(this is the second part of a two-part essay; if you haven’t already done so, please read “Where Does It All Lead” to get the most out of this piece.)
On a rocky hillside, trowel in hand, I went along the rough trail, eyes searching the ground. Every so often I would espy what I was seeking: A tiny oak leaf. Just one sometimes, or two, rising from a teensy stem just a few centimeters off the ground.
At these spots I would stop to kneel before the tiny seedling and begin working my trowel into the earth. I had to go deep. For every centimeter the baby oak rose from the duff there were three or perhaps four centimeters of root shooting straight down from the acorn nestled below the surface. That little sphere of nutrients, the energy-rich capsule nurturing the new generation, was supporting the plant’s future by going deep… and going deep before rising up. Gradually I would free up that deep root with my trowel and gently transfer the seedling to a pot from which, now free from the risk of being trampled, it will eventually find a place of permanent rooting.
As I worked my way along the trail I pondered the idea of going deep: Like the oaks, we are only strong enough to rise tall, reach the light, and provide shelter to the extent that we have ensured our own sustenance and wellbeing. Self-care is an indispensable and prerequisite consideration for anyone intent upon fully extending their capacity and influence.
We really cannot afford NOT to be at our best. The urgencies we confront today call us to high performance: making the most effective choices possible to help our global society disengage from destructive patterns and create new ones. It’s a big job.
The key question facing humanity at this existential crossroads is: what choices will best serve both our wounded world and our human need for joy along the way?
There’s no operating manual for navigating a global meta-crisis. But if there was, what would be included?
Like a martial artist, the first move is not a move at all. It is adopting the correct stance. Be rooted like an acorn in a posture of self-care, self-awareness, and alert readiness. Have your own stuff in order so that you can rise tall, reach the light, and provide shelter.
Got your stance? Then please check out this three-part guide, a sort of road map. This is what I’ve found that helps me to act effectively. It goes like this:
Every Day is a Gift.
Every Action is a Prayer.
Every Interaction is a Conduit for Learning and Love.
Let’s break this down.
Every Day is a Gift.
This premise affirms gratitude. It opens us to compassion and beginner’s mind. I entered this practice fifteen years ago when my beloved niece fell ill with a mysterious illness. In two days, a healthy beautiful 7-year-old went from having a mild fever to being on life support at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with her. Her family was thrown into chaos. Her mother was nine months pregnant. Their house was being remodeled. Both parents’ jobs simply became irrelevant as they moved to Seattle to be near their child, who for two weeks was kept alive by machines. Lisa and I did our best to be supportive. We both had fulltime jobs at Explorations Academy, plus three kids of our own. But Lisa went down to Seattle several times a week to sit overnight with our niece to give her parents a chance to sleep. I helped with their remodel while single parenting and running the school. And, as traumatic as that time was… It was revelatory. Everything sort of became peripheral to the act of loving each other and living every day fully.
They finally figured out what was wrong with our precious niece, and, after a bone marrow transplant and many months of care, she got better. But the intense vulnerability of that time, of our family, of our own kids, was an unforgettable lesson. This is what comes up when I think of that tragic classroom in Uvalde, Texas: Every moment we are SO vulnerable. Out of our family trauma came the humility, and gratitude, and presence, of receiving every bit of life as fully as possible. Every day is a gift.
Every Act is a Prayer.
Now, this message may be problematic for some: Who even prays anymore? Although I’m one of the vanishing few Americans formally part of a faith group, I’m not in the habit of praying. Yet, there is something to this faith stuff: Pew reports that those who are religiously affiliated are measurably healthier, happier, and civically engaged than others. I view prayer is that which affirms your role in a system larger than your self-interest. The important phrase here is larger than yourself. If you have a hard time with “Every act a prayer,” change it to “every act is a statement of purpose.” In a word, it’s about humility. So when I correct my posture – as a martial artist I do this more than normal people – I’m not just being selfish, I’m seeing my body as a valued tool to help others, and I need it as functional as possible. When I plant beets, I imagine feeding my family and neighbors. When I pick up litter. Yield to someone entering traffic. Attend a public hearing. Even clean the basement – all these can reflect a sense of service to larger purposes. And while this approach sends positive ripples out into the world, it also makes us happier and more effective people right now. Every act is a prayer.
Every Interaction is a Conduit for Learning and Love.
The author and spiritual teacher Ram Dass says that “When you know how to listen, everyone is your teacher.” This message powerfully affirms that everyone has something to teach you. The most important part of the quote, though, is the first part: “When you know how to listen.” Remember the obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis who brought handwashing into his ward? His colleagues did not know how to listen, and their ignorance resulted not only in the death of Semmelweis but of countless mothers and babies who could have been saved. If education is the continual expansion of awareness and appreciation, then we owe it to ourselves to use every interaction for learning.
Judgment and blame block our learning. Judgment and blame are part of the Finite Game of win-lose. And they always result in someone losing. But knowing how to listen, as Ram Dass says, is to play the Infinite Game and to always bring a loving openness to your interactions.
Recently I found myself at the Customs and Border Patrol office in Blaine to renew my NEXUS pass. The waiting room was filled with a gigantic TV playing Fox News. Get this: a federal office, taxpayer funded, saturating citizens with Fox News! Meanwhile, the staff were all wearing Kevlar vests and belts with holsters and other weaponry: Not a situation that inspires warm feelings! I got called up to talk with an agent through a Plexiglas screen. Turns out she was having trouble with the database and had to call first one, then two other staffers over to help out. I spoke up to the group:
“What, I thought all federal offices had the latest, greatest, bug-free software?”
At this they all broke out laughing, and suddenly there was no Plexiglas between us, no Kevlar vests. We were just fellow humans accepting, to varying degrees, the pathos of our government. What I learned from this was that letting go of adversarial tendencies can create powerful openings between people, even very different-seeming people.
So we learn from each other. Every interaction a conduit for learning…
Why leave love for last? Simply because it is the most important.
Most people think of love as an emotion, something you feel in your heart. I don’t disagree. Yet let me suggest that we consider love as behavior.
Love is when you ask for, or give, forgiveness. When you catch yourself being blameful and choose a different response. When you let go. When you affirm something in another person. When you risk complete honesty. When you keep communication open with someone – even when they’re not doing their part. When you do selfless things. When you recognize that your biggest impact is on the people closest to you, so you go way out of your way to care for them.
If you don’t use every interaction as a conduit for love, you’re downgrading certain relationships from first class into business class. Which is OK… until you realize that those business connections are still human connections. And then one day, you’ll find yourself laughing with the agent who finally answers the phone after you’ve spent hours on hold, and that shared laughter makes the day more alive for both of you.
Our interactions are a vital conduit to each other’s hearts. Jeff Salzmann, the integral journalist, talks about upgrading from a fear-based operating system to a love-based operating system. It’s past time for this upgrade, isn’t it? Salzmann also calls for radical engagement: The commitment to connect with others despite differences.
Every day is a gift.
Every action is a prayer.
Every interaction is a conduit of learning and love.
If you like this program, run with it. It’s open source and free! If you don’t? Come up with your own guide to effective choicemaking, something that will keep you on your toes as you navigate the messy future we have entered. In fact, creating your own guide may result in an even more powerful tool. But… find something.
There you have it. Collaborate. Grieve. Discern. And make good choices, guided by gratitude and compassion. The world is calling us to this.
I don’t publish my essays very often. But I deeply feel the challenges we are facing, and I offer my fervent hope that, despite the fact that I’ve called shadows into this narrative, I have also called something in you.
- Something that affirms your capacity to work with others despite differences.
- Something that helps you meet grief and other emotions with creative force.
- Something that honors your thoughtfulness and openness, while also discerning carefully.
- Something that supports your posture of effective choicemaking and powerful action.
In my previous post I quoted Jamie Wheal: the hour is late and the stakes are high. We need to be at our best. I’m grateful to consider anyone reading this as an ally. Working together, I believe we can make our little corner of the world a joyful and creative place that sends ripples of hope and love outward.
And since we are the leaders the world needs, we’ve got our work cut out for us.