Centered: Taking Aim at 2017

I have often vacillated between speaking and not speaking. Many times, I’ve spoken and regretted it. Other times, I’ve chosen not to speak, and found that my silence has hurt me – or worse, hurt others. Occasionally, I’ve held back for a while, allowing a little time to elapse and then tried to speak from my heart in a centered way that was not accusatory or defensive or in another way emotionally manipulative.

In my experience, the latter of those options has generally produced the best results.

And by results, I mean that I have found less cause to regret my words when this is the case. I am not referring to how others have reacted to or responded or felt about what I said.

In personal relationships, I generally err to one extreme or the other. Either I over-explain, over-state, over-emote OR I clam up and suppress my words. The result of both extremes is a disservice to self. When I over-express, I end up becoming hopelessly entangled in rambling sentences, often ending someplace completely unintended – expressing not what I hoped to convey but, rather, drifting  far off-course. When I clam up, I telegraph a message of disregard to my own emotional self that what I’m feeling isn’t important enough to burden someone else with. I don’t believe that everything I feel needs to be shared, but I have learned that sometimes what I’m feeling must be conveyed to another person in order for it to be acknowledged and (hopefully) honored by both listener and speaker – sometimes this is vital for the relationship to thrive. I’ve learned the hard way that relationships do not thrive if one or both parties cannot speak from a place of truth.

In the workplace, I have often told colleagues that I know – and they need to know, too – that my first reaction is rarely my best one. The good news is, it is also rarely my final reaction. But because I know this about myself, the onus is on me to manage my response to various situations and stimuli. It isn’t really fair to ask others to differentiate whether I am knee-jerk-reacting or giving a considered response.

In political life, it is sometimes fun to pronounce a zinger that carries home my point with the surety of an arrow fired from Katniss Everdeen’s bow. When I’m discussing politics with like-minded people, that can be fairly harmless because we’re all shooting in the same direction. But I often wonder what I’ve done to the positive when these arrows are deployed against opposing viewpoints – when the whole exercise is intended to find a soft spot where my point can burrow deep behind someone else’s defenses. I know I’ve managed to wound my opponent – but have I effected a change in their opinion or position? It is a fair question to ask whether the yield is worth the wound inflicted. Often, in my experience, the answer is difficult to ascertain.

Where is the line between saying too much or too little in a polarized world? When does moderation and compromise become collusion and appeasement? When is it necessary for my own holistic well-being to speak and when should my need to speak to be sublimated to the greater good? These are questions that I find myself asking more frequently these days, and to which quick answers are not particularly satisfactory.

That said, I am slowly coming to believe that love speaks from the center.

What do I mean by that? I mean that, looking back, there are a handful of moments when I know that the words I spoke were true and meaningful and carried the full force of love.   In one case, I needed to speak on my own behalf about the ways someone was repeatedly hurting me. I didn’t want to erupt in anger and hurt, but I also needed to stand up for myself and say, “This hurts.” Another instance was when talking with a friend about some personal difficulties she was experiencing. I certainly did not want to add to her pain, but to offer, with compassion, an insight that might be hard to hear. Another final instance was one in which I needed to share a differing perspective with someone in a more powerful role than me. In all three of these cases, I was anxious about what to say, emotionally desirous of a particular outcome, and powerfully drawn toward keeping my mouth shut out of fear. Instead, I took a little time – time to breathe, time to get clear on what the central issue was for me, time to relax the fight or flight response that rears up when strong emotions and fear are at play. I took the time to let go of my need for a predetermined outcome. In other words, I took the time to get centered within myself so that, when I did speak, the words could well forth with the intent of love (as opposed to intent to hurt or to control or to curry favor).

These times in which we are living require something from us. If you’re like me, figuring out what that might be is a difficult and ongoing process of discernment. But I know I will be at my best, offer my best self, when I am able to remain centered, able to access the truth and love available to me in that still place sometimes called my heart, sometimes called my soul.

That, dear friends, is why my one word for 2017 is “centered.”

Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.
–Benjamin Franklin



Notes from the Middle Ground

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see a new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”  — Bill Vaughan

I’m torn: The optimist in me wants to take an inspirational look ahead, to set a positive tone for the new year. The pessimist in me wants to review the past twelve months, enumerating and wallowing in its difficulties. One approach seems disingenuous, the other disenchanting.

In a small way, today’s conundrum is representative of my whole life: it often feels like this life has been an exercise in seeking a comfortable perch somewhere in the middle. When I saw an astrologer to have my natal chart drawn, she said my personality was evenly balanced between the four classical elements of earth, air, water, fire. Every personality test has born that out – I tend to balance in the middle, on the fulcrum-point between polar opposites (extrovert/introvert; red/blue; task/process).

I know, this doesn’t sound like a problem. However, we are all living in a world – a culture, a moment in time – when polarities carry the day. Today’s is a zeitgeist in which, simply to be heard, voices stray as far to the ends of the continuum as they dare. As the ends of the continuum exert an outward pull, the middle ground stretches thin, making it ever-more-difficult to balance there.

Throughout my life, voices around me have declared, “That’s the way it is. You can’t change it.” These same voices have proudly staked out their territory as that of realism, casting me onto the ever-shaky (and mostly disrespected) ground of idealism. These days, I’m coming to think of idealism as the middle ground. It appears to be the only place from which a voice that hopes for peace, that trusts in love, that doesn’t cast other human beings as evil demons can emerge.

Let the realists have that territory at both ends of the spectrum, since they claim it anyway. In many ways, the middle ground is the only hopeful ground on which to stand. Someone told me recently, “It is a fallacy to believe that every voice holds equal weight.” That’s a realistic statement if I’ve every heard one. Still, is that right? Is that just? Here in the middle where there is less shouting, I can hear more voices, can allow them each their weightiness. Here in the middle we talk and we ask first, shoot later. In fact, we don’t shoot until/unless we’ve exhausted other options, so mostly shooting isn’t necessary. Living in the middle requires impulse-control, requires me to hold my fear in check, expects me to breathe through the anxiety until I am able to do more than lash out.

There’s a belief out there that the middle ground is lacking in passion, and I’ve often labored under that assumption myself. At times, it was the reason I tried to abandon the middle. But now I see that isn’t true. For me, calm and peace and reason are to be striven for with passionate abandon from right here, in the very middle. I may sway to the left or to the right, but mostly I seek a creative path straight through the center, to the heart of things. Here in the middle, I’m not supporting the status quo – that is a story that keeps getting told in order to force people to the poles. In fact, it may be the status quo is held in place by the equal but opposing force exerted at the ends of the continuum. More people in the creative middle might have the effect of causing the tension to ease; eventually the tightrope could slacken and bend into a new shape, into new possibilities. What is that old proverb – if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail? When everyone is standing on one end or the other shouting at the top of their lungs, perhaps a different volume, even a whisper, issuing from the middle may offer new insights.
Just to be clear, I am not talking about passively standing in place. I am not saying that things ought to stay the same – I am claiming a reinterpretation of the dominant paradigm. I am simply unconvinced that ratcheting up the adversarial model we’ve been living in is getting us anywhere. The pessimist in me feels overwhelmed by today’s world. The optimist in me sees possibilities for making tomorrow’s world better. Change won’t happen if we continue to do what we’ve been doing, only more so. And I refuse to allow my dreams of a better world to be defined by the rhetoric of extremism, left or right.
Which brings me back to my original conundrum. Which lens  will it be – optimism or pessimism – through which I will view this ending of one year and beginning of a new? Now that I think about it, that may be the wrong question, after all. Perhaps the lens required in this middle ground I’ve staked out is the lens of hope. As Vaclav Havel, creative thinker, writer, activist so eloquently articulated:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.




Of Photographs, Memories and Hope

As our plane left the ground, I watched our ascent – marveling at the sheer number of blinking lights, like strange red sparks, buzzing around us in the dark sky. I worried for a brief moment that we would collide, but we were well-choreographed by unseen air-traffic controllers. I relaxed. Suddenly, a scene of spectacular beauty appeared, perfectly framed in my window: the lights of Dallas spread out below as far as the eye could see; above them, the blackness of the night sky was pierced only by the blue-white sliver of the crescent moon. I was transfixed.

I thought, fleetingly, of the camera safely packed in the bag wedged under the seat in front of me. But I immediately knew two things. First, I would never be able to get to it in time, and the moment would be lost. Second, even if I did manage it, no photograph could capture what I felt about the expansiveness of the universe as I looked out that little window.

And that moment, dear friends, exactly mirrors my experience as I sit at my computer now to write about the  past year and look forward to the coming one. I cannot begin to capture the wonder, joy and sheer fun of the events comprising 2011, or the quality of hope I am feeling for 2012.

2011 has been a banner year for me: I turned 50, which feels not at all like my younger self imagined it would (thank you, God!). This was the year I fell in love with cities – Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis. For the first time in my life, I travelled alone and explored with curiosity and excitement but without fear. At home, I renewed my love affair with the eastern Iowa landscape, viewing it with awe from the saddle of my bike (my bottom comfortably cushioned by chamois) both on training rides and RAGBRAI. March and April saw a renaissance of my passion for ideas and translating them to my daily, lived choices – especially as they relate to my vocation. I brushed elbows with activists who are impacting local, national and international communities – and was reminded that to act from my core beliefs is the important part of having core beliefs. I experienced the sheer joy of putting my arms around friends I hadn’t seen in decades. Looking back, I cannot believe the incredible experiences packed into this year!

More importantly, I am astounded by the gifts showered upon me in 2011 – the love of family and friends, the opportunities to learn more about this world we share and about the world inside of me. I learned about the single-minded-ness required to push past physical limits, and (strangely enough) I now understand a fraction of what true athletes experience. I’m learning to keep my heart open in spite of hurts; letting go of shame over what I feel; learning to speak my truth without riding roughshod over others and the truths they hold deeply. I am learning that all kinds of energy can, and likely will, come at me in a given day BUT I can hold my center and respond from my authentic self. Of all the insights from this incredible year, that is the most freeing and empowering one.

Given the fullness of my life, and the giftedness of 2011, it seems almost criminal to hold out my bowl crying, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” And yet, I hold out that bowl with hope, not demand, in my heart. I pray for healing where illness and despair currently reside. I pray for us to be awake in our lives, rather than sleepwalking through them as our modern culture so encourages. I humbly ask for the wisdom to act rightly in my life, and to recognize the incipient gifts in each moment, each challenge, each joy. May 2012 be a year of growth, happiness, and true spirit for each of us.

Happy New Year, friends!