Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” Thomas Merton
I try to live my life in alignment with my core beliefs. My work, my faith, my art all aim to serve that bottom line. I love FIRST because of its focus on transforming culture in a way that elevates and empowers and celebrates youth for doing important, intelligent work. I love LI4E because I’ve been able to exercise nonprofit creativity with it, experimenting with intellectual performance art like TEDxYouth and Mini Maker Faire, and working to bring things I believe are good for communities – accessible learning, makerspace projects, free resources – to more people.
I love my church because it helps keep me centered, informed about and focused on the things that ultimately matter to me, and which all the other things I do ultimately serve. I love writing and photography because they’re vehicles for self-expression, and give me opportunities to turn ideas around and inside out, visually and verbally, and to look at things from different perspectives.
And yet I struggle continuously against myself: against the baser, less noble aspects of my being, against my short sightedness, my impatience, my foolishness, working to keep self-righteousness, expectations and judgment at bay. Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. Always I am aware that I could be a much better person than I am, that I could be a better wife, mother, aunt, daughter,co-worker, and friend.
In a wonderful class I took recently – Everyday Practical Buddhism, an introduction to the Rissho Kosei-kai school of Buddhism which is grounded in the real world – practical – aspects of the faith, the idea that we are always working to overcome ourselves and that these struggles are part of the journey, resonated with me. Rather than look at personal backsliding as failure, it becomes simply an opportunity to practice being better. If practice does indeed make perfect, then I’m going to need a lot of practice, so I can expect to have frequent set backs. The idea is to shorten each failure, to experience more time between them, to become more aware of each of our thoughts and actions, more intentional and less reactionary in our responses. There’s no reason to beat ourselves up over our failures, just acknowledge, move on and try to do better next time.
It’s not easy. People like Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and the every day good people we encounter who make serenity and compassion look so elegant, if not easy, are constant reminders to me of what I could be, of what we all could be, if we just put others before ourselves more routinely. If we – if I – had more patience. More compassion. More love. If I could really let go, un-attach, stop the cycle of self-imposed suffering caused by the expectations I have of the way life ought to be as opposed to the way life is.
And then today I encountered Thomas Merton, and pulled up short at the quote that presented itself:
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
It’s not the “worthiness” part that galvanized me so much – I know better than that. When you get right down to it, I could say I’m not worthy of all the love and care I’ve received all my life. I’ve done nothing to do “deserve” it. It’s that third line – “What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. “ It’s not that all of us deserve love, which makes it a need-based experience, but that all of us are called upon to love, which puts the idea and the practice wholly in our own hands and within our sphere of influence.
I’m not sure how I missed Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in the scope of my searching and learning. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for him before. The son of artists, whose own journey of self-discovery in his short life took him from Catholicism to communism to monasticism, Merton’s body of work includes some of the earliest interfaith dialogues and studies in the U.S., encompassing some of the first Western conversations with the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among other Eastern religious figures.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going, “ Merton believed. “ What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Well that’s a good thing! Especially since just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it becomes quite evident that I don’t.
“What we have to be,” he said, “is what we are.”
My life is a work in progress, but I’m increasingly aware that I tend to over complicate things, to over think the moment in which I would do better to simply be. I want to fix and help and improve, when all I really need is to be open, caring and accepting, of the moment, of those in my life at any given moment, of whatever experience envelops me at that moment.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times,” Merton observed.
Conversely, he said, “It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from the effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting any immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.” (No Man is an Island)
Can I do that? I don’t know.
As my work with both FIRST and LI4E take me into new circles of relationships and influence, it can be easy to lose sight of the whole point of doing it all, to get caught up in the excitement of success and forget the bottom philanthropic line, the mission and goals at the heart of it all. As my adult children take their own paths through life, it’s natural to want to point out perceived hazards or errors of choice, to try to keep them safe and help them be successful, when all they need is the freedom to make their own mistakes and enjoy their own successes, my unconditional love and an open door. When I have to share my life with someone I find unpleasant, it’s easy to fall into resentment, when I could simply let go of expectations and judgment and exist side by side, making better use of my existence, and more joy in theirs.
I’m a work in progress. No promises. But if all I’m really called upon to do is love, I can certainly try.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you knew exactly what was in the food that you were eating? This is especially important for people with life-threatening food allergies. With the Portable Allergen Specialized Spectrometer, or PASS, you can finally do that! Using the technology of mass spectrometry, the PASS device scans and penetrates the food with microwave beams. It then turns the scanned information into tangible data that goes through the mass spectrometer-like machine inside the device. Once the process is finished, the information will then be shown on a screen, showing each and every type of food that is on the plate. This device will help people with food allergies that are worried that what they are eating at a restaurant might contain the food that they’re allergic to (In other words, they’re afraid their food won’t PASS the allergy test).”
The PASS system is the brainchild of 15 year old Matthew Temmer, of Land O’Lakes. Matthew, who presented his insightful thoughts on the power of youth voice and vision at TEDxYouth@TampaBay 2011 , which I help curate, suffers from severe food allergies, and developed the PASS device idea”so that no one ever has to experience a severe allergic reaction at a restaurant again!”
When I wrote the Food Allergy Field Guide, the biggest concern facing those with food allergies, including my son, was – and remains – eating out safely. My son enjoys french fries, but seasoned fries are often off limits, because it’s hard to know if there’s flour in the seasoning, and wait staff aren’t a reliable source of information about ingredients, nor are cooks sometimes. The same issue applies with gravies and sauces. And cross contamination is always a concern. Having something like the PASS device to ensure safe dining would also make for far more relaxed and enjoyable dining for those with food sensitivities. So I applaud Matthew’s great idea and hope someone can help make it a reality in the near future.
You can read more about Matthew’s idea at Connect a Million Minds, and if you think it’s as potentially useful as I do, I hope you’ll cast a vote for the Portable Allergen Specialized Spectrometer as totally awesome, too!
With apologies to Mitch Ablom, whose book The Five People You Meet in Heaven was a sweet and thoughtful retrospective on how lives intersect, I’m more interested in the People I Meet on Earth. Besides the fact that I’m pretty sure it won’t matter after I’m dead, I believe that taking the time to consider the people in my life now can help make a true heaven of my time on earth.
I know that I’ve certainly met some angels!
This past Sunday, I actually made the acquaintance of one by that very name – Angel – and at his side, his friend Daniel. A Biblical enough pair, Daniel and Angel walked into our UU church looking for others who might be receptive to Daniel’s economic plan to end joblessness and restore hope and faith to America. As a friend used to say, “Go big or go home!” Daniel is certainly going big, with nothing less than the fate of the nation in his sights.
It was Daniel’s 82nd birthday and the only gift he sought was someone to listen to him, and more important, someone to hear what he had to say. When I tried to encourage Daniel and Angel to join us in our service, just in progress, Daniel said no, no, he just wanted to talk to me, to learn if this was the kind of place he wanted to be.
And as I sat in our big church kitchen, at a table with the two of them, and listened to Daniel Roque, I found myself moving from doubt to curiosity and finally enchantment. As I watched Daniel, and listened to him, I began to see and hear elements of my friend Rob, and the hole he left in my heart filled a bit. Daniel has every ounce of Rob’s zeal and energy, every bit of his determination to do something, something that makes a difference, something that matters and has a long lasting impact, and he seems to share Rob’s insistence that everyone join him on his social justice journey.
Daniel, a warm and compassionate man with friendly eyes, sees economic equality as the manifestation of God’s love, the chance for everyone to be successful and safe, and free from want. His hard-of -hearing Angel never left his side. As in Rob’s case, I found myself returning to Quixotic analogies, and although the resemblance to Sancho Panzo and Don Quixote was undeniable, this Quixote was armed with Excel Spreadsheets.
Driven, for the past 17 years, to refine and develop his economic plan, the International Private Mutual Welfare Trust , Daniel wants the opportunity to put it to the test, to show its value and potential, and Angel wants nothing more than for Daniel to experience the fulfillment of his life’s work. Together they are the embodiment of all things good and wonderful, two lifelong friends, united in shared passions and interests, dedicated to making something good happen in the world, and to sharing that goodness with others.
Looking and listening more closely, I found where Daniel’s work intersects with my own and has applications in a LIFE entrepreneurial learning project. When I moved from reserve and doubt, as I listened to Daniel and Angel, I found delight – delight in Daniel’s warm eyes, in his obvious sincerity and authenticity, in the energy and passion he brings to the world. And it occurred to me, not for the first time, and hopefully not for the last, that the more open you are to life, the more meaningful and wonderful life you can live. Every person you meet is an opportunity – for love, warmth, humor, knowledge, insight and joy.
Similarly, when I sat in a front row seat at TEDxYouth@TampaBay a couple of weeks ago, and just opened myself up to what our young presenters brought to the stage – thoughts, music, ideas, insights – I found myself enraptured; particularly with Devante Robinson and Matthew Temmer, each of whom came to the TEDxYouth experience eager but unsure.
Working with Devante to narrow his topic from initially broad outrage with “everything wrong with youth today” (this from an 18 year old), became an opportunity to find shared experiences, to look back on my own beginnings and recognize similar yearnings in Devante, and similar self-reflection in wondering what made us different. Mathew, a soft spoken, almost diminutive looking young man, was taking on the seemingly ironic topic of “giving youth a voice.” I was unsure how he’d be compelling when his own voice seemed so quiet and uncertain.
Yet his words, in his topic outline, were bold and positive, and I came to believe and trust whole heartedly in both Devante and Matthew on the power of their convictions, sure that they would rise to the challenge with guidance, support and confidence, which is exactly what happened. Devante’s presentation was spot on, delivered with surety and confidence. Matthew more than found his voice, and it was powerful and moving.
Encouraging people to speak and actually being willing to hear them can be a moving, thought provoking and heart warming experience, often in unexpected ways
Take Hugh, another one of those remarkable people I’ve met on Earth. Hugh has been coming to my door about once a month for over two years now. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness, and often has another Witness with him, Mary sometimes, or Betty or Joe. A tall, stately, distinguished and well dressed gentleman, with a soft Jamaican accent, the first time I met Hugh at the door it was with the intention of politely turning him away. But as I listened to his introduction and watched his face, I was moved by his sincerity, by his commitment to his beliefs, and his gentleness in sharing them. I found myself wondering what it must be like to believe in something so deeply that you’re willing to risk censure and worse going door to door to share them.
Hugh has never asked for anything, never tried to persuade me to agree with anything. He just greets me by name , and talks softly and sweetly about God’s love, reads a Bible verse to me and hands me a Watch Tower Magazine. I smile at him and thank him for coming by, and we chat about my grown kids, my mother-in-law who he knows lives with us, about the weather.
Hugh’s visits rarely last more than five minutes. Sometimes I can take time to chat with him and his companion. Sometimes I can’t. Always, they’re kind, warm and sincere. Once, when Mary was with him, she said she wished everyone would be so open to their words as I was. I wonder if I’m leading them on, standing on the front step, agreeing that the more open we are to God’s love, the better our lives will be. Does Hugh keep coming by because he thinks he’s winning me over, or just because I’m willing to listen?
I’m a UU and a Humanist. I don’t believe in the Biblical Christian salvation. But I do believe in the power of human love and compassion to create the daily miracle of life. And I wonder if just by listening to Hugh, perhaps I deepen both my Humanistic beliefs and his Christian ones, and we have somehow found the intersection between the two, the common ground connecting human hearts.
Sometimes, though, the people you meet on Earth seem anything but angelic; they’re harbingers of frustration and conflict, more than anything else. My live in in-law, MILlie, comes to mind. I often struggle to find solid footing on the shifting ground of my feelings about her. She’s my complete polar opposite in everything from politics and social views, to spiritual and philosophical ones.
It’s easy to feel compelled and enriched by the likes of Rob and Helen, Daniel and Angel, Devante and Matthew and Hugh. But what about the MILlies in our lives, the self-absorbed, short sighted, bigoted and sometimes downright mean people we meet on earth? Where do they fit in?
I think they are gurus of a sort, and can be as powerful motivators as the others, albeit for different reasons and in different ways. MILlie constantly challenges me to be a better person, to rise above pettiness and menial slights. The MILlies in my life compel me to try to find some common ground, some shared kernel of humanity where we can connect. It might be fleeting, sometimes, but it’s there, and if I can see it in these most difficult of people, however briefly, I am, however briefly, a better person for it.
The people we meet on Earth are truly remarkable if we take the time to be fully aware of them. And when we can look up and see ourselves in their faces, reflected in their eyes, and united in our shared humanity, then we have truly made a heaven of Earth.
I love TED, and the way it makes a wild and wooly intellectual free-for-all a form of entertainment. TEDs figured out how to make thinking and creating “cool” and that’s a wonderful thing. And now it’s begun bringing TED down out of the corporate cloud to make it accessible to more people in more places, with TEDx regional events happening all over the country – 1500 of them in the past two years. When I attended my first TEDxTampaBay event last year, I was enthralled. What a way to spend a day – listening to people share ideas and insights in the company of a whole bunch of other people who like hearing them!
TED is supposed to be more than just a listening venue; ideally we should be moved to action. I was moved to apply for a TEDxYouth event license, and last November led the organization of TEDxYouth@TampaBay, Florida’s first ever TEDx event for young people. It was a rousing success, because it turns out young people have a lot of great ideas to share, too. Our second event is scheduled for November 19, at the St. Petersburg College Seminole Campus. As we begin curating for this year’s event, remarkable young people have begun to appear – passionate and compassionate youth, with ideas about everything from immigration to art.
TED suggests the world as it could be, a place where ideas of all kinds are entertained and explored – a sort of Renaissance Festival for the mind! And in the simple process of listening, it becomes possible not only to truly hear, but to begin to see and sense new possibilities. And once we can see the possibilities, we have cleared a major hurdle to making things happen.
I can’t wait to hear what tomorrow’s TEDxTampaBay 2011 presenters have to share, and what new directions the ideas they plant will take us!