Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Leadership and Being Elected

This morning, as I was greeting students in front of the school, one of them stopped for a short conversation, saying at one point: “I wasn't elected to the Senior Council.” That led to some comments about leadership, and the fact that you don’t have to be elected to a position in order to be a leader. In fact, losing an election is probably a fine way of finding out your true disposition towards leadership. Did you mostly want to be elected, or did you mostly want to be a leader? Elections increase expectations, but they don’t make you a better leader.

Leadership may be pursued and exercised without a single title to your name. As I think about good leaders, three aspects of “leadership” stand out to me right now, among the many that are available. Leadership involves the developed capacity to engage in genuine listening, pro-active direction, and graceful persistence. Insofar as these are recognized, taken on, and advanced, leadership grows and deepens.

Genuine listening is more than looking attentive while someone else is speaking. It means being fully in the moment, actively thinking about and absorbing the other person’s words, intentions, and actions. We know people who seem to be fully engaged when they speak with us, as if there was nothing else in the world more important. Politicians have a knack for doing this, as do teachers in general, or even those who successfully wait on tables in restaurants. It’s a developed habit of attention, and good leaders know that such input provides the true substance of what they work with as leaders.

Pro-active direction refers to that unique combination of calculated risk-taking, decision-making, and follow-through that is the exercise of leadership and that may either work very well or fail miserably. This aspect is the difference between those who just think they know better, but don’t do anything to move forward in making it happen, and those who think they might know better, and who take steps in that direction in order to find out. Without somebody doing something, somebody else will, and whatever direction you had envisioned goes off somewhere else. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Leadership rests on the willingness to make the choices and take the actions necessary to move a vision, the things that matter, forward.

Graceful persistence describes the long-term intentionality that is carried onward step by step, at each corner and through each relevant situation. It’s the decisions, conversations, suggestions, challenges, celebrations, hires, budget projections, and evaluation measures that bring a bearing, priority, or goal to life. It is done quietly and inexorably, proceeding with measured stubbornness balanced with tact and a graceful disposition. Great social movements start that way. De La Salle started the Brothers that way. Even the Bible has stories that illustrate this characteristic (Luke 18:1-8; 11:5-8). Jesus knew it. Things are accomplished through thoughtful, well-received, respectful, consistent, nimble, focused, small actions of all kinds that create a current of activity leading to the desired end.

Of course, one can recognize and agree with these three characteristics of leadership without fully possessing any of them. Knowing is different than doing; but knowing helps. These are areas of potentially acquired mastery that each person brings to life in his/her own context and according to his/her own talents and personality. We have to bring them to life in our own little world first. As they begin to be developed, other challenges and opportunities will call us forward, and the whole thing becomes much more interesting. It may even be that we are elected or invited to a position of leadership. But that would simply be the ticket into a new game, and not the game itself. The real fun happens on the field.

In the picture above, I think the real leader is the last penguin.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thou Shalt Not ....

Why is it that so many pieces or advice, instruction, or moral guidance appear to be couched in negative language? “You shall not ….” “Don’t be dishonest.” “Never bet against the house.” You can probably come up with plenty of other examples, from your grandmother, your religious leader, or your best friend. Some of the most popular advice in the world is expressed in terms of what not to do.

The other side of the phenomenon is the fact that telling someone to do something positive doesn’t seem to have the same impact as telling someone to stop doing something negative. Telling someone to “Be nice!” is less effective as “Don’t fidget!” This is because being nice is wide-ranging, generic, and largely open to personal interpretation, whereas not fidgeting is very immediate, clear, and specific, an instruction that allows for little nuance in meaning.  As an instruction, “Be nice!” is a broad searchlight and “Don’t fidget!” is a laser.

Is there something in that specificity of identifying wrong behavior that allows for a greater respect and wider leeway for personal freedom? If we know what not to do, or where you cannot go, doesn’t that give us greater liberty and confidence to wander and explore within the allowable limits?

Back when I was in high school, there was something that my mother said which has stuck with me. The family had just moved to a brand-new house in a brand-new subdivision. The houses were right next to each other, and our backyard flowed into the backyard of the house on the street behind us. Fences had not yet been built anywhere. On the first evening when our family of seven occupied the house, my mother mentioned to my father at dinner: “The first thing I want you to do is to build the fence around our house. Otherwise I won’t feel free.”

At the time this struck me as a contradiction. How was it that a fence could make you feel more free? Fences are there to limit movement. They enclosed a space and hampered freedom, or so I thought. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the fact that fences, rules, principles, limitations, and specific prohibitions usually arise in order to protect or enhance genuine freedom, instead of limiting a false perception of freedom. The best and most creative freedom rests within appropriate limits.

The simplest example of this, also involving a fence, is of a children’s playground in a very busy city, or on the roof of a tall school building. When there is a fence, kids play right up against it, even leaning on it, or resting on the ground with their backs up against it. When there is no fence, the kids play more towards the middle of the playground, not venturing too close to the edges for fear of being outside of the zone of security. Their perceived and actual freedom at play is enhanced by a clear border, one that was pretty much unassailable. Knowing how far you can go better allows you to go as far as you can go.

The Ten Commandments actually define a breadth of liberty. As G.K. Chesterton noted: “If there are only Ten Commandments, it means that there are only ten things forbidden: and that means that there are ten million things that are not forbidden.” It's still true today. Google’s corporate slogan is a negative, “Don’t be evil”, which leaves a lot of room for being and doing good.

So there is wisdom in this age-old practice of the censure of wrong behavior. There may be many such statements which are petty, or vindictive, or wrongly focused. But in terms of the big things, you could do worse than simply stating what shouldn’t be done.

Don’t believe something without trying it out.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saint Joseph - The Earthly "Abba" for Jesus

For someone about whom we know very little, Saint Joseph certainly seems to get a lot of press. Churches and cities carry his name, devotions request his intercession, schools and religious orders name him as their special patron, and countless people throughout the ages insure that his name remains a constant, solid option for both boys (Joseph, Joe, Giuseppe, Jose, Jusuf. etc.) and girls (Josephine, Johanna, Joanne, Joselyn, etc.). His name means “God will increase,” and this seems to be appropriate.

In the New Testament, the few times that Joseph appears show him to be a conscientious, kind, hard-working, responsible individual who quietly did all of those things that we associate with the best of what it means to be a father. He supported and protected his family. He provided guidance and love to those who were entrusted to his care, Mary and Jesus. He prayed and practiced as a pious, Jewish father would, raising his son through example, interaction, and discipline, bringing God and religious practice to life in the daily circumstances of his place and time.

When I think of Saint Joseph, I don’t think of him as the older, bearded man that is often seen in pious paintings of him. It’s likely that he was about 10 years older than Mary was, which would make him in his mid to late twenties when Jesus was born. Therefore Jesus would have been most influenced by him when Joseph was in his thirties and in his most productive years as a carpenter. Indications are that Joseph and Jesus could have been workers in wood, metal, and stone for a massive rebuilding project at a large city, located a couple of miles outside of Nazareth (population 400), which had been destroyed by the Romans around Jesus’s birth and underwent expensive rebuilding for years thereafter. In other words, they could have commuted every day, affording regular opportunities for conversation and mutual enjoyment. The Jewish Talmud also uses “carpenter” and “son of a carpenter” to signify a very learned man, someone wise and highly literate in the Torah (Jewish scriptures and commentary).

Joseph doesn’t show up in any of the stories associated with his public ministry. If he had been at the crucifixion, Joseph by Jewish custom would have buried Jesus, and Jesus would not have entrusted Mary to the care of the apostle John. Perhaps it was after the death of Joseph that Jesus began to see his life as reaching beyond Nazareth and the small Jewish community there. It was a life-changing catalyst.

The one fascinating aspect of Joseph’s silent presence in the life of Jesus is our common experience of fathers and sons, whereby our notion of “fatherhood” is primarily shaped by our experience with our own fathers. While never perfect, fathers are appreciated by their children whenever small gestures, halting words, semi-awkward situations, or the occasional sincere and quiet talk reveals a deep mutual love peeking through the crust of propriety and popular social expectations. Having known and loved someone from before they were born, fathers grow with their children through their phases of life, and come out relatively unscathed at the end. (Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”) Similarly, children grow with their fathers and come to find their maturity marked with his broad strokes, poignant memories, and small habits.

In the case of Jesus, his “Abba” relationship with God was based on his “Abba” relationship with Saint Joseph. Should it be any surprise, then, that Joseph yet retains that relationship and is held in esteem as a worthy intercessor for our prayers? He is the great model of what true teaching is all about.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Golden Rule

I don’t know about you, but I find it much easier to preach the Golden Rule than to actually go to the trouble of living it out. The momentum of popular culture, crowds, and psychology – not to mention and blame hormones, tiny as they are – make following it virtually impossible, pie in the sky, something to ignore and left to wither and die on the roadside. Stop bothering me! So why, then, are we brought back to this same principle of the Golden Rule again and again by so many religious traditions such that it has become the most important articulation of intentionality that calls out from our human capacity for relationship? Why do people think that the Golden Rule is the key to everything important and worthwhile? Does it apply to my life today, right now?

After he had said to his followers “Love your neighbor as yourself”, Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor?” His answer was the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), where someone went out of his way to help a person he could have very easily left alone in the ditch, beaten and robbed. One major difference between the Good Samaritan and the others who passed by is that the Good Samaritan saw the actual person, not the superimposed thing. When you truly – TRULY! - see another as a person, it’s impossible not to help him/her, not to treat them as you would want to be treated. The trouble is that most of us haven’t quite been able to train ourselves to habitually see others as real persons. Our more prevailing habit is to be self-centered, ego-trained, seeing everything through me, myself, and I.

As a result, it has generally been easier and perhaps more fun, to treat another person as a thing, as a non-person whose only real role is to serve my needs, to answer my desires, to do or be what I want them to do or be. They are not what I am; they couldn’t be. They are what I want them to be. That’s it; crossed arms; stern face; no compromise. I can use you as a thing, because I am the most important thing….uhhh, person in my universe. Think pornography, bullying victims, intentionally vicious gossip, even an angry stare or dismissive gesture – all involving people that you really do or could know better. Every self-deception disappears into regret as soon as we think of or come to know those others as real people, persons with mothers and fathers, with problems and worries and rent to pay, with quiet evenings of loneliness because of mistakes made or decisions lamented, with a deep hunger for the only thing that makes any real difference – genuine caring, or kindness, or concern from others. And if you don’t think that you will ever be in such a place yourself, one that is uniquely your own, then you’re just not paying attention. The world is great, but it’s full of real people, and you’re one of them – just one.

The problem with the notion that I can treat others as things (in effect and approach) is that it cannot hold, depending almost entirely on the goodness of others who do not share that notion as fiercely or as completely. Character blossoms when “me” turns into “thou” and “things” grow into “persons.” It happens  most dramatically when love is ripped open like a ripe fruit, through parenthood, love at first sight (or its equivalent), an impulsive kind gesture to someone in need, a service trip, a drive to change society for the better. It happens steadily and deeply through problems shared and joys celebrated, mysteries encountered and wonder ignited. The Golden Rule is golden only when it rules. At all other times it lies covered, hidden or forgotten, awaiting its time in the sun of my ego, where it may come to shine more truly than anything that I might be able to create or imagine on my own, especially myself.

I can think of several very specific cases right now – as you do – that call out, deserve, and even demand the Golden Rule within us. Perhaps one of the simplest and best ways to bring it to life is by refusing to condone “person as thing” attitudes, perspectives, or manifestations: “No, I won’t look at that. Delete it.” “No, I won’t say that. You shouldn’t either.” “How about if we do something positive for him/her instead?” The alternative is to completely shut out out the Golden Rule – “If I don’t think of it, it won’t be true.” However, doing that runs the very real risk of becoming the “things” that we treat as such, losing the unlived gift of personhood and never finding the gold inside the rule, or even inside ourselves.

As with most things, the worthwhile and important “rules” of good living require some effort. They also have unexpected rewards that are inversely proportional to the amount of words required to articulate them. Perhaps that’s why the Golden Rule tops them all. Try it and see.

  •   Islam: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.”  (The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith)
  • Buddhism: “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5.18)
  • Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5:1517)
  • Taoism: “Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.” (T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien, 213-218)
  • Christianity: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Jesus, Matthew 7:12)
  • Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.” (Hillel, Talmud, Shabbat 31a)





Thursday, February 27, 2014

Are All or Most Wars Caused by Religion?

The problem with facts is that they interfere with our prejudices. Even given the intentional nature by which facts are obtained and shared, the most blatant prejudices quickly fall by the impact of even one well-chosen pebble of a fact.

The prejudice that I have in mind showed up in a recent Catholic weekly: “The Western secularists’ protest – that all the trouble in the world is caused by religion – seems to be confirmed by every headline.”  Evidence is cited from Syria, Iraq, much of the Middle East, parts of Europe, and Africa. Gladly, the modern world has also been drawn more and more towards a Western model of civic peace. “It is not in the fundamental nature of either mainstream Christianity or Islam nowadays to want to prevail by force, and the leaderships of virtually all faiths pay more than lip service to the principle of toleration.” The backlash to fundamentalism (e.g., in Egypt) has begun to become more pronounced, and those involved in such counter-movements “do not necessarily want less religion; they want the best it has to offer.” (The Tablet – 1 Feb, 2014, pg. 2)

That is a good and fine distinction to make. Religion is a wide-ranging, universal word that like a sponge will absorb whatever personally significant liquid lies nearby. Religion deals with meaning, mystery, and me. The shape of religion emerges from how a community of “me” individuals becomes “we” and builds or expresses itself. Grace is built on nature and works through nature. Religion engages the desire and capacity for “more” in people at a depth and breadth that really does require the balancing influence of a community, like rough rocks polished over time in a revolving drum. More wacky people live alone, physically and/or psychologically, than live in a caring community.

Today, there is a wacky me-based danger that an independent, generic secularism will become our de facto religion, whereby any formal “religion” is seen as a uniformly bad thing, and an individualized “spirituality” reigns supreme.  “The unofficial anthem of secularism today is John Lennon’s Imagine, in which we are encouraged to imagine a world without religion. We don’t have to imagine such a world; the 20th century has given us horrific examples of such worlds. Instead of a world living in peace because it is without religion, why not imagine a world without nation states? … There are, obviously, individuals and groups who still misuse religion as a reason for violent behaviour, but modern nation states don’t need religion as an excuse for going to war. Every major war in the last 300 years has been fought by nation states, not by the church…. The state apparatus for investigating civilians now is far more extensive than anything dreamed up by the Spanish Inquisition, although both were created to serve the same purpose: to preserve a government’s public ideology and control of society, whether based on religion or on modern constitutional order.” (Cardinal Francis George)

Now for that interesting pebble of fact: The 2004 Encyclopedia of Wars, a reference work written by two professors of history, chronicles 1,763 wars over the course of recorded human history. Of those, the authors attribute 123 wars as being religiously-based (<7%). And when those waged in the name of one religion (Islam) are removed, that number is reduced to 57 wars (3.28 %). (Cf. http://goo.gl/Bxy33E)

All wars are finally a smear on human nature, especially those that are waged for exclusively religious reasons. Wars may not be evidence of our best, but they certainly evidence our worst (AKA "sin"). But to blame all or most wars on religion blithely ignores the important pebbles of fact that lie within close reach.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Day - Love on Parade

The worldwide celebration of Valentine’s Day may legitimately be placed at the feet of the British, whose impact and influence over the last two hundred years planted the seeds of many contemporary popular practices in most of the countries that they entered (conquered?). Early Victorian practices for the Feast of St. Valentine – celebrated in the Anglican Church on February 14th – were carried overseas, and the natural appeal of the stories, myths, and rituals related to love and its expression ensured that it would endure in almost every culture.

What’s not to love about love? Song lyrics almost universally exploit its appeal, usually in extreme terms, ranging from discovery to betrayal to resolution. Popular song titles from the past that most of us will readily recognize include The Power of Love, Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, I Want to Know What Love Is, I Just Called to Say I Love You, How Deep Is Your Love, and so on. Some of the more interesting and humorous lyrics in this respect seem to come from the American country music repertoire, very few of which use the word “love” but all of which are about love: I Keep Forgettin’ I Forgot About You, How Can I Miss You If You Don’t Go Away, I Changed Her Oil - She Changed my Life, The Heart Won’t Lie, You Had Me from Hello. (My personal favorite in this category is Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life.)

One fascinating thing about love is the fact that we cannot describe its reality adequately through any of our normal means of communication. When we try to use words to express it to someone, we end up with piles of crumpled paper, or trashed emails or texts, or walking through multiple scenarios and practicing in front of a mirror. Those with the talent (and those without) attempt to enrich their written communication through poetry or verse. The great poets do a pretty good job of it:  How do I love thee? (Browning), The Road Not Taken (Frost), Sonnet 116 (Shakespeare). But most of us end up writing something that sounds like it belongs in a bad greeting card. Yet at the same time, and much more important in terms of our human experience, clarity of expression is a distant second to the fact that there simply is some kind of expression. The fact of making the attempt carries 90% of the weight. There must be consolation in that. The mystery of love is entered into via its expression. Any love-based relationship – spouse, friend, group, God – and by extension any thing, cause, or ideal that draws in our soul, defines and shapes us as human persons, ultimately drawn to the God who is Love.

For me, Shakespeare continues to be the most evocative, brilliant, and subtle expositor of love’s spinning dimensions, and so for this Valentine’s Day, his words may help tame the whirlwind.

Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Chinese New Year

The experience of Chinese New Year in Singapore is a singularly unique experience for someone unfamiliar with Asian customs and traditions. There are the more immediate impressions of watching people everywhere toss multiple Lo Hei ingredients, neatly stacked on a large common platter, with gigantic chop sticks while standing around a dining table. It’s a fun activity for friends and family, rewarded by the opportunity to consume the resulting mixture. There are also the more subtle activities, such as visiting friends and exchanging two oranges for good luck, the giving of small red packets with small financial tokens of appreciation, the lion dances, red lanterns, glittering shops and stalls in Chinatown, along with all of the games and food. All of these and more coalesce around that unique celebration of the beginning of the new lunar year.

The closest approximation I can come to it, from a decidedly U.S. perspective, is that it’s a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, all rolled into one. And with that mental picture comes a deep appreciation of the role that human relationships hold within our personal universe of meaning, something that is shared across all cultures and civilizations. During my occasional ramblings among the CNY stalls, I noticed that the vast majority of shoppers and visitors were families or couples. Even late at night, you could find people of all ages enjoying the atmosphere, browsing through the stalls, taking photos of one another with their cell phones. CNY revolves around families and relationships, which is not surprising but which, like most obvious things, is worth bringing to the fore every once in a while.
There is a current article in a recent Popular Science magazine that I’m reading. It’s all about the nature of “dark matter” in the universe, the 85% of “stuff” that should be there, based on all the scientific evidence from astronomical physics. The only thing is, we can’t find it. Dark matter is only known because without it, everything else wouldn’t make sense. “An invisible factor makes galaxies rotate faster than expected. It makes clusters of galaxies bend and distort passing starlight more than they should. It even seems to explain how those galaxies formed in the first place. Supercomputer simulations show that diffuse clouds of ordinary matter in the early universe did not have enough gravity to pull together into the ordinary galaxies and galaxy clusters seen today. Run the same simulations with a dark component stirred in and everything comes together just right.” (Nov 2013, pg. 38) The one thing scientists do know is that dark matter is radically different from the atoms that make up you and me and our entire known physical world. What we do know is that it has to be there somewhere, and there’s a lot of it.
May I suggest that the “stuff” of human relationships is as important, unknown, and vast as this “dark matter” in the universe? Although we cannot put our finger on it, we know that without it, everything else wouldn’t make sense. Human relationships are radically different from all other relationships (with goods, money, hobbies, technology, power, even pets) that make up our relational world. What we do know is that it has to be there in our lives somewhere in order for things to make sense, and there’s a lot of it. What would our lives be like if we recognized this reality and spent 85% of our energy on that cultivation of human relationships? My guess is that we would begin to experience a personal universe as vast, fascinating, awe-inspiring, and inviting as a clear, starlit night in the desert.
"The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life." (Einstein)

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Baptism of Jesus

Just a few weeks ago, the church celebrated the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. This has always been a rather interesting celebration for me, because I’ve always thought, “Wait a minute. If Jesus was the Son of God, he didn’t need to get baptised. He was already without sin.” It didn’t seem to make sense to be “cleansed” of something that didn’t quite apply to you; sort of like preaching to the choir or bringing coals to Newcastle. But recently, I read a whole new perspective on this scriptural passage.

 “When we are baptised, we are plugged into waters that cleanse us from sin. When Christ came unto Jordan, He came sinless, but this time in the maturity of manhood, at a point at which His human will, identified with the will of God, made Him a self-offering; He brought Himself there to begin, to start the way to the Cross. Thousands were baptised in the Jordan, and each of them proclaimed his sins and these waters of Jordan were heavy with the murderous sins of men. Christ had no sin to proclaim and to confess, and when He entered into these waters of Jordan, He entered, to use an image of a contemporary divine, as one plunges, walks into a dye — He was dyed with the darkness of our sins. He came out of it carrying all the sins of the world. He came out of the waters of Jordan loaded with the condemnations that lay upon the world. And this is the time when He begins His ascent to the Cross.” (Anthony Bloom)

What an insightful and meaningful interpretation of this biblical event! Like the Gospel itself, it turns our previous interpretation of things on its head. The story is not about Jesus being cleansed from sin, but rather poignantly represents Jesus taking on the sins of others.

We are not unfamiliar with this sort of acceptance of the burdens of others, the sins of others, for the sake or for the good of those others. Parents know this all too well, as do good teachers and anyone in leadership positions. Lucy knew this “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” And it’s found in good stories throughout history, from Brothers Karamazov, The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, and Nicholas Nickelby to Frodo and Katnis Everdeen and Avatar. One of our best human characteristics is drawn out in this capacity for sacrifice, for moving beyond self interest. Being in community leads us to want to trust in the goodness of others, despite their faults and foibles, or perhaps because of their faults and foibles. One way in which we address our own sins and limitations is by becoming ever more conscious of, and charitable towards, the sins and limitations of others, even to the point of absorbing their effects, embracing them within a larger perspective. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The thing about Jesus is that his story is the real deal. The thing that all those other stories and experiences seek to draw out or express receive their light from the sun of Christ’s reality.  Just as new parents know within seconds of holding their first child in their arms that the world has radically, profoundly, irrevocably changed in ways they had always heard about but never really knew, so did the baptism and subsequent ascent to the Cross of Jesus radically, profoundly, and irrevocably change the relationship between Jesus and His father, between ourselves and God, in ways we might have heard about but don’t really fully know. When he emerged from that water in the Jordan, Jesus held us more closely than we can fully imagine. How we discover that reality in our lives remains a unique personal challenge and opportunity

Friday, January 17, 2014

Re-configuring Your Conversational Universe

I read this saying recently: “Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him.” While humorous, the saying also highlights the evolving nature of our language and its potentially dire consequences. d lngwij dat yung ppl uz iz v dfrnt frm wot we tink of az normL. (Over 400 billion text messages like this are being sent every month around the world.) Face it; the bandwidth for language is expanding, and that may be a good thing. My hope is that as a result, the depth of what we talk about does not suffer, that we still value and pursue the things worth talking about.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a long, thoughtful, relaxing conversation about a wide variety of topics, all of which might belong to the meadow of my interest but none of which I needed to kill for dinner. Most of my talking has been held hostage to the gravitational pull of daily affairs, school meetings, problems to address, and pleasant banter. My vocabulary has not improved much as a result. There are only so many ways that you can arrange the same set of words and ideas over the course of a day.

So whither lays a possible change in direction? I can think of three potential ways of re-configuring the universe of personal communication, its appreciation and its exercise: good poetry, intentional engaged reading, and the sustained practice of enriched casual speech.

Good poetry stretches our language skills, as good artwork stretches our perception skills. They could be simple poems like Haiku or lengthy ones like T.S. Eliot’s. What they do so well is move us from curiosity to confusion to confession. Meanings emerge like water bubbling through sand, and deliberately chosen words demand one’s interest, personal commitment, and finally some sort of digestion. Good poems can’t be left alone, and they grow more graceful with longer engagement. One can’t but believe that poems act as a tonic for the soul of our language, and that the whole benefits from these small bits of rich meaning.

Intentional engaged reading refers to sitting down with something that draws the mind forward through story or reflection or good research. Writers like Annie Dillard, Malcolm Gladwell, and Ron Rolheiser come to mind. Even 15-20 minutes a day is sufficient to tease out deeper involvement with some meaning that outlives the experience of the reading itself. The New York Times, the Tablet, or a professional journal would also qualify. The point is to intentionally read something essentially unpredictable and conceptually adventurous. Raise the language bar for yourself.

Finally, there are our regular conversations. What would happen if we were to be less automatic and “casual” about casual speech? There are those who truly speak to others. Think of it as a quietly verbal version of Avatar’s “I see you.” Look at video examples of John Paul II or Pope Francis, along with a number of religious figures, who seem to know that once you truly see another person as one who carries and reflects the dignity of God, you must pay full attention and care about what you say and how you say it. Easier said than done, of course, but you know people who are able to do this well, probably because of simply who they are or have become. All of us have the same capacity. Enriched casual speech just takes practice, intentionality, a certain perspective, and the sharpened personal tools to do so. It’s an exciting learning experience once you start.

Were these three things to be pursued, my guess is that texting will be very poor second.

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year's and Our Capacity for Newness

New Year’s celebrations are funny things.  Where 364 past midnights have passed by with barely a whimper, this one on December 31st gets all the bang and splendor of a world-changing event. Where people have slept through most of the midnights of the year, extra effort is made to “stay up” for this one. For grownups, New Year’s Eve is like waiting up for Santa, for the gift of new opportunities, dusted-off hopes and dreams, a toast into the darkness, full of glitter and noise.

I admit that I’m no different than others in this respect. This last New Year’s Eve, I was with a small group of seven Brothers who had gone to a rustic camp on the Russian River in Northern California, one which we have owned since the 1920’s. Overlooking the river, we had a nice dinner – the steaks were way too big for my newly Singaporeanized tastes – and then people read or talked or went to the TV room down the hall. About twenty minutes before midnight, we all went into the TV room, watched the crazy people at Times Square with their semi-manufactured excitement, and took part in the general wave of anticipation (with a three-hour delay). Finally, amidst huge screens and light, glitter and noise, the “ball” dropped and we all toasted in the New Year with a small glass of champagne. Then we gratefully moved to our small bedrooms and forgot all about it.

Funny enough, the next morning was pretty much as it had been the day before, and people were pretty much the same as they were before. So where was the difference? We would now be a bit careful when we wrote out a date, making sure that it was “2014” and not the automatic “2013.” We would begin to work on a couple of personal resolutions, usually surrounding weight and exercise. And we would have a slightly brighter disposition for a few days or weeks, because something new had begun.

It’s the celebration of that newness, it seems to me, that makes all the difference for us. You could even say that New Year’s Eve is a celebration of our capacity for newness. Change is possible and exciting, no matter how small. Potential and hope are ever nearby, waiting to be recognized. We may get distracted by buying new clothes, new trinkets, new phones, believing these may fill the hole in the soul. Yet each time it’s not really enough, doesn’t really do the trick. There’s a “more” that drives our capacity for newness, and it is one that comes from the drive of life itself, from an instinct to be part of this world, to be alive.

Our capacity for newness is also manifested in our sense of wonder and imagination. Mystery, including the mystery of life itself, remains ever intriguing and captivating. Just see the expression on the faces of children and the young at heart when they encounter new aspects of the world around them. We say that they “light up” with excitement, with the sheer brilliance of the newness of it all.

This capacity for newness is something that requires sustenance and regular exercise, and not only the annual slightly inebriated gesture into the night. Kids discover newness best and do so naturally. Older folks with tendencies of ossification have to be more intentional about it. But it is always there, willing to be brought into the light of day, even if that light has to be made up of exploding fireworks.


May you be well and truly blessed with all the new that embraces you, remembering St. Augustine’s insight: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”