Monday, August 17, 2015

Tune Out to Tune In: Desensitization of Leaders

image credit: Consumer Reports. Vintage Photo Gallery [online photo archive] (1960). Retrieved from

Earthquakes, floods, homelessness, diseases, murders - we are all bombarded with the stories & images of these travesties every day. With the advent of the internet and social media always at our fingertips, it would be easy to lull ourselves into thinking we are connected and empathetic as a society at large. It would seem, however, that we are wrong.

Several months ago, there was a horrific accident on I-75, just south of Chattanooga, TN. A semi-truck plowed into eight other vehicles at a point where traffic had stopped for construction. In all, six people died, including 2 children. For weeks, media coverage of the investigation was constant. In particular, there was one instance that struck me as profoundly telling. An image of a mangled car was uploaded by a local news station to their Facebook page. It was difficult to see, even as an outside observer. A commenter replied to the image, stating, perhaps, it was inappropriate to post such a graphic image of a car in which two children had died, given there were so many grieving individuals and the losses were still so raw. Almost immediately, there was a backlash of vitriol aimed at the commenter. It was free speech. The public has a right to know. The commenter's integrity and humanity were attacked, at a very personal level, by people who felt empowered through the anonymity of the internet to launch faceless attacks.

Two things struck me from this exchange:
  1. What, really, do we have a right to as a public? The photo was uploaded in a stand-alone fashion, not used to supplement an article or update. Was there value in the image, or was it simply journalistic sensationalism?
  2. Have we become desensitized, as a whole, to tragedy? Perhaps our constant connectivity to social media has had a paradoxical effect on our ability to genuinely connect with others. At times of loss, disaster, and struggle, our sense of empathy has been reduced to a "like" or an emoji. Can the depth of pain and reciprocal sympathy truly be conveyed in 140 characters?
Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying media is inherently evil. I'm fairly certain we had that debate many times throughout the 1990's. We're probably no closer to an answer now than we were then.

My point is this - if another person's pain, heartache, victory, joy, or any other sundry emotion no longer tugs a chord in the part of our souls where our humanity resides, perhaps it's time to take a hiatus from our statuses, updates, tweets, hashtags, and likes. Maybe, just maybe, we are slowly losing the ability to look one another in the eyes and empathize with where they are in their journeys. Maybe we're losing the desire to connect. It requires a vulnerability we have come to abhor, and, all the while, we embrace an anonymous internet-induced bravado behind which we hide to throw barbs, judgments, and self-righteous condemnations. It insidiously affects every aspect of our lives, given enough time and space, including our work. Especially our work.

Desensitized leaders are dangerous.

They're dangerous to their teams; they're dangerous to their organizations; they're dangerous to their communities, and they're dangerous to themselves.

In the past couple of months, I have approached members of my team who are struggling, because I strive to connect with my team in meaningful ways. Through the course of conversations, I came to find out some things which broke my heart and humbled me. My team is fighting through deaths, illnesses, divorces, new parent sleep deprivation, & former homelessness (It's far more prevalent than we'd like to believe. I have begun to wonder how many people we walk past every day who are sleeping in their cars.).

Maslow theorized a long time ago, and I buy into this whole-heartedly, that people who are afraid, hungry, hurting, and dejected will struggle to be successful. How can I expect my team to succeed if they're in survival mode? I will always hold a high bar for success. I will always motivate my team to do better, reach farther.

But I have to do my part. I have to care. And so do you. We're all in this together. So, when we feel ourselves slipping into disconnected automaticity, there are two simple things we can do:
  1. Tune Out. Turn it all off - the television, the phone, the tablet, the radio. Cut out all the static. Disconnect from the "out there".
  2. Tune In. Have a conversation. Look someone in the eye. Leave a handwritten note. Pray for someone else. Smile at a stranger. Give someone a hug. Listen, listen, listen - really listen - to someone who just needs to get it all out. Reconnect to the "right now".
The internet will be there tomorrow.

Monday, August 25, 2014

It's funny how things tend to move full-circle.

Things I thought I'd lost forever have a way of coming back into my life in a slow spiral-descent. It makes me wonder if we've ever really lost anything, or if we're simply growing, so that when they come back around, we'll be ready to fully appreciate them.

There were things about my childhood that I took for granted in the moment - the simple things that didn't seem particularly meaningful or profound to a 7 year old girl at the time of their occurrence. But, now, looking back through the lens and perspective of adulthood, I am intensely aware of how these small things worked together to shape me. These are the memories I recall, not just like a flat, two-dimensional movie of my past, but as flashes of color and light and heat. They have seared my mind and heart.

We grew up like wild things: running and whooping through the woods behind the house. We skated over fallen logs which formed natural bridges for us over the deep ravines carved by overflow from the creek where we'd walk. We'd drag limbs to form rough floor plans of "play houses" in the deep quiet of the towering pines and red clay. We hunted for stick bugs and snapping bugs and Junebugs. 

The best place to find Junebugs was on the grapevine in my granddaddy's back yard. All summer long, even into the heaviness of the late August heat, we'd scour the big grape leaves for their peacock-metallic shells. While we were digging, we'd nibble the grapes off the vine like the deer that sometimes came down at dusk from the hills and the trees. But these grapes were not like the store-bought grapes. With skins so deep an indigo they were almost black, they hid the inner sweetness that was the same bottle-green color of the antique glass my Granddad kept in his workshop. You never just popped them into your mouth. The outer skin was tough and sour. It had a cloudy aspect, so the vine caught your fingerprints as you'd pick them - like a barter with Nature for what she chose to share. If we wanted them, we kids had to leave a piece of ourselves there, tied up with the vine. The deal was closed with our fingerprints lined onto the grape skins warmed by the sun and our dusty hands. Then we'd squeeze the shells and pop them into our mouths like hot marbles. We'd toss the empty shell at the base of the vine, where it would grow our next batch of fruit.

That grapevine has come to symbolize much to me: my childhood, my roots, my family, the simplicity of a time long-gone. It was the sensation of hot work, satisfaction, and peace in the moment. Although we moved away from my grandpa's property when I was young, the middle of my third grade year, that time has woven itself through my veins. It rooted in my heart. And as I have grown, it has become the skeleton I'm built upon. My dusky, indigo childhood is the deepest part of me.

I moved away from home for the first time at 34 years old. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done. No family, no roots, no familiar mountains or trails to remind me who I am. For a year and a half, I lived away from this place that made me. I learned that I am capable; I am strong; I am adventurous, but not as much as I should be. Most of all, I learned the roots of who I am are not tied to a piece of ground. They are bound to my soul. In the midst of the unfamiliar, I remembered who I was and met who I have become. She is someone I would want to know. I think she would make me a good friend.

I moved back a year and a half later to a house I'd always admired but never thought would be my home. In the backyard, I found grapevines, and I almost cried when I saw them. It was somehow reverent. It was as though the summer days and hot, sour grapes of my childhood were handed back to me with a note saying, "Remember these always. Value the person they've made you to be. Teach the lessons they taught you to your daughters, and know they will carry their roots in their souls when the time comes for them to spread their wings."

And so I decided to deliberate on the lessons they taught:

  • Appearances are tricky.
  • Life mixes the bitter and the sweet. Appreciate both, for we need them both to grow.
  • Hard work brings a sense of accomplishment.
  • Simplicity is beautiful.
  • We carry home inside us.
  • Roots are meant to grow early, so they can run deep and strong.
  • We leave our imprint on this earth. Be a good steward.
  • Thank God and Nature for their providence.
  • Grapevines are always the best places to find Junebugs.
I am so thankful things sometimes come around a second time.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Keep the Change?

There's an old song by Sam Cooke which says "I know a change gon' come."

This song speaks to me intimately of my mindset for the past several years. Changes, big changes, have moved in on my life. For the most part, these changes have been incredibly positive. I can honestly say my life is in an infinitely better place today than one year ago.

It is no wonder then, given the manifested changes in my life, coupled with the nature of my job, that I have been considering the nature of change for a while now. When I say considering, I am referring to the act of dissecting change in my life and in the universe, over all. It was through the course of these internal dialogues I have wound up challenging my own beliefs about what change is, how it does and should operate,  and what it means for me.

For many years, change was a monster--something to be feared. Sharp, pointy teeth and vicious claws waited to tear me apart. This ravenous beast named Change would devour who I was and what I held important. It should be avoided, in the best of circumstances. It should be terminated with extreme prejudice whenever possible.

This was an attitude of fear & impotence.

But then, through a lot of reflection, I experienced a paradigm shift.

I came to decide change was a painful necessity. I understood, now, the constant nature of change. It is often the only thing on which we can depend--the knowledge that our lives today will morph in some ways to become something else. Sometimes this happens in a day; sometimes it creeps up on us over the years, until, one day, the alteration jumps out at us fully grown. At any rate, I determined change is healthy. It's good for me, just like exercise and spinach.

This was an attitude of resignation and justification.

My thinking then evolved once more. I came to understand change is welcome. We're like leaves caught in a current. Change is a force which carries us along. It moves us forward. Sometimes we run into rocks, or get caught, or maybe even dragged under. No matter. Change is still a powerful force which we should embrace to propel us through life.

This attitude is one of passivity.

I can recall watching Monty Hall on "Let's Make a Deal" when I was little. You might win some fabulous prize, but then...there was a moment of change. You could choose to trade your prize for some unknown treasure. You had no idea if you were exchanging your vacation for a new car or a donkey. All the contestants, though, welcomed the change that happened to them, up until the moment of disappointment. I determined, overall, change is a gift. The only problem is we never know what's in the box we're unwrapping.

This approach toward change is an attitude of uninformed reactivism.

It's only recently I've begun exploring the idea of myself as change. It recently occurred to me that, while I can run from change, allow change to happen to me, or guess blindly at change, I also have the opportunity to actively seek out, evaluate, and implement change for myself and for others. The change resides inside me. I am the agent of change. When I see something broken, it's the change living in me that will bring restoration.

There is empowerment and liberation in this attitude.

There is also heavy responsibility.

Change won't only affect me. It will affect everyone and everything I touch. It would, therefore, behoove me to ensure I'm making wise, empathetic changes. Change for the sake of change often can be the monster I feared. Change without planning can be the goat in a box. Yet, I have the opportunity to light the world on fire with the change burning in my gut.

And so do you. There is a flame of change specific to you waiting to ignite the world.
We need to open the windows of ourselves, give it some oxygen, and fan it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Perfect Poison


That's what I'm doing lately, and it's only myself I have to blame. I have a sense, a frenetic need, to know everything I feel I should know with an impossible immediacy. What I mean is...

I give myself NO learning curve -- None.

I know better. I taught for almost 10 years, and I understand the way the human brain works. And, yet, with myself, I demand my cerebral nature circumvent this rewiring process in order to provide an equilibrium I should not expect. I read once, in light of liberal paraphrasing, that true learning induces an inner dissonance - a deliberate, internal dis-harmony, if you will. All the while, I tell myself there ought to be no ripples on the surface, no ruffled feathers, no outward manifestations of my schema reconstruction.

Not only is this unfair, but it is wholly unrealistic. Who am I that I believe I can rewrite the learning process to protect my vanity? Who am I that I feel I should be protected of these feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt, in order to avoid self-evaluation. This need, this completely ridiculous expectation of Perfection is poisonous to my own development.

When did we become so concerned with appearing as though we have it all figured out? When did we decide the only capable people are those who never "don't know"? When did we determine the need for perfection in a skill or idea which is still only in utero, or at the very least, still in the wet nursery?

I have forced myself to pull back and take stock of the situation in a very brutally honest way. I have no hope of having it all figured out any time soon. I am not going to bed down tonight and wake in the morning a prodigy with complete knowledge of all aspects of this business (or my life, for that matter).

Let go. Control is not believing in this fairy tale of Perfect Understanding right out of the gate. Control is knowing there will be some things which stick, some which don't, and realizing I can come back around again to pick up what I don't get on the first go. In the mean time, this poisoning of self must stop. On days when I feel I know nothing, I'm probably right. Still, I should also write a list of all the things I know today I didn't have an inkling about yesterday.

If I can give the rest of the world permission to declare, "I don't know," then I had certainly better grant myself permission to do the same.

I don't know...and the world will keep turning.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bent, and Better For It

I'm twisted...

as are you, as are we all.
I sat on my mother's couch the other morning, chuckling a bit at the hyacinth my kids had given her for Easter. It was growing much larger than it had been; the large head of the plant was dangling drunkenly to the left, lolling on top of a stem gone horribly askew. Even its long leaves were listing to one side. Laughingly, I advised Mom to turn the plant in the other direction. "Why?" she asked me, and I helpfully informed her plants grow toward the light. Presumably this is one of the few tidbits of information my brain felt justified in retaining. Normally, space in my grey matter is reserved for wordy things. Every now and again, a bit of Biology or Algebra will sneak its way in. I can only assume it is somehow presented to me alongside something literary, much like turnip greens require the accompaniment of mashed potatoes if I am to ingest them.
For some reason, the image of Mom's tipsy tuber kept coming back to me throughout the day. Later in the afternoon, I was reading (see above statements regarding the sadly lop-sided state of my brain function), and I ran across the term summum bonum: Latin for "supreme or highest good". Intrigued by this phrase, I began to research its meaning and found a blog, right on this very platform, dealing with the idea of summum bonum. It contained a quote attributed to Aristotle which, in light of my liberal paraphrasing, stated everything, all creatures and aspects of the world, are designed to seek out good. The good we seek can be traced back to "the supreme good" from which all good things come.
Back to the bulb on Mom's bookshelf-
We are all seeking "the highest good". It is within our very natures. We were created and formed for it. Our brains, spirits, bodies, and hearts are hard-wired to search it out. Just as the hyacinth allowed itself to be molded by the very thing which it so earnestly sought, humanity is also altered by that for which we yearn and strive.
We can not think to avoid the manipulation of ourselves. We are destined to be changed and twisted by either the light or the dark. We are never allowed the luxury of staying the same. Our choice comes from deciding if we will grow toward the light, stretch toward that which is good and feeds us, or be shriveled and stunted by the dark circumstances of our lives.
As the plant was bent and reshaped for its own good, we are, as well, when we allow ourselves to crave, search out, and grow toward summum bonum as it is made manifest in our lives. There is no shame or ill intent in the molding. Remember: all things emitting from the light of "the supreme good" are good of themselves and can only strengthen us from the roots up, throughout our core being.
Oh to be warped, bent, and twisted as the earnest, humble blossom-- to be tender and obedient in the light and rays of the Son. Reach for the good; stretch for it. Lean into it. Allow it to change and maneuver what needs redirection.

Twisted and better for it. Grow toward the light.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Big Dreams & Little Hands

I became a mother quickly. I was so young when I had my first daughter; it came as a shock to be thrust into motherhood right on the heels of girlhood. I cannot ever say I regret it or wish it had been different. I am eternally grateful to have had her early, because she kept me grounded, helped me realize what it felt like to unconditionally love someone who is so deeply a part of you, and to motivate me to want better for myself in order to want better for her, as well. She was a miracle with perfect timing and purpose.

My second daughter was another miracle. Complications were supposed to have rendered her existence impossible. I am so glad that, even when we see no way, God makes a way when He chooses to do so. Out of a pain and loss too heavy and unimaginable for words, she was born to bring a love and light I cannot live without.

As I am watching them grow, now, into the young women they will become, I can’t describe the awed wonder and the painful love with which I look at them. It twists my heart and steals my breath each time I see them mature a bit more into the ladies of whom I am so proud.

Out of all the things in this world I would have shape and mold me, it is these: to be a fraction of the mother I had and to be a mother worthy of my children. There is a massive responsibility in helping to shape and mold their lives into the people, and perhaps mothers, they will become. It is through them, also, God has truly taught me the depth and patience of His love for me—for us.

I have not always said and done the things I wish I had. I’ve not always been the person I wish now I would have. But I have always and will ever love my children. To understand that God’s love for us is so much bigger than what I feel, even for my children, is almost incomprehensible. And it leaves me eternally and humbly grateful.

And, so, it is my wish that when I am old, I will look upon my daughters with joy, pride, and thankfulness to God for the women they’ve grown into. It’s my dearest wish for them to know, above all, I have loved them, but God has loved them more.

Of Mice and Men and Me

I like having a plan!

Spontaneity has never been a problem for me. I am more than willing to jump in the car for a last-minute ROOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAADDDDD TRIIIIIIIIIP!!!  I will ride along with no particular destination in mind.

But when it comes to big things in life, I like to know what's coming. I make my little plans. I set my little time lines. I weigh out all my little decisions and ...

Fate laughs.

God keeps showing me, over and over, I only have an illusion of control. Of course, I believe we control our own destinies with the choices we make. However, I also believe God has a purpose for us. Sometimes, most times maybe, what we have in mind is not what He's intended. And so He let's us make our plans, set our time tables, lay out our lives- and then He says, "Now, let me show you what I'm going to do."

There was a time, not too long ago, the thought of letting go and letting it all be completely freaked me out. I had an innate need to feel like I was driving my life. I've come to realize that's all it ever was: a feeling.

Liberation is intoxicating, and there is a definite freedom in allowing life to simply BE, sometimes.

Granted, I still like lists. I still over-analyze. I think it's part of my charm (ha!! I'll work on my self-delusion, next).

But, I get it now. Let life come. The getting there is beautiful in and of itself. The blueprints we lay out for ourselves often have to be scratched and gutted halfway through. Life is a series of instances where we throw away all our intentions somewhere in the middle and start all over.

They often go awry, these best-laid plans of mice & men & me.
I'm learning to appreciate it.