspiracy theories, the loss of trust in our national institutions, and the use of rapidly changing technology to transform the way news is spread. Freeman notes in her book that “Democracy is an ongoing conversation between the governed and their governors; it should come as no surprise that dramatic changes in the modes of conversation cause dramatic changes in democracies themselves.”

Conversations among our fellow citizens are critical to our civic health, which is why I so strongly support the work to tell the full history of the nation.  That work is part of this conversation.  In her epilogue, Freeman writes of the awful consequences of polarization and a lack of conversation,

“When the nation is polarized and civic commonality dwindles, Congress reflects that image back to the American people.  The give-and-take of deliberative politics breaks down, bringing accusations, personal abuse, and even violence in its wake. National political parties fracture.  Trust in the institution of Congress lapses, as does trust in national institutions of all kinds, and indeed, the trust of Americans in one another.  At such times they are forced to reckon with what their nation is, and what it should be.”

I agree with the author Lewis Lapham that “what joins Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.”  We do that work through elections, through kitchen table conversations at the places where history happened, through historical scholarship, through civil discourse even when we strongly disagree with another’s position. Bullying and violence are—unfortunately—part of the American story and, shamefully, part of our character. Freeman shows in The Field of Blood, just as we see it in today’s news feeds, that it is only when we stand up to those who would divide us and push for a true reckoning of what we are as a nation, that we break through the polarization.

What happened more than 150 years ago may not repeat itself, but it can certainly teach us today, if we are willing to listen.  And that is one more reason to care about history.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Leadership

At a recent retreat, our divisional management team focused on the support and growth of leaders among our staff. Leadership comes in many forms.  We all know of the stereotypical alpha male, Type A personalities who have been celebrated as leaders on Wall Street as well as in the movies, the halls of Congress, business, the tech sector, and the military.  These are the types who bark out orders and expect others to follow.  These are the “born leaders.”  Or so they say.

But there is another type of leadership that is usually—in my experience—much more effective.  It generally comes from people who learn to be leaders, rather than assume they know it all from birth.  I put more stock in these types of leaders in part because I am reminded of the tale of a group of tourists visiting a rural, picturesque village.  They walked by an old man sitting beside a fence and in a rather patronizing way, one tourist asked, “Were any great men or women born in this village?”  “Nope” the old man replied.  “Only babies.”

This type of leadership is resolute, but not rude.  Humble, but not timid.  Proud, but not arrogant.  Humorous, but without folly.  Optimistic, but not reckless.

That last trait is one I personally cherish in leaders.  The good ones can look at any situation and, without being pollyannaish, find the path forward … the good in the person … the way to get everyone to make the right choice. All leaders face difficult obstacles, but the good ones handle them with grace and equanimity, showing all of us how leaders direct change.

Plus, true leaders don’t whine!  George Bernard Shaw said, “The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”  True leaders are a force of fortune.

Jim Collins, in his classic Good to Great:  Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, took on this question of leadership in describing the Level 5 Executive—his term for those with the highest level of executive capabilities.  Collins notes that top leaders build greatness through a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”  They are ambitious, but their ambition is “first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” In the social sector, Collins notes that power is often much more diffuse than in business, but the power to get things done exists nonetheless, if you know where to find it.  “There is the power of inclusion, and the power of language, and the power of shared interests, and the power of coalition.”

Some of the most powerful leaders I’ve known have unassuming exteriors and yet their interior lives and values are exemplary.  Let me anthropomorphize a building that I saw in Rome while on sabbatical in 2016 as an example:  San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Saint Charles at the Four Fountains).  This church’s design – a masterpiece of architect Francesco Borramini – is both “extraordinary and complex.”  The exterior/interior relationship is best described by architect Daniel Solomon in his Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities):

“Borromini was eclipsed for much of his career by the flashier and more charismatic Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and his oeuvre are mostly second-tier commissions – smallish buildings on undistinguished city sites.  His greatness is built on surmounting the contradictory demands of these commissions – simultaneous city fabric and monument.  Second-tier commissions produced some of the most complex and subtle works of the Western canon…

Never have the ordinary and the extraordinary been reconciled with more sublime elegance than at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.  Its interior is nothing less than a three-dimensional cosmological map depicting in its intricate geometries and its filtration of light the relationship of heaven and earth.  But the sanctuary of San Carlo sits on an unremarkable street corner on the consistent street frontage of via Quirinale, leading to the magnificence of Palazzo Quirinale and Piazza Quirinale a couple of blocks up the street.  Mediating between the glories of the interior and the important but subservient role of the exterior is a subtly undulating wall, true to the demands of both inside and out.  In this most complex of mediations, Borromini leaves the enduring lesson of how to be both a humble city builder and an architect of thundering power.”

Dome of San Carlo

Dome of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

I have worked with individuals who eschew the flashy exterior, content to be seen as partners with others in a larger, complex whole.  But their work, values, and legacy show amazing interior depth.  Max DePree is the retired CEO of the furniture and design pacesetter Herman Miller, and through the years I’ve come to appreciate his definition of leadership.  DePree says:

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

In almost every station of life, there exists a potential leadership component.  You may be leading an organization, a division, a department, an office, a project team, an intern, a business, a family, or a group of friends.  Whatever your role, leaders need to be good at recognizing and defining reality.  Saying thank you is acknowledgement that you don’t do these jobs alone.  A servant leadership suggests you are there to help others grow and realize their full potential.

Jim Collins says that great lives result from having meaningful work.  Real leaders can help us get there.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

History is Not What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago; It is a Story About What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago*

Last week, a colleague shared an article that pushed me to think about how different generations view the world. I come at this question from various perspectives—as a baby boomer responsible for staff from multiple generational groups, a father of two millennials, a son of parents of the “greatest generation,” and so on.  You get the point.

Since I’m in the history business, my thinking focused on the major episodes of the past that have influenced generations I’ve known.  Both my parents grew up in the Depression and were greatly affected by the New Deal, Pearl Harbor and WWII.  My generation grew up during the expanding economic cycles of the 1950s and 60s with the rise of the middle class, but also experienced the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, not to mention Vietnam.  Two of my siblings grew up in the Reagan era, with its attacks on the New Deal and government.  For my children, their early and teenage years were shaped in part by 9/11, rising economic inequality, and the Great Recession of 2008.

Understanding how each successive generation views the world raises questions around how the stories about the past change.  That includes identifying the sight lines that we have available to see and tell those stories. One way we can grow our understanding of generational perspectives is through seeing the places where history happened.  I was not alive during Pearl Harbor, but when I was privileged to take an early morning tour of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii one Memorial Day weekend, I began to truly grasp the enormity of the sacrifice on that December Sunday morning in 1941 and its impact on my parents’ generation.

U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day Weekend

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

On this day when we’ve just completed our annual celebration of the life and work of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there may be those not alive in the 1960s who wonder about his true impact.  Many younger generations know King only as a symbol or a type of civic deity.  Yet there are places, when paired with his writings, which demonstrate why he is so important today. Clayborn Temple is one such place.  When King came to Memphis in 1968 to support the sanitation workers—those African American men who went out on strike and walked the streets with their now famous “I Am a Man” signs—he was reviled by much of white America. Even those moderates who said they supported his work raised issues with his tactics.  (Think of his response to white pastors in Letters from Birmingham Jail.) That trip to Memphis, of course, ended in his assassination.

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

 

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop:  A Sermon to White America, makes King’s status then and now abundantly clear. Dyson argues that America has “washed the grit from his rhetoric” in order to get to a place where he can be seen and admired by the country at large.  Yet it was King who said that the race problem “grows out of the . . . need that some people have to feel superior.  A need that some people have to feel . . . that their white skin ordained them to be first.”  King also said, “Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race.”  Difficult words for many to hear, yet, “This is why King is so important to this generation, to this time, to this nation, to our people,” Dyson writes. “He spoke the truth that we have yet to fully acknowledge.”

Clayborn Temple Memorial

“I Am a Man” Memorial at Clayborn Temple in Memphis

King’s words are powerful, but they also grew out of a history. I’ve seen those antecedents most recently in the writings of Thomas Paine, “the incendiary voice of the American Revolution” as described by Lewis Lapham, and the first individual to write a denunciation of slavery in America. Read these words from Paine’s Rights of Man and see how they provide a prologue to King’s Poor People’s Campaign:

“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance or distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive . . . when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.  What we often obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Understanding generational perspectives on the American story requires work, just as seeking the point of view of different communities of people can be hard.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.  Only when we open our eyes, minds, and hearts to our fellow human beings and acknowledge truths that have remained hidden—only when “one’s fellow citizens are … held in honorable regard not because they are rich or notably generous, but because they are one’s fellow citizens”—will we be able to progress towards the aspirations of America’s founding documents.

With gratefulness for the life—and continuing impact—of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*The title is adapted from a line in Lewis H. Lapham’s Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy

Kindness

I expected to hear from a number of people last week after announcing that I was stepping down from my position at the National Trust for Historic Preservation at the end of March. In this day and age, twenty-two years is a long time to stay with any organization. In my case those two decades gave me innumerable opportunities to connect and work with people across the country and around the world.  I wasn’t quite ready, however, for the nature of the notes, emails, phone calls, hallway conversations, and comments that have come my way.  I feel a bit like a man who wakes up in the casket at his own funeral and decides to lie there for a while just to hear people say nice things about him.

A colleague asked what was the most surprising response I received to the news, and while I didn’t have a good answer for her at the time I would say now that it was the overwhelming kindness of the remarks. It truly caught me off guard. That led me to think about the nature and effects of kindness.  Naturally, the internet has about 175,000,000 results when one Googles the word kindness.  And there are quotes — sappy, inspirational, nonsensical, insightful, and more — for every occasion.  After looking at more than a hundred, I think my favorite is from the poet Mary Oliver, who (allegedly…this IS the internet) said, “I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed.” Kindness—like mischief and spontaneous singing—can touch our souls in unexpected ways.

My colleague’s question also led me to think not just about the nature of these notes, but also about the different types of responses I received.  While all the comments came from personal and often deep places of connection, there were several categories that I intend to file away for future use when I want to reach out to someone else.  These include:

  • The “pithy and poignant” note.  A new friend who prepares copy for our appeal letters sent an 11-word note that spoke volumes . . . just what I would expect from a writer of his talent.  It also reminded me of the quote, often used when a long report is completed, that “I didn’t have time to make it short.”  Messages of kindness can be very short and to the point while carrying extraordinary power.
  • The “playing against type” note.  One famously cranky preservationist sent me a very gracious and thoughtful note.  In my response I told this long-time friend that it was clear that his email account had been hacked and that the hacker was saying nice things about me.  I suggested that if he didn’t regain control of his account quickly, I was afraid his curmudgeonly reputation would soon be in tatters.
  • The “voice from the past” note.  People that I’ve known professionally over the past four decades reached out to me, some of whom I have not heard from in years.  I was reminded that you can never lose touch, and a voice from the past can add context and richness to a time that can be bittersweet at best.

There is a whole inspirational industry built up around “small acts of kindness,” but I’ve come to believe that there is no such thing.  Small acts have ripple effects that we can’t even imagine. As an example, no matter who you are there are people watching you and—perhaps—looking up to you.  I had one individual tell me that I had been a mentor, which surprised me because at the time I was maybe 28 years old, leading a new start-up preservation group, and I had a staff that I could count on one finger (i.e., me).  You never know who is watching and where the ripples will reach.

Kindness often gets a bad rap for being soft. My experience is that it is possible to be kind and yet make the very difficult decisions required as we move through work and life.  Unfortunately, many people value so-called leaders who are never kind, granting a type of permission to bully those with whom they disagree.  These folks may not want to wake up at their funerals.  John Steinbeck noted these contradictions when he said,

“It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

As we deal with turbulent times, I am reminded that history has leaders who can show us a better way forward.  Through the Great Depression and World War II, few dealt with more challenges than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Yet he recognized what mattered when he said, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”

I am very grateful for the many kindnesses shown to me over the past week and years.  Looking forward, I encourage you to be kind to one another. Having been the recipient of extraordinary kindness this past week, I know the positive effect kind words and gestures can have on an individual.

And now it is time to climb out of the casket and get back to work.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Cynicism vs. Hope

Call Them by Their True Name

“Call Them by Their True Name” by Rebecca Solnit

Cynics.  We’ve all encountered them.  They make pronouncements with great certainty and take pride in not appearing foolish. Those who disagree with them are instantly branded, in the eyes of the cynic, as naïve.

Thankfully, there are ways to combat cynicism. Over the holidays I finished reading author Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays)Solnit includes an essay—Naive Cynicism—that flips the idea of cynicism and naivete on its head.

“Naïve cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and an avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. . . . Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards.  They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised.”

Change and progress require hard work, and cynics often want to avoid the responsibility of that work. They have a “relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world which generally offers neither.”  Change and progress also require hope, and as I’ve written before, “hope demands things that despair does not.” Hope is risky. But hope is also in love with success.

When you hear news that affects you, what is your first reaction? Does your mind move to cynical inevitabilities, or to hopeful possibilities?  Do you act upon “bad data and worse analysis” to reach your conclusion? As Solnit says in her book The Faraway Nearby, “Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”  Life isn’t easy, but as Stephen Covey has written, we have the ability and freedom as humans to respond. “External forces act as stimuli that we respond to. Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power — you have the freedom to choose your response.”

“It is the nature of reactive people to absolve themselves of responsibility,” says Covey.  However, “proactive people work on the things they can do something about.” In the same vein Robert Glazer speaks of improving our emotional capacity. “Emotional capacity relates to how we react to challenging situations and people as well as the quality of our relationships, which can either increase our energy or deplete it. The process of improving emotional capacity is challenging. It requires learning to actively manage your feelings and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty and unpredictability from both individuals and circumstances.”

Nats Rainbow

Nothing says hope better than a rainbow at a baseball stadium

In times of uncertainty or difficulty, think about your response and consider choosing the proactive option of learning. Of possibilities. Of hope.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB