Archive for November, 2009

Gratitude

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

It’s Thanksgiving and in honor of the spirit of Thanksgiving I am dedicating this post to the idea of gratitude, or at least as best I understand gratitude.  Let me begin with the words of that famous theologian John Lennon, “life is what happens to you while you’re making plans.”  We could debate whether this is an accurate statement.  We could debate whether the Beatles were the best band of all time, but, for the sake of argument, I am going to suggest that it is accurate, at least it is in my own experience.  Life happens to me all the time while I am making plans but I don’t think that is the point.  The point is, how am I responding to life as it happens to me while I’m making plans?  Most of the time I do not respond with gratitude.  I am not grateful that, once again, my plans have been screwed up by some unforeseen circumstance, person, or event that was not part of my plans.  I tend not to live my life with openness; open hands, open heart, open spirit…but I want to, I think.

A good rule of thumb is when in doubt quote someone that makes your point better than you could.  I think that Gandalf had it right when he responded to Frodo’s despair about being the bearer of the ring.  The life that Frodo was living was very different than the one he had planned, and he found himself wishing that the ring had  never come to him and that the ring’s burden was not his to bear.   Gandalf’s said, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”  Gandalf’s shifted Frodo’s focus away from the unplanned events that happened to him to the one thing he could do, decide how he was going to respond to what had been given to him.

I am not sure that gratitude is the right word for responding to the life that happens to me while I am making plans, but I am starting to think that maybe it is.  Is it because the unplanned moments of life open me up to the possiblity, the slightest possibility that a great part of my life’s story unfolds out of these times?  I have often read about significant people in history whose lives became more significant and more meaningful because they refused to close themselves off to the circumstances, people and events that interrupted their plans.

In closing I quote again, this time from the doorway of the Staunton Harold parish church in Leicestershire, England.

“In the yeare: 1653. When all things sacred were throughout the Nation either demolisht or profaned.  Sir Robert Shirley Barronet founded this church; whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in the worst times and to have hoped them in the most calamitous.”

As counter-intutitive as it may sound, I suspect that a grateful spirit is a common characteristic shared by people who do the best things in the worst times and hope them in the most calamitous.  Translation, be grateful for your life even if it’s not the one you planned.

Leadership 101

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

History offers us the opportunity to study many topics; leadership is one of these topics.  The reason history is a good source for studying leadership is because most of history is in fact biography.  It is a bit misleading to talk about intellectual history, economic history, political history, cultural history and social history when in fact all of those are, in effect, a form of biography.  Take people out of history and you have, well, I’m not sure, but it’s not history because at its core history is the art of telling a good story about people.

Because history is about people and the stories we tell about them, we get a good glimpse at leadership.  We study leadership because it often provides us with the necessary framework, insight or clues for interpreting and analyzing a movement, event, or even a whole civilization. 

You should be asking an important question by now. So what?  We live in a time desperate for leadership but not just any kind of leadership.  We need good leaders.  So the question might be, what would define a good leader?  Recognizing that there are many qualifications we could list, I will suggest one qualification that all good leaders possess.  A good leader is ultimately accountable to those he or she leads.  I would define accountability as being the  willingness to stand alone and exercise integrity when it cost you something.  This kind of accountability may be the only sure way to know whether a leader truly believes the values and convictions he or she espouses because this type of accountability is usually determined in the midst of crisis.

 

I have watched with interest the economic collapse that occured over the past two years listening to countless experts and pundits explain the many causes for a world-wide recession.  What I found interesting was the number of times these experts referred to the failure of financial markets, economic institutions and economic policies as the primary causes of the crisis.  It was almost as though markets, institutions and policies were autonomous and animate forces that operated independently from the people who led them and made decisions that shaped and defined them.  As I listened I could almost envison a movie script about markets, institutions and policies plotting to take over the world.

What was missing in these discussions?  What was missing were the leaders who influenced the markets, institutions and policies with their decisions.  What was missing was leadership defined as accountability in the midst of crisis.   The bigger and yet unanswered question is whether we have in fact learned anything about leadership as a result of this unresolved crisis?  Will we demand better leaders now and in the future, leaders who are truly accountable, leaders who deserve and have earned our confidence, or will we continue to believe that all we really need to do as a nation is restore our confidence in the financial markets, economic institutions and economic policies?

This crisis is not about economics; it is about leadership.  History tells us that people have always created and sustained markets, institutions and policies.  What is now current events will one day be history and that history will tell the story of the people that emerged as leaders out of this time of crisis.  The story of those leaders will provide a framework, insight and clues for future generations curious as to what, if anything, we learned about leadership during our time of crisis.

Don’t Waste It

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

I’m not exactly sure why, probably because I am getting older and old people tend to do this sort of thing, but I am more aware than ever of how important, no, how vital it is that we not waste our moment in time.  I was teaching about Augustine and explaining how this fifth century person’s life and work was so important, so vital, that people have been debating, arguing, and dialoguing with him for over fifteen hundred years.  I think that it is safe to say that Augustine did not do what he did the way he did it in order to be the center of attention for fifteen centuries; but if you read his Confessions you will discover this fifth century person simply realized and appropriated a core truth for his life.  We are able to remember and evaluate the past and we are able to plan and prepare for the future, but when all the remembering, evaluating, planning and preparing are done, the one great truth about life is that we must live the present and how we live the present is one thing, the only thing that will matter. 

My problem is that I have somehow come to believe that our moment in history is different than Augustine’s time. You see, unlike those poor, pre-modern dead people, modern and post-modern people are capable of living the future and more than that, we can actually control the future.  Isn’t that the way we interpret the newest technological advances?  Technology is actually moving us closer and closer to controlling our future.  After all, why would we want to be able to multitask our lives in ever-increasing increments of speed and efficiency unless we actually believed that at some point we will transcend the time/space continuum to find ourselves living the future?  That will be the great moment of transformation for our society because then we will finally be in control of our lives and then we will be secure, then we will be happy, then we will be fulfilled.  Right?

Well, I would like to suggest that the present is going to be with us for a while yet and so we might want some more helpful guidelines for living this moment, guidelines that will help us not to waste our moment in history.  Here are three guidelines for living that I have borrowed from C.S. Lewis and I keep them on my desk as a reminder about how to live the present.

1) Favorable conditions to do the things that really matter rarely come.  Do what matters even when the conditions are not favorable.

2) Do not give-in to the frustration or the fear that you do not have enough time to finish what is important.  The future is in God’s hands.  The present is the only time in which any project can be done, relationship healed, or grace received.  Hold long term plans lightly; work moment to moment ”as unto the Lord”.

3) Do not give-in to fear.  We are not creating a heaven on earth.  This life will always be a difficult pilgrimage, not a permanent city of safety.  Humbly offer what you do to God and allow God to make of it what He will.

And the last one is mine.

4) Your life is short but it is good.  Don’t forget that sharing the sheer joy of  your life with others may be the reason you are here. 

Thanks to Augustine and C.S. Lewis for these timely reminders of our humanity.

The Mythical “Golden Age”

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Why is it that when individuals, organizations or even cultures find themselves in some sort of major crisis that there is a tendency, a temptation if you will, to reinvent, recreate or recapture some particular period of history that represents a golden age?  What would even qualify a period of history as a golden age and how would reinventing or recreating it actually change or fix a current crisis?

Briefly stated, a golden age is that time in the history of a nation, culture, organization or family when people believed, lived, and respected what is right, true, meaningful and beautiful; and, because they believed, lived and respected what is right, true, meaningful and beautiful, God blessed them and all was right with the world.  Crisis was averted, problems were circumvented, difficulties were manageable and tragedy was avoided.  The lesson is, if we could just reinvent or recreate that period of time when people really believed, lived, and respected what is right, true, meaningful and beautiful, then we could avoid or fix the crisis we are in right now.  There are a number of problems with this kind of thinking, wishing.

GW

First, there was no golden age of history, only living people’s nostalgia about it .  The historical records show that no people at any time thought that their moment in time was golden.  Every moment in history had its share of the crises, problems, difficulties and tragedies that characterize the human condition.  It seems that every generation is tempted to  look back for what is right, true, meaningful and beautiful rather that choosing to live what is right, true, meaningful and beautiful in the midst of their own moment of crisis.

Second, no matter how hard we try we will never be able to reproduce another time as a way to manage our own.  What we must come to terms with is that what we  most admire about the past, what we try to project into the past is in fact the values, ideas, behaviors and choices that we find virtuous and ethical.  Rather than wasting our time and energy trying to recreate what might have been the virtues or values of another age, we should take up the responsibility and challenge of living those values and reflecting those virtues in our own time.

Finally, one of the primary reasons we are tempted to look to the past for the our inspiration is that it is a subtle way of avoiding the changes that life’s crises often force upon us.  When in crisis we long for what is secure, stable, predictable and controllable. The past is done.  It is secure.  It is stable.  It is predictable.  The past offers us the illusion that there  was a golden age when life was controllable and manageable.  The only reason we can think about the past as though it were a safe place to live is because it is the realm of the dead.  We, on the other hand are alive; and living means change.  Every day we must take up the difficult, unpredictable, and insecure business of living what is right, true, meaningful and beautiful while being open to the fact this kind of life will change us. 

Ironically, it will be those people who choose to live their lives in this way that will best challenge future generations in crisis not to look for a past golden age but to create what is right, true, meaningful and beautiful in their own.