Friday, November 21, 2008

Strengths and Weaknesses

I'm in the process of reading Marcus Buckingham's The Truth About You in preparation for a review I'm doing for Thomas Nelson Publishers.

I'll have more to say about the book when I've finished reading it, but I bring it up prematurely here to mention the challenge it raises in the first few pages. In general, Buckingham writes to motivate his readers in achieving personal success - an easily overworked and "tired" topic, but he makes one unexpected turn when he approaches the notion of strengths and weaknesses not measured by what you do well or do poorly but by actions or activities that make you feel strong when you're doing them or conversely feel drained, diminished when you're doing them.

So, I've asked myself for some days now, what am I doing when I feel strong, capable, and in command? Try it. Coming to an answer was not nearly so easy for me as I imagined it would be.

Then today, I continued my reading in Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and found this gem - a single, short line describing Phaedrus that spoke to me and pointed to the answer I'd been looking for:

"For Phaedrus, failure to understand something created a tremendous interest ... "

There it is: When do I feel strong? What am I doing when I feel my greatest strength? I am confronting something I don't understand.

I do many things well - we all do, so read me aware as you pass these words, but I am at my best when I engage what I don't know. I think of horse whisperers who converse with the beautiful lying just beyond wild resistance, and I know myself there - whispering and whispered to by ideas daring to defy being known. I am calculating, strategic, tenacious, and patiently determined - God, I love it! ... the best game in town!

The "... failure to understand something create[s] a tremendous interest ..." in me. In this place I am strong.

update (three days and a few pages later):

Pirsig explores Phaedrus' "fanatic intensity" and willingness to "burn one's self out, day after day" to learn more about the processes of reason and the substance of (T)ruth. Pirsig culminates several pages of developing his thoughts with this:
"You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They knowit's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt ....

That's probably why he felt such a deep kinship with so many failing students in the back rows of his classrooms. The contemputous looks on their faces reflected the same feelings he had toward the whole rational, intellectual process. The only difference was that they were contemptuous because they didn't understand it. He was contemptuous because he did. Because they didn't understand int they had no solution but to fail and for the rest of their lives remember he experience with bitterness. He on the onther hand felt fanatically obliged to do something about it ... He was telling them you have to have faith in reason because there isn't anyting else. But it was a faith he didn't have himself" (emphasis mine).
In the kingdom of man, you have to have faith in reason because you have to have faith in something, and even if reason, in fact, does not merit your faith, there is nothing else - maybe, nothing "better."

Reach past the kingdom of man to take in the rest of the story - the kingdom beyond, if you will allow this consideration, and I will suggest with similarity to Phaedrus that "you have to have faith in [God] because there isn't anything else." I hold this position with a similar limp in my own conviction, however, while I nonetheless argue "intensely" for this faith - an intensity informed by the limp itself - as the best answer to a problem that wants an answer and the most reasonable answer to hold.

... food for thought.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

About Life

"In three short words, I can sum up everything I know about life: It goes on."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lest We Forget

CNN, Jamie McIntyre, and a host of often unsung journalists behind the camera have created a 30 minute salute to our veterans for viewing today. This photo-essay tells many stories; perhaps most importantly, it tells our story. I have transposed snips of many of the conversations in the "appetizers" that follow with the hope that you'll be encouraged to give at least this much time to remembering today.

McIntyre himself says it best in his sign-off to this work: "Thank you for watching and thereby honoring our veterans." I add my own special thanks to Tommi and Abraham Godwin for their service with this last note: A mother could not be more proud of you both than I am today.

With the thanks of a grateful nation, "Veterans in Focus" (video below)

"We'll do this till this thing ends." Bangor International Airport Greeters

"This is my way of dealing with it." Bill McNaughton, caretaker

"If you show us an enemy, we'll defeat it. It's hard sometimes to tell what you're fighting: I'm fighting to stay alive." Thomas Cuddy, surviving Lou Gehrig's disease

"It gave one the confidence to really believe I was an American." Harry Akune, Japanese American

"I was like, this is it. I'm going to die." Colby Buzzell, Iraq War blogger

"You folks say the war ended 40 years ago, and I tell you, the war has never ended for me." Robert Etherson, Viet Nam veteran

"Among the homeless population, 20% are veterans." Samson Barris, Founder, Pathways to Housing

"For the first time in my life, I'm happy." Joe Boil, (previously) homeless veteran

Sunday, November 09, 2008

It's a New Day

"It's a New Day"

Thanks,! You speak for us all!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Step 8

I am a stronger woman for having learned to trust twelve steps so many years ago, whether serenity, AA, Al.Anon, or any of the many expressions available. Thank you, Bill W.

This short story from BBC News Online catches my attention, most certainly for the reinforcement it lends to the value I hold: Step 8 - Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Thief sent 'sorry' letter to shop

The owner of an Indian food store in Bristol has received an apology letter and £100 from a former drug addict who stole cigarettes from the shop in 2001.

Imran Ahmed, 27, who runs Raja Foods in St Marks Road, Easton, said he was stunned to open the remorseful letter.

It begins: "Dear Sirs, I am writing this letter to make amends to you for something I have done in the past."

Mr Ahmed said the thief's change of heart was "really good" and he intends to give the money to a drugs' charity.

The thief's letter continues: "About seven years ago I was walking past your shop late one night when I noticed that someone had broken into it.

Make amends

"I used this opportunity to enter your shop where I stole 400 cigarettes. The money enclosed (£100) is to pay for those cigarettes which I stole from you.

"At that time I was heavily using drugs and my life was in a mess, now I no longer use drugs and I strive to lead a decent and honest life.

"As part of my ongoing recovery I try to put right all of the wrongs I have done in the past, at least where I can, and this is why I am giving you back the money which I stole from you.

"I regret the harm I caused you in the past and I sincerely apologise to you for it.

"I was very wrong to do this and I hope that returning the money will make up for this harm, at least in some small way."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

We Did It!


President Elect Barack Obama!

Worth Remembering

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

I voted! Did you? Vote. Don't let anything get in your way!

An Election Day Poem

Excerpt from The People Yes

Carl Sandburg

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can't laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.

The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
"I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time."

The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum:
phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth:
"They buy me and sell's a game...sometime I'll
break loose..."

Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
Once having so marched.

Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.

The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.

The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother:

This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can't be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can't hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?

In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
"Where to? what next?"

HT: Glen Avalon

Reality Shows

An American Rendition (Jane Comfort and Company) premiered September 24, 2008 using integrated text, movement and extended vocal techniques to depict the story of an American story: a U.S. citizen is kidnapped, interrogated, and tortured in a secret prison while the rest of us distract ourselves with our favorite models, pop stars, and fashion queens.

Using the remote control as a theatrical device, the dancers flip from reality to Reality Show (way more fun) as they offer savage parodies of American Idol, Fear Factor, and America's Next Top Model - humiliation we find both captivating and delicious.

Comfort and company explore the moral and political paralysis confronting a nation addicted to reality TV shows. Intense, non-stop viewing, seamless, scene-to-scene transitions push the often reluctant viewer through channels of discomfort, confusion, and titillation. Only almost invited to participate in an environment saturated with sound, image, movement, and color, the audience is as commandeered and subjected as Sean, the increasingly broken player we follow to his end.

In conversation following the performance at Purdue University (October 27), Comfort referenced the FBI's definition of successful torture: the victim becomes willing to do whatever will make the perpetrator happy. The discussion further layered an already provocative evening with yet other complexities and considerations.

In what could only be an interesting intersection of coincidence, I was that day reading the last pages of Camus'
The Stranger. Just two passages may bring you to the place of thought I occupied:

[E]verybody knows life isn't worth living. Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn't much matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living - and for thousands of years. In fact, nothing could be clearer. Whether it was now or twenty years from now, I would still be the one dying. At that point, what would disturb my train of thought was the terrifying leap I would feel my heart take at the idea of having twenty more years of life ahead of me. But I simply had to stifle it by imagining what I'd be thinking in twenty years when it would all come down to the same thing anyway. Since we're all going to die, it's obvious that when and how don't matter.
Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why. Throughout the whole absurd life I'd live, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people's deaths or a mother's love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they thing they elect matter to me when we're all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers?
At the crossroads of two works of art I was brought to a dark reconsideration of "reality" showing, and I admit to being overtaken by a kind of emotional standstill. What did it matter anyway? I'd come too close to torture; I knew torture, and I knew the captivatingly delicious seduction that could overtake you there. The next day would come regardless of my will, and if or when they stopped coming, would I remember how to know the difference? As I say, ... dark days.

I am moving again now (even today, even as my stomach rides high in election-day anxiety) with renewed confidence and re-commitment to be the world I want to live in - to greet a neighbor, to pick up the litter, to work the extra unpaid hour, to pray, to laugh, to love the children, to safeguard the elders, and to keep reading, thinking, learning, growing. ... all this yet with no desire at all to fight with Camus.

The dark wind continues to rise out of my future and convince me as it did Meursault that life is absurd at best, that when and how we die can't possibly matter if measured against the ultimate fact of death, that we can not know, and that (perhaps more importantly) knowing is as likely to make matters more difficult to navigate as to increase ease. And so, you might ask to my pleasure, why go on?

Because we must. Because we do. Because we will.

Wanting the answer to be more meaningful is naturally compelling but equally the very personal, very singular, and intensely individual business of faith - not fact, and it could be nothing more.

I elect to practice faith in God (an act I believe should have no right to govern another's practice), and I recognize in the great privilege of my citizenship an opportunity to put my faith in the American Dream.

If you have not had the opportunity to view Bill Moyer's wonderful work, "Deepening the American Dream," I recommend you find the time. It is free for viewing in its entirety online. I draw my own understanding of what the
American Dream is from ethicist Martha Nussbaum who offered this reflection:
My vision would be of an America in which we recognize that we each have a conscience, that each of us is searching for the meaning of life - a very hard thing to do, and that we agreed to respect one another as equals as we carry on that search.
The rest of Nussbuam's essay can be read online, but this passage is enough for me to point to my own conviction, my own hope, that we will finally respect the difficulty of answering Camus, the difficulty of answering Jane Comfort and Company, and that, with renewed respect for the utterly necessary and ultimately inescapable condition of our singularity, we would commit ourselves to building communities that would in every way possible nuture, encourage, and protect all the people of this great nation as they work out an answer for themselves that will hold against the howling wind.

Such bold freedom is uniquely American and forever worth the price to preserve.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

What Threatens Democracy

Speaking with CNN's Don Lemon, Dr. Cornel West (Princeton) named three threats to democracy in America today:

  • greed running amuck, especially "at the top"
  • indifference
  • the politics of fear.
Lemon challenged Dr. West to answer those who might suggest his views could be called "un-American," and he answered:
People are gonna say I'm un-American, and I'm gonna say, "I'm anti-injustice." ... If to speak out against injustice in America makes me anti-American, they can call me anything they want 'cause I'm a Christian, and my allegiance is to the cross first and foremost. The flag comes second.
The interview is well worth the 3 1/2 minutes listen.