Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Bucket Lists"

My husband, Herb, and I were discussing “bucket lists” tonight over dinner. There is a 2007 film starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson by the name of “The Bucket List” in which two terminally ill cancer patients jointly run away from their cancer ward to do all the things they’ve always wanted to do before “they kick the bucket.”

At ages 70 and 60 respectively, Herb and I have entered the season in our lives when friends and acquaintances die, and we have occasion to reflect on what we know of their lives and also of their deaths. In addition to keeping a supply of birthday and thank you cards on hand, I find myself replenishing a supply of sympathy cards regularly.

As so often happens when a married couple like us, who have known each other for a very long time, in our case, thirty years, begin to talk about others, invariably the conversation turns to talking about ourselves. I pointed out to Herb that I cannot think of anything that I have always wanted to do that I haven’t already done or would feel regret over if I came to the end of my days and learned that I hadn’t done it. Herb did not hesitate to say that he feels the same way.

A very wise friend and priest said to me recently that her advice to terminally ill people is “to have no regrets.” I think that advice applies in a number of areas, not just to achieving goals such as taking the dream vacation, trying a sport or hobby, buying the long desired extravagant gift for one’s self, or eating the perfect meal in the perfect location.

Having no regrets is also about reconciliation of relationships. The most obvious admonition is to make amends, reconnecting with loved ones and repairing broken friendships, asking for forgiveness and asking for another chance. Making amends is a biggie, and we tend to do biggies pretty well when we set our focus and pay attention.

Having no regrets is good advice, as far as it goes. I think it’s important to go further and make a commitment to finding contentment. Finding contentment is an antidote to having no regrets. Recommendations for finding contentment fall into two significant categories: being present and choosing well. Compared to making amends, these are smaller, less momentous, items, which are actually much harder to do, because the things that tip the balance for them are also much smaller – smaller distractions, smaller avoidances, smaller excuses – when taken individually. The problem is that we don’t take them individually, but we aggregate them serially, one small distraction following one small avoidance followed by one small excuse, repeatedly.

If you watch infants and toddlers as they learn new activities, you’ll notice the intense concentration, persistence and repetition in which they engage until they master the task, and then their countenances break out in smiles, giggles and pure joy. There is a simplicity to that joy. It is centered in the moment or series of moments, each task focused upon and achieved, with all the other distractions of the world set aside in the moment.

St. Anselm talks about God as “supremely simple,” not a composite thing that is made up of or dependent upon parts. God is both supremely simple and the supreme unity. As humankind becomes reconciled with God, we are called into that supremely simple nature, which seems to me to be expressed by what we describe as “being present.” In being present we do exhibit in a very real sense a unity of and with the moment in that we inhabit the moment fully.

As adults, those of us who have experienced the sense of unity in a moment can point to examples such as a mother gazing into the eyes of her infant, a couple sharing mutual sexual orgasm, and athletes as they enter the water in a perfect high dive. In those moments, nothing else exists for us except everything that is contained in unity in the moment.

Choosing well begins with choosing whom we love, including the choice to love God. Broken relationships is as much about choosing well those with whom we have intimate relationships as it is about making good choices around boundaries, ethics and morals. In the simplest terms, I would suggest that it’s like choosing “10’s” every chance one gets versus settling for less than “10’s.” For example, why waste calories on eating a crummy tasting piece of chocolate when one can choose to eat a divine piece of artisan chocolate?

And if a “10” is not available, with only “not-10’s” being offered, wouldn’t another choice be “not 10 and not not-10”? Our Western style of thinking tends to couch everything we think about in binary terms: either-or, black or white, yes or no. What if we were to expand our thinking beyond binary terms, to 1) black, 2) white or 3) not black/not white? What if the choices before an end stage renal failure patient were 1) transplant, 2) dialysis or 3) not transplant/not dialysis? Is is possible that having that third choice could represent a better way of choosing?

So, I’m not going to be writing a “bucket list.” What about you?

(I want to acknowledge here that I write in the context of these United States where we live in a culture of privilege in every sense of the word. I know that choice exists in a very different paradigm in other parts of the world.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Leaders as Great Gift Givers

In this season of reflection, I have been thinking continuously about the part I play in the dramas of my life. Being a leader would be easy if I didn’t care so much for doing right by the people with whom I interact. I watch television dramas with overbearing bosses and larger than life characters, and I know that I can’t emulate those leadership styles anymore. When I was younger, first starting out as a manager and bank officer, I thought that the goal was the acquisition and wielding of power. Now I know the goal is much more important than what passes for power and more complex than gaining acquiescence to my schemes.

There is a great difference between leading people where they willingly desire to go and coercing people into following the leader’s mandated path. Many years ago I read a book entitled "Son Rise" by Barry Neil Kaufman about his then-five year old autistic son. Kaufman, through his experiences in trying to reach his son and lead his son back into relationship with the rest of the family, learned to define love as “desiring to be with.” In my reflections on leadership, I think that a true leader is someone who gains the trust and concurrence of people so that they “desire to be with” or to follow the leader.

The exercise of leadership could be analogized by gift giving. I know a very dear person who loves broadly and generously and would help a friend in need without hesitation, but he doesn’t get very high marks as a gift giver. So often his selection of gifts falls short of what would bring real joy to the recipient. The gifts selected do not lack for expense or special qualities, nor for lack of time, trouble and care in their selection. So, what’s the problem? It’s really quite simple. They’re not the gifts that the recipients desire to be given.

A great gift giver pays close attention to the desires of the gift recipient. Observing his interests, how he spends his own time and money, and listening to the energy in his voice when he talks about his passions, that’s how the gift giver knows how to make a gift selection. A poor gift giver makes assumptions about what the gift recipient wants, frequently projecting her own interests and desires onto the recipient, choosing gifts that turn her on, but leave the recipient flat.

Leadership that attempts to lead where people don’t want to go, to achieve successes that people don’t have any energy on achieving, is failed leadership. At its most benign expression, such leadership is ineffective and irrelevant, and people simply ignore the messages of such leaders. At its worst, such leadership equates to dictatorship, being a control freak, in which case people spend inordinate amounts of time, resources and energy plotting to circumvent and resist such leaders.  

Too often, there is a mistaken understanding of leadership, that it somehow equates with good management. Contrary to what many so-called leaders think, leadership is not about promoting one’s own agenda, but rather about helping people to live into their own best and true selves around a shared, community-based agenda.  A leader inspires and helps people to focus energy on their own motivations around the shared agenda while a manager guides the tactics to accomplish the phases of a strategic plan.

Persons in leadership roles walk a very fine line between helping groups to identify a shared agenda and projecting their own agenda in the mistaken belief that it reflects the group’s shared agenda. The former is an organic give and take process, that doesn’t conform to any linear timeline or plan; it is by definition messy. The latter tends to feel like a struggle on everyone’s part: the leader feels frustrated that “they” just don’t get it, the group feels manipulated, and there is a lot of push-pull activity and tension.

My reflections have brought me to an awareness that I have been engaged in leadership from the sidelines of the mistaken variety. I recognize a need for me to pull back, to step aside and to allow the give and take to happen without my interference. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I don’t have some important gifts to offer to the process. What I am saying is that I need to stop being part of the drama and start being a non-anxious presence that holds light rather than power in my metaphorical hands. Much, much easier said than done, but well worth trying for.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Love the One You're With

I have a couple of friends who have received prognoses of impending death. In one case, it’s a woman with inoperable breast cancer that has spread to the spine, never a good thing. My brother died fifteen years ago when his cancer spread from the sinuses to the lungs and spine. Treatment will prolong life in my friend’s case, but that’s all. I am uncertain what treatment did in the case of my brother.  

For my other friend, it’s a recurrence of liver cancer, with treatments to shrink the tumors and extend the months left for time with family and friends. These cases lead me to ponder the advance of death, when we are given a timeline on which death progresses, inexorable as the revolution of the earth on its axis, as night following day.  

The ordinariness of the days which are numbered speaks volumes. There are no special events or extraordinary trips planned. There are maybe a few more family gatherings and meals steeped in tradition and shared moments watching the grandchildren in their daily activities. My two friends are both people of deep faith, who have requested prayers from near and far, and they are on many prayers lists of equally faithful folk all across not only the country, but, indeed, the globe. Prayers ascend, asking for peace and comfort for loved ones, and peace and a grace-filled transition for the afflicted.  

When I was young and growing into adulthood, I remember harboring dreams of a life filled with important work, interesting people and exciting activities, of making a difference with my life choices and earning a star in the pantheon of saints. As an adult, now in what is probably the last quarter of my life, my reflections take me to insights that I hadn’t dreamed of and am unsure I would have designed for my life. I ponder the transition from life to death, the knowledge of its immediacy and the impact such knowledge has on one’s daily choices.

Although I have been privileged to participate in some important work, to know a few interesting people, and to make a difference in some lives by my choices, I am struck by the Motown lyrics that reverberate in my head: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” I have always focused on the last half of that verse, “love the one you’re with,” because I have known for as long as I can remember that love is a choice, an act of will, and not something that one willy-nilly “falls” into as some hapless victim of eros or agape.  

“Love the one you’re with” is an admonition to be present fully. At the moment you are before me, does anyone else exist for me but you? It has been said that the difference between genius and not-genius is the ability to focus undivided attention over extended periods.  

When I am acting consciously, I do try to be present to the ones I’m with and to love them with my entire being, which gets expressed as being attentive to what they’re saying and feeling, and responding accordingly. When I am unconscious and distracted, I’m focused on my own preset agenda, what I want to accomplish and how I want others to help achieve my goals.  

Being self-aware, conscious, opens up an amazing amount of psychic space in my conversations, because I am receptive to receiving what others offer. Being unconscious and egoistic shuts down my receptors, and my thoughts bounce against one another in a cacophony of aggressive indecision that grows into a communicable anxiety spilling out and affecting others contrary to my best intentions.

As I’ve prayed for my friends with their incurable illnesses and their families, I’ve also meditated on how I can be present to them in an authentic, life-affirming way. I've taken to asking my friends how they feel versus asking about their labs and last doctor’s visit. I am convinced that we might actually manage our days of living with some of these end stage illnesses better without the knowledge of lab results to which we privileged first-world people have access. We certainly wouldn't obsess as much about the lab results, and we just might be more present to our living versus to our illnesses.

We are all dying . . . from the moment of birth. It’s just a matter of timing, how quickly or slowly we make the transition. What matters is how well we’ve loved the ones we’ve been with.

Friday, August 14, 2009


1. Thanksgiving

I pray the prayer

embedded in my neurons

each atom’s refrain

to its forming by the Maker

2. Reunion

a gentle puff of breath

escapes my lips

blessing the chance encounter

of planets orbiting different suns

3. Surrender

a posture intrinsic

as each flower’s

seeking of the sun

each birdsong

on each new day

4. Fusion

each small step

impossible under gravity’s thrall

we traversed the universe

empowered by Love

5. Completion

thanks to the One

who created everything

united in the holy

paradox of life in death

Love the elemental

fusion of heaven and earth

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Conversation and Change

I love it when I have good conversations with my two grown children, Corin, 39, and Cecelia, 24 (in eleven days). There is a transition where your children become fully adult in your psyche and you become fully human in theirs, and you connect. That transition, from my experience, is more continuum than point, stretching out over a long period of teasing out the boundaries that you each agree to observe. Unfortunately many parent and child relationships remain lost on that continuum, neither advancing nor retreating, but circling and unrooted or stuck and despairing.

Boundaries in human relations are unlike those a land surveyor stakes out with metal posts to register in a county office. Humans are infinitely mutable and undeniably fickle in their preferences and dislikes. We negotiate understandings, boundaries in our relationships, and then our contexts change or we ourselves change through experience, education and new influences. The negotiated understandings are no longer settled and must be visited once more.

How does anyone prepare for change? What coping skills do we inculcate to move whole from one unexpected event to the next? What is the ground from which courage springs, and how do we fan its flames in youthful hearts? These are the questions that parents ponder, each in his or her own way, when they consider the awesome responsibility of nurturing a child to adulthood. It seems to me that these are the questions that a society should ponder when we consider how we live together in communities, from our local neighborhoods to our national political units.

As a parent, I have long recognized that my job is to raise my children to leave me – to leave me physically and establish their own households, to leave me emotionally and form nurturing relationships, and to leave me spiritually and encounter the divine through their own lenses. As with any job, there is a gaping chasm between the job’s expectations and one’s performance.

Preparing children to face change head-on is a job that is ongoing throughout their development. In the early years, it’s about comforting children when unpleasant changes occur, beginning as early as when an infant’s status changes from feeling sated to feeling hungry. As children grow to experience disappointment, for example, when a childhood friend doesn’t want to share a toy, when Mom says “No” to an after-school activity, or when the college of choice sends a rejection notice, parents must also develop their repertoire of responses beyond offering comfort.

Learning how to handle disappointment is a tough lesson that sometimes feels like it hurts us, the parents, more than it hurts our disappointed children. The conversations between parent and child that lay the foundation for developing coping skills require patience and consistency. Disappointment is a persistent fact of life. Helping children develop the ability to respond honestly, realistically and hopefully to disappointments merits equal persistence.

I have observed that those adults with the greatest resilience, who are able to pick themselves up and move on after great disappointments, are those who have well-developed self-talk, that ability to separate the disappointment from the ego and to place the disappointment into its proportionate place in one’s universe. Self-talk is, from my perspective, the continuation of the conversations that occurred between parent and child, but now occur within the child’s sense of self, the amalgamation of his identity, morality and experience. I believe that courageous adults have a self-confidence that builds upon helpful self-talk.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Recycling words

I like to experiment with words. These phrases were all contained in an email I wrote three days ago. Just as on my Facebook account where I have from time to time constructed poems out of the phrases found in recent postings on my live feed, I have constructed this poem. The poem, whose ordering of the phrases is different from the original email, still conveys the gist of what my email was about.

continue to pray

meditate on ways

to make things better

allay anxiety

foster relationships

listen harder to the nuances

give for the shy, tender efforts

trying to make it to the surface

growing weary

hearing myself comment

and complain

trolling for affirmations

people like me

thinking out loud

doing things the same way

expecting different outcomes

that space

that might

be done

just be

focus on what

not to say

I will stop

drowning out



and speed

going on so

can be insanity

I will try to

shake things up

give everyone

the experience of feeling

options before us

to be nimble



picking our way through

new choices

new wind sweeping through

refreshing us all