Archive for August, 2014

Late last week I was slowly walking by my bookshelves. Twice a month I take this slow stroll. I look at the titles and I look at the shape of the books. I walk slowly as I am listening. Is a book calling to me? Last week a book I purchased in 1985 called to me; I have savored this book a number of times since then. ‘The Habits of the Heart’ was written by five folks, the lead author is the one often cited (Robert Bellah); generally, when cited it is ‘Robert Bellah, et al.’ [The other four, by the by: Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven Tipton]

‘The Habits of the Heart’ present us with a stimulating, challenging and disturbing foray into what they call the ‘first language’ of our culture (The United States); this first language is the language of ‘individualism.’ They also remind us of our ‘older language,’ our ‘second language’ that lies, mostly dormant waiting to be nurtured back into a healthy life. This second language is the language of ‘community.’

Each of these languages is rooted in a first and second metaphor. The first, which is currently one of our dominant metaphors, is ‘individualism’ and the second, again the one lying dormant, is ‘community.’ Each metaphor contains, words, symbols, mental models, additional metaphors, questions, deep tacit assumptions, and behaviors. In many ways they have evolved to be more conflictual with one -another rather than complementary; they have evolved into ‘either-or’ rather than ‘both-and.’ ‘Collaboration-between’ has been replaced with ‘Competition-between.’ Rather than a paradox to be embraced, Individualism-Community has become a polarity.

The purpose of these metaphors has been to help us (citizens of the United States) seek and then find and express our personal and collective identities and to support us as we seek meaning and fulfillment in our lives. The ‘second metaphor and language’ was alive and well prior to the Industrial Revolution. The ‘first metaphor and language’ took over center-stage once we integrated the mechanical metaphor into our culture and made it the capstone that supports us (you might remember, gentle reader that prior to the Industrial Revolution in our country we were predominantly an agrarian culture – an organic, communal culture).

In the current predominant first language of individualism, people are seen and experienced as detached (how many of us know our next door neighbors); people live as if they are in competition with one another – we are competing for ‘individual rights’ and ‘individual freedoms.’ We seek to be ‘free from’ and to be ‘free to’ (see Eric Fromm’s ‘Escape from Freedom’ and ‘Man for Himself’). We see ourselves as free to define our rights as we see fit. We believe we are free to pursue our individual rights and are restrained only by the negotiated agreements we have with other individuals (commonly known as the ‘social contract’).

The second language of community is a bit different. Within community persons are seen as interdependently connected to one another (a ‘both-and’ view); persons are believed to be ‘naturally’ cooperative rather than ‘naturally’ competitive;’ persons are believed to be endowed with ‘dignity’ and ‘relationships’ are the tap roots which nurture the community and the individuals. This second language (and second metaphor) is ‘obvious’ in all ancient wisdom traditions and in our own republican roots.
Bellah, et al. believe individualism is a threat to our existence as a ‘free people’ and they call for a revival of community; this, they believe is our best hope for our survival – perhaps it is our only hope. They see community as a ‘necessary good’ and as a standard by which we might evaluate our behavior; it is ‘the best’ way for we humans to live for we are, by nature, communal beings.

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I drove North yesterday and spent the better part of the day with my son, Nathan. The university was hosting its annual Shakespeare Festival and we attended Henry IV in the afternoon; it was a grand experience (they had melded Parts I and II and had done quite well in doing so). We ‘appreciated’ the performance and we ‘approved’ of how well they had combined the two plays into one. Prior to the performance Nathan took me to his studio which is connected to the large studio where the students come for class. As the third year graduate student he now has the largest office/studio and so he has lots of room for his work. We spent some time with his work; he showed me one piece that I was immediately drawn to. He said that during his final review for this past semester it was the one piece that no one (out of about 20 folks) commented on. I was stunned. He said that he didn’t think anyone actually took the time to look at it. It was neither ‘appreciated’ nor ‘approved;’ it was, it seemed, ignored. Last night as I was driving home I began to ponder two words: ‘Acceptance’ and ‘Approval.’

‘Acceptance’ means that what you offer is counted as ‘real.’ ‘Approval’ means that the others like what you have to offer. We can receive one and be denied the other. I grew up (the 50s) with the Saturday Evening Post and Norman Rockwell. Only in the 70s did I come to realize that although many folks liked his work; the critics only came to respect his work after many years. I am reminded of the young film maker who took his first film to a world-famous teacher and film theorist. The teacher/theorist watched the entire film; at the end, he stood up and walked out, nary a word was uttered. The young man raced after him and asked: ‘What did you think of my film?’ The man turned on his heels and replied: ‘What film?’ Turned again and walked away. Neither ‘Acceptance’ nor ‘Approval’ was offered.

Courting approval from the other(s) gives the other(s) a great deal of power. One cannot ‘court’ ‘acceptance.’ How many films have been accepted (and grossed mucho dinero) only to be panned by the critics? Their name is legion. A few of these did, at a much later date, become ‘approved’ – sometimes in interesting ways, as in ‘Planet Nine’ which continues to be hailed as the worst movie ever made (approval comes in many guises it seems).

We each need at least one person in our lives who is interested in us, in our progress, in our developmental process and in our potential. Sometimes, like Nathan, we are blessed with having a number of these folks in our lives. However, in the end, the real approval and acceptance comes from within the person. In the beginning and in the end it is between me and my work.

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For those of us who are ‘artists’ – the physician, the educator, the parent, the potter, the philosopher, etc. – there is always the issue of ‘acceptance.’ Acceptance begins with a simple question: “When your effort is evaluated, will it be judged to be ‘art’ and will you be accepted as an ‘artist’?” This simple question first took form when we were young. Were you invited to the party? Were you chosen for the ‘team’ or the ‘activity’ (being chosen last was not nearly as painful as not being chosen at all)?

There is a corollary. If our need for acceptance is to have our effort accepted as ‘art,’ then the ‘other side of the coin’ is the fear that it (think ‘we’) will be dismissed as ‘insignificant’ or as ‘nothing at all.’ Acceptance and recognition are often powers held by others – friends, family, peers, authority-figures, experts, ‘customers.’

For all artists (is this really true. . .’for all’) our need for acceptance will crash head-on with our need to ‘do our own art.’ On the surface this seems like a simple and reasonable request: We want to do our art and we want to be accepted for that. ‘Live your life’s passion’ and sooner or later you will be accepted and your ‘voice’ will be honored. Those of us who have not fallen into the pit of cynicism still believe (and history affirms our belief) that ‘authentic’ art will be recognized. The trap is to assume that this will occur during our life-time; for some, the recognition will occur long after we are around to savor it (think ‘Moby Dick’ or Schubert).

Why might this be so? After reflecting on this question the following rationale emerged into my consciousness: Folks offer vastly more support for what they already understand. Consider, gentle reader, that expressions of the ‘new’ often to fail to qualify as even ‘poor art’ – at worst these expressions are not even viewed as art at all. If what we create does not ‘fit’ with what is considered to be art today it (and we) will have a difficult time being accepted. I experienced this thirty years ago when I asked ‘questions’ and ‘told stories’ rather than acted as the ‘expert’ or provided the ‘answers.’ I moved from being the ‘expert’ to being a ‘thought-partner’ and it was the ‘road-less-traveled.’ Today, this is a well-traveled road.

If ‘acceptance’ is the ‘drug of choice’ for the artist he or she can still achieve being accepted by emerging ‘art’ that looks like the art that is already being accepted; it is not ‘counter-cultural’. This is the seduction and this is the trap. If we are seduced or if we are trapped it might well be that as an artist we will fail to teach anything new – and this ‘teaching’ is crucial for the well-being of our culture.

One of my mentors, R.T. Williams, once noted that the real question of acceptance of my work was not whether it was viewed as ‘art’ but whether it was viewed as ‘Richard’s Art!’ I continue to be reminded that: ‘Be True to Thy Self!’ is more than a pretty phrase. And living into and out of this ‘truth’ can be a risky business especially when it comes to ‘acceptance.’

I leave us with a quotation I sent my son, Nathan, two days ago:

“Know that every deed counts, that every word is power. . .above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art. . .” –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

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‘Be Not Afraid!’ For thousands of years this simple three word statement has been uttered innumerable times by those who are considered to be wise. My son, Nathan, is about to enter into his third year of graduate school; you might remember, gentle reader, that he is a ceramicist. He has been thinking of the theme his work might take this year; he is also thinking of those who will gather to criticize his work. One critic, a critic with a number of ‘voices,’ resides within his heart; the others reside within his academic and non-academic world.

Any of us who offer our selves – our work, our ideas, our creations, our innovations, etc. – carry real and imagined critics with us. If we listen we hear a veritable chorus of voices – some are voices we remember hearing years ago, others are voices that have recently spoken to us and some are the voices we expect (or fear) to hear in the near future. When we are feeling good about ourselves – as persons and as professionals – we manage these voices well (or well enough). When we are in doubt we are open to becoming fear-full; ‘Be Not Afraid!’ becomes a pretty phrase.

Whenever we take the risk and share our ‘truth,’ our ‘beauty,’ or our ‘goodness’ we become vulnerable to our inner critic and to one or more critics that reside in our, or in ‘the,’ world. Because it is ‘our self’ that we are revealing through our work or art it is nearly impossible for us not to take any criticism personally. How could we not take it personally?

Each of us is unique; each of us is ‘different.’ Early on in our life we are challenged with embracing who we are; we are challenged with ‘not being afraid’ to accept and embrace who we are. My sense is that each of us has felt the pain of being different and the fear that accompanies that pain. As an adult – an artist, a professional, a parent, etc. – if we embrace our uniqueness and if we choose to ‘follow our heart’s desire’ we might well be misunderstood by the other(s). If we become fear-full we might well dampen or suffocate the fires of our passion and when the fire goes out we fill with dense smoke and suffocate from within (gentle reader, you might well know someone who has suffocated from within).

As human beings we want to be accepted (being shunned is one of the great destroyers of our humanness). Even more so, we want to be ‘understood.’ Acceptance and Understanding are affirmations we need as human beings. When we offer ourselves, via our work, to our world we have to embrace a dual risk: our work (that is, ‘we’) will not be accepted nor understood. We might be labeled ‘different.’ The paradox, of course, is that we are, indeed, different; we are unique – there is no other like us. Paradoxically, if we are ‘ourselves’ then we are out of the norm (consider if you will, that the ‘norm’ is composed of folks who have given up their uniqueness).

There is a reason why for thousands of years the wise ones have kept iterating and reiterating these three words – it is truly a daunting challenge to accept and embrace and live into and out of our uniqueness. As my son enters into his third year and as he searches to find and emerge the theme of his work for the year I offer him (and you and me) these simple words: ‘Be Not Afraid!’

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Organizations are human beings writ large. Given this and given the fact that in our culture we are in many ways still wedded to the industrial-mechanical model, ‘rationality’ still reigns. What does this mean? Well, for one thing it means that a number of organizations focus on an ‘ends-ways-means’ process. For these organizations establishing ‘objectives’ (the ‘ends’) comes first. Given these objectives a ‘strategic plan’ (the ‘ways’) is developed. Then the ‘resources’ (the ‘means’) are identified and utilized. Because human beings are viewed as ‘non-human’ they are frequently referred to as ‘resources’ and the task for management now is to prepare them by providing the important expectations, direction, ‘training’ (this is a key concept) and then to provide them the supervisory support in order for these ‘human resources’ to be motivated to do a ‘good job.’

Now, many folks know that the ‘ends-ways-means’ approach assumes a predictability, stability and rationality that does not truly exist in organizational life (perhaps in ‘life’ as we know it). This view of the world also places an inordinate burden on the designated leader(s). The leader is now responsible: he or she is responsible to design and implement a functioning system rooted in compliance. The leader is also charged with ensuring that compliance is maintained. If things don’t work out it is the leader who will be held accountable.

There is hope for there are a number of organizations that develop a plan in ‘reverse.’ The leaders within these organizations first emphasize ‘means’ and then transition to ‘ways’ and finally focus on ‘ends.’ Consider, gentle reader, that an organization that takes a ‘means-ways-ends’ approach to developmental planning assumes that each human being is responsible for its prosperity. Success, then, rests on (among other things) the organization’s ability to identify and engage opportunities as they appear, on the human beings capacity for ingenuity, on their capacity to learn and on their determination and persistence as they seek to become distinctive and high achieving.

Given this, the development of people – developing their skills, talents and abilities – and then supporting them as they develop trusting and caring working relationships rooted in a belief that ‘together we can achieve more and at a higher level than we can as individuals.

We know that the world is changing rapidly (this is the new norm) and that it is unpredictable and that there is a limit to a human beings ‘rationality’ (we humans are much more emotional and intuitive than ‘rational’) hence it makes sense (to me anyway) that organizations will benefit from helping folks develop their capacities (the ‘means’) and then help them develop the ‘ways’ to use them as they seek to achieve, with distinction, the ‘ends.’

What makes us humans unique is not our ‘head’ (computers can do some real good ‘brain work’) nor our ‘hands’ (robots of all types now serve us) but our ‘heart’ – our ‘spirit.’ It is our ‘heart’ – our ‘spirit’ – that responds to values, purpose, vision, mission, and guiding life principles. It is our ‘heart’ that supports ‘trust’ and enables us to develop ‘caring relationships.’ Organizations that are rooted in an organic metaphor are committed to developing each persons ‘heart’ as well as each persons ‘head’ and ‘hands.’ This charge is embraced by the leader(s) and by those who freely choose to follow; they are interdependent and hence are, together, responsible for what we call ‘leadership’ – the by-product of the relationship between the leader and the led.

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