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Our nature lies in movement; complete rest is death. –Pascal

The great French philosopher, Pascal, offered us this observation.  The difference causes me to pause; to stop in mid-stream if you will.  It is nothing short of astounding.  Consider for example the difference between a river and a swamp.  A swamp is, for the most part, motionless, a mass of water that is often stagnant and inhospitable for many living things.  True, there is a delicate ecosystem that thrives in swamps AND they are not much suited to a human’s well-being.

Then there is the river.  What a difference movement makes.  A river flows, moves and purifies itself as it washes over rocks, pebbles and sand.  A river is a source of life and power; we seek to capture and use this power in our dams and turbines.  A river provides us life through its fresh water (or ‘sweet water’ as the ancients remind us) and a river renews all that it touches (anyone who has seen the life-giving power of the Nile River knows of what I speak); just beyond the reach of the Nile River, on both sides of its banks, lies what is not nourished by the river; there lies the desert.

We humans, like the river, must move; we are beings where movement is in our nature.  We move physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.  We are moved by our dreams and our passions.  We are moved by our life’s purpose, our life’s mission – by our call.  We are moved by the plans we make, the goals we set, and the achievements we seek to live into and out of.

We also know that we can easily become like swamps.  We appear to have life but we are actually more dead than alive.  We walk around, we breathe, we engage in activities but we are in a real sense life-less – we lack direction, we lack purpose, we are devoid of meaning, we are hopeless and some are full of despair or worse, apathy.  To mix my metaphor, the fire within is flickering if not extinguished and we are full of smoke; we are choking from within.

For some this is situational.  I remember being invited by the president of a company to come and help him discern why ‘morale’ was so low.  What I found were people who were ‘life-less.’  In observing them for a few days I noticed that when they left the building a miracle occurred.  As they approached their cars they crossed an imaginary line and went from being like a walking-dead Lazarus to being resurrected.  They came to life.  They laughed.  Their eyes lit up.  To keep our metaphor, they moved from the swamp to the river (when they came to work they moved from the river to the swamp).

 How am I like the river?  How am I like the swamp?  Why do I choose to be swamp-like (for at times I do so choose)?  What enables me to become ‘Lazarus-like’ – dead to my world?  What motivates me and what enables me to be like Lazarus – to be resurrected?  

Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive. –Thich Nhat Hanh

When I speak how will that improve on the silence? –Robert K. Greenleaf

Upon waking each morning I seek inner silence.  This morning I realized that during these past weeks I have been whelmed over with internal noise-distraction; experiencing inner silence has been more than a challenge for me.  Sitting here in my favorite reading chair I am reminded of the discomfort our culture has with silence.  As I reflect I become aware that even seconds of silence are not tolerated.

I recall the discomfort of people who are in meetings together; the discomfort that surfaces when silence appears and is quickly ushered off of the stage.  It seems that in public gatherings (two or more people) that silence will be tolerated for about 15 seconds, then discomfort sets in and words quickly follow (paradoxically, the opposite seems to happen on elevators when the outward silence dominates and tension builds and people exhale in great relief when the doors open and they get to leave the elevator).

It appears as if we have an unwritten rule in our culture – whenever there is a few seconds of silence then someone must speak; the vacuum must be filled with words, or is it ‘noise’?   We are, it seems, a culture of speakers not listeners; we are a culture of noise makers not silence holders.

Silence provides us gifts: a slower pace so we can reflect, breathing room so we can relax, time to think and then respond rather than shoot from the lip.  Silence can help us alter our perceptions – perhaps to see more clearly what is truly emerging or transpiring.

Silence helps us pause before we hit the ‘send button.’  Silence provides us the opportunity for clarity amidst inner chaos and outer demands.  I am now thinking of the example of Jesus – an example that can be helpful to each of us no matter our belief system.

Jesus had just finished talking about compassion and forgiveness.  A noisy crowd approaches and throws a woman at his feet.  A member of the crowd reminded Jesus what he had just spoken about and also reminded him of the law.  The law said the woman must be stoned for her sin.  Jesus did not expound upon the law and compassion.  He silently wrote in the dirt and then offered the key response: ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’  Brilliant!  A response that could only come from silence.  It appears as if Jesus took time in silence to become ‘centered,’ and to reflect and only then to respond.  This is a gift to all of us who are buffeted about by external demands.

Each of us can, even if for a brief time, enter into silence, reflect and then respond.  We can also practice breathing slowly and deeply during this process for this helps us slow down – our heart rate slows and our blood pressure lowers and more blood is sent to our brain so we can think more clearly.

Sometimes when I am driving I drive in silence.  I breathe slowly and deeply.  I notice what emerges and I don’t dwell on what emerges.  I simply practice.  Frequently I become aware of the all the external noise and internal noise that surrounds me and permeates me from within.  The discipline and the practice are important to me not the achieving of silence (another paradox for me).

Silence allows me to slow down and to become more aware and to provide me space and time for reflection; it also provides me the environment to hear the soft whispers of the spirit that guides me – my inner teacher if you will.  Silence also helps me be grounded and centered; it helps me keep my heart open so that I may offer care, love and compassion; it helps me discern how I might serve both my and the other’s highest priority needs.  I am now thinking of a quotation and, so, in closing I offer us these words to hold in silence.

These things will destroy the human race: politics without principle, progress without compassion, wealth without work, learning without silence, religion without fearlessness and worship without awareness. –Reinhold Niebuhr

Good morning Gentle Reader.  During these past months of self-isolation I have been, among other things, reflecting upon my life’s journey.  I have been amazed at the number of opportunities I have had – opportunities that were also gifts and blessings.  I have experienced sadness when I reflected upon decisions that I have made – especially those that resulted in others experiencing pain, frustration or anger.  During my reflections early this morning a poem and a prose excerpt entered into my consciousness.  This morning, Gentle Reader, I offer you both as a gift and perhaps as a pathway to your own reflection upon your life’s journey.  The first is a poem by Mary Oliver and the second is a passage from a longer piece by George Bernard Shaw.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
Though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save. –The Journey by Mary Oliver

This is the true joy of Life, the
being used up for a purpose
recognized as a mighty one;
being a force of nature instead
of a feverish, selfish little clod
of ailments and grievances,
complaining that the world will
not devote itself to making you
happy.  I am of the opinion
that my life belongs to the
community, and as long as I
live, it is my privilege to do for
it whatever I can.  I want to be
thoroughly used up when I die,
for the harder I work, the more I live.  
Life is no “brief candle”
to me.  It is a sort of splendid
torch which I have got hold of
for a moment, and I want to
make it burn as bright as possible
before handing it on to future
generations.    — George Bernard Shaw

 

Become the change you want to see in the world. –Gandhi

The long running television show, Mission Impossible, began with an admonition that went something like this: If you accept this mission, then. . .  There were two parts to this.  Part One was the acceptance of the mission and Part Two was the ‘then’ – the intended and unintended consequences if things went wrong.

I have had the privilege of working with and knowing many leaders during the past 50+ years (the time-frame during which I have been thinking about leaders and leadership).  The leaders I admire are those who were consciously and intentionally aware of the core values and core guiding principles that guided them as they sought to live into and out of their life-mission.  Their core values and core guiding principles were the tap roots that nurtured their life’s mission.  They had internalized their core values and core guiding principles, they had become second nature to them.  They guided them both during times of ‘light’ and more importantly during times of ‘darkness.’ [NOTE: ‘Core’ means that to the best of my ability I will never compromise the value or the guiding principle.]

Developing, embracing and integrating a statement of one’s mission in life is helpful and discerning and naming and living into and out of one’s core values and core guiding principles is integral for those who choose to accept the burden of leadership.

One’s core values and core guiding principles are the deep tap roots that ensure stability when the winds, the hurricanes and the tsunamis of life seek to uproot one.  Having deep tap roots helps one live a life of integrity; a life that, to the best of one’s ability, will not be compromised.  Consider: What are your core values and core guiding principles that are part of your nature that enables you to choose integrity and live your life-mission without compromising your core values and core guiding principles?  When have you compromised a core value or a core guiding principle or your integrity or your life-mission AND what was your motivation for doing so?

There was a time when the headlines concerning the ‘fall’ of a CEO stunned us; now our cynicism seems to accept this as a given.  The stories I am familiar with all have some common themes; one of them being that the person compromised one or more of his or her core values and core guiding principles and thus their life-mission.  They created a gap between what they espoused and what they chose to live into and out of.

We all create these gaps – I, like you, am not immune from creating these gaps for I, like you, am imperfect.  It is a challenge for each of us to be awake to and aware of and committed to living into and out of our core values, core guiding life principles and our life’s mission.  Awareness is essential.

How do we help ourselves remain awake and aware (or help ourselves wake up and become aware when we are asleep)?  Leaders who more consistently than others act with integrity, who live into and out of their core values and core guiding life principles, who live into and out of their life’s mission do not rely upon themselves alone.  They know that certain relationships are ‘a must’ for them; these relationships support them and provide them ‘mirrors’ that reflect the gaps between what they espouse and what they live.

Here are some more questions to consider: Are you living in a manner that is consistent with the core values, core guiding principle and life-mission that you espouse (to yourself and to others)?  Are your intentions, desires, ambitions, dreams and passions congruent with or contradictory to your core values, core guiding principles and life mission?  Are you living into and out of the life-mission that you have been called to (invited to?) accept?  If you accept your life-mission, then. . .?

We convince by our presence. –Walt Whitman

Choice of attention is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer life. –W.H. Auden

The Polish-Jewish children who were saved from the Nazis had to make a choice.  They had to choose between life and death; some were so emotionally devastated because of the separation from their families, from their homes and from their environment that they found it difficult to choose life.  As I sit here thinking about all of the children past and present who faced/face this choice some questions emerge into my consciousness: What does it mean to choose life instead of death?  How could a human being choose to be brutal to children?  Why did some choose to risk their own well being and choose to save a child?  What holocausts are occurring today – and am I choosing to ignore them? [Note: I am thinking of the holocausts of the spirit, the body, the mind, and the emotions.]

Choosing the little things determines, I think, how we will respond if and when we are faced with choosing the big things (then again, who is to determine what is ‘little’ and what is ‘big’).

The author of Deuteronomy wrote: This day. . .I have set before you life and death. . .Now choose life. . .  In order to be awake and aware enough to choose I must be able to recognize the difference between life and death and then I must be motivated to choose life.  What is life nurturing for me at this time?  What is death nurturing for me at this time?

For me, what makes this all so daunting is that my life is full of ‘gray’ and only with the passage of time (sometimes a short time and sometimes a long time) will I truly know whether I have chosen life or death.  Yet, holding some questions helps me: What in this situation gives or promotes or nurtures life?  Am I, at this time, prepared to choose life – how have I prepared myself for this moment?  What internal images move me toward life and what images move me toward death? What habits move me toward life and what habits move me toward death?   

Consider that we can choose death and love it.  I can choose to slander another and ‘love doing so.’  I can choose to deceive myself and ‘love doing so.’  Am I willing to accept that I do ‘choose death’ and ‘love it’?  Am I willing to name the times that I do so?

On the other hand, we can choose death and hate it.  I always have choice and I always choose.  For example, I choose ‘death’ out of habit – and I hate that I do so (knowledge, we know, doesn’t change anything – ask any smoker who knows that smoking puts him at risk and yet he chooses ‘death’ over life).

I have my favorite ways of depleting myself; I know they are depleting and I still choose them – and I ‘hate’ these choices.  On the other hand, we can choose life and hate it.  WHAT?  We are all experts when it comes to hypocrisy.  I decide to be nice to you while internally I am imaging the many ways I would like to blast you.  I might stop and talk with you and at the same time curse you for making me late.  On the other hand, we can choose life and love itThis is easier for me when I am fully present, when I am awake and aware, and when I am consciously motivated by love (for me and for the other).

I have found that certain spiritual disciplines help me: prayer (especially prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving), meditation, and imagining are three that help me prepare.  At times I need to rehearse – to spend time imagining myself in a situation and rehearsing how I will respond.  What I do accept is that each moment I am choosing for life or I am choosing for death.  This knowledge does not necessarily bring me comfort nor contentment; on the other hand, this knowledge does help me be awake and aware to the fact that it is ‘I’ who am doing the choosing.

Not choosing is, in itself, a choice. –William James

Within the past several months Oliver Sacks, the noted neurologist, has, once again, emerged into my consciousness.  I first heard him speak in 1985 at a conference in Washington, D.C.  The first book of his that I read was ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.’  More recently, I read an essay he wrote in 2012, I read several quotations of his that were contained in another essay and a friend, David, spoke about him in a conversation we were having.  So Oliver has been hanging around in my mind.

In his book ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ he describes the case of the man whose eyes worked well but his brain did not; his brain could not correctly categorize what he saw.  For example, he thought that a glove was a coin-holder and as he left Dr. Sacks’ office one day he reached out for his wife’s face as if it were a hat – on the surface a bit humorous, underneath more than a bit sad, if not tragic.

The man could not discern his wife’s face from that of a hat.  Oliver Sacks believes that discernment is all about physiognomy [‘the art of discovering temperament and character from outward appearance’ the dictionary tells us].  Thus discernment of this type means recognizing the true character of what we are seeing.  To me, this idea is immensely fascinating.  I may physically ‘see’ something ‘accurately’ AND not truly see it for what it is; I will miss its true character.  This ability applies to gloves and faces and it also applies to movies, relationships, and ‘motivational’ selling.

One aspect of discernment, then, is the discipline to practice moral physiognomy; it involves developing the ability and capacity to draw accurate conclusions about what is now before us.  Like the man who mistook his wife for a hat had difficulty moving through life, a person who is depleted of moral physiognomy makes choices that are counterproductive (if not unethical or immoral).

Now, Gentle Reader, imagine a person who developed more fully his/her capacity for moral physiognomy – who could tell fairly quickly whether he/she chose wisely or poorly or with foresight will know which choice is the wise one and which is the foolish one [I am now thinking of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where the old knight observes that the villain has chosen poorly].  I have a sense that each of us can more fully develop this capacity.  Oliver Sacks puts it this way: ‘Judgment is the most important faculty we have.  An animal, or a man, may get on very well without abstract attitude but will speedily perish if deprived of judgment.’

Consider that sizing things up, making judgments, practicing discernment is at the heart of who we are and who we are called to become (perhaps of who we are already becoming).  In all faith traditions God or the Divine is the Great Physiognomist – God or the Divine truly knows our hearts.  Through our outward appearance our true character is revealed and thus is known.

The question I am holding this day: When I look in the mirror am I able to discern my own true character by looking at the person in the mirror who is looking at me? 

Seeing reality for what it is is what we call discernment.  The work of discernment is very hard. –Lewis B. Smedes 

We are living in the midst of a global pandemic.  Each of us is at risk for having a direct invasion by the ‘enemy’ and each of us is at risk for having an indirect experience – a collateral experience – as a consequence of the impact/effect of the pandemic.  As in all pandemics there are a number of folks who step-up and go where angels fear to tread; they choose to serve so that others might live and so that those affected, directly and indirectly, are cared for.

As I was thinking about those who are serving in this way I began to think of examples of other ‘pandemics.’  One of them, man-made, was WWI – truly a global pandemic.  As I was reflecting upon the pandemic called WWI a name emerged into my consciousness: Cavell.  I did a bit of research and what I found resulted in my choosing to honor a woman who, during WWI, served so others would be saved.  What follows is a brief glimpse into this person, this woman, this nurse who was Edith Louisa Cavell.

Edith Louisa Cavell (4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during the First World War, for which she was arrested. She was accused of treason, found guilty by a court-martial and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation.

The night before her execution, she wrote in the margins of her copy of the ‘Imitation of Christ’: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words were later inscribed on a memorial to her near Trafalgar Square. Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed it, both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.”  The Church of England commemorates her in its Calendar of Saints each year on 12 October.

Edith, and all of those who serve so others might live, truly live into this challenging and daunting statement: No person loves as much as the person who gives his or her life for another.   This morning I pause and honor all of those who are serving in so many ways during this modern pandemic and I am also pausing to remember Edith and the thousands of others who served during the pandemic of WWI.

Here is a photo of Edith Louisa Cavell:

Edith_Cavell