Slowly Does it

Aesop, the Greek fable writer, famously reminds us that “slow and steady wins the race”:

And smiling at the thought of the look on the tortoise’s face when it saw the hare speed by, he fell fast asleep and was soon snoring happily. The sun started to sink, below the horizon, and the tortoise, who had been plodding towards the winning post since morning, was scarcely a yard from the finish. At that very point, the hare woke with a jolt. He could see the tortoise a speck in the distance and away he dashed. He leapt and bounded at a great rate, his tongue lolling, and gasping for breath. Just a little more and he’d be first at the finish. But the hare’s last leap was just too late, for the tortoise had beaten him to the winning post. Poor hare! Tired and in disgrace, he slumped down beside the tortoise who was silently smiling at him.

“Slowly does it every time!” he said.

Our western culture is built on a pace for manic speed with an insatiable appetite for increased production.  ‘More‘ and ‘faster‘ are buzzwords tethered like a millstone around the neck of the American worker.  Presently within the fearful context of an eroding global economy and threat of unemployment, the typical worker feels the pressure to immerse themselves in greater output vocationally to prove their indispensability.  We are a people driven towards innovation and efficiency and our best idea is faster, stronger and more.  When someone can output this kind of idealized effort, we say they are a machine’. 

I thought we createdmachines’ so that we didn’t have to work so hard all the time and everywhere.  The post World War II consumer marketing movement promised us the ‘good life’ of luxury, leisure and free time for our pleasure pursuits.  In the words of Dr. Phil:  “how’s that workin’ for ya?”  With more time, more convenience and more space for constant communication and data-sharing, we created a monster, not a machine. We falsely believe that we control the monster, but increasingly it is the monster of muchness and manyness that in fact controls us?   When does the carousel stop so we can get off?  Perhaps a bigger question is, would we get off if we believed we had the choice to do so?

What if what we want is not a machine, nor a monster, but rather simply just to be human again?  This is the milieu where Daniel Patrick Forrester enters with his book, “Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization“.  This book was very timely for me to read at the onset of the season of Lent that I try to pay attention to each year to peal off the scales of inhumaness still stuck on me.  Forrester lays out a sound argument that for organizations and individuals, if you don’t take the time to reflect, think and wonder; then you are a train wreck waiting to happen. 

We type A’s, like the hare, believe that speed and busyness will always win.  This may finally be an idol that needs to die if we want to see a revolution of being human again.  One of the sacred cows that Forrester filets is the misnomer of the idea of ‘multi-tasking’.  MRI’s of the human brain through studies confirm for us “that our minds function best when pursuing only a single task”. (15) The fallacy of trying to accomplish multiple crucial tasks at the same time is a recipe for doing none of them effectively nor thoughtfully.  If your endgame is merely pragmatic, then just get it done.  If your endgame is perpetual beauty/creativty/ingenuity/sustainable design/unique perspective or a thorough and nuanced plan; then turn your phone off and take time to think and reflect. 

Reflection and time for thought is a choice, you are not a victim.  Let me re-state that, I am not a victim.  I really do struggle with this idea of shutting down, unplugging and seeking my reflective cell.  A large part of me craves it more than the Americano in my right hand, but I falsely and consistently don’t build in time for it until the urgency of matters are met.  I just hope that life will magically slow down, that my iCalendar will automatically block out my free times and that I will have nothing left to do but to pursue a genunine state of wonder.  The problem is that I’m not 20 anymore, life is far more complicated and in fact more crucial.  My mistakes cost more, they affect more people than just myself, others are relying on me, I walk with the burden of leadership upon me (and gladly), so how can I not take the time to think and gain perspective? Forrester says:

Reflection is the deliberate act of stepping back from daily habits and routines (without looming and immediate deadline pressures), either alone or within small and sequestered groups.  It’s where meaning is derived through reconsideration of fundamental assumptions, the efficacy of past decisions and the consequences including the downside of future actions.  It’s where space is given for the “totally unexpected” to emerge. (18)

This kind of planning happens on purpose and with real intentionality.  The culture of present reality will not feed you the time of solitude and reflection you need.  We have the choice to tell our calendar what to do, we have the power over the off button on our phone.  We can give the ‘other’ in front of us our full attention and not continue the fallacy of multi-tasking, this may be a gift to your family.  Meaning is found in slowing down and emptying ourselves into a state of self-reflection.  This may in fact be a gift to yourself.  If you want to smell the roses, you need to plan some time to walk in the garden, they aren’t coming to you.  

Forrester illustrates his point of the oppressive master of communication technology through the words of John Freeman in “The Tyranny of Email”:

We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic communications has stopped providing it, we shouldn’t search online for a solution but turn back to the real world and slow down.  To do this, we need to uncoouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from efficiency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships. (101)

The problem with slowing down, with pulling back, with minimalizing, with taking time away is that it challenges our self-confidence and leadership identity.  Are we secure enough to believe that for an extended block of time, our organizations don’t need us?  Are we okay with the idea that we aren’t neccessary?  We complain about always having to be ‘on call’, but deep down leaders can be infected with the sickness of the “need to be needed.”  Can we cut the apron-strings of co-dependency and seek new freedoms of thoughtfulness and true perspective?  Do we have the confidence to rest and it doesn’t shame us into meaningless toils under the sun?  The leader who can slow down is the leader that has the capacity to lead in any culture, in any economy and in any crises.  They lead out of a steady center, one that has been fought for on purpose, not by accident.  Rest is a kind of humiliation, it requires actual confidence to thoroughly enjoy and benefit from it. 

In Forrester’s final chapter he leaves the reader with some prophetic warnings for America:  “The only way that reflection winds up happening in the United States is for it to be forced.  A catastrophic event must happen in order to create reflection.” (Kyle Bass, 204)  The old mantra is that people don’t change unless they have to, that it is neccesity that is the birth of invention.  I scarcely cannot disagree with Forrester on this point, I don’t see a tipping point on the horizon for our culture to slow down and consider being human again.  However, the signs are layered everywhere that what we are presently pacing is not only not working, it isn’t sustainable.  Will we fight for our future with a thorough reflection, or will we enter into reactivity and lament revealing all the cracks in the foundation just below the surface? 

Forrester concludes his thoughts with this gem, “Time for reflection is an open invitation to discover what awaits us. . . ” (217)  That kind of leadership requires a steady confidence and a centered being that yet believes in hope.  That does not come from the race of the hare, it comes from the tortoise who reminds us that “slowly does it every time!”. 


When Death Dies

Last night I had a vivid dream that I entered death through a dark car accident, the space between this world and the next began to morph.  I abruptly awoke, but it has me pondering today. 

Like a woman searching and finding love
Like an ocean buried and bursting forth

Where it comes, flowers grow
Lions sleep, gravestones roll
Where death dies, all things come alive
Where it comes, water’s clean
Children fed, all believe
When death dies, all things live
All things live Gungor “When Death Dies”

So here we are in the Lenten season, we creep along the 40 days leading to death, we stroll the 40 days leading to life.  I know of no greater season for the contrast of death and life than that of Lent.  It is the narrative of Christianity that life comes after death, they are inexplicably bound.  It is the announcenment of life at the end of Lent that changes the rules, quite certainly changes everything. 

When death dies, how should we live?

We all get to choose somewhat how we live, at least the attitude we can give to this life of ours.  We can follow the blindness of consumer culture, believing that meaning can be bought or acquired, of course it’s folly and expensive.  We can follow the idols of self-reliance and radical achievements, only to find in the end they were a kind of fool’s gold.  All the shine to others, but lack the intrinsic value we hoped for.  We can pursue the circus of self-pleasure, seekng the excitement of life under the big-top, denying our eyes and bodies nothing we desire.  The circus turns to be the freak show that the colorful poster promised, a short night of chaos. 

When death dies, how should we live?  In the end, will we have lived any differently?

I’m pondering the end of the story of David Brook’s The Social Animal:  The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement”.  In the last chapters of their life, Erica and Harold find meaning in not running the rat race, but finding a different story altogether.

“They had also achieved what is called success, but theirs was a different kind of success.  Without really thinking about it, they had created a counter-culture.  They didn’t consciously reject the lifestyle of the affluent mainstream; they just sort of ignored it.  They lived and thought differently, and their lives had taken on a different and deeper shape.  They had a greater awareness of the wellsprings of the human heart, and when you met them you were impressed by their substance and depth.” (p. 363)

How many people do you know that are the kind of social animals that can be described this way?  How rare is it to watch a person live within a kind of security of being, comfortable in their identity and have the swagger to walk in their own skin?  I can say at least within the rat-race of American culture, it’s as scarce as hen’s teeth. 

It is Nietzsche that said, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”   Brooks then goes on to give this gem from Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning to describe that meaning in life is only discernble within the specific conext of one’s specific life.  In the war concentration camps:

“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.  We needed to stop asking the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those where were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.  Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right contact.” (p. 369)

How do we measure success in this so called life?  It has got to be more than collecting a paycheck long enough so you can collect shells on the beach in the end.  Excuse my language, but it better be a hell of lot more. 

Brooks describes Harold’s passage from this world to the next with a kind of poetic brilliance that remarkably resembles the experience of my own dream.  It is such a mystery isn’t it, the locative space between this world and the next?  If you have never sat at the bedside of someone in hospice care and watched this transition happen, you absolutely should.  It is soul-shuttering and beautiful.  Brooks pens the transition this way:

“Harold entered the hidden kingdom entirely and then lost consciousness forever.  In his last moments there were neither boundaries nor features.  He was unable to wield the power of self-consciousness but also freed from its shackles.  He had been blessed with consciousness so that he might helpf direct his own life and nurture his inner life, but the cost of that consciousness was an awareness that he would die.  Now he lost that awareness.  He was past noticing anything now, and had entered the realm of the unutterable. . . . Harold had achieved an important thing in his life.  He had constructed a viewpoint.  Other people see life primarily as a chess match played by reasoning machines.  Harold saw life as a neverending interpenetration of souls.” (p. 376)

 When death dies, how should we live? 

I want to see what Harold saw.  I want to not just search for mening, but bathe in it’s waters.  I want to throw off the scales of this faulty flesh and see with the soul of my inner life.  I want to know, experience and lavish in the love that created us all.  There is more, when death dies, there is so much more.

For these 40 days of Lent, this is my haunting question.  When death dies, how should we live?


Brothers under the Skin

“We’re on a Mission from God”  (Jake and Elwood, the notorious Blues Brothers)


As the story goes, Jake (recently released from prison) and his brother, Elwood need to raise a lot of money in a short amount of time to save the Catholic school they grew up in.  They are in dire need and are looking for some hope.  It is out of a charismatic religious experience where they ‘see the light’ and find their mission from God.  For them, the revealed truth is to get the band back together. 

What about you?  What’s it going to take for you to believe?  What does it take to move from the epistemological position of not-believing to the assuredness of belief?  What exactly is the discernable space and varied location between belief and not-belief? 

These seem to be just a few of the questions that Charles Taylor sets out to explain in his masterful and astonishingly complete volume of work in “A Secular Age“.  I am not sure I have ever picked up a book with such a vast proposal as this one has, to explain the true macro shifts in ideas, beliefs and thinking within the secular and religious milieu.  In this way, as challenging as it is, Taylor’s work deserves not only to be read, but increasingly re-read. 

Being a lover of history and its connection to our present day context, I found his treatment of the Protestant Reformation as a major influence in the evolution of belief and knowledge that eventually led to the age of secularism we have today to be profoundly interesting.  Notably the inherent privatization of faith within the new Protestantism as it dramatically changed the ‘center of gravity of religious life’, no longer needing the church magic from the hierarchy, the sacred now became a matter of more inward and personal faith.  It is at least in this way that the Reformation layed the very groundwork neccessary for the present Secular age.  Taylor calls this shift the “Great Disembedding”, away from the transcendent commonwealth and to the immanence of the individual.  The pre-modern world previous to 1500 A.D. lived within the construct of the ‘porous’ self where there wasn’t a clear boundary between the spiritual and physical worlds.  With a clear disenchantment of this pre-modern world, the modern secular age was birthed within the ‘buffered’ self, a distinct disengagement from everything outside of the physical world. 

However, one of the main theses of Taylor’s work that captured my attention was his assertion that there is not an entirely opposite location between belief and not-belief, the religious and the secular.  He refers to the sides as ‘brothers under the skin’. 

But it’s not an accident that “Christians” fall into similar deviations to those of “secular humanists”.  As I have tried to show throughout this book, we both emerge from the same long process of Reform in Latin Christendom.  We are brothers udner the skin. (p. 675)

These brothers form a kind of step-family that Taylor calls “Secularity 3″; a middle way where belief and unbelief co-exist somewhat uneasily.  Whether from a place of belief or unbelief, Taylor asserts that humans are self-interpreting animals looking for meaning through the interpretation of their world.  These interpretations are where we get our sense of self and we often find it in one another.  The ultimate experience of our interpretations is what Taylor calls ‘fullness‘.  Fullness is where our answers are found and truth is self-evident and experienced.  Whether it be belief or unbelief, both brothers are seeking fullness through the interpretation of their world.  In this way, belief and unbelief are not competing theories, but are rather different means of understanding and searching for meaning (eventually leading to fullness).  Belief seeks its ultimate interpretation in the Transcendent (the realm beyond human life) and unbelief seeks its interpretive meaning in the immanent (within human life). 

So do either of the brothers ultimately lead to the ‘fullness’ that they set out to achieve?  Do they see the light?  Does their mission from God or not God get revealed?  Is one brother clearly preferred over the other?  Taylor finds several dilemmas in asserting any sense of clear distinction here in his conclusions.  He establishes that either brother requires at least an ‘anticipatory confidence’ (leap of faith) regardless of how one proclaims truth within the Transcendent and the other from it’s Immanent world.  He states:

We see from all this how life in a secular age (i.e. Secularity 3) is uneasy and cross-pressured, and doesn’t lend itself easily to a comfortable resting place.  This is what we see in the polemic, but it emerges also if we look at a range of concerns that are endemic to this age, those which touch on the issue of meaning in life. (p. 676)

‘Uneasy and cross-pressured’, does this at times describe your belief or not-belief?  It does mine and that’s coming from a guy who believes he’s on a mission from God.  😉