Monday, May 28, 2012

What’s your Malfunction?

There’s something about me that’s different from other folks and it’s not by choice. In fact, I wish I wasn’t this way but I am, so have to live with it. You can’t see it and probably would never know unless I told you, but it affects me every day. Sometimes it has the potential to place me at risk – especially when I’m alone. In other instances it can be a benefit. From a certain point of view, I suppose it could be viewed as a disability but I tend to reserve that term for folks who have more life-impacting challenges. I consider my affliction an annoying inconvenience than anything, although it might be more of an issue for some.
Not long ago, I placed my condition front and center when I got the opportunity to speak with a group of youth as part of a leadership development program. My talk centered on issues of being different, which I believe can sometimes erode a person’s self-esteem and, in turn, their confidence. The goal was to help students appreciate the idea that everyone has something different about them; you might not see it or ever know it, but it exists in every person. It’s a straightforward lesson but one many can forget when measuring themselves against others.
As part of the presentation, I conducted a sharing exercise that asked the simple yet personal question: ‘what’s one thing about you that makes you different from most other people?’ By way of example, I shared my own malfunction. After a moment of juvenile banter among the students, along with the expected round of questions about my condition – it’s limitations and advantages – it was time for them to share. What happened next surprised me.
One by one, each of these middle- and high-schoolers revealed unapparent differences in themselves. As one might expect, a few comments sailed off-topic. One admitted liking to watch fire; another squawked about hating school (despite high academic achievement). Others offered comments more along the line of what I hoped. One stated being born with an underdeveloped bladder. Another was color blind. Still another admitted to being dyslexic. A hush filled the room when one spoke at a near whisper that her mother had died during child birth.
As they shared, I was prepared to address the ridicule that some might blurt upon hearing what was, in quite a few cases, some fairly unique differences. Instead, I observed with wonder how student after student revealed often-intimate aspects of themselves, yet no one judged. No one snickered. Instead, there were honest questions and comments born of curiosity. And empathy.
“Is that why you always have to go to the restroom during class?” “You can’t see any colors, or just certain ones?”  “It must be hard to read stuff if you see letters backwards.” “You must miss your mom.”
As for what makes me different? My malfunction is that I have no sense of smell. As a result, I never capture the aroma of a simmering supper, nor catch the fragrance of spring. Neither can I tell if and when a gas leak is in the house. On the other hand it’s easier for me to brave the misadventure of entering an unkept toilet at a remote rest stop.
Sometimes it’s daunting to be fully aware of your own limitations and feel intimidated by others who, on the surface, seem more capable or even superior. Yet if we can remember that every person – no matter what they say or how they seem – has things about them that make them different, going about life can be a whole lot easier.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Seeking Common Ground

How often do you exchange ideas with others? I’m not referring to the common (and intellectually lazy) practice of sharing like-mindedness; that’s what MSNBC and Fox News are for. Rather, I’m talking mental gymnastics. When was the last time you had a stimulating exchange with someone that required you to test beliefs and stretch what you assume to be true and right and just?
A couple weeks ago, I received an email from Jim, a person I didn’t know who wanted to meet. Jim had read several of these columns and was interested in discussing why I think about things the way I do. From his note I suspected he might not agree with some of my ways of thinking. That made me curious. It also made me cautious. After all, he was a total stranger. But his note seemed friendly enough, so we agreed to sit down for coffee downtown. What happened next caught me off guard.
On meeting each other, we immediately noted differences between us: Jim was white, a few years older and a factory worker; I was younger, black and more of an office type. He was an evangelical Christian and a vet; I was Episcopalian and missed the draft. He also was warm and welcoming. After initial introductions my reaction was that he seemed rather conservative, compared to my somewhat progressive mind-set.
The first 10 minutes or so were polite enough but there seemed to be no common ground on which to build. Yet as our conversation deepened, similar thoughts and ideas began surfacing and converging. Perhaps the most important one was that Jim and I held a mutual curiosity – something that provided space for us to listen, really listen to what each other was saying.
We’d start a topic, explain what we thought and/or believed and then shared stories about ourselves – personal experiences that helped us see where we were coming from. Through stories, we lifted one another beyond mere caricatures or stereotypes and developed fuller pictures of who we were.
Although our conversation was only an hour or so, I came away with a sense of understanding Jim. He was open and honest about who he was and how he thought, and I did the same. That made our dialog all the richer. What surprised me most about our talk was that despite the obvious philosophical differences between us, we discovered more points of agreement. That created lots of room in which to appreciate the areas where our thinking diverged. It also helped that we didn’t approach the conversation from a place of judgment or one-upmanship.
Listening to understand, versus listening for points of disagreement, has served me well over the years. As we go about our daily lives, there are many opportunities to exercise this approach to learning. These openings to seek common ground present themselves in surprising places, from waiting in line at a grocery store, to playing a round on the golf course, to sharing a park bench while watching your children or grandchildren play.
Take advantage of these moments. They are chances to grow. They are situations to connect with someone who on the surface might only be different in superficial ways (age, income, culture). Who knows, you just might find they share many of the same hopes and fears you hold inside.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Do you have what it takes to be a super hero?

I am Iron Man. At least that’s the fictional character I relate to in the big screen box office blockbuster called “The Avengers.” And, least you think I ventured to the movie theater this past weekend to bathe myself in fantasy to escape the realities of my life, you’d be right. Partially.
I connect most to Iron Man, versus other heroes in the movie (at least the ones I’m familiar with), because he is basically a man in a mechanical metal suit. It’s an amazing suit but a suit nonetheless. The other superheroes, like Captain America and the Incredible Hulk, have special chemical elixirs or gamma radiation that give them their powers. In the case of Thor, he’s from some other planet or something.
What helps me identify with Iron Man is that he’s flawed as a person. That makes him more human – and therefore more real. Yeah, he does amazing things (like save the world) but he also is burdened with less than flattering ways of thinking and being. Captain America seems too perfect; the Hulk is out of control; and Thor, well he’s just out of this world.
In addition to escapism, my affinity to the Iron Man character relates to my social justice work in the community. See, like Iron Man’s alter ego, I think of myself as a philanthropist – just not in the million-dollar check-writing sense of the word. I liken the work I do as a calling, much as adventure heroes are called to fight the forces of evil.
Of course, I’m no billionaire business industrialist or high tech engineering genius. Nor do I have movie star looks (though like Iron Man, I do sport a Van Dyke, possess somewhat of a boyish charm and claim a reasonable wit). The main thing I share in common with Iron Man, versus the other Avengers, is that I am a person with flaws. And, like movie heroes, I consider myself one who makes an active effort to promote the human welfare of others.
We all have personal gifts; special powers that have been bestowed on us. Some are natural; others are learned. My power? I don’t wear an iron suit that lets me do cool things like fly and blast bad guys. However, I do carry a smart phone and sport special glasses that emit a benevolent ‘Empathy Ray.’ When I use it on folks, it helps them see and sometimes accept differing points of view. It doesn’t always work but when it does, it can enable people to work together who might not otherwise.
               In the course of my community volunteer work, I run with a numerous folks I consider superheroes, except they’re ordinary people. They care about others – enough to get up off the sofa and do something about injustice they see going on around the community. Each one possesses special powers – skills they bring to the ‘fight’.
Like the Avengers, the folks I’m partnered with come from all walks of life. Rich, poor, young, old, and they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. If they were in the movies, they’d have hero names. Moving forward, I think I’ll call myself Empathy Man and wear a green and white suit. But I won’t wear a mask. I invite you to join the team. Just identify your special powers and start using them. A superhero name and suit is optional; the desire for social justice is not.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

One of the Most Dangerous Cities for Women in the U.S.?

Like most folks, I was really annoyed that Battle Creek was listed by Forbes as among ‘The Most Dangerous U.S. Cities for Women.’ As with many residents, my initial reaction was denial. Yes, there is violence against women here; it exists in every town to varying degrees. But my hometown is the No. 9 worst in the country? No way; that’s impossible. At least, that’s where my head was initially.
The Forbes report used the FBI’s numbers for violent crimes, including murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, in addition to reported incidences of rape in each metro area.
I attempted to rationalize the data; spin it toward something that made sense as it related to my experience living here. From the start, I dismissed the rankings story as a sensationalized attempt to sell magazines. Next, after more or less accepting the list’s statistics, I theorized Battle Creek social service agencies (like S.A.F.E. Place and Woman’s Co-op) do a better job than agencies from other communities in educating women about violence and empowering them to call police. But something nagged me. Does the same apply for the other two Michigan cities (Saginaw and Flint) on the list? What about the two Alaskan cities also cited on the list? To me, three Michigan cities in the Top 10 suggest some kind of pattern, but what?
After hard conversations with several women that involved deep listening and more honest deliberation, I was forced to consider what was initially unthinkable: what if the threat of violence and sexual assault for women here is indeed a clear and present danger, compared to all but eight other cities in the country? What if Michigan has a culture that promotes violence against women – especially in three of its communities? One city might be considered an aberration; two a coincidence. But three? Such a regional grouping means something, right? At this point, the correct answer is maybe.
A more troubling notion emerged from this line of thinking – one more personal in nature. I have long recognized how women around the world are discriminated against and oppressed. Yes, it’s better in the U.S. and improving, but a lot of work still needs to be done for the sexes to achieve equity. Yet until recently, I had not lifted a finger in active support of women’s rights. Like most men, I have been on the sidelines doing nothing. Me, sitting on my hands and thinking, I’m not the problem; I respect women. I’m a good man; I open doors for ladies, offer them my seat, carry heavy stuff for them
Only recently have I come to understand that while I am indeed doing all the ‘surface’ things a man can do to support women’s rights, what I had not been doing is exploring the deeper and more complex issues that systematically keep female human beings oppressed as a group across society.
It’s hard to remain on the sidelines once you recognize and understand (really understand) the truth about how world culture oppresses womankind. The knee-jerk response for those of us who come into this awareness is often to defend the status quo – ‘that’s just the way it is,’ ‘it’s the natural order of things,’ and so on. Or we remain in denial.
Which returns us to The List. What’s driving those sobering Battle Creek statistics? What is it about Michigan that three of our cities appear in the Top 10? Are there common cultural elements or attitudes driving it? After a lot of painful thinking and realizations about this, all I am left with are questions. Might you have some answers? Let’s hear them. If not, what other questions should we be asking?