Archive for August, 2021

A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea. John Ciardi

I love questions.  As I age I find myself asking more questions about meaning and purpose.  I also find that I take more time to reflect – to search and seek rather than to find.  I find myself ‘responding’ to questions more than ‘answering’ them. 

As I age I find myself framing and holding what I call ‘Life’s Essential Questions.’  Why was I born?  Why me?  Why did my siblings die – why am I alive?  What purpose am I invited to embrace at this time in my life?  Why do I complain rather than celebrate – and demonstrate gratitude for – my blessings?  What does it mean to prepare one’s self to die?

Who knows how young one is when one begins to ask questions – my hunch is that pre-verbal children are already asking questions.  ‘Why?’ is the most common and the most disconcerting question.  Questions shape our lives in ways that nothing else does.  There are the questions that reveal the light that can guide us as we journey through life.  There are also questions that we frame that lead us down   blind alleys or the proverbial ‘rabbit-hole.’ 

As I age I continue to find that my questions generate more questions – questions that are broader and deeper.  As I age I continue to find that it is more important for me to ‘hold’ and ‘live’ the question and to ‘respond’ to the question rather than seek an ‘answer.’  Most of my deeper and broader questions don’t have ‘answers.’ 

There are a few people in my life that hold questions with me – as I hold questions with them and that together we engage in searching conversations (the search itself is our goal – we do not seek to ‘answer’ the questions).  I have also found that it is important for me to hold my questions in ‘Solitude’.  To reflect upon them and to write down in my journal what emerges into my consciousness as I hold and reflect upon a question (generally, I end up with more questions).  Both the searching conversations and the times of reflective-solitude are crucial for me – and are gifts and blessings.  I am thinking of Einstein’s counsel and so I will close with his words: The important thing is not to stop questioning. –Albert Einstein

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I beg you to have patience…and try to love the questions themselves…live the questions now. –Rainer Maria Rilke

Gentle Reader, if you have been following my postings these many years you know that I love questions.  You know that I believe that the questions we muse will determine the path(s) we choose.  You know that I believe that we offer questions in order to confirm or affirm.  You know that I believe that we ask questions from a place of not-knowing and we also ask questions from a place of deep knowing. You know that in offering a question I do so in order to seek an answer and that I might also be seeking a response, not an answer. 

For example: Many years ago I was a thought-partner to the owner of a successful ‘professional’ organization.  One morning he met me with the most disturbed look upon his face.  As soon as we sat down he told me that they had, literally, lost 20% of their business overnight.  After he described what had caused this loss he took a few deep breaths.  After a few minutes of silence I asked him ‘what are two or three of the burning questions you are now holding?’  He reflected for a few minutes and then offered me two of them; he paused a bit and continued with ‘the most important question is how many people must we now lay off AND how do we lay people off in the most humane, caring manner?’

A two-part crucial question.  We sat in silence for a few minutes.  He then asked me if there was another question or two that might be helpful to frame.  I offered him this one: What would it take in order for you to not lay anybody off?  Months ago he had developed what I call a ‘Good Thinking Team’ of twelve employees.  He called them together.  He divided the team into two thinking teams and he gave each team one of the two questions (the one he emerged and the one I emerged).  The teams then spent one hour engaging their question.  The CFO was not on one of these teams (nor were the three Executive Vice-Presidents). 

When the teams reconvened they were joined by the CFO and the three Executive Vice-Presidents.  The CFO was visibly excited.  She asked if she might share something that might help them.  The group immediately agreed to listen.  She then said that the second question intrigued her and that she had spent about 40 minutes with the question.  She then handed out a sheet to each person and on the sheet was a response to the second question.  She noted that if each employee would take a 3% pay cut and each Executive would take a 5% pay cut and do this for one year that they would not have to lay anybody off and they would also have the time to develop new business.  They embraced the idea and within a few days they implemented it and within a year they had not only developed new business they had given a bonus to each employee.  The question mused determined the path. 

We will continue with our exploration of the importance of questions next time. 

It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. –Eugene Ionesco

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Gentle Reader, if you have been following my postings you might have noticed that I love stories.  There are many different types of stories.  This morning I am going to focus on the value and importance of what I call ‘Teaching Stories.’  Stories matter.  Teaching stories provide us an opportunity to learn something about ourselves – and perhaps to embrace that learning and integrate it into our lives.  Teaching stories also help us face the myriad of challenges that we encounter during our lives. 

Telling and receiving stories is not a one-off experience.  The most powerful stories are the ones we tell and listen to over and over, perhaps for our life-time.  It is also crucial to pass stories on to the next seven generations for our stories inform us and help form who we are and who we are choosing to become. 

There are a number of tests that help us determine whether a story is a ‘good’ teaching story – a story that enables us to grow no matter our age.  One test involves questions to reflect upon and to respond to.  Here are three guiding questions: Is the story enabling me to become more self-aware?  Is the story enabling me to deepen my relationship with myself and with the other(s)?  Is the story feeding the tap roots that nurture and sustain me (think for example: the tap roots of love, caring, compassion and empathy)? 

Yesterday I was reading and the author told a story about the great violinist, Itzhak Perlman.  Great stories make the rounds.  I cannot recall the number of times I have read or heard this story told.  Today, Gentle Reader, I will offer this story to you (a short version – the nice things about stories is that they can be short or long and are rooted in a guiding principle that one never lets facts interfere with a good teaching story).

THE STORY: Once during a performance one of the four strings on his violin broke (my mother was a concernt violinist and so I know this story well as all violinists experience the breaking of a string).  Although the piece Perlman was playing was challenging he did not stop; he played on.  He played on for more than seven minutes (some say six, some five and some eight); he never missed a note for he, as he was playing, transposed the music from the missing string into the other three.  After he finished there was no sound from the audience – actually there was sound, it was the sound of silence (thanks S&G).  Perlman walked to a microphone.  He looked at the audience, who was still silence-stunned, and said: ‘It is my job to make music out of what remains.’

Indeed, Gentle Reader, each of us is challenged to make something of value with what remains.  Our lives are full of loses and we are presented with the remains of those loses.  Do we believe – do we strive to – make music out of what remains? 

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Good morning Gentle Reader.  This morning I am going to invite you to ‘Consider’ [Consider = to think carefully about; to contemplate; to consider].  A few days ago I was perusing several of my journals and as I was doing so I thought of inviting you to ‘Consider.’  My intention is not to convert you nor to convince you.  My goal is to ‘Invite You to Consider.’  I also invite you develop, or continue to develop, your own ‘Considerations.’  Here, then, are some of mine.

CONSIDER: If I want to understand the other I must first look deeply into my own heart, mind and soul with an intention of understanding myself first.

CONSIDER: The world I see clearly today has already been distorted by my unconscious mental processes.

CONSIDER: I do not perceive the world as it is for I am influenced by my self-serving biases.

CONSIDER: One of the tests of integrity is its refusal to be compromised… Remember: Integrity does not put food on the table and the Truth will not make you rich – However, both will make you free.

CONSIDER: ‘Leadership’ is a by-product of the relationship between the ‘leader’ and the ‘led.’

CONSIDER: ‘Influence’ is the capacity to use inquiry rooted in integrity, over-time, in order to allow the others to emerge and emotionally own their own thoughts, decisions, and actions and thus to choose to be unconditionally, response-able, responsible and accountable.

CONSIDER: For thousands of years the great thinkers, mystics, philosophers, teachers and spiritual guides have reminded us – continue to remind us – that there are ‘Three Cs’ that Count: Consciousness Counts, Character Counts & Conduct Counts.

TWO CONSIDERATIONS: (1)…enlightenment occurs in small moments, many times…these moments tend to come in the midst of what we think of as our failures and crushing disappointments… (2)…the purpose of our presence here is being attentive, being willing to go on ‘seeing’ and keeping our hearts open – not just for our sake but for the sake of others – Remember Mary Oliver’s counsel: ‘If the doors of my heart ever close, I am as good as dead!’

CONSIDER: This ‘Identity’ and ‘Life-Purpose’ Question: ‘If there was no praise or criticism in the world, then who would I be?’

CONSIDER: ‘Developmental Inquiry.’  It involves the art of engaging another by asking questions from a place of not-knowing, of developing a relationship rooted in curiosity, interest and belief in the other as a fully human being. 

CONSIDER: The importance of my assumptions, attributions, attitudes and of my choosing to be awake, aware, attentive and of my being a reflective-participant-observer of my own life.

CONSIDER: My ‘cup’ has to be empty in order to hold something.  ‘Surety’ = a full cup and ‘Doubt’ = a cup that is emptied and refilled over and over and over.

CONSIDER: Thales (640-546 B.C.).  When Greece named its Seven Wise Men, Thales (the ‘Sage’/’Wise’ – ‘Sophos’ in Greek) was listed first.  Three Questions offered to Thales and his Responses.  Q-1: What is very difficult? R-1: To Know Thyself; Q-2: What is very easy? R-2: To Give Advice; Q-3: What is God? R-3: That which has neither beginning nor end.  (ASIDE: CONSIDER – ‘Sophomore’ means ‘Wise-Fool’ in Greek).

CONSIDER: The educator kindles the flame – the oil is already in the lamp. 

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Aristotle’s life and writings continues to be a major tap root for Virtue Ethics.  Aristotle desired that people live a life of ‘meaning’ and hence of ‘happiness.’  Thus, one’s end in life is to give one’s life ‘meaning’ and to make it about something worthwhile.  Consider, that when we wish someone a ‘good life,’ one thing we clearly wish for them is that their lives be rich and fulfilling for the unique individuals they are.  According to Aristotle, as humans our distinctive mode of life is to be able to live by ‘practical reasoning’ (this is, according to Aristotle, our ‘function’ in life – to be reasonable, rational beings).  If we live this way we will experience a ‘fully human life.’ 

‘Happiness,’ therefore, is two things at once: it is the final end for a life of ‘practical reasoning’ and it is a ‘good life’ for the person living it.  What does this mean?  Aristotle helps us; he identifies what can be called ‘formal constraints’ on the kind of ‘good’ that happiness is.  Consider the following:

  • Happiness must be an ‘active life:’ we live by choosing and acting.
  • Happiness depends on what a person does with his or her own life, not on what someone else is doing in his or her life (someone else cannot give nor take away our happiness).
  • Happiness depends on how one acts; it is more stable than ‘luck.’
  • Happiness must be good ‘in its own right’ (e.g., ‘money’ is not good in and of itself).
  • Happiness must be ‘final’ or ‘comprehensive:’ happiness is good for its own sake; it is never for the sake of anything else.
  • Happiness must be ‘self-sufficient:’ because happiness is final, it is therefore the greatest thing one could want in life.  ‘Self-sufficiency’ here does not mean being rich or powerful or having no need of others – it means ‘having all one needs for the sake of the life one is living’ (a fulfilled life – a life full of ‘meaning’).
  • Happiness is being ‘fully human’ – a living paradox. 

Aristotle’s constraints rule out any number of candidates for happiness: moneymaking, prestige, indulgence or consumption (this, Aristotle says is for cows), luck (which, as many of us know, is quite unstable and unreliable), chronic lethargy (waiting to be taken care of).  Aristotle also asks us to consider that none of the above could be ‘something we want everything else for the sake of’ AND it is impossible for all of us to have even one of these (how could we all have all of the money).  On the other hand, we can each live a life that is fulfilling, a life that is rooted in rational thinking, wisdom and ‘healthy’ emotions (‘virtuous activity’ is what Aristotle calls this).  ‘Virtuous activity’ is, for Aristotle, the most important ingredient when it comes to ‘happiness.’ 

What are some of the traits – characteristics – of such a virtuous person?  Aristotle calls these traits ‘excellences’ and they include the following: fairness, honesty, generosity, even-temperedness, friendliness, proper pride and an appropriate sense of shame, courage, temperance and ‘practical wisdom.’  These are the ‘virtues’ – the virtues of character and practical intellect (we need both says Aristotle; having just one will not enable us to live a life of ‘happiness’ – a life of ‘meaning’). 

Understanding the virtues in this way has several important implications for virtue ethics.  For example, it provides us with a distinctive picture of the virtues: the virtues are human ‘excellences,’ and this means they are both ‘deep’ and ‘broad.’  They are deep in so far as they are steady and reliable, and intelligent dispositions, rather than mere habits (they become ‘second nature to us’); they involve caring strongly about certain things and reasoning wisely about them.  They are broad in that they have a broad reach involving one’s emotional reactions, attitudes, desires, values, etc.  In addition, these ‘excellences’ of character are inseparable from the excellence of practical wisdom.  As Aristotle puts it, the virtues of character give us the right sorts of ends, such as helping a friend (being generous) and practical wisdom (in Greek, ‘phronesis’) enables us to deliberate intelligently about those ends, such as what would really count as helping as contrasted with merely having one’s heart in the right place. 

Virtue ethics does concern itself with what is right and what one ought to do, but in virtue ethics the focus is on how to deliberate well about such questions, for which rules are generally insufficient.  Virtue ethics is concerned with what an act says about the person who acts; this tends to shift the attention onto the life-long process of personal development.  Virtue ethics offers us action guidance less by giving us rules to follow than by telling us how to become people who can do what rules never can. 

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