Words that really weren’t there

The three-hour drive from southeastern Washington State to Seattle is a journey of transformation, from sagebrush and desert, through rugged, snow-capped mountains into lush greenery and rain. It was a trip I was especially looking forward to a few years ago following several weeks of turmoil at work and some sticky personal problems that were brewing more complex by the day.

iStock_000010194304XSmallPerhaps the change in scenery would provide a little perspective, I thought. That’s part of what spirituality means to me—seeing things from an elevated, less materialistic standpoint that includes greater love, more patience and understanding, and more wisdom.

I left for Seattle about five that Friday afternoon, grabbing several CDs on the way out of the house. One of them was John Rutter’s magnificent choral work, Requiem, which some musicians have called his greatest composition. The seven sections take the listener on a moving journey through sadness and despair into hope, and from darkness into safety and peace.

The traffic thinned as I placed the Rutter CD in the player and left the city, quickly becoming immersed in the simple purity of the singers’ voices. Cactus gave way to wheat fields and wheat fields to foothills and rugged mountains.

The great Cascade mountains were covered with towering pine trees, their needles so distinct against the brown-gray boulders that you could almost count them. About a thousand feet below and to the right was an expansive green meadow. I glanced down just as the singers began the words to the twenty-third Psalm. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me,” the words went on. Time seemed to stop and I caught a moment of freedom from anything unlovely and unkind.

The music continued.

The final section of Requiem contains the Latin phrase “quia pius es,” introduced by the tenors and echoed by the other voices. When I heard these words, I heard them clearly and distinctly as we are innocent. It was an incredible message for the moment:

You don’t have to live in the past, or affix blame, or suffer regret for any single moment in your life. You don’t have to change the past, just live in the innocence of this moment.

The weekend in Seattle was warm and (surprisingly for Seattle) sunny! I returned home late Sunday night and headed to work the next day where (not surprisingly) things seemed just a little lighter. Although I can’t say that everything suddenly changed, I can say that by refusing to “take the bait” of anger, finger pointing, or regret made me appreciate my coworkers and friends more deeply.

Even today, when I listen to Requiem, I still hear those three words in place of the Latin text. We are innocent. A reminder of how each day is a choice to live in the now rather than in the past.

Seeing the tapestry

I want to tell you a story of returning to ourselves. Stick with me here.

Many of us, at some point(s) in our lives, come to a place where we’re truly puzzled about why we’re here and what we’re to do. We may turn to friends, to counselors, to God for perspective and the answers.

iStock_000004604932XSmallIt can seem dark and dense. And, if we’re looking for a lightning bolt or flash of light to move us, we may wait a long time. More often than not, the darkness disappears as a single lighter thought comes to us, to be joined by another, and yet another.

The details of my situation really are of little importance. But the way the light dawned on me is. Here goes…

Several months ago, I was talking to a friend about a situation that didn’t seem right to me. After poring over the details and bemoaning them, he just said, “You should read your blog.”

What an odd thought, I thought.

But yesterday was exceptionally dark and it seemed like a good time to start with the first post and read through to the most recent.

In doing so, I gained a renewed understanding of the importance of perspective—that sometimes illusive ability to see patterns and textures in tapestry where we might be used to looking at individual threads. Those threads are much like the details of our lives that can obscure the bigger picture, the larger purpose, the greater good that’s really going on.

So, the blog is back. I’m back. Back to the place I didn’t have to leave and, in truth, never did. Just a side trip, it was. Only a side trip.

Six points is just about everything

Patrick is your usual high school senior. He studies. He plays basketball. He’s a favored son of parents, Pat and Perry.

And he has Downs syndrome.

patrick11That small fact doesn’t stop Patrick from running drills with the team throughout the year or playing with them during summer practices. And even though he’s never played in a real game, when you hear his teammates talk, you can feel the respect they have for Patrick, his toughness and his dedication to the team.

But, senior night, as it’s known, would put Patrick in a special place made possible by his friend and team standout, Sam Thompson. It was Sam who gave up his starting position so that Patrick could play in his only actual game, the last his high school would play that year.

“If I can help him have a special experience tonight, I’ll do whatever it takes,” Sam said, unconcerned that he was giving up his final starting role on the team.

And even though the center of attention that night would be Patrick, the decision of his coach and the support of his fellow players would enable this young man’s dream to become real.

The game began. Patrick missed his first shot, but a minute or so later made a clean shot from 20 feet out. Swish. Three points.

Near the end of the fourth quarter, fans started chanting Patrick’s name, demanding that he get another chance to play. With just a few minutes left in the game, Patrick took his place on the court. And just as the buzzer sounded, Patrick landed another three pointer. Swish.

Final score: Greely High School: 61 — Gray New Glouster: 43.

Players surrounded the new star, lifted him in the air and carried him off the court as the school’s new hero. But to 18-year-old Patrick, the real heroes were likely his team members who gave up just a little to give him so much.

Living your life with passion

Today, a colleague forwarded an unsolicited email from someone I don’t know, someone who has suddenly found himself out of work, an unwitting victim (my word, not his) of the downturning economy. Jeff (not his real name) writes that, “Obviously, today’s job market is tougher than most so beyond using the traditional job search methods I know I need to get ultra creative and I know I’m going to need all the assistance I can get. I was wondering if you could provide some assistance.”


The truth is that career advice is fairly well available on the web today. Monster, CareerBuilders, TheLadders serve it up by the bucketful. “Have a good resume and cover letter,” they’ll say. Another touts the merits of networking. They do a much better job on career advice than I.

That said, I’ll offer up a couple thoughts.

istock_000003074379xsmallaThe first is this: Don’t allow yourself to think of yourself as “a victim.” Sure, the economy isn’t what we’d like it to be and your company needed to take some action. That is, unfortunately, “business” as they say. But to think about yourself as its victim immediately places you in a mental position that can include doubting your abilities, questioning if you should have done something differently, and why it was you and not someone else.

I’m not saying a little self-reflection is bad, I’m just suggesting that victims have it tougher than those who are mentally tough.

The second is this: Each of us can achieve more than we think we can. The difference between mediocre and magnificent comes down to one thing: passion. Substitute a different word if you’d like: emotional engagement, enthusiasm, joy, zeal, fervor, etc. Pick one that fits and live it to the fullest.

Here’s why. All great achievements come through dedicated, hardworking people who believe in their mission and purpose. And only YOU can do that for yourself.

When you approach the job market, do it with a passion and belief that you are the best at what you do because you (1) have practiced doing it (2) consistently do it and (3) have a full glass, not a half full one or a half empty one.

Here’s an afterthought. Find your touchstone, something you can believe in if times get rough. This can be your family, a strong belief that never shakes, a favorite saying. Return to this and remind yourself why it’s important to you. Leverage it if you have a bad day.

So, throw yourself a pity party if you must, but don’t stay too long. The world is big and it needs you!

The unfinished puzzle

In my family, jigsaw puzzles were a holiday tradition of sorts. We’d set up a special card table in the living room and work a little each day until the pieces found their ways to the right spots.

I’m not sure how it happened exactly, but one of our favorite puzzles (a 1000 count version of an autumn forest scene) was missing several pieces. We’d go into it, fully knowing that 99.7 percent of the pieces were there. And when we were done (well, as done as you can get with missing pieces) we’d all admire it until it went back in the box to be replaced on the table with another one.

I was reminded of this while watching a video today. The speaker was talking about how, rather than focusing on the completed parts of our lives–the parts that are going well–we often focus on the unfinished elements: The ideal job that we just missed landing, or the partner we can’t find, or an income that’s short of what we need.

The unfinished elements of our lives can certainly seem huge. And focusing our thinking around them can become a serious downer. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be alert to finding the new job, or partner, or increasing our income. Those plans are important!

But while looking, we might be best helped by focusing on the parts of our lives that are working and leverage them–the jigsaw puzzles pieces at play, if you will.

A friend of mine put it this way. “I may not have the perfect job or car or living situation,” she said, “but I’ve got this really great bunch of friends who I’m always there for, and they’re there for me, too. When I’m tempted to get down about what I don’t have, I just remember what I do have.” It’s much the same way we put the puzzle together when I was a kid–by focusing not on the missing pieces but the ones we had.

What completed puzzle parts do you rely on? Tell us in the comments section.

The (sometimes) wisdom of reader boards

I’m not usually one who pays attention to reader boards and the sometimes successful (but not usually) attempts to be funny or clever in 20 words or less. But while visiting a local gas station this morning, I couldn’t help but notice a pithy one outside a Days Inn. “The years teach much which the days will never know,” it read. “Interesting,” I thought and turned away to find out how much gas would cost this time around.

Then, I turned back and re-read the board. What a commanding ten-word reminder that perspective, the ability to put events in context, is a powerfully freeing skill—though it often eludes us in the press of daily life.

Turns out that the words are Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, the mid 1800s author, poet and philosopher.

I think there’s a difference between gaining perspective and “rolling with the punches” or “letting water run off your back.” While there’s something to be said for lightening up and not taking things seriously all the time, there’s a certain beauty or wisdom in being able to rise above the moment to see how it fits with days and weeks and years. It promotes a kind of learning that helps us see how all the dots actually connect together.

Yet, that’s not easy to do sometimes, especially if something feels personal, emotional or if the skin that’s in the game happens to be yours.

Several years ago, I was faced with a difficult job and an equally testy boss. The whole situation became so complicated that I could see no way out. I temporarily lacked the insight to see what was really going on, my role in it, and any possible future that could be less miserable. Things were not only unhappy, I was beginning to lose energy and enthusiasm.

Then I recalled working for a boss who was in charge of testing some very complex, expensive equipment. On the late shift one night, technicians incorrectly programmed a computer. The result was that the equipment literally dropped several inches resulting in perhaps catastrophic and expensive damage.

I learned about the problem the next day. The office was buzzing with engineers forecasting dire consequences for the program and for some of the leadership, my boss included.

In one meeting, men were wondering how our boss could remain so centered and focused. In his characteristically thoughtful and unflappable way, he reached into a drawer and pulled out what looked like a very large aspirin pill about three inches across. It was made of Styrofoam and covered with paper on each side. On the paper were written these words, “Anti-glum pill. Take with a large dose of perspective.”

We all laughed, in part to break the tenseness of the situation, but more because it was funny. He went on to say, “All we need do is our best. That’s why we’ve been successful in the past and what will make this project work. Let’s focus on the future because it’s darned sure to be better than the past couple of days!”

Applying that to my own situation, I asked myself what was the worst possible outcome, the most awful thing that could happen. That was an easy answer: I could lose my job. And, if that happened, what would I do? I’d sell the house, pack things up and go back to school. I could support myself playing the piano in clubs. Life would be okay.

That dose of perspective was what I needed to make a decision. I left that job within 30 days on a Friday. On Monday, I was doing consulting work for a large company.

Perspective is a great tool.

UPDATE: November 15, 2008. Today, the sign reads “Sofa for Sale.” Hmmm.

How do you maintain your perspective when things get tense? Add your comments!

“Don’t give in,” he prodded.

When it comes to taking “the next steps” on a project, I’m usually pretty good at figuring them out. The ideas come at odd times and in strange places. I often joke with colleagues that I do my best thinking in the shower. They cast funny glances, laugh and say something along the lines of, “Okay, what is it this time?”

But last week, I found myself in a royal funk of not being able to figure out what to do next. A pet project of mine had been rejected (rather rudely, I might add) as “not corporate enough.” The baby wasn’t just ugly, it was the wrong gender! It was apparent during the discussion that the rejector and I looked at the same concept from two entirely different standpoints. It was even more apparent that anything I might say would be met with total disregard. It was a good time not to back an angry opponent into a corner, I reasoned.

I didn’t feel personally rejected, rather I was personally frustrated because this project was to become a tool to help thousands of company employees. My goal was to help others, something that seemed right at the time. But I felt stuck and totally unable to move forward. The next step eluded me.

I was driving to work when my cell phone rang. It was a friend who, somehow, sensed something was up (or, in this case, down). I told him about what happened and he very calmly said the problem was not about winning or losing, it was really about finding the “gift” in the situation. It doesn’t have to be a setback, he reminded me, rather, it could be just the opposite. “Don’t give in,” he prodded.

That’s sometimes easier to say than to do, especially if you’ve been dealt what feels like the sucker punch of punches. But when I paired the “gift idea” with the “don’t give in thought,” I realized it wasn’t a matter of giving up the idea/project concept but not giving in to discouragement.

The more I thought about it, the more I saw that the disagreement was deeper than I originally believed, and that I didn’t have to make anyone (including myself) right or wrong.

And then he said something that really hit home: Stop thinking about it! That’s like telling someone to get an image of a pink elephant in their head and make it vivid, and then telling them not to think about it. While that seems funny, it’s also true that ruminating over a problem doesn’t help solve it. Maybe a shower would help, I thought.

It’s now several days later, and I still don’t really know “the next step.” I do know that being open to the world around us–and the people around us–often leads to the next step. I’m not fearful, lost or uncertain anymore, because I know that the next step will be there. I’ll know what it is when the time is right.

Your turn: how do you “find the next steps?” Share your ideas by adding a comment.