Throw Open the Gates


I don’t just mean physically; I mean emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. I don’t want to be afraid of bright colors, or new sounds, or big love, or risky decisions, or strange experiences, or weird endeavors, or sudden changes, even failure.                              —Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic


I have this friend, B., whose approach to life is always full-tilt. He’s an artist, a musician, a bad-ass trickster on both his bikes and his skateboard. I often cringe at the ways he pushes himself physically, at the photos of scrapes and casts that show up on Facebook. But I usually can’t help being distracted from these sights by the huge goofy grin on his face.

Like the rest of us, B. has fears – I just don’t know what they are.

Whatever gifts he is exploring, whatever he is creating, B. doesn’t hold back – all of it is put out into the world, shared with others. We’ve never discussed whether he gets sweaty palms before he uploads his work to a music-sharing app, or if he stays awake at night fretting over how his family or friends might react to his lyrics, his latest artwork – or if his fear of physical pain ever gives him pause before attempting a new jump or trick on his bike. The key point is that, whatever fears he may experience, they don’t stop him.

Unlike B., many of us hold back, keeping all that beauty and energy locked up inside. For some, that holding back has been instinctual and strong – they’ve never broken through it to let their gifts and talents out into the world. For others, the holding back is a retreat: they’ve stepped out there and been roundly criticized, belittled, “put back in their place”.

Maybe you, like me, have experienced both.

When I took the photo, above, I remember feeling judgmental toward whomever had fenced in that glorious riot of color, assuming that it was about keeping the “riffraff” out. But as I’ve been thinking about it, I realize that it could as easily be an image of keeping something in, rather than of keeping something out. It could easily be an image of what it looks like to hold back our giftedness – an image of what the world needs but isn’t able to experience because of our fears.

“Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,” says Frederick Buechner, writer and theologian. Is our holding back the very thing that prevents us from discovering our own deep gladness? Our vocations? And how have we beggared the world by refusing to meet it’s deep need with the gift of ourselves?

I ask you, what “big magic” (to borrow the words of Elizabeth Gilbert) would happen if we opened the gates and freely shared that beauty with the world? If we took down our psychic “no trespassing” signs and just shared ourselves – our humor, our talents, our love – with someone, anyone or everyone, besides ourselves? True, we might experience pain or brokenness. But we might notice it less because of the huge, goofy grins on our faces!



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