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!