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Ways to Limit Our Intelligence

If we want to limit our intelligence, the following list is a good place to start:

1) Love being right.

2) Be addicted to the moral high ground

3) Restrict your sources of knowledge.

4) Relate only with people who are like you.

5) Relate only with people who agree with you.

Let’s acknowledge that intelligence can be a communal virtue, and work diligently to cultivate it.

Rest and Haircuts

I love getting a haircut, and I think it is mainly because, for those fifteen minutes, it is my job to do nothing. There is zero pressure to accomplish anything. There is no real way to use my smartphone. I can just breathe and enjoy the experience.

And, really, releasing my mind from all tasks for a chunk of time may be the best thing I do all day for my imagination, and so my productivity.

Put another way: Imagination without rest is not possible, and skill without imagination is barren.

Saaka and Dandora

The novitiate for the Congregation of Holy Cross in East Africa is located at Lake Saaka, a crater lake hidden by the rolling hills of rural Western Uganda.  It is impossibly temperate and beautiful.  Here, the men in formation will work, pray, and study for a year before taking first vows.

And, for many years, their next stop in formation was Dandora, a slum of Nairobi, Kenya.  In Dandora, one hundred thousand people struggle to survive on four bleak square kilometers that border Nairobi’s largest dump.  Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the air smells either strongly or faintly of burning garbage.  Save for the sunrise and sunset, there is no natural beauty.  Here, the religious who took vows at Lake Saaka, would continue their formation with pastoral work and theology studies.  

Both Saaka and Dandora are places of sincere intensity.  At Saaka, it is the intensity of witnessing the growth of one’s own inner life in a wildly abundant experience of God’s creation. In Dandora, it is the intensity of witnessing the visceral resilience, strength, and prayer of God’s people.

I have thought about these extremes for some time.  They certainly defy clean interpretation.  What remains clear to me, though, is that I have known religious of the Holy Cross who, because they have lived in both intensities, carry a profound capacity to witness to the unrelenting and merciful love of God.

Kennen Lernen

In German, the way to say “to meet” (as in, “good to meet you”) is actually a composite of two verbs: kennen lernenKennen means “to know” and lernen means “to learn.”

Fascinating, right?  Truly meeting someone does, in fact, demand attentive receptivity so that we can learn how to know the person.

I do not know if this interpretation is implied by its etymology, but it is still a worthy reminder.

We have the opportunity to learn to know those around us every day, even those that we met, for the first time, long ago.

Enough

Managing a family’s financial future is a lifelong balance with a great many variables.

One central variable, that affects many others, is the variable of “enough.” At any given point in our lives, can I say if we have “enough?” Enough money. Enough living space. Enough stuff.

It is tricky to solve for “enough,” but it is worth the mental energy because when our answer for “enough” becomes clearer, so does our capacity to be generous.

Memento Senectus

Memento mori, latin for “remember your death,” is a powerful spiritual practice.  When we recall that we are finite, we are freed to live with singular purpose and focus on the most important things.

Relatedly, I wonder what happens when we consider memento senectus, “remember your old age?”

God willing, we will reach old age and, during that time, our bodies and minds will probably work less well and the context of our days will have changed considerably.  

When we consider this reality, what effect does it have on how we want to live today?

What Confers Status?

Here is a question that gets right to the heart of a community’s culture: Within this community, what confers status?  

Put another way: You see those people at the top of the heap?  Why do we have a collective understanding that those people are at the top?  

I’ve been part of communities that have conferred status based on the following:

-Seniority

-Generosity and consistency

-Conspicuous performance of ideological purity

-Looking like other people regarded as high status

-Level of contribution

-Articulate confidence

-Athleticism

-Professional excellence

Getting clear on what confers status in a community helps us understand how it runs.  That is a huge step toward understanding the culture and, therefore, gaining perspective on how you can help it to grow.

Sonder

Have you heard of the word sonder, meaning the experience of realizing that all other people have an interior life as rich and complex as one’s own?

Fascinatingly, it was coined in the past ten years, in an effort to name emotional experiences that currently lack a proper word in English.

Both the experience of sonder, as well as the effort to name complex emotions that lack easy articulation, functions to build our capacity for humility and insight, resulting in more compassionate communities.

Error Messages, Considered Curiously

When programming a web application, error messages constantly appear in the browser where the project is being built, displaying text describing that something is going wrong. (A file is missing. A typo broke part of the program. A module is missing. The server is misconfigured.)

Some error messages are clear. Some are difficult to decipher.

These messages are a constant part of the building experience, and so the programmer must make a constant choice. She can see the error as a chance to learn, to improve the project, to hone her skill. Or, she can let herself hate the error message and bear down in frustration each time a message appears.

One approach will lead to growth and the other will lead to painful frustration.

We encounter error messages, in life, all the time. Those things don’t go quite right based on our narratives about the world, in professional, personal, political, or social spheres.

Let us try to welcome these messages with a compassionate curiosity and generous engagement, and, when we fail, resolve to become curious about what keeps us from being able to do so.

One-Browser-Tab Time

When working on my computer, I am often guilty of having a comical number of browser tabs open at one time. Each tab represents a reminder to do something or an open loop I need to close. And the sheer number of tabs that are open keeps me from attending to any one task well.

The most important things (our most cherished relationships, time spent in prayer, dedicated generosity) deserve our single-minded attentiveness, as if it were the only browser tab open in our minds. Protecting this focused time is both tough and worth it.

Work in Progress

Near the major intersection southeast of our home, there is a small sign that reads, “obra en proceso.”  Work in progress.

The sign is quite understated given the scope of the project.  One day, we found the entire intersection had been shut down and traffic patterns rerouted.  The traffic lights were gone, and an enormous hole had been dug.  For months, workers have built a major infrastructure project that will clear congestion near the US-Mexico border.  The project will take between a year or two to complete.

In the context of our interior lives, it takes courage to undergo major change, either personally or professionally.  It is far easier to live in the untruth that we are self-sufficient, but doing so is like relying on old infrastructure.  

Blessed are those who have the guts to declare themselves a work in progress.  They will defy the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset.  

Unexpected Gentleness

Here is one of my favorite stories from the writings of the Desert Fathers.

A novice is worried because the monk that he sits next to during the late prayer keeps falling asleep. He asks an older monk what he should do.

The master’s response? See that the sleeping monk is comfortable. Do not disturb him.

Often, we conceive of a “conversion experience” as necessarily startling or shocking.  Many times, though, an experience of unexpected gentleness can be uniquely powerful and an enduring reason to believe.

Anticipate Turbulence

Last week, our older son and I flew on an airplane. As we were about to take off, the pilot explained where on the trip we might experience turbulence and how to prepare ourselves.

This is an outstanding exercise for our personal and professional lives. Anticipating turbulence with loved ones, in counselling, and in spiritual direction can enable our artful response.

And yes, there is turbulence for which we cannot prepare. Knowing this, we can spend the time in silence, cultivating solitude and trust, so that we have the interior resources we need when a challenge arises.

Anticipating turbulence helps us respond instead of react when strain enters our lives.

Always a First Year Teacher

The experience of being a first-year teacher is uniquely disorienting.

I find myself suddenly responsible for children at an age of which I have limited experience. I must attend compassionately to who they are and what they need even as they are unable to communicate this to me directly. I must, balancing empathy and assertiveness, consistently create the world of the class. And I must maintain this sense of consistency even as I integrate constant improvements to serve the students better. And I must do this every day.

For parents, too, a similar dynamic is always at play. Since my oldest child is always getting older, I am always a parent of a child of an age of which I have little direct experience. (Today is the first day I have parented a child of 4.65 years, for example.)

It is right to acknowledge the challenge of this dynamic. When we do, we are able, also, to see the possibility. We get to meet our child anew every day.

You’re Right. I Suck.

(This is the first of the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset, four mental stances that clip our potential, limit our intelligence, and stifle budding growth.) 

When faced with a setback, a challenge, or a bit of critical feedback, we occasionally collapse into ourselves declaring: “You’re right. I suck.” We fixate on the negative so thoroughly, we are scarcely able to see anything else. We over-identify with the experience of failure.

This represents a subtle form of hiding. If I am fundamentally incapable of addressing the challenge with flexibility and insight, I am off the hook!

This mental stance distorts reality and side steps the wisdom on offer. Namely, it:

1) Over-identifies with the negative moment, hardening the (untrue) narrative that we are bad and incapable.

2) Blinds us from the positive buds of growth that already exist in the situation.

Let’s watch out for “you’re right, I suck.” Seeing and naming it drains it of its power.

You’re Wrong. I Rule.

(This is the second of the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset, four mental stances that clip our potential, limit our intelligence, and stifle budding growth.) 

In this mental stance, when faced with constructive feedback or a setback, we become defiant. (I don’t deserve this! You’re wrong, world! I rule!)

This Horseman takes the legs out from under our curiosity. We avoid the questions that could lead to our growth. For example: What could I learn from this generous gift of feedback? What is the whole, complex picture of why I experienced that specific failure? How might I improve?

When we say, “I’m right. I rule. Full stop,” we wimp out. We dodge the uncomfortable but healthy questions that the situation at hand poses to us.

Blame It on the Rain

(This is the third of the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset, four mental stances that clip our potential, limit our intelligence, and stifle budding growth.) 

Here, when confronted by challenge, we absolve ourselves of responsibility by externalizing blame onto things outside of our control. “It’s her fault! It’s his fault! It’s their fault!” Blame an easy target and pretend that we do not have agency in the system.

This mindset has the air of validity because much of the world is absolutely outside of our control. Rather than fixating on “the rain,” though, it is much more productive to see the bits of agency we do have, acknowledge our role in the system, and step forward toward growth.

Optimist without a Cause

(This is the fourth of the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset, four mental stances that clip our potential, limit our intelligence, and stifle budding growth.) 

Someone stuck in this mindset acknowledges, superficially, the difficulty of a given situation, and then imagines how it will resolve without having to engage in meaningful change.

This is a tricky one because the surface optimism masquerades as a mindset centered on growth.  

But this positivity has no strategy, and is employed as protection from the urgency, complexity, and potential of the situation.  This thin confidence functions to avoid growth, rather than confront the issue head on.

A positive attitude can certainly be an asset as we confront challenges, but it must be accompanied with a story and a strategy that moves us toward the growth of which we are capable.  Avoidance leads us nowhere. 

The Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset

The outstanding teacher residency program where I coached teachers some years ago immersed the residents in the need for “growth mindset.”  Someone with a “growth mindset” believes that they can grow, that ability and intelligence can be developed.  Because of this belief, a person engages challenges and helpful criticism with sincere effort on a path to mastery.  

Its converse is “fixed mindset,” which believes that one’s traits are essentially fixed, and so effort is useless.  This mindset avoids challenges and truthful critique. It feels threatened when others thrive.

Fixed mindset is everywhere, in all of us, and quite tricky to talk about.  (No one wants to hear or acknowledge that they are stuck in such a narrative.)  So, the teaching program’s leadership wittily and decisively seared this concept into the minds of the residents by naming the “Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset,” the four ways that this stunting mindset typically manifests.

They named the Four Horsemen as follows:

(1) You’re right. I suck.

(2) You’re wrong. I rule.

(3) Blame it on the rain.

(4) Optimist without a cause.

These conceptual hooks have been such a gift to me, that I wanted to share it with you.  I’ll write the next week’s posts about each of these manifestations.

Until then, here are the master teachers themselves acting out the Four Horsemen in the video they used to train the rookie teachers.  Enjoy… if you dare!

A Saint Goes to Psychotherapy

Did you know that St. Oscar Romero went to psychotherapy?  He did!

As a young seminarian and priest, Romero’s prayer and discipleship was bound by his obsessive-compulsive personality disorder which manifested as a self-absorbing scrupulosity.   

Here is a key bit from the book where I learned about all this, linking his therapeutic and his saintly journeys. 

“[A] psychic / affective conversion within the particularities of [Romero’s] OCPD and scrupulosity revealed psychological complexes, which, once engaged, freed him from the rigidity of their hold, healing and transforming the complexes into a source of energy he never imagined or realized he had at his disposal.” (Pg. 154, Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Disciple Who Revealed the Glory of God, by D. Zynda)  

Romero channeled this energy into becoming a superlative pastor and archbishop, and his commitment to God and the Salvadoran people flowered more fully each year.  

Much is written and taught about Romero’s courage in the face of the violence that ultimately took his life.  We should write and teach more about how an indispensable part of his capacity for such a witness was rooted in the courage to show up to psychotherapy. 

How Long Are You Going to Wait?

To create and share that thing you have imagined.

To commit (actually) to that habit that will lead you on a healthier path.

To reach out and start that important conversation.

To develop a relationship with a therapist and / or a spiritual director.

How long are you going to wait?

Adventure and Mission

When Ernest Shackleton publicly solicited applications for an expedition to the South Pole early in 1914, he reportedly did so with words similar to the following:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

The response to the advertisement was massive and overwhelming. Around 5,000 applications poured in, many of them from men with superlative talent. When the crew had been chosen and the ship finally set sail, someone even stowed away on the ship, so badly did he want to be part of the journey.

They were motivated by the crystal clear sense of adventure and mission.

What if we, as a church, shared a similarly clear sense of adventure and mission? If we had this sense, what would we do differently?

Drop Your Tools

During the War in the Pacific, nearing the end of World War II, the Allies made many amphibious landings on Pacific Islands occupied by Japan.

The Allied leadership often did not realize, though, that many of these islands were protected by large reefs which prevented the landing boats from unloading the soldiers directly onto the beach. This meant that the soldiers had to suddenly exit the boat in deep water and swim to shore.

These soldiers carried heavy gear that they believed (and their training had drilled into them) was crucial to their survival, even their identity. But in this new scenario, plunged into deep water, the men who clung to their tools tragically drowned. It was those who could, in a split second, change strategy and shed their heavy tools, who lived to fight.

We have tools to help us navigate life: patterns of thought, routines, narratives, even our default personalities. Do we also have the attentiveness to know when it is prudent to drop these tools and engage the world in a different way?

You Have Been God’s Grace to Me

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead is a long letter that the speaker, John Ames, writes to his young son.  I have thought repeatedly about many of the lines in the book, but none more than this one.  

“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle… If only I had the words to tell you.” (emphasis added)

The book is an arrestingly beautiful reminder that grace, the unearned and unbidden love of God, saves us from our silliness and self-sabotage.  And this quote in particular functions to remind me to attend to this grace as a parent.  

The ability to say to a child, “you have been God’s grace to me,” is one of the finest gifts a parent can receive. The care that then comes from this realization is one of the finest gifts we can give to a child. 

Showing Up With Tender Endurance

(This is a longer one, but it’s worth it.)

For a little over a year, our older son and I rode the train into Washington DC to the nearest public library story time.

We did this twice a week, no matter the weather, because the librarian, Philip, and the story time he orchestrated was that good.

I have thought often about why these 25 minute chunks of time were so consistently valuable to us. Here is what I’ve come up with.

Philip’s thoughtful preparation of the gathering was always evident.  Each story time was similarly structured but never was it stale.  It balanced predictability and variety in a way that oriented and delighted us.  Each session had a taste of music, typically accompanied by an instrument he would play, as well as a book or song in a language other than English.  His book selection represented excellent range and subtle humor as well as a general protection against the insipid volumes that too often characterize children’s literature.  

And his execution of each session was similarly full of care.  When leading the alphabet song, he would slow down around “L, M, N, O, P,” so that the children, for whom the letters were new, could distinguish them individually.  He would always read the name of the author and the illustrator so that we could find these or similar books later in the library.  He would often show up early to tune his violin or ukelele, and afterwards, show it to any child that might be around. His demeanor during the story time was gentle, friendly, and engaging, no small feat since the room was filled to capacity with 100 or so children and adults, carrying themselves with varying levels of courtesy. 

It occurred to me often that he could not have always felt like doing this.  But he did.  He did show up each time with remarkably consistent emotional endurance.  This consistency poured the love of language and music into our son. 

How was Philip able to show up as he did, with tender endurance, and so constantly?

I think it was his formation, in college and graduate school, as a musician and conductor.  For years, he dedicated himself to works of beauty and imagination within the musical form, and then shared that beauty in (perhaps imperfect, and so daringly vulnerable) performance for the enrichment of an audience.  We were seeing, 25 minutes at a time in that room at the back of the library, the fruit of his immersion in musical excellence.  He also has worked for years as a youth orchestral conductor and so, I must imagine, is primed to believe that young people are capable of a richer interior life than we often perceive or acknowledge.  Perhaps he looked at us, from his little plastic chair at the front of the room, as an orchestra of sorts in which artful language would grow richly and play out over a lifetime. 

The fruit that Philip’s talented endurance has borne in the life of our son is remarkable to consider and difficult to quantify.

From the time he was barely verbal, our son would hold story time in our living room, bracketing the session with Philip’s “hello” and “goodbye” songs, and lovingly displaying for me each page of each book he had chosen.  (There were usually about 30.)  He continued to do this months after we moved from Greater DC, and he knew more of the books’ words each time.

He often sorted his books into “Mr. Philip books” and “Non-Mr. Philip Books” and the familiarity with these titles and authors helped him navigate the shelves of any library.  (I even came into his room last week, now almost two years after our last story time, and he had selected a stack of “Mr. Philip” books and was paging through them.)

I was not in the least surprised, then, when my son and I both cried after we said goodbye to Philip following our last story time, days before we moved.

So.  Let us never underestimate the value of showing up to our work consistently with tender endurance. Indeed, it may be one of the most important decisions we will ever make and will certainly bear more fruit than we know.

Generosity of Mind

I have a friend who actively seeks out media that communicates a worldview that he does not encounter very often or necessarily share. This is a unique and, I think, indispensable virtue for our times.

If we were in an ethics class, what would we call this virtue? Generosity of mind, perhaps? Self-interrogation? Active open-mindedness?

He is a principled person, certainly, and not swayed by every argument. Indeed, the utility of his virtue would be much diminished if he believed everything, or worse, nothing that he heard.

This generosity of mind makes him into a person capable of expansive relationships. This expansiveness represents a tremendous asset to our culture and helps him build a more just world.

Conformism or Courage

Mary Ann Evans (under the pen name of George Eliot) wrote the following about the subtle conformism woven into the psyche of the town in Middlemarch.  

The town’s citizens, largely, assumed that, “[s]ane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.” (a few pages into Book 1, Chapter 1)

The characters for whom this (brutal) sentence is true, are eminently manipulable by unstated expectations. They run from anything but “the accepted way” and they don’t really recognize how they circumscribe their lives in the process.  If we live, consciously or not, by the same maxim, then the same is true of us.  

But if we courageously develop the capacity to think,

and then to think about our thinking,

and then to think about how we think about our thinking,

then we are on the way to deep cognitive empathy and the ability to develop meaningful relationships with those with whom we might have otherwise considered silly, or worse, enemies.  

This takes courage, the fortitude to be strange and free.

Screen Time, for the Mind

If I swipe right on my iPhone, I can see the “Screen Time” widget, an itemized graph that shows me exactly how I spend time on my phone.

If we could access a similar report for our minds, what would it show? Chunks of time in the flow of generous creation? Obsessive analysis? Active listening? Beholding nature? Beholding a child? Learning something new? Prayer? What else?

Attending to how our mind attends to the world is occasionally frightening but certainly an enlightening and worthy endeavor.

Learned Captivity

I recently heard the following story of a tiger who spent years in a zoo. Its habitat was tiny, about the size of a modest living room. Eventually, the staff at the zoo found a comparatively enormous space for the tiger to live, some three or four acres.

When the tiger was relocated, it feared this new space, and retreated to a corner of its new home. It paced around this patch of its new world, wearing out the grass in exactly the same square footage as its previous habitat. It had internalized the bounds of its captivity.

Our minds can learn a similar captivity as we rehearse and grasp onto limiting narratives. New relationships go unexplored. New worlds remain undiscovered. We are capable of binding the potential expansiveness of our lives.

Commentary or Creation

I occasionally like to challenge myself with the following questions, regarding my relationship with the church.

In the past year, how much commentary have you offered? That is, your opinion about what someone else was doing or creating?

In the past year, how much creation have you offered? That is, you showing up and offering generous leadership, an educational experience, a moment of beauty, a sacred space. Something that helps us thrive.

I am certain that we need more generous creation. I am not sure that we need more commentary.

One by One

A few weeks ago, my wife and I walked into a concert venue that had been converted into a COVID vaccine clinic. The volume of vaccines that this place could and has administered is enormous. All of this work was done one shot at a time.

In a world where so much happens so fast, we do well to remember that a great deal of the important things happen slowly, even tediously. Administering vaccines. Teaching a young person to read. Learning to articulate oneself in spiritual direction. Offering time in prayer.

Since this is the case, the way to make a difference, then, is to show up each day and attend to each interaction. One by one.

The Kindness of God

When my wife and I worked in Egypt, we lived on this street.  After living there for almost a year, I learned that the translation of the street name is “the kindness of God.”

I have considered this name quite a bit since, and how it was not named “the niceness of God.” 

I often try to live in “the niceness of God.”  That approach has the disadvantage of being illusory. Far better, then, to tune to “the kindness of God.”

The Church as a Network of Spiritual Directors

We use the word “church” to mean a lot of things. The people of God. The structure where we meet to pray. The hierarchy that leads. The tradition handed down.

What if, when we said church, our default definition was “a network of spiritual directors”… a tribe bound together by the tender cultivation of another’s (as well as their own) journey to know themselves as loved sacramentally?

If this was the default definition, how would this shift our priorities? How would this shift our inner lives?

Who Gets the First Bite?

Say that each day is a beautifully baked loaf of bread. Twenty-four hours, fresh every day.

What gets the first bite?

Prayer? The cultivation of solitude? The creation of something generous? Attention to our dearest relationships? Nature? Physical health?

The demands of work? Internet platforms that sell your attention to advertisers? Obsessive worry?

We rarely have the ability to control our days. We often have the ability to choose what gets the first bite of our time.

The Truth Will Make You Strange

Flannery O’Connor once said, riffing on John 8:32, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you strange.”

I love this quote.

If what we say in the creed is true, we are going to have a wild journey… an adventure to know God as love and to act out of that knowledge. It will certainly, and thank goodness, be unpredictable, leading us little by little to a profound interior freedom.

If we are not comfortable being strange, neither should we expect to be free.

Student-Teacher Ratios

The first class I ever taught, in rural Uganda, had about sixty students.  My most recent class, some years ago in Chicago, had fourteen.  

Even in the class of fourteen, it was a challenge to shepherd each of their individual journeys toward growth.  

Now think about the challenge of teaching as a Catholic parish.  Maybe there are 3 full-time equivalent positions dedicated to formation and education.  And, say, that there are 1,000 parishioners.  That is a tough ratio for the educators.  How could the staff possibly know what you, individually, need?

To my mind, in this situation the best way for a parishioner to ensure their solid formation is to first develop the capacity to know what they need and then to seek it out.  

What can we do to make this easier?  That is how can we build structures that invite engagement as a kitchen and not a restaurant?  

PS – This is a different point, but here are some brilliant folks working on a development that would be a sea change for how we teach with integrity. Check them out!

The World Does Not Organize Itself

In February, Secretary Blinken made a “Zoom visit” to all serving in the US Foreign Service in Mexico. In the general session, his parting message was to recall that “the world does not organize itself.” The upshot is that if we do not, with wisdom and intention, attend to the justice of international relationships, entropy and/or bad actors will cause chaos in our world.

This is certainly true in the context that he means, and in other places of work, business, and ministry. And, now more than ever, it is true of our interior worlds.

If we do not, with wisdom and intention, attend to our relationships with the stuff of our lives and order it according to what is most important, a crush of inputs will fracture our attention and ability. Overcommitment will overwhelm us. The endless scroll of social media and outraged news leaves with our attention spent and no energy to reorient it.

Our interior world will not organize itself. And, if we do not order them, we cannot effectively serve the justice of our city, nation, and world.

St. Augustine’s Self-Criticism

It took me a long time to appreciate St. Augustine of Hippo, whose Confessions were assigned to us a few times through college and graduate school.

Here was a man who was clearly holy, writing with singular insight about the journey to know God, and, in the same volume, wrote a fantastic amount about how imperfect he was. This appeared to me, at first blush, to be indulgently self-critical.

But some years ago, I heard someone remark that an inescapable part of the journey to holiness is knowing that precious little separates us from truly destructive behavior and self-dilution. And the ability to see this reality clearly liberates us to approach others with deep compassion. We are not, in fact, any better than that person we may feel superior to.

I think that this is what Augustine knew, and why he wrote so much about his imperfection. He knew the particularity of his interior life, his capacity to be self-destructive, and, ultimately, the experience of amazing grace. I believe that it is this completeness of vision that undergirds his holiness and his life of erudite service.

70 Seconds

When I was home caring for our first son, our mornings were structured around an adventure outside the apartment. We would walk to the library, a museum, or a park, and then head home for lunch and a nap.

One day, I noticed that I always seemed to be rushing to and from these adventures. Rushing to catch the light before it turned red. Always trying to find the fastest way through the city to my destination.

Out of curiosity, I timed myself en route to our farthest adventure at a leisurely pace and then going as fast as I could while still walking.

The difference was 70 seconds.

70 seconds! This was what I gained for giving my attention over to rushing instead of mindful enjoyment of the journey.

I am still often guilty of speeding in this way. It is an ongoing challenge to remind myself that this rushing is not worth that which it sacrifices.

We Are Going to Get You Out of Here Early

When our first son was to be baptized, I went to the Baptism preparation program for parents and godparents at our parish. Ours was a thriving parish in a big city. We were a large group in the church basement, ready to tune to the mystery of the Sacrament.

Then, the catechist began the session with the following: “We are going to get you out of here early.”

What?

We were told from the very beginning that the session, an already scandalously limited time for our formation, was going to cut corners, be a box to check.

So, what is the opposite approach? In the limited time available, the catechist might give us such a glimpse of the mystery of Baptism and the religious potential of the child that we might be drawn closer to the mystery ourselves and acknowledge the privilege of being a parent or a godparent.

For our children to have a vibrant church, we need the latter approach.

Experiments

Jesuits, early in formation, go on “experiments,” relatively short-term experiences of a specific type of service. This exposes them to a new world and allows them to explore new gifts. It has a terminal point and so has low stakes if it does not turn out well.

So, that thing that you’ve been putting off… that thing that represents an expression of your generosity… is there a way to turn it into an experiment?

It just may turn out that someone would delight in the generosity of your attempt.

(PS – Audacious Ignatius was an experiment Katie and I decided to try one day while our kids played trains together. We give thanks often for giving the project a shot.)

It’s Just Soup

My dad’s dad’s mom used to say this thing when someone was feeling quite wrapped up in the emotional urgency of a difficult situation.  He would remind the person that “you don’t have to drink the soup as hot as it boils.”

For a long time, I took this to mean that I just needed to give a tough situation a few minutes before throwing myself back into the mess, back into the emotional emergency. 

But the other day, my dad reminded me that, often, the situation is not worthy of the emotional emergency I place onto it.  That situation?  Hey, it’s just soup.  

Taken this way, the first seven words of my great-grandmother’s sentence also suffice as quality advice.  You don’t have to drink the soup.

I don’t take this as license to be aloof.  Rather, it is an invitation to hold my inner chatter and my emotional response to a given situation a little less tightly.  And this stance, in reality, frees me to be more thoughtful and generous, rather than obsessed with my own stress response.

So, hey, it is just soup.  And there will be more tomorrow.  

Consume accordingly. 

Your Conflicts

About a year into my time as a lay volunteer in Uganda, I found myself in the middle of a number of conflicts that I had not anticipated. I was confused and sad, unsure of how to proceed.

I wrote a rather conflicted email to the director of our program, the remarkable Fr. Tom Smith, CSC, who was then living in the United States. In retrospect, I was, in that email, trying to evade my responsibility in the situation. I was trying to hand Tom my problems.

Fr. Tom, in his characteristically thoughtful wisdom, handed them right back. (The subject line of his response was aptly named “Your Conflicts.”) He affirmed the goodness of all involved and helped me see the situation in a fuller context, but let me know that I was now a part of the conflict and it was up to me to act, in love, toward a resolution.

I have often considered the kind justice of his response. I was invited to stop the externalization of blame and the evasion of responsibility. Once I accepted the ground that I was on, I was freed to work generously toward a solution.

We Are Always Teaching

We are always teaching.

By how we choose to engage (or not).

By what we notice of the world.

By how we carry ourselves.

By the words we choose.

What have you been teaching lately?

Fewer Lines

One morning when I was learning to program, I was given a problem and told to write an algorithm to solve it. I dutifully cobbled together a tangle of code and was approaching a workable solution.

Then, one of the instructors looked at my monitor, highlighted every line, pressed delete, and walked away.

At first, I felt panicked. (That had taken me so long to do!)

And then, I felt relieved. I was free to consider the problem in a fresh way, and solved it in a few crisp lines.

It is often difficult to embrace an invitation to step back from “the way I (or we) do things.” But when I do, I am often rewarded with the freedom that comes from simplicity.

The First Cup of Coffee

Ever read anything by Amor Towles?  If you haven’t, and do, expect a treat.  (A Gentleman in Moscow is a brilliant place to start.)

For me, it is like being in the presence of someone who is marvelously attentive, refreshingly insightful, and appreciative of great books.

I read his Rules of Civility about a year ago (so, the beginning of the COVID-times).  I have considered the following bit, from the mouth of the book’s narrator, since.

My father was never much for whining… He certainly didn’t complain about his health as it failed.

But one night near the end, as I was sitting by his bedside trying to entertain him with an anecdote about some nincompoop with whom I worked, out of the blue he shared a reflection which seemed such a non sequitur that I attributed it to delirium. Whatever setbacks he had faced in his life, he said, however daunting or dispiriting the unfolding of events, he always knew that he would make it through, as long as when he woke in the morning he was looking forward to his first cup of coffee. Only decades later would I realize that he had been giving me a piece of advice.

Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane – the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath – she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger. What my father was trying to tell me, as he neared the end of his own course, was that this risk should not be taken lightly: One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements.

Order or Control

As much as I think I would like to, I am unable to control all the circumstances of my life. It is simply not possible.

Same thing with the mystery of God. Trying to control the Trinity? That is a tough road.

But what is possible is order: to orient myself toward the stuff of my life such that I am able to react masterfully, faithfully, with love. This may likely mean doing less things and/or, on a given day, doing the important things first.

Close Enough to Love

The first line of Psalm 64 leads a crucial prayer: Deliver us, O Lord, from fear of the enemy. In some translations, fear is rendered as dread.

Is this not fascinating? In life, there is plenty of wanting to escape conflict with one’s enemies (real or imaginary) but here, we pray to deliver our lives from dread of these people and conflicts.

Dorothy Day wrote that only when we are delivered from this fear can we get close enough to love. Put another way, in order to love our “enemies,” we have to first pray for the grace to see our dread and to overcome it.

I don’t think that this is something we can do of our own power.

Deliver us, O Lord, from fear of the enemy.

We Only Get a Vote When We Show Up

Last year, a friend witnessed the following interaction in a Zoom meeting about how to handle her child’s school year given the reality of COVID-19.

The conversation was heated, quite divided between those who wanted in-person school and those who wanted remote learning. A decisive policy would come down to a vote.

One parent was so furious that she said destructive things to the group and then signed off abruptly, minutes before the vote.

The vote was taken and tallied, not in her favor.

She signed in a few minutes after the vote, and asked to be counted. That was not what the process that group decided on, and so her vote was not registered.

The world tends toward disorder, so there are everywhere chances to make things better. We only get a vote about how our shared future unfolds when we show up. And our vote counts exponentially when we show up generously and with grand imagination.

Furious or Curious

The experience of anger can be quite involuntary. Something happens, trespassing against our expectations of how things should be, leaving us furious.

Okay. But then what happens.

Anger can quickly turn into self-righteousness, to barricading oneself on the moral high ground. And anger can take the legs out from under our ability to listen perceptively and to relate imaginatively to people who think differently from us. And because of this, anger can handicap any attempt to accurately perceive and productively improve the situation that made us angry in the first place.

We do not always have the choice to be furious. But we can, afterwards and always, choose to be curious.

(Hey!  The above reminds me of the dear Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ’s recent post on his new Substack blog.  Check it out!)

Pebble Crayons

When our first son was two, I would take him to a toddler Montessori classroom. At the art station, there were a few crayons each shaped like a large pebble.

Our son did not yet know how to hold a regular crayon, but the form of these crayons taught him to. There is just no other way to hold a pebble if you want to write with it. He had to grip it correctly, at the tips of his fingers.

Our interior lives, too, benefit from us finding and using similar tools. Take prayers of thanksgiving, for instance. In this mode of prayer, we tune to the gifts of our lives and orient toward the God who is their origin. Simply by engaging the tool, I am productively oriented toward the stuff of my life.

This was also our hope, also, with the structure of Audacious Ignatius. We aimed to create stanzas and art that stick in the memory and then, when recalled, gracefully and productively orient the reader toward a gem of our tradition. Take for example:

“First, know well that I’m loved even though oh so flawed.
Next, spend time with the Lord and to walk where he trod.
Offer all I possess, beg for my stony-heart thawed,
And act from a deep love, the love that is God.”

These are only three (pithy?) sentences. But when held, they may remind the reader of the depth of their experience with the Spiritual Exercises or uncover a desire to engage with them.

Whatever the topography of our interior lives, let’s find and use the pebble crayons that orient us gracefully and productively.

Deferred Maintenance

Last summer, we bought a 2003 Honda Odyssey from another Foreign Service family who was about to move. I think that they thought they were not going to be able to sell it. They had deferred a great deal of maintenance.

We cleaned the car inside and out. Twice. We replaced the tires, oil, filters, windshield wipers, antifreeze, antifreeze cap, shocks, struts, brake fluid, and brake pads. We greased one of the sliding doors and peeled all the old stickers off of the dash.

The van now runs great and facilitates our on-going family adventure. If we had deferred its maintenance for much longer, it would not have been able to do so.

We can defer maintenance on things that are much more fundamental to our life’s adventure than a vehicle. Our interior lives. Our closest relationships. Connections to the communities that formed us.

Let’s not defer maintenance on these most important things.

Waiting for the Light to Come

For most of her early writing career, Toni Morrison had a nine-to-five job, taught university classes, and raised her two sons as a single parent. She wrote books during this time that won her a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Morrison reported that she would write in the evenings, but especially in the mornings. She would rise as early as 4am, and “wait for the light to come.”

When we tell ourselves that we don’t have the time to do that generous thing we think about, we may, in fact, be correct, based on how we are currently choosing to spend our time. But if we, like Morrison, make the time for the light to come, we will not be disappointed. The world will be better for our having protected and offered that time.

The Roots of Our Stories

That story that helps you begin the day with energy, to engage the world with insight and empathy…  Where did that story come from?  Can attending to the roots of that story amplify it, or help you to grow similar stories?

And that story that closes you off, makes your thoughts spin without effect or love… Where did that story come from?  Can naming and letting these stories go then release you from their negative effects?

The stories we rehearse form us profoundly.  It is right to inspect their roots.

More Than God Requires

I once had a spiritual director tell me the following. 

“You know… It is possible to do more than God requires, and less than God desires.”

While infuriatingly vague, the maxim has stuck with me and functions to pose the following productive question.

What, in fact, does God desire?  

More than we can comprehend, surely, but perhaps essentially this: that we know how profoundly we are loved.

Truly knowing oneself as loved by God changes everything, and enables clearer vision of what, then, God requires.

The Retreat House, in Winter

Before we had kids, I would make a silent retreat every summer at the guest house on the campus of St. Mary’s College in South Bend.  

My favorite room in which to sit, read, and pray was a thin room that wrapped around the south wall of the house.  On the second floor and with giant windows, the room welcomes visitors right in the trees, into a world of leaves and light.  The depth of field in the summer months is about forty feet, obscured by vegetation.  

After a few years of summer retreats, I then spent one winter weekend there.  The view from the room was completely different.  The leaves were gone.  The sun was filtered through many clouds.  And, most strikingly, the depth of field was much greater.  I could see over a mile now, through the leafless trees, all the way down to the river.  

Winter, then, afforded an enhanced perspective.

The “winters” of life, moments of loss, conflict, or pain, can be a challenge, sometimes of uninterpretable ruthlessness.  Only with good company, I think, can we navigate these winters, and tune into the unique perspective that they offer, the expanded depth of field.  This transformed vision can fuel a life of remarkable compassion. 

Teaching That Takes Something Away

When both of our sons were learning to eat solid food, they would occasionally stuff so much in their mouths that they could no longer eat.  The only way forward was to take all the food out and start again.  Teaching them to eat, then, meant taking food away.

The best teachers, I think, do something similar.  If a learner is stuck on a limiting belief or an idol of the mind, the savvy teacher does not add more input.  Instead, she works to relieve the learner of the limitation.  Once this idol is removed, the learner has more space to see what is real.

Frustratingly, our brains protect these idols with brutal force, namely through confirmation bias, making giving up limiting beliefs uniquely difficult.  The idol’s bodyguards can live inside the texture of our own thinking. 

While difficult, relinquishing a limiting way of thinking is some of the most important learning we can do.  Giving up the “information” that limits our intelligence, imagination, and love can save our lives.

Beginning With Joy

Most afternoons, I take our sons to a neighborhood park.  Our two-year-old is fascinated by the basketball hoop there.

He will take our mini soccer ball out of the stroller, square up to the hoop, and shoot the ball.  The hoop is regulation size, so his attempt falls well short.  Sometimes it flies backwards over his head.

Two bits to note:

First: He loves this exercise.  He knows he is not “doing it right,” but delights absolutely in the attempt.

Second:  He is actually getting better.  He is jumping and releasing the ball at (more or less) the right time.  The ball flies a little higher.

When we start any new thing, we are not going to be awesome at it.  A new flavor of empathy.  Communication in a new context.  Navigating the interior life after major life events.  We will surely stumble.  How could it be otherwise?

But if we accept the newness with joy and gentleness, a new world can open up. And absent this gentle joy, it can be very difficult to begin something new.

Who Is Thriving?

When I am at my worst, I consider the constraints in my life with the mindset of a victim.  (“This is terrible!  I don’t have x!  I cannot do y!”)

Two things help break this cycle:

First, I realize that many other people have the same constraints that I do.

Second, I realize that many of these people with the very same constraints are thriving.

I escape from my impoverished mindset when I ask: Why are these people thriving?  Can I do the same?

Feel Good or Think Hard?

When we choose where and how to learn about the world, (i.e. a news source, a podcast, membership in a community) what guides this decision?  

Do we seek to feel good?  Perhaps morally superior?  

Or do we seek to learn?  To think hard and cultivate an expansive vision of the world?

It’s up to us to strike a balance.  This balance takes courage and serves the common good.

Teaching, Involuntarily

I am obsessed with my son’s dentist office.

The first time we showed up, they let me know that only children were allowed back to the exam rooms. Parents had to wait in the car or in the waiting room. 

When I first heard this, I had a pretty severe interior allergic reaction to it. (He was only three!)  Then, I considered their reasoning.  Their experience as well as numerous studies show that young people learn to fear the dentist from the grown-ups in their lives.  That is, the parents teach their children, non-verbally and without intention, to fear and resist the dental exam.  Without the grownups, the exam goes smoothly.  

The place runs like a dream.  My son loves the dentist.  The boundary works.  

We are always teaching, for good or for ill.  That something is scary, or not.  That someone or something is worthy, or not.  Let’s watch how we teach, and be grateful for the boundaries that save us from teaching something that we never wanted to.

Insurance Policy or Treasure Map

These are two very different pieces of paper.  Humans relate very differently to each one.

Sometimes I wonder: Is my relationship with the Gospel more like that of an insurance policy or a treasure map?

An insurance policy makes me feel secure for minimal input.  It leads me nowhere and exerts no attractive moral force over my life.

A treasure map leads us on an adventure and gives us hints about where the good stuff is. 

A Child Attends to Beauty

Our firstborn learned to walk in the middle of a Chicago winter.  I was home with him full-time, so, to survive, we had a lot of indoor adventures together.

One of our favorite outings was to go to the children’s area at the planetarium by our apartment. 

During one morning at the planetarium, faint sounds of a choir carried into our area.  I heard it, but stayed seated.  My son lifted his face toward the sound, grabbed my hand, and ambled off toward its source. On the other side of the complex, we found a children’s choir and sat together to listen.  He was rapt, turning away only to make sure that I was listening, too. 

Attending to a child attending to beauty is a deeply remarkable thing.  I am convinced that, in moments like these, we are invited to become like children.

Tea for the Missions

I once heard a Mennonite missionary tell the following story.  

When he was growing up in the US, their family would, after steeping a tea bag, dry it out on the counter.  When they had a good number, they sent them overseas to families doing relief and development work with Mennonite Central Committee.  The idea was that the missionary would enjoy the tea left over in the bag.

Yes, the gesture was rooted in a place of generosity and one has to marvel at this superlative frugality.  But the error is fairly obvious.  Why didn’t the supporting family just send new tea bags?  Then, the recipient could enjoy the first use themselves, as well as the subsequent use.  

While this seems obvious, I am often guilty of a similar mindset.  That is, generosity often does not receive pride of place in my plans.  

In our culture, big things (career, large projects) are often dedicated to the accumulation of money or status.  The leftovers (of time, money) are for generosity.  Sometimes.  

But what if we committed to the opposite?  What if we offered the big things to generosity?

This is the idea behind our dedication of all profits of Sorin Starts a School to the work of the Holy Cross in Dhaka, and namely the flourishing of Notre Dame University Bangladesh.  

We are pumped to share that we are on schedule and set to ship out the books this May.  Here’s to offering the big things to generosity, to love.

The Same Story

Our family has three different books that tell the story of the Nutcracker, and our sons are all about them.

This version (my favorite) cleverly tucks ten buttons, which each play a bit of the score, in with the narrative.  (After repetitions of this book last Christmas, our (then) 21-month-old would exclaim, “Cracker!” when part of the ballet’s music would play on the radio.)

This edition, which was my wife’s book as a child, is an Advent calendar, and tells the story in twenty-five tiny picture books.

This book is the most visually striking and includes thoughtful descriptions of the actual production of the ballet.

Of course it is the same story, but each time it is told, the beauty is uniquely revealed.  

I can often forget that the same dynamic is on offer when folks of varied life experience read each of the Gospels (the (same) story) together.

Not Choosing Functions as a Choice

Today, there are far too many things to pay attention to, and there is far too little time to attend to them.

On my better days, I aspire to deal with the above problem accordingly:  I desire to consider what I value most, and to structure my time accordingly.  

Often, instead, I allow my attention to be scattered by the next email, the next text, the next darn thing, instead of ordered by what I consider to be of ultimate importance.

In this second instance, my failure to choose functions as a choice.

Cramped Hands, Receptive Hands

When I lived in Uganda, my housemates and I would take turns shopping at the local market.  For this task, we took a backpack and two large bags with handles, one for each hand.  When the bags were full, we returned home.

When I would walk in our front door, my hands would be cramped around the bag handles and I had to rest a minute so that they were fully functional again.

For me, this is an apt metaphor for Lent.  Often, I grip life so hard, believe in my own strength so much, that my interior life cramps and I am unable to receive the grace in front of me.  The “work,” then, remains relaxing into a receptive stance.

If the Other Side Had a Point

If the “other side,” the people who your inner chatter argues against, had a point… how would you know?  Who do you listen to that would put you in contact with this information?

If complexity is the marker for credibility, we do well to listen widely and constantly update our map of the world based on an accurate perception of reality.

The Mind’s Allergies

My four-year-old was recently gifted a book.

Dan Brown wrote it.  That was the first thing I noticed. “Pooossibly a weird one,” said my snap judgment.  I set it aside.

Some weeks later, my son found it and asked to read it.  

We opened it and were, no joke, entranced for the next hour.

The book is called Wild Symphony.  On each page is a witty poem and (with the free companion app loaded) an orchestral piece, composed by Brown and played by the Zagreb Symphony Orchestra, cleverly introducing the ethos of an animal.  Clues tucked away on each page teach the reader each element of a full orchestra.

The last page features a triumphant musical finale, with each animal playing an instrument that suits them.

Now, both of my sons ask for turns to sit and listen to the music.  They have logged hours of quiet listening to a full orchestra.

So, obviously, my first reaction could not have been more wrong.  It is one more reminder for me to attend to and relinquish my mind’s allergies.  These allergies often close me off from things that might enrich my life.

Later

My younger son (almost two) has started to do something fascinating.  

When I ask him to do something that he does want to do, he doesn’t say, “no.”

He says, “later.”

I know that I can do this too, in tasks I desire to have done, but often fail to start.  Reaching out to a friend, thoughtfully planning for the future, general household maintenance… I don’t tell myself that I won’t do it.  I say that I will do it later.  This dynamic does not enhance my life.

“Later” can be a trap, a way to avoid a strenuous but generous path.

Particular Friendships

Recently, I was speaking with a life-long friend, a Catholic priest, about how his order considers on-going priestly formation.  One observation focused my interest.

He said that, some time ago, priests were discouraged from forming “particular friendships.”  The rationale was that forming these connections would decrease one’s ability to respond to the needs of the church, to serve where sent.  

My friend reported that the opposite is true today.  Particular friendships are regarded as integral to one’s formation, one’s development as a whole, flourishing person.  

What a gift of insight!  Particular friends are able to know us in the fullness of our history and evolution as a person.  When I consider what is of ultimate value in my life, particular friends who know me in the fullness of my history ranks among the top.

So, let us attend to our particular friendships.  Who we know and who knows us will make all the difference.

PCS Season

In the United States Foreign Service, the acronym “PCS” refers to a “permanent change of station.”  Most often, this means moving from one country to another for a new posting.  

At most posts, summer is “PCS season,” since this is when the majority of moves are scheduled.  

So, over the summer months, 25% of the households in a community can turn over.  And given that the Foreign Service attracts folks of wide life experience, “PCS season” is a chance to meet a lot of new people often.  All I need to do is to show up and learn from the people that the season shuffles into my life.

Wondering what to do about division in our country?  How about declaring your own “PCS season?”  You don’t have to move countries – just put yourself in the path of new people, committing to create expansive relationships.  (This will likely make your Relationship-Garden Audit more interesting.)

Restaurant or Kitchen?

Is our relationship with the church more like that of a restaurant or a kitchen? 

Is it a place where we wait to receive something that another prepares, and then evaluate the offering?

Or is it a place where we are part of a creative team with a mission?  A place where we hone productive habits and generously share our gifts?

Memento Infantia

Memento mori, latin for “remember your death,” is a powerful spiritual practice.  When we recall that we are finite and that life is unpredictable, we can live with singular purpose and focus on the most important things.

Relatedly, I wonder what happens when we stop to memento infantia, “remember your infancy?”  

For me, memento infantia is an occasion to imagine great love.  Though I have no actual “memory” of it, I am certain that my infancy was marked by singularly loving care on my behalf.  Daily, hourly, thoughtful, (sure, imperfect, but nevertheless) faithful love.

If love is the root of all faithfulness, of all trust, we do well to remember our infancy.

Resistance to (Diaper) Change

My wife used to babysit for a child who would do the following.

When he pooped in his diaper and she approached to change it, he would squat down and tighten himself into a little ball and shout, “NO!”

As you can imagine, this reaction complicated the situation and made an unnecessary mess.

A problem denied is a problem made unnecessarily complex.

This, Too, Is Good

I heard of a father who does the following with his young son.

When the weather is nice, they go outside to enjoy the beauty of the day.

When it is raining, they go outside and feel the rain on their faces.  

On every outing, they make the same observation.  “This, too, is good.”

Actionable, Specific, and Kind

When I was learning to program, the first thing the instructors taught us was a framework for effective feedback.  The feedback we offered to our partners was to be actionable, specific, and kind

And “kind” was not “nice.”  We were not to be vague and falsely flowery.  Instead, we were to courageously offer a partner the gift of constructive feedback, a gift of growth.

Knowing how to give feedback, we were now on the hook to actually offer it when the time came, to take the risk that the exercise implied. 

How often do we, when we see a situation in need of insight and compassion, neglect to even engage the dynamic?  It is far easier to complain about the person concerned or fold our observation into the other noise in our head.

Though it is not easy, the risk of actionable, specific, and kind feedback is a risk worth taking.

Join Them in Their World

I’ve been reading a remarkable book about how to listen and speak to young people.  One suggestion, from a chapter on interacting with children with sensory sensitivity, is to “join the child in their world.”

This strikes me as an exercise that is universally productive for our relationships.  Each of us has an inner world, rich and conflicted, formed by the narratives we rehearse.  Failing to attend to this “world” of another, our communication can fall flat.  Ships pass in the night.

The choice to join a neighbor in their inner world is always available to us.  When we opt for this generous way, the other feels affirmed and known.  Our insight of how to encounter them is refined.  The relationship is strengthened.  We are able to love more skillfully.  

How’s the Moral High Ground?

How is that moral high ground you’ve claimed?

Feels amazing, doesn’t it?  The high of claiming the moral high ground is intoxicating.

The thing is, though, that this high keeps us from actually creating the relationships that would enable generous principles to enter the world.  If stuck on the high ground, we spend time protecting and purifying our position (that is, polishing our idols) which further limits what we are able to see and do.

Often, those who lead the most compelling lives don’t pay all that much attention to the moral high ground.  Certainly, they are principled, but they focus their energy instead on encountering people as they are and inviting them along to build a world in which it is easier to be good. 

Diastole

Diastole is the moment in the heartbeat when the muscles relax and allow the chambers to fill with blood.

This moment of rest is built into our biology.

How often do we allow for a true diastolic period in our inner lives?  In our most cherished relationships?

Narrate the Positive

I taught for a number of years in a remarkable middle school where student trust and cooperation were earned. Put another way, classroom management was a constant challenge.

One of the most effective classroom management techniques is to “narrate the positive”. That is, to verbally recognize the excellence and effort that you see. Even if it is only one or two students, calling out these positive exemplars can transform a classroom.

I see Mr. Smith has closed his Chromebook and is thoughtfully annotating the text.

I see Mr. Johnson is carefully editing his partner’s story according to the rubric. Outstanding.

Soon, the whole class is caught in the virtuous cycle.

What if we chose to do this more in public life?

I appreciate your generous risk-taking when you…

And what if we did this in the church?  

I appreciate how you vulnerably live your vocation because…

Let’s commit to imaginatively narrate the positive more often.

Painting Together

When Leonardo da Vinci was fourteen, he began working in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, a superlative Florentine artist.  (Verrochio’s teacher was Donatello.  These people were good.)

As art historians studied the paintings that came out of Verrochio’s workshop, they saw that many artists contributed to the same canvas.  That is, Leonardo, Verrochio, and associates painted on the same canvas in order to create the same Renaissance masterpiece.

Can you imagine?  Consider the patience, empathy, and communication needed to paint a consistent, astounding whole.

We need these same skills as we build our communities, large and small.

Relationship-Garden Audit

Think of three people who you love and respect, but who value different things than you.

Maybe they do not vote like you. Maybe they don’t believe what you believe. But you still love, respect, and communicate well with them.

How did you come to love them? Where did this relationship grow?

As we consider how to strengthen our communities, a good place to start is get curious about the gardens where these relationships grow.

A Positive, Achievable Future

Too often, strain arouses our indignation and causes us to retreat into old, stunting narratives. Narratives that allow us to claim the moral high ground but don’t lead anywhere productive.

So, instead, ask and answer: Rather than this confounding situation, what specifically do you desire?

Articulating a positive and achievable future is freeing, but it also puts us on the hook. We suddenly see the next steps of hard, generous work toward building a world in which it is easier to be good. Seeing these steps, we can then become responsible for them and act on them.

What confounding situation is waiting for your articulation of a positive and achievable future?

5 to 1

The Gottmans observe that healthy relationships have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments.  That is, for every negative interaction (during a conflict, say), a healthy relationship has five (or more) positive interactions.

I think this is also true in professional, social, and church communities.

Reaching this 5:1 ratio can be difficult, and particularly so when we are learning something new.  Raising a child.  Learning to be in a new place.  Adapting to a new process.

Two bits of good news, though.

1) The challenge to reach 5:1 invites us to verbalize gratitude more often than we typically might.

2) Appreciating how hard someone is working to reach the 5:1 ratio counts as a tally in the positive column.

Advice as Autobiographical

Advice that we offer to others tends to be autobiographical. That is, we tend to give the advice that we need (or have needed) to take.

To the extent that this writing constitutes advice, the above observation is quite true. It is largely my failures in accompaniment, attentiveness, and contribution that fuel my interest to develop language and practice around this topic.

So please know that, if what I write seems like advice, I’ve let that advice into my own life first.