One thing

In recent months I have taken up reading printed newspapers instead of reading online. It’s a decidedly low-tech, tactile experience. And what I have most come to appreciate is the boundedness of the activity, the constraints imposed by a form which is, simply, just what it is. There are no hyperlinks, no pop-ups, no advertising or stories chosen on the basis of my previous browsing habits. A single edition contains just what it contains, and no more.

The effect on me of this particular, immutable, physical arrangement of words and ideas is often quite profound. I read with much greater attention, free of the urge to jump out and away any time a link catches my eye. I read about topics I don’t read about online, because the paper does not hide from me perspectives and ideas that are different from my own. I am called to step into other worlds – worlds distinct from those shared with me by my Facebook friends and by the advertisers who are determined to sell to me what they already know that I like.

Mostly, though, I am freed by the containment of the form to be up to just one thing, and I experience this as enormously satisfying.

We have been sold powerfully on the freedom to choose whatever we want, whenever we want, and promised that realising this freedom is the pinnacle of human achievement and fulfilment. It’s a promise that often feeds our restlessness and rootlessness. Reading the newspaper reminds me of a parallel possibility, that of choosing to purposefully limit our own choices, of the beauty and dignity of commitment.

It is but a small example of a powerful principle by which we can live. Our willingness to bind ourselves by a promise, to give up a superficial freedom, uncovers a deeper, more significant freedom. It’s when we’re prepared to be up to one thing that we stop skimming across the surface of experience and find ourselves invited into a deepening engagement with the world.

And if it’s true of reading the newspaper, how much more true it becomes when we are willing to make life-defining commitments, those that bind us into a particular kind of care and attentiveness to the world, and have us set aside trying to do it all.

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Let’s commit to language

In this time when we’re seeing again how readily language can be used to undermine truth, disorient us, and turn us away from one another, let’s dedicate ourselves to recovering the sanctity and dignity of words.

Let’s remind ourselves that language matters, because it’s from language that we build all of our shared human life.

Let’s remember that this is about each of us. Because the everyday practices in our families and organisations include ways of using language to distort, cover-up, depersonalise, avoid and confuse. And that this, step-by-step, unravels its  life-giving power.

Let’s commit ourselves to using words in ways that preserve, and clarify, and deepen meaning and understanding. Let’s remember that we’ll often fall short, and will have to rededicate ourselves to the task, again and again.

And let’s keep reminding ourselves that the power of words to reveal, to illuminate, to uncover, and to share the precious fruits of knowledge between us is vital, rare, and easily undone.

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These are our values

The values you’ve declared for your organisation are not things that you can put on your wall, or lock away in a safe. You don’t have them. You can’t own them. And you most certainly can’t ’embed’ them in others, unless like rivets embedded in a wall you’re planning on using force.

You can’t even, in all truthfulness, say ‘these are our values’. Because values are, more accurately, works-in-progress, ongoing commitments to something that can never be completed.

You don’t have fairness, dignity, compassion, justice, creativity, honesty or service. You bring them about, most importantly when they’re least in evidence, when they’re most challenged, when they’re most called most into question by the complexities and compromises of life. And in each moment of action they are already in the midst of disappearing again.

When you relate to values as things they become things. The objects of lip-service. Inert, lifeless, hardly practiced.

Remember instead that values are a state of affairs that you’re actively working to bring about. You can’t embed them, but you can cultivate them. And that way they’ll have a chance of remaining alive in your hands.

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My fantasy self

My fantasy self is perfect. He doesn’t cause any trouble. He can get things done in just the time they take, and no less. He never makes a mistake, and he’s always does exactly what other people really need him to do. He’s humble, self-effacing, kind. He can resolve the most intractable of disagreements simply and elegantly, with reasoned, calm speech and attentive listening. Never selfish, always wise, forever reasonable, he’s always perfectly attuned to the needs of others. People want to be with him, to praise him (quietly) for his sacrifices. They want him to rescue them from their difficulties. And he’s above all disdain and criticism. If people criticise him, they must, simply, be wrong.  My fantasy self is easily hurt, but would never show it.

My fantasy self isn’t me. I’m far messier than that. Often disorganised, late, frequently confused. I leave my umbrella on the bus. I love, fiercely and deeply and in complicated ways. I fall deeply into my passions – books, people, music, poetry, ideas. I’m often filled with self-criticism and self-doubt. I can bring deep, profound wisdom when I’m still enough and present enough. I can be as stubborn as hell. Funny. Over-serious. I make terrible mistakes, and beautiful ones. I know how to teach. I can be exquisitely tender and gentle. I rage.

And what suffering, what sorrow, for me and for others around me, when I confuse the two. When I pretend to be my fantasy self. When I live in ongoing comparison with his impossible standards. And when I defend him, fiercely, closing out the ones who love me because they have had the honesty and care to see me not as my fantasy, but as I am.

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Heaven and Earth

Two common errors that rob us of our freedom and our integrity.

The first is imprisoning ourselves with the facts of our lives.

I couldn’t possibly do that… I’m a teacher, a lawyer, a man, too old, shy, not funny, the vice-president of operations, a woman, embarrassed, a parent, unprepared, too important, not qualified, just following orders.

Live only from here, and we’re entirely defined by our history and circumstance, by the identity we’ve taken on or been handed by others. Held back from the freedom to step fully forward, we’re denied the opportunity to speak out, to surprise, and to shape new futures for ourselves and others.

The second error is imprisoning ourselves with what we can imagine.

I don’t have to face my responsibility. It’ll be ok… when I win the lottery; when I get promoted; when I become the next Steve Jobs; because I’m thinking positive thoughts (and the universe will answer me, just you wait).

Live only here, and life is forever suspended, awaiting the miraculous turn of events that will make everything alright. The wider culture we live in encourages this kind of magical thinking with its ceaseless search for novelty, its fixation on the lives of celebrities and millionaires and its obsession with quick-fixes.

To live fully, we need to be in both worlds: feet on the ground, mind in the heavens.

Our unique human capacity to transcend the facts of our situation allows us to imagine infinite possibilities for ourselves and for the people around us. But we abandon our responsibility when we forget that we inhabit the world through our physical bodies, in which we’re always in relationship with others and always in circumstances with very real constraints.

To be fully human is to be connected to both heaven and earth simultaneously: to imagine wild possibilities, and then pursue them with diligence, creativity, persistence, compassion and pragmatism.

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Human Resources

Intelligence. Creativity. Love. Strength. Openness. Connection. Inspiration. Tenderness. Discipline. Rage. Courage. Artfulness. Curiosity. Compassion. Wisdom.

All of these are human resources.

What we’ve done by calling people ‘human resources’ obscures this. It forces us into a category that includes money, electricity, technology and fuel. This way we become objects rather than subjects, commodities rather than people, tools for production rather than living beings, ‘it’ rather than ‘I’. It’s an example of what in philosophy would be called a category error – a misunderstanding of the nature of things.

So is it any wonder that the systems and language we invent seriously limit the expression of our true resourcefulness?

Behaviours we expect people to follow – as if human beings had no interior world of discernment, meaning, and feeling from which their actions flow.

Values we expect others to take up uncritically as if they couldn’t determine for themselves what they’re deeply committed to.

Competency frameworks we design as if skillfulness, artistry and human ingenuity could be reduced to a set of bullet points.

Management that aims to reduce individuality, creativity and surprise, as if people were an irritant that gets in the way of the smooth running of the machine.

None of these do anything to amplify the real resources human beings have to bring to their lives and work.

And while we might think we’re only treating others in this way, we can’t help but diminish our own humanity each time we treat people as if they had little humanity of their own.

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Back to front

We over-imagine and we under-imagine and, curiously, much of the trouble we get into seems to come from having them back-to-front.

We over-imagine what surrounds us in time and space, worrying about future events that may not happen, inventing troubles and concerns that are far beyond our control and influence, and letting all this crowd out our sensing of where we are.

And we under-imagine our own capacity, becoming convinced of the judgements of our own inner-critics, taking our shame to be the only part of ourselves worth listening to, becoming transfixed by our fear. It’s what Adam Phillips, in his marvellous book Unforbidden Pleasures calls ‘a crisis of under-interpretation’.

What a beautiful response we could mount, in the midst of the turbulent ever-turning world, if we swapped this around from time to time. If we were pay attention to what’s right here, in front of us, that is calling for our care and attention. And if we could see that our shame, self-criticism and fear were but small parts of a vast inner landscape fired also with love, and creativity, and the strength to continue.

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