Conversations, Re-evaluations and Recombinations: A David Whyte Workshop on Difficult Harvests

David Whyte Workshop: A Difficult HarvestI attended my first David Whyte workshop last month, held at the First Covenant Church in Seattle. The theme was The Harvest of Winter, exploring the challenges posed by difficult harvests and the opportunities they provide for asking beautiful questions: disturbing, provocative questions whose answers can unlock deep, hidden insights. These questions become increasingly important during increasingly difficult times, when many of our traditional sources of power and security are undergoing transition.

Throughout the workshop, Whyte recited - mostly from memory - poems written by him and other poets, told stories about the contexts in which the poems originated, and highlighted the beautiful questions articulated through the poems, implicitly or explicitly. The content seemed loosely organized around a three-step process one might follow when attempting to harvest from a difficult source of nourishment and sustenance, which I will briefly enumerate here and then elaborate further below.

  1. Turn to a different source; i.e., stop having the conversation you're having now, to create an "invitational absence" in which a new conversation can emerge.
  2. Re-evaluate the stories you've been telling about yourself, and discard the stories that are not - or are no longer - true.
  3. In the search for a new source, try combining different parts of your self that have never been in conversation before.

Whyte frames much of our awareness of ourselves and others - and our relationships and interactions with each other and the rest of the world - in terms of conversations, a concept he has articulated in many ways in many media, including the following excerpt from a SoundsTrue interview with Tami Simon on "Being at the Frontier of Your Identity":

The old Latin root of that word is Conversatia and it really means a kind of "living with" or "in companionship with," so you’re having a Conversatia with your spouse or your partner at home every day. There’s a "living with" whether it’s spoken out loud or not. There is an equal kind of conversation with silence, and with a particular way that you as an individual ask the question of life. You’ve got to find that contact point as an individual. Ask the question, "Where am I interested? Where, in a very short time, do I become passionate once I’ve opened up that initial interest? What do I have energy for? And will I have faith enough to actually spend enough time that I can open up that door into what to begin with is a new territory but eventually becomes my new home?"

The_Heart_Aroused_coverOne of the interesting stories he shared in illustrating this conversation about passions was his experience in applying for a job as a naturalist guide aboard a schooner in the Galapagos Islands (a story I first encountered in his book, The Heart Aroused). Among the 500 applicants, 90 were invited for an on-site interview for the position, and what set him apart - and made him an ideal candidate for his ideal job - was not so much his degree in marine biology, but all the extracurricular interests he had pursued during his studies: scuba diving, rock climbing and vagabonding around Europe (and thereby picking up some foreign languages). The experience led him to adopt an abiding faith in his intrinsic interests and passions ... and subsequently to encourage others to similarly have faith in what draws them.

I've long been intrigued by the stories we make up about ourselves. Whyte characterized such stories as hermetic enclosures - bubbles that we create so we don't have to engage in wider conversations. One of the stories he once made up about himself was a need for quiet and solitude in order for him to write. Letting go of that story opened up new frontiers - internally and externally - for his subsequent writing.

The identification and letting go of untrue stories reminds me of The Work of Katie Byron, and the power of articulating and transforming - possibly through recombination - personal narratives articulated by John Hagel. An interesting observation about this topic shared by Whyte was that the nice thing about letting go of a story that you suspect is not true is that if it later turns out to be true, you can rest assured that it will come back to you.

Crossing_The_Unknown_Sea_coverWhite also made a non-specific reference to some story involving his mother that he learned was not true after her death. He did not share any details about this story, but I wonder if it was a story he wrote about in Crossing the Unknown Sea in which his mother told him about a dream in which she interceded to save him during a near death experience during his time in the Galapagos, which included details of the experience that he had never told her about. Regardless of the truth of that particular story, the revelation it evoked for him seems like a timeless truth:

But irrespective of the far-fetched psychic reality of it all, something else had happened inside me. I stopped trying to do it all myself. I was like everything else in this life. I didn't need to have absolute total control over my destiny. I couldn't have it anyway. ... I was given a sense of the intimate way everything is a brother and sister to everything else. Everything we see as private is somehow already out in the world. The singularity of existence is only half the story; all our singularities are in the conscious and unconscious conversation with everything else.

The_Three_Marriages_coverWhyte often uses the word marriage to describe the intimate relationships we have with our selves, other people and even our work, a theme most extensively elaborated in his book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. During the workshop, he observed that there is no worthwhile path that does not risk leaving us heartbroken, and that even the longest, most successful marriages include periods of heartbreak. This notion of periodic heartbreak is a theme he writes about in one of his periodic "Letters from the House", this one on The Poetic Narratives of Our Time:

If we are sincere, every good marriage or relationship will break our hearts in order to enlarge our understanding of our self and that strange other with whom we have promised ourselves to the future. Being a good parent will necessarily break our hearts as we watch a child grow and eventually choose their own way, even through many of the same heartbreaks we have traversed. Following a vocation or an art form through decades of practice and understanding will break the idealistic heart that began the journey and replace it, if we sidestep the temptations of bitterness and self-pity, with something more malleable, compassionate and generous than the metaphysical organ with which we began the journey. We learn, grow and become compassionate and generous as much through exile as homecoming; as much through loss as gain, as much through giving things away as in receiving what we believe to be our due.

I recently encountered a related illustration and excerpt in the BrainPicker review of The ABZ of Love, which nicely captures the periodic heartbreaks involved in loving relationships ... and although that book focuses on human relationships, I believe these highs and lows - or, perhaps, dark nights of the soul - also characterize our relationships with our work.


…after swinging around a certain point for a time, very small swings to and from in either direction, a sudden drop with the resultant feeling of hopelessness [and then] once more pendulation around one point for a time, then a drop, then that hopeless feeling, improvement again, etc., etc., without ever reaching the absolute ideal. Disappointments and depressions are necessary features of any process of learning, every development.

One of the themes that pervades much of Whyte's poetry and prose is the courage to explore the edges of our identities (hence the title of the SoundsTrue interview). During the workshop, he encouraged us to look to our edges as we explore new conversations - or new stories we might make up about our selves - so that "the edge may become the center". One of his poems that he recited, Coleman's Bed, speaks to this process:

Above all, be alone with it all,
a hiving off, a corner of silence
amidst the noise, refuse to talk,
even to yourself, and stay in this place
until the current of the story
is strong enough to float you out.

The story I have been making up about myself for some time now is that I am currently "between stories", a period in which I don't seem to have - or be aware of - a particularly powerful or passionate personal narrative. Considered in the context of the poem, this prompts a beautiful question about why no new story has yet gained sufficient strength to "float me out". While I find myself talking less - online and offline - I may not have been cultivating sufficient silence to allow a new story to emerge ... and upon reflection, that seems an appropriate note upon which to end this post.

David Whyte on Feminine Wisdom, Courage and Power

Young_Women_Empowered_LogoDavid Whyte shared his inspired and inspiring wisdom about the feminine embodiments of power last night at Town Hall Seattle. At a benefit event for Young Women Empowered (Y-WE) - an organization co-founded by his wife, Leslie - he guided the audience on a journey exploring the "five forms of female courage" and revealed aspects of that courage through stories, poetry and an articulation of what he calls a philosophy of attention. Whyte suggested that these forms of courage are not restricted to women, but that men typically only arrive at these forms of courage - and wisdom - after they have tried all the more masculine forms of courage. I have often wrestled with an interior tension between the masculine and the feminine - most of my closest friends are women, and most of the artists who inspire me are women - and so Whyte's framing of the masculine vs. the feminine forms offers me a new perspective from which to contemplate this tension.

Whyte described the first form as the feminine relationship to the unknown or to mystery, perhaps best exemplified by a woman's central role in the miracle of birth ... and a man's role as an outsider looking in. After distinguishing a father's relationship with a son, whom he is supposed to teach, and his relationship with a daughter, to whom he is supposed to apprentice himself, Whyte recited My Daughter Asleep, which he composed over a course of several years for his daughter, Charlotte, beginning shortly after her birth. When she was five, he recited the poem for her, and asked what her favorite part was. Charlotte's favorite section is also my favorite ... and I wonder if my own daughter (who I suspect is very close to Charlotte's age) would also find a deep resonance with the lines:

May she find
in all this
day or night
the beautiful
of pure opposites

The_Song_of_the_LarkAs a marine biologist who worked as a naturalist in the Galapagos, and who has always felt and expressed a keen appreciation of the natural world, Whyte introduced another poem by explaining that a collection of larks is called an exaltation of larks, and asserting that he considers the lark an emblem of humans' ability to speak out in the world. He then recited Song of the Lark, another poem that reveals - or perhaps more precisely, revels in - the mystery of the feminine, which was inspired by [a postcard of] a painting by Jules Breton from 1884:

What is called in her rises from the ground
and is found in her body,
what she is given is secret even from her.

The second form of feminine courage explored during the evening was a willingness to ground that mystery in the world. Whyte sees vulnerability as a source of strength rather than weakness, reflecting wisdom I have encountered in words written and spoken by empowered and empowering women such as Oriah Mountain Dreamer (through whom I first discovered David Whyte) and Brene Brown, who also advocate - and model - connection and compassion through courage, vulnerability & authenticity.

Whyte recited poetry exemplifying strength through vulnerability, including  a poem by the courageous Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, I Know the Truth, remarking how much more authentic such a bold assertion seems when it comes from a woman vs. a man. He also recited his own poems The House of Belonging and Start Close In, the latter of which suggests a step-wise approach to grounding the mystery in the world:

Start close in,
don't take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don't want to take.

Meerabai_paintingThe third form of feminine courage is a willingness to say "no" to anything and everything that is not a full "yes". This courage is illustrated by Meera (aka Mira / Meerabai / Mirabai), an ecstatic Hindu poet and singer in 16th century India, and her poem, Why Meera Can't Go Back Home, which articulates firm boundaries:

Approve me or disapprove me;
I praise the Mountain Energy night
and day.

Whyte also recited Sweet Darkness, a poem with particularly deep personal resonance that helped me re-frame and re-interpret a misconstrued defeat during a period in which I was moving toward belonging, freedom and coming alive again after a period of soul-squelching darkness:

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

After an intermission, Jamie Rose-Edwards, the Executive Director of Young Women Empowered, and two of its recent graduates shared their hopes for and experiences with the program. The mission of Y-WE is to "empower young women from diverse communities to step up as leaders in their schools, communities, and the world." There was clear alignment between the kinds of courage and power Whyte was expressing and the characteristics modeled and cultivated by the staff and mentors of the program.

David_Whyte_English_Lake_DistrictWhen Whyte returned to the stage, he articulated the fourth form of feminine courage, a willingness to live in different forms of beauty. The forms of beauty that a woman will exhibit and experience will change throughout her life, and the transitions will often involve disappointment and heartbreak, but the courage to work through the transitions open doors to new forms of beauty (and wisdom). Whyte recited Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, his own poem to (and, in a way, from) his mother, Farewell Letter, and a poem, Weathering, by New Zealand poet (and librarian), Fleur Adcock, composed during her year-long, late mid-life sabbatical in the English Lake District (one of the places through which Whyte leads tours):

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.

At the end of the evening, Whyte shared the fifth form of feminine courage, the courage to accept the invitations of life and step out beyond yourself, noting that the most courageous conversation is the one we don't want to have. Throughout much of his prose and poetry, Whyte advocates adopting an investigative vulnerability in exploring the frontiers of experience, and his poem, The True Love - with which he concluded the event - is one of this most penetrating articulations of this truth, drawing upon the biblical account of Jesus inviting Peter to find the faith and courage get out of a boat amid stormy seas and walk on water toward him. A passage in the poem is especially poignant for me now, as I wrestle with my own vulnerable sense of power, worthiness and faith:

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

David_Whyte_River_Flow David_Whyte_Clear_Mind_Wild_HeartMost of the poems Whyte read - both his own and those by other poets - were from his collection, River Flow, a book I have read cover-to-cover dozens of times, and probably represents the closest approximation I have to a bible, serving as a personal perpetual source of wisdom and inspiration. I've also listened to his entire 6 CD set, Clear Mind, Wild Heart [also available in MP3] dozens of times, a series of recordings with a format similar to the event of last night: an intermingling of poetry, prose and philosophy. Although I was already familiar with most of the poems (and the stories behind them) shared last night, it was still a thrilling experience to see him live. This was my first poetry reading, and throughout the event, I experienced the same kinds of "goose-bump moments" I've often felt (and written about) during music concerts, perhaps most notably during the Indigo Girls Zoo Tunes concert that Amy and I attended a few years ago. What was qualitatively different between the poetry reading last night and music concerts I have attended was the frequent, collective sighs and other spontaneous shared expressions of recognition of deep truths that were articulated during Whyte's recitation of poems. I often experienced a double jolt of goose bumps, first from my own personal resonance, and shortly thereafter from the awareness that I was not alone in feeling that deep resonance.

I'll finish off this post with a passage from a poem that Whyte did not read last night, Revelation Must be Terrible, but which exquisitely captures the notions of shared resonance and aloneness:

Being far from home is hard, but you know,
   at least we are exiled together.


The Power of Pull: Institutions as Platforms for Promoting Individual Passions

PowerOfPull There are a number of interesting and provocative ideas in The Power of Pull, by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison. I've already tweeted about a number of articles by the authors - based on their book - that highlight the importance of physical places, the ways we can shape serendipity and the essence of leadership as connecting people with similar and complementary passions. Here I will focus primarily on what I see as one of the most radical ideas in the book:

Rather than molding individuals to fit the needs of the institution, institutions will be shaped to provide platforms to help individuals achieve their full potential by connecting with others and better addressing challenging performance need ... Rather than individuals serving the needs of institutions, our institutions will be crafted to serve the needs of individuals.

When I first read this passage (on page 8), I was excited about encountering another example of platform thinking. However, I also thought that it was extremely idealistic, and even though I tend to be extremely idealistic, I was very skeptical about applying this idea to the business world ... or at least aboiut its prospects for realization.

LifeInc-cover_small Having also recently read Douglas Rushkoff's book, Life Incorporated: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, I came to understand the history of the corporation as an entity designed for extraction, exploitation and externalization, existing for the primary benefit of shareholders who often have no stake in the actual work done by the corporation or its employees. I believe many corporations today - as well as many other organizations (and individuals) that Rushkoff argues have adopted a corporatist perspective - exhibit these behaviors, but as many investment offerings warn: past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.

In The Power of Pull, these engines of extraction are described as "push" organizations, with centralized decision-makers utilizing top-down approaches to forecast demand and supply passive consumers with products and services. Employees of such organizations are treated as standardized parts of a predictable machine, who suppress their intrinsic creative instincts in return for extrinsic rewards, resulting in a "curious combination of boredom and stress".

However, the authors argue that a Big Shift is underway, where knowledge and power is devolving from large, centralized and stable "stocks" toward smaller, decentralized and uncertain "flows". This shift is being propelled, in part, by technology, and is increasingly disrupting economics and politics and the traditional institutions that participate in these domains. Organizations that have succeeded through achieving scalable efficiency will increasingly need to promote more scalable learning, which will call for a new set of perspectives and practices.

Many of these perspectives and practices will flourish along the edges rather than at the core of organizations: 

Edges are places that become fertile ground for innovation because they spawn significant new unmet needs and unexploited capabilities and attract people who are risk takers. Edges therefore become significant drivers of knowledge creation and economic growth, challenging and ultimately transforming traditional arrangements and approaches.

This shift of focus - and prospects for value creation - from the core to the edge will require new approaches:

Rather than trying to pull the edges into the core, as many management pundits recommend, the key institutional challenge will be to develop mechanisms to pull the core out to the most promising edges.

BeyondTheEdge And the best way to pull the core of an organization toward its edges is to more fully draw the core potential within individuals to the surface(s), which can only be done by tapping into their passions and creating a trusting environment in which they are continually willing to stretch themselves toward the edge - or, ideally, beyond the edge.

To build this level of trust, we must begin the process of reintegrating ourselves, and often, in the process, rediscovering ourselves, so that we can present ourselves more fully and authentically to others around us. ... It requires us to get in touch with ourselves, to relearn how to be, in order to more effectively become.

The authors conclude with a compelling vision for integrating the personal with the professional: as institutions evolve to provide "platforms individuals to amplify the power of pull", we will have "the ability to shape a world that encourages and celebrates our efforts to become who we were meant to be". As I said at the outset, this is an incredibly idealistic perspective, but having finished the book, I'm more willing to believe in the prospect of its realization ... or as David Whyte might put it, its incarnation.

DavidWhyte-RiverFlow-cover The poetry of David Whyte - who also often writes about flows - came to mind at several times during my reading of this book, and this passage at the end reminded me of one of my favorite poems, Working Together, which he wrote to commemorate the presentation of The Collier Trophy to The Boeing Company marking the introduction of the the advanced 777 widebody twinjet. I'm not sure where Boeing stands on the push vs. pull spectrum, but their willingness to hire David Whyte, who was described by former CEO Phil Condit as "a storyteller, someone from outside our system saying that there are other ways of looking at the way we do things" - very much in the spirit of The Power of Pull - leads me to suspect that they may be more open to transformation than some other large institutions. In any case, the poem seems like an appropriate ending for this post.

We shape our self
to fit this world
and by the world
are shaped again.

The visible
and the invisible
working together
in common cause,
to produce
the miraculous.

I am thinking of the way
the intangible air
passed at speed
round a shaped wing
holds our weight.

So may we, in this life
to those elements
we have yet to see
or imagine,
and look for the true
shape of our own self
by forming it well
to the great
intangibles about us.

Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College

HowWeDecide Jonah Lehrer, the 27 year old author of How We Decide, gave the Opening Days convocation keynote at Willamete University last Friday. After being introduced by Willamette president M. Lee Pelton as "a humanist disguised as a neuroscientist", Lehrer offered a fun and fascinating whirlwind tour of neuroscience, psychology and sociology, in the context of a 5-point guide to how to succeed in (and through) college. Having attended several convocations both as a student and a faculty member, I would rank his keynote as one of the best I've ever heard, rivaled only by one I heard in 1986, by Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), when he received an honorary doctorate at the University of Hartford (so he really was a "doctor").

Leading off with a story demonstrating the ephemeral nature of many "great truths" (Oliver Wendel Holmes, Sr., discovering the great "truth" that the world smells like turpentine - specifically, "a strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout" - while on a nitrous oxide-induced hallucinogenic journey), Lehrer assured the new students that they will regularly encounter profound truths and discover new ideas ... few of which will have impact lasting beyond 72 hours, and nearly all of which will be forgotten soon after they finish college. The real value of a college education is learning how to think ... and to promote this process, he offered 5 tips.

Be an outsider

InnocentiveInnocentive.com is a platform for crowdsourcing research and development that succeeds primarily through the participation of outsiders. Companies post problem descriptions and offer prizes for solutions, and individuals and organizations outside the company submit potential solutions. Lehrer quoted a Harvard Business School study reporting that 60% of the posted problems are solved within 6 months, and that the key to solutions is being on the outside, i.e., being able to look at the problem from an outsider's perspective.

I'm not sure which study he is referencing (I haven't read his book yet), but I did find a related report on an Innovation Network conference:

InnoCentive now boasts 175,000 "solvers" from more than 200 countries around the world. About 90% are individuals, 10% are organizations and 60% have masters degrees or PhDs. Last year, nearly 50% of the "challenges" posted on InnoCentive's web site generated a solution that was put to use.

Academics who polled InnoCentive's winning solvers discovered something "both startling and intuitively obvious," said Spradlin. "What they found was that typically ... the background of the solver who solved the problem" was "no less than six disciplines away" from the subject area in which the problem emerged. "What that means is, if all the Stanford PhDs in your chemistry lab could have solved the problem, they would have solved it already."

Lehrer reported that English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge used to tell people he attended public lectures on chemistry in London "to improve my stock of metaphors", and encouraged students to take at least one class each semester outside of their field ... and "don't be afraid to be the lonely poet in chem class".

Learn how to relax

image from sites.google.com Lehrer described a study on people solving compound remote associates problems, for which Lehrer suggested the evocative acronym "CRAP". Another acronym, "RAT" (remote associates test), is more commonly associated with these kinds of problems - often posed on the Sunday Puzzle on NPR - in which three words are presented and the problem is to find a fourth word that relates to all of them (e.g., given the problem "broken, clear, eye", the solution is "glass"). The study revealed that the "flash of insight" or "Aha!" moment that occurs immediately before a solution can be reliably detected via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), and the alpha wave pattern closely resembles that of someone who has experience in meditation, i.e., someone who is able to achieve states of deep relaxation.

Contrary to the intuition many of us have when faced with a hard problem, which is to focus on the problem as hard as we can (I imagine this is why they are called "hard problems"), the solution in many cases is to simply relax and temporarily turn our attention to other things, and allow the solution to emerge more organically. I was reminded of one of my favorite lines of poetry, by Wallace Stevens:

Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around a lake.

Another observation by Lehrer - the brain knows more than you know, you just have to listen - reminded me of the way yet another poet, David Whyte, describes poetry:

Poetry is the art of overhearing yourself say things you didn't know you knew.

But I digress. Shifting from poetry to technology - and back to Lehrer's speech - Lehrer suggested that one of the most effective ways of listening to what you know is to turn off the gadgets that constantly inundate us with what others are saying ... reminding me of what Sherry Turkle, Kathy Sierra, James Surowiecki, Malcolm Gladwell, James Ogilvy, Dan Oestreich and other great thinkers have said about self-reflection vs. self-expression, and the recent New York Times article on digital devices deprive brain of needed downtime.

Make friends with lots of different people

ConsequentialStrangers Lehrer described the self-similarity principle (or perhaps homophily) as a natural tendency to associate with people who are like us (and avoid people who are not like us), and suggested that students guard against this tendency. A study by sociologist Martin Ruef and his colleagues at Princeton, in which they interviewed 600 entrepreneurs, revealed that the entrepreneurs with the highest informational entropy (i.e., most diverse social networks) were the most successful, and that the propensity to strike up conversation with potentially consequential strangers was a key indicator of this quality. The researchers estimate that entrepreneurs with highly entropic networks were 3 times more innovative than those with low entropy networks (though innovation is a notoriously difficult concept to measure).

College is a great place to forge new connections with a broad range of people, and so Lehrer encouraged students to take advantage of the opportunity to diversify their social networks ... which will seve them well long after they've forgotten all (or most of) the facts they will have learned while in school.

Don't eat the marshmallow

image from www.newyorker.com Another variation on the theme of intent focus vs. relaxation - or, at least, distraction - was illuminated through the story of the marshmallow task, which Lehrer wrote about in a New Yorker article on the secret of self control last May. Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel conducted experiments with four year olds at the Bing Nursery School, including one named Carolyn, to explore delayed gratification:

Carolyn was asked to sit down in the chair and pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Carolyn chose the marshmallow. ... A researcher then made Carolyn an offer: she could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second. Then he left the room [for about 15 minutes].

Only 30% of the children were able to delay gratification for the full 15 minutes; the average delay of gratification was about 2 minutes. 13 years later, Mischel conducted extensive followup surveys to discover how the 600+ children had fared. The high delayers - those who were able to distract themselves for the full 15 minutes - averaged 200 points higher on the SAT, on average, than the low delayers - those who were unable to shift their attention to anything but the marshmallow, and succumbed to temptation within 30 seconds.

Lehrer instructed the students that "your task for the next four years is to learn how to control your attention. You control the spotlight" - use it wisely.


BeingWrongBook Elaborating on a theme invoked by Dean Darlene Moore during the opening remarks to the event - in which she emphasized the primacy of the journey over the destination - Lehrer invited students to fully appreciate the experience of a college education. Highlighting the importance of embracing wrongology, Lehrer offered a great anecdote:

You get to share your opinion on Hamlet, and write long essays about how Plato, the guy who blew your mind last week, was actually wrong about everything.

In my own experience as a philosophy major years ago (and continuing ever since), education is about learning things, and then unlearning things; discovering a great truth, and then discovering that its opposite is [also] true. I can understand the appeal of fundamentalism, in clinging tenaciously to beliefs no matter what facts may present themselves, especially as fears, uncertainties and doubts are promulgated by those who would deign to decide for us, but I don't think we can learn much when we are not willing to be in the question(s).

image from upload.wikimedia.orgSpeaking of questions, during the question & answer period following his talk, my favorite question was by a student who asked how Lehrer figures out which questions to ask (or pursue). He answered that he wrote a book about decisions primarily because he is pathologically indecisive, and generally tends to begin with his own frustrations ... mirroring my own tendency toward what I like to call irritation-based research ... or what Eric Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, describes in the context of open source programming:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that I have not yet read Lehrer's book, How We Decide, but as I noted in my earlier post on the warm welcome we enjoyed throughout Willamette Opening Days, my daughter, Meg, read the book over the summer, and after his speech she told me that many of the examples are covered more extensively in the book, which is next on my stack of "to-reads".

image from www-tc.pbs.org Finally, I want to loop back to some introductory remarks made by President Pelton, in which he quoted E. O. Wilson, the multidisciplinary scientist sociobiologist who contributed much to our understanding of ant colonies (and other societies and systems):

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

Lehrer, like Wilson, is clearly a great synthesizer, and I hope his convocation keynote - and the subsequent scope of a liberal arts education at Willamette - will help inspire a future generation of synthesizers, critical thinkers and wise decision-makers.

Blessing and Wounding: Longing, loss, pain and transformation

I was transfixed by an article in today's Wall Street Journal - In Praise of the Crackup: A novelist peers through darkness to find glittering gems in writing and art - by Jeanette Winterson, in which she explores "the collision of creativity and mental instability", digging deeper into the way that artists are often able [driven?] to transform personal pain and loss into works that offer great meaning and value to others. I was first struck by her illumination of the connection between blessing and wounding:

The French verb "blesser" means "to wound." Original etymologies from both Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon bind "bless" with a bloodying of some kind—the daubing of the lintel at Passover, the blood smear on the forehead or thigh of a new young warrior or temple initiate. Wounding—real or symbolic—is both mark and marker. It is an opening in the self, painful but transformative.

Rumi-225px-Mevlana This notion of wounding as opening resonated with one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets in an audiobook by one of my favorite modern authors. In Your Heart's Prayer, Oriah Mountain Dreamer recites the poem "Not Here", by Rumi, in which he celebrates the broken-open place:

There's courage involved if you want to become truth.
There is a broken-open place in a lover.
Where are those qualities of bravery and sharp compassion?
What's the use of old and frozen thought?
I want a howling hurt.
This is not a treasury where gold is stored; this is for copper.
We alchemists look for talent that can heat up and change.
Lukewarm won't do.
Halfhearted holding back, well-enough getting by?
Not here.

200px-Tagore3 It also reminded me of other ancient wisdom that I [also] first encountered through Oriah, a piece by Rabindranath Tagore, of which I do not know the name:

I see a light, but no fire. Is this what my life is to be like?
Better to head for the grave.
A messenger comes, the grief-courier, and the message is that the woman you love is in her house alone, and wants you to come now while it is still night.
Clouds unbroken, rain, all night, all night. I don't understand these wild impulses - what is happening to me?
A lightning flash is followed by deeper melancholy. I stumble around inside looking for the path the night wants me to take.
Light, where is the light? Light the fire, if you have desire!
Thunder, rushing wind, nothingness. Black night, black stone.
Don't let your whole life go by in the dark.
Evidently, the only way to find the path is to set fire to my own life.

220px-Leonard_Cohen_2187-edited And, just to round out a selection of relevant poems shared by Oriah, here's a segment she quotes from Leonard Cohen's song, Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in. 

Returning to the wisdom channeled by Jeanette Winterson, there were a number of other highly resonant insights and experiences, written with such elegance and poignancy that I cannot bring myself to do anything more (or less) than simply excerpt them here:

We know from 100 years of psychoanalytic investigation that an early trauma, often buried or unavailable to consciousness, is the motif that plays through our lives. We meet it again and again in different disguises. We are wounded again in the same place. This doesn't turn us into victims. Rather, we are people in search of a transformation of the real.

Creativity takes the heavy mass of our lives and transforms it back into available energy. Taking the mundane or the weighted, the overlooked or the too familiar, art is able to re-show us ourselves and ourselves in the world. Art holding up a mirror to life is commonly misunderstood as realism, but in fact it is recognition. We see through our own fakes, our own cover stories, we see things as they are, instead of how they look, or how we'd like them to be.


Art isn't a surface activity. It comes from a deep place and it meets the wound we each carry.

Even when our lives are going well, there is something that prowls the borders, unseen, unfelt. The existential depression that is becoming a condition of humankind, experienced as loss of meaning, a kind of empty bafflement, is different from the situational depression we all go through from time to time. Job loss, bereavement and catastrophe will throw us into situational depression, but existential depression is different. When life loses all meaning, we cannot live.


Longing is painful. Every work of art is an attempt to bring into being the object of loss. The pictures, the music, the poems and the performances are an intense engagement with loss. While one is in the act of making, one is not in loss, and one has meaning.

[Addendum: While Jeanette Winterson focuses on art and literature, in Wired's recent article on "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All", Amy Wallace describes a transformation of a wound into a blessing in the realm of science:

To understand exactly why [Paul] Offit [inventor of the rotavirus vaccine] became a scientist, you must go back more than half a century, to 1956. That was when doctors in Offit’s hometown of Baltimore operated on one of his legs to correct a club foot, requiring him to spend three weeks recovering in a chronic care facility with 20 other children, all of whom had polio. Parents were allowed to visit just one hour a week, on Sundays. His father, a shirt salesman, came when he could. His mother, who was pregnant with his brother and hospitalized with appendicitis, was unable to visit at all. He was 5 years old. “It was a pretty lonely, isolating experience,” Offit says. “But what was even worse was looking at these other children who were just horribly crippled and disfigured by polio.” That memory, he says, was the first thing that drove him toward a career in pediatric infectious diseases.]

Contradictory ridges, self and Self

Continuing with the themes of poetry, inspiration and great friends, another great friend, Dan Oestreich, bought me a book of William Stafford's poetry, "The Way It Is", a few years ago - one of many ways he helped me navigate a dark time filled with shadows.The other night, I picked up the book - which is always at my bedside table - and randomly selected a page, which had exactly the right poem I needed at that moment, "Representing Far Places":

Representing Far Places
by William Stafford

In the canoe wilderness branches wait for winter;
every leaf concentrates; a drop from the paddle falls.
Up through water at the dip of a falling leaf
to the sky's drop of light or the smell of another star
fish in the lake leap arcs of realization,
hard fins prying out from the dark below.

Often in society when the talk turns witty
you think of that place, and can't polarize at all:
it would be a kind of treason. The land fans in your head
canyon by canyon; steep roads diverge.
Representing far places you stand in the room,
all that you know merely a weight in the weather.

It is all right to be simply the way you have to be,
among contradictory ridges in some crescendo of knowing.

I re-read the last verse several dozen times that night, as I was struggling with a decision in which my thoughts were leading me along one contradictory ridge, and my feelings were leading me along another. As luck - or synchronicity - would have it, the previous day, I'd shared an insight with someone I'd just met about how, as I grow older, I trust my heart more than my head when it comes to decisions of great import ... and, as I grow older, I increasingly recognize that any insights or experiences I share with others - with the initial intention that they may be of benefit to them - are always things that I really need to read / hear again myself.

Anyhow, I sent Dan a quick note thanking him for the gift that keeps on giving, and he magnified the gift by turning it into a motivational poster entitled "Among Contradictory Ridges", accompanied by one of his fabulous photos:


In addition to being a great friend, Dan is also a great leadership coach (and a great photographer), and he followed up his "Among Contradictory Ridges" motivational poster with another one reflecting one of the central themes in his work (with his self, other selves and Self) - an Unfolding Leadership Poster - in which he observes "The problem is self. The answer is Self":


Around the same time, I serendipitously encountered a related source of inspiration - possibly via a chain of links starting with Dan's blog via a retweet by @merubin (who I discovered via @KathySierra) - on the blog of Pastor Brandon A. Cox, who recently posted the "10 Reasons Why Humility is Vital to Great Leadership", in which he champions the humble practice of self-oblivion. I'm including the entire post below for context:

Quickly think of five common traits of high-impact leaders… good time management, assertiveness, drive, energy, charisma, etc. Humility rarely lands in the list when it comes to our modern, top-down management systems. But Jesus (the greatest leader ever) and Moses (perhaps the second) had this one thought in mind – great leaders don’t have power over people, but power under people by way of humility.

Humility may be a forgotten virtue in conversations about leadership today, but I believe it’s absolutely essential to having long-term, broad-range impact. Here are some reasons why…

  1. Until you can be managed well, you can’t manage well, and being managed definitely requires humility.
  2. You’re not leading well until you put the needs of others before your own, which requires humility.
  3. You won’t invest time into others until you realize you’re not the center of the universe.
  4. You won’t be a learner without humility, so you’ll stagnate and die on the vine.
  5. You can’t be a listener without humility, and when you don’t listen, you’ll miss some vitally important feedback.
  6. Receiving and making the most of constructive criticism definitely demands humility.
  7. Being concerned about the personal welfare of others requires humility.
  8. You won’t improve unless you realize your need for it, which requires humility.
  9. You can’t be sensitive to what’s going on the behind the words of others unless you’re paying attention, which requires humility.
  10. The respect you think others have for you will merely be an illusion unless you’re humble enough to see the reality of your own weaknesses.

Humility isn’t feeling bad, down, or low about yourself. Rather, humility is having a realistic picture of who you are and becoming oblivious to self. This self-oblivion characterizes the greatest leaders of all time, and if you want to rise to greatness, you need to stoop.

Thinking about self-oblivion as a feature, rather than a bug, is a provocative new dimension to consider as I travel among contradictory ridges in some crescendo of knowing.

Direction, by Len Silverston

Len The following poem was composed by my great friend, Len Silverston, a spiritual teacher and database guru. I am posting it here with his kind permission ... and can't help thinking "When the reader is ready, the poet appears".

(Where I go, matters less than where I come from)
by Kensho Len Silverston

It matters less which direction I head,
Or even where I start,
What matters more is that the path I choose,
I follow with all my heart.

It matters less what direction I journey,
If it’s north, south, east or west,
What matters more is that I walk strong and tall,
And do my absolute best.

It matters less which site I pick,
And whether it suits my so-called “needs”,
What matters more is that I fully appreciate,
All of its qualities.

It matters less if it rains or shines,
Or if it’s overcast,
What matters more is that I be with what is,
Cause whatever it is won’t last.

It matters less in relationships,
If I confront or just let go,
What matters more is that I come from who I truly am,
And let my love and authenticity show.

It matters less to prove anything to anyone,
Or whether I accomplish or succeed,
What matters more is that I love myself,
Enjoy, and serve those that are in need.

It matters less to try to change,
Anything outside of me,
What matters is to really be the change,
That I truly want to see.

It matters less in my vocation,
If I’m a Zen priest or a database guru,
What matters more is that I follow spirit,
In whatever I choose to do.

It matters less that I have a precise direction,
Or know exactly where to go,
What matters more is that I’m perfectly fine,
Even if I just don’t know.

[Update, 2009-09-11: Len has created a new web site to support his spiritual coaching and guidance practice, Spirituality In Practice. His poem, Direction, can now also be found on the articles page on that site.]

The Paradox of Choice: Decisions, Happiness and Appreciation

In addition to seeding my last post - on Dark Nights of the Soul - by sending me a link to an evocative image, Yogi also sent me a link to a 20-minute video of Barry Schwartz giving a presentation on The Paradox of Choice a few years ago at a TED conference.

Paradoxofchoice The presentation is derived from Barry's book, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More, about which he says (during the video presentation), "I wrote a whole book to try to explain this [paradox] to myself" ... reminding me of why I blog ... or why David Whyte writes poetry ("Poetry is the art of hearing yourself say things you didn't know you knew" - (well, at least I think these are all related)).

Barry offers an engaging theory on why increasing choices often makes people miserable:

  1. Regret and anticipated regret
  2. Opportunity costs
  3. Escalation of expectations
  4. Self-blame

He is not railing against choice(s), but instead arguing that the "official dogma" - having more choices leads to more freedom and [thus] greater welfare - is wrong, that we pass a point of diminishing returns after which welfare - or happiness - decreases as the range of choices increase. As he says "some choice is better than no choice, but more choice is not necessarily better than some choice". While I generally and enthusiastically agree with many of his points, I think we differ on where the points of diminishing returns start, whether or how to set boundaries near those points, and whether there are other ways of approaching choice that may affect these points.

Barry draws some of of his examples of overwhelming choices from his supermarket, which stocks 250 varieties of cookies, 75 iced teas, 230 soups, 175 salad dressings, 275 cereals and 40 toothpastes (several years ago, a Washington Post article on Toothpaste Proliferation Syndrome reported finding 179 varieties of toothpaste in a virtual stroll down the aisle at Drugstore.com).

One of the side effects of so much choice is that it increases the likelihood that we'll make a "wrong" choice, and the corresponding likelihood that we'll regret our choice ... and the likelihood that we'll anticipate regretting our choice:

Even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than if we had fewer options to choose from.
With a lot of different salad dressings to choose from, if you buy one and it's not perfect ... it's easy to imagine you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all about the option that you chose.

TurtlesallthewaydownDecision_tree_modelFurther on in the presentation, Barry distinguishes between time spent making decisions vs. acting on those decisions, which evoked an image of spending more time computing in the nodes vs. traversing the branches of a decision tree. But upon further reflection, this representation of activity led me to start wondering what proportion of of the time we are acting on previous, or higher level, decisions, is actually spent making lower level decisions, many of which we may not even be conscious of ... whether, in effect, it's decisions all the way down.

Shifting from decision theory to political theory, representative democracy strikes me as one model for modulating choice, wherein we elect representatives who we then hope will make good decisions regarding a large number of options across a wide range of topics on our behalf (behalves?). I rarely hear people complain about the overwhelming range of choices in political candidates (in this country), although I often hear people complain about decisions made by our "elected" politicians ... especially during a U.S. presidential election year. 

I'm reminded of much I've heard and read about "tastemakers" and "trendsetters", and I imagine we often tend to gravitate toward official and unofficial "authorities" to reduce our anxiety over the array of choices. One of the benefits of this tendency is that it can simplify our lives. However, the shadow side of this tendency reflects Don Miguel Ruiz' notion of "domestication" (described in the introduction of his book, The Four Agreements), in which we learn to defer to authorities as children, and eventually learn to constrain ourselves based on what we think the authorities would want us to think, feel and do. [The Four Agreements are about unlearning this domestication, or at least consciously making agreements about what rules - and rulers - we are willing to follow. I've written about two of them before - don't take anything personally and always do your best - and will surely find a pretext to blog about the other two - be impeccable with your word and don't make assumptions.]

This delegation of power to authorities is what bothered me most about the presentation. Barry complains that doctors no longer tell us what to do, but instead list alternatives we might consider. Personally, I like doctors presenting alternatives with relative benefits and risks vs. telling us (me) what to do; the latter, more "traditional" (and "authoritative") approach strikes me as disempowering, and I would greatly prefer to deal directly with the misery entailed by being offered a multitude of health care alternatives than to suffer the degradation of condescending "doctor's orders".

The idea of delegation is closely related to surrogation, which reminds me of Dan Gilbert's ideas on how we make decisions (poorly) and how we ought to make decisions (using a surrogate). As I'd noted in an earlier post on Dan's book, Stumbling on Happiness, he argues that

rather than relying solely on our selves (and our fallible memories) to imagine how happy we will feel in some future state, we should capitalize on the experience of others by inquiring about the happiness of those who are already in the future state we are considering ... the problem [then] is figuring out which others we ought to consult in estimating our future ... I want to know what people like me like.

[I'll also note, here, that I recently discovered a TED video of Dan's presentation on Stumbling on Happiness].

Given my renewed research into recommender systems, and some recent ruminations about re-rethinking recommendation engines, I see how such systems can also play a key role in effectively addressing the increasing array of choices we face in our lives ... and in helping me find people like me ... and what those people like.

What people [like me] like reminds of David Whyte's perspective on why we are liked (or loved), expressed through his poem, "This Time":

Those stars told him
they loved him only
for what he loved himself.
They did not love him
for who he was.

So, people like me [might] like me for what I like.

Toward the end of his presentation, Barry wryly comments "the secret to happiness is low expectations". I've been a student of happiness for some time, and am intrigued with many dimensions of the art, science and business of happiness. And so, I again turn from the science to art - from psychology to poetry - and invoke Oriah Mountain Dreamer's perspective on the secret to happiness ... which not only offers a contrast to Barry's, but also seems to conflict with the sentiment expressed by David Whyte (which is particularly incongruent, for me, as one of his workshops had inspired her earlier prose poem, The Invitation, and I find a great deal of congruence between that poem and his poem, Self Portrait). Oriah expresses a view which has more to do with greater appreciation - and less to do with lower expectations - and seems to admit the possibility that we might well love ourselves for who we are (not just for what we love) in the Prelude to her book, The Dance:

What if your contribution to the world and the fulfillment of your own happiness is not dependent upon discovering a better method of prayer or technique of meditation, not dependent upon reading the right book or attending the right seminar, but upon really seeing and deeply appreciating yourself and the world as they are right now?

So maybe what we really need in the next generation of recommender systems - as a way out of the paradox of choice - is new mechanisms to help us better appreciate ourselves, and the people, places and things around us ... and perhaps new ways for expressing our love for people, places and things.

In any case, I think a healthy dose of Susan Jeffers' "no-lose decision model" (from her book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway ) offers a remedy for avoiding the misery and regret that Barry talks about. I've mentioned it before, but I'll include it yet again, as I think it is relevant (and helpful):

Before you make a decision:

  1. Focus immediately on the no-lose model (whichever path you choose will provide learning opportunities … even if it’s learning what you don’t like)
  2. Do your homework (talk to as many people as will listen … both to help clarify your own intention and to get alternative perspectives)
  3. Establish your priorities (which pathway is more in line with your overall goals in life – at the present time)
  4. Trust your impulses (your body gives you good clues about which way to go)
  5. Lighten up (it really doesn’t matter – it’s all part of a lifelong learning process)

After making a decision:

  1. Throw away the picture (if you focus on what you expected, you may miss the unexpected opportunities that arise along the new path you’ve chosen)
  2. Accept total responsibility for your decision (don’t give away your power)
  3. Don’t protect, correct (commit yourself to any decision you make and give it all you got … but if it doesn’t work out, change it!)

Although we may not want to apply the full range of this model in every choice we make - talking to as many people as will listen about which toothpaste to buy seems a bit extreme - but lightening up and letting go seem like good practices to apply to all our choices.

Dark Nights of the Soul


Maureen McHugh, a science fiction writer (who also enjoys "not science fiction" books), has written about the challenges of writing novels (and battling cancer) on her blog, No Feeling of Falling. She augmented her words - which unfold with exquisite openness and vulnerability - with a graphical depiction of the soul work involved in rising to meet these challenges, which is inevitably preceded by a descent of some kind. The image, appropriately entitled Dark Night of the Soul, is shown above; it first appeared in a post entitled Episode 1: Begin Anew, which offers a wonderful perspective from which to view new challenges.

Yogi sent me a link to this image, after a recent guest presentation I gave at a UW Tacoma course on Social Networks, taught by Ankur Teredesai [the presentation was on how proactive displays bridge gaps between online social networks and shared physical spaces]. Yogi had encountered the image in yet another course, on Interaction Design, an area which also offers a set of challenges, though the image and the ideas it represents were more related to our broader conversation after the class about work, soul, passion and happiness. I wanted to continue that rumination here, because it brought to mind (and heart) a few strands of inspiration I've encountered elsewhere.

Theheartaroused David Whyte, in his book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America, invokes the epic poem of Beowulf - in which the hero descends into a deep well to battle a monster, Grendel, who has been attacking King Hrothgar's men, and then descends again to battle Grendel's mother - to illustrate some of his insights and experiences into creativity in the workplace. Whyte notes that:

[H]uman existence is half light and half dark, and our creative possibilities seem strangely linked to that part of us we keep in the dark.

and goes on to share the steps he sees in the story - and throughout work (and life) - that are required for unleashing our creativity:

  • dropping beneath the surface
  • disclosure and vulnerability
  • disappearance and return

Whyte draws an analogy between Beowulf's battle with Grendel mother and each of our individual battles with the mother of all vulnerabilities: "the deep physical shame that we are not enough, will never be enough, and can never measure up".

He finishes the chapter with a quote from The Man Watching, by the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Or, perhaps, one might say, by facing, repeatedly, darker and darker nights of the soul.

In an earlier post on an unfolding series of peak and pit experiences, I'd written about how inspired I was by Dan Oestreich's insights into and applications of Otto Scharmer's ideas about "Theory U". I want to repeat - again - what Dan had to say:

We all want to know where the point of transformation lies. I would say it is in “no space,” the place we come to after exhausting everything we know…and everything we are, a point of pure meditation. The current theory base, exemplified by Oscar Scharmer’s “Theory U”, suggests exactly this process of emptying ourselves of everything known so that we can listen to a best future Self, a source of deep intuitive wisdom... Scharmer describes the bottom of the U as where we touch a larger field that goes beyond our present awareness, a place of new insight and new consciousness that enables us to solve the problems we have been stuck by using our current, more limited awareness.

I also want to include a larger version of the image Scharmer uses to illustrate Theory U, as it closely relates to the image of the Dark Night of the Soul I started with at the beginning of this post:


I still have not read Theory U (yet), but revisiting this image reveals another dimension of connection (for me (and my work)), with respect to the inspiring ideas of co-sensing, co-presencing and co-creating - not to mention open mind, open heart and open will - so I've ordered a copy of the book.

Meanwhile, based on what Dan has written (and what I've experienced), I suspect the process of descending and rising from the depths of our selves and our work is an ongoing educational journey ... leading through a series of dark nights of the soul(s) ... and, hopefully, some bright days, as well.

Oh, I almost forgot to add that the image also reminds me of stories I've heard about "thesis hill", a visual representation that Roger Schank (my academic "grandfather") employs - or employed - in his meetings with graduate students. Thesis hill, as I understand it, was depicted using an inverse geometric representation - climbing a hill vs. descending into darkness - but in my experience, and in the experience of many people I know (including many of Roger's former students - my "uncles" and "aunts"), working on a Ph.D. thesis often requires persevering through many dark nights of the soul ... and Rilke's quote about repeated, decisive defeats by greater (or, at least, more powerful) beings is one of the best, short verbal characterizations of graduate school - and especially, a thesis defense - that I've encountered ... rivaling the visual characterization of the Dark Night of the Soul. And, I suppose, writing a science fiction novel has many characteristics in common with writing a Ph.D. [scientific] thesis, just with varying intentions - and interpretations - with respect to the relative use of fact and fiction.

[Update, 2008-04-01: I just stumbled upon this relevant quote - from one of my heroes, who certainly had keen insights into darkness and souls - on Aaditeshwar Seth's home page:

"Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."

- George Orwell, 1946.]

Celebrating the Future Within ... Everyone?

Jubilee_logo Amy and I attended the Jubilee Women's Center's 10th Annual Benefit Breakfast on Wednesday, which had the inspiring title "Celebrating the Future Within" ... and a correspondingly inspiring program that included several women recounting their challenges, and now the Jubilee Women's Center helped them rise to meet those challenges. Our good friend, Mary, is on the Board of Directors for the organization, which is why we were there.

Jubilee is a transitional housing facility that offers homeless single women from ages 21 thru 60 a safe place in which to live and renew themselves. Women pay $250 / month for rent - the rest of which is subsidized through donations (such as those that are made during the annual breakfast) - and are offered a variety of training classes to help them become more self-reliant, both personally and professionally ... as Meeghan Black, of KING 5 TV, the MC for the event noted: these training classes sound like something everyone could use.

Deacon Steve Wodzanowski from St. Joseph Parish led the invocation, which was - synchronistically (for me) - based largely on a poem, The Journey, from Mary Oliver, a portion of which I'd referenced in my last post (on Blessed Unrest (which was based largely on Paul Hawken's book of the same name)), though he recited the full version, which I'm going to include here:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice -
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles. "Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do -
determined to save
the only life you could save.

This, in turn, reminded of some of my earlier ruminations on Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings, which brought into focus my conflicting views on self-reliance vs. interdependence, inherence, adherence and coherence - essentially, the self vs. society. There does seem to be a conflict, or at least tension, between teaching self-reliance (independence) and yet preparing women to re-enter society (which is, by definition, highly interdependent). One of Emerson's observations closely aligns with Mary Oliver's poem (and the overall theme of the event):

Trust thyself: every heart every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.

Getting back to the event, it turns out that the average age of the women residents of Jubilee is 45. That fact, together with the unexpected events along their unanticipated path toward homelessness - for which I kept thinking "there, but for the grace of God the flying spaghetti monster, go I" (leaving aside, for the moment, the gender issue) - got me thinking about Dante, and his observation at the outset of The Divine Comedy:

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.

Susan Fox, the Executive Director of the organization, noted the stigma often associated with women who are victims of domestic violence and/or homelessness, and stressed the importance of the positivism that pervades all aspects of Jubilee's programs. She encouraged us - and everyone - to look for (and celebrate?) the essential goodness within each of these women, a perspective I try to adhere to ... and, yet (as with so many things), often feel conflicted about.

I suspect that Susan would extend this suspension of negative judgment and appreciation of essential goodness to all women, not just those whose paths happen to lead to / through Jubilee. Returning to the gender thread I suspended earlier, this got me to thinking about whether we draw the line at women, or whether we ought to suspend negative judgments and appreciate the goodness in all people, men and women alike.

Pushing further along this edge, I wondered whether / how we can offer the same graciousness to the men who perpetrated violence on the women residents of Jubilee (not that I mean tot imply that all residents there are victims of domestic violence). Can we - ought we to - celebrate the future within every person (not just every woman)?

I find this to be an immensely challenging proposition. Philosophically, I cannot justify the drawing of lines of demarcation - this person is essentially good, that person is essentially evil. However, in practice, I do this all the time (I've noted several times before my personal challenges with seeing the essential goodness in George W. Bush, who, in my judgment, is one of the biggest perpetrators of violence - scaling back social programs, reducing protections for our environment, supporting capital punishment, war and [other forms of] torture - on the face of the planet). Who knows, maybe more obvious expressions of goodness lie in his future ...

As usual, I don't have any good answers ... just good questions ... or, at least, questions about goodness.