Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Take Time to Feel the Important Moments

Folks close to me or who follow this column know I’m trying to use those parts of my mind, body and soul that allow me to experience emotions more fully. Well, I did just that during a recent presentation to a group of high school students. And what happened in the auditorium that evening caught me completely off guard.
I was the guest speaker at the school’s annual Academic Awards Program which honors students who earned honor roll status the previous school year. It was a proud moment for several hundred students and their parents. It also nearly cost me my treasured ‘man-card’.
Previous speakers have celebrated the achievements of the students, provided words of encouragement to maintain their level of excellence, and discussed how working hard today, both in the classroom and in the community, can pay dividends later in life. The letter of invitation I received to speak also stated that students would benefit from hearing from someone like me who has put these attributes of scholarship and service into action in the community. So I tried to do all those things in my address, plus sprinkle in the achievements of a couple folks I know who exemplify excellence.
The speech went as well as could be expected for a person who doesn’t do that sort of thing for a living. I even got some of them laughing a time or two. But the really powerful part of the program was yet to come and didn’t involve me at the podium. I did play a small part in the action but it was students who initiated it. And I never saw it coming, until it was too late.
After my address, I helped the principal recognize each student, one by one. We shook the hands of what seemed like hundreds of students as they filed across stage. After we relaxed into an efficient routine, I started noticing the students; really seeing them. I looked beyond their faces, what they wore, how they walked.
Some were giddy; others serious. More than a few were nervous. A lot of them, I could tell, would have rather not paraded themselves across the stage in front of 700 pairs of eyes watching their every move. Then it happened: I felt the magnitude of the moment. These youth passing before me, accepting recognition and receiving purple folders that symbolically represented the hard work and effort put into their achievement – for some reason, the full weight of the moment came glaring into focus.
At first it was unsettling. Then it got worse. Or rather, it got better. As student after student filed past and I shook their hands, I became emotional in response to what these kids had done. The work they had put in. The effort teachers made to help them learn. It was a small step for some. For others it was a giant leap. And I was there to recognize and honor them. It was just a moment in time with each student; a smile, my congratulations, a handshake. But it was the experience of a lifetime. For me. Guess they enjoyed it too.
For some, walking across stage like that may have been the first of many high points. For others, it might end up being their greatest achievement in life. It was for those reasons I found myself close to tears a couple times. All because I allowed myself to feel the moment. A guy could get used to this thing called emotion.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Holding in Problems is a Path to Self-Destruction

It seems like I’m running into more and more people who are working hard to destroy themselves, from the inside out. I used to be one of these individuals; still am, in some respects. But I’m fighting hard against it and wish others would too. But it’s not so easy to do in our ‘self-made’ society.
Recently I was walking across a wind-chilled parking lot with a business associate after a meeting. As we shivered and made small talk, I noticed my colleague’s face held a distinctly troubled expression, and it wasn’t from the cold. Me being me, I asked how things were going. What I got in response was shocking - not because I had never heard a story before such as hers. Rather, because of the way it came pouring out. It began as a trickle but steadily grew until what came at me surged with all the force of a tsunami.
As her conversation washed over me, I became stupefied. Not minutes earlier we were sitting in a group meeting discussing issues related to community change. Now I was neck deep in a personal drama so painful that it made my head spin. I thought, how could a person who was holding so much inside be so visibly calm in a meeting. The answer was obvious: because she had to.
Like so many people, she was overburdened with responsibilities of the family. Trouble is, no one person should have to carry so much alone. Yet as she talked, I could tell that was the case. So much was happening in her life that she felt solely responsible for, and I could feel the pressure of it all crushing down on her spirit. The things she was dealing with at home regarding her family seemed impossible to cope with alone because they involved too many other adults.
Although it bugged me she was carrying this load all by herself, what bothered me more was that she wasn’t allowing herself to feel what she was going through. She was holding it all in and shared with me a refrain common to all people who move this way in the world. She told me she had to keep things inside in order to ‘hold it together’ and deal with her problems. Trouble was, I sensed she was nearing a breaking point.
Now, I know more than a little bit about holding stuff in. Until the last few years or so that was my preferred method of operating in this world. I never shared my problems. Nor would I express how I felt. Mr. Spock was my role model and he would’ve been proud. I held in my emotions. I was being strong. Hogwash. I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be that way and that it’s okay, even healthy to share with others you trust.
I barely knew my colleague in the parking lot but took a chance and gave her a big hug. She readily accepted, and the frigid wind was replaced by a soul-warming understanding between human beings – if only for a moment. Hopefully it was enough.
A lot of us are grinding ourselves into the ground, because we’ve bought into the myth that successful people ‘do-it themselves.’ They don’t. Everyone has help. Everyone. For some reason, most don’t like to admit it. I guess when they do, the entire mystique about being ‘self-made’ evaporates and all you’re left with is a hard working person, instead of a super man. Or woman. And in the end, is that really so awful a thing?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You Never Truly Know How Someone Feels, Unless You Ask

When you’re trying to connect with someone on a personal level who’s going through a rough patch, it can feel right and even natural to talk in ways that on the surface seem sympathetic or empathetic. But if you’re not careful, words of encouragement can transform a kind and gentle moment into a relationship disaster.
For instance, it’s said time after time at a funeral: “I understand what you’re going through...” Last week, two very close friends suffered the loss of family members. One lost his mother; the other lost her brother. Both were understandably distraught. Years ago I lost my father. Thinking back on that day as I watched my two friends go through their own experiences, it occurred to me that since I lost my dad (many years ago) I understand what they are going through.
But I don’t. Unless I’m prepared to do a whole lot of listening while they share with me how they moved through life with their loved one, I can never truly understand what they’re going through. That’s because my personal experiences with dad were different from how my male friend experienced life with his mother, or in the case of my female friend, with her brother.
To say I understand without listening closely to friends’ unique experiences and feelings, I’m doing my relationships with them a grave disservice. I can say, “I have had my own experience losing a loved one,” but cannot simply say, “I understand what you’re going through.”
Like it or not, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to experiences. Even when they seem the same from the outside, personal realities can be wildly different. Take another well-intended yet flawed assumption: “I know what you’re going through as a [Hispanic, gay, blind, poor, overweight, etc.] person.” While often well-meaning, such statements can come off patronizing and even hurtful in ways that leave a person feeling marginalized or unseen as an individual.
As an African American, you’d think I’d have a PhD in understanding what it’s like to be black in America. But I can’t speak for every black person. The best I can say is, I understand what it’s like for me to be black in America. My truth about being black is based on my experiences. Sure, I can cite personal cases of happiness, joy, discrimination and racism similar to what other African Americans might experience. But my personal reality can be wildly different from someone else.
I am a male, grew up with one sister in a two-parent household that encouraged education in a way that conditioned my thinking such that college was a no brainer. Another black person might be female, raised with eight siblings and a single parent who stressed the importance of going to work as soon as possible to help support the needs of the family.
There are other differences. Some African Americans have a lighter skin shade. Others hold a darker hue. In America, skin tone can impact the way a person is treated, consciously and unconsciously. I listened to R&B as a kid. Another black person might have been raised listening to gospel or blues. Or country. But this column isn’t about me being black. It’s about being human, the uniqueness that comes with it. And the hazards of forgetting that fact.
So the next time you’re tempted to state how you understand how a person feels about something, don’t. Instead, ask questions (if appropriate). Work to seek meaning beyond your own. What in your world might seem obvious could be less so in another man’s. Or woman’s. Or child’s.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

System for Survival

There was a recent occurrence in which a firearm was discharged during a confrontation outside a local school. Coverage of the incident painted a level but nonetheless troubling picture of what happened that day. On reflection, it gave me pause about another serious but longer term matter.

In addition to thinking deeply about what was and is being done about the gun situation, I've also been contemplating the level of concern on the part of folks living here but residing outside the school district where the event happened. A lot of people are talking about it with understandable concern. Some are complaining. To a lesser degree and perhaps more importantly, others are taking action. Much of this is going on in the background to support the efforts by people on the front lines of this unfortunate event playing out in our community.

Most who own or use a computer regularly understand that software programs are always running in the background. These programs typically run unnoticed as we go about whatever it is we’re working on. But whenever a computer is on there are ongoing processes that help keep it operating efficiently.

What’s a computer system got to do with a community incident? The point is that at any given time there’s stuff happening around you that you see, hear or know about. At the same time there are activities and planning happening (some of it really good) that never reaches the general public’s eye or ear. Since I work on issues related to social change, I have the privilege of witnessing the kind of worthwhile things that help contribute to strengthening our neighborhoods. What’s troubling is that not enough people are doing their part. More than a few residents think the affairs of others across town, particularly when troubling, are not their concern. I believe otherwise.

We all have problems, no matter our station in the community. From the richest on the hill to the poorest in the bottoms, life can be tough. Interestingly, many of those problems are similar, like keeping your family secure, maintaining your health, making life better for kids, etc. They also are more connected than we may think. Best intentions get derailed when we start thinking ‘those people’ are different from us. Kind and gentle sentiments go off track when we believe that what happens in one part of town doesn't affect the entire community. But nothing could be further from the truth.

What happens on the north side impacts neighborhoods to the south. And on the east end. And in the suburbs. That's because, like it or not, our community is a system. It's living and breathing, kind of like the human body. Sometimes the head likes to think that what happens way down at the feet doesn't really matter in the broader scheme of things. But get a blister on your toe and let it fester. Anyone with experience knows the sooner you address the issue the better the outcome will be down the road.

What happened at that school is about more than gun violence sparked by an angry dispute. It’s also about injustice and inequity, all ginned up by a lukewarm economy. Right now, public officials in law enforcement, the court and I imagine the school district, are all addressing issues regarding gun incident. But running quietly in the background are others doing their part to address deeper community issues like leadership development, social justice and racial equity. Yet more can be done. What role are you playing? How are you helping? Believe it or not what you do, or don’t do, really matters.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

When it’s My Way or the Highway

Whether it’s corporate business, election politics or even life on city streets, a distinct lack of compromise exists among people. Why this is, I am uncertain. Perhaps it’s the economy. Or maybe the TV shows and movies which graphically demonstrate that lack of cooperation. Whatever its origin, it’s a sure bet that if this apparent disdain for working together doesn't change, neither will the eroding values and conditions of our society.
It’s a fact that cruel and surly people have always been present in our communities. What’s alarming is the rising number of nonproductive encounters. Speaking figuratively and in some cases literally, we’ve become a culture of shoot first and ask questions later. Trigger-happy groups readily advocate ‘the nuclear option’ to address difficult relationships rather than seeking solutions both sides can live with. A lot of this thinking no doubt trickles down from the international front, where common rhetoric includes (and in a growing number of cases lead with) the threat to launch a first strike. That type of posture used to remain in a country’s back pocket. Today it feels more like a go-to strategy.
In politics, negative attack ads rule; candidates say and do whatever to defeat their opponent. Once upon a time, give-and-take was the phrase of the day. No more. Today’s competitive business environment seems to encourage a take no prisoners mentality. Workplace backstabbing, false advertising, bait and switch – it all serves the pursuit of increased quarterly profits for impatient stockholders.
And don’t even think of doing the right thing on the job by blowing the whistle on wrongdoing. That kind of move puts a person on the breadline faster than socking the boss. There’s a similar code of silence on the streets. People prefer taking the law into their own hands. Apparently there’s an unspoken code against snitching and besides, they say, the judicial system only works for those who have money.
But violence begets violence. Tit begets tat. Wrong begets more wrong. And so it goes.
All this doom and gloom is not to say we’ve always been this way; there are scores of occasions when we’ve collaborated to improve society. There also are instances when the mean streets have come together. In many places, gangbangers have put aside their petty animosities and chosen not to fight.
When communities decide it’s in our best interest, we have proven we can readily put aside issues to cooperate. So the question becomes, what will it take for us to come together now during this period of uncertain economic, social and political change? How extreme must the crisis be? Who must be affected and how badly before people decide enough is enough? When will we realize it's time to work together rather than separately?
Somewhere, someone said, “Compromise is the language of the devil.” In some ways that might just be true. In others, compromise might just be our last best hope. Only one piece of bread at the table and two people are hungry? It hardly seems wrong to compromise and share.