Sunday, October 18, 2009

Difficult Students

In both of my classes this semester, I have some difficult students.

One student in my Peace Studies class has taken to lobbing ad hominem attacks at almost all of the authors whose books we are reading, as well as some of the guest speakers I have brought to class (though, thank goodness, not in their presence). Not only do these attacks feel mean-spirited, they also turn out to be replete with factual errors. I need to figure out how to deal with this more effectively when it happens. But also, I need to find out why this student has become so unhappy. I think the course is getting to him. I suspect he took it expecting to find it easy to hold his own against the major premises of the course, and this is turning out more difficult than he expected. It has thrown him into a panic.

In my other class, a class on ethical theories, a group of students argues (badly and incompletely) against literally everything. I finally stopped class the other day to point out that it amazed me to no end that they were arguing against the author we were now discussing since their arguments against earlier authors convinced me that they were naturalists and should therefore like the current author. "Help me understand what's going on here!" I said.

They gave me bewildered looks.

I was not sure whether they were actually understanding any of theories we were studying. I had also detected that they were using the same argument strategy over and over again. No matter what ethical theory we were discussing, they kept coming back over and over again to saying that there are people who seem not to care about morality at all, who do terrible things without remorse; therefore, who is to say that there are any moral absolutes at all?

First, I ask what their evidence is for this. They cite to movies they've seen! I say that doesn't count as evidence -- someone's just making that up. Then they cite dubious statistics they think they remember from psychology classes they've taken, but they are unable to follow that up with actual citations to research, or describe the research that supposedly supported such claims.

Realizing that this is all beside the point anyway, I then shift to trying to point that out. "Even if you are right that there are lots of immoral or amoral people out there who see no problem with doing terrible things, how does that undermine this moral theory that we are studying? Are you assuming that everyone in the world has to agree with something for it to count as true?"

A lively debate ensues that doesn't quite get to where I expected it to go. They keep coming back to "what gives someone the right to tell another person they are wrong?"

So, I try something else: "In real life, no one lets someone off the hook who has done something terrible just because that person sees no problem with what they are doing. We don't, in courts, say, 'oh, well, if you don't see it as wrong, that's okay then -- you are free to go!' So, ethical theories are trying to get at what is wrong about those behaviors that most people do regard as clearly wrong."

The students return to a line of discussion invoking cultural relativism. There are no behaviors that most people regard as clearly wrong, they try to argue. Maybe this is so within a culture, but somewhere, there is some culture in which any given questionable behavior is okay.

Since pointing out that cultural relativism does not imply moral relativism does not seem to get through to my students any more, I try to counter their last claim more directly. I point out that just because cultures may disagree about some moral claims does not mean that there is disagreement about all moral claims. "There is no culture," I point out, "that lets people freely kill whoever they want, whenever they want, for any reason, or even for no reason at all."

I thought that these arguments impressed the students and effectively made the intended points -- but then the next class session, they are at it again. New author, new ethical theory: "this is all a bunch of crap because some people think it's fine to do whatever they want, and so there are no moral absolutes. Who is [insert name of present author] to claim that he knows what is right and wrong -- who gives him the authority to tell everyone what to do?"

I sigh.

Usually in my classes, we don't get so stuck like this. I'm trying to understand why this is happening. My unhappiness with this is similar to my distress at the rhetorical strategies employed in the political arena these days. Maybe they are related. Maybe my students are too influenced by what they see in the news. Maybe they genuinely have trouble distinguishing between actual arguments and other rhetorical strategies that are not actually arguments.

At least in the ethics class, they are trying, to some extent, to construct arguments, but they do not seem to be grasping that they keep arguing against the whole project of ethical theory itself rather than constructing arguments against particular ethical theories. It derails us from discussing the particular details of different ethical theories. I'm almost suspicious that this is an intentional diversionary tactic to avoid serious engagement with the particular theories, but I am not sure about that. The students do show evidence of doing the readings and engaging some details of the readings. I do not think that they are slackers. But I do think they might feel threatened by the prospect of taking ethical theories seriously.

And so the cases in both classes are somewhat similar: students catching glimpses that how you live your life (ethics), and how you engage conflict (peace studies) are questions that really matter. They catch glimpses that there might be something wrong with the standard answers they receive. This shakes them up and so they try to change the subject, by attacking peripheral aspects of the emerging new insights.

I share this because I feel that we are at a crucial stage. I want to handle this well. I worry that if I don't, they will lock into their resistance. But right now, there is still hope that I can help them into more serious examination of points of view that are different from what they have considered before.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Musical Update

I really love my house. Slowly, I'm getting settled. I still walk around gawking, amazed, saying to myself, "this is my house!" and can hardly believe it.

Meanwhile, I've now had three of my concerts, and two more have been added, so there are three more to go.

The first was a concert in which I played silver flute. The director of my early music ensemble had never heard me play silver flute, and he was impressed enough that he has asked me to join an orchestra he is assembling for a choral concert he is directing. We will have two performances. This is not early music! I've worked on my part, which is easy to play but strange to count -- passages in 5/4 time, or 3/2 time (mixed in with more standard 3/4 and 4/4 passages). I have had no orchestral experience at all, so I don't know if this is normal or not. I used to play with concert bands at times, but that was a long time ago. I don't have a melody line, as such (well, actually I do have one for just one fleeting moment). Most of the time my part is just to add color, I think. This will be a very new experience for me! Most of my recent performing experience has been small-ensemble playing.

So, anyway, my first performance did go well. I accompanied a small group of singers on two pieces.

The second performance was a reprise of one of those pieces for a different event.

The third performance was a number of recorder trios as part of an early music concert. (Yes, in this small way, our early music group is back! I'm really glad!) We played four sets of renaissance pieces in this concert.

I was nervous before the first concert, but once I started playing, I was able to focus on the music and get into it.

I was even more nervous before the early music concert, because I was keenly aware of all that could go wrong. At our dress rehearsal, our recorders clogged badly (a hazard this time of year because of rapidly changing temperatures and humidity levels). For those who don't know, clogging is when the water vapor from your breath condenses in the instrument in a way that it blocks the very narrow passage that the sound comes out of. As you can imagine, a blockage to the area where the sound is supposed to come out creates strange and unexpected sounds. There are ways to try to prevent this, but nothing is foolproof. And there are ways of dealing with this when it happens in performance, but this is not foolproof either. So there is always the serious danger that a major clogging incident could disrupt the performance.

I took all of the preemptive action I could and hoped for the best. My strategy ended up working. I had no clogging problems. The other members of the trio each had minor problems that they were able to address on the fly.

Meanwhile, I suffered other physiological effects of nervousness: shaking, sweaty hands, and the worst: dry mouth. Yet I stayed focused, and things went well, and gradually all of these symptoms disappeared. By the last and most challenging (but also the most fun) piece, I was relaxed and eager to show the audience how wonderful this piece was, and I think it went very well. It was nice to have entered the Zone in performance! That's what a musician most hopes for. We catch those moments in rehearsal sometimes, but it's harder to find in performance because of the stress of performance situations, unless you are very experienced.

It's nice to receive this confirmation that: (a) nervousness is not in itself necessarily fatal to a performance, and (b) it can actually go away during the performance!

So, the next two concerts are the choral concerts where I will be playing silver flute as part of the orchestra. Then I actually have two more concerts after that: two performances on Irish flute as part of a special Christmas event.

I have other updates too, but I'll save these for another posting.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

New House!

I've moved into my new house and I really love it! I'm still getting settled, but I just succeeded in getting my computer set up, hence this update.

The worst thing that has gone wrong was that I realized that the room that I want to use as a study did not have a phone plug installed (hence no internet access), but I solved this problem by buying a 50-ft. phone cable. It meanders across the room and across the hall to the one room upstairs that does have a phone plug. Next step: figuring out how to string it across the ceiling so that I don't have to keep unplugging it between uses to make sure no one trips over it. Anyway, if that's the worst problem I've had, it's not so bad, eh? What's fun is that I keep discovering unexpected nice things about this house that I hadn't noticed before!

I'm only a few blocks from where I was before, but suddenly my life feels dramatically different. My walk to my office is now across campus -- and a beautiful part of campus. The house and the gardens are beautiful. The neighborhood is very friendly -- I know most of the people on my street. And I'm now living in a house I own -- this is the first time in my life I finally feel that I'm not living in someone else's space. This is the first move in my life that doesn't feel transitional. This is a place I could (and probably will) remain the rest of my life -- happily.

I counted up the moves I've made in life: 25 major moves (requiring changes of address). That's a lot!

So the move itself wasn't bad. I realized as I got into it, "I know this all too well." I have a system. I am well-experienced. I know how to pack things. I know how to break down boxes again after unpacking.

It's still amazingly chaotic and disruptive. Once I got into it enough that it hit me that my life was seriously going to change, I did hit a moment of weariness and despair. This was about this time last week. My life felt turned inside-out. There was still a lot to do. Physically it is hard work. And moving is also emotional.

I just told myself to keep going, one step at a time. Moving day was Monday. The actual shifting of stuff did not take long (under three hours). Then I went to campus, and after attending to the bare essentials at work, I returned to clean up my old place. As I left to come to my new house, I appreciated the moment. "Here I am at last, arriving at my new life."

I put a folding chair out on my new deck and poured myself a glass of orange-mango juice and went out to sit on the deck to celebrate my arrival in my new life. I had long envisioned this moment, and had had periods of doubting that it ever could or would happen. Now here I was. It was not exactly like I expected: for one thing, it was dark (I had envisioned the moment in the daylight, looking out over the beautiful garden). But it was a nice warm evening. As I relaxed to enjoy the peaceful evening and the sense of arrival, I suddenly started crying. It was happy tears, plus exhaustion.

I didn't linger long, because there was still much to do so that I could be functional enough to resume work the next morning!

I am liking my new life very much. It feels full of potential and promise.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Updates

New Semester

My semester is getting off to a pretty good start. The students in my classes are very engaged. One class goes galloping off full speed in all directions -- I love their energy but it is a struggle to channel this energy productively. It's early enough in the semester that I am not worried -- I have confidence that we can connect this energy to more forward motion.

I am even feeling reasonably caught up with grading! So, even though I started off the semester already feeling a little behind (see earlier posting), to my surprise, I caught up again. How did this happen? There are two important factors at play. One is that I am no longer department chair. The other is that I have a course release this semester and so am only teaching two courses.

Not being department chair makes a huge difference in my life! There is a lot that no longer comes to me. A few things still do, but I can just pass them off to the new chair. I have been keenly aware of how much this simplifies my life and opens up time.

I do still offer advice and support to the new chair. And she is taking all of this on with cheerfulness, even saying, "I think I do better when I am very busy!" And, although I wonder how long her good cheer will last (it might last!), I am content for both of us to ride our respective cheerfulness as long as we can! Right now it's working. I will let it work! And I really do have confidence that she can handle this well over the long-term.

My life is still not simple, as such. I still coordinate our new Peace Studies program, and there is a lot to be done to continue to develop this. But last year I was doing both. It's nice to be able to focus my energies a bit more.


Also, music is returning to my life, which makes me very happy. I have four performances coming up: one on recorders, two on modern silver flute again, and one on Irish flute.

It's been an amazing experience coming back to the modern flute, after a long time of not touching it because I shifted my attention to the historical flutes. Modern flute really is a much easier instrument. But I'm not all the way back. I regained a lot of where I had been very fast -- I'd say that 75% came back in just a few days of serious practice. Then I plateaued. With a lot more hard work, I can reach 80% on a good day. I hope to reach 90% by concert day, but I might not make it. Still, my fellow performers seem pleased with where I am. One said, "it is such a joy to play with someone who is so musical," and I nearly fell over. When I confessed that I had not seriously worked with this flute for 18 years and I felt I was really struggling, she was surprised.

Embouchure comes and goes. The mark of 90% will be when I feel more consistently in control of tone quality. The high notes are really easy to hit in comparison to wooden flutes, but hard to play well, with fullness and richness of tone. They still sound thin and weak. The fingering patterns are much easier on this flute (one of the major reasons for the total re-design), and so once they came back, that part has been joyously easy.

Then there is playing style. On historical flutes, you use less vibrato. You work hard to get a rich, interesting, beautiful sound without vibrato. But the expectation with modern flute is to use vibrato more. And since I'm playing music written with this expectation, I have to go back to that style of playing. At first I felt resistant, not wanting to undo all the years of work of learning a different style. Finally I just told myself I have to trust myself now to be able to switch back and forth as appropriate. And as I leaped back into the way I used to play, I felt a mixture of amazement and joy that it was all still there and I could let it come back.

But everyone is noticing that I'm playing a little too carefully, and they tell me, "trust your instincts." They even add, "you do have good musical instincts!" What's hard at the moment is playing so many different styles on so many different instruments. But I want to be able to do this: switch back and forth. So, ironically enough, I have to work hard at letting go!

In the recorder concert, I will be playing three recorders. Some professional musicians will coach us tomorrow during a rehearsal.

Recently someone saw me with my flute case, and asked, "Is that a flute?" "Yes," I replied. "So, you are really a musician at heart, but took up philosophy in order to make a living?" I laughed and said, "Something like that!"

What struck me as really funny about that was the image of taking up philosophy as a pragmatic way to earn a living! Philosophy as a fall-back plan. Philosophy as a "day job."

Yet, this is kind of how my life is! The only real correction I need to make to that person's analysis is that I really do love philosophy too. In fact, I cannot honestly say which I love better. I just feel lucky that I get to do both.


I do finally have a closing date on my house. It's starting to feel real again. I am hoping to move soon. Then my life will look and feel very different. I am looking forward to it. I am even actually looking forward to the move itself as a creative opportunity! I will have to enter chaos for a bit, but that chaos is a necessary stage to create the opportunity for establishing a new order to my life.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Health Care Reform

I've been wanting to share thoughts on the health care debates in the U.S., but thought I should read H.R. 3200 first. It's very long. There is a nice summary, though, on the Library of Congress legislative information pages.

I am bewildered about why anyone is opposed to this.

To those who are, what specifically do you object to? And, how do you think health care should be paid for?

Should we just each pay for our own health care out of pocket? What about those who cannot afford to do so?

Should our employers pay for our health care? Why them? What if they cannot afford it? What if this is what makes it hard for many employers to stay in business? (Note that this really means that we all pay for each other's health care. Every time you pay money to a business that covers health care or health insurance for its employees, you are helping to pay for their health care.)

Should all health care be paid through health insurance? Who should pay the health insurance premiums? And, why pay for health care via health insurance companies? These are companies that are trying to make a profit, so they deny some claims. And they want to make money above and beyond covering their costs (profits) -- why do we want to pay extra money, above and beyond actual costs, for our health care? And why do we trust health insurance companies (who, again, are trying to make money) to make the decisions about whether to cover our health care costs or not?

Those lucky enough to have health insurance through their employers tend to assume that they will be well-covered if they should need expensive health care. But have you checked the details of your policy lately? You might be surprised at what is not covered, and at how much you would actually have to pay if you developed major health issues.

Have you tallied how much you and your employer have paid into the health insurance company, and compared that to how much your health care has actually cost? If you haven't cost as much money as you have paid in, are you glad that some of that money you and your employer have paid in has covered the health care costs of others? If so, why not support a government-run health care system, or a public option? At least a government system would not be trying to earn profits above and beyond covering costs, and so the extra money you have paid in would go farther than it currently does. If you have health insurance and have paid in more than your health care has cost, some of that extra money has paid for your health insurance company's profits. So, in addition to helping cover other people's health care costs, that extra money you and your employer have paid has also gone into giving shareholders some extra money.

If you have cost a lot of money, do you realize that the extra money above and beyond what you and your employer have paid in has come out of the payments of those who have not required as much health care? Have you thanked your healthy work colleagues, and those who pay for the goods or services your place of employment provides, for their contributions to your health care?

Have you ever thought you were covered for something that it turned out that you were not covered for? Have you ever refrained from seeking adequate medical attention because of concern for how much it will cost? Do you know someone who has been in this position?

I really do want to understand the point of view of those who are opposed to reforming our system. It seems so obvious to me that there are serious problems with how we have structured health care in the U.S., that I honestly do not understand why there is resistance to change.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Life Keeps Surprising Me

One of the strange things I did not realize about buying a house is that everyone ignores the closing date you write into your purchase agreement. After all the paperwork and inspections are done, you wait and wait and have no idea when closing will be or when you can move. You want to plan, but you cannot. You just wait. When you dare to ask, people just shake their heads and say it could be weeks...or more.

This is bizarre.

Yet, it turns out kind of good that I couldn't move when I had hoped to do so, because I needed to attend to a crisis situation: a good friend in the hospital with some mysterious high "fever of unknown origin." After more than a week, the illness finally seems under control, but the friend is likely to need extra help after being released from the hospital.

Meanwhile, classes started. I appear for class, and (surprisingly) manage to teach, and then I'm back to the hospital.

Boxes. Half-packed stuff. Hospital. Worry. Semester starting. Students all over the place again. Colleagues needing all kinds of advice or input from me.

And people ask me, "How was your summer?" and I have no idea how to answer.

I see them stressing (in that happy, giddy, start-of-a-new-year sort of way) about the normal start-of-semester chaos and I feel very far away. If only that was all I had to worry about.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Basic Principles of Self-Care

I thought it might be helpful to list the basic principles of self-care. I find I need to keep reminding myself of these! Self-care still does not come easily to me.
  1. Establish and stick to a regular sleep schedule, giving yourself enough high-quality sleep.
  2. Eat healthily. The basic recommendation seems to be lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, plus some protein. Minimize simple carbohydrates (grains -- especially refined grains -- and sugar).
  3. Get regular exercise. Build cardiovascular fitness, strength, and flexibility.
  4. Build a good support system for yourself. Surround yourself with people who like you in ways you like yourself, and who bring out your best. Be supportive of them too, bringing out their best.
  5. Cultivate mindfulness. Be aware. Pay attention. For example, be aware of your emotions, and don't be afraid of them: learn from them. Be aware of habits of thought and habits of behavior: change those that are not serving you well. Be aware of your effect on the world, and the world's effect on you. Be aware of the present moment, of what is real right now, and all of the richness of possibility that is available right now.
  6. Keep stress to a minimum. Some stress maybe cannot be avoided, but sometimes stress is self-generated, or can be alleviated by making different choices.
  7. Develop effective strategies for coping with the stress you do have to deal with.
  8. Avoid unhealthy addictions or compulsions. Or, if necessary, seek help in recovering from those already established.
  9. Enjoy all that is worth enjoying. And regularly do things you enjoy. Being in nature, coming into contact with beauty or greatness, being creative, learning something new, or spending times with those we love: these are some examples of renewing, enjoyable activities.
  10. Cultivate a a "realistic positive" attitude. Be alert to negative thinking, and rework it into realistic positive reminders and aspirations. Also, cultivate a sense of humor towards those challenges of life that deserve being laughed at.
  11. Be in touch with who you most truly are, and with the meaning of your life. What do you value? Who and what do you love? What greatness does/can your life bring into being?
  12. Know when to seek help, and do not be afraid to ask for it. Most people feel honored to be asked to help. Helping each other is one of the sacred activities of everyday life.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Time for General Updates

I've had an interesting summer of trying to make certain changes in my life that hopefully will allow me to live more true to my contemplative nature. Some of this has been very hard. But once I got the process seriously under way, I found way opening (hence my last posting). Certain things started falling into place. There have still been ways the journey has been hard, and doubts and anxieties were never fully erased, but overall, I have felt a sense that I am on the right path.

One of the manifestations of the change is that I am buying a house. Earlier in the summer, I thought, "wouldn't it be great if I bought a house this summer and moved and then started my new life?" I would have these flashes of a "vision" of where the house would be (which neighborhood). I saw nice gardens, and the house was red. These were like daydreams, except that they would come to me spontaneously. In truth, I did not believe that this would be possible. I felt deeply stuck and dangerously "tempted by despair" (to paraphrase George Fox). From a rational perspective, this seemed totally impossible. It was a long-term vision for my life, not a short-term one.

The vision was odd in some respects. The neighborhood I envisioned was one of the most desirable and expensive neighborhoods in my small town. I do not have a special fondness for red houses in particular. And, while I like nice gardens, I am a little daunted by the efforts required to maintain nice gardens. So I would think that my "vision" would be a more modestly-colored house in a humble but quiet neighborhood with a small, neat yard, but no fancy gardens.

Yet, my "vision" re-appeared with a compelling sense of impending reality. It's hard to describe. This sort of thing has happened to me before, so I took it seriously. Yet I could not believe it.

Then one day I heard of a house for sale. And yes, it was a red house in that neighborhood, with beautiful gardens. In fact, it was a house I had admired but never dreamed would come up for sale (I knew the people who lived there, and assumed they were here to stay). And the price, surprisingly, was within reach.

That shook my world. At the time, my despair was high and my energy was low -- but as soon as I saw this news, my soul was electrified and I knew that everything would change. And everything did.

The full story is dramatic and maybe would be worth telling some day, but for now I will just say it looks like this is in fact really happening. It's possible that I will be moved into my new house and my new life in a week (yet the exact moving day is still uncertain, so I don't know yet).

Meanwhile, the school year is also soon to start. And so, yes, on the surface, I feel plunged into chaos. Managing a move at the start of a school year is, in general, not a good idea! Yet, I am happy and dealing with the uncertainty remarkably well. And I think that is a good sign.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Way Will Open -- Or Not?

When Quakers engage in discernment, often we suggest to each other that if it's meant to be, "way will open." On the internet, I see that "way will open" is also cited as a "Zen proverb," but the full statement of this version is: "Move and way will open."

The experience of way opening is thrilling, affirming, and encouraging. We do feel reassured that we are on the right track when this happens.

But what does it mean when way doesn't open, at least not easily or immediately? It is tempting to take this as a sign that the path we are trying to take is really not the right one, but is this always the case? Social change is often met with resistance at first. If social activists took resistance as a sign that their vision for change is all wrong, nothing would ever change, because all change, being change, meets with at least some resistance. If you study historical examples of transitions from injustice to justice, you see that the resistance can be considerable, and the most successful movements are successful because the activists are prepared for resistance. They expect it, and have strategies for holding strong in the face of it.

So too in our personal lives, times of important discernment are times of personal change, and so some resistance (internal and external) is to be expected. These times of resistance can feel like way NOT opening, and so at these times, discernment can be especially difficult. Do we proceed? If so, how?

I do not have a comprehensive answer to this very important question. I can just speak from experience about one possible answer.

Sometimes if you push and nothing happens, and then push again, perhaps more hesitantly now, and still nothing happens, and then you push yet again, weakly, with growing uncertainty, and then start making token pushes out of habit, and then carefully reassess everything from the ground up all over again, and feel convinced that this really is the right path, and feel frustrated that the universe is not at all helping, and wonder what this all means, and wonder if the whole meaning of your life is going to end in pathetic frustration, and then you push again now fully expecting nothing to continue to happen...

Way still might suddenly open miraculously before your very eyes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lifting Oneself Up By One's Bootstraps

Continuing my theme from last time...

While the Catch-22 of Depression can feel as impossible as lifting oneself by one's bootstraps (absolutely impossible, according to the laws of physics), the real state of being is actually not so bad. The link I pointed out last time is really helpful, as is this website too.

The key is this concept: "for all the energy you put in to your depression recovery, you’ll get back much more in return" (from the second website linked above).

So if, with what little energy you have, you put that energy into action that is known to be helpful, you'll get back a little more energy than you put in, so that now you have even more to put into further healthy action, etc. The key is to be patient but persistent.

The actual effect made me think that the depressing power of depression actually operates according to an inverse-square law, like gravity. Initially it is very hard to escape. But if you hold steady in those initial efforts until you get far enough away, it gets easier. A lot easier. The force-field weakens significantly with distance. But you have to hold steady in your initial efforts. If you let yourself fall all the way back, you have to start over again, and it will be hard all over again.

The known ways to help alleviate depression are simple principles of a healthy life: sleep, good nutrition, exercise, building supportive relationships, minimize stress and develop healthy responses to the stress you cannot avoid, break bad habits of negative thinking, replacing the negative thinking with realistic-positive thinking, seek fulfilling experiences and let yourself enjoy them when you can, and increase awareness of your emotional states and their triggers.

Even if applying these principles does not address all of the causes of your depression, they can help you gain strength and energy to make whatever other changes you may need to make in your life. And, regarding those changes, a similar method of operation applies: take what steps you can. Start small. Making some progress will give you back positive energy that will help you take additional, perhaps harder, steps.

There are likely to be set-backs. There are two kinds of set-backs: (1) plummeting mood, and (2) falling back and losing ground. Often #1 leads to #2. So if you catch #1 in time and can talk yourself into just stopping in your tracks but not retreating, riding out the mood, you may prevent #2.

Becoming worried, anxious, fearful, doubting, sad, angry, etc. are normal in the midst of change. Don't let those moods scare you! Don't read cosmic significance in them. Don't make new decisions in the midst of these states of being. Just listen to them and see how long they last. Move into them; even perhaps precipitate their acceleration (by, e.g., letting yourself cry). While it is not fun to experience these emotions, they in themselves will not harm you. In fact, letting yourself experience them fully gives you strength. And they never last forever. They burn themselves out. Only after you are calm again are you allowed to reassess your plan of action (preferably with the help of trusted friends or guides).

But if #2 happens and you later regret it, all is not lost. Try again. Your awareness of your regret will help give you strength not to give in next time.

The difficulty of making major life changes is a topic I am going to address in an upcoming series of postings I will call, "Difficult Discernment."

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Catch-22 of Depression

Sometimes depression is situational. This means its cause is not internal and physical (e.g., brain chemistry). Instead, the cause is that there is something in the person's life that is not right.

The person can even know this, and know how to make the requisite changes in their life, but find it difficult, perhaps even impossible, because the depression then makes it hard for them to make big changes. This predicament -- life circumstances making a person so depressed they cannot change their life circumstances -- is what I think of as the Catch-22 of Depression.

The person may feel trapped under a boulder so heavy that they cannot get out from under it.

Here is my question: can this really happen? Or is there always a way out?

Can a person always find the strength himself or herself (e.g., if he or she prays enough)? Or is the help (or even intervention) of others sometimes required -- and if it doesn't come through, the person is doomed? Or, sometimes, is even good help from others not enough?

(My question is really a theological one -- it's a question about the exact nature of divine goodness.)

P.S. Apparently I am not the only one to conceptualize depression this way. Jon G. Allen wrote a book on the Catch-22 of Depression, called Coping with Depression, in 2006. Here is a summary. Very helpful!

Monday, July 06, 2009

On Being Disciplined About Blogging

Aware that I have not been blogging as much lately, for a lot of complex reasons (never mind the name of my blog! You'd think that would inspire me to use the blog to process said complexity!), I've wondered how much blogging should be subject to inspiration (being led by the spirit), and how much it should be a matter of discipline, intentionality, commitment. For example, I am inspired by the regularity of Johan Maurer's blog, ("published every Thursday (mostly)," as he says on his site).

So, I've started experimenting with being more disciplined about my own blogging -- not here, but on Bible Wonderings (a posting every Sunday), and a new blog I've created, A Query a Day (every day).

I haven't announced this yet here, until now, because I wanted to try it for a couple of weeks to see if I could really sustain it. I'm still not sure. But I am finding it interesting to try! A Query a Day seemed simple and excellent at first, and then I went through grave doubts for a few days, feeling a bit burdened and trying to avoid the temptation of becoming frantically random just to keep it up. Then suddenly during a late evening when I had almost forgotten to post something and was frantically looking for something (forcing myself nonetheless to follow all of my "rules" of the new posting not being too similar to the one before, and from a different Yearly Meeting, and yet reflecting authentically something meaningful to me in my own life at the moment), I realized that this was good for me. It was good for me to be honest with myself about what's real in my own life, and to try to take that from being just about me to presenting it in a way that maybe others might find value in as well. I have no idea whether anyone is reading that blog at all. It may not ever be something that would be meaningful to anyone else. But I love queries, and I realized in that moment that this has become a new and important spiritual discipline for me -- to consider and post one per day that helps me to keep focused in my life on the values and reflection-questions that matter most to me.

At Meeting yesterday I discerned that it was time for me to start writing my own queries. I'll still draw from the ones from various Yearly Meetings (and other Quakerly sources) I have collected as well. It still feels experimental to me. I feel led, at the moment, to continue to be disciplined about this! But if I should stop feeling so led, I will let this go.

Bible Wonderings is something I feel led to continue no matter how long it takes! Slowly I make my way through. I've started Kings now. The weekly discipline of this is good for me and interesting. Doing it weekly helps me not lose the thread and forget where we were. What sometimes stalls me is that I don't always know what to say. Sometimes I'm very dismayed by the stories. I'm certainly getting tired of all of the violence and all of God's anger, and how the rulers who should know better by now keep making the same mistakes. It's hard to keep track of who everyone is.

Yet, through all of that, I am actually utterly fascinated. I am in awe of the fact that we have access to these ancient documents. I am moved by the struggle of the authors to make sense of what to them must have been a bewildering history: a history never fully arriving at the state of peace and reverence that they expected, or at least not for very long. Reading straight through like this is giving me a new perspective on a tradition and a heritage that includes you and me but that I, for one, realize I hardly know at all. For all the difficulty of these writings, they have meant a lot to a lot of people and have shaped our ways of thinking much more profoundly than most of us realize. (Even those who do not identify themselves with these traditions cannot help but be affected by them at least to some extent in today's world.)

So, for now, I will try to keep a disciplined approach to blogging in those two blogs, but will save this one, Embracing Complexity, my very first, for what I feel moved to write, when I feel so moved.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

No Longer Chair

As of today, I am officially no longer the Chair of the Philosophy Department!

Surprisingly, I am feeling a bit blue about that.

But it is a good development in my life. It frees me to devote more time to my research and writing. After being chair longer than not being chair in my academic career so far, I have been ready to let it go for quite some time. And I'm in the wonderful situation of being very happy about who is now becoming chair.

I am still Program Coordinator of Peace Studies. So my administrative life is not over -- just more manageable, at last.

Despite the fact that I never wanted to be chair, I am glad I did it. I learned a lot, and even grew to like it in many ways. There were a lot of challenges. But there were also wonderful creative opportunities. I feel good about where the department is these days.

And I'm feeling ready to focus my energies more specifically and more fully in other directions now.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

More on Mediation

I continue to think a lot about all that I learned in the recent mediation training I attended.

We learned that good mediation requires discipline. The particular kind of discipline it requires is that you have to get out of the way. The version of mediation we learned in a kind in which the mediator is not supposed to interject his or her own suggestions or opinions. This is because this version of mediation is one whose purpose is to empower the participants. But there is also a pragmatic consideration. If the participants start looking to the mediator as an authority or expert, or begin to think that they need, to some extent, to please the mediator, not only is their confidence in themselves diminished, but they become less likely to take full responsibility for the agreement reached, since it was not their own agreement, but something borrowed from someone else's suggestion. They don't feel a full sense of ownership. Thus they are not as inclined to invest themselves fully into it. If it goes wrong, they can blame somebody else (the mediator).

But if the mediator is not making suggestions or offering advice, what is the mediator's role? It is primarily to listen well: to listen through emotional and often harsh language to the underlying issues and needs, and reflect those back in neutral language. First the mediator lets the participants vent (while still ensuring all participants' protection). Throughout, the mediator listens carefully to what issues and needs emerge. Then the mediator frames the issues and needs in neutral, non-blaming language, always checking with the participants to make sure she or he is hearing them correctly. Finally, the mediator frames good clear questions of how each issue can be solved in a way that addresses Participant 1's need for X and Participant 2's need for Y. It's up to the participants to actually answer these questions by brainstorming possible solutions, and finally selecting one.

Does the process work? Often it does. Sometimes there is an impasse. But the person who facilitated our training has a lot of confidence in the process if the mediator stays disciplined and focused on letting the participants find their own solutions. In fact, he suggested that an impasse is when the participants do not find the mediator's own secret preferred solution!

How much are we willing to really trust others? How capable are we of letting go of the need to control everything ourselves?

These strike me as very important questions.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mediation Training

I attended an intensive mediation training program over the weekend (32 hours of training in 4 days!). It was an amazing experience. I know that mediation is hard work. I also knew that this training would involve role playing and other experiential exercises. So I was terrified, to be honest. Half of my fear was that I would find it overwhelming. The other half of my fear was that I would find the training disappointing in some way. But it turned out that it went way above and beyond even my most hopeful expectations.

I found the training to be an excellent blend of explaining and discussion followed by well-designed exercises that did help us integrate what we had learned. The exercises were followed by excellent personalized feedback and high-quality large-group debriefing. Not only did I learn a lot about mediation, I also learned a lot about teaching.

The most liberating part of the training was learning that it is not our job to calm people down or get them to "play nice." Instead, as mediators, we ride their energy. We let them use their own language. We let them have their own emotions. We don't try to control any of this. We don't judge. We just listen to understand, and in trying to understand, we calmly re-frame the loaded language into unloaded language until everyone naturally becomes calmer and more focused and ready to start thinking more creatively about the issues.

There's a lot more to be said than this, but this piece in particular was powerful for me, because I am on a journey of learning not to be so afraid of conflict and strong emotion. It is amazingly empowering to learn (experientially) that when we meet conflict and strong emotion with a compassionate desire to understand what it means and where it comes from, we participate in transforming this energy into something more positive and productive.

Anyone who is serious about peacemaking should go through a training like this.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Research In the Age of the Internet

In my previous post, I talked about what library research was like before the age of the Internet. Things are different now. You can search for sources of all kinds from computers. You no longer rely on how others organize information (pre-defined subject categories, for example), since "keyword" searches are now possible, plus full-text searches. And many of the materials you use can be accessed directly from the computer: many journal articles, for example. Interlibrary loan requests can be made directly from the computer, too. More and more, historical sources are being scanned and made more widely available through web-based digital collections, as well.

I have to confess that I do appreciate how interlinked computers have made some dimensions of research easier. But I still do use books in my library too. I appreciate the opportunity to get up and stroll among the stacks. I like scanning the books on the shelf and finding related books that I might not have otherwise learned about. I like reading journal articles from bound volumes, and then skimming the rest of the bound volume to see what other articles that journal published. While I'm there, I scan recent issues of other journals I like as well.

I don't use notecards anymore, and I feel some nostalgic regret about this. Instead I use "OneNote," a Microsoft product that lets you organize information very flexibly. I do really enjoy this system as well. It's the electronic equivalent to notecards -- or, at least, I use it like that. Well, kind of. I don't separate out topics on separate cards (or "pages") since searching helps me to compile information on a single topic from many sources. But I do set up separate pages for notes from each source. And at the top of each, I write out the full bibliographic information and "tag" it with "biblio" so that I can collect all of my bibliographical information on one page.

(Recently I discovered Zotero. This is a web-based bibliographical database. While I am searching for sources, I can instantly copy the bibliographical information into Zotero and organize it in multiple ways. I can then collect the relevant sources and produce bibliographies from them when it comes time to produce my bibliography. Now I'm trying to figure out how better to integrate this with my use of OneNote.)

What amazes me the most about OneNote is the ability to capture pieces of electronic sources and copy them directly into your "notebook." You can also cross-reference your own notes using hyperlinks. So I can, for example, copy the digital image of a facsimile page of a historical source, paste it onto a page of my OneNote notebook (and OneNote automatically adds a "citation" to the original source), and then mark that image or type notes along the side. None of this damages the original. And, these digital images themselves become searchable!

So computers and the Internet not only provide access to a lot of sources much more easily, but also offer new possibilities for keeping information organized.

But there are new challenges as well. There is so much information out there, that it can be difficult to find exactly what you wish to find. And there is so much storage space on our own computers that it can be hard to keep our information well-organized, because we think it will be easy to find anything and so we might not always organize it as well as we should. In practice, I am surprised at how hard it can be to find a particular document I know I have through searching. If I have my documents well-organized, it's much easier to find it by navigating through my electronic filing system than by searching.

And I miss the special pleasure of reading through notecards by hand, and arranging them on my desk or even on the floor. Sometimes when I get stuck, I do print things out, cut them apart with scissors, and return to the process of using physical space to re-arrange my thoughts.

But, all in all, I am really glad to have lived in a timespan when I could experience this change in how library research is done. I have been able to experience the advantages of each new development while retaining the wisdom of older ways.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Research Before the Age of the Internet

Research has really changed since I first learned research skills in middle school. I still remember being impressed at the systematic orderliness of the notecard technique. One color of cards was for our sources. They were each given a unique code. White cards were for taking notes on sources, and were cross-referenced to the relevant sources. Each card (or set of cards) was supposed to contain notes on only one topic from one source. You could then arrange the cards, grouping together those on a shared topic but from different sources. You would lay out your paper visually by arranging the note cards on your desk. Then you would write out your text by hand, integrating your research into a (hopefully) coherent narrative. In the end, you would type it all up on a manual typewriter. The end result was very satisfying.

The research phase itself involved finding sources, which meant going to the library, leafing through the card catalog (not always easy, especially when the cards were too tightly placed), and writing down call numbers on scraps of papers. You could look up sources by author, title, or subject. Subject-headings were pre-defined. There were huge volumes you could browse through that described the Library of Congress subject headings. Serious research required examining these to be sure you were not overlooking important possibilities in your research.

For journal articles, we would go to the bound periodical indexes. I remember marveling at the thought that somewhere there was a team of people reading through all periodicals and extracting information and putting it in alphabetical order and publishing these periodical indexes. They probably used notecards.

We'd go to the library shelves and pull the books or journals off the shelves to read them and take notes. Cutting-edge technology was "microfilm." But we quaked in dread when we saw that that was the only way to find a given source. While there were several machines for reading microfilm, it seemed that there was only ever one that actually worked. Yet its ways were mysterious. We always needed to ask for help to get it to work. The print was often hard to read, and the mechanics of reading and taking notes was often awkward -- the huge machines took up a lot of space, which left little room for easy note-taking.

Sometimes the library did not have a given source. But there was Interlibrary Loan. Using it involved going to the front desk to get complicated request forms that we had to fill out in detail by hand. Then we had to wait a long time for the source to arrive. And then we would only have it for a few days, unless it was a photocopied journal article. We would get to keep those, and that was nice, because the bound periodicals are bound so tightly that they are often hard to read. For that matter, the copies from Interlibrary Loan were often copied badly -- the middle section black because the tight binding of the journal made it too hard to flatten enough to photocopy clearly. Or a page would be missing. Or one inch of the text would be cut off.

And our teachers back then had no tolerance for delays, or for typographical errors, or bad grammar. Their response was always the same: "You should have given yourself more time, to ensure that you could take care of all of this by the deadline." And we knew they were right about this. It didn't occur to us to complain about how hard and complicated all of this was. That was simply a given. The task was to meet those challenges.

Now everything is different. (Stay tuned for the next installment: "Research In the Age of the Internet.")

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

End of Semester Updates

I got my grades in (a little early this time!) and now am feeling the usual post-grading anxiety. Will some students be disappointed in their grades? Will they complain? Will administrators think my grades are too high?

Just as it is impossible to drive the "right" speed (because there is no speed that is fast enough for the traffic that doesn't exceed the legal speed limit), so too is it impossible to have the "right" grade distribution ("too high" according to administrators is still "too low" for the students and their parents).

I must just sigh and resign myself to disappointment on all sides.

But I am relieved that I actually did make it all the way through the semester! I had feared that the level of busyness was approaching burnout level again, but the busyness fell just short of that danger.

And I received unexpected good news that I may not have to continue as department chair next year after all! It is amazing to me how things can be unrelenting for a long time, and then suddenly and inexplicably reverse.

But the community contra dance band I was in no longer exists. We were doing fine for a few months. But our over-committed leader decided this was too much for her. I think she hoped one of us would take over. That may yet happen. I'm a little disappointed, but mostly relieved. I would prefer to participate in a seisiún (if only someone would start a regular one in our area), or be part of a serious and committed group of musicians who play at my level and enjoy switching back and forth between early music and Celtic traditional music.

Meanwhile, I'm really glad to have arrived at the start of summer break! I now have a carrel to myself in the library, and look forward to working full-time on my research and writing!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ministry on Failure

A Friend last week in Meeting said this: "The only real failure is if you don't pick yourself up and try again."

It's simple. It may even (to some) seem obvious. But it struck me very powerfully when she said it.

We have choices
. We can let the world easily defeat us, or we can choose not to let the world easily defeat us. Lack of success at one time is only a real failure if we choose to let that one moment of not succeeding be the last moment we ever try.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


We need affirmation every now and then -- it keeps us motivated and able to keep moving forward against the currents of weariness and resistance we sometimes encounter, especially in a highly busy life.

Faithful readers will have picked up on the fact that my own life is a bit out of alignment. I do get encouragement, but most often that encouragement pushes me into directions I do not really want to go, while I've met considerable resistance in moving forward in the directions I do want to go. More specifically, I got pushed onto an administrative track too early in my career, before I knew better -- I thought I had no choice at the time, and maybe I was right about that. But, tragically, it turned out I was pretty good at the administrative work, even though I found it hard on me emotionally. People have appreciated the combination of my vision, sensitivity, compassion, efficiency, and high standards. They didn't want to let me off that track. But I have done a good job of resisting new opportunities that would lock me in even more. Two administrative positions and three associate dean positions opened up; I refused to apply for any of them. I did, however, continue as department chair, but only because I have been the only tenured member of my department who has remained teaching in my department on a regular basis. The year after next, the two other tenured members of my department will finally return. I will then let go of being department chair, with great relief!

Meanwhile, I have really wanted to devote more time to my academic research and writing, but it has been hard to develop and sustain this in the complexity of full-time teaching, running a department, and starting a new program at my university (Peace Studies). I have managed to keep my research and writing going, but not as much as I would like. I do get positive and helpful feedback when I present my work at conferences. But I've had difficulty getting my work published. This is in part due to the fact that I don't send out my work enough. But when I do, strange and inexplicable things happen, like promised reviewers' notes never arriving.

Trying to build some hope into my future, I had the brilliant idea one day of taking a leave of absence from my university the year after next (when the other tenured members of my department return, to ensure that one of them really does take over being chair!) to devote myself full-time to my book project. The only problem is that I would need funding. So I looked for possible grants. I applied for one. Used to failure now, I was not surprised to be rejected. But I was, of course, disappointed.

Today we had a grants consultant come to campus to work with faculty interested in finding grants. I sent her my failed grant proposal for critique, and expected today's sessions (one group session; one individual consultation) to be humbling, but hopefully illuminating, experiences.

As the group session started, I found myself thinking, "I am doomed," as she passed around sample reviewers' comments and made connections between these comments and what she saw in the proposals we had sent her. I braced myself for public humiliation. I was sure that she would single out my own proposal as exemplifying "totally unintelligible," "failing to demonstrate wider significance," "devoid of intellectual content," or "only of interest to one person--herself." I tried to calm my rising heart rate by reminding myself I was here to learn, and it's good to face reality, and such.

Then a crucial moment came. "You're the one who wrote the proposal about rationalism and empiricism?" she asked me.

"Er, yes," I replied.

"Oh! I spent a lot of time reading that on the flight!" she said.

("Uh oh," I thought to myself.)

"That one is ready to go!" she said!

("Where? The dustbin?!!" I thought to myself in rising panic.)

"Send it! May 1! I know that deadline is fast approaching, but it's nearly ready! That's a very interesting project, and you are a very good writer!"

I could not believe it.

Someone was actually, finally, valuing my work? Appreciating my project?

And . . . complimenting me in front of my peers?

I almost cried.

My colleagues wanted to know more. They were amazed and impressed. I'm very visible on my campus because of my administrative work, but people haven't really seen how much my research and writing means to me. Now this group was seeing a whole new side of me, and it meant a lot to me.

It's not that I seek fame: that scares me. But I realize that I do need some affirmation and support for work that I really feel led to do. Getting support for what I'd rather not do, and indifference or discouragement for the work I really want to do, has been really hard on me.

Today I caught a glimpse of a new possibility -- what life might be like if people supported me in what I really feel led to do.

You can get used to chronic discouragement and disappointment, and develop strategies for pushing forward anyway when you believe deep in your heart that your project is important. It is good to learn, experientially, that this is possible. But that is not a happy life. It's a life that gradually becomes a growing struggle against a kind of depression. It takes tremendous spiritual discipline to resist the temptations to bitterness and despair.

A moment of real affirmation like I received today shoots into life like a brilliant ray of sunlight. The growing fog of chronic disappointment evaporates at once; the warmth and clarity of the sunlight asserts its superior reality. "Believe in your vision of what is possible!" is what I heard it tell me today.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter!

Easter is my Quaker birthday, because my membership in the Religious Society of Friends became official on Easter, 25 years ago now!

For Easter reflections, I think I will simply refer my readers back to my posting of two years ago.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Balanced Life

I went to a retreat recently on finding balance in life. The timing was very good. I was feeling off-balance in my own life again! My expectations for the retreat were simultaneously ridiculously high ("maybe this at last will fix my life!") and realistically modest ("I probably won't learn anything new, but I am looking forward to the opportunity to be reminded of certain wise things I already know").

Well, it turned out that the retreat helped crystallize for me something I had, in the past, been on the brink of figuring out. The retreat leader started off by explaining that this was not a seminar in time-management. She wasn't going to teach us how to be more efficient so that we could cram even more into our already overburdened lives. A life in balance is something different from super-efficiency. It's a shift in perspective that allows us to focus better on what really matters to us, and to experience our lives in a more relaxed way, more aware of the beauty that is around us at every moment.

I have, in the past, been on the verge of grasping this, because I have had times of my life that approach this: times when I move from one thing to the next in my busy schedule happily focused on each thing in turn, delighted for what each task or meeting or class gives me. These, I now know, have been moments of attainment of balance.

The contrast is easy to recognize: within any given moment, you have trouble fully focusing, because you are worried about something coming up (a meeting later that day; a class you don't yet feel ready for; whether so-and-so will be upset with you for not sending that thing in yet -- and where did you put his address, anyway?) So your experience from moment to moment is fragmented, distracted, stressed. You race breathless from one thing to the next, feeling always a step behind. You are just trying to get through. Your only sense of satisfaction is that of crossing things off your list: "got that done' survived that; what a relief that's over now!" Even falling into bed at the end of the day is fraught: you feel guilty for all that you didn't quite finish; you feel compelled to set your alarm for a half-hour earlier (that's the only reason you let yourself go to bed now!), even though you are genuinely exhausted. But in the morning, you push "snooze" enough times that it finally gives up on you and you end up sleeping a half-hour beyond your normal waking time, and so your next day gets off to a frantic start all over again. There's a picture of the unbalanced life!

When our lives are unbalanced, it's easy to think that if we could just put in that extra effort to finally get reasonably caught up (or learn some time-management trick that would help us shortcut to this!), then we could feel a sense of balance again! Yet, try as we might, we never do get caught up.

So, I was struck when the retreat-leader pointed out with wry humor that she didn't want to help us find ways to pack even more into our already over-burdened lives. She had a point! I mean, really now, do you think you could ever actually get all caught up?

Suddenly I realized: I've never been all caught up! But, that's not been the end of the world! Despite that, I've had a pretty good life and I've gotten a lot accomplished that others really appreciate! So, what am I so worried about?

I don't wait until I've caught up on everything before I allow myself to eat, sleep, shower, etc. There are certain basic things that we keep doing more or less on schedule because we have to, to stay alive and functional. Why should the emotional and spiritual dimensions of self-care not be like this in our lives as well?

Stress is about attitude. Balance is about attitude.

Why not choose to live fully into every moment -- accepting it? "This is my life."

"Here I am at this meeting. The people I am with are treasures. It is an honor to be among them. The work we are doing together here has the potential to improve the world in important ways. How wonderful to be part of this!"

"Here I am in this classroom. These students are at a sparkling stage of life: on fire with new ideas; creatively exploring who they are and what they know. Maybe this class session will be one that they will talk about with their children years later. The material we are studying is powerful and important. How wonderful that we have all carved out this period of time to discuss these amazing ideas together!"

Living into every moment like this really is possible! It mostly requires remembering.

But there is more to it than that. It helps a lot if you do have your life set up in a way that you can and do trust it. Is your job a good fit? Is it helping you to live out what you feel your life is all about, at least to some extent? Have you made time in your life to regularly attend to what is most important to you? Do you like the people around you -- and feel liked and appreciated by them? If the basic elements of life, like these, are arranged well to support who you are and what you want your life to be like, then you can generally trust that the daily activities you find you must do are activities that help you to live out the life you want to live -- if you remember to notice that! Then it is possible to live into each moment with less stress and anxiety and more openness and joy.

But if major components of your life are all wrong for you, then it will be hard to find balance until you do some rearranging. So the quest for balance may require a deeper re-evaluation of your life. Finding balance does require figuring out what throws us off balance, and seeing what we need to do to address that.

It's all too easy to think that it's just "busyness" that is the fundamental problem, and being more efficient is somehow the solution. This is just a prevailing myth we've all been trained to internalize. It leaves us feeling bad about ourselves, thinking that we just don't seem to quite have what it takes to become that impressive "efficient" person who manages to hold it all together. The world wants us to be good, efficient workers, and plays on our insecurity in order to shame us into submission.

But we can reject that destructive thought-pattern. We can instead dare to find the beauty in each moment before us, and treasure the life we find ourselves in. Finding balance is not only possible -- it's also radical!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Business Ethics

Not only is business ethics in the news (the outrage over executives of bailed out companies getting huge bonuses), it's a live topic in my own everyday life.

I was looking at the charges on my phone bill yesterday, and noticed that a new charge started appearing a few months ago, called a "shortfall" charge to the long-distance portion of my bill. Incredulous, I wondered if it really meant what I thought it must mean: were they actually charging me extra for not making enough long-distance calls? I called the phone company to ask. Sure enough, that is exactly what it meant! What used to be one of the least expensive long-distance plans by my carrier had quietly morphed into a bizarre and expensive plan. No longer am I merely paying a monthly charge whether I use my minutes or not (which I grumbled about back in the good ol' days) -- I now pay extra above and beyond that for each minute I fall under the 30 minutes! In other words, the cheapest my bill can be is if I make exactly 30 minutes of long-distance calls per month. But if I use fewer minutes, I get charged for each minute under 30! (And if I go over 30, of course, I get charged for that too!)

It's insane. I tried, on the phone, to switch to a different plan (one that still has a monthly charge, and now limits me to 12 minutes a month, but at least the monthly charge is cheaper and there is no "shortfall penalty"), but I couldn't believe that this is really the cheapest plan they have. But working with the customer service representative on the phone was really frustrating. She was polite enough, but put me on hold for really long periods of time in-between questions. I was suspicious that this was a deliberate strategy to discourage me from switching to the less-expensive plan. My battery on my cordless phone gave out and I had to run across the house to another corded phone in order not to lose the connection. I stubbornly held in there, because I was getting upset and didn't want to fall for this. I remained as polite to the customer service representative as she was to me, but still did voice my outrage at a plan that charges you extra for not making enough long-distance calls.

Then I decided to go online to see if I could more easily find an even cheaper plan. I did. At least I think so. When I tried to follow the online instructions for changing my plan, at first it pretended that my number was not a valid number. When I cleared my cache and then even started all over again in a new browser, it finally recognized my number, but when it detected what I was up to, it got me stuck in a loop that wouldn't let me proceed.

Maybe these are all just honest mistakes -- a change in my plan that they forgot to inform me about; being put on hold for long periods of time; the website not allowing me to make further changes. And maybe there are good reasons for charging me extra for not making enough calls. Maybe there is some way that my not making enough calls is expensive to them -- maybe the logic of this is just escaping me at the moment.

But, in relation to all else that is going on, I'm really starting to wonder whether business ethics has gone completely out the window.

I sure hope that other companies don't start following suit. Can you imagine if we have to start paying shortfall fees for, e.g., not using enough gasoline, heating fuel, electricity, etc.?

Has it become a civic duty to "stimulate the economy" by paying extra when we aren't consuming enough?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Time for More Updates

Hello faithful readers! Time flies, and I realize I haven't posted in a while. Turns out that this semester is very busy for me -- approaching again the level of busyness two years ago that then led to my burnout. I must be careful. But my spirits have been pretty good, and I'm managing the load pretty well overall.

One of the reasons I am so busy again is that I took on a bit of a teaching overload this semester, but I only let myself do so because it buys me an extra course release next year. So, next year (my LAST year of being chair of my department), I'll have a 2-2 teaching load, which means two courses per semester. The normal load for those who are not chairs at my college is 3-3, but each of our courses is "heavier" than normal 3-credit courses, because we meet a full three hours per week, instead of three 50-minute sessions as at most colleges and universities. My normal load as chair is 3-2. That means I have one too-busy semester, and one manageable semester per year. To have a 2-2 load will give me a manageable load for the entire year! Nice!

This semester, I have three classes, three independent study students, am chairing my department, and coordinating our new Peace Studies minor. I also co-chair a university committee, and through that committee am bringing a guest speaker to campus. And I am playing in a new community contra dance band. We had our debut performance (guest-playing two dances) at a contra dance a couple of weeks ago. I am also running a faculty/staff reading group. And for some reason, I have recently had a lot of students requesting letters of recommendation.

A new class I am teaching this semester is Symbolic Logic (an advanced and optional course). I have a great group of students. I am finding this a lot of fun. The simple clear truth of the subject material is a welcome contrast to most of the teaching I do. I know that my postmodern friends are gasping in horror to hear me say that (the "t" word, "truth"!), but I actually do think that the basic principles of logic are true. How far this kind of truth can go is, of course, another question. But logic itself points out its own limitations -- and I find that fascinating too! I would be the first to admit that logic alone cannot solve our most important problems, but we do need its help. Anything that violates good logic really is flawed. But just according with logic is not enough: we need more.

I have also gotten distracted lately with technology. I had another scare with my electronic organizer (PDA), and managed to fix the problem with drastic action. Once I realized that the problem happened two days after the 90-day warranty expired (the device would not turn on!), instead of sending it in for a $145 repair, I took drastic action, following advice I found on the web, and took the thing apart to unplug and plug back in the battery. That worked! It was a bit tricky to do, but at a crucial moment of hesitation, I was cheered on by my tea-bag tag saying, "Fortune smiles on those who are brave."

But I also looked into alternative ways to keep my life organized so that I'm not so vulnerable the next time my PDA blinks out on me. I like having a PDA, because it's a way to carry a lot of information around in a very small device. Since I spend a lot of time in meetings, it's handy to have my calendar and crucial notes with me in a compact format. But I'm going to be a lot more careful to keep things well backed-up in a way that is easy for me to access both from home and from work.

Meanwhile, my trendy friends tell me that PDAs are now passe, and smartphones are the future. They point out that I've been having so many problems because no one is really supporting PDAs any longer. Companies have not been motivated to improve them or even ensure their reliability. They would like us to get fed up and shift over to something more expensive. And my Luddite friends tell me pen and paper are good enough -- why even bother with fickle, ever-changing and expensive technology?

Meanwhile, I've also been worrying about the state of the world, especially global climate change and the financial crisis. Given the magnitude of these problems and the dramatic effects of these problems on many people, my own problems (most of them, anyway), seem trivial in comparison.

Yet my recent preoccupation with keeping my life well-organized is a response to how busy I've been, and how much I would like to handle everything well. Meanwhile, I've been amazed to learn that my efforts have not gone unnoticed. Our new Peace Studies program has been getting some really good attention, in a variety of ways. People are noticing that what we are doing is really important. Former and current students keep telling me how much my courses have meant to them. This means a lot to me.

A person gets used to never quite being sure how one's efforts are playing out into the world. You keep trying because you believe in what you do. You stop worrying about the fact that you are never really sure of your effect on others -- you do your best to respond well to what feedback you do receive, but the rest is a matter of faith.

I had accepted this and honestly never expected it to change. "This just is how it is, and I'm fine with it," I realized.

So, to start to get significant positive response is requiring a new adjustment. It's good, and I'm grateful, but it also heightens my already-overdeveloped sense of responsibility!

But, strangely enough, I am okay with this too. A slightly earlier version of me would have found the increased sense of pressure stressful, but this actual present version of me is taking it in stride, for the most part.

I think my musical performance experience is helping me, in this. That experience has taught me how to transition from my perfectionism in practice to a performance setting in which people are actually listening to me and expecting me not to make (too many) mistakes. It's a jarring and dramatic difference, because no amount of personal, private practicing can ever prepare you for the profound psychological and physiological effects of nervousness! That's a new experience you have to integrate into your love of the music and your desire to be faithful to it in your playing. It calls forth tremendous powers of concentration to keep yourself centered and focused. Over time, if you keep trying, you figure out how to do this.

Having learned to deal with this transition musically, finding a similar transition arise for me in my teaching life is not so traumatic. It takes me by surprise, but it's not an unfamiliar problem. I can transfer what I have learned, and step up to this new level of responsibility I feel developing in my life.

And I remember especially to keep aware of God-with-me.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why We Are Glad to Have Witnessed a Miracle

New York Governor David Paterson called the recent plane crash into the Hudson River a "miracle on the Hudson," because pilot Chelsey B. Sullenberger III got the plane down skillfully enough to minimize injuries, and all 155 people aboard were rescued.

I think that this spectacular event has captured our attention not just because a lot of Americans are uneasy about flying, but also because the fact that this happened so close to the inauguration of our new President makes the story strike us with powerful symbolic force. The amazing outcome of the plane crash gives us hope that, under skilled leadership, plus the coming together of the people, we might similarly experience a dramatic rescue and recovery of our own country.

After the loss of "engine power" produced by the "double strike" of a crisis of confidence in our recent political leadership on the one side, and the loss of confidence in our economy on the other side, we feel our plane starting to go down. Our new leader calmly but clearly utters the chilling words, "brace for impact." We listen for advice: "head down, feet flat on the floor." For "feet flat on the floor," we each assess our financial well-being and bolster it as best as we can. "Head down" reminds us to take stock of who we are, as individuals, and as a nation, and we position ourselves to do our best to protect and preserve what we find most essential in defining who we are.

We hope that our new leader is as skilled as his confidence and vision lead us to believe. With expert judgment and impeccable control, can he bring this plane down gently into the hard and cold waters of the stark realities we face? Will the plane (our country) hold together under such stress? If so, will it continue to hold together well enough to protect us from drowning or freezing to death?

And, perhaps most importantly, will we as a people hold together well enough to help each other out onto the wings and into the rescue boats that will arrive to help us to transition out of crisis and into a renewed vision of what our life together can be?

We might not consciously be thinking of all of this as we revisit images of the airplane in the water and the people standing patiently on the wings, or as we read and re-read the stories of the pilots' amazing skill, the boat captains' quick response, and the peoples' wonderful cooperative spirit. But we are glad to see such a miracle, such testimony to all dimensions of the best that humans can be, as individuals and collectively.

We know that we are going to need more such vision, skill, and cooperation in the challenges that continue to face us all.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy MLK Day!

Happy MLK Day!

Our semester started today, and so I've been preoccupied with that, but I did take time out this afternoon to attend an MLK Service, which was very moving.

And on Friday I attended a Mediation and Negotiation Workshop. I'm very familiar with mediation and negotiation, but it is always good to have a refresher, and it is always valuable to see how others teach about this. And I always learn something new. But what I learned this time surprised me: I learned just how new and unfamiliar this is to most people.

For example, after a wonderful session on dialogue, we had an exercise intended to apply what we had learned. First we had individual time to think about how we would respond in a fictional scenario, and so I dutifully applied all that we had just learned about how to engage in dialogue with the difficult person described in the scenario. Then we had to discuss this at our tables. Here's where I was surprised. All of these nice, thoughtful, bright people at my table took the situation very seriously but their response was not at all to apply the principles of good dialogue to the situation! Instead, they all judged the person difficult and unreasonable and described the ways that they would put pressure (mostly by using threats!) on the person to change his behavior to match how they thought he should behave!

In my own tactful dialogic way, I questioned them without quite pointing out that they were totally ignoring all that we had just heard described for the past 20 minutes, and I wondered out loud whether things might be more successful if one were to engage this hypothetical difficult person in a conversation about why he was doing what he was doing. "He might have a perspective we haven't considered," I suggested. "Maybe we'd be persuaded that his behavior is not as much of a problem as we had thought -- or maybe he himself would come to reconsider what he is doing and propose making changes." After all, one of our charges was to find a way to address the situation that would not make this hypothetical person become defensive. But the people at my table just looked at me as if I were from another planet.

Now the different tables were to share their insights with each other in a full-group discussion. I hoped that I might now receive some backup from the other tables. But I didn't. Instead there was almost a competition among the different tables about who could be "toughest" on that hypothetical difficult person, and which version of toughness was most likely to be successful.

The facilitators did their best to question such strategies in hopes that the participants themselves would come to realize what they were doing, but I don't think they ever did. I tried to chime in as well, but everyone kept just ignoring me.

It was a very strange experience. I realized anew how much our mainstream culture reinforces the view that when people do things we think are problematic, we must employ threat-based techniques of behavior modification to get them to change. "Nice" people instead substitute reward-based techniques of behavior modification. The automatic assumption in both approaches is "if I don't like what someone does, I'm right, they are wrong, and they won't change unless I can somehow force or manipulate them into changing."

The message that we should double-check our own motivations and our own perceptions, because we might be wrong, does not get through easily to people. The message that it's not up to us to change the people around us, but that we should instead solicit their help in reworking problematic situations and relationships that we share with them, does not get through. We have internalized bad habits of blame and punishment.

I think about all of this on MLK Day. Martin Luther King, Jr., got it. He really understood the power of nonviolence. And so did a lot of people who were involved in the civil rights movement, because they learned through experience how effective it is. And so I remind myself that it really is experience that is the best teacher. Imagined scenarios cannot quite get people to have the experience of how powerful nonviolent action is. Role-playing is better, but it is actual experiences of effective nonviolent action that is the best teacher.

And we don't need to look far to find such opportunities, actually. We can find them in daily life if we are perceptive enough. People every day blame others and try coercively to manipulate their behavior -- or even behave this way towards themselves. Living from genuine respect towards everyone (including oneself) is really challenging -- and really important. This is what changes the world.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Morning Readings

I recently heard a radio interview (on Humankind) with David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. There was a lot that was interesting about the interview, but one piece that struck me was that he talked about writing things that he especially wanted to remember about life on 3x5 cards, and reviewing them every morning. Once a given concept was well internalized, he would retire that card. But the simple act of reading them every morning would bring an intention or a way of thinking into his consciousness, and over time, this had an effect.

I thought it might be interesting to give this a try. I modified the plan a little: instead of using 3x5 cards, I use one of those tiny loose leaf notebooks. One day, I sat down, and thought about important things I have learned that I want to remember better in my daily life, and wrote them down, one per page. Some are thoughts. Others are intentions. Yet others are queries.

Some mornings, as I read them, I think of new ones I want to add. I include the date when I write a new one. As I retire pages, I will also include dates of retirement, and will make a section at the back of the little notebook for these retired ones. It might be interesting to revisit those once in a while. So far, I haven't retired any of them.

Here is what some of them say:

Current page 1: "What would be a Good Day today?"

Current page 2: "My Athletic Self: I always feel better about myself after going for a run."

Current page 4: "It is important to take care of myself. If I don't, then I am probably at some level hoping or expecting others to take care of me -- and then feeling disappointed that they are not reading my mind and responding! Far better that I become aware of and clear about my needs, and ask for help when I need it."

A later page: "What does it mean to be a good friend?"

I call this my Mini-Book of Intentionality and Affirmative Living. I am hoping that it will keep me centered and focused in the new year.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Grading is Done!

Ok, so much for my noble plan to finish grading before Christmas. It's nice that my university doesn't press us to finish the grading by the Monday after Finals Week, like so many other universities do. It means we can pause to get ready for Christmas. I'm glad about that. But I've had several deadlines all at once, and getting everything done, including an unusually heavy load of grading, has been hard and I'm feeling wiped out now.

But, fortunately, I can at last take a bit of a break. I really need it.

Happy New Year!