Freedom’s not just another word

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing else to lose.”
Kris Kristofferson

Last week I lost a piece of my heart: our foster dog Jackson.

After many bouts of sobbing, I found myself in a peaceful stupor, when the word freedom came to me as if Jackson had sent it.

Strange.

I decided it might be worth pondering, especially as we in the United States are on the verge of Independence Day when thousands of cheering immigrants will be welcomed to full citizenship in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

If you’ve lived under tyranny, suppression of your religious or ethnic group, ongoing violence, or the fear of not having food for your children, freedom is not just another word. You might walk thousands of miles and endure living in a liminal hell at the U.S. border for the very small chance of finding freedom in the United States. (Bless the stamina, endurance, courage, and life-defying commitment of such refugees.)

Yet in this country, advertisers are quick to translate freedom into an advertising concept, creating images like the iconic Marlboro Man. Is the freedom we celebrate about the right to buy more, to choose among forty different kinds of toothpaste or buy the fashion-of-the-month?

I hope not.

What does real freedom mean? How do we separate it from cultural beliefs, and the invisible assumptions that often come with privilege or power?

What if freedom included the right to think our own thoughts rather than mouthing the thoughts, concepts, and beliefs given to us by others?

I crave the freedom to be me, but I often default to beliefs about myself or the world that are as invisible to me as the air that I breathe.

Some of the “truths” we once believed are now seen as glaringly wrong.

For example:

  • Women and people of color were less than men and not worthy of the right to vote.
  • It was OK to abuse animals or treat them harshly because they didn’t have feelings.
  • A small nation in Southeast Asia needed to be invaded in order to free it from the threat of communism.

Other beliefs I grew up with included:

  • You shouldn’t swim within an hour after eating (not true, but boy did I suffer impatient hours sitting in the sand and waiting).
  • There are only five senses (currently at least three times more).
  • Girls must wait to dance until picked by a boy (at the root of great personal suffering).

In twenty years, what contemporary concepts will we see as nonsense?

Fortunately, tectonic shifts are happening in our culture causing some to question how we treat the environment or legitimize gross income inequality.

It’s hard for a fish to see the water it swims in. We, though, can ask questions.

Four questions to ask ourselves

I don’t suggest evaluating every concept or belief that we hold–we’d go nuts. We don’t want to endanger ourselves by testing, without a lot of evidence, whether it’s safe to walk in front of a moving car or pet a dog who is growling with bared teeth.

These four questions might help us stop unconsciously accepting ideas we hear in the news, on social media, from others, or think about ourselves:

  1. Is it true and how can I be sure it is true?
  2. Who or what is the source of that idea?
  3. Whose interest or what purpose does it serve? (Who gains if we believe this concept?)
  4. What if the idea weren’t true? (Could an opposite idea contain at least a few shards of truth?)

(With a tip of the hat to the questions Byron Katie asks in her method The Work.)

Let’s question the beliefs we hold about different ethnic, religious, cultural or gender-related groups. Let’s notice how our privilege or sense of entitlement invisibly shapes our view of the world. Let’s reconsider the stories about ourselves that were given to us by others.

In so doing, we can strengthen our fundamental freedom to think for ourselves.

That’s freedom worthy of Independence Day.

Now for a brief personal plea:

As we approach a time of fireworks and parties, can we celebrate without indiscriminately setting off loud firecrackers near animals–including people?  Because, unlike what we may have once believed, animals feel. Who wants to inflict fear, anxiety, pain, and over-wrought excitement on the critters we love?

Thank you, and now let freedom ring.

 

 

To hold as we are held

My Mom was not the perfect Mom. I was far from being the ideal daughter. I constantly challenged her during the late ’60s with my drugs, sex, and hitchhiking, marches against the Vietnam War, and grungy clothes,

There’s a picture of me where I am wearing long hair, no bra and an Indian bedspread made into a dress that says it all.

Yet, even as we fought, I knew that Mom always held me in her heart.

On the first anniversary of her death, I miss her deeply as I remember the gifts she gave.

She held me.

A mother’s act of holding her children as they grow, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, is often invisible.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so rarely rewarded. We reward the stuff that we can see and count, the actions that lead directly to material success, the hero who leads the charge up the mountain.

The power of the invisible that makes all this possible is often unsung.

The risks of countering fear with fear

So many people around the world are running scared today, of change, of others, of “the other.” Life can feel overwhelming, coming at us faster than we would like, frying our mental circuits. In this volatile, unpredictable, risky and sometimes unfair world, we fear a future we didn’t sign up for.

With anxiety running rampant, our global practice of meeting fear with more fear and trying to bully it into submission is just plain nuts.

(Should I repeat?)

It doesn’t work. People need to be held through their fears, not doused with more fear.

When my dog Lady was shaking in fear at the vet’s office (a trip she never enjoyed), our kindly, burly vet wrapped his arms firmly around her and squeezed. After a half minute, she calmed and settled down on the examining table.

Temple Grandin, the author and animal scientist, famous for her ability to see the world from an animal’s perspective, has learned how to manage her life despite her autism. As a young woman, she designed a “squeeze box” to lie in when her senses were overloaded. Feeling the sides of the box holding and containing helped her, like Lady, to settle and cope.

Isn’t that what a lot of us need, a way to be held, even if we have to design it for ourselves?

Holding is about setting a context

An arrow flies toward its target, surrounded by the air that supports it. We see the arrow but rarely notice the wind.

Some years ago, I led a community meditation group, part of a larger meditation organization. I remember the night a male guest from out of town, active in the organization, joined us, offering his insights and suggestions.

Much of what he told us was useful and wise. Nevertheless, as I sat on the floor, pushing my back against the “back-jack” supporting me, I started to seethe. Here was another example, I thought, of a powerful white guy coming in, knocking over the female lead (me) and taking over a group. I grumbled something to the group about feeling pre-empted. Group members squirmed as I spoke, eyeing the man and myself.

He, fortunately, willingly acknowledged my pain and leadership in the group, then offered words that have stayed with me:

“Sally, you lead this group. Everything here happens within the space you hold. This is the archetype of feminine leadership, which we rarely recognize. You watch me, with my masculine style, come in and stir things up. But none of this would be happening without you. Feminine leadership creates the space, the container in which everything happens, even when a pushy guy like me come in and offers suggestions.”

He wasn’t telling us as women how we were supposed to be (thank goodness, since way too much of that continues to go on) or saying that we couldn’t exert leadership in a more directive, archetypically masculine way. He was pointing out two poles of leadership: the leader who directs and the leader who holds space and encourages others. Both are needed.

People who are successful in holding space for others to succeed are often not credited because they can be invisible.

We rarely acknowledge the womb in which action is born.

In an oft-cited quote from the Tao, Lao Tsu, slightly paraphrased, said:

Of leaders who talk little, when their work is done, their aims fulfilled, the people will all say, “We did this ourselves.”

Throughout my life, my mother held me. Sometimes the holding was too tight for my taste (as in my early teen years). In hindsight, I see that her holding allowed me to flourish. She offered a safe space, a harbor that I could return to, and comfort that assured me of my all-rightness even as I felt beaten down by the world.

My first job after college was in Ecuador, where I encountered muggy heat, millions of mosquitos, and Hepatitis A. As I lay on my back recovering, I dreamed of home, knowing that my mother was holding me and I could return whenever I chose.

How to be held

Many of us feel held walking in nature, embraced by the verdancy of the living world. We speak, not coincidentally, of Mother Nature. (Another reason we have to stop climate change, right?)

You may feel held in the silence of meditation, in yoga, on a silent walk, or during those moments when you stop the rush to complete your “to-dos” and pause in wonder.

You might feel held by your family, church, community, friends or God.

We all need to be held. We need to feel arms around us that can comfort our pain and remind us that we matter.

To hold and be held

What we need, we can offer to others.

We can create safe spaces for people to air their differences.

We can hold the space for dreams, possibilities, imaginations, and actions that can heal the environment.

We can offer comfort to others when change becomes too much, and sanctuary when fear is banging at the door.

Men can hold as well, but today I acknowledging the power of the invisible gifts given by mothers and grandmothers around the world.

 

This is dedicated to my Mom who held me, with love, all of my life.

Shirley Phillips Fox, 1925 –  2018

 

Find Your Inner Porpoise

The books written about Purpose or “Finding Your Inner Purpose” on Amazon have it almost right. They just spelled it wrong.

Change a few letters and you’ll have more fun.

Finding a purpose can feel heavy. A porpoise is buoyant.

Just to be clear, I think having a deep sensing about the “why” of life can help you through the “how.”

But the statements of purpose that we hang on the wall often go flat.

Porpoises, on the other hand, soar.

Have you ever been to one of those weekend growth seminars (guilty as charged) where you stand up on Sunday afternoon and announce to the whole group how you’ve found the meaning of life, or discovered your life’s (yep) purpose?

You feel bold and “empowered.”

But by Monday morning your Big Insight has already faded.

It probably dove back into the deep sea from whence it came.

Which is why I recommend focusing on porpoises, who go deep and then surface again.

My attempts to teach about vision and purpose

When I taught leadership to managers, we did a Very Important Exercise (VIE) in which I asked class members to write about their vision, mission, and purpose. While vision-loving participants perked up and grabbed their pens, others looked as if they had been hit by a sledgehammer or realized that they had to check all of the emails they had received over the previous week.

With hindsight, it might have been better to start with questions about specific moments in their lives, asking them to:

  •  Describe a supper you had on the Fourth of July and who was with you.
  • Write about the funniest (or most awful) thing that happened at your wedding.
  • Tell about the one person you never want to meet up with again.

Chances are, questions like these will produce a set of living, breathing answers instead of verbal monuments you can pin to your wall. (I tested this in my workshop “Writing the Moments.”)

In praise of the porpoise-driven life

Knowing your Inner Porpoise invites you into the land of play. Near the beach. In the water. With lots of great fish. No need to sit in a sterile training classroom contemplating the meaning of life.

Instead, I invite you to relish being outside, notice what nature is up to, stop leaving trash in the oceans, and try to leap in the air again. (I can only jump a half inch, but it’s the spirit that counts.)

Having a purpose as we age

Having a purpose in our later years has been “proved to be important.”

It is reported to help one get out of the bed in the morning, even when aching joints beg for another two hours of sleep.

I propose an alternate approach: get a dog.

Jackson, my foster dog, is gifted at getting us out of bed. Every morning he announces, with a big, baritone bark, that 5:45 am is late for breakfast and if we don’t prepare it NOW he will wake up the entire neighborhood.

To compensate, Jackson rewards us with slobbery kisses and tail-wags. I have never seen a purpose do a happy-dance.

As a meaning-seeking junkie, I admit that the quest for “what’s it all about” can be very addicting and I’m often drawn to write about it.

Perhaps I would be better off if I spent my time:

  • Tracking whether the “shot weed” or the “sticky weed” will win the Millionth Weed contest this spring on my property.
  • Discovering why I have a hundred hazelnut trees and yet never see a single nut (might have something to do with gray, bushy-tailed marauders).
  • Learning how to play nice with the thatching ants that have created a four-foot monument to antdom in the middle of my ornamental garden bed.

These concrete issues beg for attention.

The meaning of life is an oasis that keeps disappearing as I approach it.

Having an Inner Porpoise will not transform you into a GBP (Genuinely Better Person) or give you permission to feel superior to folks. That would be very un-porpoise-like. Porpoises know that they live in a fragile eco-system where everyone has to pull together as a team, and no one gets to take more than their fair share.

Time to delete your inner smugness about being transformed.

Enjoy the Porpoise-Driven life

Learn to go deep under the surface of life. Swim in the ocean of great unknowns.

Amazon lists over 50,000 books about purpose.

I checked and there are currently NO books on Amazon on the “Porpoise-Driven Life” or “Finding Your Inner Porpoise.” If I hurry, I’ll have a crack at becoming the number one Amazon Bestseller in this category.

Unless you get there first.

What does real accountability look like? (It might go beyond what you think…)

 

What does it mean to be fully accountable, taking responsibility for one’s actions as well as for one’s legacy? 

The business world approaches accountability as a virtue, a buzz word that’s synonymous with good performance as in, “Yep, I got it, I’ll do it right away” or “Yes, it was my mistake, and I’ll fix it,” or “You can count on me.”

That’s fine. But given the magnitude of the issues facing us today, wouldn’t it be great if we could all do a little more than our share?

Like, take some accountability for global warming or poverty or the stuff you didn’t directly create?

Not that it’s easy. Personally, I find it hard to take full responsibility for my messes without taking on my role in global warming!

As a child, I HATED being accused of anything that wasn’t directly my fault as in, “You must have done something to provoke your sister to hit you.”  My retort was usually, “No, No, it was HER fault, SHE hit ME! ” It was too hard to acknowledge that I might have had some responsibility, however small, for the situation.

As adults, we can choose to acknowledge our responsibility, even when we aren’t “at fault.”  I learned a lot this week from two women who took on “more than their fair share” of accountability, picking up burdens from the legacies of their families.

Owning the deeds of a father

Hilde Schramm, the daughter of Nazi strategist and Hitler confident Albert Speers, will never undo what her father did. Despite her good works, people will hear her name and think of the evil caused by the father she loved, even though, as a young child, she was never involved.

Still, she understands that carrying her name demands something of her. The foundation she created “supports women of Jewish background or Jewish faith who live in Germany and are creatively active in scholarship and in the arts.” In stating their purpose, the foundation acknowledges that they work “in recognition of the willful destruction of the livelihoods of Jewish people during the National Socialist era.”

Her work has been awarded, yet, more than that, it shows how one woman has understood the burden of her legacy and taken responsibility for improving the world as a result.

Owning the deeds of a son

In the above video, a TEDMED talk by Sue Klebold: “My Son was a Columbine Shooter: This is my story,” you’ll witness a profound and poignant example of what it looks like to take responsibility for the hurt done by a family member. I felt chills watching her speak with such heartfelt, unvarnished vulnerability.

She expresses a level of accountability beyond anything I could imagine.

She dressed simply for her talk, standing before us in running shoes and a drapey gray top. Her white hair glows, and her dark eyes gleam with intensity as she introduces herself as the mother of Dylan Kiebold, the shooter who, with a friend, killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School. They ended their murderous assault by killing themselves.

The Columbine shooting occurred twenty years ago and changed Sue’s life forever.

Her son caused unimaginable suffering. Sue knows that nothing she can say or do will take away the pain experienced by friends, family, the Colorado community and beyond.

She understands that many watching her on stage may judge her negatively as a parent for not recognizing how sick her son was and intervening in his life before it was too late. She carries her own self-judgment.

Afterwards people asked, ‘How could you not know? What kind of a mother were you?’ I still ask myself those same questions…

Before the shootings, I thought of myself as a good mom. Helping my children become caring, healthy, responsible adults was the most important role of my life. But the tragedy convinced me that I failed as a parent, and it’s partially this sense of failure that brings me here today.”

Ouch, Even though she, too, experienced heartbreak, she does not compare her suffering to that of others. She offers, instead, a raw apology.

“When I walk into a room like this, I never know if someone there has experienced loss because of what my son did. I feel a need to acknowledge the suffering caused by a member of my family who isn’t here to do it for himself. So first, with all of my heart, I’m sorry if my son has caused you pain.”

Two years after the shootings, she developed cancer. Two years later, she experienced acute panic attacks that caused her to seek treatment for her own mental health challenges.

She asks for no pity.

She has spent twenty years trying to understand mental illness and the forces that can lead to suicide, suicide-homicide, and violence. Now she is writing and speaking out, hoping that her information and questions may prevent another tragedy.

She doesn’t claim that her good deeds and commitments will “make-up” for what happened. She neither claims redemption nor asks for forgiveness.

On the TED stage, she shines like a heroine in an ancient Greek tragedy, doomed by the fates, yet willing to take responsibility for her life.

Most of the comments written on-line in response to her TEDMED talk were positive, but one, in particular, stood out, written from someone who was at Columbine High School on the day of the shooting.

“I was in the library during the Columbine shooting. I cried as you told your story, and my heart really just ached over this whole situation. I admire your courage to stand up and speak about this, and found healing in your words.”

Because Sue risked walking into the fire of judgment, she was able to help one person. I suspect she has helped many more.

She helped me see the possibility of fully owning what life has brought you, whether you wanted it or not–with courage, vulnerability, and rugged strength.

She showed my scared-to-be-accused-of-doing-anything-wrong self that it is possible to bear a tragic burden and still stand tall.

And bear more than her share.

That’s real accountability.


 

 

As the earth rises in 2019, we’re still in this together

We’ve just closed out 2018. I, for one, wasn’t sad to see it go. During much of the year, the world seemed off balance, with political craziness, environmental disasters, and expressions of cruelty and greed. I also faced a few personal challenges.

1968, fifty years earlier, was also a crazy year. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April; Robert Kennedy in June. Race riots erupted in the US and French students rioted in Paris. The Cold War raged and the US escalated action in Vietnam.

Russian invaded Czechoslovakia. While spending the summer in Brussel with a favorite uncle, I surprised him by joining a protest march with European students. He learned about this when he saw me on Belgian TV, climbing up a monument with a banner in the center of town.

Besides invigorating me, that summer in Europe changed my life. Except for Canada, I’d never been out of the United States. In Belgium, I was able to look back at the United States, and discover that the world was much bigger than the country I called home.

In December of 1968, many of us were able to experience the planet as bigger than our countries or continents, courtesy of the Apollo 8 space mission.

The Apollo 8 team of James Lovell, William Anders, and Commander Frank Borman launched into space on a tight and risky mission: to circle the moon and return alive. They became the first humans to leave low-Earth orbit and orbit another celestial body, and they shared that experience with the world.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, one billion people across the globe listened while the astronauts broadcast live from space. Then they circled the back side of the moon.

Their mission had been fueled by our nationalist concern that Russia might win the “space race,” and our desire to put a man on the moon. The Apollo 8 team hoped to photograph the backside of the moon, in anticipation of a future landing. Bill Anders used a Hasselblad 80 mm camera to shoot a series of black and white photographs of the moon’s craters, whose surfaces were like charcoal pumice stones.

Nobody thought about photographing the earth. Anders later said, “There was essentially zero interest in images of the earth from space. Nobody told me to take a picture of the earth.”

Nevertheless, as the spacecraft emerge from the dark backside of the moon, the team was stunned by an electrifying view out of one window: a small blue ball in the distance, the earth beginning to rise. 

Anders said, “We were awestruck by the beauty of the earth, it’s color, against the blackness of space.”

He had only moments to capture this view.  Photographing the earth was a deviation from NASA’s tightly controlled mission. and Borman told him, “Don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.” But Anders shouted to his teammates, “Hand me a roll of color film, quick!” as the seconds ticked away. Lovell found a roll and threw it to Anders who rapidly reloaded the camera in their small, gravity-free cabin. But it was too late. The earth had disappeared. Then, seconds later it reappeared through the hatch window. Ander was able to shoot three photos, one of which becomes “Earthrise,” which will become the iconic symbol of the mission itself.

The astronauts were deeply moved by this view of their planetary home from space. Lovell later said, “Everything we held dear…was back on that blue planet. How in the world could this little ball exist in this vast universe of nothing?”

Nationalism had fueled the space wars; what the astronauts brought was a view of a small planet, without national boundaries or divides.

A captivating new film Earthrise by director Emmanuel Vaughn Lee,
documents how the experience of seeing the earth from space transformed the three men.

They had gone into space as scientists. They returned with the eyes of poets and philosophers.

Fifty years after Apollo 8 and “Earthrise,” you can hear the awe that still lives in their voices as they speak of their experiences.

As Bormon said, “We all exist on one small globe…These boundaries we have are really artificial ones…”

Lovell said, “I realized how insignificant we all are,” and described the earth as “A vast oasis in the vastness of space.”

“You don’t understand what you have here until you leave it… “

Fifty years ago, I left a country in chaos and was able to see my homeland from the perspective of another continent. Fifty years ago, the astronauts left the earth’s orbit during turbulent times, and saw the planet from the perspective of space.

Today, despite all the photographs that have been taken of the earth from space, ‘Earthrise’ still haunts.

The poet Archibald McLeish captured some of the feeling of “Earthrise” on Christmas day, 1968, when he wrote :

“To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”

Maybe 2019 can be the year when we move beyond our individual orbits and find ways to experience the world with wonder, appreciating what we have and what we share.

Maybe 2019 will be the year we realize that we’re all in this together.

Five Reasons Advice Doesn’t Work and When It Might

I remember many years ago going out for a morning run around Central Park in New York City. It was a crisp, blue-sky day, I had a lot of energy, the run was going well. Then a tall, male runner came blasting past me and shouted, “Don’t run on your toes!”

I spent the rest of the run fuming. How dare he! He didn’t know my body or how I needed to move. (Turns out, toe running isn’t such a terrible thing.) What gave him the right?

And who asked for his advice?

My husband and I have a friend, a great, multi-talented guy, who works extremely hard. He’s helped us a lot. But his habits of coffee, cigarettes, and energy drinks didn’t seem very health-friendly, at least from our not-particularly-humble perspective. We debated whether we should say something.

We wondered again when we found out that he’d had a small heart attack last weekend.

Trouble is, unsolicited advice rarely works.

Five Reasons Advice Doesn’t Work

  1. It hasn’t been requested, When someone is not open or curious to receive new information, your great suggestions aren’t going to make a difference. What’s worse they can turn people defensive.
  2. We don’t fully understand the context. Lives are complex. Understanding context requires understanding:
    • someone else’s background and experiences;
    • the emotional context–how someone is feeling today (nothing worse than a fresh piece of advice on a bad hair day);
    • external variables affecting them such as family, finances, and commitments.
  3. You might be wrong. (It happens from time to time.) Advice often assumes you know more than they do. It’s so tempting to talk from a place of superior insight. What happened to humility?
  4. Advice aborts questions. Advice, too firmly given, keeps us from digging deeper into questions. Often, we need to ask “why?” before we ask (or advise) “how.”
  5. Advice rarely touches the heart–the real power center for change. The person you are talking to needs to feel the imperative of change in their bones. They need to be able to envision the change, hear the change, taste the change…and feel the pain of not changing, before they may be willing to act.

When you can give advice

In certain circumstances, you can give advice.

  • When someone sincerely asks for it and is open and receptive. (Or signs up for advice.)
  • When you can treat them as a peer who will consider whether your advice is right for them. You are offering advice, not prophecy!
  • When they plan to take action. (If they don’t, why bother?)
  • When the timing is right (Not when there’s a crisis, the soup’s about to boil over, or they’ve just listened to the State of the Union.)

Of course, there’s one more scenario in which you can offer advice.

  • When your husband really needs to make a change. (I couldn’t resist–although he tried to edit this out!)

Fortunately for our friend, his heart attack apparently hasn’t caused permanent damage, but It did give him all the advice he needed to make a change.

And I bet that advice will stick!

 

 

 

 

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