Sunday, April 27, 2014

When Life Hands You Lemons . . . Squeeze Hard and Buy More Sugar

"Some people have all the luck!" . . . I suppose you've heard that before, and, probably, we've all said it in one context or another. For some, though, it's a comment aimed in disdain and jealously towards another person; and, for most likely the very same person, it's also aimed in how they feel about themselves . . . unlucky or, worse, unworthy of luck.

I've been thinking lately about this idea (ideal some would say) of success. In a recent talk I heard by the "Good to Great" guru Jim Collins, Collins noted that Luck (I've capitalized it here to reflect how we revere this aspect of life) is a very real thing and that, yes, it happens. (Please note that both Collins and I are intentionally ignoring any metaphysical discussion about Luck here, even though I've somewhat deified it with my big letter 'L'.) Sometimes good things do fall in our laps, whether somewhat promoted by us or another person or not. We do get lucky. On the other hand, we do get unlucky, if you will. Sometimes bad things do fall on us, again, whether somewhat promoted by us or another person or not.

What Collins notes, however, is that a key difference between people who are successful (define that as you will for right now) and those who are not is in how they react to the Luck or 'unLuck' that comes their way. In other words, how do they capitalize on the event or the experience? Do they treat it as a blessing and then make new things happen for the benefit of themselves and others? OR . . . Do they run and hide? Do they celebrate it but then let the opportunity fall away?

It's an interesting idea, I believe, and one that causes me to look at my own experiences of luck, 'unluck', blessing, or coincidence, karma, or whatever you want to call it. What HAVE I done with those things that have been given me? Have I invested in the experience or have I -- like some lottery winners do with money -- squandered it all and thrown the opportunity away?

This doesn't really have to do with money (for some people success ALL has to do with money). It has more to do with what's been placed in your hand at a particular moment in time. Perhaps it's a chance meeting with someone. Perhaps it's an educational opportunity that, for some reason, lies before you. Perhaps it's a quirky skill or aptitude that sets you apart. Perhaps it's the girl or guy who -- if reality will permit you to see past your princess/prince dreams -- is the ideal help-mate that creates a greater you and a greater her/him and a greater 'we' than you could ever imagine. And, yes, perhaps what looks like 'unLuck' is really a disguised blessing to move in a different direction, to see yourself and life in a more challenging context, and to dig deeper for the courage that lies within. Sometimes we're in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time; but sometimes we're also in the right place at what seems to be the wrong time.

Toward that idea, the success that comes from what you do with the Luck that comes your way may, in the end, even look like unLuck or, yes, even tragedy; however, the question may be more a matter of for whom does the real success come? Such is the path of the martyr out of whom Good arises (not all martyrs bring good, you know.) Plato's ideas led to his death but it also brought the Western world a greater sense of consciousness through reason. Jesus' death challenged tradition and its oppression, leading toward individual choice and spiritual freedom. Lincoln's 'lucky' role as president during a critical time in America's development reinforced the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy through the Emancipation Proclamation, setting the stage for the substantiation of real equity and equality as a true American ideal. And the realities of that ideal would later be tested by other martyrs, most notably by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

While you and I may not be looking at martyrdom today, we do wrestle with what success is or may be in our lives. Opportunities come and they go . . . I just hope God or someone else will slap me up side the head to pay attention and, more importantly, to grant me the courage to tackle what I should do not just what I want to do toward my immediate pleasure or gain.

"Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow." -- Abraham Lincoln

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Regrets and Rocks in a Field of Dreams

Regrets are like getting a rock in your shoe . . . They’re just big enough to be aggravating but not so large that you have to stop everything and get it out. Still, every time you put that shoe on . . .

I’ve been thinking about baseball these days. Not sure why. It may have been watching the reality-suspending “A Field of Dreams” again a couple of weeks back or catching a bit of the radio play-by-play of a Cardinal preseason game or just because it’s spring. Whatever it was, I’ve been thrown back to my childhood and my, at one time, obsession with the game.

I had it bad; I was a FANatic. When I wasn’t playing my Little League games, I was grabbing my parents’ Springfield newspaper every morning, reading through the scores of the night before (no ESPN back then), and then meticulously reordering the American League and National League standings on my bedroom wall. For at least one complete season during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I would watch the only national pastime of worth unfold game after game after game toward what, in my mind, was the only important war to be fought of that day, the World Series. Every day, my handwritten cutout numerals would pinpoint the teams battling for a piece of earth outlined around four bases, the one at home to protect with the other three to either conquer legitimately or, with bravery and skill, to steal.

The undefeated "Auctioneers" circa 1972. I'm the
third from the left on the back row.
My Little League ‘career’ spanned ages 9 through 12, encouraged by very patient parents to always do my best, to enjoy myself, and, to remember that “yes, it’s nice to win, but you need to be a good loser, too . . . sweetheart.” To this day, I can still remember the intensity of the field lights, the smell of the infield’s just raked dirt, the scratchiness of the old cotton jersey, and the not-so-pleasant odors emanating from the West Plains cheese plant just down the street. I remember the smell of my glove, the scariness of the umpire, and the promise of the victor’s milkshake from Dairy Princess after the game.

My skills on the field were, at least in retrospect, not that bad. In fact, I could hit well, occasionally connecting for a homerun, and hold my own at second, shortstop, and, my favorite position, third base. Words can’t describe the feeling in your hands and the sound in your ears of a well-hit ball heading for the fence or the experience of lunging without thought toward a screamer down the third base line and then finding it amazingly in your glove. (Sometimes pride and surprise are the same emotion.) Forget the outfield, though; I often imagined the vacuum of outer space much like right field. Yes, I still have problems with depth perception. And in those days, I could steal a base from time to time, but it was always on my wits, not because I was quick: I was a lazy runner along with being lazy in practice.

Despite my love for the game, I never really had thoughts of the ‘big leagues’ and being a professional ballplayer. Oh, I had my heroes – Lou Brock, Joe Torre, Frank Robinson, Ozzie Smith – but they didn’t pull me to be like them, other than I respected each of them for being classy people as well as classic players. Fame wasn’t all that attractive either, for as I even knew then, I really liked my privacy and preferred long walks in anonymity.

After Little League, I moved up to the Babe Ruth League for boys ages 13-15. We played on a regulation-sized field, the same field on which the high school team played. This was a challenge, of course, moving from the proverbial little pond to the big pond with ‘large-mouthed’ bass seeking to devour the new crop of minnows swimming upstream that year. Sandlot taunts are a part of the game, I suppose, as they were in the junior high hallway, PE classes, and, yes, in all of life. Unfortunately, if confidence and courage fail, they can also turn obsessions and passions into just something to do and, in the end, to becoming more spectator than participant.

Now here’s the rock in my shoe. Actually, it’s a rock in my cleat, the ‘special’ shoes I used to wear when I played baseball. My regret, you see, is that I quit playing baseball (and, for that matter, proclaiming my love for the game) for reasons that had nothing to do with how good I was; rather, it was more about how bad I was at meeting a challenge.

I still remember the day I quit. It was the first day of tryouts for the high school baseball team. I was a freshman (as were several others, of course) and “everyone else” were older and, by assumption, “better” than I was at all of this. Because of that, I gave them authority over me. Because of that, I let them control me. Because of that, I let fear win and my love for playing baseball lose. I walked off the field, sulked the whole mile and half back home, and never played with the little round ball again. (Softball, yes, but never baseball.)

Now, that may not seem to be a big deal to you. And, for the most part, that single incident alone isn’t that big of a deal to me either. That decision . . . that reaction . . . however, did affect something that was and still is important to me. You see, I failed to pass on my love of the game to my children. I don’t know if it’s because of my high school failures to believe in myself or to conquer my “I’m not good enough” paradigm, but I do know that I somehow and for some reason didn’t teach Seth, Leslie, Kori and Nick the fundamentals of a game that I still love deep down inside.

Oh, I bought bats and balls and even a couple of ball gloves for them, but I didn’t go out much to just play catch or to set up a game in the yard or to encourage them to join a Little League team. I needed that encouragement from my dad back when I was nine, because, yeah, I was scared. In fact, I was scared every time I stepped onto the ballfield to play. Along with the sights, sounds, and tastes of the ballgame, I can also still remember the very sick feeling of anxiety welling up in my stomach. I wavered each game-day from intense excitement to praying for it to rain. But, my parents encouraged me . . . “WE’re going, son. Get your stuff. Let’s go. You’ll have a great time.”

So, yeah, I regret not being the best of coaches for ‘our team’ . . . at least not when it comes to this one area. There are other areas that I have absolutely no regrets. And, for the most part, I wouldn’t change a thing Rita and I have been blessed to do with our family. Regrets, however, tell us things about ourselves and, with honest reflection about our past, how we should change to meet our future . . . and the future of those (children, grandkids, students, etc.) who have yet to play on the field of their own dreams.

It’s like that rock in our shoe . . . If you don’t get it out, it will continue to aggravate, frustrate, and, over time, injure. If you stop along the way and shake it out, you might find a pebble or you might find a boulder. Either way, leave it on the path behind you. On the other hand, it might be something else . . . Diamonds look a lot like rocks unrefined.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Like Jam on a Slice of Time

When the day consists of the routine, we cry for the spectacular, the wondrous, the timeless experience . . . But maybe it's not the fantastic that sticks like jam on a slice of time; perhaps it's just minutes or seconds that embed in memory, are easily retrievable, and generate Being. Give me, then, the party din of a two-year-old's birthday, a snowy Sunday hunting and harvesting a first-Christmas tree with Rita, midnight claps of exploding lightning and valley-shaking thunder on a family camping trip, an autumn sky filled with millions of parachuting spiders, the 'digging for dinosaurs' during the doldrums of summer vacation, or even the discordant harmony of a backwoods trio singing over the just opened grave awaiting an uncle. . . . Perhaps, like that of Eliot's 'Prufock', life does come measured in 'coffee spoons,' each filled with a worthy moment that, when we sift the seconds of the day, destroys the routine.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Smell of Hope

I've been feeding hay this winter to our sheep and their donkey overseer from one of those large round hay bales. Over the last few days I've enjoyed the task, reveling in the unbound smell of a warm day in June when the grasses and weeds were cut in their prime and then rolled into their shredded wheat-like form. With snow, ice and cold all around me, summer emerges with every pitch of my fork. Yesterday, I even found a field flower of some kind, pressed, folded and dried but still marvelous and beautiful in its perfection . . . For today, I pray the winter in which you struggle will ease a bit by digging into the good packed in memory. Smell its life, feel its warmth, envision its creation. And perhaps, just perhaps, a blossom of a different season will appear, ready for appreciation, instruction, and perfect for your lapel.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Attitudes and Platitudes: Easy Come, Easy Go

The philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that we "constitute" our world through language. In other words, we create our sense of 'reality' (and the meaning or significance of that reality) through the words we use. One easier way of recognizing Kant's idea is to consider the platitudes we use every day and the stereotypes that are used to make many jokes or even sit-coms funny.
A couple of those platitudes/stereotypes came my way this week. The first I have always hated because, as you might see, it offends me. I'm the butt of the stereotype here. The second phrase . . . well, I think I've used before but have felt uncomfortable using because, one, the logic doesn't seem quite right and, two, it pretends to be good theology. It's not so stereotypical but is certainly a platitude that a lot of people, especially Christians, say these days. (By the way, any platitude is by nature CONCISE but never PRECISE . . . yet we often use them when we don't know what else to say or we hear others say it so often that, "Well, it must be true!" I won't go into how Facebook only eggs this on.)

So, here are the two sayings for your consideration:

"Those who can't do, teach." . . . Woody Allen, in his play "Annie Hall" added . . . "And those who can't teach, teach gym.” See the stereotypes?

"Hate the sin, love the sinner." . . . The idea comes from St. Augustine but it's been used even by Gandhi in his "Autobiography." It explains, but not enough. And by its limited preciseness, it has the potential to be offensive by its implied judgement and resulting inequality . . . Something that maybe even Jesus would have had a problem with?

I'm still thinking. . . . 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Risks of Living Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth

The other day, I was thinking about holiday breaks/snow days and the New Testament story of Jesus' strong-willed disciple Peter attempting to walk on the water . . . so hang on.

Life's struggle toward happiness is, in my mind, akin to going back to school or work after a long holiday break (made even worse by a wintry weather extension) . . . The question for us is, "Which part of life is truly Real? The freedom of a break or the order (some would say slavery) of a regimen?" Both are pseudo-realities constructed by ourselves and others, and we (since we apparently have nothing else to do) choose to enter 'the construct' (yes, "Matrix" fans or 'the cave' for you Plato followers) for everything from being entertained to eating and breathing. In our choosing of place to 'be' in this construct, we try to find (and expect to find) happiness in the time and space between these two poles of shadow reality.

What we really want is Reality (note the big 'R'), that 'stuff' that's eternal and unchanging. Some find this in Nature, others in God, others in . . . well, there's not much else left after that. Through science we pursue Nature, and through religion we pursue God (while some of us try to put the two pursuits together, as in the Creation and the Creator.) Yet, in this pursuit, we pea-brained creatures continually fall short of the Reality we crave. We get glimpses, and then it's gone. And we struggle again.

What's this have to do with Peter? In the famous Gospel account of Jesus walking on the water, Peter, seeing his Teacher miraculously out for a dry stroll on the windy waves, chooses to take a crack at it, too. His fellow disciples are probably yelling at Peter, saying, "You idiot! What are you doing?" Jesus says, "Yeah, come on!" so Peter steps out there. Courageous, yes; but it's equally foolhardy, too. The point today, though, is that Peter is just like us, trying to negotiate between the Reality of God (as exhibited here in Jesus), AND the Reality of Nature, the waters that can engulf him, AND the lesser but equally manipulative powers of the pseudo-realities, those things created by ourselves (in our minds perhaps) and by others (the 'boat' people who yell at us to do what they want us to do). Peter chooses to get out of the security of the boat in pursuit of this moment of happiness, of the existential thrill of truly existing, for just a touch of Reality . . . For a moment, he succeeds in his escape of his humanity; in the next moment, the inherent limits of his humanity kick in and he's, well, all wet.

Life, then, is the struggle BETWEEN the thrill of momentary Existence generated by our choosing (our freedom) to step out of the boat and toward what's ultimately Real (again, what's eternal and unchanging) AND the shadow realities of life . . . like work, school, children, mortgages, doctor visits, plans, car repairs, arguments, family dysfunctions, physical and emotional scars, etc. While we can not escape these 'realities' of this world (both the good and the bad), we can courageously choose to NOT let any of them keep us from our pursuit of Happiness in what's truly Real. Once we have lost that focus, that desire, we are, yes, sunk in the depths of a sea of despair.

So, tomorrow, when you head back to school or work or whatever . . . remember that these things -- all this stuff that we sometimes make life out to be about -- are not ultimately Real. This conglomerated stuff is real because we have chosen (and hopefully it's an authentic choice, too) to place it in our construct. We can't dismiss it because it's a part of our physical existence and, in some respects (like the education that comes from school and the compensation that comes from work), beneficial or elemental to what we Really, Really want to do . . . get out and walk on the water next weekend.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Finding Grace In the Sewer

Yes, even working in sewage can have its inspirational moments. . . . 

Yesterday, we were at my son Seth's house for my wife Rita's family Christmas get-together. Nearly the whole family was there, all 35-plus of us. During the course of the day, an immoveable clog evidenced itself in the sewer system, so Seth and I worked to locate the problem first in and then below the house. In doing so (and not going into too many details for the squeamish readers among us), Seth overcame his reticence to the 'unclean' (what would have been a definite 'clog' to action a few years ago) and let's say dived right into things. Elbow deep and fighting off the occasional overflow and fountain, the new homeowner took care of things. Oh, he grunted and complained from time to time, but he did what he had to do so those above us could continue with their fun, oblivious to the nastiness below.

Now I know many of you are not Believers, but as I considered what Seth did for his family, I couldn't help but think of Jesus and his willingness to 'get down and dirty' with people and their nasty situations in life. When I read the Gospels, that's what I see. His was an attitude of heart that changed people's lives, one at a time. It wasn't a judgment against them, it was a hand of help and compassion at a place and moment where they found themselves stuck in the muck . . . and, yes, it unclogged their lives in a way that enabled them to move on with something better, something more freeing, more fragrant even.

Unfortunately, many of us forget the power of such an act. There are some deeper theological aspects of all of this, but I'll spare you in this setting. Still, I just wonder how many of us -- religious or not -- can see such moments of Grace in our lives and, on the other end, see where we, too, can provide such a powerful act of concern and unconditional love.

Thanks, son, for reminding me yesterday . . . And, oh, for keeping things flowing in the right direction.