Personally Speaking…

“We often add to our pain and suffering by being overly sensitive, overreacting to minor things, and sometimes taking things too personally.” – Dalai Lama

Last night, I took Indian food to a friend’s house for dinner. It was a chaotic meal, with her four kids requiring varying degrees of attention (and employing tactics from screaming to tears to yelling “Mom” in a rapid-fire stream of syllables from the top of the stairs). In other words, a normal evening with a growing family.

Eventually, everyone began to quiet down. My friend and I moved from the kitchen to the living room at the urging of her three-year-old, who wanted to cuddle with her mom on the soft furniture. After a few minutes, during a lull in conversation, the little girl looked me directly in the eye and said, “You go home!”

Both my friend and I burst out laughing. My friend said, “Honey, that wasn’t a kind thing to say!”, but the little one was unrepentant, whining, “But I’m tired and I want everyone to go to bed!”

So I left, chuckling to myself about the directness of a three-year-old.

As I drove home, I thought about how silly it would have been for me to take the little one’s order to leave personally, because even though it was directed at me, it wasn’t about me. She was just trying to make her needs known to the adults in the room. I was glad that her mother’s correction was gentle.

People who have known me all my life, most notably my siblings, will tell you that I haven’t always been so able to let things roll off me. In fact, for much of my life I’ve tended to take most things personally. As a kid, it was hard for me to see something good happening to or for someone else as anything but a slight to me. If someone said, “Boo!” to me, it hurt my feelings. The occasional instances of true injustice left me sputtering with nothing to say but, “That’s not fair!”

Over time, though, I’ve been learning to adjust my perspective. If I catch myself thinking thoughts that overly-personalize the nonpersonal – like traffic or weather patterns – I can now laugh at myself and stop that thinking in process. No, every slow or timid driver does not have a vendetta against me which leads them to somehow cut in front of me. No, it doesn’t only rain because I have outdoor plans. No, that complaint about “some people” I walked in on at work wasn’t about me. Learning to put these nonpersonal issues into perspective has helped me begin to see that even things that feel or are, perhaps, intended to be personal are often not about me, either.

Once, a friend sent me a scathing email, accusing me of nefarious intentions and intentionally cruel behaviors. I was devastated. My immediate reaction was to sit down and write a tearful, point by point rebuttal to prove that these accusations weren’t true. After reading what I had written, I erased it. It somehow felt wrong – I had said, repeatedly, that the things I was accused of were complete fabrications and bore no resemblance to me, my intentions or my behaviors. But wouldn’t a friend know this?

The longer I sat with this situation, the more it became clear to me. Most of my friend’s email actually revealed her fears and her implicit (and unchecked) assumptions. Most of it truly had very little to do with me. Once my perspective shifted and I realized that the email projected onto me what she feared or was insecure about, I was able to respond in a less defensive way. I waited 48 hours or so before responding. I took time to question myself about each part of her accusations – what pieces were actually about me? what was fair? were there parts that I needed to own? what required direct response from me? how could I phrase my response such that it expressed my concern, compassion, and truth without projecting my insecurities back at my friend? I could not control her feelings or her response, but I hoped to move our conversation back onto level ground, where we could both remember that we were friends – that our intentions toward one another were positive, despite our human failings to express those perfectly in either words or deeds.

I have been thinking about this tendency to take things personally a lot lately. As social media and other forms of public discourse have taken a more incendiary and adversarial tone, it behooves me to remember that much of what is being posted, re-posted, commented upon, is coming from someone elses’ worry, fear, or insecurity (or, in the case of some outlets, purposely playing on those). When my friends are rude or incendiary, is it their intent to hurt me? When I am those things, is it my intent to wound the very people I care most about? I hope that I will be able to answer these questions in the negative – my friends are not purposely hurting me, nor am I purposely hurting them. So, how do we proceed?

I know I don’t have the answers. What I am trying to do is not take anything personally if it isn’t addressed to me personally. So, I assume that general postings/repostings on someone else’s social media wall or feed aren’t about me. They may certainly speak to me, but aren’t intended to hurt me specifically. I try to be sensitive about posting blasting rants full of name-calling and wild invective (sometimes, I’m not a good judge of this when I am emotionally reacting to news, but I am trying). Whenever possible, when I start to feel hurt or attacked, I stop and question my response – is this really about me?

The thing is, for some, all of this discord is nonsense. (We’ve all seen the posts asking Facebook to go back to being a place for feel-good news.) For others, politics IS personal. Often, the dividing line is how directly you see some opinion or legislation impacting your own life or lives you care about. Or how directly it touches on your most deeply held values and beliefs. This is true for most of us, regardless of political leanings. If one person believes that they are fighting for their life, while the other believes they are having a philosophical argument, that unequal amount of “skin in the game” will have a direct impact on the interaction – and it almost ensures that feelings will get hurt. For me, it remains important to recall that I am talking to, am in relationship with, a fellow human being about whom I care. A close second point to keep in mind: none of us, me included, has perfect insight.

The times I can avoid taking the other person’s comments, postings, statements as deeply personal – then see my way clear to a compassionate yet truthful response – are the times when real communication happens. Getting to that level is vitally important to moving forward as opposed to ending in an invective-filled, anxiety-inducing, tear-producing stalemate of an argument.

As I prepare to post this reflection, I’m aware that some readers will disagree with me or take issue with something I’ve said. I’m prepared for that every time I post to this blog. But please know that I am deeply willing to engage in respectful dialogue – even difficult and gut-wrenching discussion of our beliefs – with you. Please accept that my intent is positive and motivated by care. Also know that I am trying not to take our differences personally; rather, I hope to find in them an opportunity for personal and collective growth. I can’t help but believe that this is what our world needs more of right now.



When Breaking News Breaks Your Heart

“Let the highest truths and values guide everything you do.”
–Quaker admonition

Working in higher education means that when national news revolves around campus scandal, we will be even more absorbed in the story than we might otherwise have been. No one talked too much about Herman Cain at work today. Everyone had something to say about Joe Paterno. It is considered a kind of professional courtesy not to jump into the public fray too quickly, pointing fingers at other institutions. When a student dies of alcohol poisoning, when a campus sexual assault turns out to have been mishandled, when a college is fined by the Department of Education for a policy that doesn’t quite meet the federal guideline, we can find ourselves thinking, “I could be that (insert campus title) standing in front of the camera.” And we refrain from public posturing. This story is something entirely different.

I’m guessing we’ve all been paying attention – if not, just google Paterno and you’ll begin to learn the horrifying details. A lot of words have been used to describe what took place between a coach and the vulnerable children he was supposedly mentoring. More have been used to discuss the criminal lack of judgment displayed by members of the Penn State administration. I don’t have any that wouldn’t seem cliche at this point. Instead, I want to talk about the ease with which we can stray from the very values that give our lives meaning.

These coaches were famous for their values. For teaching them, for speaking them, for living them. For mentoring young people to become adults of strong character. By all accounts, these were the hallmark of their careers. I can’t speak to the values of the university officials also involved in these events, but I have spent my life working with higher education administrators. The values of our shared roles and professions as educators can be expressed in a myriad of ways, but at the core are generally recognizable: lifelong learning, development of well-rounded citizens and whole persons, the common good, to name a few.

How, then, does anyone stray so far from their professed values that they could be complicit in creating the culture of cover-up and self-protection so evident as the facts of this case have become known? I suspect the usual culprits: fear, money, cowardice, hubris, and plain old poor judgement. I would also like to suggest that our unwillingness as a society to engage in self-reflection, to practice quiet, to ask ourselves the hard questions, played a role here as well. When everyone becomes caught up in our “brand” or our image, as opposed to who our actions say that we are, abuses of power happen. When fear causes us to lose the values at our center, we often find ourselves pushed into behaviors we wouldn’t normally condone. Finally, I sometimes wonder if we place anywhere near enough value on the idea of vocation – what am I called to do with my life as opposed to how will I make money?

I don’t know about you, but in my job I am faced almost daily with situations big and small about which I am asked to decide the right course of action. I can never be 100% certain that the decision I come to, the action I take, is the most ethical, most right. However, what I can do is ask questions, get input from others I trust, then take the time to consult my own inner voice. If I ask, it will tell me if cowardice or conviction is behind my choice. Most important, I can never allow myself to forget that I am charged with a sacred trust as an educator. Sacred isn’t a word used very often, I’m afraid, in cultures like the one that developed at Penn State.

What has happened has happened. Nothing any of us, or the pundits, or even the courts say or do can change that now. The choices were made, from the heartbreaking violation of trust between Sandusky and his young victims, to the heartbreakingly apathetic (or cynical or criminally negligent – take your pick) response from those who could have done something about it. The only thing I can do in the aftermath of this horrifying chain of events is look within. I can reaffirm that I need to do the right thing, not the easy thing. I can take the extra minutes to search my soul before choosing an irrevocable course. I can practice speaking the truth when doing so is less risky, so that I am ready to do it when it feels like my job or more might be on the line.

Finally, I can remind myself regularly that my work isn’t just about collecting a paycheck or having a positive reputation. It isn’t about politics or creating plausible deniability. It isn’t about protecting my company’s reputation or brand or revenue stream above the people whose lives are impacted by what I do. My work is a sacred vocation, and what I value should be crystal clear from how I behave within that work.

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
–Parker Palmer

Busy, Busy, Busy

Today begins six weeks in which I will be incredibly busy. I have done what I could to prepare for it, though it wasn’t enough. After all, the past few weeks have been busy in their own right! When I start to feel pressure from the things I know are on the horizon, I have a tendency to give anxiety free-reign. And as I feel more anxious, I grow less patient, less able to take minor setbacks in stride. As anxiety reaches fever pitch, I begin to resent the conditions in which I find myself – as if I didn’t have a hand in creating them.

Because a lot, though not all, of what I will be doing in this busy period is work related, I will have a tendency to blame my job for the outcomes of my anxiety – if I snap at someone, if I drop the ball and let a friend down, if I miss an appointment. So my challenge is to remain centered and on task in my own life, and to not allow myself to abdicate responsibility for my actions.

Parker Palmer, my go-to guy, says this, in A Hidden Wholeness:

“The notion that we cannot have what we genuinely need is a culturally induced illusion that keeps us mired in the madness of business as usual. But illusions are made to be broken. Am I busy? Of course I am. Am I too busy to live my own life? Only if I value it so little that I am willing to surrender it…”

So, heading into Monday, I am pausing to take a deep breath. The next weeks are a marathon, not a sprint, so I need to pace myself and remember what I truly value!