Flowers from the darkness

What struck me most at Sunday’s Yom Hashoah ceremony was the way in which each of the survivors who spoke had committed themselves to life.

One woman, who’d entered Auschwitz as a teenager, had dedicated herself in adulthood to teaching young people about the dangers that come with ignorance of one another. Now nearing her 90s, she was fiery and warm and loving and energetic. It was clear how passionately and completely she’d taken up both living and being of service to a life much bigger than her own.

Another speaker described how being exemplars of love and kindness had become central for her parents during the time after the genocide, when they’d chosen to raise a new family in the long shadow of those dark years, still unable to speak of their shattering personal experiences and their grief at the deportation and murder of their two-year old daughter.

A dear friend of mine told me recently that the artist Roman Halter, himself a survivor, used to say to her how important it is to trust life – to turn towards life’s goodness and not lose ourselves in self-doubt and worry.

And Etty Hillesum, who wrote diaries first from her home in the Netherlands during the early years of the oppression and, later, from Westerbork transit camp (the holding camp for Dutch Jews on their way to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in 1943) wrote from the camp about her sense that ‘that one day we shall be building a whole new world. Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves. We may suffer, but we must not succumb.’

I write all of this in no judgement of the countless millions who lived and died in those times – and in other horrors – and were irreparably broken by the experience. Which of us could be sure we’d be any different? But I’m struck by our responsibility in the light of all this, and how easily we can confuse ourselves about the times we are living in. 

This moment in the early 21st century is full of uncertainty and many dangers, yes. But however bad we fear things are, and however frightened we get about it, we can and must learn from those who found in themselves a way to live, and to turn towards life, in the midst of the most unimaginable horror and its aftermath.

That they were able to plant flowers that grew from the darkness leaves us, who right now live in not nearly such dark times, with the responsibility to find a way to do the same.

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Remembering

In the Jewish world today it is Yom Hashoah, or the day of remembering the Holocaust.

Last night I joined a beautiful ceremony at the community which I call home. At one end of the room, a table filled with the shining light of tens of memorial candles. And in front of it, one by one, the testimonies of survivors and their families, woven together with prayers and with music composed by those who lived and died in the ghettoes and camps.

Already in the 1930s, one of the speakers who was a child survivor of Auschwitz reminded us, the seeds of dehumanisation were being planted in public discourse, and in law, in countries across Europe. By the time the genocide and its unspeakable horrors began in earnest there had been years of acclimatisation in language, and in speech, and in shifts in public culture. The Holocaust, as Marcus Zusak reminds us in his extraordinary novel The Book Thief, was built on words.

This year, perhaps more than any other I can remember, I was deeply moved by what I saw and heard. Something is cracking open within me. A certain turning away from the world, a well-practiced semblance of ‘being ok’ is dissolving. I felt, and feel, more open, more tender, more raw, more available, and more touched than I have done for a long time.

I’m grateful for this because, as I listened to the accounts of the people speaking with us, I was reminded once again how our turning away, our avoidance of life, is not so far from our capacity to dehumanise, to blind ourselves to the sacredness of the other, and to absolve ourselves of the responsibilities that come with our own goodness. And when we turn that way, collectively, it’s not as hard as we might think to turn towards the shallow rewards of exercising power over others, bringing back into the centre our apparently bottomless capacity for cruelty, disdain, destruction and death.

In this time when fear seems to have such a grip on the world, in Europe and the US in particular, I hope that remembering what’s come before can help us find out what we’re avoiding paying attention in us and around us. And I hope it can help us remember our own goodness, compassion and capacity to be of service – all of which are vital in steering a course together that points us towards life.

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Left Out

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Conversations frequently left out of the discourse of professional life:

What you’re feeling – a potential source of enormous insight and connection to others

What you care about – especially if different from those around you

Your history – the story of everything and everyone that brought you to this moment, the discoveries and losses and experiences that have shaped you

Your weirdness – the unique artfulness and way of seeing that comes from you being you

Your imagination – your capacity to invent beyond the bounds of convention, the energy for life which stirs you to break out of the ways you’re held in

Your longing – the life and world you’re in the midst of bringing forth

We shut them out with excuses. They’re ‘soft’ subjects, while business is ‘hard’. They’ll open a pandora’s box or a can of worms. This is a work-place, not a therapy session.

We lose so much when we continue to exclude the passions and possibility of the human heart from so many of our endeavours. And it damages us too, because before long we reduce ourselves and others to shadows of ourselves, inoculated by our cynicism against demonstrating care for much that is of genuinely enduring value to human life. Is this really the way you and your colleagues began your journey into the life of work? Can you even remember?

That work should be this way was sold to us by the early industrialists who needed scores of people in their factories to button down, fit themselves in, and stay in line. They appropriated the language of rationalism and science to fashion people into tools, cogs, and components so they could build their great money making machines. And we bought it, continuing a pernicious myth that shallows our relationships and possibility.

The world faces many difficulties right now, and addressing them is going to take all the generosity, wisdom and heartfelt commitment we can muster. Do we really intend to keep on working to shut that out from the world?

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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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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One day

One day, perhaps, we’ll understand that we’re not separate from one another.

That you only get to be you because of me. And I only get to be me, because of you.

And when we understand this, we’ll also understand our profound capacity to bring out darkness, and dignity, in one another.

We’ll see that management practices that treat people as machines beget machines. That regarding employees, or citizens, as if they are untrustworthy breeds suspicion and alienation. That dealing with our loved ones with contempt breeds contempt. That when we don’t listen to the stories and requests of others, they find other ways to get their needs met.

And that the we who we become when we do all this is but a dark shadow of the we that we could be.

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We still have time to muster dignity, and graciousness, and courage

Yes, I admit it. In my pain and confusion and fear and hope and general agitation over what’s happening in the political and social sphere this week, I’ve read far too many of the knee-jerk reactions that fill the press and the web. Some have been helpful, some have fuelled my anxiety but many – most I think – have been the work of but a few minutes or a few hours of thought, and have done little to deepen my understanding. Most of my reading has been an attempt to reassure myself, I realise, an unachievable project given the complexity of this moment.

Which is why I am so grateful for the depth, nuance and care of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, which I mentioned a few days ago. Today I have once again picked up her latest book ‘The Givenness of Things‘ (published a few weeks before the election). I have so appreciated her willingness to write about US culture and society with a long view of history, with its cycles and currents, its upwellings and eddies, it setbacks and its upsets. Through it I have come to see what a narrow frame I’ve been bringing to my understanding of the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Robinson – if you’re prepared to give her enough time and attention for her words to sink in – has so much to say that can help us to understand, that can support us in letting go of needing to know what is going to happen (as if we ever could!), and that can connect us again with our dignity and our hope.

In the chapter I’ve read today, Awakening, she warns us of the dangers of these times:

‘We have been reminded again lately how true it is that a small flame can cause a great fire. And that, to complete the allusion, the tongue is a flame.’

But she also warns us that we too easily make sense of events by what we think we know already, which inevitably leaves us with only a partial understanding:

‘Americans are always looking for trends and projecting them forward to their extremest possible consequences, as if there were no correctives or countervailing forces. “The crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” But trends can be counted on to reverse themselves. I take much comfort from this fact… There is a truth that lies beyond our capacities. Our capacities are no standard or measure of truth, no ground of ethical understanding.’

Writing about the difference between a politics of ethics and a politics of identity (which all of us are liable to fall into when things get difficult), she says:

“Identity… appeals to a constellation of the worst human impulses. It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear. Western civilization is notoriously inclined to idealize itself, so it is inclined as well to forget how recently it did and suffered enormities because it insisted on distinctions of just this kind.”

And lastly, she reminds us that there is much we can do, wherever in the world we live:

“Recurrences, atavisms, are by no means uniquely, or even especially, an American phenomenon. What are we to do? Prayer would be appropriate, and reflection. We should take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us about our blindnesses and our predilections… Since we have not yet burned the taper of earthly existence down to its end, we still have time to muster the dignity and graciousness and courage that are uniquely our gift… Each of us and all of us know what human beauty could look like. We could let it have its moment. Fine, but would this solve the world’s problems? It might solve a good many of them, I think.”

The Givenness of Things is a deeply intelligent and compassionate book, unafraid to be paradoxical and complex, with writing that is clear as a bell. And I think it’s wonderful reading to help us make sense of these times.

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What it takes to listen

It’s when we actually listen to another human being that they get to be human too. Listening allows a shift from I-It relating in which the other is essentially an object to us (an irritation, a way to get what I want, a way to feel good about myself) to I-You relating, in which the other gets to be a person.

As Martin Buber points out, I-It relating is essentially a form of It-It relating, since it’s impossible for us to show up as full human beings, even to ourselves, when we are in the midst of making another, or a group of others, into a thing. To relate to another in an I-You way, to listen to them in their fullness, bestows dignity on everyone and opens wide horizons for understanding, compassion, truthfulness, and relationship.

Listening ought to be the easiest thing to do. After all, it requires no complex framework, no technique, no technology. And yet it can be so, so hard.

Most of us have a lot of practicing to do in order to drop our need to be right, to be ‘the one’, to be liked, and to hear only what we want to hear. In order to listen we have to relax our defensiveness, be skilful with the inner attacks of our own inner critic (which is ready to judge us even when there’s no judgement coming from the speaker), get over our wish to control everything, and be willing to welcome whatever we experience. We have to be able to question our own stories and accounts, be open to seeing things in a whole new way, and quiet our inner world sufficiently that what is being said can reach us. And we have to learn how to be in contact with ourselves, a fundamental prerequisite for being in contact with others.

Perhaps all of this is why real listening is so absent in our fearful, impatient culture. And why we could all benefit from doing some inner work if we want to do the vital outer work of listening well to the people around us.

Photography by Justin Wise

Missing

Aside from our projections (the aspects of ourselves we see in others when they are actually present in ourselves) we also miss the truth about other people when we hold on too tightly to our memories of them.

We so readily fill in the gaps in our experience with that we think we already know. But our stories are necessarily incomplete, and our memories are in many ways unreliable. And, added to that, people keep on changing, so that our certainty about others quickly becomes a way to have them be familiar to us rather than a way of meeting them. Often even a well-worn difficulty feels more inviting than the uncertainty and openness of not knowing.

And it may even be the case that the child, the friend, or the partner you said goodbye to this morning is not the same as the person who is walking back in through the door this evening.

Responding to this is not at all easy. We’d rather hang on to our stories than take the risk of being surprised, with all that could bring. It takes courage to set all that aside. But learning to see people more accurately (and with more kindness) might be our best source of hope for healing our relationships and finding the goodness in ourselves and others that we so urgently need.

With thanks to Jason for our recent conversation that brought this into view.

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On undoing our projections

Our projections onto others cause us such difficulty because, in effect, we are asking other people to take care of what we can only take care of ourselves. And we can only take care of it ourselves if we’re prepared to look, with some attention and persistence, at what it is that we are projecting – often a part of us that’s out of view.

My big work on this topic over many years has been with anger. For so long unable to see and feel how angry I felt about so much, I’d project anger onto others in at least two ways that I can determine.

The first – being sure that other people were angry with me when it was me that was angry with the world and with myself. Perhaps you can imagine how confusing it is for other people when I’m reacting to them as if they’re already furious with me – when I withdraw, or become sullen, or snap back in response to something inside me rather than in response to them. As is the way of such things I’d often quite successfully bring about what I most wanted to avoid, as other people became angry as a result of my way of orienting towards them.

The second – trying to shut down anger in others when it did arise, because it put me so directly in contact with my own fury, the very thing I was most afraid of and most wanted to deny. The result, a stifling way of controlling and dampening others’ responses towards me, of not letting them be whoever and however they needed to be.

And, most fascinating about this, how invisible both of these processes were for me for a very long time. I knew I was afraid of other people’s anger, and I suppose I had some sense of the ways I’d try to avoid it or reduce it, but I had no idea that I was seeing it everywhere because it was present, so very present, right here in me.

Perhaps if you look you’ll start to see similar processes at play in your own life. Maybe it won’t be anger but fear. Or if not fear, perhaps it’s shame that you’re projecting onto others while trying strenuously to avoid it yourself. And once you start to look, perhaps you’ll see how projection shapes relationships at home, with your colleagues, across your organisation and in many other situations in which people relate to one another (isn’t that everywhere?)

We’ve taken up our projections for good reason. They have doubtless, along the way, had a necessary protective effect. But learning to still ourselves enough that we can see them, and coming to observe ourselves accurately enough that we can drop them, liberates a new kind of truthfulness and a much needed-freedom into our relationships and interactions with everyone around us.

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We see what we project

So much of our difficulty with relationships comes because we’re projecting onto others what we won’t see in ourselves.

So you get angry and frustrated with a colleague because she’s tentative and hesitant, without seeing that it’s a cause of anger (rather than compassion or curiosity) precisely because you’re angry at all the ways that you are tentative and hesitant.

Or you get furious with your partner for leaving the kitchen table in a mess, not so much because of the mess but because your inner critic is eating into you for all the ways you struggle to keep things neat and in line.

Or you fall in love with another’s creativity and spontaneity, all the while because he reflects back to you all your own creativity and spontaneity with which you’ve lost touch.

Or you feel afraid of an entire group of people because they remind you of what you’re afraid about in yourself.

Our projections – if they illuminate anything about other people at all – leave so much of their true beauty and complexity shrouded in darkness, so that we’re often relating to what we project rather than to who they are.

None of this is so unusual. But it can be a huge source of difficulty and suffering for us. Because behind our projections is another human being, different from us, confounding, surprising, and worthy of both curiosity and wonder. Behind all our projections is another who we are sure we know, but perhaps barely know at all. And behind all our projections are aspects of ourselves – gifts and suffering – that we’re sure are out there in the world, but are in fact right here if we’ll only turn towards them and look.

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Family

Seen against the ever-present certainties of our lives – we will die, we will grow old, all that we build or create will eventually fall apart – differences between us drop away. We are all the same.

It’s so hard to live consciously with this in mind, to reach out across the space we imagine separates us and be open to one another. So hard to share our fear, our longing, our truest hopes. So hard to stay present long enough to look deeply into the eyes of others, to fall into them, allowing ourselves to know and be known.

Why so difficult? Perhaps because of the shame we necessarily picked up along the way: sharpened every time we had to be told not to do this or that, to be this way or that way in order to fit in with our families or with our culture. Because of our self-doubt and our inner-criticism, which make it so hard to love ourselves fully (a pre-requisite for allowing ourselves to un-self-consciously love others). And because we are afraid.

And so we hold back, always reserving some distance even from those who love us the most, because that way it feels as if we’ll hold on to some measure of safety. Or we judge others, resent them or hate them, turning them into less than human-beings in our hearts, because it makes us feel better for a while.

Even though we know that our deepest connection with one another is precisely that which can save us from the void.

This is the great ethical work, so difficult to do and so necessary, which calls to us – learning the sensitivity to respond and be open to other people, who we take to be so different from us but with whom we share common ancestry, and common destiny.

For we are intimately related.

Family.

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Into the light

We’re born with such power and promise and creativity folded deep within us.

Such beauty.

But we so quickly forget.

Perhaps among the most important activities of any human life is to look into the darkness so we can recover that which has been lost to us.

And bring it back, again, into the light.

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The inner work required for work

Everything I wrote about yesterday – how we’re so often relating to split-off or denied parts of ourselves rather than to what’s true about others – is in play in our workplaces as much as anywhere else.

Who gets promoted and who gets sidelined, who gets invited and who gets ignored, whose ideas are given space and whose are shut down, which projects get the go-ahead and which do not, whose voices are heard and whose are suppressed, who gets admired and who gets judged, who gets to be in and who gets to be out… all of these are so easily an expression of the hidden inner worlds of those who get to choose.

Which is why it’s incumbent upon any of us who want to extend our cares beyond ourselves and our own self-interest to study and get to know our own inner landscapes.

Such work is not idling, nor pointless navel-gazing, but a necessary step if we want to bring about a world for the benefit of everyone. And this inner work is especially necessary when we have positional power, authority, or influence of any kind (which is all of us if we choose to take it).

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The parts of ourselves we see in others

There are parts of us we know well – those that are in close – and parts of ourselves we know less well – the more hidden, invisible parts. Sometimes, simply giving a part its appropriate name allows us to see it and to interact with it more skilfully. The inner critic is one such part. Seeing it, naming it, entering into a different kind of relationship and conversation with it – all of these can be powerful moves in having it take up a more helpful and life-giving place in the constellation of entities each of us calls ‘I’.

But there are also parts of each of us that we have disowned or split off and that we barely see as part of ourselves at all. These may be parts of ourselves that we dislike, or judge, or abhor. Or they can parts we long for, but do not feel are available or appropriate for us. But parts of us they are, and since we can’t bear to identify our experience of them with ourselves, we readily project them into others.

So often, when we find ourselves disliking other people, when we get irritated by them, feel judgment or scorn or disdain or even hate towards them, we’re seeing in them what we most dislike or scorn or are irritated about in ourselves. A simple way of saying this is that what we encounter in them reminds us so strongly of what we’re trying to get away from in ourselves, that we try get away from it in them too.

The very same process can also be in play with those we are drawn to, admire, or put on a pedestal. In this case perhaps we’re seeing in the other, first, a reminder of split-off parts of ourselves that we deeply long to be reunited with but do not consciously know as our own. We feel drawn to the other person, or good about ourselves around them, precisely because of the feeling of wholeness and re-unification it brings about it in us.

Perhaps it becomes obvious when described this way that the work for us to do with people who irritate us is not to try to change them (which in any case does not address the primary source of our irritation or anger or frustration) but to find out what it is about ourselves that we dislike so much and work with some effort and diligence to understand, turn towards, and accept it.

And with people we love and admire the inner work for us to do is much the same if we want to love and admire them for who they are rather than because a hole or an emptiness or a longing gets filled when we’re around them.

Then, we can find, it’s more and more possible to be around a wider range of people with openness and warmth and genuine regard. And it’s also more possible to be close and compassionate with those we love most, who are so often the very people with whom we have the most difficulty because it’s in them we find parts of ourselves most readily reflected.

 

 

How looking ok nearly undid me

Today, the third anniversary of a close encounter with the fragility of my own life, I’m reposting, below, on the necessity of asking for help, of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and of turning towards darkness when it presents itself.

It turns out that spontaneous blood-clotting is relatively common and often not well diagnosed. If you are interested in finding out more, check out the website of the Hughes Syndrome Foundation.

Looking Good

Could it be that it’s time for you to give up looking good so you can be real instead?

I’m not saying this lightly.

Two summers ago, I found myself rendered momentarily speechless, mid-conversation, as a dear friend and I walked together for lunch. A few minutes later, flat on my back on the pavement, heart pounding, short of breath, mind racing.

I knew for certain only after a few days – but had an inkling as it happened – that an undiagnosed blood clot that had been forming in my leg for some time had at that moment broken loose from its moorings.

Terror, love, longing, hope, confusion.

I called home while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m fine,” I said. “There’s nothing to be worried about”.

Not, “I’m scared.”. Not, “Please help me”. Not, “I don’t know if I’m going to be ok”.

“I’m fine”.

It was a hot June afternoon, blue skies, but there must have been clouds as I remember watching a seagull wheel high overhead against a background of grey-white.

“I’m fine”.

Just when I most needed help and connection I played my most familiar, habitual ‘looking good’ hand – making sure others around me had nothing to be worried about. A hand I’ve played repeatedly since I was a child.

Even in the most obviously life-threatening situation I had yet experienced: “I’m fine”. Too afraid to be seen for real, to be seen as something other than my carefully nurtured image of myself.

It was there, on the pavement, that I started to understand in a new way the cost of holding myself back from those I most care about; the power and necessity of vulnerability and sincerity; that my humanity, with all its cracks, complexity and fragility, is a gift to others, not a burden.

I began to see that the realness I treasured in the people who love me the most was my responsibility too – a necessary duty of loving in return.

I’m still learning, slowly, how to fully show myself.

One step at a time.

And I’m learning, too, that sometimes we’ll carry on trying to look good, even if it has the potential to ruin our lives as we do so.

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Two tiny miracles

So many times I’ve forgotten that my body is alive. And so many times – in a culture in which we’re so quick to reduce ourselves to units of production (always more to do, always some target to hit, always the possibility of pushing harder) or consumption (so I can get more, more, and more) – I’ve seen taking proper, exquisite care of myself as a luxury, or as a distraction, or as an interruption to the ever pressing demands I’m apparently meant to be satisfying.

If I stop to go to bed – I won’t get enough done.

If I stop to eat properly – I won’t get enough done.

If I stop to rest, or to meditate, or to exercise, or to pause, or to look deeply into the eyes of a loved one, or to sit quietly among tall trees, or to walk in the fields, or to have a massage, or to read poetry, or to play with my children, or to listen to beautiful music, or to paint, or to just talk with someone, or to write – all of which support my alivenessI won’t get enough done.

This understanding of myself – that I’m more like a machine or an object than a living breathing being – is seductive, and powerful, and pervasive. We’re taught it in our schools. It’s embodied in many of the practices of our workplaces and the narrative of our politics. And when I’m not paying active attention to it, when I’m rushing around in busyness or greediness or hollowness, I can quite easily forget myself and what it takes to flourish and support others in their flourishing.

I know I’m not the only one who is affected in this way. Even the idea that flourishing is a serious subject for our attention is difficult for many of us.

And after some days recently of feeling too tired, achy, and restless, of pushing too hard and denying it, I have stumbled back upon two simple, revelatory miracles that I have known time and again but then forgotten.

Miracle 1 – Sleep

There is, simply, no substitute for enough sleep.
Good sleep is foundational for a life in which I get to create and contribute.
Good sleep is foundational for life itself.
Good sleep is neither a luxury nor optional but a basic, non-negotiable necessity.

Miracle 2 – Water

Getting dehydrated happens easily and it matters. When I don’t pay attention to this I spend my days tired, distracted, confused, and my mental and emotional acuity is blunted.

I’ve started carrying a bottle of water everywhere with me over the last month, drinking regularly, and the way I feel, as well as my sense of presence and sharpness, has been transformed for the better by it.

I like to think I know about all of this already, but these two simple acts of self-care continue to be a revelation. And they teach me so much about how easy self-forgetting is, and how necessary it is to have ways of remembering what it is that I really am.

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It’s not kindness

Sometimes, a commitment to everyone around you being ok can cause more suffering than you know.

You might think you’re just being kind, principled – a person committed to harmony, peace, and the wellbeing of others.

But it’s not kindness if your habit of saving others from their difficulty:

denies them their dignity or freedom
hurts the people around them
has them become dependent upon you
acts so that you, principally, can feel better about yourself.

It’s not kindness to insist all is well, that everyone look on the bright side, and in doing so ignore others’ difficulty or judge it as moaning or whining.

And it’s not kindness to turn away from important conversations that can liberate people from their suffering, simply because you fear that you or others might get upset.

Kindness like this might still feel like kindness to you. It might feed the story that you’re really there to help. But what you’re doing each time is covering up the difficulty. And in each case there’s some significant suffering that calls for a much bigger contribution from you.

Kindness that makes a genuine difference to others requires enormous courage, because it can never just be about fulfilling your story about yourself, or making you feel better that you did the right thing.

This kindness knows when to wait as well as when to act. It knows that cutting the bonds that hold others in their difficulty can require fierceness and sharpness as well as softness. It has a much bigger perspective than just this moment, just this incident, just what you’re feeling right now.

And this sort of kindness – which looks long into the future to assess the consequences of its actions, and which casts a broad net to include many others in its care – has so much more possibility for bringing about the peace and freedom you really long to bring into the world.

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The humanity of the other

The enabling step, David Broza said, in bringing together Jewish and Palestinian musicians in such a tense, fraught, risky situation was to eat together. The evening feasts organised around the recording involved up to a hundred people talking, eating, and singing with one another – catered for by Israeli and Palestinian chefs – a series of encounters that laid the possibility for everything else, an extended conversation for relationship. This, he said, is how things really happen in middle eastern cultures. But it’s also the way of humanity.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas makes a similar point. Discovering the human world of others, he says, is a primary moral obligation. And once you see that another person is a human being, as you are, once you enter into an I-You relationship with them, other moral obligations necessarily follow. In the face of the other you are obliged to listen, to enter into dialogue, to say what is true, to extend yourself as far as you can to understand the other’s world, and to respond with both compassion and wisdom.

Perhaps it’s this very fact that leads us to avoid the intimacy of genuine human to human contact in so many situations between communities and in our organisations (where it’s quickly dismissed as ‘touchy feely’, as if that itself seals the matter). Because when we encounter the other as human, we discover that we have responsibility towards them.

Without attending to this, anyone – lover, friend, colleague, child, neighbour, visitor, customer, a whole people – easily becomes an object; an ‘it’, a means to an end, a supply for our own need to be loved, to be right, to rage, to hate, to earn, to judge, to feel superior. When you have eaten with someone and, more significantly, when you have allowed yourself to feel what it is really like to be with them it is much harder to see them this way. When you have heard them talk about the longing of their heart, when you have shared a meal, when you have understood the feel and detail of their ordinary domestic life with its concerns and struggles, when you have looked into their eyes, when you have been in contact with their humanity it’s more difficult to see them as an object: the enemy, the boss, the subordinate, the supplier of my needs, the one to mistrust, the one placed on a pedestal, the Palestinian, the Jew.

East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem

Yesterday evening singer-songwriter David Broza was in London. I was fortunate enough to be at an event where he spoke, and sang, and showed his film East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem, which documents the recording, over eight days in an East Jerusalem studio, of an album featuring Palestinian and Jewish Israeli musicians.

The music itself is really quite something, but what struck me even more was the deep longing and humanity expressed in the film by each of the musicians participating, both Jews and Palestinians. The longing to be seen, the longing to be in I-You relationship with others and the longing to express hope and despair and love and sadness. And what happens when that longing can be met with sincerity by the longing and humanity of others, however apparently different their culture and background.

In his talk about the project David spoke about how important hope is. Once hope is replaced by the cynicism and despair so familiar in our times, he said, nothing is really possible any more. Cynicism closes off so many avenues that hope keeps open. And so hope, or a faith in our capacity to improve things, becomes a moral imperative, a necessary condition for the resolution of suffering and the solving of our most complex and confusing difficulties.

He also said something deep and important about time. Peace, he said, like so much that is important to us, requires a multi-generational commitment. We misunderstand it, as we do so much else, by insisting on immediacy, too quickly concluding that it is impossible because we’re not personally seeing the fruit of our labours. There is a significant kind of peace and understanding between people that can only be brought about by the diligent commitment of many over long periods. It requires persistence, and patience (surely in great decline in our current age), as well as the hope I described above. How many of us, I wonder, are willing to dedicate ourselves to anything big enough, and difficult enough, that it takes more than the span of our own short lives?

And he spoke, as did Du at our event last month about what it is to respond to a vocational call (though he did not use this word). The East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem project, he said, is but the latest expression of the one and only contribution he finds he can uniquely make, given who he is, when in history he is living, and what he loves. It’s clear from being with him and listening to him play that this is not so much a choice he is making as a call that life is making on him – where his heart’s particular longing and gladness meets the particular troubles of the world in which he lives. And in responding to life’s call his part is not to make grand political gestures, but to be in close, in intimate relationship with others, making music and inviting the humanity of close-in relationship and singing about what he uniquely sees and what uniquely moves him.

And what beauty it brings about, as you’ll see if you have an opportunity some day to watch the full film, which as yet does not have a distributor.

There’s a film of David Broza speaking recently at a TEDx conference in Jerusalem which you can see here. I strongly recommend watching at least the first few minutes in which he plays and sings one of the central songs of the project. And if you’re prepared to dedicate a few more minutes of your time, you might find something of what I’m saying above in what he has to say.

Here’s a video of the title track from the album, recorded with Wyclef Jean.

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We see others as we are, not as they are

Even before we’ve really studied ourselves and developed some kind of understanding of the vast contours of our inner worlds, we’re presented with a difficulty in relating to other people, because in so many ways the personhood of others is mostly invisible to us.

We see our own commitments, cares, and intentions – and interpret our actions in the light of that knowledge. But when it comes to others we can only see their actions, which we most readily interpret in the light of our way of knowing the world.

Or, said another way, we see others not as they are, but as we are.

And how much difficulty, trouble, and suffering can come from that simple, basic, misunderstanding. Until, in due course, we find out how to soften the certainty of our own interpretations and open, with curiosity, to the very otherness of even the closest of others.

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Making visible

So much of what it is to be a person is invisible to us.

Yes, we can see outward behaviour, but we can’t see the thoughts, intentions, vows, commitments, bodily sensations, meaning, love, joy, grief, sadness, hope or pain of others.

In order to see and understand other people as people and not as objects we need to be able to understand the contours of their inner worlds. And in order to do that, we need to know our own inner worlds: we need the language and discernment to notice and distinguish what’s happening inside us. But we have abandoned the practices that can support us in this.

We’ve abandoned reflection and replaced it with busyness.
We’ve abandoned sitting quietly with ourselves and replaced it with consuming.
We’ve abandoned patient and disciplined self-observation and replaced it with entertainment.
We’ve judged the contemplative practices of those peoples and traditions that came before us to be irrelevant, spooky, or superstitious – at odds with our apparently sophisticated, rational way of being.

Our capacity to understand ourselves, and to understand others, has been flattened out, rendered shallow and inconsequential as a result. We barely know ourselves, and we barely know how to respond to the suffering and difficulty of those we work with, and those we live with.

If we want to build families, communities and organisations in which people have a genuine chance to thrive, we need to take care of this.

It’s time we took back what we’ve so comprehensively abandoned, so we can learn to treat what’s invisible about others and, first, about ourselves, with the seriousness and wonder it deserves.

People by numbers

If I can treat you as an ‘it’, then I’ve got your number.

You’re a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher,
a nuisance, a blessing, a distraction,
always late, always good for a laugh, always boring,
infuriating, beautiful, unreliable.

It takes courage to treat you as a ‘you’,

because I might find out that you’re none of these, that you defy language or explanation. I might find out that you’re not who you were when I left this morning, that you’re not who I’m trying so desperately to have you be. I might have to allow myself to be bowled over by your vastness and your mystery. I might have to allow myself to feel your suffering. It takes courage, because when I find out how little of you I really know, I might find out that I also know only a little of myself.

And when I’m open enough to treat you as ‘you’, there’s a chance I might get to be ‘I’ in return.

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Make good art – inspiration for the start of the week

If you have time to watch one talk this week, I can’t recommend highly enough Neil Gaiman’s talk on the human imperative to make good art.

Though he’s talking to arts graduates (at the University of Philadelphia) his advice – a passionate plea that we not hold back our creative faculties – is a powerful invitation to all of us, whether we consider ourselves ‘artists’ or not, to live our lives themselves, as Abraham Joshua Heschel recommended, as art.

His is a vital voice in a world where we’ll all too quickly reduce ourselves and those around us to ‘behaviours’, to units of production, to the product of neurons firing or genes expressing themselves, or to passive consumers – and in the process forget to make the contribution that’s really possible for us.

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A genuine treasure

Every complaint has at its heart a genuine treasure: a something that the complainer values and cares about.

It’s so easy to miss this when we dismiss people as moaners, whiners, or nuisances.

When our complaints are disregarded the hurt and resentment comes not so much from you not doing what we asked of you, but that you didn’t see us first and foremost as human beings with cares and concerns that matter.

Instead of seeing complaining colleagues, customers, family as irritants, can you allow yourself to see the committed person behind the complaint? It’s a far more powerful, relationship-building, trust-developing place from which to respond.

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Easy to say, difficult to do

Of course sincerity is often difficult, because we’re afraid of its consequences. We’re frightened that if we speak truthfully we’ll fall short of other people’s standards,

or we’re afraid they won’t love us any more.

We’re afraid it’ll get in the way of our looking good,

or we’re afraid people won’t understand us.

We’re afraid it will open a can of worms,

or we’re afraid our words, once spoken, will box us in to a future we do not want.

We’re afraid that owning up to what we really mean will make us look weak,

or that it will cause conflict we’d much rather avoid.

And because of all these fears we twist ourselves, distort ourselves, so that what comes out of our mouths no longer chimes with the wishes, longing, and intention of our hearts and conscience. Perhaps, as I know I do, you struggle with this daily, finding yourself looking sincere but knowing all the ways you’ve fallen short, again. Perhaps you know this is only human. Perhaps you’re starting to see the cost to yourself, and to others. Because there’s only so much twisting a human heart can take, I think. At some point we each have to start teaching ourselves that the price of our insincerity is far greater than we had imagined, and the consequences of our fears, far less.

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Monster or angel?

Pick someone important in your life – a lover, friend, colleague. Your boss. A team member. Brother or sister. Mother or father.

Now look – who are you having them be to you? What image are you projecting their way?

Are you expecting them to take your pain away, to hold you in a perfect embrace (physical or metaphorical) in which you do not have to feel any worry or address any trouble?

Are they an object for your resentment or your hate – propping up your self-esteem each time you belittle them in thought or deed?

Do you have them elevated, on a pedestal, a constant reminder of your own inadequacy (and hence an excuse for the way you over-extend yourself or hold back)?

Are they there to show you that you’re loved and respected always? And when they fall short, to be the target of your frustration and woundedness?

Are you expecting them to parent you? To excuse you? To soothe you? To excite you? To rescue you? To provide for you? To be an object of your scorn? To be a monster or an angel?

And because of all of this, are you relating to them as them, or as an image?

All of this matters because too often we find we’re not in relationship with a person, but with a story. And as stories are smaller and more rigid than people are, it turns out that’s not much of a relationship at all.

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Misunderstanding feedback

‘Giving feedback’ has become so much a part of what is considered good management that we rarely ask ourselves whether it’s effective or question the premise upon which it’s based. I think it’s time we did.

The very idea of ‘feedback’ as a central management practice is drawn from cybernetics. The simplest kind of single-loop cybernetic system is a home thermostat. The thermostat responds to feedback from the room (by measuring the ambient temperature) and turns on heating when required so to warm the air to a comfortable level. When the target is reached, the thermostat turns the heating off. It’s a ‘single-loop’ system because the thermostat can only respond to temperature.

In a double-loop feedback system it’s possible to adjust what’s measured in order to better address the situation. If you’re bringing about the conditions in your room to make it suitable for a dinner party you may need to pay attention to temperature, lighting, the arrangement of furniture, the colour of the table cloth, the number of place settings, the mood and culinary taste of your guests, and the quality of conversation. Single-loop systems such as thermostats can’t do this. But double-loop cybernetic systems allow us in principle to ask ‘what is it that’s important to measure?’. And, of course, human beings are far more suited to this kind of flexibility than thermostats are.

It’s from this way of looking that we get the contemporary idea that feedback – solicited or not – is what’s most helpful or appropriate for someone to learn to do the right thing. But it is based on something of a questionable premise. Thermostats, even very clever ones, and other cybernetic systems don’t have emotions, or cares, or worries. They do not love, or feel fulfilled or frustrated. They do not have available to them multiple ways to interpret what is said. They do not hurt, and they do not feel shame. They do not misunderstand or see things in a different way. They don’t have an internalised inner critic, nor do they have bodies that are conditioned over years by practice to respond and react in particular ways. They are not in relationship. They do not have to trust in order to be able to do what they do. And they do not have a world of commitments, intentions, relationships, hopes and goals into which the latest temperature data lands.

People have all of these.

When we simply assume that spoken or written feedback, even if carefully given, will correct someone’s actions or help them to learn, we assume they are more like a cybernetic system than they are like a person. Sometimes it can certainly be helpful – when the feedback is in a domain that both giver and receiver care about, given in language that makes sense, and when it meets the hopes and aspirations of the receiver with sensitivity and generosity. But many times we find that the very act of giving feedback wounds or confuses or deflates or misunderstands or treats the other person as if they don’t know what they’re doing. We find that the world of the giver is nothing like the world of the receiver. We find that our best effort to construct feedback according to the ‘rules’ mystifyingly doesn’t bring about what we’re intending. And then we get frustrated or disappointed, and try to give the feedback another way, imagining that if we can come up with a clever technique or way of saying it then our feedback will work.

Perhaps a place to start would be to stop thinking about people as if they were glorified thermostats. In order to do this we’d have to soften our ideas of truth in feedback – specifically the idea that the one who knows the truth gives feedback to the one who must be corrected. Secondly, we could start to think how many ways there are to learn how to do something well than being told how someone else sees it. And third, we could wonder how we can share the riches we do see in a way that gives dignity and maintains connection between both parties – starting by knowing when it’s time to request, demonstrate, reflect, inquire together, make new distinctions in language, show someone how to make good observations for themselves, or simply stay out of the way.

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Idiots and Monsters

The problem with all of our judgements about others

‘He’s an idiot’

‘She’s a monster’

‘He’s useless’

is that they turn the other person into a non-person, a label, an object upon which we can project all of our frustration, all of our disappointment, all of our despair.

Fantastically powerful in maintaining our own self-esteem, judgements give us a sense of self only because they strip the other person of most of their self-hood. How much love, care, dignity, integrity can we see in another – however angry or frustrated we are – while we have them be an idiot, a charlatan, a waster?

Our judgements conveniently blind us to our own contribution to the very situation which matters to us so much. As long as ‘he’s a crook’ we’re freed from our capacity – and our responsibility – to speak up, to make requests, to listen, and to break out of the patterns that are our own part in keeping the difficulty going.

And, most of all, our judgements absolve us of the responsibility to understand the other in their fullness, stifling our interest in what about them and their lives has them behave in this way. And they stop us bringing the necessary compassion and wisdom that’s always required to find if we want to find our way out of the prison of our frustration, resentment, disappointment and anger.

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People are oceans not objects

Today, just this: ‘People are oceans not objects‘, from Robert Poynton’s wonderful blog.

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