Thursday, July 23, 2015

Prayer: I've Got a Branch

For me, prayer is an affirmation and expression of thankfulness, not a petition. 

When I was in elementary school, we attended a chapel service once a week.  I remember sitting in the auditorium listening to Reverend Rewick, singing hymns and generally not paying much attention.  From all those hours there, I remember one story.

A man fell off a cliff and as he tumbled down he began to pray.  “Dear God,” he beseeched.  “Help me.  I don’t want to die.  I promise to be a good person and not do anything bad again.”

He continued to fall and his prayer became more fervent.  “Dear God, please save me.  I’ll do anything you ask.”

He still fell and as the ground got closer he pleaded again, “Please help me, God.  I’ll dedicate my life to your service.”

Eight feet before being dashed against rocks, he saw a branch.  His arm shot out, he grabbed the branch and came to a stop a foot from the ground.  He gasped for breath, then said, “That’s okay, God, I’ve got a branch.”

I know that I ask for help in the difficult times and then cruise along mindlessly when times are good.  Like taking good health for granted.

We used to do a grace at dinner which was the most basic of prayers.  We held hands and said together, “Thank you.”

At its core, prayer is this affirmation, a thanks for life and all we’ve been given.

Sometimes before going to sleep I’ll say a prayer.  It’s a simple mantra.

“Dear God, thank you for everything you’ve done for me.  Give me the strength to do what’s right and to love those around me.”

That says it all.  The only other thing I could add is not “thanks for the fish,” but  “thanks for the branch.”

Thursday, July 16, 2015


My wife and I have just gone through a major change by moving from Colorado to Southern California. Many friends have asked why we moved into a drought area. Simple reason. Our daughter has had her first child, and we’ve moved nearby to help with child care. This will be our first grandchild that we will be close to in geography from day one.

My writing has been on hiatus with all the preparation for the move, the move itself and then all the action items of settling in. This process became more complex when I was hospitalized immediately upon our arrival in California with a hand infection and two weeks of IV antibiotic treatment. I’ve bounced back, and we’re getting acclimatized.

On the positive side, we have a new grandson and everyone is healthy and doing well.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

People, Projects and the Tinderbox

I’ve always been a project person.  I get involved and consumed in a variety of activities:  work, sports, hiking, snowshoeing, writing, teaching, collecting shells.  I’m not one to sit around relaxing.  After a few quiet minutes I jump up to work on a project.  There’s a good part to this.  I get a lot done, but I can overdo it.  It’s only in recent years that I’ve learned to relax more on weekends, taking a break to read a book by the pool or catch a nap.

There is a golden mean, a balance between frenzy and sloth.  There’s a time to charge ahead and a time to take a break.

Another dimension is that I tend to get absorbed in the project at hand and lose sight of the human touch, focusing more on the activity than the people I’m with.

When my kids and I were in Indian Guides and Indian Princesses, a father/kid program (which seems to no longer be politically correct) sponsored by the YMCA, I heard two stories that hit home.  Every year in May we had the Spring Pow Wow, a gathering at the YMCA of the Rockies camp in Estes Park.  Over a weekend we swam, played miniature golf, bowled, rode horses, fished, had a campfire and hiked.  On Sunday morning the leader held a brief service from which I remember two relevant stories.

First, was a discussion about the Cat Steven’s song, “The Cat’s in the Cradle.”  This song relates the story of a father who was too busy to spend time with his son.  When the son grows up, he’s too busy to spend time with his father.  The punch line: “He grew up to be just like me.”  For us A-type personalities the message was clear.  Make the effort to spend quality time with your kids.

Second, the leader told the story of the Tinderbox:  Two Indian braves were chosen to compete to become the next chief of the tribe.  Each was given a tinderbox with an ember and told to scale the distant sacred mountain and light a fire at the top.  The first to succeed would become the new chief.

They charged off.  Half way up the mountain, the first brave came to an old man shivering beside a pile of wood.  “Please help me light my fire so I won’t freeze to death,” the old man begged.

The Indian brave looked at the old man with disdain.  “I have no time for that,” he said.  “I have to get to the top of the mountain to become chief.”  So he left the old man huddled in the cold.

Moments later the second brave came upon the old man.  “Please help me light my fire,” the old man pleaded.

The second brave could see the first brave climbing up ahead.  He knew that if he stopped, he’d surely lose the race and not become chief.  He looked back at the old man shivering in the cold and knew that he couldn’t leave him there to freeze to death.  So he took the ember out of his tinderbox and used it to start a fire for the old man.  Once the fire was going briskly, he removed a fresh ember and put it in his tinderbox.  He knew it was futile, but he continued up the mountain.

Down below the people watched and waited.  Suddenly, a fire appeared on the top of the sacred mountain.  It was the fire from the second brave.

The first brave had reached the top first, but when he went to light a fire, his ember had burned out.  The second brave arrived later, but his new ember was still glowing.  He lit a fire and became chief.

Remember the human element and take the time to replenish your embers.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

People Who Have All the Answers

Beware of people who have all the answers.  I used to envy anyone who took firm positions on every imaginable topic.  Someone like that seemed to have it together and really knew what was what.  Then I discovered that people who had all the answers got locked in, defended their viewpoint and were closed to new information.

The sun goes around the earth.  This was adamantly accepted as a fact to the point of torturing and killing those who disagreed.  A complex Ptolemaic system was built with convoluted concentric spheres rotating at different velocities and epicycles to explain planetary motion.  Circles within circles, rather than stepping back and seeing the very simple answer that the earth revolved around the sun.

When people have hypotheses that become enshrined as fact, the believers stop searching because they have an answer they like.  But since life is a mystery, some questions are without answers.  To go with one answer and not explore other alternatives causes problems.  I’m following the only true prophet.  Your prophet is a fraud and mine is correct.  The earth is flat and if you question it, I’ll lock you in prison.

A person who has all the answers doesn’t take kindly to people who disagree.

Think how easy life is if you have all the answers.  You don’t have to expend any energy questioning, exploring and trying to figure out what’s going on.  You have your secret decoder ring that gives you direction in every situation.  If it were only this simple.

“He protesteth too much.”  We’ve all met people who become more adamant the farther off base they are.  If you don’t know, just admit it.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Then get on with searching for an answer.

Relative mysteries are answerable.  How to fix a broken pipe, how to solve a mathematical equation, why water flows down a mountain.  Absolute mysteries are impossible to answer.  Why am I here?  What happens after I die?

So address the topics that are answerable and enjoy the mystery of the questions that are unanswerable.  Have opinions, explore alternatives, but don’t park your brain with a scripted answer that someone has written in a book.

Be aware of people who don’t have all the answers and are always searching.  But beware of people who have all the answers.  Remember.  They often don’t know the questions.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Challenge and Response

When life serves up lemons, do we end up sucking them or making lemonade?  I find it fascinating the variety of ways people (myself included) respond to challenges.  Some people give up and succumb to problems and others rise above them.  We see around us people who overcome tremendous obstacles both physical and mental.  We see others who appear to be on the top of the world one minute, then carted away as suicide victims the next.  Why does one keep battling and the other give up?  What is the spark that motivates one person to climb out of the muck of adversity while another caves in?

A lot of it goes right back to attitude.  The same situation can be viewed as an insurmountable issue or an opportunity.  A chewing-out by the boss can lead to a decision to quit or to explore the grains of truth in the criticism and improve.

A sports team such as the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team may coalesce and defeat a more talented and experienced team while a team of all-stars may lose because they don’t care and have never become an integrated unit.

So how do we respond to a challenge?  Let’s take the example of a bad work environment.  When in this situation several times in my career, I learned to face four choices:

·         Change my attitude--I could accept the situation and try to make the most of it.
·         Change the situation--I could speak to my boss about what modifications would be necessary and convince him to make the improvements.
·         Suffer--I could moan and groan about it.
·         Get out--I could quit the job.

It’s a good test to run through the four alternatives in any challenge you encounter.  When faced with a bad work situation, I try first to change it.  If that doesn’t work, since I don’t want to suffer, I decide between leaving or changing my attitude.

Dealing with challenges entails hard work.  We have to motivate ourselves and need the discipline to persevere.  Everyone may be rooting against us so we have to dig down for the extra effort that only we can make happen.

The myth of Sisyphus comes to mind as the symbol of tenacity in a difficult situation.  The guy has to push a boulder up a hill.  Every time he almost gets to the top, the boulder rolls down again.  He sucks it up and starts pushing again.  With the four choices possible, he could just leave.  But in the myth, the gods have eliminated this alternative as well as changing the situation.  So his only choices are to suffer or change his attitude.  Does he mope all the time or does he enjoy the scenery while he’s walking back down?  And who knows.  One of these times he might get the boulder to stay at the top.

Joseph in the Bible is one of my favorite stories.  The kid was arrogant and had everything.  Then he’s sold into slavery and gets put in prison.  He hangs in there and becomes right hand to the pharaoh.  Along the way he could have given up, but he didn’t.  At the end he tests his brothers, but forgives them instead of being bitter and punishing them.  This is the epitome of exhibiting a positive attitude when faced with adversity.  He has all these adventures, responds to the situation, grows up and succeeds.

Part of maturity is learning what battles to fight, when to change the situation, when to change attitude and when to get out--knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.

And human resiliency is truly amazing.  I’m still awestruck by the obstacles that people can overcome.

A haiku poem by Choshu has always been meaningful to me when thinking about challenge and response:

Broken and broken,

Again on the sea,

The moon so easily mends.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Acceptance and Tolerance

Pay close attention to the difference between tolerance and acceptance.  Be tolerant of different viewpoints, races, religions, cultures and styles.  Revel in the uniqueness of yourself and of others, but also recognize the common humanity of all people.  Do not accept the violence that drugs wreck upon the body and mind.  Do not accept the violence that guns cause.  Do not accept the violence of hate.  Resist not evil.  Be a judo expert with hate: let the force of hate neutralize itself rather than you trying to fight back with hate.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Both/and, not Either/or

Life is full of dichotomies.  We face many decisions: chocolate or vanilla, to spend time at work or with our family, to take the turn to the right or left.  In Western tradition we become used to these binary choices whereas Eastern tradition embraces polar opposites: each positive has a negative and vice versa, the yin and the yang, you are and you are not.

The overarching duality calls for us to be both individuals and members of humanity.  Both aspects define our humanness.  We all share a commonality, but each individual is unique.

Science in the last century has also embraced both/and.  It used to be thought that matter or energy existed in one state.  Then along came the discovery that light acts like both a particle and a wave.

The same dichotomy exists within our lives.  We can embrace the opposites and not be restricted by an either/or viewpoint.

We can learn to balance both work and family so we’re not sacrificing one for the other.  Parents may bring children to work, take work home, set priorities and be successful in both roles.

In business people get labeled as visionary or action-oriented.  How about being both?  How about having a clear vision about where a company is going while taking the steps to make it a reality?

Rather than having to be either focused or aware of things around you, how about being both?  Like a good firefighter who is concentrating on the fire but also aware of threats around him that may prevent him from quenching the fire.

Do you need either to have an imagination or be pragmatic?  How about both?  How about dreaming up wild ideas and then implementing one with down-to-earth pragmatic steps to make it a reality?

What about being either intuitive or logical?  How about being both?  Make the intuitive leap and then build the bridge, plank by plank that gets from here to there.

Do you have to either accept your situation or improve it?  No.  You can both accept your current situation with a realistic assessment of all its warts, problems and challenges and then take the necessary steps to improve it.

Embrace dichotomy.

And by the way it doesn’t have to be chocolate or vanilla.  You can order a swirl.