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Narrative Imagination: An Activism of Radical Empathy


Photo by Richard Ha [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 


“Were any of you tear gassed at the airport?”

“Did you get back from the march ok?”
“Do you have your emergency numbers memorized?”

It’s strange, living in these times, exchanging the above phrases with my friends engaged in nonviolent activism. We text each other back and forth at the end of the day, across the country, activism comrades. We feel the urgency, we meditate on quotes like these:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Bishop Desmond Tutu

Or that meme floating around:

Remember sitting in history, thinking “If I was alive then, I would’ve…” You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.

 

We swap ideas, affirm each other, urge one another to refuel for the long haul, and hold each other accountable. Yesterday one of my activism comrades across the country shared with me that he reached out to a Yemeni colleague, a fellow scientist in his research lab, to offer support and solidarity in light of the recent Muslim & refugee ban issued by the Trump Administration.

As is our activism comrade practice, I thanked him for his actions and wished him well before his next demonstration. As I turned away from my phone, I planned on offering the same support to Muslims in my life and those from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, the seven countries affected by the ban.

As I sat with my notebook, running through a mental list of colleagues, classmates, family friends, housemates, and other connections, I realized something pretty shocking: I have no close connections, that I know of, who are Muslim or are from the seven banned countries. Not one. I’ve never met for coffee with an Iranian, never worked side by side with a woman in a hijab, never shared meals with a neighbor born in Libya or Iran. Never.

Sure – I once had an elementary school classmate from a Muslim family. And I’ve been an audience member at interfaith dialogue events where I ate really good hummus with other white people at the end of a talk: I admit now, humbly, a paltry attempt at true solidarity or friendship. But no one in my present, daily life. I’m not proud of this, but it bears sharing because I suspect I’m not the only one.

In fact, my guess is that many of the people who support the Muslim ban and refugee block, and even the border wall, have never been close to a member of the groups affected by that discriminatory legislation. How could you know those affected, hear their cries, experience their kinship, and still be against them?

In her book Cultivating Humanity, philosophy & ethics scholar Dr. Martha Nussbaum writes of growing our capacity for what she calls “Narrative Imagination,” that is, entering into the stories of others by practicing (and it does take practice) a sort of radical empathy. Says Nussbaum, “This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the motions and wishes and desire that someone so placed might have.”

What would it be like if my family was being bombed in their homes and turned away from a chance at safety? What would it be like if my family had lived legally in the United States for years and was suddenly forbidden to return to their lives, loved ones, and jobs? Wouldn’t I desire safety, too?

Last night at a rally ”No Ban No Wall! March for Muslims and Allies,” I heard a Syrian woman speak in tears to a crowd about her brother, who, because of speaking out in favor of democracy, is no longer safe in Syria. He has courageously spoken out for democratic values we mutually held, but is barred from being with his family. Remarkably, his sister at the microphone still had faith in this country. She said over the booming PA system, beautifully, desperately, “I know, because you are here, that I did not make a mistake in coming to the United States. Thank you. Thank you for being here.”

It is an anemic understanding of the world to imagine that I can be free, while my neighbors are not.

It is my own failing, privilege, and circumstance that has led me, stunted, to this point of not knowing well a single Muslim, Iranian, Iraqi, Libyan, Somalian, Sudanese, Syrian, or Yemeni. It makes me sad. It’s embarrassing. But it’s a fiction to believe that my own story does not cross paths with that of a Muslim, a refugee, or an immigrant from one of the banned countries. It is an anemic understanding of the world to imagine that I can be free, while my neighbors are not.



In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Rev. Martin Luther King wrote:

 

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.

 

Objectively, philosophically, I care for the families affected by the ban, but following the call of Nussbaum and King, it is my job to follow the thread of interrelatedness and understand how it connects to me and my own family. So I called my senator, who at the time had released no public statement about the ban (see the Tutu quote on neutrality, above). I thought, if this senator cannot connect to the suffering of these Muslim families, perhaps I need to take a different approach. Perhaps, like me, he has family in the military who will also be affected by this ban. Perhaps he understands that breaking relationships with these countries will likely mean more danger, more deployment, more violence as a whole. I made 10 calls that day, but for the final one, I took a different approach, trying to evoke radical empathy.

Brad, a staffer probably no more than 20, answered the phone in Washington, D.C.

“Hello. My name is Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer. I am a constituent and a voter in Wisconsin. I am calling to urge my senator to be brave and come out strongly against the Muslim ban and refugee block.”

Great. I had my lines down, I thought. I’m a level-headed strategic activist and I got this.


Photo by DRieselman [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

“Severing relationships with our neighbors in the Middle East is a national security issue for everyone. I have family members in the military who I love, and it puts my family at risk. Also, an irresponsible, hasty transfer of power putting Steve Bannon on the National Security Council affects my family. It puts them in danger. Please…”

My voice cracked. And then I, who I thought was a seasoned and rational activist, started sobbing on the phone to Brad. Brad probably has an internship with the Republican senator I was calling. Honestly, Brad probably looked similar to me, a white midwesterner who had already forgotten their own immigrant story only a few generations removed. Brad stayed on the other end.

“Please,” I creaked and gasped, embarrassed, apologizing in spite of myself.

“Please ask the Senator to be courageous and speak out against this irresponsible, unjust ban and to urge the President to reconsider Bannon. Please ask him…”

I swallowed, picturing my military relatives.

“Please ask him to protect my family.”

Our wishes and desires – for stability, for a family free from harm, for a country that will listen to our cries – are bound together.

Though I’m largely safe and enjoy unquestioned citizenship thanks to dumb luck of where I was born, my tears and those of the Syrian woman at the microphone are similar tears. As I thought of my own family at risk, I thought also of the hundreds of families torn apart by the ban, by refugee denial. As Nussbaum wrote above, our wishes and desires – for stability, for a family free from harm, for a country that will listen to our cries – are bound together.

I finished my plea. On the other end of the line, Brad paused and said his script quickly, quietly, to close the call. “I’ll pass it along to the Senator. You have a good day now.”

Did he feel anything?


Photo by Amanda Hirsch from Brooklyn, NY, USA (Black girl magic) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If logic and reason about the justice imperatives of our Constitution are not enough to make my Congress listen, what can I do but share my basest self, my real fears, my understanding that these refugee and immigrant lives are indeed part of my own garment of destiny. Locked in with the fate of my own family.

It is my job to feel this fear and helplessness, and to cultivate my Narrative Imagination, a radical empathy for those Muslims, immigrants, refugees I have never met. To build relationships with them. To stand beside and behind them and amplify their voices.

I texted my activism buddy at the end of the day, as we do.

“Well. I sobbed on the phone with Brad at the senator’s D.C. office today.”

I had betrayed the level-headed, strategic, rational activist and scholar I thought I was trying to be, for the more human, fearful, more real and raw version of myself. The truth is I’m profoundly disturbed right now. I feel deep grief. I’m physically ill. And I’m convinced the world needs this emotion along with my action – marches, protests, boycotts, calls. This emotion may be an antidote to the dehumanizing political structures that privilege some (like me) and marginalize others (like the Syrian woman at the mic). Emotion helps shock us out of “legislative mode” and into “human mode” to build Narrative Imagination, radical empathy. It’s powerful, and we need it – both to hold tight to our mutual humanity, and to get liberatory work done in our government.

*Note: Some names and identifying details of those quoted have been slightly altered to protect safety and identity.

Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer is a social justice writer, facilitator, and speaker. https://annaczarnikneimeyer.wordpress.com/

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Welcoming Hope

How have you been welcoming hope these days? I’m finding that the need is great today to welcome hope in myself and those around me. 

As I’ve been staring with a heavy heart into what feels like a widening “tragic gap” (what Parker describes as “the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible”), I’ve been prompted to wonder, How do I move to welcome hope back into my life? 

Since this is a perennial question, I turned to a few wise leaders for inspiration on how to welcome hope.

I cultivate hope as an unshakable inner state of being, not a promising outer state of the world.

I take my inspiration for this from Václav Havel, who wrote:  

“The kind of hope I often think about…I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is…an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond it’s horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed.” 

– Václav Havel, from Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Huizdala as quoted in Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities 

I strengthen my own faith in hope, grounded in courage.

In a recent blog post, Estrus Tucker shared stepping stones of courage from the life and wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. One of these stepping stones is Dare to hope. 

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in Strength to Love

Later in the book, he wrote: “Evil and pain in this conundrum of life are close to each of us, and we do both ourselves and our neighbors a great disservice when we attempt to prove that there is nothing in this world of which we should be frightened. These forces that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage, which is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life’s ambiguities. This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.”

Guided by these words, how might we dare to hope? 

What does welcoming hope look like for you?

Warmly,

Terry
Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Cultivate your experience of hope at a Courage & Renewal program. Find a program near you.

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A Few Thoughts on Complacency & Repair

This blog features an article originally published on Susan M. Glisson’s Sustainable Equity blog. With Susan’s gracious permission, we share this reflection with you today.

In an increasingly polarized social and political climate, I’ve been searching for sources that attempt to analyze what is at the heart of the discord that appears to exist between so many of us. I believe that the vitriol and division are deeper than that which exists between the political parties, which was reflected in the recent acrimonious election, though they are a symptom that has its own side effects.

For too long now, we as Americans undervalued being informed, a condition which generally comes from a rigorous education with training in critical thinking. For too long we have settled for corporate-driven media, owned by a small number of folks, who have made fortunes titillating us with every salacious rumor about “celebrities,” such that our election cycles now seem much more like an American Idol competition than a serious investigation of values and policies that care for each of us and support our unity. We’ve replaced those sources with social media, which too often isolates us in our own echo chambers of reinforcing and not always accurate self-narratives. And we have avoided or ignored talking about the painful parts of our history, the patterns of which, if studied, reveal a deep divide founded in racial discord, in a mentality that values one group over others (in our case it has looked like white supremacy; other countries have manifested their hierarchies of human value in other ways). (And by the way, “whiteness” and racism haven’t just harmed and dehumanized people of color; they have dehumanized “whites” too.)

We have valued dollars over people. We have disconnected ourselves from the land and from the water that supplies our basic needs and from each other and from Spirit, which renders us diminished in soul, empty and angry. But because we haven’t valued critical thinking and authentic connection, we too often lack the tools to understand why we are where we are and what we can do about it. And so we anesthetize ourselves with literal and figurative stuff we don’t need and which doesn’t fulfill us (just go check the profit margins of the self-storage industry or say the comments section of any news article).

We have become complacent, which means literally to please one’s self, self-satisfaction in spite of or because of ignorance of actual dangers. In short, because we do not really know ourselves or each other deeply, we do not truly know each others’ sorrows and joys. So we do not know what others have experienced that causes them to make the life choices they do. Sometimes, we don’t even know why we do what we do!

Here’s the good news. Complacency is cured by proximity and authentic connection to others, especially to those we deem “not us.” We can repair the damage we have done to ourselves and to our country. We can “come home to” ourselves and to each other, as the Latin origin describes “repair.”

I’m not speaking of an industrial project, on massive scales, mechanized and largely independent of human involvement. I’m talking about the grassroots, community-level kind of work we must all do. We can punish and exclude based on who others voted for or we can try to understand, to empathize, and to embrace.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that, “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.” We need time to fall in love with each other. To listen deeply to each other, one-on-one and in small groups, face to face, as Puanani Burgess says. Nothing else will replace this everyday, local work.

And here’s how such a conversation might go: ask each other first, “what your highest hope is for your community?” Allow as how you might not know everything and would like to understand where the other person is coming from. Ask open and honest questions, ones you don’t know the answers to. Do this over and over again until you build the muscle memory of respectful and civil and truthful conversation, until you create a new pattern of interacting that is healthy and whole and second nature to you. If we commit to such a process, synergy and consensus about what we should do together will emerge. I promise because I’ve seen it happen every single time a group has done that hard work of listening and learning together.

When we do this, we will create the world our children deserve, because justice, as Cornel West has said, is what love looks like in public.

Susan M. Glisson is the co-founder and partner of Sustainable Equity, LLC. You can learn more about her work and background, and explore these valuable resources on building movements. To dig deeper, you can listen to a NPR story featuring Susan’s work with Sustainable Equity and the “Welcome Table” model.”

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Know That It Is Possible: Dreams in the Desert

Today we hear from two Courage & Renewal facilitators, Tara Reynolds and David Henderson, as they offer their reflections on their recent experience presenting at the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools’ (NESA) Fall Leadership Conference.

The attendees included educational leaders from around the Middle East and Southeast Asia who work primarily in private schools serving both Western expatriates’ children and local families in places such as Beirut, Lebanon; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The conference was held in Doha, Qatar and was attended by approximately 500 administrators, board members, and educators.

Tara and David were invited to deliver a keynote and facilitate two three-hour Courage to Lead breakout sessions. As NESA Executive Director, David Chojnacki, stated in a planning call last spring, “These schools are successful at academics; our graduates go to the best universities in the world; we’ve done data. We need to renew our hearts – we need to ask ourselves, ‘To what end?’”

Using the Circle of Trust approach, Tara and David offered some insights into that poignant question and how it may relate to school leadership.

David and Tara Reflect…

This conference took place before the recent US election. Since then, we have witnessed an unprecedented American pandemic of “othering” across many ideological divides. We asked ourselves, “Does discussing this experience in the Middle East and the life-changing impact this had on us even seem relevant compared to what our hearts have felt after November 8th, 2016?”

We have come to understand that what we experienced in Qatar has significant relevance to what we feel now. Ivan Illich said, “At heart, hospitality is a helping across a threshold.” If there is anything America needs today, it is a deep sense of hospitality; the following reflections document a glimpse into the gracious hospitality which invited us across a threshold into the beauty, love, and courage of being human. These experiences on the other side of the world have come to be hyper-relevant in crossing the thresholds of our own broken hearts here at home.

Tara Reflects…

Somewhere in the skies between Iran and Bahrain I noticed the announcements coming in Arabic, then English. I stood up to stretch my legs and realized how quickly—in the course of a single day—one can become foreign. I felt both at home and a part of something larger than myself as I watched the man in the seat in front of us assist a frail woman in a sari, lifting her bag into the overhead compartment. A simple gesture helped me trust that I was on the right path. As men walked by dressed in beautiful thobes of glowing white, I longed to touch the fabric. Instead I rested my gaze, adjusted my scarf over my shoulders, and turned to wonder about how much we can assume about another by the vestments one wears.

Upon arrival in Doha, it became clear that NESA could have written the guidebook to extending welcome. Unaccustomed to this level of attention, I felt a little sheepish as I walked through the lobby and was greeted by the hotel staff with “Good morning, Miss Tara!” I wanted to hug the chambermaid who folded hand towels into the shapes of different animals each morning—instead we exchanged notes of hospitality and gratitude on slips of paper left on the pillows.

The conference got underway and the energy shifted as over 500 people arrived and engaged in a powerful learning environment, every detail thoughtfully taken care of by the NESA staff. I tried to let go of my ‘not enough-ness’ and walk through the space with my head held high.

In reality, the thought crossed my mind more than once: What can you possibly offer these global leaders, Tara, that they don’t already know? Each time I released the thought and practiced the keynote in my head I breathed a little easier. I trusted in my heart that we had something valuable to share.

From Effectiveness to Faithfulness: The Quest for Institutional Integrity

The night before the keynote I slept lightly, not sure half the time if I was awake or asleep. I woke groggy and as we made our way down for our sound check in the ballroom I started to get butterflies in my belly. I tried to remember my colleague Holly Wilkinson’s loving words, Shift those butterflies into your heart, radiating your inner light outwards. It helped.

The room looked enormous. We were asked to clear out so that security could do a search of the space with their bomb-sniffing dogs. I wasn’t sure if that was comforting or not. After choking down some breakfast, we were on.

A man named Clay Hensley of The College Board introduced us. I had my back to the room before going on stage in the hopes that it would stop spinning. While David has all the relevant degrees and has taught AP Courses, I was surprised to feel content with Clay’s introduction of me as a Courage & Renewal Facilitator and Co-Founder of WholeHeart, Inc. I felt proud. The time had come and we stepped on to the stage. I looked out over the sea of beautiful faces of people from all over the world, their eyes on us, eager for ways to bring courage and renewal into their own schools.

I approached the microphone, nervous but steady. I was ready. I had practiced. I knew the content was of the highest quality and so I started to speak. With a heart full of gratitude, I started to speak.

Howard Thurman’s words grounded me; Parker and the Mobius Strip gave me confidence. We guided the room through an exercise where they were asked to think of someone in their lives who encouraged them show up as their full, integrated selves. We invited them to speak the name of that person out loud and in that moment I was washed over by a wave of powerful goodness, as reverent voices whispered names of beloved people who made the difference in these leaders’ lives. My eyes filled with tears.

David and I danced gracefully together through the session: his research and stories landed my cultural and philosophical pieces into the classroom. The deep respect we have for one another was evident. My gentle presence mingled with his capacity of heart and humor; my experiential pieces wove well with his stories of teaching and leadership.

I could see the audience was engaged and intrigued. I could feel the hunger for this work. The moment had arrived and we met it with love.

Shifting Sands

On our last day in Qatar I insisted on getting out into the desert, and we hired a local man named Nassim to drive us out beyond the dunes. Being there opened me. Something shifted inside—perhaps it is still shifting. I know without question that I am changed.

What was it that called me there in the first place? A new adventure? A new landscape? I wonder about the barren monochromatic vastness that resonates with me around the end of my 16-year marriage.

Nassim said that he knows where the soft sand is and where he can drive. There were roads even where I saw no roads. “Each dune has a name,” he said. There is so much my eyes don’t see, I thought.

Something that surprised me was that the desert was full of trash. I expected to see a pristine paradise of soft white sand and was shocked when Nassim suggested to me to put my shoes back on as he pulled a piece of rusty metal out of the sand two feet from where I stood. “See…it’s not safe. People have no respect.” He was one of the few people we met who was actually from Qatar. He told us that most of the city of Doha used to be desert until about 15-20 years ago. The waters of the Persian Gulf are relatively shallow around the shores of Qatar (about 3 feet deep) which has enabled man-made construction to now extend out into the sea. If you dig in this desert you can find water not far under the sand. For this reason, the desert is also littered with seashells.

I scattered rose petals from Vermont in the wind, a blessing for something new to grow in the arid places of my heart. We bumped along until we came to an inland sea. The water is incredibly salty, warm, a beautiful shade of blue. Nassim brings his 80-year-old father there several times a week. On the other side you can see Saudi Arabia.

I can’t stop weeping when I think about this desert. I think it might be grief for the parts of my life that are ending mixed with joy and wonder for all that is to come. The garbage and the glory. All of it.

David Reflects…

There were so many things that remain with me from this experience. I am sure I was channeling Gomer Pyle of Andy Griffith TV fame when I was constantly feeling, “Gaaawwwllly – she-zam – look at that!” But I did my best to look less than the country bumpkin I felt constantly. First of all, Tara would have pretended not to know me, and secondly, the Center and perhaps the US State Department would pretend the same. But from the moment we began to descend into Doha’s stunning airport, new realities bombarded my psyche and I remembered Camus saying everyone needs to experience the “angst of the traveler.” Clearly, Camus had watched Andy Griffith.

While driving the freeways leading from the airport to the area of Doha known as “The Pearl,” I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the city. We arrived late in the evening and the freeway was lined with hundreds of 75 foot tall light poles covered in small lights that were a variety of changing colors – it was stunning from the air and as we were driven to our hotel. We learned the next day, as we noticed small engraving underneath all the lights on every pole, that the engravings were scripture from the Koran; this was the beginning of several days of intense tutoring in what was an almost non-stop immersion in what cultural humility might mean for me.

I want to share three very brief stories of what this journey meant.

Doha skyline seen through the arches at the Museum of Islamic art

First of all, our keynote was Saturday morning and the Friday evening before the NESA folks (an organizational embodiment of hospitality like I have never experienced) took those of us presenting to the Museum of Islamic Art and afterwards to the Souq, a remarkable Middle Eastern market that seems to wind around endlessly between shop after shop selling everything from Calvin Klein boxer shorts to exotic birds and falcons – my second story is about an experience Tara and I had there a few nights later.

As I entered the Museum I was overcome with what some have suggested was some residual jet lag; whatever it was I was not doing well, so I walked outside to the bridge which carries you across water to the entrance of the Museum. I sat watching the people come and go as they entered the Museum and watched evening descend over Doha. Doha is an international city with Islamic people coming to visit from all over the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

As I sat watching this beautiful array of young, old, families, individuals, enter and leave this monument to the ancient greatness of Islam, I was filled with such love for what I was being privileged to witness; on the plane home I wrote the following:

Sitting Alone in Front of Our Sin

The Museum of Islamic Art is on a man-made island –
a pearl inside a pearl inside Doha.
It rises up reminding one of what
the tower of Babel might have been.
Majestic, beige like the desert,
yet modern – like the city surrounding it
while it houses so many ancient remnants
of Islam’s glory, grandeur, and grace.

The people walking in and out
were unlike me.
Mostly slight of stature;
brown, graceful, erect walkers
gliding – holdovers from antiquity.
A pace akin to a nobleman
approaching a prince –
not lumbering forward
looking for a fight.

They would often cast glimpses my way –
furtive and curious
as if wondering why I chose
to be in their place – their art –
their home of brilliance and light
colors and patterns,
fluid like serpents sliding beauty
across sand and everywhere they glide.

I wondered more than they
how did I come to be here
sitting on a bridge to beauty antiquified
in my sandals made for fly-fishing.
But they never moved with mistrust –
just wonder, turning to wonder,
“Why is he here?”
I helped two lads from India
photograph themselves –
we exchanged handshakes, smiles,
“Nice to meet you, suh.”

I was humbled by their generosity
of smile and spirit;
their willingness to meet me on a bridge
to their collective glory.
But then a 5 year old lad
clad in their life
ran by fleeing his mother –
she calling a reprimand in
Farsi or Arabic but just as
fierce as, “Boy, you get back here now!”
I smiled in reverie of our communion
of love and frustration.

While here in Doha,
I smelled fragrant air,
heard ancient songs sung by young voices
from white faces;
and a sad song carried across a lake
made with western machines
floating an ancient eastern dream
as the sun set over the Pearl
and the Persian Gulf
was beauty, glittering boats,
and I knew I had it all wrong
and we had it all wrong
and blue-green eyes
piercing me from behind the sliver of a masked face
were beyond beauty –
a dream of what is beautiful –
a thin veil separating
me and Heaven.

My second story happened two evenings later when Tara and I were sitting in an outdoor café having dinner in the middle of the Souq. We were literally surrounded by international women, men, and families dressed in all sorts of variations of Islamic wear enjoying the Friday evening having dinner, tea and smoking hookahs. Pretty typical evening for me – very similar to anything you might experience in every town across Montana.

As we finished our meal, there was a large, dignified, young Arab man sitting at the table next to us, alone, smoking his hookah. Presently, a young Middle Eastern family came walking by – Dad dressed in western style jeans and shirt trying to corral a lively 5 year old lad, Mom in a full burqa pushing a stroller with what appeared to be a 3 year old girl; a lovely family.

Tara and I both saw the little girl looking intensely at the large Arab gentleman sitting next to us; he was imposing – he looked like he would have no trouble playing linebacker in the NFL. Suddenly the little girl with serious disdain, stuck her tongue out at him; Tara and I both looked at him wondering what would come next. He looked at us and knew we knew what this little angel had just done and he started laughing heartily – we did too; it was priceless. This might be the Souq in the heart of the Middle East, but it could have been a mall in Bozeman, Montana too. What it was for me was a lovely reminder of how similar we are – how beautifully connected we are; a little girl’s brash tongue-sticking-out became a hospitality threshold.

My final story has to do with our first Courage to Lead session on Saturday morning right after our joint keynote; we were wondering if anyone would show up for the session. We were hoping for 25, possibly 30 (I had optimistically made 35 copies of the third things we planned to use). As the break following the keynote ended and folks started arriving for our session, our circle of 35 chairs was overflowing – everyone quickly started helping expand the circle until finally it held 64 folks. I was stunned and since Tara was lead for this session, wondering how this new facilitator would navigate something neither of us expected.

Here’s where I need to offer some kudos to John Fenner, Debbie Stanley, Parker Palmer, and Marcy Jackson for their obvious well done training of Tara’s facilitator cohort – she was masterful as she opened the circle and invited us into a wonderful three hour reflection and sharing using Parker’s Habits of the Heart as a framework for healthy schooling.

Not only did she hold the space with grace, the circle was filled with an international gathering of folks from quite literally all over the world. I was so proud of how she invited these folks to explore what showing up wholehearted might mean for school leaders. Later, some of the NESA folks expressed to us that normally 30 folks at a session is a good turnout; they said the keynote had clearly resonated with this gathering – we recognized another hospitality threshold – matters of the heart resonate across borders that in many ways are illusions.

There are other stories I might share but this is enough; I left there with my heart full.

What does this invite me into given our recent November? It invites me to explore how my heart has humbly helped some across my thresholds and how it has too often not invited others across the threshold of my heart. I cannot stop being a “helping across a threshold”; there is a little girl with her tongue out reminding me how lovely we are; there is a woman in a burqa looking up at me thanking me for the story I shared in our keynote about my Dad in Memphis, Tennessee and how it helped her understand her Dad better; these people are beautiful reminders of what a gift we can be to each other if we refuse to close the threshold of our heart.

 

Tara Reynolds is a community organizer with a passion for building trust in relationships and organizations. She is a graduate of Haverford College and an alumnae of the Vermont Leadership Institute. She finds joy in the wisdom of children, the beauty of the natural world, and the power of a good open and honest question.

 

David Henderson currently teaches Educational Leadership at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT, and facilitates Courage to Teach, Courage to Lead and Circles of Trust retreats. He has been involved in pre-K-12 education for over 20 years. He continues to study and research the intersection of the inner life of leaders with their practice of leadership grounded in a heart striving for integrity and authenticity.

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Stepping Stones of Courage: Inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Photo by Marion S. Trikosko [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In our new year of conflict, confusion and cowardice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. represents a perennial call to compassion, clarity and courage. Compassion in the nonviolent nature of hopeful activism, ally relationships and mindfulness with the marginalized. Clarity about the morality of our actions, institutional and personal. Courage facing social inequities and embracing the possibilities of a beloved community.

Dr. King’s leadership invites our deeper considerations for important stepping stones toward lives, communities and societies of hope, equity and peace in the 21st century. As we reflect on these provocative quotes by Dr. King may we who seek to be a community of courage live up to and live into the most noble dreams of our callings.

1) Dare to Love

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

2) Dare to Forgive

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude. We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

3) Dare to Be Nonviolent

“We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.”

4) Dare to See the Other 

“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

5) Dare to Be Known

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

6) Dare to Speak

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

7) Dare to Act

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

8) Dare to Seek Justice beyond Self Interest

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

9) Dare to Hope

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”

10) Dare to Lead with Soul

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.”

MLK’s Call to Action:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“With patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.”

May we be so.

Estrus Tucker is an independent consultant and keynote speaker specializing in small and large group facilitation, focusing on personal, professional and community renewal, transformation, healing and reconciliation. Estrus is a innovative practitioner of the Circles of Trust®, Habits of the Heart®, Dialogue and other models of civic engagement, leadership and organizational development. Estrus brings over 30 years of executive leadership experience in the nonprofit sector, including operations and board governance. Estrus is the 2012 recipient of the International Association of Human Rights Agencies’ (IAOHRA) Individual Achievement Award for his work and leadership in support of creative civic engagement and transformational leadership in Mississippi; Belfast, Northern Ireland; Cape Town, South Africa, and Texas.

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Courageous Authenticity: Post-Election Reflections from the Academy for Leaders at Pendle Hill

Is it possible to become more intentional about creating spaces – in relationship, community – where our fearful shadows can emerge into the light to be seen for what they are, when the truth and love within us can appear and make a claim on our lives?

 – Parker J. Palmer

We began the Academy for Leaders on November 10, 2016, two days after one of the most emotionally divisive, tumultuous, and contentious presidential elections in U.S. history.

As leaders from around the U.S. and Canada took their place in the circle we had planned and co-created, “fearful shadows” were present. We felt the weight and the urgency of the moment. On the opening night, the room was filled with grief and anxiety, and a cold silence was palpable. Some leaders were totally exhausted, having gotten very little sleep the night before.

Following the election events and sensing the growing nationwide sentiment of anxiety and tension, Gayle and I re-worked the opening to focus on inviting space and time to breathe, to talk about the immediacy of our feelings. This re-working of the opening was very carefully crafted—not knowing Trump or Clinton supporters in the room. Our goal in this opening session was to create trust and emotional safety for everyone.

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This meant allowing for expression of true self – not masked by political correctness, winning approval, or looking good. We wanted a real-time discussion of the election to allow the group to express out loud was what palpably felt in the room, not avoiding or sugar-coating conflict, and yet speaking with honesty and integrity. As co-leaders, it also meant being aware of our own underlying assumptions, expectations, and biases, what unconscious beliefs we might bring into the discussion and into the room. We knew that to create trust it was important to discuss our feelings, emotions, and vulnerabilities, and yet we did not want the discussion to spin out of control, or degrade into an ‘us against them’ free-for-all.

Gradually, over the four-day retreat, using Courage & Renewal practices and principles, and with the amazing, loving, and generous support of Pendle Hill staff, our group of nearly thirty leaders shifted dramatically from fear and grief to self-care, renewal of soul and role in the world, and support for each other. Many people looked visibly different – lighter, calmer, less tense – by the end of the retreat.

Courageous Authenticity – Discussing the Elephant in the Room: A Blueprint

We tenderly opened what we anticipated might be a strongly emotional discussion about the election by first reading an excerpt from Parker’s A Hidden Wholeness about “the blizzard of the world” that we now find ourselves post-election. We invited the range of emotions and sought to create safe space for everyone by actively exploring the Center for Courage & Renewal’s Touchstones, guidelines for engaging self and others. Using the Touchstones, we offered participants time to reflect individually, in dyads, and within the large group. Finally, we invited the leaders to trust the wisdom of their bodies with this three to four minute breath and body practice.

Let’s take a few moments to pause and to gather ourselves, to come home to ourselves.

Check in with yourself and notice what would support you, and do that—to sit or to stand.

We invite you to close your eyes if that is comfortable to you, and allow your spine straight but not rigid.

Let’s begin by checking in with yourself and noticing how you’re feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Just a glance at how you are doing at this moment.

Recall Thomas Merton’s words from New Seeds of Contemplation: “Let there be a place somewhere in which you can breathe easily, naturally, quietly.”

Take a moment to sense your breathing, and…

Ask yourself:

“Where do I feel my breathing?” and simply wait.

Returning to the question over and over: “Where do I feel my breathing?”

Let whatever perceptions you have be here without editing them. Don’t discount tiny movements.

Perhaps place one hand on the belly and the other at the chest and feel the movement of the hand at the belly and at the chest.

Now, ask yourself: “What does my breath feel like?”

And simply wait. Is your breath rough, smooth, labored, or easy? Return to the question over and over: “What does my breath feel like?” Take note of whatever words or images arise to describe your breath. Again, let whatever perceptions you have be here without editing them.

And, now return your attention to just a glance at the body and mind, gathering an impression of how you are doing at this moment. There is no need to change or edit this moment, this glance. Simply observe.

And, when you are ready, please inhale the arms up and stretch, and open your eyes, slowly. Thank you.

While we were so exhausted by the end of the retreat, we both felt the tremendous inner glow of community. When we arrived back home that night from Pendle Hill, we received these words from a national activist for women and children.

It hit me this morning that I have never been in a group in my life of people who all find deep meaning in what they do in their work lives. This was so rare – beneath everyone’s frustrations and senses of inadequacy and challenge to do better was a real love of the work and a sense of mission. Every single person was engaged in deeply meaningful work in the world… amazing. Because of the deep happiness of the people there, it was a joy to be in this group. It is wonderful to have the chance to grow stronger together, too, when some common core of values that have been strengthened and nurtured during the time we had. Thank you for your role and your soul in that process of forming a community of people who care about what they do in this world.

In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous climate, where the reigning question of the day appears to be “what comes next” and “what is my personal response,” courageous conversations offer a way in. These conversations are curated through the very personal practice of listening deeply. Often seen as act of passivity, true listening intensifies connection and broadens our capacity to know ourselves, others, and the other in ourselves.

At a time when many are calling for greater activism, perhaps the action that is required now is to listen as an act of love and to speak as act of integrity. We know that the “fearful shadows” will always be there, and so will the light. Opening to the elephant in the room begins with what we already know: speaking your truth while respecting others’ truth and listening without intruding, invading, fixing, or correcting. Growing these practices in our circles, in our conversations, in our lives create spaces that are safe, potent, and wholehearted.

 

Valerie Brown is a Courage & Renewal facilitator, international retreat leader, writer, and ICF-accredited leadership coach of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC., specializing in the application and integration of mindfulness and leadership (www.leadsmartcoaching.com). In her latest book, The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and School (Corwin Press, 2015), she explores the role of mindfulness in strengthening thriving leaders and building greater understanding and peace within schools.

Gayle Williams brings 30 years of leadership and management experience to her current practice as a philanthropy/nonprofit leadership coach and Courage & Renewal facilitator. As Executive Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation from 1993-2012, Gayle’s work focused on values-driven social and economic justice in the Southeastern US. Prior to the Babcock Foundation, she was Program Director for Education at the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, where her portfolio focused on community-based initiatives for educational equity. Before entering philanthropy, her nonprofit work concentrated on youth development.

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Giving and Receiving Welcome

Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.

– Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

flowers-table-welcome-candles

How is your heart in this first week of 2017? Is it feeling open to what’s new or guarded with uncertainty? I want to open a new place in my heart to welcome all that this year will bring.

This calls me to redefine the word Welcome. I feel the tensions in welcoming change, welcoming difference, welcoming conflict, welcoming challenge, welcoming retirement, welcoming new leadership, welcoming fresh ideas. From the global to the local and the personal, 2017 will be a year of welcome – and growth!

Since I began facilitating Courage & Renewal retreats 14 years ago, I’ve experienced the power of our first Touchstone: Give and receive welcome.

This poem by fellow facilitator Estrus Tucker reminds me that it’s an act of courage to give and receive authentic welcome:

There are invitations that can’t be written,
and a welcoming that is deeper than words.
Hospitality abides in the familiarity of a face,
in the embedded trust of shared customs and histories,
and in identities often formed and deformed
by unity and exclusion,
hope and humiliation,
love and lies.

Welcome is not always easy. When we feel others are out to change or challenge us, it’s only human to guard ourselves. But what happens when we experience true welcome and invitation?

When welcome is offered and received, a sense of belonging naturally leads us to relax rather than raise our defenses. It is subtle. Welcome invites us to be vulnerable and connected.

When have you felt truly welcome?

How do you remain open and hospitable to yourself and to others?

I’m looking forward to welcoming all that 2017 brings, with as much courage and openness as I can muster.

Warmly,

Terry
Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Courage & Renewal practices create the conditions of safe space to experience genuine welcome – of your inner wisdom, of insight, of trust among others. Find a program near you.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!

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Simple Presence: A Wish for the New Year

walking-around-berries-seattle

A few days after moving, I put on my gloves and coat and went for my first walk in the new neighborhood. Sometimes the best way to settle in is to give my body the chance to orient itself, to begin to know a place.

I walked up the hill and past the domed church, watching how the last dregs of winter light catch the treetops. For the first time in a few months, I began to feel the space around my body opening up. As I went further, I dropped into this simple presence more easily; I noticed what is good. I noticed the smallest gestures of peace. I also noticed – again and again – my whirring mind, spinning from present to future. But then I paused the whir again as my eyes were greeted by gorgeous violet berries on a branch. Whir. Pause. Whir. Pause. Pause. I started to breathe more deeply.

Though my mind is spinning in these days of collective suffering and sorrow, I am learning to be a better friend and ally not only by acting in solidarity but also by taking moments to let my feet touch the ground. To embrace the touchstone that reminds me to “be present as fully as possible.” And here, as this touchstone reminds me, I can allow my doubts and fears to rub shoulders with my hopes and strengths. 

As a new year beckons, I’ve decided to eschew lists and resolutions and simply choose a word to hold close to my heart in the coming year. I am choosing presence. May I be present to what is in front of me. May I not turn away. May I keep my feet touching the ground. May I lean into hope and trust.

I like to listen to “The Color Green” by the innocence mission when I am walking around, watchful for the “sudden visit” of a color or a sound or a glimpse, something simple even in the midst of complexity, something that could even “lift me up three stories” if I am willing to be lifted.



Here is my wish for all of us: for simple presence to suffuse our coming days. For this presence to be compassionate – granted kindly to ourselves and others. For us to find moments where we can “see the day gifted with a million gifts.” 

What words are you holding close to your heart for 2017?

 

JoVanceJo Vance is the Marketing & Communications Associate at the Center for Courage & Renewal. A stalwart believer in the power of stories to spark change in the world, Jo is passionate about creating space for those stories to be shared through effective communications. When she’s not hiking in the mountains or by the ocean, Jo volunteers with fellow environmental and social justice activists, works on her poetry manuscript, and delves into her ever-evolving stack of library books.

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Parker J. Palmer Reflects on a Lifetime of Learning

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This blog features an excerpt from “Parker J. Palmer Reflects on a Lifetime of Learning with Executive Editor, Frank Shushok Jr.” in the journal About Campus.

In his Editor’s Note, Frank unpacked the issue’s theme – Learning to Struggle. With Frank’s permission, we’ve excerpted a portion from his note as an introduction to his interview with Parker:

The old adage “where you stumble and fall, there you will find pure gold” seems true to me these days. If you’re like me, you have some rough patches. I wish it had not taken me decades to understand that our pain, our struggles, our mistakes, and our insecurities are mine shafts where pure gold resides. This priceless, raw material—available nowhere else in life—is the material of one’s real potential and the source of dazzling hope that others desperately need to see.

It’s probable your struggles and pain are not the same as mine, but you’ve got some pure gold inside you … hiding in mine shafts you may have sealed off. And, given a little attention, a few good people, and a fistful of courage, your pain has the raw material of a miracle story. I know what you’re thinking. Everyone else looks so right, together, so perfect. But that is a lie. Every human being we encounter has rough edges, but most of us have learned to hide our struggles and bury our gold. I looked pretty perfect to my middle school and high school friends, yet I was dying inside. And I was so committed to hiding my rough edges that I didn’t tell my story until I was 40 years old, despite a boatload of evidence that my identity as “the dumb kid” was long gone. And who lost in that secret? This “not so dumb” kid and the students struggling all around him who needed to hear this story.


Shushok: Thank you for visiting with me today, Parker. One of the privileges of serving as Executive Editor of About Campus is the opportunity it gives me to interview some of my heroes. Although we had never met before today, your work, and thus your life, has been challenging and encouraging me for decades. I’m certain many About Campus readers will feel the same way. I thought the timing of our interview is terrific, given you just celebrated your 77th birthday this past Sunday. I’d love to begin our time by asking you to reflect on how the 30-year-old Parker Palmer is different from the 50-year-old Parker Palmer and now the 77-year-old Parker Palmer. What are some of the most salient lessons growing older has taught you?

Landscape with roadPalmer: Thank you, Frank. I’m delighted to take a little stroll down memory lane with you—although at my age, that could be a very long walk, and we may have to stop at a couple of B&B’s! Over the long haul, there are several lasting lessons. One that I’m always eager to communicate with young people is that there’s really no way to predict how your path is going to unfold. What my life has turned out to be is very different than what I thought it would be when I was 30. I always tell young people, “When your elders say you have to decide at age 18, 20, or 22 what you are going to do with your life, tell them as politely as possible to ‘get a life!’ Or at least to think back on their own path.”

Becoming a Community Organizer

When I was 30 years old, I had just finished a PhD in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. I spent most of the 60s in Berkeley, having come there with the thought that I would go into an academic career. But the cities were burning and my heroes had been assassinated, and it seemed to me that it would be better to use my sociology on the streets than in the classroom. So, I became a community organizer, working on diversity issues in Washington, D.C. Things unfolded from there in an unpredictable way.

I guess you could say that at 30, I started experimenting with my life. I’ve always loved the title that Gandhi gave his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I think you can invest your life in experimenting with truth—your own truth, the world’s truth, and the truth about where the most fruitful intersections between you and the world might be. Looking back, those are the questions I began exploring and was getting a few answers to at that time.

When I was 30, what I was doing felt daunting and scary to me. People asked why I was taking such a different path when I “had been prepared for an academic career.” In many ways, I had been groomed by my mentors to be first a professor, then a young dean, then the young president of a liberal arts college like Carleton where I was an undergraduate. People asked me, “Why are you throwing your life away by becoming a community organizer?” That’s a question I was asking myself! The only answer I could find was a double negative: “What I’m doing is something I can’t not do.” Was I crazy-wild about being on this unpredictable career path, without a steady paycheck, and all the risks inherent in that, while I’m helping to raise three kids? Was I eager to wake up each morning to face a day of deeper uncertainty? Was I glad to risk falling off the radar of higher education? No, I wasn’t running enthusiastically toward any of that! Still, there was something in me that said, “You can’t not do this.”

Around this time, I started writing and talking about what I saw as the need for “humanism”—or to use an even more dangerous word, “spirituality”—in higher education. At the time, spirituality in education was not a popular topic: it required getting out on a number of limbs and taking risks that weren’t well supported. Yet, I felt so strongly that higher education was increasingly offering students thin soup, when their hungers and the needs of the world are so great, and the great tradition of higher learning has more nourishing things to offer.

bridge-sunset-people-talking-1000I learned pretty early on that “spirituality” wasn’t a word that I could utter in most secular academic settings without getting ridden out of town on a rail—which is an honor, of course, just not one you want. But I soon learned that I could talk about “epistemology” and take people to the same place that I wanted to go with the word spirituality. I think the challenge when I was 30—one I have been working on ever since—is how to translate the things that are really important to us into the lingua franca of whatever community we are working in. How do we use language to build bridges instead of walls?

When I actually did get around to talking about spirituality, I would say to people, “Before you stop listening, let me explain what that word means to me: spirituality is any way you have of responding to the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than your own ego.” I think that’s a pretty good operational definition of spirituality. It’s open and neutral (as a good definition should be) in the sense that the question of how to get connected with something larger than one’s own ego has been answered historically in a wide variety of ways, for better and for worse, a lot worse. The Third Reich, for example, was an answer to that question. That answer was inherently evil, but it swept up a lot of Germans who were in a spiritual identity crisis that was both personal and national. Their sense was, “If I can embrace this notion of Aryan superiority, then I’m joined with something transpersonal, which is going to bring meaning to my life.” What it brought, of course, was an enormous amount of death in the most tragic ways. And, to say the obvious, there are other ways of answering the question that are more life-giving.

Higher education needs to give students opportunities to sort out these questions of meaning and purpose, to learn to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. Just look at the current presidential campaign. We have at least one candidate out there who is calling people to a kind of crypto-fascism in response to the problems they, and we, have. A key characteristic of a would-be leader of a fascist movement is that he doesn’t really need a solution to anyone’s problems—all he needs is a scapegoat to blame and a blustering promise to eliminate that scapegoat. There are lots of people who uncritically fall in line and cheer and say, “Oh great, as soon as those people are gone, then our lives will be fine.”

These are essentially spiritual questions, as well as political and economic questions. Higher education makes a terrible mistake by being so afraid of them that we exclude them from the curriculum, making it possible to help students learn to winnow truth from falsehood in this arena.

It’s imperative for educators to dive into these deeper dimensions of what it means to be human in a world that challenges our humanity on a daily basis.

This concern for the depth dimension of higher education—humanism, spirituality, whatever you want to call it—has actually become a larger movement itself over the last 45 years of my life. One of my first pieces of evidence was almost 20 years ago when Harvard and Wellesley sponsored a conference on spirituality in higher education that was attended by 800 people from around the country. Who’d think, back in the late 60s, that Harvard and Wellesley would do such a thing? What I began exploring nervously in the late 60s is now being explored by lots of people, and that’s personally gratifying. But my main point is that it’s imperative for educators to dive into these deeper dimensions of what it means to be human in a world that challenges our humanity on a daily basis.

holding-hands-1000

The Crystallization of a Career

My career didn’t really come together until I was almost 50 years old. I’m one of those lucky people who can identify a particular moment in time when my career began to crystallize. It happened when I was invited to address the annual gathering of the National Association of Higher Education in Chicago in 1987. For reasons I will never fully understand, a 1000 deans and presidents gave me a standing ovation, one that went on and on, for a talk about “Community, Conflict and Ways of Knowing”—which was really a talk about the love of learning and of learners. That talk, and the audience response, was documented in the September/October 1987 issue of Change Magazine.

What’s particularly interesting for me personally is that when I gave that talk I was in the middle of one of the clinical depressions that I’ve written and talked about. I have often thought that the reason the talk was successful was that “I wasn’t there”—in the sense that my ego wasn’t there. In depression, your ego is dead and gone. I had enough of myself left to write the talk and deliver it, but I was in one of those places where you don’t have any choice but to get out of your own way. That’s an important thing to do generally, but it’s hard to do when you’re feeling full of yourself. Well, I was at a point in life when there was not much of “me” left, and I think that’s why what I said had a certain purity to it that resonated with people.

That was the moment in my professional life when everything changed. I started getting invitations to talk all over the country and to give workshops. That talk just opened the floodgates to the independent career that I’ve been pursing as a writer and traveling teacher for the last 30 years.

seedlings-in-pots-1000In the early 1990s, I planted the seeds for what is now called the Center for Courage & Renewal. To get a look at the scope of our work, folks can visit the site. Right now, I’m devoting a lot of time and energy to Courage & Renewal retreats for young leaders and activists—people under the age of 40 who are doing important things, people from whom I’m learning so much. In addition to my writing, the last 25 years of my life have been devoted to developing Courage & Renewal work in this country and around the world. This has given me a huge community of discourse—of teaching, and action—because the folks we work with are not only in K-12 education and higher education, but also in the nonprofit world, in health care, philanthropy, ministry, and the law. These folks are doing heavy lifting in our society that needs to be supported from the inside out.

I deeply believe that to be the case: what we need to deal with the world’s madness is within us (in the soul) and between us (in community) and it’s always available.

As I argue in my book, The Courage to Teach, it’s not about tips, tricks, and techniques—it’s about having your identity and integrity firmly in hand as you go about whatever work you’re doing. So my work through the Center is about creating “safe space” in retreat settings where people in the helping professions can “rejoin soul and role” and find forms of community that support them in bringing identity and integrity into the workplace. Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets, and he has a poem that ends with lines that I live by. In “The Wild Geese,” he says, “What we need is here.” I deeply believe that to be the case: what we need to deal with the world’s madness is within us (in the soul) and between us (in community) and it’s always available. I’d love to see higher education devote more time and energy to putting students on this path.

At age 77, I think finding your vocation is all about finding out what you can’t not do! That’s a slow, incremental process, and experiment in being as faithful as you know to the gifts you have, taking risks along the way—even when others don’t understand you—and trusting life’s resourcefulness, which includes not only the resourcefulness that’s within you, but the kind that can be generated between you and other people in community.

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Sometimes Doctors Need Saving as Much as Their Patients

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Photo Credit: Georgie Scapens


Click here to download and read Glenn’s poem “Doctor to patient (on ornithology and the practice of medicine)”

For most of my career medicine has not been so friendly. I have struggled with doubt. I have always felt that at any point I might do the wrong thing. For a long time this meant that consultations were noisy with my own thoughts. Life was lived in two parts. In one I would go to work and be unsure and struggle with the waiting room and paper trails and fires popping up. In the other I would imagine. I would dream that I could fly. I would soar up over the world like a young seagull and look down and be amazed. Moments would open up like a ranch slider. Inside I found they were timeless. Poetry was good and medicine was bad. I joked that poetry was the first girl I ever loved, the one I always wanted but never felt confident enough to ask out, and that medicine was the girl I got pregnant behind the bike shed and thought I had to make an honest woman of.

A few years ago I began to compile a book based on the stories of a group of patients I saw over the course of one day in general practice. For a year I visited as many of them as I could and asked them about their lives leading up to that consultation. I saw them in their homes and among those things they cared about, then afterwards flew up into the sky like a seagull with an old piece of string and looked down. When I came to write about them I saw them with wet eyes — the sort of love that poetry demands of those who write it.

I noticed that in consultations after that my head would calm sometimes and I would see my patients’ faces slow down while they were talking. I was reminded of that day outside the lecture theatre at Auckland University. Now wrinkles began to shimmy on the faces of my patients. Parrots or bellbirds or fantails would appear on their shoulders and dead people shuffle shyly out from behind them. Some would hide beneath their skirts or behind their trousers and others would trail warily after. Some would haunt and others would protect.

I came to understand that the anatomy I had learnt about at medical school was limited. Ache and memory gave human beings other anatomies that were entirely specific, and with increasing confidence I began to palpate these like the quadrants of the abdomen. After a while I realised I had ghosts of my own and that they were present in my consultations as well. I kept stumbling on them red-handed.

Card games would spring up in the corner of the office. My wrecked old dad, my estranged wife, my bright and shining daughter would take the spooks they met on the other side of the room by the hand and do the real medicine while my patient and I were left to talk about more important less important things. Often they would look at me and shake their heads as though I was their ghost, a distraction or apparition from some less real world.

These ghosts are with me still. Their medicine is usually either play, i.e., card games, Ludo, mini-golf or indoor bowls, or conversations over food, i.e., biscuits, tea, potato chips or jet aeroplanes. Even now one or more of them will follow a patient out the door to offer them a cup of tea or slice of cake or game of pool. I am too stubborn and fallen to call this prayer, but perhaps it is. I call it ghost talk. Poetry showed me that a person is the tip of a fabulous iceberg. The shape we see is the line the pen has drawn onto the map but it is determined only by the state of the tide at any given time. Beyond this everyone has a layer of continental shelf.

But I am a GP who has spent his life working with Māori and young people, so I suppose this sort of medicine has become important to me. I don’t often find myself wrist deep in an abdomen or busy correcting acid-base equilibriums. Sometimes we need to be mechanics. People are wheezing or bleeding or in pain. Stuff is dripping out of them that shouldn’t be. Our physiology and our randomised controlled trials hold there like Newton’s laws of physics. But on the magic edge of medicine other wonders play out. Medicine blurs into the spirit and here medicine is as old as the hills. It is black magic and weirdness. It is a type of quantum medicine where illness, happiness and longing tangle and weave, blinking in and out and in and out of existence.

There are times for me in the consultation when the intimacy of two human beings talking rivals the intimacy of the creative moment. In fact, I have come to understand the consultation is a creative moment. It seems after so many years of chasing my childhood sweetheart I have found her hiding in the eyes of that girl behind the bike shed. I have expected for years that medicine should leak into my poetry but never dreamed that poetry might leak into my medicine in such a way. On my best days there is no separation at all between both disciplines. I feel as though I have discovered a late love and, like all of those who have, it is all the more sweet for taking so long to wander by.

A non-randomised uncontrolled trial

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It has taken a long time for me to rebel in medicine. It is full of high priests and orthodoxy and impetus to act in the way it does because of impetus to act in the way it does. And there is so much to learn that you might always be distracted learning it and rarely step back and question. My doubt has been busy with self-doubt. And I have always had writing to run to anyway when it gets too much. But for a long time I have grown frustrated by the ten-to-fifteen-minute model of medicine in primary care. It has always seemed to me designed by designers, and without imagination. And I have been slowly frustrated by a medicine that usually expects patients to come to it and rarely reaches out to see people where they are.

I have also been inspired by others — the quiet and gentle rebellion of old teachers like Professor Sir John Scott, who retained their humanity in all the busyness, and the new anger of colleagues in primary care such as Lance O’Sullivan.

Most recently I have come to believe that the stories my young people tell me demand some response from my profession. They are at times a plea to the world of big people to bring some explanation or justice or relief, however naive that might be. Not to respond is a defeat in the natural order of things.

In 2012 I took some time out from medicine. I resigned from the clinic I had worked at for many years because they wanted me to see more patients. My sessions usually ran over time anyway, and I felt too old and stubborn to change. I wrote for much of the year and let medicine tick. By the end of that year the distance had made me want to practise medicine the way I wanted to. I knew I could rely on being employed for two days a week by the local youth health service, but I also knew that, no matter how understanding my funders, this would come with expectations about time and location, and so I took a job for another two days a week as a youth worker in the same area.

From that time on I have been employed by two different organisations under two different contracts with wildly differing pay scales, but in reality I do one job. I see young people. We have clinics in the community and in two of the three high schools where the best of the old model can be retained, but I am also free to leave the clinic each week to follow up young people who need more time to talk or a ride to the hospital or who need to know that they are worth a big person checking on how they are doing.

I get to help out on a local alternative education programme for students who have been excluded from mainstream schools, and I run a creative writing group for those who share a similar wound. I can see young people individually or in groups. I can see them for two minutes, ten minutes, thirty minutes or an hour. I can bake with them, eat burgers with them and watch movies. I can knock on their doors and explain again what they are bound to have forgotten the first time round. I am poorer but richer. Some joy has returned to medicine for me.

I think about patients outside of work now and wonder how to reach them as though I am stuck on a line in the middle of a poem. Medicine has entered my imagination. My room has filled up with toys and models and props that explain the abstract to more concrete minds. My subconscious is figuring out what to do next in cases where I am stuck. This has only ever happened in poetry, answers to problems appearing days later when I thought I had given up on them. I have stockpiled a shelf full of books to give away to young people who might find something they can identify with in a particular story. To be able to hand someone a book instead of a script for fluoxetine or methylphenidate or something to help them sleep and say “this is a story you might like” seems a great freedom.

Many of the young people I work with have my cellphone number. For years I guarded it as though it was some sacred barrier that could not be crossed. I am discovering that it is much more convenient for my patients to have it. No one has abused it. Texted consultations have evolved in which patients are more direct in what they want to say than they are when they are face to face. In the context of being able to see them face to face later, it is a useful adjunct.

I’m not sure if any of this will make a lot of difference to youth health in the Horowhenua. In fact I know that most of it won’t. It will improve some access to primary care for some people, but so many of the young people I see needed to be seen ten years earlier than they were, and their families needed services that engaged with them in caring, constructive and enduring ways.

But it is, I suppose, a personal response to the limits we have allowed to build up around primary care — my own small non-randomised uncontrolled trial. Strengths in young people can sometimes be seen only by being with them outside a clinic. This is important because so often the path to establishing the confidence and engagement of a young person is through growing their strengths rather than concentrating on what is wrong with them. When we do not see people in their contexts, we do not see the medicine they possess that can help them get better.

Copyright © 2016 Glenn Colquhoun.  This is an extract from Glenn Colquhoun’s book Late Love: Sometimes Doctors Need Saving as Much as Their Patients, published by Bridget Williams Books.

About the Author 

Glenn Colquhoun“I have fought a running battle with medicine for much of my career. I have wanted to leave it for poetry. This is the story of how that has come to change for me. And how both those worlds have at last arrived at some sort of reconciliation.”

As a youth worker, doctor and award-winning poet and children’s writer, Glenn Colquhoun has led a ‘life lived in two parts’. Writing and reading has always transported him to a world ‘flickered’ by colour, warmth and connection. Meanwhile his work as a GP in the Horowhenua has confronted him daily with scenes of doubt, dislocation and disadvantage. Late Love is a meeting of these worlds, a moving attempt to show what it is, as a doctor and writer, to be alongside people.

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