Do Your Best and Let It Go

            Let’s talk about pressure and responsibility.

            Last year I was listening to a baseball broadcast on the radio.  The announcer told a story about perhaps the greatest “closer” of all time, Mariano Rivera of the Yankees.  In baseball, the job of a “closer” is to come in to pitch toward the end of the game when his team is ahead by a narrow margin and not let the other team score, “saving” the game.  Between 1995 and 2013, Rivera was asked to do that 1,115 times. He succeeded 734 times and failed only 80.[i] He was selected for the All-Star team 13 times and elected to the Hall of Fame in an unanimous vote. Rivera was once asked how he could live with the intense pressure of being a closer day after day, year after year. He said he did everything he could to throw each pitch to the best of his ability, but once it left his hand, he assumed he’d done his part – what happened next was beyond his control.

            I find this perspective to be valuable when thinking about how we live our lives.

            Take parenting.  You want the best for your children.  You provide for them, guide them, lose sleep over them, and do all you can to prepare them for life.  You will always love them and be concerned for them. But once they go out the door, they face a world beyond your control. Free will, chance happenings, and unexpected events will shape them. 

            Or how about work?  Every time I’ve left a job I cared about, I hoped the organization and people would do well.  Sometimes that happened and sometimes it did not.  I felt sadness when things did not go well, but, taking Rivera’s advice, I remind myself I gave it my best when I was there and what happened after that is beyond my control.

            The same can be true for many decisions we make, including deciding to move to someplace new or what we do with our money.  As Kierkegaard said, we tend to evaluate our lives by looking backward at the decisions we have made – after we know how it all turned out. But we did not know then what we know now.  We have to live life forward, without knowing all the facts.

            In spiritual traditions, we can find similar stories.

            Moses takes his people from bondage to within sight of the promised land, yet dies before they cross over.  But he had done all he was asked to do.

            One of Jesus’ last recorded words was, “It is finished.” How could that be, a retreat leader once asked — if he came to feed the hungry, give sight to the blind, and liberate the oppressed, so much suffering was still present in the world when he died; how can he say, “It is finished?”  The leader concluded: because the specific task God had given him to do was finished. It would be up to his followers to take the work forward.

            One of the stories about the death of Buddha describes how, in his 80s, he fell ill after eating spoiled pork.  The man who cooked the food was overcome with sorrow. But Buddha told him not to feel that way.  What had happened was a gift, because Buddha was ready to die and move into the next realm.  He left behind a vast treasury of teaching, and that was enough.

            Let’s do our best with the responsibilities we’ve been given. But let’s also recognize there is only so much we can do.  Once the ball leaves our hand, we can be at peace.


[i] For folks who care about baseball statistics, Rivera had 652 saves and 82 wins for a total of 734.  He had 80 “blown saves” and the rest were no decisions.

Are Natural Disasters Sending Us a Message?

Earlier this week an intense storm moved through California. My community experienced historic levels of intense rainfall, much as it had five years ago; roads were closed, creeks overflowed, and thousands of people had to evacuate.  As I followed the news reports, I couldn’t help but notice a pattern in the language used to describe it. Here are some examples (italics added):

  • “Southern California faces another day of punishing rains…” (LA Times)[i]
  • “…the latest in a series of atmospheric rivers to pound the state…” (LA Times)[ii]
  • “The string of storms pummeling California has proved catastrophic…” (NYTimes)[iii]
  • “In Los Angeles, four people escaped after a sinkhole swallowed two cars on Monday night…” (NPR)[iv]
  • “We need to be nicer with Mother Nature, because Mother Nature is not happy with us…”  (Ellen de Generes’ tweet cited in NPR Online.)[v]

What does this language suggest?  Does rain “punish” people like an angry parent?  Does a storm “pound” an entire state as if it’s in a rage?  A boxer “pummels” an opponent to subdue, demoralize and defeat him – was that why this atmospheric river came our way?  Whales “swallow” people in the Pinocchio and Jonah stories — but does asphalt do that?  And does “Mother Nature” send an intense torrent of muddy water down a hillside to show us that she is “not happy”?

Of course, the rational answer to these questions is “no.”  The language expresses in dramatic terms what severe weather can feel like when we experience it – it’s our human imagination at work. Weather events are not personal acts of cosmic vengeance but are explainable by the laws of physics. 

And yet I understand why such language feels appropriate.

I vividly remember in January of 2018 when, for the first time, three of us were allowed to pass through police barricades and evacuated neighborhoods to view the impact of the debris flow on our 26-acre retreat center in Montecito just days before.  The mud was deep, viscous, and dangerous — it would pull your rubber knee boots off your leg if you stepped in the wrong spot.  Boulders, mud, crunched lumber and twisted oak trees were everywhere. Some of our large buildings had completely disappeared.  It was stunning, hard to fathom, and an unforgettable reminder of how fragile life is. Somewhere deep in my primal instincts, it felt personal – like a mighty, conscious force was displaying its power to make a point.

After returning home, I began thinking about stories our ancestors told to make sense of such destruction.  Noah’s ark came to mind.  I reread it. 

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.[vi]

Sounds like the reason the flood happened is that the divine force felt a need to “punish,” “pound,” and “pummel” the corrupt and violent human race, letting the seas “swallow” them all up –because the Holy One was not exactly “happy with us.”

I thought about that.  I understood it made sense generations long ago in a prescientific world, but it doesn’t seem plausible to me today.  Indeed, the more we learned about debris flows, it became clear that these are routine geological occurrences that have been going on for thousands of years, long before people were living here.  Besides, I don’t believe in a punishing God. The storm was not a moral or spiritual event but a phenomenon explainable through the natural sciences. 

But I kept pondering the issue. I wondered: “Was human behavior a contributing cause to the severity of this event due to our complicity in global warming?”  We can’t blame a Creator or Mother Nature or physics for climate change – that’s on us, on our ignorance, willfulness, stubbornness, and greed.  The dramatic intensity of the storm was not an expression of divine judgment but, to some degree, a natural consequence of our past actions. So, if there is a moral lesson carried in the increasing intensity of severe weather events and fires, it’s not about divine intent or a weather system with emotional issues – it’s our selfish behavior coming back to haunt us.  We need to be humbled.  And we need to take responsibility for our mistakes.

Several weeks later, I was able to return to the property and walk it again.  Bulldozers, backhoes, trucks, and work crews were clearing the wreckage of the buildings and trees.  The magnitude of what had happened was still astounding.  But in many places, green shoots were coming up from the ground. Life was regenerating.  Let’s hope the lessons being offered us are not forgotten.

Art work: Noah and the Dove, 13th century, Monreale Cathedral, Sicily


[i] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-10/storm-southern-california-los-angeles

[ii] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-10/storm-southern-california-los-angeles

[iii] NY Times. Online, Jan 10, 2023

[iv] NPR Online, January 10, 2023

[v] Degeneres Tweet, NPR Online, January 10, 2023

[vi] Genesis 6: 11-13


Out With The Old, In With The New?

            I once was asked by my employer to attend a program on “Organizational Change.” There were six of us present, each responsible for a particular program.  Standing next to an easel holding a blank sheet of newsprint with Magic Marker in hand, the presenter posed a question: “Why might we resist change?”

            A few years ago, I would have been excited by this question.  As a young leader I wanted to be a “change agent” and a constant innovator. But maybe I’d been in too many of these kinds of seminars led by consultants or speakers who seemed to unequivocally assume every “change” is a good thing.  Or maybe I sensed she assumed the way we ran things needed improvement without first appreciating what we were doing.  Or maybe I was just feeling ornery.

            With nothing to lose, I raised my hand and said, “Well, one reason we might be resistant to change is that things that are working well don’t need to be changed. They should be respected and preserved.”

            She looked at me as if I said something incomprehensible. She didn’t ask me why I felt that way, or what examples I could give.  She ignored my comment and turned to the others to give the answers she wanted.

I confess from that point on I tuned her out.

            “Out with the old, in with the new” is a common phrase in our culture.  But there are times when we should question it.

To be clear, I’m all for new things – when they are necessary.  In the past year, I bought a new Ride1Up E-bike that is a delight to use.  We bought a new TV that’s far better than our old set.  In May I went to Los Angeles for the premiere of a bold new classical composition by Thomas Ades and it was thrilling.  I got a new pair of shoes that I really like — only $25 at Costco! I put a new coat of paint on the walls of my home office, and it looks a lot better.  I’m always on the lookout for a new way to grill fish, or an exciting new movie, streaming series, or book. I love meeting new people, asking where they’re from, and learning what’s been important in their life.  And I’ve led organizations where I’ve worked hard to envision and implement changes, and felt satisfied and gratified when things turned out well.  

            But some old things are worth hanging on to.

            I have a dining room table from my ancestors’ farm in Iowa that is 150 years old. My grandmother did her Latin homework on it in 1915.  It was old, worn, and in pieces when my father asked me if I wanted it when he was cleaning out his garage.  I almost left it for the landfill. But I decided to take it home and see if I could refinish it. I sanded it, shaped it, stained it and finished it with a coat of varnish. It turned out far better than I had expected.  When you put all the leaves in you can seat 12 people, and it’s a meaningful link to my family history.

            I treasure friends that have remained close over the years.

I have a special affection for old dogs.

            I don’t think I need to seek out a “new and improved” version of the Pacific. Or trade in the Sierras for a “new” mountain range.

            I was a history major in college because I wanted to understand how the world got to be the way it was.  One day I realized I had always assumed that the story of Western civilization was constantly moving forward toward something new and better, and that everything “old” needed to be discarded.  That may be true in some areas. But how about the arts and sports?  Would you say someone has finally gotten “better” than Bach, Gershwin, Lennon/McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, or Michael Jackson?  Has painting “improved” since Botticelli, Monet, and Van Gogh?  Are athletes “better” than Babe Ruth, Pele, Serena Williams, or Steph Curry?  New composers, artists, and athletes come along, but that doesn’t mean they are “better” than those of the past…they are just new arrivals.

            Our economy is built on the assumption that we must be constantly expanding.  But look what it’s done to our “old,” dear earth.

            In the last year, I’ve been meeting with a group focused on the redesign and rebuilding of La Casa de Maria, the 26-acre retreat center that was damaged by the 2018 mud and debris flow while I was the Director.  We’ve been working hard to see how we can bring it back better than ever. But we also know there was a sense of “soul” and presence there that can’t be improved on but must be preserved.  After months of work, we believe we have found an optimal balance between innovation and preservation.

            I believe the divine Spirit is always fresh and creative, asking us to dream new dreams and be open to new approaches to life.  At the same time, have we found better values to live by than to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly on this earth with one another?

            So — out with the old, in with the new? It depends.  There comes a time when we need to let some things go. But other things need to be kept, held with deep affection, and revered.

Photograph: “Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park,” amercianforests.org

Sunlight Finds the Opals

LODE

Even underground, sunlight

finds the opals and fills them.

So much beauty embedded

in cavern walls, needing no one

to find it, no human eye to see,

waiting in perfect patience,

in due time, to be revealed.    MCM

The painting is by John McEntyre and the poem by his wife, Marilyn.  John and Marilyn have been friends and colleagues for many years. Marilyn led several online writing classes during COVID which helped me change my writing process — she discourages using an outline or having an endpoint in mind when beginning, and instead “write into the unknown.” 

As I’ve followed this advice, I’ve found myself coming to surprising perspectives.  I don’t know if the insight is there before I start seeking it, or it is formed as the search progresses. But there is “sunlight” “embedded” in us, and often we need patience, curiosity, and courage to find it.  Maybe it’s through painting or writing.  Maybe it’s on a long walk or during an extended conversation with a trusted friend.  Or maybe it’s letting a sacred text or piece of music open our hearts and imagination to something new. 

I’ve seen many people walk through times of darkness and find such light.

I worked at Hospice of Santa Barbara for 5 ½ years. When I told people where I worked, it was common for them to say, “Oh, that must be depressing.” But I would say it was not. Seeing people work through their grief to find some authentic resolution and a way forward was inspiring.  One 15-year-old said: “Death is like a broken heart.  It hurts and is sad but you get through it.  Your heart is twice as strong.”

Solstice and the sacred stories of the season remind us that there are endless points of light waiting to be revealed in “due time.”  As we face periods of uncertainty, may we trust that the light is there, safely residing in “cavern walls,” “waiting in perfect patience, in due time, to be revealed.”

John’s painting and Marilyn’s poem are used by permission. More information about Marilyn, her publications, her classes, and retreats can be found at https://www.marilynmcentyre.com; John’s work can be seen at https://mcentyreart.com.

Ever Experience the Same Thing Twice?

         In my inbox every morning is “The Writer’s Almanac,” which describes significant events in cultural history. A recent article noted it was the birthday of Claude Monet:

He and his friend Auguste Renoir were among the first European painters to take their canvases outside to paint directly from nature. They would often work as quickly as they could, so that their paintings looked like sketches, and that sketchy style became known as Impressionism. Monet spent the rest of his career exploring the idea that you can never really see the same thing twice. In a single day, he would often paint the same subject half a dozen times, from slightly different angles and in slightly different light, spending no more than about an hour on each canvas. In the last 30 years of his life, he painted almost nothing but the water lilies in his garden at Giverny. Monet bought the four-acre property in 1883, built the bridges, dug the lake, and selected all the flowers and plants himself.

It seems he painted 250 scenes in his garden as a way of “exploring the idea that you can never really see the same thing twice.”

Can we ever experience the same thing twice?

We have grandkids that are 7, 5, and 1, and feel blessed to watch them grow and develop.  This week the one-year-old made the evolutionary leap from being a four-legged mammal to two, ending with a smile confirming she knew that she had just taken a “big step.”  In one sense she’s the same wee person she was the week before – but she’s not exactly the same.

A golf teacher once made the point that your body and mind are always changing, and every time you play, you’ll need to adjust to who you have become.

A yoga teacher said that every day we begin our practice, something in our body has shifted. We may be a bit less flexible or a bit more – it’s hard to predict — but it is something we should expect. 

And what tennis, soccer, or baseball player can completely control time after time where the ball will go?

Modern science tells us there is no such thing as solid, unchanging matter — it’s all energy in varying states and forms.

Every day, countless cells in our body are dying and others are being created; biologically we “are not the person we used to be.” (As we get older, looking in the mirror becomes vivid proof).

So maybe this was what fascinated Monet as he created this “Impression” of the lily pond in his garden…

Nymphea, 1905

…and then sometime later he captured the same pond in a different light:

Nymphea, 1905

On the one hand, it’s exciting to think “you can never really see the same thing twice.”

But on the other hand, it can be a bit unsettling.  It makes me feel like I’m being carried away on a river when I’d prefer to have my feet planted on solid ground, at least occasionally.  Where do we find stability?

This is a central question for many spiritual traditions.

Hinduism assumes we all have an “atman” within us, an essence that is rooted in the divine; it’s like a “witness” within ourselves, observing our life as it ebbs and flows and will be the awareness that continues beyond death.  Buddhism disputes that, at least in the most simplistic form.  Western traditions have often spoken of each person having a “soul.”

There’s a beautiful old English hymn that used to be common at memorial services: “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” The English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said these words sum up the universal longing of humanity: “Fast falls the eventide” acknowledges that all life is passing, while “Abide with me” is a plea that our connection with the divine will be a constant.

Two stories from my hospice work come to mind.

Serenity House is a beautiful residential hospice here in Santa Barbara. I knew the Executive Director of the organization as it was being designed and built, and she shared with me some of her hopes during that time.  One key theme was integration with nature: every room has a porch where the patient can enjoy the landscaping as well as a view of the city and the nearby mountain range.  Sometime after it opened, she told me that one patient had asked the gardener to not remove the fallen leaves on her porch but let them remain where they had landed.  The patient said looking at the fallen leaves gave her comfort.  

A friend of mine is a longtime volunteer at Serenity House. He has often been with patients as they are dying, and it is common for them to begin to sense there is something “on the other side.”  Never – not once – has he seen people in those moments experiencing fear.  

“We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery,” Huston Smith said.  Maybe our whole life is just a series of “impressions” as we try to capture important moments in the changing light. What a gift to be doing so.  And what amazing colors the light reveals.

Top Image: Nymphea, 1903

Water Lilly Pond, 1917-1920

Is Life All About Our “Highlight Reels?”

            I sometimes find myself wondering if life is all about creating memorable “highlight reels.”

            Highlight reels are excerpts from sporting events that capture dramatic and decisive moments.  You don’t have to watch the entire World Cup soccer game to find out it ends in a scoreless tie – you just watch a few minutes of compelling footage that an editor has decided will hold your attention.  You don’t have to sit in the stands at a baseball game for 3 ½ hours as it painstakingly unfolds – you just see 5 minutes that include the diving catch, the dramatic home run, and the last guy striking out.  The folks who put the highlight reels together know how the game turned out, so they can create just the right script and a satisfying finish.  The scenes include commentary by a skilled announcer and maybe even a dramatic soundtrack.  Highlight reels can be much more engaging than the actual experience.

            In this digital age, we can make our own “highlight reels” using our smartphone cameras. We can capture stunning sunsets, joyous birthday cake moments, and two friends smiling at the foot of a majestic waterfall — significant moments of inspiration, celebration, and affection.  That’s what we want to remember. Who wants to watch real-time video of the drudgery we felt at work before we got home to see the sunset, the housework we had to do to get ready for the party, or the long hike that got us to the waterfall?

            And in recent years, it’s common for memorial services to include a slideshow of the person’s life, tracing it through the decades with carefully chosen images.  It’s always moving to feel like we are seeing pictures that each tell us a thousand words about someone’s life, especially when we know their life is complete.

            So I sometimes wonder: maybe it’s only life’s highlights that are worth living for.

            But then I consider the oak tree in our backyard.

            The oak tree in our backyard (as seen in the above photo) is a “volunteer,” meaning it came up out of the ground unexpectedly.  I remember first seeing the 18” sprout while doing yard work; I had a pair of pruning loppers, assumed it was unwanted, and was ready to snip it into oblivion.  But my wife saw me and said, “Don’t cut it! That’s a volunteer oak. Leave it alone. Let’s see how it grows.”

            Years later it’s a magnificent living presence.  Our landscape designer is in awe of its structure and vitality. He told me the tap root can go 100’ feet into the earth, and that a wealthy person would pay $50,000 for a tree that looks like this one.

            I find myself gazing at this tree and thinking how undramatic it is, how silent, how steady, how patient.  It’s alive. It grows. It simultaneously knows how to send roots into the earth seeking water while sending branches into the sky seeking light, all the while breathing in carbon dioxide, breathing out oxygen, and manufacturing acorns to provide for future generations.

If I was to make a “highlight reel” of the oak tree, what images would I use? It does all its labor undercover.  Meanwhile, I rush through my days hoping to do something that will qualify for my personal highlight reel. 

            Trees are prominent in spiritual traditions.  The “Oaks of Mamre” is a place of divine encounters for Abraham.[i]  Though they have never met before, Jesus tells Nathaniel he already knows him because “I saw you under the fig tree.”[ii] And, according to one tradition, Buddha sits for 49 days under the Bodhi tree, stands to thank it for its shade – and in that moment receives enlightenment.[iii]

Trees are a common source of shelter and safety, and therefore an ideal place for contemplation.  But maybe there’s more to it than just protection from the sun. Maybe being in the presence of such creations subtly reminds us that life is more than just clips that qualify for a highlight reel.  Maybe they instead teach us what it is like to be quietly immersed, moment-by-moment, in the miracle of life.


[i] Genesis 18:1

[ii] John 1:48

[iii] https://buddhists.org/the-bodhi-tree/

Empathy Means I Don’t Know How You Feel

             “Empathy is not ‘I know how you feel,’ but ‘I don’t know how you feel.’

I recently came across this quote in notes I’d kept from a retreat I attended some years ago. It was credited to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. 

            If we care for people, we want to know how they are feeling.  Making the effort to do so is a genuine act of compassion.  Sometimes we make the connection easily.  But sometimes our assumptions about what another person is feeling can lead us astray.  

            I remember an older woman I visited after she began attending our services. She always dressed more formally than was the norm in California and was always very gracious. When I came to her apartment, she invited me to have a seat in her living room. I noticed the many shelves which were carefully arranged with shiny porcelain figurines and elegant China dishes. It all suggested to me she’d probably led a proper and sheltered life.  I asked her to tell me about herself. She talked briefly about her life before coming to Santa Barbara.  Then she calmly described how her husband had recently died after ten years of dementia. She said for the first five years, she had cared for him by herself in the apartment, needing to be more and more vigilant as his condition deteriorated.  When she could no longer keep him safely, she transferred him to a facility and visited him every day for five years until he died. I was stunned.  Where do people find the strength for such devotion?  

            I once went on a mission trip with teenagers in Mexico.  We’d build homes during the day and return to the campground at night.  I had unconsciously brought with me an assumption – shared with many fellow parents of the time – that teens were becoming so obsessed with digital devices that they must be losing their ability to make genuine connections with others.  But as I sat with them at night around the fire and they talked about their lives, I realized I had misjudged them; they were much better listeners than many adults. 

            I got to know a woman in her 30s who’d been wheelchair-bound her whole life. Once she said something that made me think of Christopher Reeves, the Superman actor who had become paralyzed after a horse-riding accident. “He must be an inspiration,” I said.

            “Not really,” she said. “He’s rich and famous and can pay for 24-hour care and do what he wants. But most of us don’t have his resources. We experience a lot of loneliness and depression.  But no one wants to hear that. People like him because he’s always positive. If he’s feeling down, he can’t talk about it, or he won’t be popular.” 

How little we know about the inner life of others.

            When I began my work at Hospice of Santa Barbara, I attended a workshop focused on caring for families in which the death of a child or parent had occurred.  The speaker had worked for twenty years in hospitals dealing with such situations.  I was hoping for some handy guidelines for such situations. I was surprised when he said what he does before he walks into a room to meet a family: “I get in touch with my helplessness.” That confused me at first.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is a way to set aside that anxious, earnest, “I-want-to -fix-it” impulse within us to become truly open to whatever is present.

            And I remember being at a conference where a prominent nursing educator from the City of Hope was speaking about how easy it is to misjudge people. She said she had once led a support group for women who were dealing with breast cancer.  Each person in the circle was taking a turn describing what emotions they were experiencing.  All the women in the group talked openly about how hard it was, and many shed tears.  One woman, however, seemed unmoved and opted not to share.  The speaker confessed thinking, “This woman is probably repressing her feelings; I’ll speak to her after the session.”  After the session was concluded and the others left, she approached the woman, who agreed to sit down and talk. The leader shared her concern that the woman was perhaps not being forthright and encouraged her to share.  The woman told her what she’d experienced in the last three years. First, her family had lost their home in Hurricane Katrina and couldn’t go back. Then a daughter died. Then she’d lost her husband. “This?” she said, motioning towards her body, “This is just breast cancer.”

            We never can assume we know what someone else is really feeling, or what it’s like to be “in their skin.”

            A seminary teacher once made a reference to a painting that was probably in every Sunday School building in America: “Jesus Blesses The Little Children.”  It’s very simple: Jesus is just sitting in the midst of a group of boys and girls. “You know,” the professor said, “People always assume that he is teaching them something. But maybe he’s just listening.”

Image: Portrait of a Peasant – Patience Escalier, Vincent van Gogh

Our Evolutionary Inheritance: Work, Sleep, and Campfire Wisdom

            Several years ago, I read about an African hunting/gathering community that had virtually no prior contact with “civilization.[i]” For two years an anthropologist recorded daily conversations, coded them, and analyzed them.  Some key findings:

  • Almost all the daytime conversations involved work, with approximately 37% consisting of people complaining others weren’t doing their fair share.
  • Tribal elders did not have much to say or contribute during the day. 
  • At night, everyone gathered around the fire. The focus changed from work to spiritual topics, tribal history, and “subtle psychological insights.”  Elders became central to these conversations. The conversations could last for hours, and the old ones might nod off.  But after a rest, they would often rejoin the circle.

At the time I read the article, I was leading a nonprofit with 30 employees, and these themes resonated with what I was experiencing: 

  • The hardest part of the job was dealing with “HR Issues” – people’s work performance and how people would fret about the performance of others (probably close to 37%).
  • Younger employees often had more energy and could work longer. They also had more skill and less anxiety dealing with IT issues and were invaluable for pointing out cultural changes that were occurring and how we might adapt.
  • While everyone might have insights into our work, it was the older ones who held the “tribal memory” of both the organization and the profession and were particularly helpful in offering long-range perspective.

Later I saw an article about how our evolutionary past might explain the way memory changes over time.[ii]  As we know, older people begin having difficulty with short-term memory (“Where are my glasses?” “What’s my password?”)  But even seniors with dementia can have remarkable recall of past events. When our ancestors were hunting or gathering during the day to survive, they had to rely on mental alertness and physical abilities. But as they became slow, creaky, and sore, their value to the community shifted – they were the ones who carried the valuable stories; short-term memory was less important.

Maybe evolution also explains our sleep patterns. During COVID, I read Why We Sleep[iii]. The author notes that some adults go to bed early and wake up early while a roughly equal number of people go to bed late and sleep late.  He theorizes this may be an inheritance from our past: it would be advantageous to have people awake at different times of the night to act as sentries for the tribe.  So maybe this is one reason older folks wake up more often at odd hours — they’re wired for sentry duty.  (Of course, the seriousness of the danger has changed; instead of “Is that a lion I hear in the forest”? it might be, “Does the dog need to go out?”)

These ideas comfort me.  I like to think some of the changes we experience as we age aren’t because there’s “something wrong” with us, but because of deeply engrained behaviors that were advantageous for our ancestors.

I’ve always been fascinated by how Rembrandt was able to document his aging process.  He portrayed himself close to 100 times, 40 of which are complete paintings.  Here is one from 1632:

This 26-year-old guy is on top of his game – no doubt staying up late, full of energy and confidence, and successfully adapting to the latest trends and techniques.

And here he is 31 years later at age 57:

He may not be not going out as much…probably frustrated with aches and pains…going to bed earlier than he used to and waking up at odd times during the night.  Maybe you wouldn’t ask him to help you move furniture across town. But look into his eyes: wouldn’t you like to hear some of his stories?


[i] I wish had the citation for the article, but I can’t seem to find it.

[ii] I can’t find this article either. Do you remember where I put it? Did you move it?  You didn’t throw it away, did you?

[iii] I found this one!  Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, by Matthew Walker.

Top image: “White Mountains Moonlit Campfire,” Getty Images

Waking Up on A Train

“At some point we look out the train window and realize we are in another country.” — David Brooks, commenting on his spiritual journey, “Lead Where You Stand Conference,” June 2022

If you take the Coast Starlight Amtrak from Santa Barbara to Seattle, you’ll board at noon and arrive 30 hours later.  You never know what you’ll see.

Traveling by train is much less stressful than traveling by air.  Seatbelts are not required.  You don’t watch an instructional video telling you what to do if the plane begins falling into the ocean.  You can walk up and down the aisles. You can bring your own food or purchase some onboard. You can choose where to be — the dining car, the café, the observation car – and, if you book a sleeping compartment, you can be in your own private room.

When night comes, the conductor makes your bed.  You get a real pillow and stretch out. Sleeping on a moving train is far easier than having to become a pretzel on a plane.

Unlike driving, you don’t have to stay alert, deal with traffic, or stop for gas.

The scenery on the Coast Starlight route is always changing.  You pass along ocean cliffs, in and out of small towns, by farms and vineyards, and through forests and mountain ranges.

If there are delays, instead of being bound to your seat on the tarmac, you are free to roam; you don’t have to plead for special dispensation to use the facility.

The conductor periodically reminds you where you are and what’s coming next: “Portland. Next stop, 10 minutes. Portland.”

But sometimes you suddenly realize you don’t know where you are.

Maybe it’s in the middle of the night and you wake up because you sense the train is not moving. You pull the curtain aside and wonder, “Where am I?”

During the day you might fall asleep, daydream, or become immersed in a good book or conversation; you find you’re looking at unexpected scenery.

Moving through life can be like being a passenger on a train.  Sometimes you arrive on time at a planned destination. Other times, you are surprised.

         I remember the first day I drove my 1963 Plymouth Valiant to high school by myself. I was short and my father had to install a wooden platform under the drivers’ seat so I could see over the wheel.  But I was licensed and independent.  I pulled out of our driveway, turned on the AM radio, and headed to school.  “I’m really doing this,” I thought.

         In my twenties, I found myself on an unexpected spiritual journey.  The faith tradition I had discounted most of my life was now calling to me, drawing me, along with my doubts and questions, like a force of gravity.  My girlfriend (who became my wife) asked if I wanted to help chaperone the church’s youth group that was going caroling. We got onto the back of a flatbed truck and were handed mimeographed song sheets with “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” and all the rest.  As the group started singing, the lyrics that had been routine and familiar to me all my life now seemed vivid, amazing, and inspiring.  In that moment I realized I had crossed from skeptic to “believer.”  “When did that happen?” I wondered.

         A few years ago, I made an appointment at the Social Security office to submit my Medicare paperwork.  I gave it to the clerk who reviewed and approved it.  I walked out wondering, “When did I get to this stage of life?”

         How many times have you looked in the mirror, or at changes in society, or what’s happening to friends and loved ones, and think, “When did I arrive here?”

         Maybe what’s going on “outside” is always going to be changing. In one sense, that’s a bit scary.  But in another sense, what a mystery and privilege to be alive and watching it unfold.

         And I wonder: Will we all, at some point, suddenly find ourselves thinking “I am no longer in my body?”  Will we look out our window and realize we’re headed someplace we’ve never been before?

Top image credit: philly.com

Two Questions, Two Art Works, One Life to Live

         What’s going on inside you?

         What’s going on because of you?

         Last spring, I attended a leadership conference at Westmont College. The president said he often asks students these two questions.  They struck me as excellent questions to ask ourselves from time to time.

Reflecting on them this week brought to mind two art works I saw in Europe in January 2020.  In Leipzig it was “The Kneeling King,” a wooden sculpture from 1500.  In Vienna, it was “The Large Path” from 1962 by Friedensreich Hundertwasser.  Different eras, different artists, different media, different themes.  But somehow, they help me reflect on how we can view our life through these two questions.  I’m inviting you to look at them with me with the questions in mind.

         Let’s start with the older one, “The Kneeling King.”

Knieender Konig, Michel Erhart, c. 1500, Zentrum Museuem, Leipzig

This is piece of religious art, and the “King” with his opened treasure box is one of the Magi.  He has been on a long journey, led by signs and prophecies to a distant land. He’s come to pay homage to a newborn child who promises to bring peace to the world.  He’s arrived and is kneeling in humility and hope.  But as I look at his facial expression, I sense an inner weariness.  Grateful he got to this point, but not assured his longings will be fulfilled. In my imagination it seems likely he will return home and eventually die without knowing if his hopes will be realized.  But he’s done his best. He’s made the journey and offered something of his own that could be valuable to benefit others.

         What’s going on inside of him?  I sense a desire to help the world become a place of greater compassion and justice. At this late stage in his life, he wants to offer something of personal significance to benefit humanity. 

What is happening because of him?  A poor family is being given a gift to help them raise their child.  His inner journey leads to an outward journey — a giving away rather than just a gathering in.

         Let’s turn to the contemporary piece, “The Large Path” by Hundertwasser.

Der Grosse Weg, Friedensreich Hundterwasser,  1962, Belvedere Palace, Vienna. 

         I don’t know anything about theories of color and design, but this piece made me pause and study it with fascination and curiosity. 

I read the descriptive plaque next to it: Hundertwasser’s art combines Far Eastern philosophy and abstract art, the unconscious and the rational, nature and culture. He discovered Zen Buddhism in the 1950s and traveled subsequently to Japan. He sought to put an end to the lust for money and power and to find inner peace. The spiral represents the long road towards this goal. The center of the picture promises tranquility.

         Our current culture is often described as one in which we are searching for our “authentic self.”  For some, Western spirituality has become dry and dogmatic. Eastern paths offer an opportunity for finding inner peace.  Popular psychology and self-help also reflect this hunger.  Will I ever know who I really am?  Will I ever be able to find peace and tranquility? Like the subject in “The Kneeling King,” the artist went on a long journey.  Looking back, he felt his search had been like a long spiral coming closer and closer to a meaningful center, which he represents as a patch of blue — like a warm and welcoming window to deep inner space. 

What’s going on inside of this him? It seems the answer could be a long search for inner peace. And the painting suggests he found something at one point.

 What’s going because of him? I did not know until I read more about him. 

It turns out Hundertwasser became an early pioneer in environmental activism. He bought land in rural New Zealand and lived self-sufficiently using solar panels, a water wheel, and a biological water purification plant.  He made a trip to Washington, DC, to oppose the growth of nuclear weapons.  It seems his inner search didn’t end with him finding a state of personal illumination but became a path turning outward to make a difference in the world. 

There may have been times in my life when I hoped I’d find some permanent place of inner tranquility within myself. But the older I get, the less I feel a need to find such a place.  I am more curious about what I can offer to the world beyond myself, even if I don’t know how it will turn out.  Maybe the best way to find ourselves is to give ourselves away.

         What’s going on inside you?

         What’s going on because of you?

What do you see in these works of art?