Archive for October, 2012

The Blinding Qualities of Moral Superiority

October 30, 2012

A few days ago, The Washington Post printed a fascinating article by Michelle Boorstein about the uproar and severe fractures within a local synagogue community created by the presence and subsequent demanded departure of a registered sex offender and pedophile in its midst. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/bethesda-synagogue-grapples-with-presence-of-rabbi-convicted-of-sex-crime/2012/10/26/a6549984-1a0c-11e2-aa6f-3b636fecb829_story.html

But the substance of the story was not the only aspect that fascinated me. What caught my attention even more was a sentence buried within, attributed to the head of the synagogue board who, “said some [synagogue members] thought the pariah status created by sex offender registry lists should be a civil rights issue, like that of gays, women and hunger.” The reason this sentence stuck in my craw is the premise behind such a statement: the suggestion that women, gays, and hunger belong under the same umbrella as sexual offenders ignores the fact that of those four “criteria,” only one involves an active choice. The offender chooses to act. People don’t choose to be women or gay or hungry; further, to equate these groups with an inherent pariah status that society accords sexual predators makes no sense to me.

I understand that shame has a long, painful, historical association with homosexuality and poverty, and (I suppose) in some cultures, being born female is shameful as well, but this is not anything I believe. So, I found it shocking to read this presumption of pariah status merited equal weight for these various “groups” by members of a self-proclaimed “progressive” religious organization. To me, advocating for legal changes in terms of matters directly related to women or gay rights is completely different from the “pariah status” of sexual offenders who have served their time in prison but who may present an ongoing threat to their communities. The fact that a group which prizes, publicizes, and celebrates their “inclusivity” would lump these issues together indicates to me the sort of blindness that can, all too often, accompany moral superiority of any type.

There is lots to be said and debated about the topics of repentance and redemption, compassion and tolerance, fear and suspicion, forgiveness, common sense and hystericism. The Post article highlights a searing example of a group of people who assert that they are “inclusive,” and yet prove themselves unable to include the most reviled of sinners in their midst. I don’t envy them their struggle.

Righteous Indignation is a plague throughout the world and we’re seeing more and more strident forms of this on both the right and left sides of the political aisle—it’s another version of the fire and brimstone tenor that has seeped into our daily political and religious debates. But, as the presidential election approaches, and the nation closely split, with good people vehemently and aggressively declaring anyone who disagrees with them as evil, corrupt, wicked, greedy, or just plain stupid while priding themselves on their own brilliance, courage, and moral rectitude, I see the blindness that accompanies righteous indignation.

What about the tolerance and compassion required to respect another’s widely differing view? What about the courtesy and discipline needed to see past the politics and into the humanity of another? What about the self-congratulatory pride that seeps into any strongly held opinion? The Post article went on to explain that in the aftermath of asking the sexual offender to leave, the rabbi who had initially welcomed the him into the fold gave a sermon entitled, “Hold Your Position Humbly” and told the congregation to quit feeling self-righteous about their view of the matter which has led to departures from the synagogue and years’ long friendships destroyed.

Answers to this particular scenario are not easy or straightforward. Each day we make judgments—we have to—this is not a world where thinking people can go through their lives equivocating about everything. But this article, and the ignorant reference to grouping women, homosexuals, hunger, and sex offenders into the same umbrella category of civil rights causes, illuminates a dramatic example of the blindness that can accompany those who pride themselves on the very qualities they say they embrace.

The point of this post is simply to get you thinking. What value do you hold dear and wish to inculcate in your children and community? How far are you willing to go to live out these principles? And, once that line is crossed, what then? Do you see things in a different light?

It is dangerously easy to lose sight of the very principles we hold dear when confronted by its mirror image.

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The Talent Tariff

October 25, 2012

Like many places, Washington is a city teeming with competition. Politics, sports, academic credentials, social gatherings, square footage, horsepower, data storage—you name it, and somebody’s trying to outgun you. In many cases, competition can be a healthy thing, but generally speaking, it also involves a perceived win/loss status.

 

Recently, I spoke with someone who’s involved on the periphery of one of the presidential campaigns. Having sacrificed his time and money to participate, he wanted the experience to be worthwhile. Instead, what he’s observed has been a place where good ideas are quashed, primarily due to a fear from those more entrenched that promoting them would threaten their own position in the firmament. So innovation and ingenuity are snubbed.

 

Has this ever happened to you? Annoying, isn’t it? But, now I wish to turn the tables: have you ever swept someone else’s idea under the rug, afraid that it might harm your position should the Boss decide that Johnny has more to offer than you do? 

 

People can have genuine disagreements about what constitutes a good idea, so integrity doesn’t become an issue simply when one person declines to promote another’s initiative. But, what I have a problem with is the paranoids out there who are so afraid of someone else’s contributions that they either bury them or steal the idea and take credit for it themselves.

 

In more cases than not, it requires a certain amount of courage to advance the inspirations of others. The world is a competitive place and protectionism is coin of the realm—especially when there are more workers than there are jobs. It’s all too easy to understand why people feel threatened, and I appreciate the risks that can sometime accompany drawing favorable attention to a colleague’s contributions, but in the long run, it’s worth it.

 

Remember that film Pay It Forward? How many times in your life have you been the beneficiary of somebody helping you out when they had little to no reason for doing so? You’re grateful, right? And, in the long run, such actions prove beneficial to everyone impacted. Think of it this way: we all can recognize what’s at stake when a person supports something that isn’t in their own best interest. If we see this, we generally think better of the individual who took that altruistic stance. Should a future problem or opportunity arise, we are more inclined to give that individual the benefit of the doubt, precisely because we recall their selfless generosity. And for those who remain protectionist, well, that has its own negative repercussions.

 

But back to my friend and his good ideas for the campaign. He wasn’t shocked by the fact that the coordinator didn’t welcome or promote his suggestions; after all, she was an ambitious gung-ho type who had visions of World Domination of her own to advance. But, in the long run, how much more highly would her bosses have thought of her if she had had the goodwill and savvy to recognize and support this fellow’s ideas? Isn’t it possible that her bosses would have seen her in a new light—one of cultivating talent, recognizing that in a world replete with enormous egos and competitive snark, here was a woman who could recognize constructive contribution and not feel threatened? What possibilities might that have led to for her, let alone him?

 

The next time you’re tempted to enforce your own version of protectionism, take a minute to consider the long term benefits that you might just get out of the deal. Promotion of others isn’t a zero-sum game.

In Your Face!

October 18, 2012

Part and parcel of any motivation to re-boot is the desire to make sense of what is happening to us. If we didn’t care, if we didn’t want to figure this stuff out, we wouldn’t be re-booting. Alas, we all know people who seem to drift through their lives, content to proclaim themselves Helpless Victims of Fate, uninterested or afraid of making sense of what’s going on, or oblivious to the possibility that things could be better, calmer, more rational, less unhappy. But, in order to improve your life, you must expend dedicated time and effort examining it, asking some hard questions, and sussing out what you might change about yourself.

Attention K-Mart Shoppers! The most significant life lessons you are here to master are those that are put in your immediate surroundings. Think: life circumstances, health and money issues, coworkers, your family.

YOU CAN RUN, BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE.

EVER.

Sorry, kids, but that’s the deal. The people, places, and immediate challenges have been put before you for a reason. Nothing happens by accident. The stork didn’t drop you off down the wrong chimney. You didn’t just stumble into the career you have even though it might feel that way. The chronic condition which impedes some of your activities has value. That amazing person you met years ago who you’ve never forgotten—it’s on purpose. The unrelenting sense of competition/irritation you have with your neighbor. The Universe specifically sent you these experiences because you need to learn something from them.

But, I don’t want to learn more,” you whine. “I’ve learned enough.” No, you haven’t. There’s always more to master.

I’m sympathetic; I am. Trust me, when I take a macro look at my life, I shudder. Seriously? Am I so deficient in my life learning that I’ve come to a point where I had to lose my job, have a highly valued relationship blow up in my face, up-end the life I’d created, and move back into the bedroom I had when I was twelve? And how am I supposed to manage all this, find a new career, forge new relationships a continent  away from where I was, all the while keeping my spirits up and retaining what little remains of my dignity? That, my friends, screams Life Lessons.

The good news is that, despite all of the above, I now carry an undercurrent of confidence that, somehow, I can get through this. I’m wiser and stronger and more self-assured now than I was three years ago, so that’s progress, right? I know I can lend a hand or encouraging word to others who are struggling because I’ve been there—that’s good, too. I’ve even managed to find new ways to think about things in order to prevent my father from driving me crazy. Hmm. Well, maybe I’ve learned more than I realized. Maybe there’s something to this mastery of immediate challenges.

Now, what about you?

Oh, no,” you protest, “I don’t want to do this. This sucks. I’m not going to read your stupid blog anymore.” You put your hands over your ears and sing loudly. Well, too bad. This post is all about tough love.

The Universe is not subtle; it can’t afford to be because we’re all so mulish that unless what we need to learn is right, smack in our faces with no room for escape, we will find a way to avoid dealing with it. What’s staring you in the face? Right now. Because there’s something or someone, and probably both.

Take a deep breath. Trust that you can figure this out. You are capable of finding a better way to manage this issue. Before going to sleep, why not try asking yourself, “What’s the ideal solution to my predicament?”

Kids, if you don’t tackle this now, it’ll only come back to bite you in the butt later on. This is part of your life’s work; check your contract.

The Compounded Stupidity of Unrealistic Expectations

October 16, 2012

Unrealistic expectations. We all have them and they lead to nothing but grief and frustration. A key component in re-booting your life is to find a way to dismantle such hopes. I chuckle as I type these words because the concept of letting go of unrealistic expectations is so obvious to grasp and so hard to do. I am light years away from such mastery even though I know how much happier I’d be if I did this.

 

What makes it even more laughable is that the vast majority of my unrealistic expectations are what I want other people to do. The fact that they are so utterly unwilling to behave and think as I would prefer is a source of daily irritation to me.

 

Argh. Why can’t they just cooperate? They’re so intransigent in their determination to be themselves. Life would be much improved if they followed my prescriptions. Honestly, I really do know best.

 

Sigh.

 

Ok, so here is where that obnoxious red “Reboot” button starts flashing.

 

How many times a day does a similar script present itself in your head? And the thing about it is, we already know we can’t control others and we know that indulging in the magical thinking that masquerades as our own assessment of what is “reasonable” makes it worse. Far too many of us set out silent markers by which we judge others, only they don’t know we’ve set the markers out (or more likely don’t care) and blithely go about living their lives and thinking their thoughts according to their own rules and priorities.

 

What happens then? We upset ourselves over things entirely out of our control! How stupid is that?

 

Repeat ad nauseam.

 

The only thing to do about unrealistic expectations is to Let Them Go. I have no suggestions for how you accomplish this other than to practice. And I hate practicing! Especially with something so satisfactory as my good ideas for somebody else. But, on the rare occasions when I have managed to do so, I discover that my life takes on a quality of equanimity that makes everything better! No roller coaster of reactions, no frustration or disappointment or rage, just a smooth, placid sea on which to paddle my canoe.

 

Does any of this make sense?

 

How do you let go of expectations regarding people and situations you deeply care about? What techniques have you implemented? Suggestions welcome.

Evaluations of a Dodo

October 11, 2012

A critical skill for the newly re-booted is the ability to evaluate oneself. From the first minute we enter this life, we are, each of us, brought up in a world where our performance is measured against that of our peers: newborns are assessed according to percentage weight and height; school children measured against the statistical performance of their peers; teens and young adults are judged by their physique, social maturity, and athletic prowess. It’s all set out in administrators’ handbooks.

Arriving at adulthood, of course, these gauges are replaced with a far more nebulous tally since individuals scatter in such disparate directions. But, still, a scorecard remains a scorecard. We each have one, but the trick is to use our own evaluation scheme and not somebody else’s.

Easier said than done.

It’s easier said than done because we are all conditioned to being judged by the outside world. It’s how we were reared as children and it remains the strongest social force in existence today. In this historical context, it makes sense that so many of us continue to use our peers for mirrors. But we are not schoolchildren. And this method no longer is useful. We need to coach and cajole ourselves to replace this worn out model to one where we utilize our own criteria and nobody else’s. In other words, we become a solely self-evaluative mechanism.

I’ll give you an example. Recently, a friend ran into a person from her past in a children’s toy store. It had been several years since she had seen Person X and as they were chatting and catching up, the inevitable question as to what my friend was currently doing arose. Person X found the answer to be less than impressive and replied, “Wow, aren’t you bored?” This response surprised and upset my friend, who then found herself obsessing about it for several hours, despite recognizing the fact that X’s response was that of a total tin-eared blockhead.

But we all do this. We each can get thrown off our game when someone we like or respect or knew in some capacity hands down a pronouncement of our performance. We want others to be pleased and impressed with us. We want their admiration. All too often, we make choices, not stemming from what we know is best for us, but based on the hope that others will nod their head, approving of our choices. And it is this desire that gets in our way.

The only person’s evaluation of your performance that counts is your own! You are a grown adult, and even if you are confused about certain things, you still know, deep down, what feels “right” for you versus making a decision based on other considerations; alas, fear drives too much of this inner dialogue. There are manifold examples of people choosing Path B because there won’t be “talk” in the same way as if they went with Option A. This can range from your choice of vocation to your marital status to what car you drive to the way you spend your free time.

Please don’t misconstrue my remarks to mean that “follow your bliss” is the only sanctioned course, because it isn’t. It can’t be. We have too many real-time responsibilities that must be met, but my point is that whatever decisions you make need to be made from a place of confidence in yourself. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks because, I guarantee you, there will be an entire potpourri of opinions out there.

Going back to my friend who knows her life isn’t “boring” despite Dodo-head’s comment. What I’ve laid out in terms of judging ourselves is easier said than done. I struggle with this issue on a daily basis, which is when I remind myself that so much of what I’m doing cannot be measured. There are no metrics that I can point to, except to check in with myself and ask, “Have you acted with integrity today? Did you move the ball forward in the least little bit?” If I can answer these two questions with a yes, it’s a day well spent.

The dodo is an extinct, flightless bird whose behavior got him permanently grounded.

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The Haven of Silence

October 9, 2012

Using the theme of my most recent post—the wisdom of keeping your trap shut—I want to explore the issue of noise. Perhaps it’s due to the exponentially expanding modes of immediate communication or the bizarre confessional turn our culture has taken–compounded by the trend in decreasing civility–but noise is all around us. We are bombarded by it 24/7, 365 days a year.  Frankly, I find it overwhelming.

 

As I progress through life, I find more and more that I crave quiet. I go out of my way to cultivate silence in each of my days because without it, I grow snappish and irritable; I am more prone to make sound-bite pronouncements of my own even if it’s simply in my head. But the noise and the silence to which I refer aren’t just literal, they’re metaphorical, too.

 

We create our own noise by the voices that gin out running commentary in our head, and they get nastier and more brutish when we aggravate ourselves by listening to all the racket “out there” in our daily lives. The consequence of such nonstop blaring is two-fold: 1) we begin to lose our ability to discern the quiet melodies that get buried beneath the din and 2) our thoughts and sensibilities accumulate their own version of callus tissue. This is a serious problem for all of us because it adversely impacts both our relationship with ourselves, as well as our relationship with the world.

 

When you think about all the clamor you listen to—whether voluntarily or not—talk radio, ceaseless chatter from your colleagues or relatives, aggressive advertising, “edgy” music, or (my personal, go-to favorite) mindless tv shows, the noise accumulates. It’s not that each of these things can’t have a place in your life, it’s that we often fail to realize just how much of our time and energy is expended on taking this stuff in.

 

I encourage you to consider what percentage of your day is spent soaking up such hullabaloo. And once absorbed, what do you do with it? Do you feel energized or more creative and positive after a day of immersion? Look, we all have busy lives, and there’s a significant amount of blare that we can’t avoid–unless we decide to remove ourselves to a monastery (the desire to do so could inspire an entirely different post!)–but what I’m trying to say here is that it is easy to forget and lose sight of the adverse impact so much noise has on ourselves and our peace of mind.

 

Therefore, what I’d like you to try—just for the next few days—is to carve out a little quiet time for yourself. A lot of folks choose meditation to do this; I’m simply suggesting that you turn off the radio in your car or kitchen, for starters. Do a rote task in silence; see if you might get your mind to settle down. Hit mute on the sports-casters’ narrative when watching the game. Start with this, and if you kinda sorta like it, consider turning off the tube and taking a walk, alone, with a deliberate focus on quietly observing what’s around you.

 

In order to recapture a part of ourselves, we need to create and safeguard a private haven. It is all too easy to forget the tsunami-like size of the racket around us, which can, with time, erode a part of who we are and replace it with audience-tested beliefs. What you know about yourself is far more valuable than anything any of those Shouters out there could possibly tell you.

 

Experiment. You may find that silence has a lot to say.

When in Doubt, Shut Your Trap!

October 4, 2012

To crib off Julia Child, one of the biggest lessons that I have had to grapple with as an adult is Mastering the Art of Keeping My Mouth Shut. In fact, this one deficit may have more to do with my need to re-boot than just about any other. Well, that’s probably not true. Usually, a whole host of factors gets us to the point where we are absolutely forced to confront the fact that our lives require re-booting, but a fat mouth can precipitate a crisis faster than just about anything else.

 

Previously, I always wanted to show off that I could fire back a clever retort or entertaining repartee faster than anybody else in the room. Growing up in my family, and amongst my college friends, having a quick wit carried with it an especially valued type of currency, so I was always on the prowl for my chance to get in a zinger of sorts. And I performed well in this—which is what led to trouble later on.

 

America is a nation and a culture that always celebrates those in first place. Fastest, smartest, strongest, prettiest, richest, savviest, you name it, we focus on the one who meets the criteria first and best. Except in our hurry to claim our personal superiority, we often miss critical warning signs that might change our response had we taken the time to notice, or occasionally, we trample over others in our race to the top. Such carelessness often results in hurt feelings, resentment, or simply a technical but hollow victory.

 

With my combination of a fierce sense of competition, a big mouth, and cuttingly clever remarks, I often found myself saying things that sounded way harsher and far less adroit in contexts which did not serve me. For instance, in my personal quest for gold, I occasionally agreed to do far more than was reasonable and then, once the pressure got to be too much, expressed my panic/frustration inappropriately. I regretted it then and still do so today.

 

But, we all make mistakes. The trick is to learn from them; n’est-ce pas?

 

One of the biggest lessons I am learning during this re-booting process is the importance of slowing down. News alert: there is no one to give you a Blue Ribbon for answering a question before anyone else. Careful thought and restraint in one’s choice of words will serve you far better than being the first in line.

 

That’s no new insight for me,” you may promptly and snarkily respond. “Tell me something worth my time.”

 

Ok, I will. In nearly every case, keeping your trap shut will serve you far better than blurting out your personal opinion or reaction or “helpful suggestion” with whomever you are speaking. Let them be the idiot out in front. Taking the time to formulate a measured response—even if, inside, you are dying to recite an entire doctoral study on the subject at hand—will get you further. Besides, nobody wants to hear everything you want to say!

 

Alas, in the past, I have had all sorts of extra efficient ideas, reasonable concerns and objections, droll witticisms, and probing insights that I found necessary to share. Even if I had been right 100% of the time, talking that much was a mistake.

 

It was a mistake because in my rush to prove my point, I trampled over others, injuring personal relationships I highly valued. It was a mistake because I didn’t recognize the various agendas at work so I waded into more than I knew which then hit me in the face. It was a mistake because by sharing all my good ideas, I wound up threatening others. It was ill advised because, sometimes, people aren’t interested in the fastest or best way to do something—they want to do it their way. It was a mistake because I wound up coming across as a know-it-all. And it was a mistake because others stole my strategies and claimed credit for my ideas.

 

When re-booting your life, a large part of your work is about figuring out a more effective communication technique for how you relate to the world. Contrary to what we were taught in school, speaking up first is not necessarily the smartest move. And what we didn’t understand was that the context in which exchanges are made makes a huge difference—not just the words and answers, but the manner in which the message is delivered and how much information is shared. Whether it’s communicating with your boss, your colleague, your spouse, a sibling, or the clerk at the store, you’re far more likely to “place first” if you’re smart about what you say and how you say it. When in doubt, silence is golden.

The Fragility of Friendships

October 2, 2012

When one lives in the City of Washington, the assumption is nearly always made that your vocation is politics. This is not unreasonable given the fact that it is the nation’s capital and politics is the wellspring of what draws most people to this town. However, Washington is much more than just the seat of national governance; it is also a city of great culture, history, bad weather, and local dysfunction. It is a place where people live their individual lives, rear their children, suffer their sorrows, and forge friendships entirely separate and apart from whatever goes on (or doesn’t) in the Halls of Congress.

 

In other words, there are far more facets and identities to being a Washingtonian than simply politics.

 

It’s easy to lose sight of this baseline when so much attention is focused on the single element of politics in this town—especially with 2012 being a presidential election year. The reason I am saying all this is because I want to draw an analogy about friendship.

 

Previously, I have expressed my opinion that, in many ways, politics is the new dogma for many people who have been turned off by organized religion. I have also stated that I believe people need and want and are continually seeking out some Greater Cause in which to believe. Alas, all too often, this search seems to find a landing spot in politics. And thus, we return to the fire and brimstone sermons of yesteryear now dominated by political cant.

 

So it is with much earnestness that I caution you, be careful about jeopardizing friendships on the basis of a person’s political views. We are, each of us, far more than our politics! To malign and insult people because their views or priorities differ from ours utterly distorts and belittles all the qualities about them that we have admired over the years. It is absurd to try to relate to a person only on the basis of their politics. In fact, when you think about it, how much does politics actually play in our daily activities? While anything and everything can be made to seem political, is this an accurate representation?

 

What I’m trying to say is this: there will not be a single person on this planet with whom you will agree 100% of the time. And, to go further, they may hold certain views with which you vehemently disagree, but how much does that matter? How much will their views on one particular issue impact the way you go about living your daily life? Does this one person’s opinion become so important that you can no longer treat them with courtesy or respect? Are you prepared to make this the dividing line to eliminate a friendship with someone you like and admire and have a shared history on so many other fronts?

 

I pose these questions because adult friendships are fragile, precious things. If too many rocks are thrown, if treated too roughly, they can fracture and even shatter. A thing, once broken, is far harder to reassemble than it is to do (or refrain from doing) what is necessary to keep it intact. In most cases, maintaining health is far easier than overcoming illness.

 

How many real friendships do you even have?

 

Like the City of Washington, we have many different roles to play, many aspects that we can enjoy or grumble about, but we continue to live there because we love it. 


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