Archive for the ‘Ancient Text’ Category
Sunday Story for Monday: the Counter-intuitive Ways of Sheep among Wolves
Can words spoken from a low power position influence others?
This older Harvard Business School article (Power Posing: Fake It Until You Make It) describes how simply snapping your body into a power pose can have a physiologic effect. Read about the small study (N=42) by Cuddy, Carney and Yap here. Striking a pose for two-minutes stimulated higher levels of testosterone (hormone linked to dominance) and lower levels of cortisol (so-called stress hormone) in the study group. People literally felt more powerful and less stressed after their pose.
Every human dreams of more power. More power translates to being respected. Maybe power looks like speaking and being heard as one with authority. And perhaps with more power we’ll become benevolent despots bestowing good unto others as we stride through our own personal kingdoms.
The promise of more power is intimately tied with many of our messages about leadership development. Industries and institutions will always buy more technique about leadership development because, well, who doesn’t want to be perceived as capable and full of power?
In stark contrast, there’s an old story about how Jesus saw the authorities of his day use their power for their own aggrandizement while offering little help to the harassed and helpless crowds. So he organized and commissioned his own set of spiritual paramedics to go to the harassed and helpless.
Just before these spiritual paramedics hit the streets to proclaim and heal and cast out demons and raise the dead, Jesus told them how little personal power they would have. They would not be received well. Despite their hopeful message they would be beaten and tortured, and hauled in front of councils, governors and kings.
And that’s how it played out: powerful messages in powerless packaging.
Was there something in the powerless packaging that actually helped people hear the message? Powerful words and actions delivered by powerless, peripheral people could not be enforced or made into law. There was little outside incentive to listen. And yet what they said and did endures today, these many centuries later.
Tell me again: why is it we all seek power so eagerly?
When Constantine turned Christianity into the law of the land, the message lost much saltiness. Does my lust for power come from wanting to help people or just wanting them to play my game by my rules? Are there any truths I have to deliver today that might be helped by “aggressively empty” versus a pose of power?
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
What about the light turned mundane joyous?
Dorian asked. Great question.
On May 23 at 7:32am I widened a set of blinds in a way I typically don’t. My office was brillianted (please, ma’am, can that be a verb?) in a light I don’t often witness. After our long winter and so many dark mornings, this unfettered, energetic beam lit tired old spaces. Intense oranges resulted. Jaunty slants of shadow led to spot lit scraps of yesterday’s thought pinned to the wall—the ordinary jetsam of my process.
This May light a minor miracle revealing what I had forgotten.
It was the visual parallel of smelling fresh bread or brewing coffee—arming my lazy brain and fortifying it for that day’s work.
That new old light still reminds me of the old gospel story where the man now walking was never the only paralyzed man in attendance. Shining light can make a person dance.
My instinct says run. Or at least avoid. Either way, get out of the line of fire.
And my instinctual response to the difficult client/boss/colleague/family member is completely wrong. Entirely and utterly misguided. That is because avoiding the difficult person gives them a kind of power over you that will come to no good. Not only is avoiding the difficult person impossible (for such people will always and forever show up in your life), it is not smart. There is something you are to learn from this difficult person. Some hard life-lesson.
One of the ancients spoke of iron sharpening iron and his words describe precisely the mechanism of action with the difficult person. Something about this person grates on us: she is too bossy. He is too passive. He only thinks of himself. Everyone knows she is mentally unstable.
To be present with the difficult person we must step out of our usual ways and do something different. Perhaps we start by biting back the caustic retort. Maybe we stand up and against the sudden wrath which is our difficult person’s typical communication pattern. Perhaps we need to force a clear “Yes” or “No” from the mouth of our difficult person. Perhaps we offer the solution to them in the form of a question so they can take credit for the idea.
We all have these people in our lives and there are as many different types as shades on the color wheel. That’s because our interactions are dynamic and each of us constantly responds to a bevy of moment-by-moment inputs and impulses.
So take heart: there is some opportunity to move forward in the difficult encounters that hang like a cloud around this person. Learning to say no. Learning to clarify. Learning to probe for what is bothering this person. Learning to probe and learn from our own responses. These are all life lessons that sometimes come at a dear price.
And there is more: there may be something deeper going on. When you choose to show up with the difficult person, it’s with your physical and mental presence. And your emotional presence—all these can help inform your response to the difficult person. And one more: your spiritual presence. No, I’m getting all religious here, but wouldn’t you agree that some of the people you meet during the day need far more than you could ever provide?
Sometimes running toward the difficult person looks like an internal prayer offered to God on behalf of a conversation that is about to happen.
Sermons built on questions only inflame the faithful
It’s the philosopher’s job to ask uncomfortable questions. They don’t take ideology as a given. They question ideology—that is forever the philosophical task. Some philosophers reading this would say “Yes, and what do you mean by ‘pastor’ and who/what is ‘God’”? That’s fair and a reasonable line of questioning. Certainly worth examining.
But say a philosopher has satisfied herself there is a God. And say that philosopher has a commitment to the God revealed in the Bible (yes there are such people). Can she pastor others? Can he serve as a shepherd? Can she speak sermons that have questions rather than answers?
No. At least not to our typical congregations. People come to church for comfort and to be told they are going the right direction. To offer the food of questions is to deny parishioners the happy holy feeling they paid for when the offering plate passed by.
But honestly, can a pastor be anything less than a philosopher? Because the claims of Jesus (to start there, for instance) are so wildly outlandish as to call into question the threads of daily existence. For instance, this notion of turning the other cheek to the one who just slapped you—it’s completely nutty stuff. Unless it is actually meant to be worked out in daily life. Unless it says something crazy deep about each and every interaction we have. To treat Jesus’ words as ideology only—as some exalted religious state—and to not examine them further in the crucible of daily life is step forward with 75% of your brain shut off.
And that’s no good. That’s no way to live.
It’s also true that most philosophers don’t abide the preacher’s art of packaging things in tidy simple packages that are easily understood. Questions don’t often fit those boxes: they bump against corners and lids with their labored back story and brief histories of how others have asked them. That’s tedious stuff that rarely fits into three alliterative points.
Which is not to say philosophers should not pay attention to packing their thoughts so they become mind-ready. They should and many do. But philosophers mostly cannot escape the orbit of the questions themselves.
I think philosophers don’t make good pastors. But I hope to stumble on such a being at some point in my existence.
Jesus and Mr. Levinas show a different way
I’m scanning back through my childhood to remember when it was I picked up this notion that people don’t matter. I cannot blame my parents or my early religious communities or the packs of feral boys I ran with. It wasn’t at Riley Elementary School, and certainly not from my first grade teacher Mrs. Buck.
But somewhere along the line I got in my mind that I could turn and walk away from people and relationships. Somewhere I learned a kind of arrogance that made me think I alone knew what was right, had all the answers, knew the best way. This thinking meant I didn’t need to listen, though sometimes I could condescend to pretend interest. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine why I ever thought this way.
Maybe it’s our get-the-checklist-done culture. Maybe it was the arrogance of my 18-year-old self who knew everything without the slightest inkling how wide the world was. And yet that arrogance persists in the odd niche and behind unopened doors in my life.
I’ve taken to dwelling with a dead philosopher whose writing remains quite lively to me. Emmanuel Levinas is not the model of clarity, but even in his glorious obscurity he says things that make me pause. I recently asked [the long dead] Mr. Levinas to comment on that inaugural address Jesus delivered up on the mountaintop. Mr. Levinas, not exactly a Jesus-follower though he respected the Torah, has a lot to say about the intrinsic worth of people and even hints that others have authority over us in the sense that we owe them attention. From the get-go.
I started to find a lot of agreement between Mr. Levinas and Jesus. Mr. Levinas insisted on the priority that the Other holds in our lives. Jesus reframed the Old Testament law by putting treatment of people up near the top of what it means to be right with God. For instance: Jesus talked about forgiving, even loving, as the alternative to getting even. This has huge implications. Not because we have so many enemies, but because we naturally harbor and nourish each slight done to us.
My philosopher friends from the Analytic tradition (most of the philosophers in this country, judging by the academic programs available), get all twitchy when I mention the Continental tradition of philosophy, which is where Mr. Levinas hangs out. Analytics have a lot of suspicion about how Continentals assemble their arguments. And lots of smart people think Mr. Levinas goes too far. But I think not. In fact there is something in Mr. Levinas that brings Jesus’ inaugural speech back in focus for me.
Mr. Levinas is helping me reconsider the notion that Jesus was not speaking hyperbole. That he really wanted his listeners to give priority to others—even those who had hurt them. This is revolutionary stuff and not at all easy. And it must be understood in the larger context of Jesus’ inaugural address and the way he walked it out later.
Giving people priority in our lives is neither a recipe for madness nor sycophancy. In fact it may be at the heart of our humaneness and our mental health.
Teaching is an epistemological playground
Yesterday I posted under the title “The unbearable sadness of adjunct.” I hope you read on to see it was a larger discussion about the price anyone pays to live a thoughtful life. I tried to show the realities of teaching as an adjunct (often agreeing with Burnt-Out Adjunct), especially noting the counterintuitive reality that some advanced degrees still offer jobs that force you to choose between buying groceries or paying the mortgage.
But there are also good reasons to teach. If you can afford it (counting the work you do to earn a living and/or opportunity costs of time spent on teaching), it is work that is full of meaning. Here are a few reasons I continue to seek opportunities to teach as an adjunct:
- There is a thrilling something about developing a coherent idea and presenting it to a class of students. Even more thrilling, when you see that they see the utility of the idea.
- Class times often become incredible conversations. Not always, but often poignant things get said that help move my thinking (and humanity) to a new level
- To teach is to learn. And learning is great fun. There’s nothing like trying to explain something to someone else to show how little you really know. As I explain, synapses fire and brand new stuff happens in my brainpan. Teaching is a kind of epistemological playground.
- Students are amazing. At the college I teach, I remain deeply impressed by the devotion and care and passion many (not all) bring to the work. I often encounter excellent writers and I want more than anything to help those people move forward.
- Faith and work belong together. Every year I teach I see this more clearly and I labor over (and yes, I pray about) how to explain the connection. My own work as a copywriter highlights and dovetails into this connection. I am very pleased to bring with me ancient texts that explicate the meaning of work and life.
Naturally, there is more to say about this. What would you add?
What we grow when we sow “Yes”
For the past three weeks I’ve not been able to escape the orbit of an old story. It’s a story that tells what happens when one takes a stance of extreme listening. I’ve not been able to escape the story because it has a lot of moving parts that defy easy categories—just like real life. The story refuses to be reduced, which is great because I’m trying to be rid of my old reductionist tendencies.
The story has a woman on the rise and a man on the decline. The product of the woman on the rise was a boy who demonstrated what can happen when one is committed to extreme listening. The story has a narrator who seemed to know more than any narrator has a right to know. And then there was someone standing behind the narrator who could control all things but chose not to.
Right now I’m focused on the son of the woman. This man had a way of listening and agreeing that looked like progress for him and actually pivoted a nation. The man was known far and wide (so the story goes) as one who told truth—because the stuff he said happened out in the world. He was sort of a walking speech-act performative generator.
I’m grappling to understand what seems to be movement between generations—a movement of willingness to listen. That sounds crazy, right? Because we are all responsible for ourselves, yes? Genetic stuff is only physical, only the stuff we inherit. And yet…the social norms, the expectations, the ways we approach life, much of this is nurture rather than nature, so movement of attitudes between generations could apply. Much as I am horrified by North Korea’s policy of imprisoning political prisoners for three generations, it is true we transmit all sorts of ways to think and be through our families.
The woman demonstrated deep listening. Her son demonstrated even deeper listening. The woman’s son learned to say yes to certain risky opportunities that presented. He practiced saying yes. His “Yes” affected wider and wider circles of people around him, as these opportunities became actions out in the world, actions which changed history.
Of course we don’t say yes to everything. Not every opportunity that presents deserves a “Yes.” But some do. Some opportunities need a “Yes” from us, and those around us need us to say “Yes.”
There is a quote that connects our “Yes” with what follows. It’s from the oddly interesting book Pricing on Purpose by Ronald J. Baker. It’s long but worth the effort (bold emphasis mine):
Because economies are governed by thoughts, they reflect not the laws of matter but the laws of mind. One crucial law of mind is that belief precedes knowledge. New knowledge does not come without a leap of hypothesis, a projection by the intuitive sense. The logic of creativity is “leap before you look.” You cannot fully see anything new from an old place…. It is the leap, not the look, that generates the crucial information; the leap through time and space, beyond the swarm of observable fact, that opens up the vista of discovery.
–George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty, 1993. Quote from Baker, Ronald J. Pricing on Purpose (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2006) 15
So. If some small, long forgotten voice speaks up reminding you of something you once treasured, consider saying yes.
Image credit: 2headedsnake
Life’s not about poetry. Or is it?
I’ve been posting in response to a query from an English student who wondered about finding fulfillment as a professional writer. How can we compare writing poems and short stories and novels to writing for companies or ad agencies or other firms or organizations seeking help to communicate? She asks a good question which we all struggle to answer all our lives. See a few responses here: Shop Talk: The Collision of Craft, Faith and Service
When I teach professional writing classes at Northwestern College, I like to invite Rich Bosshardt, who writes for a well-known local manufacturer, to talk with the class. Like many of us, Rich’s route to writing was circuitous: from mover of boxes to telemarketer to carpenter to chemical compounder to university research lab technician—plus about ten other jobs. Along the way he earned a Master’s in New Testament, so his thoughts about work and writing have a theological bent, which I appreciate. In response to my request, Rich rattled off ten things about writing for a living and offered to explicate one more:
- We could learn a lesson on career fulfillment from Joseph, the son of Jacob and the great administrator in Genesis.
- How do you work through when the honeymoon of being hired is over and passion for the work is long gone, but the bills keep coming?
- My career has been an unintentional path; I didn’t enjoy writing and knew nothing about technical writing until I was over 30 years old.
- Why shouldn’t we be passionate about what we do for a living? Whom would you rather hire—the passionate worker or the dispassionate one? You can raise the competence of a mediocre worker who is passionate about the work and therefore wants to improve, but the dispassionate worker? Let him or her go; you’re doing both of you a favor.
- Luther had great insights about one’s vocation, raising the legitimacy and importance of “common” work and sparking the Protestant work ethic.
- There is joy in doing work of the best quality that you can and in a manner that marks you as a person who has character, thereby earning the respect and admiration (stated or unstated) by others. Good (both competent and ethical) workers do eventually get noticed by those who work with them, and these good workers will find themselves happily employed.
- I thank God for the “little things” at work, e. g., that I’m working inside in a temperature-controlled environment on a frigid winter day or a hot, humid summer day.
- Relationships can make all the difference; being part of a caring and talented team can turn drudgery into joy because you enjoy the relationship regardless of the circumstances.
- There is a psychology to technical writing; good writers should think about at least two things: (1) how people will use the product that they are writing about; and (2) how people will interact with the instructions and illustrations that you create.
- “And God saw that it was very good.” There is a satisfaction (and fulfillment) in a job well done, no matter what job it is, great or small.
I like Rich’s list and think it gets at the tensions of creating versus making a living versus making meaning every day. Rich’s vocational path also reminds me of Parker Palmer’s wonderful “Let Your Life Speak,” which is all about taking the time to notice what you enjoy. Palmer’s book is one to own and read annually.
I’d like to hear more from Rich on Number 9: the psychology of technical writing.
What would you like to hear more about? What would you add or subtract?
Image credit: 2headedsnake