Archive | March 2014

Daily Prompt 3/30/14

Have you got a code you live by? What are the principles or set of values you actively apply in your life?

I try to “do no harm” as much as possible. I wish I always knew what that meant. Things that seem like good ideas at the time may do the most harm in the long run.

I have tried to apply the principle in organizations I belong to, especially churches. I have tried to speak up as kindly as possible when I felt it was necessary. When I am ignored, I quietly disengage myself from such situations and, eventually, organizations. They are then on their own. I am not in the business of making people listen, but I am also no martyr. After I warn of a particular situation, I will take steps to protect myself legally, emotionally, and, especially, financially. I do not take responsibility for others’ behavior. 

If I can’t contribute, learn something, or have fun in an organization, it is time to leave.

I listen as closely as possible to what others are saying. Often, if you just listen, you can become almost semi-psychic as to what will happen next. Everyone has free will. Peons recognize this; people in power, not so much. People in charge are usually the last to know anything of real value because of their egos. People on the lower rungs of the ladder carefully edit what they tell the higher-ups, in order to not displease those who can fire/excommunicate them. This guarantees that those at the top generally do not have access to any truly useful information. All of this comes about from an unwillingness to listen to the feelings and concerns of others. People at the bottom simply allow the organization to fade away into obscurity because it only serves the needs of those at the top and is not worthy of any further time and financial investment.

Oftentimes, people have really basic needs that can be met without a huge commitment of time or resources. For example, I have a friend moving out of Michigan. She will need to clear out her house. But first, she needs to take her food to Maryland. Her food is downstairs. I am slowly taking her food from her basement and putting it on her dining room table. This will save her a lot of time. She has a new job down there. When she does come up, she has a lot of loose ends to tie up. What I am doing is small and costs me only the gas money to her house. People’s needs can be so basic. I am not rich. I don’t have a lot of money right now, but I do have time and am local to her Michigan house. And I already have keys.

I try not to create problems. I try to openly address what I see. I protect myself. And I listen.

Most Important Thing

I don’t know what my top priority should be. I have been reading this interesting book, Immunity to Change, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. One important concept is your “one big thing.” It sounds similar to Leo Babauta’s “Most Important Thing” (MIT).

I am feeling a huge sense of urgency, but not much direction. I am unsure how to find it.

This is how my sense of direction has come for the past decade or so. I don’t notice something for years. Then, for no apparent reason, it starts to annoy me. Then, I feel like I have to do something about it. For example, not having the computer skills I needed to find a job suddenly became a matter to deal with during the immediate enrollment period. Another example is getting rid of things. Why am I getting rid of things? Partly because I have no tolerance anymore for searching for things. If I cannot find something, I cannot use it at my convenience or enjoy it on my terms. The object becomes worthless if I cannot find it in the first place. It is pointless to buy new things if I cannot find the things I already have.

Now, something is driving me crazy and I don’t know what it is. And I’m not sure how to find out. Usually, I know what is driving me crazy.

This itself is an issue. This is high-leverage. If I can figure out what I need to do or learn, I can begin to get the ball rolling or at least start to overcome the obstacles to accomplish it. If I cannot figure out what my MIT is, how can I take proper steps?

Transformation from the Top

My friend who is moving to Maryland and has landed a new, good job has decided to declare bankruptcy. She is letting go of her Michigan house. She wants a fresh start, something that maintaining her Michigan ties will not allow. She is kissing the Great Lake State goodbye. I am bummed but cannot blame her.

Her decision has solidified my desire to have less stuff. That means buying less stuff (although that is hard to imagine because I don’t buy much of anything anymore but books). She now has the unenviable task of going through absolutely every single thing in her house and deciding whether to try to fit it into a new, small apartment, give it away, sell it, or have it dumped into the Granger landfill. Fortunately, I have already started that process. I see how imperative this track is. Life is not about what you have. Even if it were, having less might still be saner. Of the Be-Do-Have aspects of life, having is the least important.

My ability to do things is important. Having and gaining skills always makes one more marketable. However, I am seeing that that is a lot less important than I have been giving it credit for being. I still don’t regret the debt for my MBA, however, simply because it is like a big red banner saying, “She is trainable.”

My focus is on becoming the person I want to be. Skills can be learned, but I see skilled people everywhere that cannot be promoted because they lack the emotional self-control and development to help other employees. They don’t need to learn Access or SQL; they need maturity. Companies do not usually have the resources to get people from the technical level to the emotional stability level.

I am starting the second half of my life. I have a serious hodge-podge of occupational experiences. I’ve tried to learn from all of them. I do not believe I only have technical skills to offer. Lots of people have those and you can get them almost anywhere, for a price, of course. What I have now is the ability to communicate with many different levels and perspectives of people. I have empathy for even people I don’t like because I have often been in their shoes in the past. I am a liberal with conservative roots. I have a professional degree and a blue-collar heritage. I have been evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, and may be a Buddhist now. I am a newly-minted business college graduate living on a pension and Social Security. I am a living bridge between groups with no understanding of one another. I am sure that I can come in handy.

This is where Zen comes in. Transformation is real, but you’re generally not going to get it from school. I want to give of what I am this second half of my life. This requires presence and availability. These are not skills you can send people into training for. These are part of the very fabric of a person’s personality. Zen is like stretching the inside of a container. It provides more space and makes it more difficult for anything to overwhelm the container. Nothing is bigger than the container itself. That room is what enables conversation, relationship, and transformation.

What’s funny is that Zen is free. I can do all the zazen I want and not clutter up my house with worthless crap I don’t want to drag when I move. I am operating at the Be summit of the Be-Do-Have linkage. I am working upstream, which is where all the power is. I am working at the causative point, as opposed to continually fighting the results of my actions. I am making space where it matters most—within.

Embodiment, Resistance to Change, and Slow Death

Embodiment, Resistance to Change, and Slow Death

I was in Barnes and Noble the other day to relax with a mocha. I was poring over the periodical section and found a magazine about how evangelicalism is declining. The article talked about the Crystal Cathedral being sold to the local Catholic archdiocese and how the “nones” (religiously unaffiliated folks) are now a greater part of the American landscape than evangelicals. I was taken aback.

I shouldn’t have been. I knew the Crystal Cathedral was in bankruptcy, but was unaware of its being sold to Catholics. I allowed my subscription to Christianity Today to lapse for two reasons: I stopped feeling I was a Christian and I didn’t want my Michigan address on any more mailing lists because I had no idea I would still be here. I had heard about the rise of the “nones,” particularly among the youth.

I am old enough to remember the Crystal Cathedral, oops, the Christ Cathedral now, in much better days. I’ve purchased Robert H. Schuller’s books in the past. They were about Positive Christianity. Perhaps a little negativity would have sounded the alarms at an earlier date and saved CC from bankruptcy. A little “pessimism” (aka, a reality check) might have saved their legacy for future generations. Perhaps evangelicalism is an American spiritual fad, the magazine article hinted. I see how true it is now.

As to the “rise of the ‘nones’”, one little tidbit I managed to miss was that the percentage of self-identified evangelicals was 9% ( in Democratic-leaning registered voters, while the “nones” are 24%. Even 11% of Republican-leaning voters are among the “nones.” And you can guess what the trends are: more “nones” and fewer evangelicals over time.

I’ve been a part of the American religious landscape for most of my adult life. First, I was evangelical, then Eastern Orthodox, and now either a “none” or an aspiring Buddhist. Frankly, when it comes to American religion, I have “been there, done that.” I have greatly emotionally, spiritually, and financially committed myself—to my detriment and anguish.

I suspect many of the “nones” have had abbreviated versions of my spiritual journey. The article states, “The new Pew Research Center/Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly survey finds that about three-quarters of unaffiliated adults were raised with some affiliation (74%).” I may not have been raised within any religious affiliation, but 74% of the “nones” were! I found religion as an adult due to one crisis or another, but was a devout Protestant starting when I was about 23. In other words, my adulthood has been strongly religious. Anyhow, I had problems from the start. My desire to believe was exceptionally strong, but I had the same problem in churches that I had had in my family: a lack of role models.Churches love me until I grow beyond their level or expect them to actually live the values they espouse. They love me because I am intelligent and willing to work hard for what I believe in. I am in their pocket—until I question some unquestionable belief, offend their ego, or actually back off when I am treated poorly. The next thing is know is that people are advised to stay away from me. I expect integrity from my leaders. When they fail, I look for sincere “fruits of repentance”, which never occur. I am reviled for my “lack of commitment” to them, which is actually a total commitment to my values and integrity. They push me and I exit. I don’t push back because there is zero point in doing so. I’ve never seen them change, just talk.

Don’t religious leaders see how ominous it is that such a large group of unaffiliated Americans were raised within a religion? There is no evangelizing someone that has spent years in Sunday School and was at one time a member in good standing of a church. The issue may be theological, thinking the doctrines intellectually questionable. The issue may be loyalty to their family, seeing how their mom or dad were treated by a pastor or congregation. The issue may be personal, having been treated poorly themselves. I am sure there are many other potential reasons. The point remains: the church talks about certain values and then members/clergy embody something else entirely. Spending years in Christianity intellectually and emotionally regressed me. The transformation was to an earlier stage of development. The longer I spent in church, the less I respected or even recognized myself. I found myself easily outrun in intellectual conversations by mediocre atheists. It was humiliating. As I got older, I realized that the atheists I talked to all had been raised within churches and had done their theological homework better than any pastor/theologian I had ever encountered or read.

When I would bring up the lack of standards for the behavior of clergy and members, I always got the same, pained, wounded response. I was always accused of being “unfair.” The church is apparently held to a different standard than the world—a much lower one. Let me quote a business book I’ve been reading (Deep Change, p. 125):

“A transformational leader will develop a plan of action, mobilize the workforce, and unleash power by vocalizing the core values of the system. The source of their credibility is their behavioral integrity. A leader must walk the walk and talk the talk. Every action must be in alignment with the vision. To fail on this dimension is to reduce the vision to an exercise in hypocrisy. When evaluating a vision, people watch the behavior of their leaders and quickly recognize if a leader lacks personal discipline and commitment. People know when a leader’s words are empty, and they respond by simply ignoring the vision until the vision dies.” Is that what happened to the CC?

When I speak of integrity, I do not mean perfection. Integrity, to me, is saying, “I really failed you. What can I do to make it right by you?” IT is not saying, “It is not your place to question my behavior. You are disobedient. Shame on you and never speak to me that way again.” That’s been communicated to me by the actions of various pastors I’ve encountered (with the exception of one wonderful, slightly over-trusting Protestant minister I’ve known). We all screw up. Perfection is out of our hands while on earth. Repentance is not.

I would bet that my expectation of integrity appears to be shared by many of the “nones” in the survey. I bet that’s how they became “nones” in the first place.


East Coast Thought

            I just had a strange thought. I was looking at a preview of the minimalist book Everything

That Remains. As usual, I was contemplating my next Amazon order. That is my weakness. I already had three books in mind. This would be a fourth in the same order. Part of me balked. Then I thought, “I can order it when I get to the East Coast.”

            Hit the brakes. Barry seems relatively okay. I have no indication that I am moving any time soon. This thought is a jolt.

I have only had similar thoughts a couple times before. I had one when I was sitting in the driveway of my house waiting for the realtor to show up. I had an out-of-place thought regarding “my” house. We hadn’t bidden on it yet. We hadn’t even been inside. There was no rationale for me thinking of it as “my” house. The only other time was when I was looking for another vehicle. My old car had been in an accident and I no longer trusted it. I was at Sundance, a local GM dealership, checking out vehicles. I got into my current car and knew it was “my” car. I had gotten into other vehicles and they all seemed like possibilities, but this was “my” car.

Some of the reason my brain is on the Atlantic coast is that I talked to my friend who left Michigan is looking for a job and will probably have one in the next few days, after negotiating with the employment agency and the employers that wish to hire her. I went to her house and removed the Christmas wreath. (This is the latter half of March. It was a little sad and hilarious all at once.)

I am not the most intuitive person, so this is a shock to my system. If I had these thoughts all the time, I would have some idea of just how reliable they are. However, this is only the third time ever and both of my other similar thoughts have been truly prescient. I can’t tell Barry about this thought, but I know better than to dismiss it.

Being of Use in the World

Can I be of use to the world?

It seems like I should have more confidence than to even wonder. God knows that I have had enough training to be of use to someone. But I don’t want to be a corporate cog and that’s what my schooling has trained me to be.

I don’t currently have a job. I am busy taking care of Barry. This is producing a big gap on my resume. I may not be able to quickly find meaningful employment when the moment presents itself.

The problem: I understand systems/organizations well enough to see through their cultural values. Part of being an organization is that of ensuring survival. Survival entails rules, policies, and procedures sufficient to keep everyone in line. Eeeeuuuuuw. Organizational continuity depends upon stability. The issue is that the world we live in is inherently unstable. Companies bribe their employees with wages, benefits, etc. For people needing to “keep up with the Joneses,” this is where it is at. “Stability” is just a euphemism for “slow death.” The only things that are static are dead or were never alive in the first place.

I don’t want to spend my remaining years trying to get people to listen to me. I’m so done with that. I tried with my family, various bosses, and churches that I’ve belonged to. One thing I’ve learned is that you will never receive permission to question the foundational assumptions of an organization/those in power. It simply doesn’t work for them. You will be squished like a bug. They will not stop punishing you until it is clear that you no longer have the will to challenge them on any level. Non-conformity is unforgivable. Conformity is kissing goodbye your values and integrity. Lovely choice.

I may be too cynical to work anywhere ever again. Should I start my own business? What could I sell that I truly feel would make a positive impact on the world? This is the most important question in my life—and I don’t have any assurance that it even has an answer.

Untrain a Child

I am obsessed with change; I am also very attached to the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness is central to Buddhism. In Buddhism, mindfulness is the antidote to the hell of conditioned existence. Conditioned existence is just another term for “training.”

As a Christian, I frequently heard the proverb, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” On the one hand, I wonder about the feasibility of not training a child (because that would entail complete parenting chaos with no underlying habits of any kind). On the other hand, to me, learning to think for oneself is essential to function as an eventual adult.

As a Buddhist, my feeling is now, “Untrain a child in the way she never wanted to go in the first place, and when she is old she will be authentic.” Buddhism is about untraining oneself from habitual responses. You learn to have a thought or feeling and not respond. You feel anger (or any other emotion) and don’t act on it.

I believe that Buddhism is so threatening to Christianity because it demands independent thought and undoes all the training parents are so careful to inculcate in their children. When you think for yourself, you may come to the conclusion that (gasp!) Mom and Dad were wrong about something.

The problem is that the world is changing very quickly and people are now routinely expected to “think on their feet.” That kind of flexibility comes from emotional and intellectual independence. If you cannot change course, your way of doing things will be rendered obsolete astonishingly quickly.

Buddhism has helped the Japanese kick American ass. (I speak as someone married to a Big Three retiree.) Buddhism enables workers to be mindful of the ever-changing environment and to contemplate a variety of possible responses. Christianity encourages arrogance: this is the right way to do things and others can take it or leave it. It doesn’t take a genius to know who will win market share and who will gradually fade away as a footnote in history texts.

Deep Versus Incremental Change

Deep Change Versus Incremental

Deep Change talks about deep versus incremental change. “Incremental change is usually limited in scope and is often reversible… [Deep change] is change that is major in scope, discontinuous with the past and generally irreversible.” [Page 3]

To me, the difference is in origin. When people decide they feel like doing something different, they can take steps to get them there. And if they don’t feel like it, that’s cool, too. On the other hand, when life pulls the rug out from under you and you realize you need a new direction, the changes that you make are likely to come from a changed sense of identity. When who you are changes, there is no effort to maintain momentum because the changes are coming from a gut level. How do you change what your gut feels? This is a different place than whence comes, “Learning Spanish would be interesting and it might score points with the boss.” Imagine your child moves to Guatemala or Nicaragua for a job and wants you to move nearby. Learning Spanish is now a priority. You might even look for a Rosetta Stone program specializing in Central America. There is a focus and clarity that is unbeatable. The urgency comes from within.

I will never forget the time when Barry’s eventual Huntington’s hit me emotionally. I had known intellectually for about six years, due to genetic testing. Then came the application for long-term care insurance. For whatever reason, it became real to me. I spent three months alternating between not sleeping at all and sleeping for days at a time. That’s when I started working consistently, in about 2000. Then I quit my wretched job at the bindery. Looking for another job in 2004, I realized that I didn’t have the skills employers were looking for: Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Crap! Where was I supposed to get those? Business school. I enrolled that fall.

Going back to school was not what I wanted at all. After having already gotten a BA in liberal arts, it did not appeal to me in the slightest. But I knew I had to be able to support myself. Barry is 16 years older than I am, so being on my own was an eventuality anyhow. I also have no desire to be dirt poor. I proceeded to get a BBA (with an undergrad emphasis in HR) and then an MBA in Strategic Management. People are so proud of me and wonder where I got the motivation to do all that. I never felt like I even had a choice.

And then, as you do the things you feel are necessary, those things themselves change you. Going to business school has changed my thinking processes. Living in a state with an imploding economy has changed me. The people I have met, with their struggles, have changed me. This is very different from “I really should go back to school someday.” There is no comparison.

Walking Naked

Walking Naked

In the book I am reading, Deep Change, by Robert Quinn, the author talks about taking voluntarily taking risks. He refers to it as “Walking Naked into the Land of Uncertainty.” The examples are inspirational, but I am coming from a different place: involuntarily taking risks or, rather, living in the land of uncertainty without ever having been clothed in the first place.

The example the author first uses is that of an executive that is put in the position of having to “downsize” and lay-off people repeatedly. The man did some soul searching, asked himself a lot of questions, and eventually became empowering to others. “He felt personally empowered. He stopped worrying about the dangers of change and how he was seen by the organization.” (Pages 7-8)

This man’s situation strikes me as a quite high-class problem.  He has a very well-paying position, with a great deal of power over others’ fates. He eventually develops a conscience. Good for him.

None of this applies to me.

Even in high school, I saw what it would take to have friends and be “popular”: ignore being lied to, act stupidly in front of boys (to make certain they did not feel threatened by a mind possibly sharper than theirs), etc. I made horrendous choices in friends because I had older siblings that were wretched role models, because they used drugs and alcohol in great quantities. I learned that doing without (friends, for example) was way better and easier than feeling used and abused. It is tough to manipulate someone who is willing to walk away from the situation entirely.

I entered into adulthood with few coping skills. I had tried marijuana a couple times. After all, people seemed to really like it. It did nothing for me.  I had many unmet needs driving my behavior, some of which I have only recently emotionally detoxed from.  Financial survival and moving away from my parents were my only concerns.

Some of my “nakedness” comes from being at the bottom of the food chain and some of it comes from not finding adequate distractions to keep myself from examining the situations I was in. I grew up in a working-class family, full of uneducated (but often well-meaning members). I have never found a chemical escape that made me feel better, unless you include caffeine. Whatever emotional distress I have experienced has had to be dealt with stone cold sober.

I went through life, taking care of my husband, who has a heart of gold and Huntington’s. He worked for GM for 32 years. Life was tough at times, but not necessarily more difficult than for anyone else in my circle. I was knitting myself some emotional clothing, even if from tattered materials at times. Then he got cancer.

I always knew I would have to support myself one day, but he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The necessity for self-support became imminent. Any emotional clothing I may have had was torched by the cancer diagnosis.

Once again, I am walking through the land of uncertainty naked. My priorities were instantly clarified. I am like Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus: when your security blanket gets stripped away, the value of what remains gets carefully examined. Stuff simply stops being important.  Making baklava is replaced with taking my husband to radiation. Submitting to the “authority” of the church is eschewed in favor of relationships that actually serve both people’s needs. Organizations that serve a few are abandoned in favor of seeking organizations that work for the common good. Other people’s expectations of me are tempered by my expectation of mutuality. Life becomes simpler. Being naked is simple.

For people high up on the food chain, walking through the land of uncertainty naked is a deliberate and frightening choice. For many people, however, no clothes were inherited in the first place. Walking naked can be an act of solidarity with those who never had any clothes to begin with. That’s where the real change can occur. Those of us who have been naked for years are the hope of the future. We’ve been dealing with ever-changing reality for a long time now. When life has fallen apart (or was never built up from the start), all the stuff others have to “put on the line” to try to be “change leaders” just doesn’t matter anymore. You can’t “risk” something that you no longer (or perhaps never did) have or care about.

Deep Change

I just started reading a book called Deep Change by Robert E. Quinn. I have only hit page four before I am having doubts. Let me quote the long passage I have a possible issue with:

“A colleague once told me about a group of executives in a large state government who were interested in leadership training. They were particularly interested in teaching transformational leadership. They wanted to develop public administrators who would take initiative, who would make deep change in their organizations. Given the negative stereotype of public administrators as resistant bureaucrats, they wondered if there were any transformational leaders in any agency of their government. They decided to investigate and find out.

“Their analysis revealed a number of cases of people who had made dramatic transformations within their various organizations. One person took over an office renowned for long lines and offended citizens. A year later it was the best office in the system. Another person took over a hospital where conditions had long been scandalous. Two years later, it was a nationwide model. Eventually, they decided to make a video about some of these transformational leaders. Teams went out to interview the leaders. They returned with bad news. The video could not be made, In every single case, the transformational leader had, at least once, broken a state law. To transform the ineffective organization into an effective one, required forms were not turned in, regulations were ignored, and directives were violated.

“Does this mean that to be a transformational leader and make deep change in an organization, one has to break the law? No.”

I suspect that the real answer is “Yes, in every single case.” The transformational leaders found that out for themselves “in every single case.” Quinn has a lot of convincing to do for me to believe that intransigent systems will ever change without profound violations of their rules and regulations. At least he is honest with himself about what happened right up front. The quote is from pages four and five.

            Rules and regulations are designed to preserve the status quo. Systems never, in my personal experience within my family, employers, and churches I have belonged to, approve of violating the rules they put into place for the sake of their self-preservation. Rules are for the protection of the few at the expense of the many. They exist to prevent unpredictability and conscientious uprisings.

            Young people today have figured all this out and have, consequently, rejected participation in cultural institutions wholesale. The systems say, “Take it or leave it.” Young people respond by simply never joining in the first place. They preemptively “leave it.” Churches and the Republican Party are particularly feeling the sting of rejection from the surprisingly wise generations.

            With my MBA, I would love to be a transformational leader. I believe that many systems desperately need to change for the betterment of the many and the survival of the system itself. However, as I have said previously, many people and systems would rather die than change. I’ve seen it. I ain’t attending their funeral. Do I have issues? Absolutely.

            I hope the book provides some helpful ideas. At the very least, I feel that Quinn understands some of the issues.