March (well April) for Science

I ventured onto Boston Common after a meeting I was attending on Tremont Street this past Saturday (April 22, Earth Day). I had heard that the March for Science was to take place that day. It was rainy, pretty cold with a raw wind and I wasn’t really dressed for it so I wanted to make it quickly to my car parked under the Boston Common. When I started across the common, entering at Park Street Station, I could tell the march was already in full swing. Well, that wasn’t right either, because many hundreds of people were still arriving from all directions.

The first person who caught my eye was a HUGE man, with a sign that said something defiant and angry (I forget exactly what and you would too). He scowling, growling with a shaking fist held high in the air as if to rally the people. I passed up the opportunity to involve him in the pugilistic exchange he seemed to long for, and walked by to his right. For the next several days I was searching my memory for the image that best fit his appearance and mannerisms. Then it came to me.

The tone of the signage, speech and even the expressions on people’s faces was just like that. Lots of spouting. Lots of indignation and well, hatred.

Now I love science. My Dad had a PhD in Physics. I love the researching, the discovery and the exchange that goes into the scientific method.

And the scientists I have known have been a pretty humble lot. By no means all of them, but

  1. Their work is so laden with trial and error that it just makes them cautious towards advancing their findings beyond some initial positive results, qualified with words like “tentative”, “preliminary”, etc.
  2. They are careful not to cite something, even evidence, as “fact” until is it thoroughly vetted.
  3. When there are theories that get developed, it’s only after lengthy community scrutiny and testing.
  4. Their work is open to revision and even repudiation, should other, overriding evidence emerge.
  5. Their community is not American but international.  That is, advancements and contributions arise from all over the world.

The contrast between that careful process and the brash posters and talk on the Common was profound. The march was not about science but about using some selected scientific themes and theories to advance a world- and political-view that the people felt was being attacked by the current president and his administration. “Science”, then was the ultimate authority, though science itself establishes its authority with much more trepidation and process.

And the hatred was palpable. Another saying from the movie referenced above came to mind:

I was relieved to see a nerdy, overweight kid smiling with a poster reading “Be a proton. Be positive”

I do think I understand the antipathy particularly against THIS president. It’s not so much as he’s conservative, though that certainly was unforgivable to this crowd. It’s that he is defiantly so, ill-mannered and impenitent in the face of mistakes.

But this Saturday I didn’t see anything better in his opponents.

Which brings me again to the place of saying if that is the substance of modern political “discussion”, then I am proudly unpolitical. Because I will not hate like that. Not even (or especially not) or science.

The deafening expectations on a drone

I recently heard a friend express a mindset I know too well – that he was drowning in the expectations of others. I have been there. There was a time when I felt that I was even accountable to my dog. I don’t know or care if there is a clinical name for that state of mind. I only care that it’s wrong and that it’s healthy to get past that feeling.

It’s not that others can’t impose – they can and do. It’s not that we don’t truly have obligations to meet – we do. The problem is that we can sink into an existence that doing what is expected of us is all we are. We become beings whose only value is doing our jobs. Worse, those jobs only increase in number, have virtually no rewards and they never end.

This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The people and institutions in our lives enforce a thankless, workaholic drone existence. No, not the pilotless drone aircraft, the drone bee, who does nothing but work for the queen in service to the hive:

Image result for drone bee

I have found some ways out of this trap, but for sure it can still be a struggle, and one that depresses and steals joy. Here are some ideas:

  1. Celebrate. If you are like me, you work for and/or with people who rarely if ever give you a sense of completion, even when you are victorious. At least that’s how you see things and how you hear what they say. Every finished task is rewarded by a list of future expectations. In that situation, it’s not just advisable but required that you intentionally mark your accomplishments with times of relaxation, reflection and parties. I mean spend resources – time and money – to formally do it. You have done and/or built something beautiful.  It’s part of life’s rhythm to sit back and rejoice in that, enjoy it.  And if you don’t do that, your longing for closure and the accompanying “feel good” will plague you. I know this from experience.This includes celebrating the finished work of others. Because the joy is contagious whenever you do.
  2. Identify voices. If there are certain people who make it a habit of telling you only what you haven’t done, make sure you notice and give them a label – toxic. It’s not that you always get to separate yourself from these people, but you can certainly marginalize their impact on your life. It may be that you must pay attention to these people (e.g. this might be your boss). But the message of incessant shortcoming is not good to listen to; so learn to tune that part out.
  3. Turn down the volume of competing priorities. I have had times when urgency was all I heard. And I was not imagining it – it was all there was. So I developed a saying – “If everything is urgent, nothing is urgent” – that has served me well. Find the few people who can help you and get your priorities straight. If they can’t help you 1) make your own priorities by level of impact (list things by what you think can you do that would help the most) and 2) know they are not worthy to be advisers or authorities in your life.
  4. Ask for help. I was never accountable to my dog. It was just a job I had assumed that turned into drudgery at times. We didn’t even need a dog in the first place, though Alex gave me great joy also. But as for stuff like that, rotate the job with others or take the steps to just eliminate it from your life.
  5. Decide what really matters. Years ago, a wise friend in the Christian faith shared a verse from the Old Testament with me – Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Now I have determined I’m a mortal, so this pertains to me. The first two parts – act justly and love mercy – define attitudes and actions towards myself and others. Am I just with myself – really weighing what I’ve done and am doing against how things were before I did those things ? And do I love mercy – towards myself? Do I forgive myself, cut myself some slack and allow for myself to learn life’s lessons? The last part is about being humble; putting others first and letting myself be a small part of something much, much bigger.

    And these things apply to how I work with others. Acting justly and loving mercy gives them the same benefits I need.

    So if this is all that’s required of me – and I would posit it does – the urgency projected onto the drone are simply the wrong measuring stick for a life well lived.

It’s Christmas in 2 days. Let’s relax and celebrate. Because we need it.

Candidates and leaders

The presidential election season is at its hottest point right now and it won’t cool off until a POTUS is elected in November. I have puzzled for a long time at my inability to embrace candidates. Listening to the diatribes of rabid fans from the left of right – and I am most delighted to have dear friends from both persuasions – has only made me more alienated.

It’s not so much with the process – the fire of political rhetoric both positive and negative has its place – but with the actual field of candidates we have this year. And .. well, most election years. It always seems that in the end I am voting for the lesser of two evils. There hasn’t been a candidate I would endorse for decades. Part of that is because I’m not an institution like a newspaper or trade union and I don’t have to endorse anyone. And part of it is that I just don’t align with the two party approach. But even that is not the whole story as I’ll talk about below.

So, in the first place, we have the issues that everyone crows about. The voting public is asked to fit into 2 groups – conservative (Republican) and liberal (Democrat). Using just three categories of stances one might have on the issues and allowing for only three view on those issues (I insist there is a moderate place in each category), we have a 9 entry table:

basicpoliticalspectrum

The “International” category includes things like foreign relations, immigration, etc., though most would include some of that in “Social”. My points are 2:

  1. This is a very simple picture of the true spectrum.
  2. If one fits into a solid conservative or liberal stance everywhere, there is still no candidate that does and that is a statistical rarity.

But I don’t even think an issues-based affinity works to choose a Commander-in-Chief. What I want, and what I think the nation needs, is a leader.  The qualities of a leader are different from those of a candidate who can draw a crowd and go toe to toe in a debate.  Leaders do that too, but they do much, much more.  Here are some qualities that show what I mean:

  1. Inclusion over issues – The ability to unite and inspire even ones ideological foes is a rare talent, and even more rare among presidential candidates. The president heads up only 1 branch of a three branch government. An issues-only presidency makes for legislative gridlock and aggressive judicial review. And this applies to the leading the American people, because crisis – and there will be that – requires it.
  2. Compassion at the core – While the left would lay claim to this point; I don’t mean it that way. The ability to hear out others and address their concerns with what are overriding concerns on your part matters. People are going to disagree, for lots of reasons. How someone treats his/her detractors speaks volume to that person’s character, and fit for the job. An inability to rise above vitriolic, ad hominem rhetoric disqualifies any leader.
  3. Courage to be unique – More than fitting a party’s platform, or the patterns of any tribe, the best presidents have convictions informed by higher sources. As a person of faith, I admire those who know that the parties do not fit with what they know to be true. Self- and tribal-interest mar righteousness, pulling its actions to into harmful directions. A leader with courage to be him/herself will receive accusations of not being strong-enough and others of being oppressive and abusing power. When both of those happen, we have a president.

 

I know I’m not alone in my reticence about this year’s candidates. And I know even writing this will alienate those who have been polarized. My goal is not that, but to help us all understand what a real leader is.

 

 

 

The reign of the dysfunctional

At the advice of my friend Pastor Phil McCutchen, I just finished reading Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix . It’s not an easy read, but one very worth the investment, particularly if you are in leadership in any capacity.

The premise of the book is the very observable phenomenon of the anxiety of the most dysfunctional members of any family or organization being allowed not just to influence but to rule.  This has grown into a world-view and Friedman attacks it – as the prevailing view of west culture at large – in the name of the word “empathy”. That its expression and working out should be the primary governing directional focus cripples the entire group but particularly the leader.

He uses the phrase “well-differentiated” throughout the book – only defining it about 60% through – to describe a leader that has distinguished him/herself from the anxiety-driven weight of group judgment. If empowered, the least stable and productive and functional in a group will elect itself as a jury to approve and disapprove of every decisive whim and movement taken.

I think he makes good points. Points to be taken in balance, but good ones nonetheless. As a reaction to over-reaching and oppressive leaders, checks have been established. They are found in laws, in labor movement structure and lots of other places. They are legitimate and have done good. In America we celebrate something good on Labor Day.  And civil laws protecting individuals from those who would victimize them are a good thing too.

But in some cases and in the general cultural mindset what these counter measures have morphed into is stultifying. If all leadership is suspect, how will anything ever get done? Friedman likes Christopher Columbus for his adventuring spirit, admitting he was a lousy governor. To hear people talk today, Columbus was nothing more than a butcher of native people. Good case in point, because the truth is somewhere between.

And Friedman does not advocate oppression as part of “self-differentiation”. That’s as dysfunctional as ruling victims. I think he strikes a good balance. And those of the prevailing culture will necessarily be up in arms at his conclusions. Because they are out of balance.

My recent experiences as a leader have been traumatic. It has felt terrible each time because I want to people to work and serve together. But my biggest accomplishment over the past year plus, if you could call it that, has been watching or helping people leave my teams. I’ve seen people leave who haven’t gotten what they wanted, like an unseen alarm clock had gone off. I’ve seen people whose departure I aided when they were a bad fit and/or were poisonous to the team. I haven’t always communicated well – and that’s a big learning point for me going forward.  And there are other lessons learned – painful though they have been.

But I was blessed to read what Friedman said because it put labels on things I have seen – as we all have.

We have gone too far in calling dysfunctional people victims. In so doing, we have valued their state and have let therapeutic language and action too powerfully into governance and policy.

The modern polarity lacks the ability to balance these things. It cannot reconcile empowered, decisive (and yes, wealthy) leadership with benefit. It cannot value or nurture the resiliency of hurt people as they overcome and heal.

There’s no question that in the popular ideological stamping Friedman’s ideas are on the right politically.  But those who dismiss them like that will dismiss a reasonable, sane voice that offers good balance.  And at some level, in some endeavor, adopt inertia.

Again it’s NOT a blind eye to suffering or those who cause it that’s advocated, just a reality-based view that moves on spite of it. We take measures to help the poor – really help them – but do not let their poverty steal and reign.

And I guess if you call this a dangerous stance, you should consider the danger of the anxious inertia that keeps things from happening. Because that is just as real and just as bad as oppression and even abuse. We must fight both, not just one or the other.