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Archive for October, 2013

Epictetus titles this short piece ‘How to draw the correct consequences from the fact that God is the father of mankind.’  I find his ideas to be stimulating, stretching, affirming and challenging.  Perhaps, gentle reader, you will find in his ideas a ‘seed’ for you to plant or nurture.  Epictetus writes:

If we could completely subscribe, as we should, to the view that we are all primary creatures of God, and that God is father of both gods and men, I don’t believe that we would ever think mean  or lowly thoughts about ourselves. . .

. . .Two elements are combined in our creation, the body, which we have in common with the beasts; and reason and good judgment, which we share with the gods.  Most of us tend toward the former connection, miserable and mortal though it is, whereas only a few favor this holy and blessed alliance.

Since everyone will necessarily treat things in accordance with their beliefs about them, those few who think that they are born for fidelity, respect and confidence in their use of impressions entertain no mean or ignoble thoughts about themselves, while the majority does the opposite.  ‘What am I? A wretched mortal — a feeble piece of flesh.’  Feeble indeed — but you have something better than the flesh.  So why turn away from this and cling to that? 

Because of this connection, some of us sink to the level of wolves — faithless, vicious and treacherous.  Others turn into lions — wild, savage and uncivilized.  But most of us become like foxes, the sorriest of the lot.  For what else is a spiteful, malicious man except a fox, or something even lower and less dignified?

I am now asking myself: When do I affirm my god-likeness and affirm and use my reason and good judgment?  When do I choose to be a wolf, a lion or a fox?  Why do I choose the one over the other (i.e. reason and good judgment or being a wolf, a lion or a fox)?

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THE FIRST RULE. . .

Robert K. Greenleaf asks: ‘When I speak, how will that improve on the silence?’  Hidden within this simple and powerful admonishment is a guideline and I call this ‘The First Rule.’  Before I speak, I wait.  I am reminded of the teaching story in the Gospel [it doesn’t matter your faith-tradition or no faith-tradition, the story is a great teaching story — my belief, of course].  Jesus had just finished teaching about compassion and all of a sudden a noisy crowd burst upon the scene.  The crowd parted and a woman was thrown at Jesus’ feet.  Someone in the crowd wanted to know what they should do — he had just spoken of compassion and the speaker also reminded Jesus of ‘justice.’  The law said that this woman, caught in adultery, should be stoned to death.  ‘Well, Jesus, what should we do — show compassion or demonstrate justice?’  ‘Well, teacher what is your response; what do you have to say?’  I can see myself ‘shooting from the lip’ and taking up the taunt and the challenge.  I can see others I know also react quickly; no real pause to reflect — ‘They want a response and by God (interesting choice of words here) I will give them a response!’  What Jesus did was masterful.  He waited.  He paused.  He thought it through.  He knelt down and wrote in the dirt [it might do each of us well if we carried some dirt with us so we could always pause and write in it before we spoke].  Then, and only then, did he speak.  His answer was perfect — he responded in such a way that the burden would be shifted to where it belonged, to those who brought the woman to be judged.  They were the ones that were judged — or rather, they were challenged to judge themselves.

The First Rule is to wait.  For me, it involves waiting to see what automatically emerges within my consciousness — and generally, this is not the most helpful response especially when I am faced with ‘life’ questions or ‘life’ situations or ‘life’ experiences.  I have learned that if I ‘wait’ then I will begin to discern potential responses that cut against my automatic responses.  What helps me is to make sure that I ‘see’ the other as a person.  I am remembering the African nation where when two people meet they say to one another ‘I see you.’  ‘I see YOU!’  Do I really, truly, see the person who is attempting to obtain a response from me?  Can I begin to feel what he or she might be feeling?  Can I, at minimum, ‘see’ that he or she has pain, joy, fear, courage, doubt and hope residing within them — just as I do.

Do I have the courage to pause, to wait, to discern more deeply?  Courage comes from the French root meaning ‘heart.’  Wonderful.  Do I have the ‘heart’ to wait, to pause, to discern more deeply?  Do I care enough about the other and about myself to pause?  Does the other deserve my ‘best’ — do I?

How can I know that my response connected?  I might learn so immediately.  I might never learn whether it did or not.  I might only learn years later.  I have had each of these experiences.

I must build my ‘waiting’ capacity (or is it also a discipline?) in order to honor ‘The First Rule’ — on my good days I can honor it with ease on my not-so-good days it is a challenge for me to do so and on my ‘really-not-good days’ I end up shooting from the lip.  How about you, gentle reader, what do you think about ‘The First Rule?’

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WE THE PEOPLE. . .

Our founders (i.e. of the United States of America) are referred to as our ‘founding fathers.’  Now we know from our careful reading of our history that there were a significant number of women who deeply influenced our founding; however, we have become accustomed to focusing on the men who gathered together and wrote policy.  What we know and at the same time don’t remember is that this gathering was composed of men who were quite diverse: in age, some were theists and some were not, they represented different interests (some agriculture, some fishing, some manufacturing, etc.), there was a diversity regarding ‘thinking styles’ and ‘problem-solving’ styles, there was diversity when it came to their education, there was diversity regarding where they lived — urban, country, region — and there was certainly a diversity when it came to their political thinking.  They also had some things in common — they were ‘white,’ male and free.  Although they all eventually supported seeking independence from England they certainly did not begin unified in this way and when it came time to adopt the Constitution some did not want to ratify it (the first States’ Rights folks — some wanted each state to be a country and others saw regional affiliations as the pathway; the Federalists won out, sort of).

Our founders also held one other united belief: ‘We the People. . .’   For the first time in history, a large nation, geographically if not yet in population, was going to be turned over to the people — not to a parliament, not to a king, not to a dictator and not to the armed forces.  ‘We’ would hold the power and we would elect those to whom we would delegate the power — and these folks would all be civilians.  The armed forces, for the first time at this scale, would be subject to civilian control and civilian oversight — unheard of.  The implications were — and are — significant.  Our founders did not want a standing, national armed force.  They believed that state and local ‘militias’ would suffice.  Thus they wanted each male (mostly white and certainly ‘free’) to be able to have at hand a single shot musket, perhaps a single shot pistol, a knife and a hatchet.  Each would automatically become a member of the local militia.  These local militias were to insure that no military force, nor a single person, would take over the government and, if needed, they would be called upon to protect the nation.  There is no way, of course, that they could foresee that this would be adulterated and become transformed into the ‘guns-rights’ debacle that exists today.

‘We the People’ also required that all voting citizens (then, free and mostly white males), be educated enough so he could become responsible and response-able citizens.  This would mean that voting citizens needed access to public education.  Citizens must be educated so they could carry out their duties as citizens.  So they could become informed as to the issues that faced those they elected and so that they could then lead these elected officials; the citizens would be the leaders and those elected would ‘serve’ the citizens.  ‘We the People’ required this.

To what extent have ‘We the People’ moved to ‘Those in Office’?  To what extent have we (myself included) given up our being responsible and response-able citizens and taken on the ‘you-take-care-of-us’ role?  How many of us truly seek to be educated Citizens?  How many of us have actually taken on the mantle of ‘We the People’ — the number of folks that don’t vote and don’t care and ‘feel powerless’ seem to increase with each generation.  We are powerless because WE have given up our power to those we elect — simple enough to understand.  We now serve those we elect and we certainly don’t hold them accountable.  We have lost the ‘We’ of the nation for the ‘We’ of the district (thanks in part to gerrymandering).  We do not engage in civil discourse — our founders showed us the necessity for and the power of such discourse.

Are you and I willing to recommit to our founders’ powerful phrase and all that this phrase implies?  Do we truly have the courage to commit to. . . ‘We the People’?

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CONTROL. . .NOT!

My daughter was in a fender-bender yesterday.  She is fine and the fender, well, the fender performed its function like the secret service agent throwing himself in front of the president; it took one for my daughter.  Later on I began to think about ‘control.’  The person whose car hit my daughter’s had ‘lost control’ — she claimed.

How often do you, gentle reader, and I feel we should be able to control the world — the world should cooperate with us.  ‘I can only accept so much trouble today,’ I pine, ‘so please don’t whelm me over today,’ I plead.  The world doesn’t care.  Regarding ‘nature,’ the world is indifferent — what is, is and what will be, will be.  So the earthquake, the rain, the cold cloudy skies of late October will or will not occur.  Nature doesn’t care about you or me or us; nature is indifferent AND we can’t control her and most of the time we can’t even predict what she will offer up to us (I have said for years that the perfect job is that of weather-person; you don’t even have to be correct for the winds of nature will blow where they will; not as you predict).

Now I can hear myself saying in response to the world not behaving as I want it to behave, ‘Life is not fair!’ And, so, it isn’t.  Life is impartial, at best.  Moreover, how can I expect to control the world when I can’t even control myself.  I can’t tell my blood to flow a certain way; I can’t tell my heart to beat more slowly and I certainly can’t scream ‘RELAX’ when I am whelmed over by stress (and I will then, indeed, relax).  I can, however, influence many of my body’s functions and at times that suffices.  I know, intellectually, that whole grains will not guarantee me immortality.

I also can’t control my mind.  Mindfulness partly involves coming to understand and accept that my mind is not an object to be controlled.  If I try to think only one thought my mind will wander.  If I try to ‘clear my mind’ I will imagine the weirdest things.  All sorts of things continue to bubble up no matter how much energy I put into controlling them — thoughts, impulses, feelings, sensations, etc.

To add to my control woes, I also attempt to control others.  I coerce them, I manipulate them, at my best I will attempt to persuade them or influence them.  I even find myself trying to control those who are in cars; I did this today.  I found myself yelling at the ‘car’ in front of me: ‘Speed up you dolt!’ ‘Don’t leave such a big space between you and the car in front of you,’ I yelled.  No luck — no compliance on the other car’s part.  The space was left and lo-and-behold another car moved into that space.

Sadly, I have learned — mostly — that the more I attempt to control all of this stuff the more I become obsessed with control and hence the more I become vulnerable to the pain when I experience that I, indeed, cannot control the world.  So, when all else fails, I return to Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Serenity Prayer’ (he wrote this in 1937 and it has been used by and attributed to a number of other folks — but it was written by Reinhold):  Here is his prayer:

“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.  Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next. Amen.”

Amen, indeed!

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WHAT IS A CYNIC?

I received an email from a good friend today and in it he described himself as struggling to ‘get over his cynicism.’  What is cynicism? What is a cynic?  Consider the following. . .

Cynicism is a school of ancient Greek philosophy as practiced by the Cynics. For the Cynics, the purpose of life was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame.  Cynics lived a simple life free from all possessions.

The first philosopher to outline these themes was Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BC. He was followed by Diogenes of Sinope.  Diogenes took Cynicism to its logical extremes, and came to be seen as the archetypal Cynic philosopher. He was followed by Crates of Thebes who gave away a large fortune so he could live a life of Cynic poverty in Athens. Cynicism spread with the rise of Imperial Rome in the 1st century, and Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the Empire. It finally disappeared in the late 5th century.  Early Christianity adopted many of its ascetic ideas — some, like fasting, continue to be embraced by many Christian denominations.

Cynicism is one of the most striking of all the Hellenistic philosophies. It offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Although there was never an official Cynic doctrine, the fundamental principles of Cynicism can be summarized as follows:

*  The goal of life is Eudaimonia (i.e. human welfare or human flourishing) and mental clarity or lucidity – freedom from ‘inner smoke’ which signified ignorance, mindlessness, folly and conceit. [I am reminded of the idea that when the body fills with dense smoke we suffocate from within]
* Inner smoke is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions, unnatural desires and a vicious character.
*  Eudaimonia is achieved by living in accord with Nature as understood by human reason.
*  Eudaimonia depends on self-sufficiency, equanimity, arete (i.e. excellence of any kind), love of humanity, parrhesia (i.e. to ask forgiveness for speaking candidly) and indifference to the vicissitudes of life.
*  One progresses towards flourishing and clarity through ascetic practices which help one become free from influences – such as wealth, fame, or power – that have no value in Nature. A Example: Diogenes’ practice of walking barefoot in winter.
*  A Cynic practices shamelessness or impudence and defaces the Nomos (i.e. local habits or customs) of society; the laws, customs and social conventions which people take for granted.

THEN there is that ‘other’ cynic — the ‘modern’ version.  A person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view, a person who shows or expresses a bitterly or sneeringly cynical attitude. In Medieval times a cynic was one who resembled the actions of a snarling dog. A cynic, for most of us today, is one who is distrusting or disparaging of the motives of others and is often experienced as bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous or pessimistic. I have known a number of cynics (not the philosophers) and I found that each seemed to be deeply wounded – they were once deeply committed idealists and made the mistake of converting their idealism into expectations and their expectations into ‘demands.’  I have also experienced that deep within the cynic is the skeptic waiting to be called forth – and we need effective skeptics.

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One must not always think so much about what one should do, but rather what one should be.  Our works do not ennoble us; but we must ennoble our works. –Meister Eckhart

In 1984 I began to develop my capacity to serve not-for-profit boards and since then I have had the privilege of serving on a number of boards — both for-profit and not-for-profit — and I have had the privilege of using my gifts and talents to help address the needs of for-profit and not-for-profit boards.  I am drawn more to not-for-profit boards and so they will be my focus for this posting.

Effective boards are relationship dependent and hence Meister Eckhart’s quote above will help frame our searching and seeking today.  Consider that there are three relationships that are crucial if a board is going to function effectively.  The first is the relationship each board member has with him/herself.  Who we are determines how we will act and what we will choose.  Socrates advised us a number of years ago that it is important for one to ‘know thyself.’  Here are four questions that a board member can engage: Who am I?  Who am I choosing to become? Why am I choosing this ‘becoming’?  What is the effect of who I am on myself and on others?  Hence, I must know my core values — those three or four values that I strive not to compromise no matter what — and I must know my ‘favorite’ virtues’ and ‘vices’ and when I engage both and I must know and understand my deep tacit assumptions and how they affect me and my role as a board member (there are additional ‘knows’ but these will suffice for now).

The second relationship is, literally, the relationship I have (or don’t have) with each of the other board members.  Effective boards are rooted in and influenced by the quality of the relationships that the board members have with one another.  My experience for these past thirty years is that board members do not take the time and energy required to develop relationships with one another.  There is a direct connection between the number of people serving on a board and the quality of the relationships; numbers do matter.  I know that when I have developed a relationship with another that I work more effectively with him/her — I am, for example, more open to their ideas, I am more accepting of their views, I seek to be more understanding of their ‘side’ or their ‘interpretation’ or their ‘perception.’  I do not think I am alone when it comes to this.  Because numbers matter a board must engage the tough question as to how many board members they need in order to be able to develop and maintain healthy relationships AND work effectively together (larger boards tend to entrust too much of their work to either committees or to an executive committee — they seem to forget that ultimately they, as a board, are fully accountable).

The third relationship is the relationship the board has with the chief administrative officer, with the staff and with those the organization directly serves — there is another group and for not-for-profits this always seems to be a challenge to identify; this is the ‘owners.’  Developing these relationships (beginning with defining the nature of the relationship needed/desired) will, of course, take a certain type of commitment.

I continue to be puzzled (is this the word?) by not-for-profit board members.  They want to serve on the board (for any number of reasons — and perhaps this is part of the problem) and yet when they are challenged to develop these types of relationships they will claim that ‘I am only a volunteer’ and ‘I am not willing to give the time’ (too many don’t even take the time to come to board meetings).  Some folks also serve on a number of boards and this, too, dilutes their ability to develop these three relationships.

In thirty years I have only experienced two boards that came close to being as effective as they could be; one was a twenty-member board and one was a two-member board.  All of the other boards I experienced (perhaps 40 of them) did not come close to their potential.  Most were mediocre at best; a few were truly harmful to those they were entrusted with serving.

Relationships are the tap roots that must be nurtured by not-for-profit boards, this I believe.

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It is a cold and rainy morning here.  I am savoring a cup of coffee and I am savoring Epictetus’ words.  Epictetus writes:

. . .standards of reasonableness and unreasonableness vary from one person to the next — just as we consider different things good or bad, harmful or beneficial. . .

. . .this not only weighing the value of externals, it also means considering what agrees with our own, individual nature.  For one person it is reasonable to be a bathroom attendant. . .Someone else not only finds such a job intolerable for him personally, but finds it intolerable that anyone should have to perform it.  But ask me, ‘Shall I be a bathroom attendant or not?’ and I will tell you that earning a living is better than starving to death; so that if you measure your interests by these criteria, go ahead and do it.  ‘But it would be beneath my dignity.’  Well, that is an additional factor that you bring to the question, not me.  You are the one who knows yourself — which is to say, you know how much you are worth in your own estimation, and therefore at what price you will sell yourself; because people sell themselves at different rates.

So, for instance, Agrippinus told Florus to ‘Go ahead’ when he was debating whether to attend Nero’s festival, maybe even participate.  But when Florus asked him why he was not going himself, Agrippinus answered, ‘I don’t even consider the possibility.’  Taking account of the value of externals, you see, comes at some cost to the value of one’s own character.

. . .’But if I refuse to participate in Nero’s festival, he will kill me.’  Go ahead and participate, then — but I still refuse.  ‘Why?’

Because you think of yourself as no more than a single thread in the robe, whose duty it is to conform to the mass of people — just as a single white thread seemingly has no wish to clash with the remainder of the garment.  But I aspire to be the purple stripe, that is, the garment’s brilliant hem.  However small a part it may be, it can still manage to make the garment as a whole attractive.  Don’t tell me, then, ‘Be like the rest,’ because in that case I cannot be the purple stripe. 

In his actions Priscus showed his awareness of this principle.  When Emperor Vespasian sent him word barring him from the Senate, his response was, ‘You can disqualify me as a senator. But as long as I do remain a member I must join the assembly.’  ‘Well join, then, but don’t say anything.’  ‘Don’t call on me for my vote and I won’t say anything.’  ‘But I must call on you for your vote.’  ‘And I have to give whatever answer I think is right.’  ‘Answer, and I will kill you.’  ‘Did I ever say I was immortal?  You do your part, and I will do mine.  It is your part to kill me, mine to die without flinching; your part to exile me, mine to leave without protest.’ 

. . .That’s what I mean by having consideration for one’s character.  And it shows how weighty a factor it can be when it is allowed a regular role in one’s deliberations.

. . .’But how do we know what is in keeping with our character?’

Well how does a bull realize its own strength, rushing out to protect the whole herd when a lion attacks?  The possession of a particular talent is instinctively sensed by its owner; so if any of you are so blessed you will be the first to know it.  It is true, however, that no bull reaches maturity in an instant, nor do men become heroes overnight.  We must endure a winter training, and can’t be dashing into situations for which we aren’t yet prepared. 

Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.  The grand gesture, the ultimate sacrifice — that, perhaps, belongs to others to people of Socrates’ class.  ‘But if we are endowed by nature with the potential for greatness, why do only some of us achieve it?’  Well, do all horses become stallions?  Are all dogs greyhounds?  Even if I lack the talent, I will not abandon the effort on that account.  Epictetus will not be better than Socrates.  But if I am no worse, I am satisfied. . . In short, we do not abandon any discipline for despair of ever being the best in it. 

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